Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Art of Fireworks

I have never taken really good pictures of fireworks before. They probably don't thrill me enough to make me really try to get good pictures. Besides, on New Year's Eve the champagne and company I'm with are more important than a simulated state of war.

That all changed last Sunday at the final fireworks display that ended the Frühlingsfest here in Stuttgart. The weather was good and I felt like walking down to the Wasen to take some pictures. I had some ideas in mind before I headed out but was still surprised at what I ended up with.

The display lasted 15 minutes, during which time a couple of current pop songs were played to accompany the big bangs in the sky. I had positioned myself in a relatively open area so that I had an unobstructed view with my Minolta 100-300mm lens.

Then as the rocket began bursting in air, an iPad II appeared before me in the hands of a young man whose hair matched the divers angles in which the phosphorus flew. I immediately focused on him and his little screen, leaving the lens's lovely bokeh to take care of the flaring fireworks.

The experience reminded me of the New Yorker cover where a young couple is at the museum standing in front of a huge Jackson Pollock canvas and looking at it on their little 3" digital camera display. This young man recorded the 15-minute display with the iPad's video capability and it appeared to me that he and his girlfriend were glued to the small display throughout.

I took about 650 pictures in those 15 minutes (at 12 frames per second, it goes quickly!), so I have many more beautiful shots like those above.
Shortly before the grand finale I aimed back up into the sky and captured some nice bursts using slow shutter speeds. The iPad pictures were taken using a 1/25th sec. shutter speed. The ones below and the first two ranged between 1/5th and 1/13th sec.

When I saw these pictures on my screen at home afterward, I was glad that I had taken so many in short bursts. Here timing is everything.

I was discussing the photographic genre "photographic art" with my photography class the previous week, trying to define it together. So I thought I'd try moving the lens a bit as the fireworks raced across the sky.

I often make these types of photos while I'm walking home at night, allowing my gait to create certain patterns. Here I had a little more control and make more subtle, almost minimalistic, forms.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What is (photographic) art?

An answer to this question has evaded me ever since I first pondered it when my sister started showing her artwork in the 1980s at a Richmond, VA, gallery called "...but is it art?" But then I did some research and think I've got an idea of what it is to me now.

I've been doing a lot of work recently in trying to define "art" for myself and my photography students at the Media University here in Stuttgart. At the beginning of the semester in April we explored the creative process of other art forms, including poetry, theater, visual arts, dance and music. I thought it would be important for us all to be able to compare and contrast the various art forms before we dove head-long into photography.

As it turned out, though, photography is different from the other art forms in that the photograph is always based on reality. Whatever you take a picture of is part of reality. All other art forms start off on a more abstract plane. It is usually not until you are post-processing the images that you can impose any abstraction upon the reality lurking within the pixels. Of course, not all art is of an abstract nature and certainly not all 'art photography' must be abstract. But what is art photography?

Let's try to write a definition and see if that step gets us any further:
1. "If the production of an image serves to express the creative vision of the photographer, then it is art."
I'm a big fan of dreaming up images, of visualizing them. Some of my most satisfying work has derived from the attempt at representing a vision with a photograph. It takes practice to hold on to these visions long enough to realize them, but it is not impossible.

But what about my street photography? Is that not art because the photos are all made spontaneously? If we change the above definition slightly, we can also include street photography:
2. "If the production of an image expresses the creative vision or innate aesthetic disposition of the photographer, then it is art."
We are getting closer to a good working definition here because there are many photographers who create art with their camera while walking down the street as effortlessly as Picasso did with a pen and piece of paper while sitting on the beach. Very much time and practice have gone into developing an individual and artistic sense of proportion, balance and composition before a 'click' can produce a work of art that others would applaud.

For some of the greatest artists, the process is more important than the result. Garry Winogrand claimed, "I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs." And Henri Cartier Bresson once said, "Actually, I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks." 
I can understand these sentiments as a writer who enjoys the process of creating a piece more than editing and polishing and presenting it. I can also understand that as an actor and director who enjoys the rush of adrenaline one gets when a scene is really running well. Furthermore, I can understand it as a musician who has experienced the thrill of getting lost in an improvisation. However, for me photography too seldom allows for improvisation. Winogrand explained his way of keeping fresh: "I learned a long time ago to trust my instincts. When I'm photographing, if I'm at the viewfinder and I know that picture, why take it? I'll do something to change it, which is often the reason why I may tilt the camera or fool around in various ways. You don’t learn anything from repeating what you know, so I keep trying to make uncertain." 

