Like father…. not quite like son

My father, who quietly shuffled off this mortal coil last August, was a professional photographer his entire life.

I remember when I was a little boy, smelling the lab chemicals on his hands when he came home from work every day, as he’d take the time to play with us kids for a bit before dinner. His hands were textured with a medium fine sandpaper grit from constant immersion in those same chemicals. I recall one time in the late 70s I pointed out an obvious smudge on his glasses, to which he chuckled and replied, ‘Oh that. That’s just some chemical I splashed on myself at work.’

I thought, ‘Holy shit. What kind of chemical that will melt plastic, is a photographer using?’

That was my dad. 

That’s just how he was. 

Gloves, tongs, even safety glasses, to him, were just things that ‘got in the way.’ He wasn’t the only one.

(Where he came from, a small town in New Brunswick, a large percentage of the men made their living working in saw mills. More than a few were missing fingers and thumbs, so I suppose, to my Dad, the slight discomfort of having a layer or two of the skin on your hands burned off, was nothing, compared to losing part of an appendage.  I just remembered how I used to marvel at my great uncle Wilfred, who was able to roll a cigarette with one hand, -he was missing three and a half fingers on the other one! He never tired of extending that hand to shake, upon meeting someone new, and cracking up when they recoiled in horror at feeling the weird stump they were grasping. He got me a couple of times as well.)

I don’t really think photography was really his true passion. Not in the way that it is for a musician, or a writer, who just happens to have a family as well. He was the other way around. A family man first, who was a photographer by trade.

Don’t get me wrong though, he was very good when he wanted to be.

Because of him, my family has tons of photos of every type of family function, and event; probably more than most. 

About twenty-five years ago, a little bit after my mother died, he gave each of us kids a scrap book for Christmas, after painstakingly sorting through reams of photos, that told the chronological story of us growing up.

It’s still the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received -even though I still wince at some of the pictures of my younger self!

The above picture is from that photo book. It’s me, circa 1971.

Think about it: He thought nothing of wading out into the water with his camera; he knew he was going to get splashed because he was reasonably close, (I can imagine his voice, with his plain New Brunswick drawl, saying “Nah, a little water never hurt anything”) and he’d have to set the shutter speed just fast enough to minimize the motion blur on my face, but still capture the explosiveness of the water spray. All with a fully manual, and that includes focus, camera!

Not bad, eh?

Unfortunately, he was a lousy teacher. I still laugh a little when I think about the time I was just starting out, and was asking him about all the functions on his camera. He said something like, ”Well, you just turn this to that, set this like so, and twist this until it looks good.” It was all in his head. After decades of shooting manually, it just seemed obvious to him. He instinctively knew what shutter speed to use, and what aperture that was required to get the best possible results that he wanted, in any given light!

Hmmm. I went out and bought a book, heh…

He was, however, a great wealth of information later, when it came to choosing film, and paper types, composition rules, and techniques, pointing out things that I had never thought of, etc.

Dad worked right up until his seventieth birthday, and probably would have kept on going, but his eyes just weren’t what they once were. His timing was actually somewhat serendipitous though, because within a year or so of his retirement, the entire studio where he was working was switching to digital, and with the new digital equipment that they’d soon be using, you couldn’t just ‘turn this to that, set this like so, and twist this until it looks good.’ Although he had a couple of little digital point and shoot cameras later in life, he never really took to them. His hard drive was nearly full.

The reason I never tried to become a professional, doesn’t really have much to do with him. Well, not that much.

I just like it. A lot.

Being a professional musician for many years pretty much guaranteed that I’d never try to become a pro photographer. Near the end of my playing days, I woke up one morning, and came to the horrible realization that it wasn’t fun anymore. The music was, and still is, a thrill to me, but all the other bullshit relating to being in a working band, as Ignatz Mouse used to say, was ’very un-fun.‘ 

I didn’t want that to happen with photography.

My passion for taking pictures might be higher than my Dad’s, but he did it for every working day of his entire adult life. Something I could never do.

And for that, I’m very grateful. Thanks Dad!

Mistakes will be made

Wherever I travel, I’m sure to check what’s going on in the major galleries where I’m going, before I depart. I’ve been to a few of the worlds greatest galleries several times because occasionally, there’s a special exhibit that I’d like to see, but mostly, it’s because I just want to re-visit a few paintings that I really admire. 

