I’m on the ferry again. It’s May 7th already, two days past Cinco de Mayo, or Independance Day in Mexico. Apparently there are signs of the coming rainy season as it becomes unbearably humid and hot. It’s time to head inland to the higher altitudes of the mountains. The locals stay where they are and survive as best they can. Next year I’ll be able to do that, go to the mountains that is. I’ll have my trailer. I’m on my way to pick it up today. I’m excited that another piece of the plan is falling into place although I’m a bit subdued with a bout of flu. Don’t worry, I’ve washed my hands and I’ll turn my head to cough.
It is a lovely time of year to become infected with some ugly bug. I suspect it has something to do with the nasty, mouldy old sanding dust that sneaks under my mask while working on the vintage Cheoy Lee. I’ll soon have the interior finished and as our rainy season finally eases I’ll start ripping up and rebuilding the decks. Hopefully I’ll have the antibodies for whatever lurks within that spongy mess. This project has become what feels like a career. It goes on and on. I intend that this be the last boat project I ever take on. I find it frustrating that everything takes so long to accomplish, due in part to the simple fact that I no longer possess a younger man’s zeal and energy. The boat’s owner is happy with my work and certainly observers (Yes, with spring comes the return of the ubiquitous dock inspectors) all offer favourable reports. This is a job that requires an older man’s patience but the ability to wiggle and contort into awkward places is getting much harder. I’m definitely no longer the willowy kid whose clothes I once wore.
While I work I often listen to CBC radio. Usually it’s Radio 2 where the odd gem of music is heard within the manure pile of repeated cliché cacophonies. I understand the need for Canadian content but surely there are more than the same ten tunes. Sometime for a break in monotonies I listen to Radio 1 which, quite often, is an endless diatribe of interviews about meaningless issues. Occasionally someone actually has something to say worth listening to. Recently, a professor from an obscure Midwestern university offered a very interesting conjecture on the relationship between physical activity and creative thinking. He offered several examples of writers and composers whose daily artistic regimen includes walks of several hours. Thoreau is an easy example. Then there was Forest Gump.
This academic extrapolation explained that the human brain is a computer which is maximized by the electro-chemical stimulus produced by prolonged moderate physical activity. It is the way we are biologically engineered. We need to get up to operating temperature for full function. Walking, jogging, bicycling, rowing and swimming in their many forms, or any other ambulant activity, are fundamental to clear creative thinking and problem-solving. This now rather Rubenesque writer can recall all the years of mornings that began with a long swim in the nearest pool. Even when travelling on business, if at all possible, my first event of the day was that swim. I joked about going to the “Think tank”. Often, while doing my lengths, I’d be able to think out a business problem or some other conundrum. I wrote two novels and many stories sifting through the many plot challenges and character developments, in part, while swimming.
I know, I know, I live on a boat, what’s my excuse now? There is no swimming pool available on Gabriola Island. Somehow the romance of wriggling into a still-damp and cold wet suit to leap off the dock into murky ice-cold water and plunking around the bay eludes my personal discipline. I suppose rowing is the next logical routine and I offer no excuse other than the many nasty weather days. Certainly, in places like Mexico, each day begins for me with a long swim out to sea. Breakfast is taken nearer to noon, one meal of the day is eliminated and life is good. At home my dog Jack demands his daily constitutions and apart from the ambling we do, all that shouting for him to come back is good for the lungs.
While on the subject of higher creativity I should thank all those who take the time to send positive comments and questions about the photos in this blog and on my Flickr photostream. And actually no, there have been no negative remarks. Really! You’re all so kind. One person has even asked for longer blogs!
I don’t want to write any photography manuals in response to the questions about how I take succesful photographs but I will try to respond succinctly. There is no subsitute for practice. I began taking photographs when I was was seven or eight years old. I found someone’s discarded Kodak Brownie camera. It used 120 roll film available, I believe, in eight and twelve frame rolls. I remember having to seal the camera case with adhesive tape to block light leaks and saving pennies and nickles to get the film. There was a mail service that provided a fresh roll of film with each set of prints. The cost was probably about two dollars. Every frame was a carefully considered captial expense.
Even then I was more interested in composing an artistic image rather than accumulating contrived mug shots like everyone else. Yeah I was always weird. Having a talent for sketching I slowly evolved to painting with watercolours. Then I began photographing scenes so the light remained constant for my paintings. I eventually discovered the darkroom and became a madman locked away in a tiny compartment, hot and fumey, as I learned the art of photographic printing in black and white, colour and cibachrome. Over decades I’ve catalogued thousands of stock images. It doesn’t seem so long ago that when submitting a magazine article, one was required to provide slides with the manuscript. No one was geared up yet for digital images.
Now digital photography is standard technolgy and film manufacturers like the giant Kodak are gone. There’s a generation now which doesn’t at all understand the Simon and Garfunkle song about Kodachrome. The great thing about digital images is that people can freely treat photography as any blend of science and art they chose. Some old arguments can be put to rest. The one that used to inflame me was that the photographer didn’t take the picture, the camera did. My retort was to ask if it were the brush or the artist who painted a picture.
