35mm, 4"x5", 6x6, analogue, black and white, documentary, Gowlandflex, Kodak Tri-X, leica, M7, New York, portrait, Rollei, street

Erica McDonald . Photographer

Friends of the l1ght!

L1GHTB1TES has moved. Its new permanent home is at l1ghtb1tes.com.

Read the article with Erica McDonald here.
Please go to l1ghtb1tes.com to SIGN UP for weekly updates.

This wordpress site will be discontinued in the coming weeks and will serve only as an archive.

Please DO NOT subscribe to the blog here!

Alternatively, like l1ghtb1tes’ facebook page to receive news of updates.

Thank you! See you there!

Erica_McDonald_windowGL: How did you ‘meet’ the woman behind the window?

EMD: It happened close to the end of the time when I was working on The Dark Light of This Nothing. I had the bones of the series laid down but was out looking for the kinds of moments I had missed in the previous months. The woman just happened to be looking out her window – we saw each other and shared a moment.

The Dark Light was done as personal project. Up until that point I had been focused on the single image, and I had decided that I’d like to invest myself in a long-term story. Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey runs a site called Burn and he had been encouraging a group of readers to see what they could accomplish over a period of a month or so. I met with David and told him about a few of my ideas, and together we came to the conclusion that I should focus on this one; what was started as a month-long project became a several-year endeavor.

GL: There are two kinds of images in the series: street photos and more formal studio portraits. You look at the people in your images from various points-of-view. Where did this approach come from?

Erica_McDonald_06-2EMD: The series had a very specific arc. I had intended to shoot only large format portraits against white backdrop on the street – that was the initial idea of the whole project. I had been looking at Richard Avedon’s In The American West (which was shot over five years) and wanted to shoot a very miniaturized homage to him over the course of a month. Shooting the portraits on a street corner in NYC involved getting assistants, a permit and working around the weather as well as my schedule and in the end took a few months to complete.

I had hoped to shoot all the portraits with this amazing 4×5 Gowlandflex – it’s a rare large format camera that operates as a twin lens reflex camera, like the medium format Rollei I had been using regularly; this kind of camera is terrific because you never lose sight of the person you are photographing, even at the moment the shutter is released. It was my first time with a large format camera so I had a learning curve, and I was doing audio interviews and getting model releases and running across the street to get people to come over. There was a lot going on, and a little wind could knock down my portable backdrop, and passersby didn’t always have time to sit for the time it takes to make a large format image. So after awhile, I brought a second camera, my medium format Rollei, and did some of the portraits this way.

GL: The series is from between 2008-2011. Starting a long-term project is simple, but how do you know when to stop? What tells you that you have reached the end of your road with your theme?

00027032-SPP-TheDarkLightOfThisNothing02-009EMD: When I felt like I had built a representative body of portraits of the long-term residents of the area I scanned everything, did an edit and sat with the work for a month, and realized that what I had shot was only a part of the story I wanted to tell. Photographing the neighborhood consistently for a full year to cover the four seasons seemed like it would serve to express what I hoped for.

So I started that way, this time working with a smaller 35mm camera to be able to move more quickly and intimately in a documentary style. When this year was over, I sat and looked at the work again, and saw what I needed. The last handful of successful images came very slowly, over the course of two more years, but I was only going out looking for them occasionally. There came a point when I got several rolls of film back without any keepers and then I knew I had nothing more to say that would add meaning, and that the project was completed.

GL: Do you always reach for your camera when that happens? How do you react to what you see?

Erica_McDonald_07R_gatedEMD: I’ve always been what you might call a watcher. With or without camera, I’m framing and shooting mentally. My greatest weakness as a photographer might be that I sometimes get so involved watching that I forget to shoot, even though my camera is in hand; I try to train myself out of this, but I actually don’t mind it that much – sometimes this uninterrupted watching actually informs the way I shoot at another time.

GL: How did your choice of material influence the way the project took shape?