Sometimes, I’ll just stumble upon things, like the time that I was in Barcelona and saw a handbill glued to a pole in the street, advertising a show of American Abstract Expressionism/Pop Art 1940-1970. Thinking that it wouldn’t be much of a show, since they didn’t seem to have much of an advertising budget, and that the organizers probably just gave some drunk a couple of bucks to go out and paste up a couple of posters, I didn’t give it too much thought, but it was along my way, so I thought, ‘why not?’

It was the greatest collection of art in that style, from that era, that I had ever seen! All the ‘names’ were there; Kline, de Kooning, Johns, Pollock, Still, Rothko, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and quite a few others. And many were represented by some of their most famous pieces!

Another time, I was in Fort Worth, of all places, (don’t ask) and found out about The Kimbell Art Museum. It has  paintings by Michelangelo, and Caravaggio! (Going from High Renaissance painting, to cowboy hats, snap front shirts, and ‘HOWDY Y’ALL!’ in a few short steps was an HUGE culture shock!)

Recently, I was in London again, so naturally, I hit up all the big galleries that I had time for. When I’ve been to a gallery more than once or twice, I usually just streamline my time there, and only visit the paintings I’d like to see again, so, one of the paintings I headed over to was a Caravaggio that they have, Supper at Emmaus.

I don’t normally photograph paintings, but I couldn’t help myself this time, because I discovered something quite odd, that I hadn’t noticed before. Oh, and by the way, if you really have to photograph these priceless works of art, as opposed to purchasing a postcard, or poster from the gift shop, -which will look much better than any photo you can take anyways, DON’T USE A FUCKING FLASH! You’ll be helping to kill these paintings. Your quick little flash might not seem to cause any damage, but if lots of people did it, the accumulated bursts of thousands, and thousands of flashes over the years will actually fade the painting.

What I noticed, is that the right hand, of the apostle on the right, was huge, especially when compared to his left hand, in the foreground.

Aren’t things in the distance supposed to look smaller?

Unless he was born with one over-sized hand,  a la Ribera’s Club-Footed Boy, who has one bigger foot for a reason, Caravaggio must have fucked up. (The Club-Footed Boy, or just The Clubfoot is one of my favorite paintings. Here’s a young boy, born with a birth defect -his legs seem stunted as well, who doesn’t seem to give a shit. He’s happy. But don’t fuck with him, or he’ll clobber you with his crutch!)

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not seeing things the way I’m supposed to. Maybe there’s some rule of perspective that I don’t understand clearly.

Never the less, I’m gonna give him, and those that know about these things better than I do, the benefit of the doubt. 

But it still looks like a giant fucking hand to me.

I like to think that Caravaggio noticed this after he had presented the painting to his patron, but just kept quiet about it, hoping no one would notice. He was, after all, a master, but the times dictated that he was an artist for hire for much of his life, and from what has been written about him, somewhat of an assho…. uh, REBEL, so perhaps once he had been paid for his commission, he thought, ‘Screw it. It’s yours now.’

So, what’s my point here? 

I guess what I’m trying to say, in my long-winded, roundabout way, is that we all make mistakes. Sometimes, glaring, obvious mistakes.

It’s up to us to decide whether we can live with those mistakes, or whether the strive for perfection is worth it. How high do we raise the bar? What flaws, if any, are we willing to accept?

The choice is yours.

Bonus Caravaggio trivia: If you’ve ever studied any of his paintings, you’ve probably noticed that the central figure in many of them looks a lot like the same person. That’s because he used himself as a model. Was he just being cheeky, or did he have some serious psychological issues? Who knows? My guess is, it was probably both.

So… What kind of camera do you use?

Me? The one that works best for what I like to do.

I’m not attached to a brand -nor am I very sentimental.

Something comes along, and I think it’ll work better for me? I’ll seriously look into it.

Just like in my guitar playing days. When I was recording in the studio, I wouldn’t hesitate to borrow or rent a different guitar, or amplifier if I thought it would get a sound that fit better with what I was trying to do. (The last time I bought a guitar amplifier -about 15 yrs ago, I went to my local music store, tried a bunch, and had narrowed it down to two. To me, they both sounded very good. How did I decide? I placed both on either side of me, stepped in-between, and picked them up. I bought the lighter one!)

Like-wise, I don’t really care what it says on the front of my camera -so long as it does what I need it to do.

Over the years, I’ve used Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Fuji, and probably a couple of others that I forget. For various reasons they all seemed like the right thing to use at the time.

A few years ago, I switched to Fuji, and here’s why:

I got old.

