A Creative Exercise.

October 9th, 2009

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OCTOBER 9, 2009

From time to time, photographers need to recharge their batteries — not just the ones in their cameras, but their creative batteries as well. That could just be by taking a vacation — seeing new places, new things — or it could be by experimenting with a new style or a new medium to get the juices flowing.

 

In July I attended an artists’ forum one evening in Portland called Pecha Kucha. This group brings together speakers from different artistic disciplines — painting, sculpture, graphic design, photography, music, theater, architectural design, etc. — to talk about their work. Each presenter is allowed 6 min, 40 sec to show 20 slides. They can talk about what informs or inspires their work; they can show a long-term project they’ve been working on; or they can show something new they’re experimenting with. That evening I was most intrigued by David Weinberg’s collection of images. An illustrator who is used to drawing things out by hand, David had started using the camera in his cell phone to replace his sketchpad. He showed a selection of square images that were interesting individually, but then he combined them in four-panel sequences (an influence from his days of drawing cartoon strips). The interplay of the images with each other then created a new visual experience. I just loved them.

 

I now wanted to play with something new — well actually, something old. Instead of using the latest technology to create pictures, I decided to go back to a very early image-making process — photograms. These are images made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of photo-sensitized paper and then exposing it to light. You can do this with regular photo paper, but since I no longer have a chemical darkroom set up, I chose to make the photograms as cyanotypes. A process developed in the mid-1800s, cyanotypes are made by coating paper with a solution of ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide. When the paper is exposed to an ultraviolet light source like the sun, the UV light reduces the iron. When it reacts with the ferricyanide, it creates an insoluble blue dye known as Prussian blue. You develop the picture by flushing the paper with water. I used pre-treated paper, which you can buy in kits, so that I didn’t have to mix chemicals in my kitchen.

 

This was a purely aesthetic exercise for me. I didn’t have someone’s great facial expression to rely on, like in portraiture; I wasn’t looking for a “moment,” like in photojournalism; I wasn’t having to make a corporate client’s business or product look its best. I was just concentrated on using shapes and space to create an interesting visual experience. Off and on over a period of about 10 weeks, I worked on the pictures, finding out how much time was needed to expose the paper properly and what types of objects worked well in the photograms. Once my images were made on paper, I scanned them into the computer. Seeing all the pictures in Prussian blue, though, was fatiguing to my eyes, so I began to make changes to them in Photoshop. I began with small changes, like slightly de-saturating the blue. Afterwards, I toyed with replacing some of the blue tones with other colors and playing off the color changes in the positive and negative areas of the images. In one sequence I stripped out all remnants of the original Prussian blue in the images. I replaced colors and also used color inversion on the pictures. When I started this project, my thought was to stick strictly with the old-time photo process, but I got more enjoyment out of it in the end by incorporating digital technology into the final images.

 

Last night I was selected to be among the 10 presenters at Pecha Kucha. I started by showing some of my portraits and photojournalism so the audience could see the divergence in style and technique that this project represented. The six minutes flew by in a whirlwind. There was so much other wonderful work to look at as well — from Thomas Hillman’s simple but elegant graphic designs, to Greg Daly’s complex and intricate dioramas depicting World War II scenes that had the audience cheering. I’d like to thank Lynnelle Wilson, of Bold Vision Consulting, for encouraging me to submit my work to the review panel and David Weinberg, the cellphone sketchpad artist, for being an inspiration to me.

A Moment with a Monarch.

August 24th, 2009

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AUGUST 24, 2009

Have you seen any monarch butterflies lately? Now is the time to spot them on their annual southern migration, which in North America starts in August and lasts until the first frost. I photographed this one at the botanical gardens in Montreal, Quebec.

The monarch is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south, as the birds do on a regular basis. No single individual makes the entire round trip, however, since the length of the journey exceeds the normal lifespan of most monarchs, which is less than two months for butterflies born in early summer. According to Wikipedia, it is the second, third, and fourth generations of the insect that return to northern locations in the US and Canada. How the species manages to return to the same overwintering spots over a gap of several generations is not clearly known, but its flight patterns appear to be inherited, based on a combination of circadian rhythm and the position of the sun in the sky.

Arrangement in Stone and Plant.

August 12th, 2009

 

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AUGUST 12, 2009

I drove out to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth today to scout some spots to photograph a family portrait tomorrow. The picturesque Portland Head Light could serve as a backdrop, of course, but I was more intrigued by the ruins of the fort. I hope to persuade the family to see it as “edgy,” rather than “decrepit.” In the end, though, they’re the clients, so it will be their choice.

 

I recorded this little study in colors and textures while I was there. I loved the layering of the old stone, covered with the fading paint of old grafitti, now being grown over by what I think must be lichens (that botany class in college was a long time ago!).