EMD: For The Dark Light of This Nothing reportage images I made an aesthetic decision ahead of time about what I wanted the work to feel like and that informed my choice to use Tri-X film pushed to 1600 ASA. The quality of light I wanted happened at, and after four o’clock in the afternoon, so that dictated my schedule. I knew how much I could open up the aperture when I lost the light and still be able to shoot above 1/30th of a second and built my project around these details – out at four whenever possible, and home when the light was really gone.

Structure really helps me, keeps excuses at bay and then within these confines I start to play little games to challenge myself. With this work, I had very set geographic boundaries that I extended by three blocks after the first year when I learned that some old timers thought of the boundaries of Park Slope differently. This was a huge gift to myself as sometimes I felt like a hamster on a wheel and would spend whole afternoons searching without even taking single image. The upside is that people in the neighborhood became used to seeing me, and if I was without my camera they’d ask why.

GL: What film camera did you use for the project? And why not digital?

Erica_McDonald_dl_partyhatEMD: In the end I used three film cameras for the body of work: the 4×5 Gowlandflex and the medium format Rolleiflex for the portraits, and the Leica M7 for the reportage. As this was my first long-term project there was no question that I wanted to shoot it on black-and-white film; so much of the work that has inspired me – Eugene Richard’s Dorchester Days, Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang and East 100th Street, was shot this way. Money wasn’t a serious consideration for the 35mm because I shoot very few images when I use the Leica and a friend was processing my film at his home affordably, and then I scanned everything. The cost of the 4″x5″ was killing me though, and this partly dictated my decision to also shoot the portraits with the Rollei.

GL: How much do you work with your images in post?

EMD: The goal is to get what I want in camera, so hopefully little post-production is needed. As for framing, all the images are as shot – I only crop if at the time I saw the image, I knew what I wanted but it was physically impossible to shoot it without the rest of the elements in frame – but usually these images aren’t in the final cut anyway.

GL: How do you measure light?

Erica_McDonald_howlEMD: Both my Rollei and Leica have built-in light meters, but I always carry a hand-held meter anyway and do my readings that way for street work unless the light changes swiftly in an unexpected way. There is a certain formality combined with intimacy that happens when you meter for a portrait that sets up the moment of shooting nicely – you move in close and talk with them for a second, they take the process seriously.

GL: How do you focus? Manually? AF?

EMD: The only time I might use auto focus is if I am shooting digitally – my film cameras don’t even have the option.

GL: The series is black and white. But you also do delicate color photos. What is your attitude to color? When do you go for black-and-white and when for color?

EMD: The choice to use color or black-and-white is usually easy to discern as an intuitive thing, but a bit complicated to explain. It has to do with the intended voice of the work and texture as well as the quality of light.

Erica_McDonald_parachutedropOne of the little games I play is that other than for an assignment, I can’t shoot with a camera or take an image unrelated to the project I am working on. I have a lot of miscellaneous films in the freezer, and cameras I don’t use for long stretches. Occasionally, when I’m not working on anything specific, I’ll load a camera and then purposefully forget if it is color or black-and-white, and just take note of the ASA – it is a sort of test to see if I can make strong imagery irrespective of the film color tone.

A reason that images can work without the knowledge if the film is color or black-and-white is because you are looking for elements beyond that to create meaning. And then the color becomes a bonus, or the black-and-white functions as it should because you are thinking structurally anyway, and that includes things like shade, and light and dark. It’s like when you take painting 101, you do what is called a value exercise when starting out, so you aren’t influenced by hue or actual color – instead you see relationships between grey tones. Vermeer did this in an elevated way by using his so-called “dead coloring” or underpainting method. Interestingly, it seems Vermeer may have used a camera obscura as part of this technique. Going back to the film question, it comes down to training yourself to see what is before you in terms of tonal value.

