Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Midsummer Night Swing


I went last summer to Lincoln Center over the course of several evenings to take photos of the annual Midsummer Night Swing festival.  Since cameras aren't allowed on the dance floor itself, I stayed on the adjacent plaza where a variety of New Yorkers tried to beat the heat while trying out their abilities as ballroom dancers.  Some came with partners in tow and others teamed up with strangers.  It was an enjoyable laid back scene and a good opportunity for me to practice my street photography skills while listening to swing and big band music in the background.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Photo Book Review: Edward Steichen: In High Fashion

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In 1923, Edward Steichen was struggling with what would today be termed a "mid-life crisis." Living in near penury in France, the photographer had grown disillusioned in his career as an artist.  He was then in his mid-forties and had long ago left behind the exuberance with which he had first traveled to Europe.  In Paris, he had succeeded in meeting the twentieth century's foremost artists, many of whose works he had enthusiastically shipped back to Stieglitz to be shown in the latter's 291 Gallery in New York City.  In so doing, though, he had had to face the painful realization that his own paintings would never reach the heights of genius shown by those artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, among whom he had moved so easily.  His discontent had only been exacerbated by the horrors of World War I, which he witnessed first hand, as well as the failure of his marriage.  It was no surprise then that he had no qualms in giving up the life of an artist and returning to New York City where he eagerly accepted a position at Condé Nast and quickly became the world's most highly remunerated photographer.

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion by William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow is a thorough documentation of the photographic work that Steichen created over a fifteen year period for both Vogue and Vanity Fair.  While it might be assumed that the photographer left behind him the art photography he had practiced so assiduously in Europe upon joining Condé Nast, this is not the case.  Although Steichen's portraits had even in his days with the Photo Secession shown a tendency towards unadorned naturalism (witness his famous 1903 photo of J.P. Morgan), he maintained the use of pictorialist techniques in his fashion photography for quite some time.  Indeed, it was only when Mehemed Fehmy Agha was hired as art director of Vogue that Steichen fully embraced straight photography in depicting fashion. No matter what his style, however, Steichen's mastery of technique and lighting never wavered.  One has only to look at White (plate 221) from 1935 to begin to comprehend the extent of his ability.  The photo is a study of three models all dressed in white standing with a white horse against a white tiled wall.  To anyone who has ever attempted a photo in which each element is pure white without losing any detail and all the while preserving a full range of tonal values, this deceptively simple image is a tour de force.

Looking at the photos themselves, one has the sense of having stumbled across a lost world. Here are the most newsworthy actors, writers and society figures of the 1920's and 1930's, the celebrities whose extensive fame was the primary cause of their appearance in such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair in the first place.   And yet so thoroughly forgotten have the majority of these once renowned personages become that it has been necessary for the authors to add a "Who's Who" as an appendix to the book.  In a way this is fitting, for Steichen himself has suffered a somewhat similar fate.  Though at one time he was, along with Stieglitz, America's preeminent photographer, his reputation has been so eclipsed in recent decades that he is little remembered today.  This is a great injustice and one that this book will hopefully help correct.

The book itself is an extremely handsome and well designed volume.  The photographic reproductions are all uniformly excellent and are generally shown in full page format.  There are three essays by William A. Ewing, Carol Squiers and Tobia Bezzola that are intelligently written and not only provide a great deal of information and insight regarding Steichen's tenure at Condé Nast but also display a deep respect and sympathy for Steichen's work and the creative processes he brought to bear upon it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Vivian's Coat


This is a follow-up to my previous post featuring portraits of Vivian, a woman I met and photographed at the Lincoln Center plaza.  Although this blog is meant to be a showcase for my black & white work, it would have been a pity not to have shown Vivian's coat in all its brilliant coloring.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Lincoln Center Plaza


After having photographed the Falun Gong protesters (see previous posts), I moved onto Lincoln Center Plaza where I met a friendly cheerful woman named Vivian.  She was wearing a coat so brilliantly colored that it might be best be described as "blinding."  At any rate, it certainly made Vivian stand out from the crowd.  I asked her if I could photograph it from behind, and she had no objection at all.  In fact, she asked me to take a couple of photographs of her, seen here, and then gave me her email address so I could forward them to her.  I sent them the same afternoon but chose the original color versions because that's what I thought she'd prefer.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Falun Gong Protest


Earlier this month I came across a group of Chinese protesters standing on the roadway outside Lincoln Center.  The occasion was a performance given by the Shen Yun Ballet troupe that was about to begin at the State Theater.  The Shen Yun is a performance group actively sponsored by the Falun Gong, a religious organization which the protesters labeled a "cult."  I don't know that much about Falun Gong other than the information provided in the Wikipedia article, but I make it a point to stay away from all forms of organized religion, most especially those groups that have political agendas.  It's true that I have in the past met several Chinese and Westerners who claimed to be affiliated with Falun Gong and who struck me as being rather manipulative, but I think it would be unfair of me to condemn the entire group on the basis of those encounters.  As for the protesters, they were eager to be photographed and I was able to take several close up portraits.  While the protesters did not claim to be affiliated with any organization - even if their banners and signs appeared professionally done - they were unanimous in denouncing Falun Gong as "evil."