And that is for me a very important aspect of art: transporting the feeling of improvisation and inspiration to the viewer. A photograph or a painting can be aesthetically pleasing, but if it doesn't transmit that feeling of having been created during a moment of inspiration, then it usually doesn't fascinate me. 
3. "Art is that which can be seen in the result of a spark of inspiration, a moment of improvisation and years and years of practice beforehand, during which the artist has developed an individual voice and unique aesthetic disposition."

In order to create great art, you have to have great dreams or visions. You can't just want to take a nice picture; you have to need to make a great one. The choice of words here makes all the difference. If you need to do something, you'll go to great expense and effort to do it. If you make a picture, you will find yourself in more of a creative frame of mind than if you simply frame the action and take it. And if your vision is great, the result will more frequently be something above par.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


In-camera 3-D panorama taken with the Sony A77
There are differences between software that can create bent panoramas by stitching several pictures together (see above), software that can distort normal photos to make them look bulbous in the middle, lenses that produce rectilinear photos and those that produce round pictures (circular fish-eye lenses).

Back in 1977 I learned what a fish-eye lens was because that photographic element constituted the theme of the high school yearbook I worked on that year. I was just a copy editor so I didn't have anything to do with the pictures. My life as a photographer would begin the following year.

Crop of an in-camera HDR using a Samyang 8mm lens on the Sony A77.
Some lens correction was used to control the distortion.
This past Thursday I made my first photographs with a rectilinear fish-eye lens. My Stammtisch buddy Uli lent it to me during a photo walk. In return, he got to play with my Sigma 10-20mm lens. The fish-eye experience was so amazing that I ordered one immediately. It just so happened that fotocommunity members were being offered a discount on that lens, a Samyang 8mm fish-eye, so I took advantage of the club price.

With my 10-20mm lens I like running blind into a flock of pigeons and snapping away as they flutter up into the air. The same can be done with a fish-eye, only the chances of capturing more of the scenery are much greater with the wider lens. The photo above was cropped out of a much larger picture.

Wide angle lenses are often used in architectural photography because you can get close to the object and often still capture the entire building. With such a fish-eye lens you must realize that the lines will be distorted, so your pictures will look nothing like the real architecture in front of you.

Fish-eye lenses seem to be made for use in the city where the buildings are close together. You can shoot looking straight up (see above) or straight ahead of you (see below). These two pictures were taken from the same place.

Of course, such an extreme focal length can (and should!) be used to explore the possibility of abstracting the reality that our cameras capture. It grabs a 180° view of whatever you place before it, so you may often see your feet in the pictures!
See if you can tell what the following picture is. Hint: The object can also be seen in one of the other pictures above.

Here are a few tips for using this lens:
You need to set your camera to "release without a lens" because this is a manual focus lens and has no electronics in it, so it does not communicate with the camera. You have to set the aperture (it is very sharp starting at f5.6) and focus (try it at 2m) manually. The EXIF files will not register what aperture was used.
It is also sold under the name "Walimex" and in either case costs approximately €280. They are relatively easy to find for sale used because amateur photographers buy them and then don't use them as much as they had imagined they would.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

No photos

Anyone who knows me usually sees me with my Sony Alpha hanging around my neck. It is no albatross, but sometimes it is good to take a break and live in the moment. Times like these help us see things differently and - at least for nostalgic souls like myself - yearn for the time with the camera again.
But there are also magical moments in our lives that should not be limited by framing, positioning, lighting and megapixels. These days most expectant fathers will bring a camera into the hospital's delivery room and the doctor will make sure they get a good shot of the mother and child to take home with them. What could be more special than childbirth? For a father of three, my answer is: something that comes up only once in a lifetime.
Last week I had such an experience. One of my music heroes came to visit me from Canada. He played my favorite music for me. I played his music for him. We took walks together. We oo-ed and ah-ed at the beautiful automobiles at the Mercedes Museum together. We walked through the Frühlingsfest together, taking in the evening atmosphere there. Best of all, we seemed to connect not only on a musical level but also on a personal level.
And I don't have one picture to prove it. You'll just have to believe me.