GL: I really like your ‘landscapes’ from the series (rain, snow, sleet). It’s dumb to put it like this, but they are ‘my kind of’ landscapes: landscapes/cityscapes with a context, not just pretty trees and stunning colors. How do you feel about landscapes in general?

Erica_McDonald_snowlightEMD: I’ve just returned from hiking in the remote wilderness and I didn’t photograph because the beauty is greater than I can translate through my camera – or perhaps simply already perfectly authored. Urban landscapes are made in conjunction with man, and I feel comfortable adding my voice to that equation.

GL: How much do you get involved in the lives of the people that you meet over such an extended period? How do you see yourself in such a project? Observer? Participator?

EMD: The experience of participating in others’ lives always has different meaning and results for me, and at times has yielded friendship and at other times taught me lessons about personal boundaries, but I always try to remain mindful about what my presence may mean for the persons I am asking something of. I know I have a responsibility when someone lets me see into their life.

GL: Have your subjects seen their pictures? Did you show them? Were they interested? How did they react? (People have such a hard time seeing themselves on pictures.)

EMD: Depending on the circumstance, sometimes I’ll make prints for the people I have photographed – I did that for Surf Manor, because these were the only recent portraits the residents had of themselves, and they very much wanted to see what I saw in them, and most displayed them proudly in their bedrooms. But that isn’t always practical, so I am sure to tell people my name and that I have a website, and the project name so if they are curious they can see if the image we made was part of the final story, and request a file.

When you work in a context where you will see the people again, it is terrific to get feedback. One man sent his portrait to his daughter, another significantly changed his attitude – for the better – toward the idea of me photographing ‘his neighborhood’, another thought his family wouldn’t like the image and asked me to take it down, so it varies but is usually a positive experience. On the other side, there is a man I run into weekly who I have photographed several times and interviewed, but he hasn’t taken the time to go look. I tease him that I’m going to stop him and make him watch the multimedia version of The Dark Light of This Nothing on the street one day.

(To see more of Erica McDonald’s pictures visit her website at ericamcdonaldphoto.com. All images © Erica McDonald and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer also teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

Standard
35mm, 5D, analogue, black and white, canon, color, digital, documentary, leica, rangefinder, travel, USA

Elaine Mayes . Photographer

Friends of the l1ght!

L1GHTB1TES has moved. Its new permanent home is at l1ghtb1tes.com. This wordpress site will be discontinued in the coming weeks and will serve only as an archive. Please read this article HERE and visit l1ghtb1tes.com to subscribe and receive regular updates.

Thank you! See you there!

Foreword

This blog is just as much about my love photography as about my interest in the people who create images. But to be honest, I am more interested in people than in photography. L1ghtb1tes is a hi-tech excuse for me to meet people. Dear Elaine, thank you for meeting me and letting me to get to know you a little bit in this strange, 21st century manner. And for those of you who do not know her yet, well, meet Elaine Mayes.

The Coach

Elaine Mayes Autolandscapes Coach

GL: Simple, elegant, lonely – these are the words that came to my mind when I first saw your picture of this coach.

EM: Well, this is the old bus image… I like it a lot. It is part of a series I did called, Autolandscapes. The series is from my moving car while driving from San Francisco to Massachusetts in 1971. It was 6 AM, I was driving my car East at about 65 mph in Utah. I really got lucky.

GL: How did this picture happen to you?

EM: Most all my photos are spontaneous reactions to what I see. In the case of the Autolandscapes I intended making an image each time the landscape changed. I love the idea of skill combined with serendipity. I also was interested in formal issues and the way when one shoots out the side of a car the near landscape is blurry. I further wanted to make images that felt still and like there was not movement at all. I wanted to see what normally goes by too fast to be seen the way a camera can stop motion.

GL: What camera did you use?

EM: A Leica rangefinder camera, and the shutter speed was 1/500th of a second at either f/16 or f/11. I always try to have my camera ready. I judge my exposure by knowing how the film will respond to particular light circumstances. I used a 50mm Leitz lens and Tri-X film that I processed myself using Rodinol or a similar developer. There was no digital system then, but now I use digital, and my newer Autolandscapes have even better stop-motion because the system can employ much higher shutter speeds than a 35mm film camera.

