Photography

Gulls

Just for fun, here are some seagull photographs that I took at Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, MA earlier this month.

For me, there are two notable things about these images. On a visceral level, I enjoy looking at them because they remind of the freedom of flight. On a philosophical level, they raise some thorny questions about authorship in photography. Am I the “author” of these images? For many of the photographs that I choose to share, the answer to that question is an unambiguous yes, but these seagull images defy a clear answer because of the particular way I captured them.

Wildlife shots like these are often taken with an extreme telephoto lens that lets the photographer see and track a distant subject as if it were “up close.”  But these seagull images are actually extreme crops of fairly wide landscape shots. What that means is that I didn’t really see these gulls in any significant detail at the moment of capture: when I was looking through the camera viewfinder, these gulls were small spots set against a wide expanse of sky. Thanks to the super-high resolution of the camera I was using (50 megapixels) I was able to zoom in after the fact and see these gulls in good detail, for the first time, in my photo processing software.

Of course I had to lug my camera to the beach, watch the gulls for an hour or so, take a few dozen shots, and then spend some time in post-processing before arriving at these particular images. Intuitively, I feel like I earn some kind of “credit” for that. But yet, it still feels awkward to call these photographs “mine” when I didn’t even clearly see the subject at the moment of capture, or have any idea of what I was getting.

This leads into the bigger question of what makes me as a photographer feel connected to any particular image that comes out of my camera? One thing that gives me a feeling of connection is when I set out with a certain intention for a shot and then recognize the intention manifested in the result. Another thing that gives me a feeling of connection is simply that I happen to like the result, regardless of whether I intended the result or not. As for these seagull images, I certainly like them, but it doesn’t feel right to say I intended them.

Photography

Assumption Statue

One of my goals in taking pictures is to capture the elements of my own, everyday visual life — the things I see as I walk around my neighborhood, as I go about my mundane business. When there’s an object I see over and over again, because it just happens to be situated on my daily path, I become intrigued by the problem of representing it in a single, definitive shot.

Perhaps the hardest things to capture are those we know the best, because we’re more aware of the shortcomings of any particular depiction. When you’ve seen a thing thousands of times, on different days, in different light and weather, while you were in different moods — if you’ve come to know the many faces it can assume — which version do you identify as the truest, the most representative?

There’s a difference between what our eyes show us and what we see in our imagination. Which one of those should a photograph capture?

If the actual process of seeing is a mix of perception (let’s define it as the deterministic processing of sensory stimuli) and interpretation (something that includes extrapolation, memory, and fantasy) what then should a photograph be? You could try to capture what you think is really there or you could try to represent the way that thing makes you feel. You could manipulate the photograph to bring it closer to your imagining, or you could wait until that special circumstance when you are able to take a special shot of the object that – without alteration – conveys both “what is there” and “how you feel about it.”

One recurring site in my life is a statue at the Our Lady of the Assumption church on Sumner St. in my East Boston neighborhood. It’s not something that I decided to make a part of my daily visual life, not something I go out of my way to see, but rather something that’s just there on my path, day in and day out, because of where I happen to live and where the statue happens to be.

Since the statue is bright white, it lacks contrast and tends to get blown out in full sun. Behind it are two stained glass windows. The windows are intriguing in themselves, but they tend to look disappointing in a daytime photograph because their colors are hard to see on the exterior side. The statue is also challenging to photograph at night: now the stained glass is lit up but there’s also harsh flood-light nearby that casts the statue and brick wall in a rather unpleasant yellow. How to do the scene justice when the windows are so much more naturally engaging at night than the statue itself?

For a long time I embraced a very restrictive approach to my photographic process: shoot only in squares, with a fixed-focal length lens, and do absolutely no post-processing. I was resisting the convenience, the seeming effortlessness of digital photography. I wanted to add friction to the process, I wanted to make it harder, so that when a shot really worked out, it would “mean something.” Of course this was a trade-off as it meant that some images I might have liked to create were simply impossible.

In my earlier approach, the Assumption statue was one of those subjects that I considered out of limits. There were too many challenges to getting a “great” shot given my self-imposed restrictions. I was OK with that. I was OK with the idea that there were certain subjects I’d have to pass up, since this seemed to make it even more valuable when I found something I could capture effectively.

Now that I’m experimenting with a less restrictive approach to my process, I’m startled by just how much easier things become. I can go outside and snap a few photos, then go home and sit in front of a screen for an hour or two, and with a little bit of software magic, I’ve got the image I want. Where’s the struggle, the search, the days and days of effort and frustration?

As for the daytime shot, converting it to black and white makes the white statue even more brilliant and softens the “disappointment” of not seeing the colors of the stained glass. After an initial conversion to black and white, the statue was still “blown out” but by judiciously adjusting contrast I was able to recover and intensify the faint shadows on the statue to bring it into definition. Cropping the image allowed me to get that perfect frame that can be so difficult to achieve at the moment of capture.  Here’s my processed, “ideal” daytime shot of the statue:

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As for the nighttime shot, this one seemed a good candidate for a post-processing concept I’m fond of: the partial or selective conversion to black and white. Here the statue is converted to black and white while the windows are left in color and their saturation is increased. By adjusting the brightness of the statue one can achieve a balance where the statue no longer seems upstaged by the windows:

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So what’s the value of my having done this? What’s the outcome of relaxing my once-strict process to create these images?

