The story of my photographic journey to Forgotten America

I have finally published the photography book I have been working on for many years. Its title is “Main Street USA”, subtitled “A Photographic Journey to Forgotten America”.

This book of pictures and commentary illustrates something tragic that has been taking place in America for many decades, namely the decline of manufacturing in the cities and towns of the America between the coasts, what I call Forgotten America. It is a story of the sad effects of globalism and outsourcing, the deliberate gutting of the country’s productive manufacturing base, and the resulting devastation of people who deserve better. It is a story as current as the latest headlines.

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It all began over a decade ago when I closed my advertising photography studio. I accepted a job teaching photography at a trade school located 100 miles west of the Boston suburbs, my home for almost 50 years.

I had spent most of my adult life in the prosperous cocoon that was, and is, the greater Boston area. It is a region that has largely avoided many economic downturns, due to its concentration of high technology enterprises, military contractors, university research and medical establishments, not to mention many old-line financial fortunes.

The situation just 100 miles west of Boston was another story altogether, as I quickly discovered. Turners Falls, MA, where the school was located, had seen better days. It was once a thriving small city with a solid manufacturing base. Over the years, the companies that once provided good-paying jobs moved their operations overseas, usually China, and Turners Falls declined. On my way to lunch one day, I stepped on a used hypodermic needle on the sidewalk; clearly, something was amiss in this tired old town.

I began to take pictures of the people and places of western Massachusetts, only dimly aware that the region was quite typical of large swaths of the American countryside away from coastal enclaves such as Boston. But it took the death of my wife from cancer in 2009 to open my eyes completely to another tragedy, the globalism and outsourcing that had destroyed places like Turners Falls.

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This is an image from the book. It shows Ben in the office of his auto repair business. It looked like a movie set from the 1940’s.

Perhaps as a way to heal the grief I was feeling, or just to get away from the house my wife and I shared for decades, I decided to make photographic excursions into the land between the coasts. I loaded up the car with cameras of all types, added Cory, the Corgi dog I had acquired after my wife’s death, and set out to a series of Super 8 motels in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. I made several of these expeditions a year apart.

These journeys were revelations. For the first time it hit me that a kind of sadness had settled into the places I visited; the people had lost hope. Once-bustling downtown Main Street was almost deserted in the middle of the day. The shops had closed, the windows boarded up with plywood. The local movie palace was gutted and turned into cheap apartments; the tenants were barely hanging on. It all became the subject of my camera lens and it felt right to document what was before me.

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Another image from the book. This Woolworth’s store was boarded up. 

At the same time, I did not want to give in to despair. I made a point of photographing signs of renewal, where it could be found.  Many tired old shops and restaurants hosted friendly people who seemed to be in good spirits, even though their surroundings hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in decades. A sense of community prevailed, and in many ways the people seemed happier than the jaded and acquisitive elites of the Boston area.

It took the better part of a year to assemble my work into a coherent book. It has arrived just as these same elites have started to realize the truth of my images, and the story behind them. Perhaps my efforts will advance some much-needed change.

Note: The book is now for sale through Amazon. Just do a search on the title.

Softboxes, lighting and other uTube fictions

Once you get past the snapshot stage of photography, it becomes obvious that lighting skill is what separates a snapshot from a professional photograph.

In times past, lighting skill, like any other skill, built up over time, often by learning from a seasoned professional, or perhaps through seminars and classes. Implied in this process was an understanding that real skill has no shortcuts; it is an accumulated wisdom learned through years of experience.

But now we come to the Internet. What used to be considered a lifelong learning curve has been replaced by innumerable uTube videos that promise to shortcut the process of learning and reduce it all to “ten tips for better lighting”. This is part of an overall fantasy that the hardest life skills can be mastered by finding the secret gimmick.

I once considered producing a series of lighting videos for uTube consumption, but have abandoned the idea because uTube is now saturated with videos from photographers who have no real understanding of photographic lighting. Everyone and his uncle thinks of himself as an expert. Any tutorials I might produce would get lost in a sea of misinformation, and ignored by viewers who think that lighting is just a matter of finding the secret lighting device or lighting setup. If only it were that easy!