I used a Leica because it makes high quality pictures, and I like the rangefinder system because it allows me to see the image without seeing any distortion caused by a lens. I prefer normal or wide angle lenses because I like maximum depth-of-field.

Time

elaine-mayes-across-america-13

GL: Why did you decide in 2010 to embark on a new (photographic) journey that in many ways is a reflection on the 1971 trip?

EM: I photographed across the country West to East only twice. My two trips called Autolandscapes (1971) and Across America (2010) were my way of recording my moving from one coast to the other with the car full of my belongings, nothing more. The journeys came first. The decision to photograph them came second. All my work in some manner reflects my life, as my subject matter comes from photographing my life experiences. I am not trying to document my life, but my photography always accompanies my life, and in this sense I see my images as creating a diary of my life experiences.

GL: What has changed for you in those four decades?

elaine-mayes-across-america-10EM: Now the world is more crowded than it was in 1971. What has changed for me is that I have gotten older and have had many more life experiences. In 1971 I was 34 years old. Now I am 76 years old and have experienced more dimensions to life than when I was younger. I no longer teach photography. In 1971 I had been teaching photography for only three years. I have moved to many places since that time, and I have lived nearly a lifetime.

GL: To my mind both Autolandscapes and Across America are about time. First, about time in the sense that you also mention, in the form of more or less motion blur, i.e. a side-effect of shutter speed. Second, it is about your perception of how time passes while on the road. Personal time. And finally, it is about time as a reflection, time measured in decades when you look at your American landscape and you realize not only how much it has changed but also how much you have changed.

Elaine Mayes Autolandscapes HighwayEM: For me both trips are about the same, except I have had a lot of practise and have done many other projects in between. None of my interest is beyond the way I see and the way a camera can work except for my formal horizontal idea the first time, and my long-standing idea that I am interested in things in the world. I am primarily an observer and feel that what I have to express is part of what I make, not something extra or added.

None of this work had for me anything to do with time passing except that being in a car for hours can be boring, and I wanted to distract myself from being bored. Of course when I photographed during driving I was taking the idea I began with and went one step further. The photographing had turned into an idea. The blur to me is not a side-effect of shutter speed, but in a physical sense is about what happens with relative motion seen up close and then photographed. Then with the digital camera one can stop the blur except for up close because a faster shutter speed is possible. I believe we don’t look at the blur because it is distressing to the eye, until of course one decides to focus on it. I always choose my “good photos” after the fact, when I see them either on contact sheets or in digital files.

Digital

GL: Technology plays a major part in both journeys. First, your beautiful Leica. And now a digital camera. Why did you choose digital the second time?

EM: I changed to digital for economic and personal reasons. I lost most of my income in 2008 when this country had its downturn. I lost my major source of income (the bank I had invested in all my life went broke) and have been trying to learn to operate with less. This has meant much confusion and living-style changes. It has meant moving around and renting my houses for income. Along with several times staying with friends because I rented my houses, I moved back to New York from Oregon, renting my Oregon house, and in the moving back I decided to repeat my focus on taking pictures while traveling.

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes06I chose digital for practical reasons. The world changed, and I needed to change with it. I did not decide to minimise blur, but I found that my digital camera when set on automatic can render a sharper image because it uses faster shutter speeds. I learn with every effort, and I try always to keep learning. I wish the world had stayed the same, but life in fact is about change, and the cultural changes that I don’t much like are the way it is. I feel it is important to go with the flow, to embrace what is necessary in our changing culture.

elaine-mayes-across-america-07Also, in 2010 my eyesight was very bad, and I broke my glasses the first night out, so my partner, Randy had to do all the driving. All the photos on the second trip are from the passenger seat. I needed cataract surgery, and I could see well enough to shoot pictures with my practised method but not well enough to drive a car. I bought drugstore close-up glasses so I could see the image later. I used autofocus and auto settings, primarily with my new 5D Canon camera with its zoom used mostly on its most telephoto setting which was about 60mm. This meant I was free to take pictures without much technical consideration.