What do your photos say about you?

July 16th, 2009

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JULY 16, 2009

I met today with Rich Brooks, president of flyte new media (www.flyte.biz) in Portland. He is a web design and business marketing specialist, with a voluminous knowledge of social networking sites and how to use them to advance a company’s marketing goals. He gave me some insight about how to use my blog more effectively. Up till now, I have been using it as a creative outlet, a way to share my personal vision through photography. Rich showed me that I could also be sharing my expertise in how companies can use photos effectively in their advertising or marketing campaigns. I now plan to incorporate advice in this area into my blog in addition to my personal photos and my ongoing Scarborough 350 project.

 

Today’s question is whether the photos on your website reinforce your corporate identity. Whether you’re using stock photography or having a professional come on site to produce custom photos, make sure that the visuals match your message. If you make hand-crafted, one of a kind items, you’ll want to have pictures that show your attention to detail. Photos that are poorly lit, that have bad shadows, that aren’t as finely crafted as the products you make will tell prospective customers that you are sloppy, not detail-oriented. If your company’s key to success is superior customer service, but the photos on your site are generic, stock shots of sunsets or landscapes, or, worse, pictures of your offices or equipment with no people in them, you’ll be missing the warmth that can be seen in the human interaction of your staff with your clients — the thing that will make prospective clients interested in doing business with you. If you serve a young, hip clientele, are your photos bold, bright, edgy and shot from interesting angles, or do you have a bunch of boring, line-‘em-up pictures that don’t tantalize the eye? Matching your photographic images to your corporate image will bring consistency and clarity to your message and help establish your brand.

Wet blanket.

July 2nd, 2009

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JULY 2, 2009
Summers in Maine are short, but this year’s seems exceptionally so. I called the National Weather Service in Gray this afternoon to get the grim figures. According to the agent I spoke with, in June we only had three cloud-free days, and the temperature never broke the 80 degree mark. And then there was the rain — lots of rain — 8.5 inches of rain, nearly two and a half times what is normal for the month. Sad to say, but July is following in June’s footsteps.

I couldn’t take one more day of sitting inside, staring at my computer screen all day, so camera in hand, I set out for Old Orchard Beach to see what was happening in that seaside resort town. I usually avoid going there in the summer because it gets so packed with people, and it’s impossible to find parking. As I drove along East Grand Ave., motel after motel sported Vacancy signs. Parking spots were abundant as only a handful of tourists braved the rain and walked through downtown. Normally on a July 4th weekend the beach would be wall-to-wall with sunbathers, but it looked more like a winter scene.

I snapped a shot of one of the vendors at Bill’s Pizza, situated a stone’s throw from the beach and the amusement park, as she stared out across the street, nary a customer in sight. Upon inquiry, I learned that on a typical summer day the shop sells 400 pizzas — today it was 20. With all the challenges we’ve been facing in this tough economy, does Mother Nature really have to pile on the misery? So many of the businesses in OOB are seasonal, depending on a few months to earn the bulk of their income. There are no government bailouts for this sector of the economy, though.

Playful Moment.

June 8th, 2009

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JUNE 8, 2009
Yesterday I assisted my friend Melissa Manseau, of Life’s Big Events, at a wedding she was photographing in Kennebunkport. I’ve spent my career doing news, corporate, and commercial photography. Except for the occasional wedding I’ve photographed for a friend, I haven’t done much in this arena. I had quite an enjoyable time, though, at this assignment. It was a picture-perfect day, and the temperature was mild. The event was at the Nonantum Resort, a charming inn right on the water. I’ve driven past there hundreds of times, but it was the first time I ever walked the grounds.

While Melissa photographed the bride getting ready, I took the groom and his groomsmen outside for a portrait session. They were relaxed, but they all seemed quite reserved. The ceremony was tasteful and elegant. I was delighted, then, to capture this photo of the bride, Meredith, and the groomsmen after the ceremony, when their comical characters were revealed as Melissa took them out on the dock for a portrait shoot.

Great Backyard Bird Count.

February 14th, 2009

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FEBRUARY 13, 2009
This weekend is the 12th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, hosted by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s a free, educational, nationwide activity in which ordinary citizens can help scientists gather data about how the distribution and abundance of birds are changing over time. This is the third year I’ve participated.

Unlike winter bird walks, which in Maine can be a bone-chilling experience, this is something that can be done from the comfort of your living room. You just count the number and different kinds of birds you see in your yard or at your feeders over a period of 15 minutes or more, then you log onto www.birdcount.org to record your results. Online maps and lists are updated throughout the count, so you can see how your birds fit into the big picture. On my first day of observing this year, I spotted eight species of birds, including black-capped chickadees, which are Maine’s state bird, a blue jay, a downy woodpecker, and dark-eyed juncos, one of which is seen above. These were all among the top 10 most commonly reported species seen in last year’s count.