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Central Park Portrait Artist


I did a tight crop on this photo to get the composition I wanted.  Note the two diagonals extending downward from each of the upper corners and converging near the center of the frame.  What I think really makes the photo work, however, is the contrast between the actual face of the woman and the artist's depiction.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Kodak Ektachrome Film Redux


Perhaps the most surprising announcement at this year's otherwise humdrum CES came from Kodak, the former giant of the photography industry.  In a move that has to cheer analog photographers dismayed to see one favorite film after another discontinued, the company stated that it will return Ektachrome color reversal film to production after a five year absence with the first batch set to hit stores in this year's fourth quarter.  According to the press release, a Super 8 motion picture film version will be produced in Rochester and will be sold by Kodak directly while a 135/36 version will be made available to still photographers by Kodak Alaris, a spinoff company headquartered in the UK.

And the reason behind this radical change of direction?  According to Steven Overman, Kodak’s chief marketing officer and president of the Consumer and Film Division:
"We are seeing a broad resurgence of excitement about capturing images on film. Kodak is committed to continuing to manufacture film as an irreplaceable medium for image creators to capture their artistic vision. We are proud to help bring back this classic."
As if this weren't enough good news for film enthusiasts, Overman went on, in a podcast recorded at CES, to further state:  "I will say, we are investigating Kodachrome, looking at what it would take to bring that back."  That's hardly a promise, of course, but the very fact that such a move is under consideration is heartening to analog photographers who know from experience that Kodachrome was the best color film ever made.

Meanwhile, for those of us who still shoot black & white film, Ikigai Camera, a Japanese film store headquartered in Australia, announced on its blog a "new" film designed to replace one long since discontinued by Fuji.  Described as the "brain-child of Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter fame," the film supposedly recreates many of the most desirable features of Neopan 400.  According to the blog post:
"StreetPan 400, while not a new emulsion, is a modernized version of an out of production AGFA surveillance film that has been brought back to life (and back into production)"
I'm not quite sure how an Agfa surveillance film would come to have the same properties as a discontinued print film, but I have to admit that the sample photographs shown on the blog certainly look good.  Though I've always shot Tri-X myself, I'd love a chance to experiment with this film and see what prints I could get from its negatives in the darkroom.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Central Park Musician


He was gracious and smiled when on New Years Day I asked if I could take his photo.  I shot the portrait above and then took another of him performing on his traditional string instrument, the erhu (sometimes referred to as the "Chinese violin").  I wasn't that happy with the second shot - it definitely wasn't one of my better photographs - but it did provide a good indication how the instrument was held and played.

Monday, January 9, 2017

On Central Park West


Souvenirs are big business on Central Park West at 72nd Street opposite the Dakotas.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Panasonic Officially Announces the Lumix GH5

The big announcement at this year's CES show was Panasonic's official release of the Lumix GH5.  It didn't exactly come as a surprise.  Not only had I already seen the camera locked away in a plastic case at October's NYC Photo Expo, but the specs as given in the CES press release were exactly what I had been told by the Panasonic rep at the Javits Center.  The only unknown then had been the cost, and even the huge 33% increase in list price wasn't entirely unexpected.  At least not by me.