With the photo programs now available anyone can manipulate their images to suite needs and whims. It is easy now to prove that photos can indeed lie. There is no more chemical trickery required to process film and prints in carcenogenic darkrooms and there is no concern about cost each time you release the shutter. One other joy of digital photography is the immediacy it provides. The shot I’m posting of the swallows, taken through a blurry plexiglass window, was a digital file number ready to share with the world within two minutes of taking the shot. It’s a technically weak image because of the plexiglass, but it was available in seconds. Nevertheless, the basic principles remain, no matter how easy it is to collect images. The first is that light travels at a constant speed. The second is that no camera can ever determine composition, envison what your creative imagination can see nor determine what lighting will best produce the desired final image.
Good photographs cannot be attributed to what sort of equipment you use. For the past few months I’ve tried to limit my photography to one simple pocket camera. I’ve used an Olympus T-2 which is a pretty basic camera. It is frustratingly slow some times and is not able to handle certain light conditions well but it can produce some great photos and takes me back to working the basics. There is no hope with this little camera of machine-gunning an image and hoping to find the best shot later. Even mobile phones can produce great photos if the photographer understands lighting and how the camera lense works.
It is simple. Because the speed of light is a uncompressible constant, a correct exposure requires that only a specific amount of light can be used to make a proper image. So if an aperture is opened to a value of f4 for an exposure time of, let’s say, 1/60th of a second, the same exposure value can be made at f8 for 1/30th of a second, or half the light for twice as long. An advantage of a slower speed and smaller aperture is greater depth of field in the image. The slower shutter speed however means that the chance of blurring the image due to camera movement is greater. Faster shutter speeds offer shallower depths of field but also facilitate sharply freezing a moving subject.
If I’m trying to be technical I should explain briefly about f-stops. They are simply a way of expressing a ratio of the diameter of a lense aperture to the focal length of that lense. If a lense is 100mm long, an f-stop of 4 means the aperture is open at a diameter of 25mm. F8 would be a diameter of 12.5mm. We need to be able to control that opening in order to control depth of field and to control the speed, or amount of time the lense is open, to shot moving objects. Some older cameras were considered fast if they had a shutter speed of of 1/500th of a second. Now cameras can freeze action at speeds measured in several thousandths of a second. Digital cameras can provide shutter speeds so incredibly fast that we can see the progress of things in freeze-frame like the progress of a bullet piecing the skin of a balloon.
Another explanation is to regard a camera as a crude copy of an eyeball. The shutter is a copy of the pupil opening and closing in response to the amount of available light. A great way of understanding this is to check out ‘F Numbers’ on Wikipedia. They provide diagrams and math equations. Most photographers simply keep their cameras in auto and let the camera do the thinking but until you understand the unholy trinity of aperture, focal length and shutter speed, you own’t be in total control of your photography.
Some photography classes required students begin by using disposable film cameras until it was understood that the photographer makes the photo, not the camera. That is why I never display technical information about any photograph. Shutter speeds, f-stops, lenses, filters, ISO and any other techno-gibberish are irrelevant, even perhaps detracting, to appreciating an image; in my opinion.
Expensive high quality cameras, and the myriad of available lenses only reduce the effort required in achieving a specific image. Most modern cameras are so loaded with optional functions that the process of taking good photographs can be quite bewildering. Don’t worry about all those sales features, just stick to the basics.
A poor photographer might have difficulty making good images with an expensive Hassleblad and a good photographer can take winners using any camera.
Photography is the art of seeing, it is as simple as that. I’m always happy to answer questions on this subject but first open your eyes to really see what’s there. Take plenty of photos until you began to understand the process for yourself. This takes us back to walking and thinking.
For me, the process of walking and thinking while taking photographs can be very cathartic and uplifting. To be able to break down the world around me into single, simple moments of focused observation and clear interesting images helps me re-establish my tiny place in the universe. When I come home without any images I know I’m having a bad day. Of course taking a dog along almost guarantees some good pictures.
The most indelible images are the ones which you never manage to get into a camera. For example I was whizzing along a highway in Mexico, with heavy trucks behind trying to push me even faster. There was no daring to stopping. Then, in the gathering night, I saw an amazing sight in one fleeting moment. A brickmaker had fired up his kiln and the golden glow of that inferno will be forever imbedded on the hard drive in the back of my skull. The fire-tinged outline of each brick, the sillouette of the workers, the reflected light on a huge stack of waiting firewood and some children’s faces, it’s all there, a full stop. Whatever works for you, take some time to stay in touch with the planet that sustains you. It’s a wonderful place. Class dismissed!
The trailer! It’s mine now, bought and paid for. Yep, more damned stuff! Two weeks ago it all seemed impossible. I’m cashless for the moment but I’ve got a huge component in the progress of my dream. I’m posting some grab shots taken of it on the way home. For now I’m scheming the best way to arrange versatile accomodations inside to suit my needs. Then I’ll be hitting the road. Meanwhile ‘Seafire’ needs plenty of attention. I can see a very busy summer ahead.
By the way, a final note on the art of seeing. Remember that washed-out photo of tiny birds sitting on a lifeline after a morning rain? I forgot to mention the most wonderfully obvious thing of all. The purple martins are back!