Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Two For The Road

Photo: Louis Porter

Bought two other books while in NYC, one was called Bad Driving by Louis Porter. Although I've never met Mr. Porter, I find it relatively safe to say we share two things, a love of photography, and a not so great fondness for the road- or more specifically, driving upon it. The book features various signs and other roadside sundries that have been knocked silly by the careless and accident afflicted. Porter's keen eye transforms these funny, colorful snapshots into compositions that appeal to an art house, aesthetic banality. And his other essays, like Crap Paint Jobs and Emergency Assembly Points also delight with their humor and engaging visuals- always great to see in the, oh so serious, world of photography!

The other book is Manhattan Out by Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon. A series of street photographs taken in the seventies- it depicts "my" New York, so I'm particularly drawn to them. While not particularly innovative or spectacular for that matter- they do have a dark, foreboding dread about them. Besides, how many Steidl books can ya pick up for a twenty (at Strand)?

Friday, February 24, 2017

Adrift- Magda Biernat

Recently when in NYC, I made it over to Dashwood Books as is my custom (after a a coupla Cajun Martinis and some blackened catfish at the Great Jones Cafe a block away) and started the monumental but always welcomed task of investigating their entire inventory. Of course, you're always guaranteed to find things that you will both like and love, the only question being, how much can you afford to buy. This time, I actually had some pocket money, and in addition to buying something from their sale bin (more on that one later), I was also able to buy something special, something precious, something I don't usually allow myself the luxury of- a small, but oh so special book called Adrift

Adrift- Magda Biernat

I've become a big fan of small photo books- Jason Eskenazi's Wonderland and Gus Powell's The Lonely Ones  for example. Somehow they come off as more personal, more intimate (as well as more portable). Like all small, precious objects- this one's a tad on the pricey side ($60). And there are several things that make this little gem so special- unfortunately, they are things that cannot all be appreciated online. For it is in large part the physical layout and presentation of the book itself that make it so wonderfully unique! Upon opening, all pages concerning text are adhered to the front cover, the photographs fold out and are adhered accordion style to the back cover.

But it's not all flash and mirrors. Magda Biernat's photographs work on several levels. First of all, it's the most ingenious (and successful) collaboration of color and B&W in one essay that I've ever witnessed. Most times when color and B&W are combined, they are inevitably imbalanced, suffer continuity problems and leave one with a rather unsettled feeling. The balance here is simple, yet strikingly effective: a square format repetition of one photo of an iceberg in colors of muted grey, white and blue, contrasted with a B&W photo of Inupiat Eskimo hunting lodges. The square format emphasizes the overall gestalt of consistency, while the alternate juxtaposition of color vs. B&W lends a pronounced and pleasing contrast. 

The connection? Actually, they are two essays ever so convincingly molded into one. The icebergs are from Antarctica, bits and pieces of larger ice flows that are now becoming all the norm due to global warming. The hunting lodges are from the Arctic, many of them now abandoned as traditional prey have moved on elsewhere, again due to ongoing, man made climate change. 

Content, aesthetics, presentation- all in one beautiful, thought provoking book, lovingly assembled as testament to a worldwide disaster befalling us all...

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Crap On Cropping

Swish! The most cherished sound in basketball, when the ball enters the hoop eluding even the metal rim that engulfs it, and touches nothing but net on its homeward descent towards success. It means the trajectory of the shot was pure, confident, and barring the rare "lucky shot," the end product of countless hours of toil and practice.

All Photos: © S. Banos

Recently, I was challenged (to put it politely) on PetaPixel (see comments) to write something concerning cropping, more specifically, on why cropping in camera is such an important discipline to learn and master. Now, I don't usually do "tutorials" of this sort, but this is something I firmly believe in- one of the most important practices one can adapt towards becoming a better photographer. That said, I'm also a believer that every dog has its day, and that yes, there are those certain instances in which cropping after the fact is necessary, particularly to eliminate distracting elements that were just impossible to eliminate in the moment. Frankly, if you are shooting with a long telephoto, you are already cropping to an extreme- so have at it! And yes, many famous photographers (even Robert Frank) have cropped, do crop, will crop. I know, I know...

All B&W photos: Tri-X, Nikon, 20mm

But if you really want to develop your photographic eye, your sense of composition (and timing), cropping in camera is one of the most important disciplines any photographer should practice, practice seriously, and adapt for life- particularly in this digital era when we now have the incredible luxury of selecting various aspect ratios right in camera! It is as essential (if not more so) as consciously shooting in color or B&W, and not just converting to the latter as yet another last ditch attempt at visual redemption.