Panasonic already knew it had a winner on its hands with the GH series.  All along, these cameras have offered filmmakers the best option by far for video in a mass market camera.  The only way to get anything better has been to spend tens of thousands of dollars on specialized high end equipment.  And now Panasonic has improved on its lead by dramatically improving the camera's video capabilities.  As the press release states, the GH5 offers:
"...4K 60p/50p ultra high-definition, smooth, video recording for the first time in a DSLM camera. It is also capable of internal 4:2:2 / 10-bit video recording, which is the color subsampling commonly used for film production, for even more faithful color reproductions."
There are also significant improvements for still photographers, such as a larger sensor, a newly developed Venus Engine processor that Panasonic claims cuts noise by two stops even with the larger sensor, and the omission of the optical low pass filter.  Most significant is the improvement to the auto focus system.  The number of focus areas has been increased from 49 to 225.  Beyond that:
"If focus is not exactly as the user intended when the shutter is pressed, the LUMIX GH5’s Post Focus function8 enables users to select the specific focus point even after shooting – particularly helpful in situations like macro shooting where severe focusing is required. In addition, the camera also features a Focus Stacking function."
Is the GH5 worth the increased price?  For serious filmmakers, the answer has to be an unequivocal "yes" (always assuming, of course, that the camera performs as well in field tests as it looks on paper).   For still photographers, it really depends on the use intended.  When I picked up the GH2 back in 2011, I wanted a lightweight mirrorless camera for travel and street shooting, and the GH2 looked like my best bet.  I already had then, and still have now, a full Nikon DSLR system that would invariably be my first choice when going for the "money shot."  So, although it would obviously be wonderful to have the GH5 with all its many enhancements, I was perfectly happy to pick up a GH4 last month from B&H for only $1,200 (with a complimentary $150 gift card thrown in) since in my case the camera is really more for non-professional use.  But for other photographers - especially those, such as wedding photographers, who shoot extensive video - the improvements in design are so extensive that it's now become possible to forget about DSLR's altogether and to work solely with a mirrorless system.  I may go that way myself in the future.  Critical considerations will be the quality of available lenses (using Nikon or other third party lenses with adapters is not a viable option) as well as the camera's ability to withstand the rugged daily use given it by professionals.  In this regard, it's worth noting that my old GH2 began developing significant problems after only a couple of years of moderate use.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Buddhist Monks in Central Park?


Lately I've been seeing Asian men in Buddhist monk's robes trying to give prayer cards to unsuspecting tourists in Central Park.  As soon as the tourist takes the card, the monk whips out a pad and pen and starts writing.  When one of these monks approached me, I asked what school of Buddhism he practiced.  He immediately clammed up, shook his head and said only, "No English."  But when I then asked him if I could take his picture, his language skills underwent drastic improvement.  He nodded his head vigorously and said, "One dollar, two dollar."  When I refused, he waved me away in disgust.  I simply waited a few minutes and then took these pictures while he was talking to a pair of tourists.  I don't know exactly what game these "monks" are playing, but I plan to stay far away from them.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Second Macedonian Tourist


He wasn't as talkative as his companion.  He was holding a Nikon DSLR but didn't appear to be taking any photos with it.  Still, he had no objection when I asked to take his photo.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Tourist from Macedonia


He was standing with his friend outside Lincoln Center and had no problem with me taking his picture since he'd already begun video recording me on his smartphone.  He asked why Americans didn't know anything about Macedonia.  I explained that there are rarely any stories about his country on American news media.  I told him the only thing I could remember having seen recently was an article that claimed most of the fake news stories on the web had been generated in Macedonia and provided their creators a comfortable living.  The tourist confirmed that Macedonia was indeed a hub for these fake stories.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Nana from Serbia


Nana didn't have any problem when I asked to take her photo last week as she sat on the sidewalk on Amsterdam Avenue.  In spite of her predicament, she seemed resolutely upbeat and cheerful, although she assumed a more serious expression for the photos.  Nana even wanted to know the name of my blog so that she could check out the photos after they'd been posted.  When I asked her if she had any better place to stay than the sidewalk when the weather turned really cold, she answered vaguely that she had friends in Chicago.  I gave her what change I had in my pocket, which wasn't really that much, and wished her a happy holiday.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Blog Name, New Focus


Those who've been following this blog have probably noticed by now that I've given it a new name.  Behind the change is my renewed interest in street photography.  I've been doing a lot more of it in the past few months and am really excited how well so many of the pictures have turned out.  Now I need a forum on which to display them, and this blog is the obvious choice.  I'm planning on posting much more often in 2017 than in the past and would ideally like to be able to show one example of my street photography each day.

For the most part, the photographs I'll be posting here will be in black & white.  Years ago, I shot all around New York City with b&w film, usually Tri-X, and found that I could express my sense of the city's character much more clearly in monochrome.  To my own eyes, New York - no matter how gentrified - has always been the gritty milieu depicted in The Naked City and other classic noir films of the 1940's.  Now I'm finally giving in to the new technology and will be shooting digital on my Panasonic Lumix GH4 and making conversions to b&w in Photoshop using Nik's Silver Efex Pro2.  The exceptions will be the photos taken of street art since that really has to be seen in its original colors to be fully appreciated.  Besides, the occasional use of color will keep things from becoming too monotonous.

For the photographers among you, I'll be posting select industry news, my thoughts on camera equipment and software, and even reviews of photography books I've come across.

My greatest interest is in taking street portraits of my fellow New Yorkers.  I want to create a visual record of the vastly different people who make up this huge city in the twenty-first century.  The aim, as in any form of portraiture, will be to capture their characters in a single photograph.  You can decide for yourself when viewing the photos how successful I've been.  I hope you'll enjoy seeing my work.

I do hope everyone reading this has a wonderful year in 2017.  May you enjoy happiness and good health and may all your dreams come true.