It’s not too late to join in. The count runs through Feb. 16th, and you can record birds on any or all of the four days of the count.

Winter walk.

January 12th, 2009

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JANUARY 12, 2009

Yesterday another seven inches of snow fell, and I cursed it as I shoveled it off my car and driveway. But today, when I left to photograph an assignment at a dental office in Portland, the sun was beaming down, it was a tolerable 27 degrees out, and best of all, there was not a trace of wind. I couldn’t wait to get back from the photo shoot so I could break out my snowshoes for the first time this winter.

I headed to my favorite spot — the nature sanctuary just down the road from my home — and snapped a picture of the long shadow cast by my figure as I entered the trail head. I heard a black-capped chickadee behind me making its distinctive call — “chick a dee dee dee dee.”  I saw several crows perched on the tops of trees, cawing to each other as they gathered before finding their roosting spot for the night. And there were at least two dozen robins flitting through the shrubs, feeding on berries, their orange breasts standing out in colorful contrast to the white snow and black twigs. I couldn’t get close enough with my point and shoot camera to make a good image of them, but it was delightful to watch them.

Many times I’ve bemoaned being laid off from my full time job and having to struggle to make it as a freelance photographer, but the sheer joy I felt today in not being tied to a 9 to 5 job, in being able to take advantage of a beautiful day, in walking over the fresh carpet of snow without another soul in sight, made me feel that I’m in the right place, that I’m lucky, and that if I can just hang in a while longer, everything will turn out alright. 

Wondrous waterways.

January 5th, 2009

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JANUARY 5, 2009

It could almost look like the surface of the moon, but the patch of open water glowing with a slight pinkish yellow tinge from the setting sun unmasks the disguise worn by the Scarborough Marsh. I stopped by the marsh on my way home to see if I could find any ducks close enough to the road to photograph. I wanted to share my story today of a great bird watching experience, and wanted a photo of ducks to go along with it. Alas, none were close enough to be captured by my longest lens; nor were the two spectacular birds I saw earlier in the afternoon in Westbrook.

I had spent the morning volunteering at Maine Audubon in Falmouth. A call came in from an avid birder to let the staff naturalist, Eric, know that the tufted duck Eric had spotted yesterday in Westbrook had moved farther up the river, above the falls by the mill. The caller, Lloyd, also noted that a wood duck could still be found among the mallards below the falls. So what’s so special about a couple of ducks? Well, wood ducks are normal summer residents in Maine, but in the winter they go to warmer climes, and aren’t usually seen north of New Jersey. I had only ever seen this striking bird in photographs and had long wanted to catch a glimpse of one in nature. The tufted duck is an even greater rarity. It breeds in northern Eurasia and is an uncommon visitor to North America. There have only ever been five or fewer documented sightings of this bird in Maine.

When my shift ended, I drove to Portland to make a site visit for a photo shoot I’ll be doing next week and then headed out to Westbrook, binoculars in hand. As I walked along the path by the river below the falls, a car pulled alongside me. The driver asked if I had seen the tufted duck. I told him about the report of its new location and said I was going to see if I could spot the wood duck first. The car headed up to the other side of the river as I continued down the path. Hmmm … I only see gulls — ah, there are the mallards — a ton of them. I began scanning them with the binoculars. Mallard, mallard, mallard — I’ll never spot the wood duck — who even knows if it’s still here? Then all of a sudden, I spy a beak that looks different. I focus in and see this very beautiful bird — multi-colored, multi-patterned — what a spectacular creature! After drinking him in for a while, I headed upriver. I found the occupants of the car standing on a snow bank overlooking the river above the falls. As they helped me climb up the slippery mound, they told me they had come down from Waterville, about 70 miles away, for a chance to see the tufted duck. They had found it swimming with a group of four ring-necked ducks and had trained their spotting scope on it. What a lucky break for me! The scope is a more powerful viewing instrument than my binoculars are, so I was able to get a great view of this rare bird.

I almost burst into song — “What a day this has been, what a rare mood I’m in …” It’s those small, unexpected delights that have a way of making us forget our troubles, to be grateful for the day at hand, and to look forward to what the next new day may hold.

Shapes and shadows.

January 3rd, 2009

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JANUARY 3, 2009

The winter sun in Maine casts long shadows, even when it’s not that late in the day. I captured this view of an old mill building in Biddeford that I’ve driven past many times, but never taken the time to observe. When I was experimenting with angles to take the photo, I found a plaque on the façade that commemorated a stone fort that was built there in the 1600’s to protect settlers from the Native Americans. History has shown, I think, that in the balance, it was the natives who needed protection from the settlers.