Part of the problem is the way lighting is part science and part art. The science part is what nobody wants to bother with, because it can be difficult to understand, and seems irrelevant to making beautiful images. But actually, if you can get some of the physics into your artistic head, it simplifies lighting greatly and makes your job as a photographer a lot easier.

With this preface in mind, let’s take a look at how lighting has changed over the years, which will then lead directly to the silliness I am seeing now on uTube.

When photography came into the world in the 1800’s, there was only natural light, electricity was yet to come. Of course, natural light comes from the sun, and the sun has its own lighting profile and thus it has been for the last two billion years.

From a physics point of view, sunlight is a point source. The sun is enormous in size, however it is far away. In a full sunlit sky, it appears as a disk the size of a coin. Light rays coming off the sun arrive on earth as straight lines, what optics people call “collimated light”. When these rays strike an object, they cast a shadow, that is, a shadow is the area behind the object that blocks the rays. These shadows have sharp edges because the rays are parallel.

Another characteristic of sunlight is that it is unchanging from one spot to another. It is plainly clear that you can walk around in any space lit by the sun, and the intensity of the light won’t vary a bit, again because the rays are parallel and arriving from a great distance…a really, really great distance.

The earliest photographers learned what painters already knew, that sunlight is not good as a portrait lighting source, for the reason just mentioned, that it casts sharp shadows. So just like painters, they sought out light sources that were more flattering and pleasant, and this led naturally to “diffused” light. This whole realm of diffused light is now the source of endless hokum and nonsense about lighting for photography; more on that in a moment.

Diffused light, or soft light is “uncollimated” light, to use the physics term. It is rays of light coming from a surface instead of a point source. At any given point on that surface, light rays can emerge at any angle in a fully diffuse situation; or some of the rays can emerge parallel and some scattered, as is the case with light diffusion. Or put another way, there is a range of diffuse light from none at all, as in sunlight, to fully diffuse as in a sheet of thick white plastic.

Looked at in this way, it is a simple fact that a softbox, a matte white umbrella, and a diffusing panel with a light behind it are all going to produce a highly diffuse light. The effect on a subject is identical, provided two conditions are met: the size of the diffuse source is the same, and the distance to the subject is the same. This can be easily tested in a studio and I defy anyone to tell me differently.

Now this is where the hokum sets in. Both manufacturers of lighting gear, and photographers themselves, have attempted to claim that it is a lot more complicated, and the uTube world is filled with videos purporting to demonstrate the magical qualities of special lights or fixtures.

Take for example the so-called “beauty dish”, apparently designed to make someone look, well, beautiful. It is really nothing more that a round, semi-diffused fixture, a halfway point on the diffusion spectrum. You could get the same effect with a lightly silvered umbrella, or a light diffusion panel of the same size. There is no mystical “beauty” light coming out here.

I am not implying that all lighting fixtures are the same from a practical point of view. A reflecting white umbrella is quick to set up, but can’t be used close up because the shaft of the umbrella will get in the way. A softbox takes a bit of fiddling to assemble, which takes time, but it can be placed as close to the subject as you want. A diffusion panel requires setting up two things: the panel and the light itself. Furthermore, about half the light hitting the panel will be reflected back toward the light, which means it will give you about one stop less light than an equivalent softbox. So you can see that every solution to diffuse light has its pluses and minuses, like most things in life.

In many decades of shooting, I have used every kind of lighting fixture, and can offer some simple rules, which may or may not line up with the video advice on uTube.

For most subjects, a good starting point is a softbox about the same size as the subject and placed about the same distance away from the subject. For example, use a softbox of about 36 inches square for a typical head and shoulders portrait, and keep the light about three feet away from the subject. Used in that way, the light will have a pleasing “wraparound” quality in which the shadows have soft, feathered edges. Of course, placing that light is key, and that skill takes a long time to master, but at least you will be starting out with something that can work. This will work for lighting a wristwatch, a human face, or an automobile. I made a lot of money lighting up people and products with a single softbox, carefully placed, with a fill card reflector on the opposite side, again carefully placed.

On so many of the uTube videos, I see the diffused source placed far from the subject, say a 30-inch beauty dish placed out ten feet from the subject. Because the light is coming off the fixture at all angles, most of the light is just lighting up the room, not the subject; in other words, most of the light is wasted. To make things worse, the light that does reach the subject is directional, and must cast hard shadows that are not flattering to people or things. This is just one example of the poor advice offered on these channels.