When you are out shooting (whatever your subject or genre), you should be looking for those compositional elements that either make or break a photo (and how to visually maximize or minimize them), and you should be doing so with the mindset that those are the very decisions that will ultimately decide your photo's fate. If you are operating in that mode, you are automatically disciplining yourself to look harder, work harder- you know there won't be any quick and easy shortcut at the end of the day to try and salvage that... which doesn't... quite... work. 

Wide angles are invaluable compositional tools for comparison and contrast, balance and emphasis.

That doesn't mean you don't shoot till you have the so called "perfect shot," it means you practice and discipline yourself to the point where you are making each and every corner of that rectangle work for the image- whatever the circumstances. And when it doesn't work out, instead of trying to salvage a mediocrity, you study and assess why it failed, and vow not to make the same mistake twice (don't worry, you will- just not as many times). Hone your craft to the point that when you see an opportunity, you are capable of composing it in the moment to its fullest potential- and no, it most certainly is not easy. What's that? Life is happening too fast and doesn't wait for you!? Is that what Winogrand, Meyerowitz, Friedlander, Cohen, Gilden, Papageorge or HCB said when photographing the street? Learn to anticipate and make movement work for you, grasshopper- theirs and yours! Learn where to place yourself; street photography in particular is a dance between you and your subject matter. Study the masters' images, along with good lighting, their success and spontaneity derive from placing the main subject matter and supporting details where they matter most to balance, complement or contrast- no space is wasted

Color photos: Ricoh GR

Finally, to help facilitate this most crucial of exercises- know your tools. Many of the aforementioned masters use very simple kits, and they've shot with it for years; in particular, they know the strengths, limitations and perspective of their lens- how it renders various subject matter, and how, where and when to position it for maximum effect. Every millimeter of that image should be sacred, hallowed ground to be used to your advantage- if you go into it with that reverence and respect of craft, you won't be so nonchalant about mutilating it after the fact. 

Someone once implied that this process was rather anal, this automatic rejection of shots that were not composed properly from the get go- I simply asked what they would call the repeated practice of trying to recompose and (re)crop a photo after the fact, into something it already wasn't...

Color automatically adds more information- a 28mm (e) lens can prove ideal.

“If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


All Photos: © S. Banos

I was on a mission- find the bar I had accidentally encountered one long hot summer's day in Greenpoint on a rather prolonged walk from Williamsburg (Brooklyn) to LIC (Queens) via the Pulaski Bridge. I knew the approximate area but... 

Anyway, long story short, I was walking about taking note of all the latest tributes to gentrification writ large and small, when from a distance I saw the most surreal stone visage lording over its marbled domain. Hoping to get close enough take a decent photo, I noticed there were actually two imposing colossi of classical yet seemingly alien hybridization, and that the gates were wide open- I apparently had the entire area to roam free and unmolested (more like tentatively squeeze through the giant stone slabs, hoping they didn't collapse unnoticed upon me and become my own marble tombstone)! If only gentrification was a guarantee of such splendid surprises- instead of the monied banality it usually yields...

Much thanks to Dave Reichert for the tough love in editing, the first photo proved particularly problematic- considering my admittedly limited color/software skills. My "original" version proved an exercise in embarrassment of world class proportion!

It was a most magical interlude on my sojourn to reconnect with what I would soon come to know as The Achilles Heel, a place I could readily visit every day of the year. Within it's Depression Era, unfinished wood interior (unlike so many a newly minted "authentic Irish Pub" with multiple 90in TV screens), one could easily imagine oneself in any of the first four decades of the century past. Beer in belly, I continued unto LIC for a very nice (and free) encounter with PS 1, currently celebrating it's 40th anniversary with free admission to all NYC residents (still got me NY Driver's License). I hadn't been there in a good decade, and it was certainly good to see it still retained it's playful yet challenging attitude toward art in general. A most validating end to a most validating day in NY indeed...

@ the foot of the Pulaski Bridge

Friday, February 10, 2017

An Inextinguishable Fire

Recently while in NYC, I ended up at MOMA on Free Friday (hear that SFMOMA... FREE!)- which is a good thing since it definitely wasn't worth anywhere near its $25 Regular Admission fee. In fact, the one thing, the only thing that really caught my eye was a vintage B&W video describing the evil that is... napalm. Nothing terribly "entertaining" to be sure, but I found it of interest on several levels, not to mention for its minimalist presentation and historical value, but mostly for its brutally honest narration that grabs your attention and forces you to honestly consider just how we absorb and interpret information- particularly that which records and documents the pain and suffering of others...

