What and Where?

It’s always been a problem with me.  What issue of the great variety of things that fascinate me but about which I know nothing or next to nothing — which just about covers the whole spectrum of knowledge should I look into next?  

When I was an active academic geographer, I followed my nose and tried to avoid topics that were “in fashion”.  As a consequence, I ended up looking at things as diverse as electoral reform and electoral districting, state partition, ethnic minorities in cities, and music festivals. Fortunately, most of the pieces I wrote were well received (in retrospect, they’re all related but that’s another story and definitely not for this blog).  Nevertheless, whenever I finished something, there never seemed to be a logical follow-up.  Usually, my interests were short-lived and I had to search all over again, moving on to something new instead of following it up in depth.

Grasshopper brain or something.

Anyway, let’s return to photography, which is supposed to be the meta-theme of this blog.  When I decided some eight and half years ago that I wanted to pursue this line, I decided I needed to take a refresher course and signed up for a beginners’ course in Tel Aviv.  I borrowed a camera from my daughter Tami — I didn’t have one at the time — and started off one Friday morning in September 2007 outside the Suzanne Dallal Center in Neve Tzedeq in South Tel Aviv.  I’d missed the first meeting in the studio earlier in the week and had no idea what was expected of me this particular morning.  

I think I had expected to have been given specific instructions and then follow them.  Instead, it went something like this:

Itzik Canetti (The Instructor): Off you go to photograph.  

I:  But what should I photograph? 

Itzik: Whatever you see that appeals to you.

I:  But of what? And where?  

Itzik:  Whatever you see that appeals to you.  And if you encounter a problem in the next three hours, well, I’m here to help

I (thinking):  And I’ve paid this guy money for this!!!

Itzik Canetti is a fine photographer and wonderful person but I thought there was something absolutely screwy with his didactic and pedagogic skills! (I didn’t realize then how wrong I was.)  How on earth was I supposed to know what to do, where to go and how to do it?

But I had been given an assignment and had three hours to complete it, and with no desire to drop out on the first day, off I went — without a clue as to what I was doing and why!  

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Day 1:  Yuval Aderet, Luthier

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Day 1: “Welcome to my place”, she says

 

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Day 1: My romance with symmetry

I completed the course and at the end had some basic idea of how to operate a digital camera but if I was to continue with this new pastime, I’d have to decide what to photograph and where.  This was more than a little problematic, as I had no idea except that if I didn’t do something, I’d very soon give it all up before I’d got started.

So, in essence an incredibly indolent individual, I took an easy way out. We live near the Yarqon Park in North Tel Aviv—the nearest entrance is about 250m away.  If I walk west, I reach the sea in about a quarter of an hour and I can continue from there along the promenade of Tel Aviv Port. Alternatively, I could (and occasionally do) go in the opposite direction, eastward towards the city of Ramat Gan.

Surely I’d be able to find enough interesting subjects in the park without having to venture into the city?  And so it has proven — much, I admit, to my surprise.  During eight years on this route there have been maybe three or four days (and I’m there at least five days a week) on which I’ve come back with nothing and perhaps there have been another dozen or 15 days or so when I was left with just a single picture that had any potential.

Whether it’s the vegetation or the wildlife, the activities, the people, the boats and joggers, the walkers and the cyclists, the coffee drinkers and much more, there’s always something that catches the eye and appears different each time you pass by. Or, things simply appear; in other words, I’ve been so unobservant that I’ve never noticed them before. Walking (or occasionally cycling) through the park gives you the opportunity to revisit scenes you already captured more than once — and each time, there’s something different.

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Week 1: At Tel Aviv Port

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Week 1: In Yarqon Park

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Week 1: In Yarqon Park

Week 1: In Yarqon Park

However, walking through the park just photographing what passes in front of the lens isn’t enough, they told me. You have to have a project.

So, I looked for projects and I’ll write about some of them in coming weeks. I started off with balconies, those wonderful appendices to apartments, those liminal spaces that are not quite inside and not quite outside the lived space. I photographed several hundred of these.

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Balconies, balconies

Then I discovered fire hydrants — yes, fire hydrants and have a collection of nearly a thousand of those.

