I was walking down "Mall" street in downtown Denver and I saw this man playing cards at one of the tables in the middle, park like area between the two bus lanes. At first I walked by. I was feeling a little shy. But then I realized that passing up a nice portrait because I'm becoming chicken shit will be the first step in a long flight down to the point where I'll never be able to ask again. Reticence builds on itself.
I turned around and approached the table and, when the subject and his friend at the table had a break in their conversation, I asked the man with the headscarf if I could make his portrait. I introduced myself, told him (truthfully) that photography was my hobby and that I was visiting his city and I noticed he had an interesting face. He smiled and gave me permission to continue. At that point his friend stood up and let me sit in his chair, across the little stone table from my subject. That was a very nice gesture. It allowed me to be at eye level with my subject and I'm pretty sure that made both of us more comfortable.
These are the kinds of portraits I like to take on a full frame camera with a medium telephoto lens but I wasn't dragging a rig like that around today. Instead, I relied on my Pentax K-01 with its little 40mm 2.8 lens. I had the camera set to shoot black and white. And I'm pretty darn happy with the way the image turned out.
The entire exchange took a minute. When I'd finished I thanked him very much. Touched his jacket sleeve and told him (honestly) that he had helped to make my day better. He smiled, his friend sat back down, the deck of playing cards came back out and they resumed their game. And, at least for now, I have regained my self confidence where approaching strangers for photographs is concerned.
It's strange, when you photograph people for a living you are always in a safe zone. You've been asked to make a photograph of someone. There's a total buy in by all parties. It makes taking the images so easy and that ease makes it harder when there is no external purpose for the images. Harder when there isn't the certainty that people will say, "yes." We get too complacent when we have our subjects delivered all primed and ready. It's a good exercise to venture out into the big, wide world and learn to ask nicely again.
I guess I told you a month or so ago that I'd bought a used Pentax K-01 for a song and that I was having fun using it. I didn't pay much attention to the camera in the weeks after my purchase because I was getting up to speed on the Samsung Galaxy NX camera for my trip to Berlin and doing a bunch of pre-production and then shooting on some video projects. While packing for my working trip to Denver I decided at the last minute to toss the little yellow Pentax K-01 into my camera bag along with its charger. I brought it along as a rain/beater/fun camera to carry with me when I finished the long days of shooting with the big Sony cameras.
The only lens I have for the Pentax is the 40mm pancake lens. So, what I've essentially got is a cheap camera that's yellow and has only one very limited focal length, no EVF and a tacky, promotional Pentax camera strap. And after four or five hours of walking around and shooting with it today I've already come to appreciate it, enjoy images from it and even smile when I hear its muted and quietly precise shutter go into action. Yes, the rear screen is as difficult to use as any other in bright daylight but I don't seem to care because the camera in its holistic entirety is so adorable. Maybe I like it because no one on the street seems to even pay attention to it when I shoot.
So, why do I think of this camera as problematic? Hmmm. I've been mulling that over. I guess it's because I've shot some stuff with the lens wide open at f2.8 and been very impressed with the characteristics of the lens. Sharp and smooth is how I'd describe it. Maybe it's because the shutter is muted and solid. And maybe it's because the I've come to like the bright color of the body....it's easier to find in the recesses of my black camera bag. It's become problematic because I keep thinking that if Pentax got so many things right in the creation of this camera and the matching of its physical properties to my proclivities then maybe some of the other Pentax cameras would suit me as well. And that's where the slippery slope always begins.... I keep zapping over to Amazon to look at reviews of the K5.2. I played with one again at Precision Camera and came away impressed. Especially for the price!
I'm sure the Pentax glass is just as good as anyone else's and I like the size and feel of the bodies. It always starts like this: I'll decide that only one body and maybe that 70mm pancake lens will be just enough to make me happy. Sure, I'll keep the Sony a99 and other Sonys around for all my professional, paying work. The Pentax will be my fun camera, my art camera, my personal camera. But then I'll find reasons to like it too much and little by little it will ingratiate itself into my camera bag. I'll add a lens or two. And then one day I'll take it out on a little assignment instead of the Sonys and I'll have good luck that day, for one reason or another, and I'll decide that it's great to have two systems to go back and forth with and I'll add a few more lenses and maybe a second body; because you know that no professional should ever go on assignment without a back up body....
Deep in the honeymoon period I'll look for ways to rationalize getting rid of the Sonys and going "all in" on the Pentax gear. I'm sure the initial self-argument will be that the bodies and lenses are cheaper, etc. But once in the system we'll go through the honeymoon stage into our first big, plate throwing, name calling fight over some weakness or absence in the system. I'll begin to pine again for the full frame option. I'll rail against Pentax's primitive video implementation and lack of a headphone jack and I'll be back where I started, only thousands of dollars poor...
At this juncture, before I do any damage to myself or my bank balance I would love to hear from former and present Pentax users. Maybe you'll be able to blunt my desire with rational arguments from the other side. Maybe not. So much for camera lust. Let's talk about the Denver Art Museum.