They’re smaller and lighter, so walking around for a couple of hours with a camera and lens slung around my neck, isn’t the chore that it once was. Prior to owning my current main camera, I had a Nikon D700. Amazing camera, but pair it with a 70-200 f2.8, and after an hour of walking around, you might find yourself with a bit of a slouch. You (or at least I did) find yourself, almost sub-consciously, making excuses why you shouldn’t go out for a walk with your camera. Not good.

Plus, my eyes have weakened with age. The diopter wouldn’t ‘rack out’ far enough to make things sharp in the view finder.

Time for a change.

I started looking around online, and oddly enough, for some reason, I was distracted by a review of the Fujinon 16, f1.4. I went downtown to a local camera shop, and, suffice to say, was VERY impressed. 16mm, (With Fuji’s cropped sensor) or 24mm, in 35mm terms has always been my favorite focal length. Plenty wide, and if you’re careful, you can avoid ‘converging parallels,’ and wide angle distortion -or, you can use them for effect.

I went home, thinking ‘Hmm… I wonder what the bodies you attach that thing to are like?’

More online research.

I saw that the recently released Fuji X-T2 was getting sparkling reviews. 

Back down to the camera shop, a couple of days later.

I bought both. The body was smaller, and lighter, the electronic viewfinder was sharp and crisp, and because it’s electronic, I can see in focus again. But most important of all, It produced images that I really liked.

My Nikkor lenses went on Kijiji, sold quickly, and covered most of the cost of my new camera and lens. I kept the D700 body, and one 50mm lens, because the body is somewhat banged up, and as the English like to say, ‘I couldn’t be arsed’ to sell it, as I probably wouldn’t get much for it anyway.

After a couple of days of testing, and shooting, I noticed another pleasant surprise: With a little care, and occasional tweaking, I could get really good images right out of the camera. That’s important to me. I’m not one of those people who likes to fool around in Lightroom, or Photoshop to make adjustments on their images after they’ve taken them. Usually, I’ll still have to do a little, but shooting with the X-T2, I can keep it to a bare minimum.

(There’s always a big debate when it comes to shooting jpeg vs. shooting RAW, and to be sure, I have some strong opinions about it, but that’s for another blog post, later on.)

Now, let me tell you some things that my camera isn’t:

-It doesn’t have the fastest autofocus. Make no mistake about it, it’s VERY fast -plenty fast for me, but if I was a photojournalist covering sports, say, I’d probably be looking into offerings from Canon, or Nikon. But then I’d be back with the weight problem.

-It’s not full frame. If extreme detail of large files is your thing, or you’d like to severely crop, you’d probably do wise to look elsewhere. However, I have, just across the room from me here, a landscape shot that I took in High Park in the fall a couple of years ago. I printed it at 24” X 36”, or whatever the dimensions are with Fuji’s sensor size -one side is 36,” and it’s perfectly tack sharp, and crisp.

-It doesn’t have the fastest frame rate for burst shooting. I think in ‘boost’ mode, I can get 8 frames per second. But, come on, do most of us really need more than that? Even half of that?

-Certain software companies offer limited, or no support for files produced by Fuji cameras. I like to think of them as ASSHOLES. I get along just fine with ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate. (More on this later. Rest assured, there’s a colossally vitriolic blog post coming soon…)

-Apparently, Fuji is not a leader in the field of video. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never shot a video with any of my cameras. Not one.

There are a few other things that other manufacturers do better than Fuji, but that are quite inconsequential to me. The X-T2 does what I need it to do. I know how to use it in various circumstances. And just as important, I know what I don’t need.

These days, once you reach a certain price point, every camera is going to be very good. The market is so competitive, camera manufacturers can’t afford to offer something that lags. Other components of their ‘systems’ are what a lot of people are looking into.

How’s the lens lineup? Are the optics great?

How’s the flash system? Is that important to me?

Etc., etc.

Paramount, is ‘What am I going to be shooting?

For most of us, and I was no exception here, when we’re beginning, the answer is probably something like ‘a little bit of “x”, and a little bit of “y”, and then just about everything.’  We start out running around shooting everything, and as we progress, we tend to gravitate toward certain subjects, and styles.

If you have a better understanding of what you’re going to be shooting, you have a better chance of getting it right the first time.

Do the research. It’s all out there all over the ‘net. And like everything you read online, CROSS REFERENCE IT. 

The best thing about the internet is that anyone can say anything.

The worst thing about the internet is that anyone can say anything.

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