In this post it would be impossible to provide a course in lighting; there is too much to cover. But at least I can make you aware that not everything you see on television is true, or even commonsensical.

 

Will digital files simply disappear?

I have always had a great deal of skepticism about the long-term survival of images stored as digital files. I am not alone in this feeling. There is a nagging sense that a lot of digital data is not going to last beyond the lifetime of the person who created it, if that long.

The question has to be asked: will my children have any interest in the thousands of photographs that now reside on my computer drives? Even if I am diligent about having multiple copies, in different locations, is anybody going to take the trouble to look at the images contained on these drives, assuming that the file formats will still be readable decades from how?

My son has pointed out to me that the data will likely remain somewhere, in the same way that Google searches of my name will bring up talks I gave decades ago. But that’s the problem itself: all this data is floating around the vast space of the Internet, and you can’t see it in any recognizable form unless you have a piece of software that can convert the data to a picture on a monitor screen. Realistically, will my children, or anyone else for that matter, know where to find these pictures, once I am no longer around?

As things now stand, my heirs will inherit my computers and hard drives, and realistically, what are they going to do with them? Answer: they will either sell them off, or toss them in the garbage; all my saved images will disappear. In the off chance that my images are backed up to some Cloud storage, somewhere, will my heirs have the passwords needed to retrieve these files. Not likely.

In short, there is simply a natural sense that digital data, my photographs, have an expiration date. Once past that date, they’re gone.

I am intrigued that the same attitude does not apply to analog (film) images. The film image is saved on a physical medium that you can view with your eyes. Your heirs will have the same access to the images as you did. There is nothing especially troubling about the passage of these images from one generation to the next. You don’t need any special machines, software, passwords, etc. Your pictures don’t have any “natural” expiration date.

Although the disappearance of my pictures seems like a tragic loss to me, I’m not sure my children feel the same way. The digital world they inhabit is nothing but a series of transient images, swiped one after the other on a smartphone. Memories don’t count for much; it’s all about the present, the moment that comes and goes, and is forgotten. I suspect that for many of this generation, the idea of holding onto photo albums is viewed as a silly relic of a past time, and a waste of shelf space.

The youth of today have uploaded a gazzilion pictures whose half-life is measured in seconds, a momentary rush, and then never to be seen again. Something sad about that, I would say.

Is this the end of photography?

 

I got the shock of my life when I received an Ikea catalog and learned that some of the “photographs” in the pages were not photographs at all but 3D computer renderings of room sets and various pieces of furniture. It all looked so realistic I assumed they had to be photographs, but they were not.

Along similar lines, I have learned that in the high end of automobile photography it is no longer necessary to shoot the car and the background together; instead, a 3D rendering of the car is placed into a background image. It’s all under control of computer geeks and the end result is absolutely “realistic”, if that word means anything these days.

I think the business I was in, product photography, may be almost obsolete, at least in the way it has been practiced. After all, what I did in my studio for decades was to give various products a look of perfection, without flaws or defects, often taking days to style and retouch pictures. Why go through all this trouble when it is far easier, quicker and cheaper to use a 3D rendering, which is by definition “perfect” to begin with?

The same sort of thing has taken over pictures of people, at least in the commercial world, where retouch artists take a face or a body with various “flaws” and make it as “perfect” as they want it to be. Why even start with a photograph in the first place when computer models of skin surfaces, hair strands and so forth are so “realistic” that you might as well render a face directly from a wire-frame face template? If it can pass for a photograph, why bother taking a photograph?

So it has to be stated that the realism of a photograph has been surpassed by the “realism” of an image created entirely using computer models. And thus follows the next thought: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Photography worked its way into our culture as an analog to those things perceived in front of our eyes; it references actual reality. When we look at a photograph, we assume the image is a recording of something that actually exists. But what if that connection is broken, and the image before our eyes becomes so stylized, so “perfect”, that it no longer has any reference whatsoever to an actual physical reality? Or worse, is a purely virtual creation made by computer software?

Most people are vaguely aware of this disconnect. In the realm of food photography, for example, most people know the food is styled to look “better” in the photograph than it does when they order it in a restaurant. That seems acceptable, because ultimately they taste the food and the picture on a menu is understood as fantasy. The “lie” of the photograph causes no great upset.