By the way, I always set my digital cameras 1/3 stop under so as to not overexpose the whites. On the second trip I decided to look in any direction not just out the side, and I was thrilled to discover that the shutter speed was making the background very sharp indeed, and also the foreground was less blurry. I also used a G10 point and shoot Canon when I left my battery charger in a motel room. The Canon 5D with its zoom was the cheapest good way for me to continue working. Its limitation is its inaccurate finder.

Reflection v. translation

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?

EM: I like digital printing. I like digital photography less than analog otherwise. I prefer digital printing because it means more corrections can be accomplished than when using a darkroom. (I had given up working in the darkroom because it was impossible to maintain one while living in a number of places.) But I almost never crop my pictures because I believe the entire frame is the photo, and I like the 35mm film shape.

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes04I remain interested in light and how to render light with both technologies. I fear that digital-only trained photographers will never know the wonder of light and light senstive materials. I bring this kind of knowledge to my digital photography. I never manipulate except to correct color and contrast. I have never been interested in “creating” photographs but always interested is seeing them and then making prints that are true to what I see and what the camera can do. For me the difference between analog and digital is reflection v. translation. I remain attached to the idea of reflection, and I bring this idea to my digital efforts.

Seeing what there is to see

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes08GL: There are obvious visual parallels between the two series. Were you looking out for these? Or does this come from the nature of the project, as there are only so many types of views you can have from your car?

EM: I was not trying to be parallel. I was just trying to photograph in the best way possible with the materials at hand. I did realize that I was revisiting an old project, but I never thought about the changes except when they occurred. I am not much interested in technique but want to see the world. I try to live in the present and see what I see, and my entire life I have been trying to see what I see only.

elaine-mayes-across-america-05The main difference between the two groups is letting go of the horizontal idea some of the time during the second round. Both trips were for me journeys that I photographed quite deliberately with the equipment I already was using at the time. Both trips involved primarily seeing what was there to see. I found more culture near the road on the second trip. The first trip was only a few years after the interstates were built, and the roadside culture then was primarily truck stops. Now there is more traffic and more business next to the road.

GL: Why did you choose color for the second series? To avoid nostalgia?

EM: I have been using color since 1978 and also before for commercial work. It was not possible to make for me good color images in 1971. But as technology changes, I do my best to use the best of the new methods. My work primarily has been in color since 1978, so choosing color was natural. In 1971 color was not as good as it can be now. I originally was worried about permanence, and black-and-white was the only way to get images with a long life. With digital the images when properly stored and printed using archival materials can last. I love black and white, but color is what the world is about. Black and white offers greater abstraction; color shows us more or less the colors we see without cameras. I appreciate showing the colors of things in the world. I say more or less because the materials used always affect the results. Photography is always an abstraction because with black and white or color the world becomes flat.

GL: How does digital photography ‘feel’ to you compared to your Leica? Did your DSLR change your approach during the second trip?

EM: I do not change my approach except for the limitations of the technique availalble to me. I do take a lot more photos with digital because I can, and digital does not cost as much as did film, so I can expose more exposures without spending a fortune.

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes14I like and prefer fixed lenses, so that seeing is part of my collaboration with the equipment I use. I would love an M9 Leica camera, and maybe one day I will be able to afford one. I have lost a lot of potential photos using point and shoot cameras, and I find it difficult to take the pictures I want to take. Maybe someone will award me a Leica soon, or maybe I will sell some prints so I can afford to purchase one.