On the one hand, I think I’ve done justice to what I observe.  I’ve found a way to convey a mix of what I “see” and what I “imagine” when I pass by this particular subject. This is not to say I’m done forever, that I’ll never want to take another picture of this subject. But I no longer see it as the challenge I once did. It’s no longer an “impossible” subject that will tantalize me indefinitely, making me wonder if someday, by some special chance, the circumstances will be just right that I can take the picture I want. No, after some casual shots followed by heavy post-processing, I’ve got the result I want, and I can move on.

But I’ve lost something too. These shots are more brilliant, more striking than what my former, highly restrictive process would have allowed. But I’m not sure I feel as personally connected to them, or as proud of them, as I feel about some of the other images in my portfolio that I’ve really struggled for. I don’t have the memory of standing there in front of the statue for hours, experimenting with every possible vantage point, every possible frame, moving this way and that, all in pursuit of the elusive perfect shot — because, of course, I didn’t stand there for hours, and most of my experiments were made after the moment of capture.

Now the question is, from the viewer’s perspective, if I say nothing and simply show you the image, does it really matter how I feel about it? Would you rather see a less brilliant shot that I’m personally attached to, that I really struggled for, or would you like to see the “perfect” shot that I feel more distant from — the one I achieved with heavy editing?

Now that you’ve seen my “serious” shots, here are two quick mobile snapshots of the statue:

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Photography

Salient Color

In a recent post I described my changing attitude towards post-processing in photography. I’ve gone from someone who avoided it completely to someone who’s open to exploring it when I think I can learn something from it, or when I think it can help me communicate more effectively.

I consider this as as a radical personal change but most of my acquaintances probably have no idea that I’ve gone through this evolution or that it’s such a big deal to me.

To give you a sense of it, I’ve spent thousands of hours taking pictures and reviewing them over the past decade, and for the bulk of that time, I repeatedly and consistently avoided the temptation to alter the output of my camera in any appreciable way.

I had very good reasons for adopting this strict no-editing policy, and it took me a really long time to even consider changing my approach. Now that I’ve crossed the threshold, I feel I should share a few examples of the sort of image I can produce with post-processing, but not without.

One post-processing idea that I find intriguing is to transform an image to black-and-white but preserve one salient bit of color. This idea gets me looking around and wondering: what’s the most important color (or region of color) that I’m seeing right now, and what would it be like if everything appeared in grayscale except that particular color?

The first time I tried this out was with the lips of a mannequin:

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The second time was with a stained-glass window that I saw through a church door:

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The third time was with an image of a luxury waterfront condo construction site in my neighborhood that had been flooded during a recent snow storm that coincided with an astronomical tide. The original image was not captured by me, but rather shared with me by a neighborhood activist. Since I had already explored the “salient color” technique with my own images, I knew immediately how I wanted to interpret this image:

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Photography

Withdrawing a Photographic Guarantee

As I’ve worked on my photography over the past ten years or so, I’ve always felt I needed — wanted — to give my viewers a certain guarantee. While I might have liked to assure viewers that each image was perfectly true to what I had seen with my own eyes at the time of capture, I knew that such a guarantee was fundamentally impossible, so I offered a weaker guarantee: that at least I hadn’t edited the image in post-processing. I hadn’t cropped it, hadn’t altered the colors, hadn’t messed with it at all. The camera produced a JPG file, and I either accepted that file in its totality, or I rejected it altogether.

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Photography, Places

Condos

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While Gothic arches, reaching upward, symbolize aspiration to heaven, here we see them reach towards a substituted objective, one that is more immediate: luxury condos, burgeoning above what was once Holy Trinity Church on Shawmut Avenue in Boston’s South End. A wish has been answered, but it is not the wish of those who prayed here. This photo, captured at night, shows the construction site aglow.

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Photography

Storefront Apparitions

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Three images from two walks in Union City, New Jersey, March 10-11, 2017.

Mannequins in storefront windows are a perennial fascination of street photographers, including the present blogger. Mannequins by themselves are eerily intriguing, and combined with street life reflected in window glass, they seem like alien observers of the human world. Though these immobile but well-dressed window-dwellers are an obliging subject, it is not every dayfor me at leastthat an attempt to photograph them succeeds in capturing the full extent of their ghostliness.

To be precise, only the first two images show mannequins; the third shows a praying statuette for sale in a religious supply store.

On the technical front, these images have had some color adjustments but no other editing. The effects are achieved in lens, by shooting with shallow depth of field and focusing on the distant reflected material while blurring the forms on either side of the windowpane.

Photography

Brewer Fountain

Massachusetts State House at night, seen from a vantage point inside the Brewer Fountain, a Boston landmark, which — I was surprised to learn — is one of sixteen copies of a piece by Michel Joseph Napoléon Liénard situated around the world. Liverpool has one and so does Tacna, Peru; there’s one Geneva and also one in Launceston, Australia. I had to climb into the fountain last night to take this shot — luckily the water wasn’t running. I believe the Greek sea-nymph depicted here, one of the fountain’s four main figures, is Galatea.

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