It gets a lot trickier with photographs of people. Already, retouched photographs of celebrities have been taken so far that the end result bears no connection whatsoever to the appearance of those celebrities in person. It is no big secret that movie stars have had their heads planted on top of the bodies of figure models in photographs, thus creating an idealized, “perfect” human form that is presumably more desirable and marketable.

But why stop there? With the computer power we have today, why reference an actual person at all in a photograph? Why not build a “perfect” movie star from pure numbers, a virtual movie star, perfect in all respects? Are we perhaps not there already?

I am not sure it’s a good thing when people start preferring virtual reality to actual reality. There is something unsettling about wandering into dream fantasies and the dream state is often horrific. It’s bad enough that whole segments of youth have stopped talking to real people and prefer the cyberspace world of virtual girlfriends, video gaming, Facebook and so on. But where does imagery go when it becomes completely disconnected from any physical reality, into the world of pure imagination? The answer: into the deep labyrinths of the human mind, with all its twists and turns, some good, and some not good at all.

Perhaps traditional photography, with all of its imperfections and links to actual objects, will be an antidote, appreciated again for reflecting physical reality, and the virtual world will be seen as a tragic illusion. I certainly hope so.

Image sharpness can get a bit “fuzzy”

We photographers have a love-hate relationship to the sharpness of a photograph. It’s not always a conclusion that sharper is always better. Truth be told, the whole subject is a lot more complicated than that.

When photography was in its earliest stages, it startled people for its clarity and sharpness compared to painting. There was no way a painter could produce the same level of detail as found in a contact print of an 8×10 negative, a common print size of the day. So the heritage of photography is tied to the idea of image sharpness, what scientists call a “metric” of photographic quality. That notion continues to this day.

As a result, photographers of all skill levels pay a lot of attention (too much so in some cases) to the quality of lenses and cameras and to the techniques needed to get the sharpest image. Lens manufacturers in particular pursue sharpness as their Holy Grail, and today’s optics are now close to the theoretical limits of light rays passing through optical glass.

There is a whole group of photography enthusiasts who get rather excited by the nuances of various lenses from various manufacturers. They get into heated discussions on various online forums about the merits of this lens or that, and it almost seems as if using lenses to take pictures is secondary. Working professionals, on the other hand, don’t have the time for, or interest in such debates, and will buy and use lenses that get the job done. Such was my attitude in the many years that I relied on taking pictures to make a living.

I intend no critique of amateurs who make lens comparisons a kind of hobby. It’s fun in its own way and I do it myself up to a point. However, I do question the point of it all when it comes to actually making photographs that people want to look at, or pay for.

For instance, I find it almost laughable that the same people who brag about owning their version of the “best of the best” cameras and lenses are taking photographs with a hand-held camera. Doing so will move the camera just enough at exposure to negate any advantage of that lens on an optical bench in a laboratory.

Another optical reality is that lenses reach their sharpest at three or four stops down from full aperture, a point called the diffraction limit, at which point stopping down further only softens the image slightly. At that limit, even simple lens designs of long ago will be quite sharp for practical shooting situations. The modern lens will only show its value because of its superior contrast, flare resistance, or sharpness when used at wide apertures.

I have a small collection of film cameras and using them all has convinced me of this: used carefully, with the lens stopped down a bit, I can’t tell the difference in the final print output up to about a 10X enlargement. The images off my 1950 Rollei Automat look just as sharp as the images off my Hasselblad with Zeiss glass. This is an actual picture-taking result, not a careful test on an optical bench.

Lenses today are generally excellent from a technical point of view. In fact, they are so good that I often find it necessary to “muddle them up” with a touch of diffusion because they can be too revealing of skin flaws, or product defects. There is great irony in seeing the crowds at trade shows gawking at gimmicky lenses designed to produce a blurred image on purpose, or cameras using pinholes or plastic lenses to produce a less-than-perfect image. Meanwhile the booths displaying those elite optics are, well, just so hum-hum.

I think it’s wonderful that we can now assume the general excellence of lens designs; image sharpness is now a given. Still, there is always the temptation to waste time on needless comparisons and debates when we should be out taking pictures.