Still, I could in no way predict, anticipate or even contemplate just how this rather stark and straight forward accounting would culminate. See the entire video here...

Monday, February 6, 2017

One GR Anniversary

All Photos: © S. Banos

Today marks the one year anniversary of shooting (almost) exclusively with a Ricoh GR, particularly significant since I've been a decades long B&W, analog, SLR kinda guy (who can't tolerate the bulbous blobs DSLR's have become). Hesitantly forcing myself into the 21st century, I had first taken the digital dive with the much heralded Fujifilm XT-1; I lusted for it's compact, drop dead, gorgeous body- and the quality of the lenses and overall IQ certainly did not disappoint. I just couldn't stand looking through its EVF in contrasty and direct sunlight; it was like using an SLR in a much diminished capacity. So much for the grand experiment...

Meanwhile, every winter I would get increasingly frustrated by the shortage of daylight hours, while my digital cohorts simply upped their ISO whenever necessary. The last straw came while pointing out a possible indoor photo op to my wife, I decided to get the camera, tripod and maybe a light or two to explore the possibility. By the time I turned on the room light just to look for all the above, she had already made the shot, applied a filter and posted on Instagram with her iphone- and I was supposed to be the photographer!

The Kiss- 2016.

So how then did I settle on a camera that forces me to squint with my now aging eyes at a ridiculously minuscule screen in any and all kinds of light? How could I even contemplate a camera that removed all my beloved analog buttons and dials? Where was the fun to be had in any of this? Well... this time, I simply decided not to make the same mistake twice. My next digital device would not replace my analog SLR's- it would instead, complement them. Least, that was the plan...
I soon realized however, the freedom and potential this little gizmo offered- the ability to shoot various subject matter in a wide variety of situations using a wide variety of approaches: straight on, from the hip, in various aspect ratios, in all kinds of light! Even my trusty, compact FM3A looms large these days when pointed by persons unknown at an increasingly paranoid public. The GR has the visual imprint of the ever ubiquitous cell phone, thus making it considerably less threatening, and the user, considerably less conspicuous. The end result has been more than twice as many keepers this past year than any year previous.
Up Close and Unawares!

It's still not my do everything tool, then again, neither is any camera- but it is my new everyday camera. Admittedly, it took some time adjusting to that squinty little screen, and the lack of a traditional tactile interface (which to this day makes me sometimes forget to set the required settings). And I just didn't know if I could trust it at first; it looked as much toy as real camera. Was it capable only of haphazard results- or could it deliver consistently as a real and serious image making machine? Well, the IQ of the files did not lie- technically, it kept its part of the bargain and consistently produced outstanding results. And if you concentrated and took that little 3in space of real estate on the camera back seriously, it could actually reward one with some handsomely framed compositions. Respect it, and the damn thing respected you back!


I was used to shooting B&W almost exclusively with a 20mm, love how it allows one to position disparate scenarios into one composition to contrast or complement. Could I live with a longer, fixed focal length? Actually, I had made a point of shooting exclusively with every focal length from 50mm on down for at least a year, decades ago; I was already familiar with and a fan of the 28mm perspective. Color adds considerably more info with its various hues, sometimes it can be a bit much with extreme wide angles. The Ricoh 28mm(e) was just right for color, and that focal length certainly worked out just fine for that Eggleston guy (not to mention numerous others). Did I mention it's tack sharp, corner to corner? 

ISO 3200- 1/30 f2.8

Still love B&W analog, and may even get a mirrorless ILC in the near future, but I have no plans on changing my new everyday camera any time soon. A lot of people suggest ways on how to improve the GR in its next iteration: more pixels, weather proofing, an EVF, a faster lens, and better this and that. Some of those suggestions would significantly add to its size- not good. I sincerely hope they do add a flip screen, that too would increase its depth- but not dramatically, and it would add significantly to its ease of use and stealth in the field!

After using analog exclusively for so long, using the GR has been like stepping into the future via warp drive- a palm sized, space age device capable of producing Big Time Results. It's been one fun ride thus far, and it's gonna stay in (and out of) my pocket for a long time to come...