Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Photographic History

An acquaintance from my days in Yellowstone National Park (1983-1992), recently wrote me a nice note after viewing my blog. Here are his comments:

What a nice blog. Well done. I really like your pictures.  You can always tell when someone is well

versed in composition. I know from experience that the prints are going to show much more texture
and detail than what we see on our monitors. I am a rabid B&W fan and thought your Carlsbad pictures
were real stand-outs; but your high contrast skies, especially in Yosemite are proof of your color skills.
Which pictures do you think are your best? (It’s a question that separates your journey from your
accomplishment, and I am always curious to know how people see themselves.)

Since I only give a brief description in my profile, I thought I’d do a more extensive autobiography of my photographic background and experience. The very first pictures I ever took were in Yosemite Valley in 1948 at the age of 11. I was using a Kodak Brownie box camera. My real journey into photography occurred while I was in high school when my girlfriend’s father was a professional photographer. He worked for large billboard company in San Francisco, but a couple of times a year, he took “school pictures” (pictures of the entire class rather than individual portraits), which he developed and printed in his home darkroom (black and white, of course). On the weekends, I would work with him as he did all the developing and printing. I learned a lot, and this experience started me on my lifelong passion in photography.

My cameras during high school, and throughout college as well, were an Exakta 35mm camera, and a 2 1/4” square twin-lens reflex cameras patterned after the German Rolleiflex (mine was made in Japan as I couldn’t afford the real thing). Many of the earliest slides shown in this blog were taken with the Exakta, and the black and white photos taken at Carlsbad Caverns (1962 to 1963) were taken with the twin-lens reflex. My major at San Francisco State College was Industrial Arts (to be a teacher), but I made my concentration in photography which was in the Art Department which drove the Industrial Arts professors to distraction. I was supposed to be welding things, sand casting items, and making little blocks of wood perfectly square, not taking “snapshots”. The deep background here is that I actually wanted to go into Radio and Television and took several courses in that department as well, but my parents, who were footing the bill for tuition, insisted early on that the only way I could make a living was by being a teacher. And since I had excelled in “shop” (i.e. I behaved myself) in high school, obviously I should become an Industrial Arts teacher. (what folly!).

Back to photography. As mentioned in my profile, I had college photography classes with Jack Welpott as well as John Gutmann, and I became thoroughly grounded in the West Coast School of Photography with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston as two of the guiding lights. In one of the classes, we even visited Adams at his home in San Francisco. My photo classes basically revolved around black and white pictures using various size cameras, and learning the techniques of developing, contact printing, and/or enlarging the results. The largest camera we worked was a 4x5 view camera which had to be set up on a tripod to use. Since then, I rarely, if ever use a tripod, as frankly I don’t have the patience to carry one or set it up. In my photo classes, the closest we came to doing color photography was developing slide film because back then schools did not have all the complex equipment for working with color negatives and prints.

Both of my professors stressed composition, and we spent a great deal of time critiquing famous photographs, paintings, and each other class work. When I break a composition rule, I’m well aware of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Black and white images vs. color images can provide quite an discussion. Some of my best color photographs would also make excellent black and white prints while others depend on the colors within to support their composition and strength. I always like something Cole Weston said in defending his taking color photographs – Well, we see in color, don’t we? (or words to that effect). As with any photographer, the more pictures you take, the better the work becomes. It is not only technically better, but the person is able to see photographs all around them even in some mundane situations. Many people, including myself, develop “a style” in their work as they mature. My style will become more evident my blog as I start showing my later photographs

In my second year of college that I got a summer job in Yosemite working for the concessionaire (see earlier in my blog). Suddenly, I was in the other home of Ansel Adams and surrounded by the same beauty of the Sierra Nevada where many of his famous photographs were taken. Actually when I look back, I am amazed how few black and white photographs I took while I was there, but that was partly controlled on whether I had a darkroom available when I got back home to do the processing. I did collect some of the necessary equipment, but could never quite get setup with a “bathroom – over the tub” darkroom. Later in the parks, I was limited to the two areas, Carlsbad Caverns and Death Valley (1970 to 1972), which had a darkroom as part of the NPS facilities which I could use. Many of the parks owned a Crown Graphic 4x5 cameras (which didn’t require using a tripod), and because of my past experience, I usually became the unofficial official photographer for the area.

In the mid-1960’s, some mail-in labs appeared that would process and print black and white film, and by that time I had moved totally to the use of 35mm cameras for both black and white film and color slides. Mail-in for color print film processing was also available, but was still quite expensive compared to the other two films. Until I switched to digital cameras in 2002, I always had two 35mm cameras. My real workhouse which I bought while at Cape Cod (1972 to 1976) was a Pentax MX single lens reflex along with a couple of zoom lens. I also had a Minox 35ML fixed focal length camera.

While at Harper’s Ferry (1964 to 1967), I had decided I didn’t like the way of showing my photos to others via the old routine of setting up a screen and projector, and giving a “slide talk”. Instead, I started making up large format Gibson scrapbooks (14” x 12” x 3”) with my prints which I could set on a guest’s lap, along with a good stiff drink, and let them see my pictures at their leisure. So far, I have 41 volumes in my scrapbook series – a visual diary! What has really surprised me in putting together this blog using primarily old slides is that I was even taking slides in addition to color print film all the way thru my time at Point Reyes (1976 to 1983).

In the spring of 2002, I started the switch to digital. It wasn’t long before I gave up film altogether, and sold my old film cameras and lens. After going through several digital cameras as they rapidly improved, I currently use a Fujifilm S-9000 super zoom, and a Canon G10. And what a delight it is to work in a “lightroom” rather than a darkroom. I use Paint Shop Pro X2U for my photo editing, and obtain terrific results even when the initial exposure was less than perfect.

Now Jerry, regarding my "best" photographs – many of the slides shown on my blog were my "best" at the time. If you (and others) click here, I’ll feature some of the photographs that I've taken in the past few years that are now my current best. Thank for asking!


Swan Man said...

What a great story! Bravo, and 'encore' please!

Tom Swan said...

Thanks Swan Man. You'll keep me inspired for more "war" stories!