The build quality of old cameras

I can’t be the only person, I know I’m not, who bemoans the “plasticization” of products today, cameras in particular. Perhaps because of my engineering background, I can tell the difference between a product built to a high standard, and one that is not, and the difference bothers me. It seems we have made a step backwards, in the name of cost savings, or profitability.

Retina

Here shown is a Kodak Retina IIIC film camera from the mid 1950’s. It was sold as the pinnacle of the amateur 35mm market and reflected the best of the German optical and precision tradition. The body is a solid chunk of metal and just holding the camera is a pleasure. The matte chrome finish just radiates quality, as does the leather case with its velvet lining and chrome trim accents. Not much plastic to be found anywhere.

Some time back I inherited a modern SLR, a film camera, and upon opening it up I discovered that the entire film channel was made of plastic. The hinges on the back were plastic, and parts that required precision were plastic; the whole camera was plastic except for the optical glass, and who knows, maybe that was plastic too. The irony of all this was that the camera featured exotic electronic exposure and focussing circuits, a tricked out viewfinder with all kinds of lights and whatnot, and was billed as a precision device for its time.

This has been going on for a long time. Even on a professional DSLR, it is not unusual to discover that the battery door is plastic, just waiting to snap off. Lens mounts are no longer machined out of brass, but are plastic too, and with that comes a focussing ring that sticks and lurches. Even expensive cameras lack a precise feel.

Contax G2

This Contax G2 has a body of titanium, thus the creamy matte tone. Fit and finish put to shame the most expensive DSLR; the camera radiates precision and instills confidence as a result. It was produced in Japan in the mid 1990’s and could not be sold today at anything approaching a reasonable price.

Contrast that to the film cameras in my collection. Once you leave the box camera category, the cameras for both amateur and professional use are mostly metal. The fit and finish of the parts is excellent, or at least designed with some regard for durability. These old film cameras do not feel like toys, which is the feeling you get from so much of the product sold today.

In saying this, I have the highest regard for parts of molded plastic along as they are used where they make sense. For example, I have a plastic slide holder for my scanner and it is a miracle of complexity that mounts slides in position. If this part had to be machined from metal the cost would have exceeded that of the scanner itself. It’s all a matter of the right material in the right place.

I have concluded that good product design comes out of the vision of its human designer. Steve Jobs proved this with the entire line of Apple products wherein no detail was left untouched and thought about. From a conventional view, such products, always more expensive, should be failures on the market. Apple’s success has proved otherwise. People will pay for something that looks right and feels right. If only our tools, the photographer’s tools, were all built to the same standard.

The better you are, the fewer pictures you take

When photography required an investment in film and processing, you were always aware of the costs, which acted as a break on shooting wildly in the hopes that “something” would come out. Now that digital photography is the norm, it is far too easy to shoot willy-nilly, bracketing all over the place, in the hope that something will look OK, or perhaps memorable.

This point was made crystal clear to me when I attended a local group that went out on photo expeditions to do landscapes with their digital cameras. One person, the leader of the group, set up her camera on a five-exposure burst for every picture she took, and she took a lot of pictures. I calculated that in the space of a few minutes, she had sent over hundreds of pictures to her memory card. How many of them were suitable for hanging on a wall was another matter.

CanonP-snowI took just two views of this winter scene on my deck, and the image is presented uncropped. It has a quiet feeling, and is a natural subject for black-and-white film. I used a vintage Canon P rangefinder on 35mm Kodak Tmax 100 film.

I think it must be a natural tendency to blast away, especially in the digital age. It’s the old story of trying to make up in quantity what you lack in quality. But as your personal vision becomes attuned, as years of experience tell you what works and doesn’t work photographically, the number of pictures you need to take goes down, often by a lot. I have gotten to the point that I know in advance of clicking the shutter whether a picture has a chance at greatness. The editing process takes place before I snap the shutter, not later at a computer monitor filled with hundreds of pictures. In short, years of film photography have trained my eyes to see photographs ahead of time.

I wonder if the ability to pre-visualize has been lost in this age of instant viewing on the camera screen. The instant preview cuts out the thought process that goes into making a photograph. Instead of thinking about the end result, you can just keep changing something at random and hope that something wonderful pops out after dozens of exposures. Regrettably, I am seeing this pattern in photographers who call themselves professionals.