If I could afford a good quality rangefinder Leica I would get three lenses and not look back. I would get a 35mm, a 50mm and just possibly a 105mm. But I would most likely use only a 50mm and a 35mm. Maybe I would get a 28mm, too. I like to use one simple approach without changing my vantage point by using a zoom. I like to work with my eyes, my emotions and the materials I have. I believe that the technical part should be best for what I want to do. I am not the least interested in technique except for making the best seen photos I can.

(To see more of Elaine Mayes’s pictures visit her website at www.elainemayesphoto.com. All images © Elaine Mayes and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

Standard
35mm, analogue, black and white, contax, Rome

Anders Petersen . Photographer

Friends of the l1ght!

L1GHTB1TES has moved. Its new permanent home is at l1ghtb1tes.com. This wordpress site will be discontinued in the coming weeks and will serve only as an archive. Please read this article HERE and visit l1ghtb1tes.com to subscribe and receive regular updates.

Thank you! See you there!

petersen-anders-36

As I am sitting down to edit our conversation with Anders Petersen, I realize that it turned out to be much briefer than what I was hoping for. While at first I felt disappointment, I have come to understand, that his words are like his photography: he has the power that only true artists and scientists have, the ability to tell you volumes with just a few words. And so, I now understand that his dialogue with me is not only about a mysteriously intimate portrait of a woman, but a lesson in being concise and to-the-point.

GL: Can you tell me about how you took this picture? How is this image part of your Rome? I’d like to know more about the context in which you took this photo.

AP: What counts is meeting people and asking questions. On the streets or in bars, sometimes in somebody’s home, yes, anywhere. I don’t know how I take the pictures, they are less important, what I like is the meeting, the identification and the learning process and, of course, the communication.

GL: As it is with all good pictures, it’s hard, if not impossible to say why the moment they catch is so powerful. How do you get ready for such moments? And how do you make sure that the image is going to be okay technically?

Petersen Anders - Rome, A Diary 2005 3AP: It’s not about a good or a bad picture. It’s more about being believable. When I feel the temperament and the emotions of the person behind the picture, then it works even if it’s technically bad. It’s simple: photography isn’t about photography. You ask about shooting mood. It’s back to basic. Being curious and motivated and then it’s all about your focus. And innocent enough.

GL: What’s your attitude towards preparation before the shoot? Or do you rather improvise and react freely to what’s in front of you?

petersen-anders-19AP: No preparations. I need a working camera and a lot of films. I have no fantasy, it has been the same all the time.

GL: What camera did you use?

AP: I mostly use a Contax T3. It’s a simple, small, analogue camera with a sharp 35 mm lens. I prefer small tools I can have in my pocket.

GL: How do you measure ligh? Manually?

AP: When you have been shooting for some years you train yourself in different lights, so I don’t measure it. It’s become a kind of habit.

GL: How were you focusing? Manually? AF?

AP: Nowadays AF.

GL: What about lighting? What time of day did you take this picture? Is it “found” light or did you light this scene?

AP: I like available light. Sometimes flashlight. And mixing sun and flash. This picture is from the late afternoon inside the apartment.

GL: How much do you usually work with with your stills in ‘post’? What about this image – could you talk about the relationship of the original and the final output?

AP: I have no rules, but I keep the negative format. I really don’t understand why, it’s disturbing. I print until something is coming out, trying many different ways and also using bleach.

GL: What do you like about this picture most?

AP: The presence.

*

p.s.: I liked Anders’ answers a lot and was hungry for more and more so I kept on asking. And while this is not something that I’d normally do, I cannot help but quote his last email to me:

“I think it’s fine you are showing interest. But my writing is poor and my English is even worse. So it takes too much time. Another thing, I have difficulties in explaining how and why I’m shooting. I’m sorry, but I’m more a photographer than a writer.

Best regards,
Anders”

And so, dear Anders, here is my private public reply to you:

“Thank you. And that has been the whole point. That you’re a Photographer.”

(To see more of Anders Petersen’s pictures visit his website at www.anderspetersen.se. All images © Anders Petersen and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

Standard