I have the day off today and I was up early, well breakfasted and out the door with a camera in time to shiver happily in the 36 degree lows. The day is bright and sunny and warmed up quickly. I walked around for a while and then finally got serious and headed to the Denver Art Museum. I was thrilled with what I saw there. Absolutely thrilled. Right off the bat there's a show of Mark Rothko's work. I've always been a fan of Rothko's later subtle and quiet color studies but the show's curator did a nice job of creating a time line from Rothko's earlier work into his final years of working abstraction. The show also includes some work by contemporaries which helps to place Rothko's work within the time period and art/cultural milieu. That show closes tomorrow so I considered my visit lucky right from the start.
The architecture of the museum itself, an origami assemblage of non-linear, angled walls and creative space is worth the trip and I found myself bringing the camera up to my eye just to catch the whimsical juxtapositions of the walls. But the two installations that I really loved, almost worth the trip to Denver alone, were the enormous installation of Sandy Skoglund's Foxes at Play and smaller, quiet, black and white portraits by photographer, August Sander.
Conceptual artist, Sandy Skoglund, has been creating wonderful three dimensional tableaus for decades. I first became aware of her installation work back in the late 1970's or early 1980's because a photography magazine featured her seminal piece, Attack of the Goldfish. The emphasis of the article at the time was the way that Skoglund lit and captured her three dimensional constructions. She used an 8x10 inch view camera and color film to make incredibly wonderful photographs of her work. In those days I assumed that the final target was always intended to be the photograph as the final artifact of her work but museums have been collecting installation pieces now so the exhibitions have long lives and the photography recedes back a bit into its role of documentation for magazines, websites, catalogs and the like. The FOX installation is wonderful. I could have walked around it for hours. And I love the fox sculptures which I think stand up well as individual, sculptural art. Google Sandy Skoglund and I think you'll be surprised at how much Gregory Crewdson borrows, conceptually, from her much earlier work.....
Middle Class Mother and Child by August Sander. All rights reserved.
But this show introduced me to several new images of Sanders that I hadn't seen before which are less formal but no less powerful. There was a portrait of three men in suits, posed casually in the countryside that is wonderful. Any of our best photographers in this age would be secretly proud to have shot that photo.... And the one of the mother and child in the park (above) is also timeless and perfect on so many levels, from pose and expression right through to final print.
The August Sander exhibit sobered me up and reminded me of how far we've allowed our craft to fall in servitude to budgets and expediency. His 8x10 inch portraits have a depth of field that is so shallow and falls off so beautifully and dramatically that even his technical decisions elevate the work to a level that most of us will never be able to achieve today with our technically advanced but mercilessly crippled cameras and lenses. In one sense it's all about format size. We just can't replicate the magnificent focus isolation Sander was able to get with his tools unless we too go back, grow a pair, and start shooting with very large format cameras and very carefully processed and printed sheets of film. And it's a pity since the uniformity of our current cameras impoverishes us with its homogeneity. Sad times when the tools betray us and obfuscate their aesthetic shortcomings with a glittery display of techno-fireworks. And built in "art" filters....
Said in a different way: the more our tools are identical the more our collective vision is damaged by that self same lack of diversity. And if we are unaware of what came before our chip filled toy cameras we don't even have the capacity to understand that there is a loss and how crippling that loss is...
That's the real gift that museums keep giving photographers. They keep showing us how the tools and vision are intertwined and how we've abdicated choice for easy use and low cost. And every now and then a Weston Print or a Paul Strand Print or an August Sander print comes along to slap us in the face and drag us out of creative lethargy. Thank you to the Denver Art Museum for at least three beautiful exhibitions savored all under one roof on one day. You made my stay in Denver that much better.
I'm in Denver working on camera as an instructor for Craftsy.com this week. I got here on Weds. and I'll be here until Thurs. morning. Teaching photography this way is fun and rewarding. I love the process and every time I do a class on the opposite side of the camera (the talent side) I learn more about the art of making great video and I get to be on the receiving end of good direction. I'm paying attention to the work done by a great camera crew and learning the fine points of gracefully transitioning between scenes.
In the evenings, after a twelve hour day, I come back to my hotel, have dinner and try to chill out. I was looking at the photographs on my iPhone this evening and I found this one of Belinda that I'd taken at the W Hotel during some party or celebration last year. I know it's just "phoning it in" but I enjoyed having a forgotten photograph of my wonderful wife turn up out of nowhere. Makes me realize how lucky I am.
And I feel lucky in my career as well. The people at Craftsy.com are reminding me that I'm sharing thirty years of valuable experience with a whole new generation of image makers and that feels great.
So, a week in Berlin then a week in Denver. At the end of the month of October I'll be spending the better part of a week at the Photo Plus Show in NYC. I guess the industry is not slowing down as quickly as rumor would have it. That's okay with me. I'm having the time of my life.