The perplexed and the peacock

Homeless people were there to be photographed. One homeless man, in particular, became a project as I followed him from bench to bench over a four-year period.

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Four years — and to my shame, I never knew his name

Street signs formed another project that I started and may well return to.

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Indeed, there is a limitless number of objects and subjects out there waiting for me to look at.

… to be continued

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Changing Eyes

The Changing Eyes of a Human Geographer

For some academics, retirement is feared; for others, it is what they have been awaiting a long time; for yet others, it has no bearing whatsoever.  In my case, I had decided several years before I actually departed active academia that if the timing and conditions were right, I would go without too many regrets.   When the time actually came at the end of 2004 and at the age of 59 — and it was perhaps three or four years earlier than I had anticipated — I had plenty of time to contemplate what I might do to occupy my mind and time. The “landing” was relatively easy as it had taken me three years or so to wind down ongoing projects that had been started in London but when it finally happened, I had to make some decisions.   Oh yes, I continued to read — very little geography as it happens — and occasionally to write (mainly to prove to the powers-that-be at the University of Haifa that I am still alive and kicking, thereby qualifying for financial rewards and incentives due to me) but I needed something that would keep me busy on a daily basis. So it was that photography entered my academic afterlife.

The question I ask myself almost a decade after starting what essentially had been a hobby at the outset is whether being a geographer has an effect on the subject matter of the images that I record and whether it affects the look of those photographs in any way? The answer is probably “Yes” to both questions but that needs some qualification.

In the past, I would have had little doubt. I assume that like most geographers, photographs (other than those involving family) were usually taken with some research, didactic or pedagogic purpose in mind — even if this was not always admitted. This, of course, was the reason that most of our [= academic geographers’] photographs are almost always slides rather than prints, even though most of us never owned a slide projector.

When flying, we usually wanted to occupy a window seat, so that pictures of mountains or cities, quarries or field patterns from the air would be used to illustrate something in a human geography class.

Weekend picturesFlooding from rapidly melting snow, near Winnipeg, March 1974

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Field patterns, North Wales, c.1969

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Bingham Canyon Copper Mine, Utah.  August 1972

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Clay mining waste, Cornwall.  July 1975

Like many colleagues, this was the way I photographed between about the 1960s and and mid-1980s.  Then there was a hiatus of nearly 20 years.  Only after passing the threshold into the academic hereafter did I start up again.  

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On entering the academic hereafter in 2005, after 37 years in the business

At this point, I no longer had to think about teaching (in fact, I hadn’t thought about it too much for some years) and what is more, this was about the time that digital photography was making serious strides forward so that a decision about prints or slides wasn’t needed; everything stayed on the computer — a risk but a fact.

(I should add that not all the pictures I took before 2007 were didactic. Occasionally, I saw pictures that were simply good pictures and took them and interestingly, when I started up again in 2007, the first pics resembled some of those I’d taken years before.)

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It only dawned on me several years into this venture that perhaps I should ask a question that needed to be asked: Was I still a geographer taking pictures or was I just another hobbyist photographer with a bent towards taking images of “landscapes” — a term I use in the widest possible sense?  Or was I becoming something else?

Perhaps on this point, I should attempt to clarify matters. I had no intention of transmogrification from geographer to photographer, never mind becoming anything remotely approaching a professional photographer. All I wanted to do was to photograph things that interested me or at least caught my eye and I wanted to learn how to do this as well as I could.  Notwithstanding, there came a time, perhaps three or four years ago when the image itself became as important as the subject matter and I am perhaps now at a stage where the end product, an image that I could display (or sell, if I had even a modicum of commercial instinct) is what really matters.  To achieve this end, I needed to learn a lot — about cameras [at least how to use one properly], about image editing, about photography and its history, about individual photographers.  

We live in an age when everyone is a photographer. People carry smartphones and all smartphones have cameras. Competition within the smartphone market is such that what camera it carries is important in marketing device. In addition to smartphones, digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) have been priced to appeal to people who wish for a little more than just a small smartphone camera and these have sensors that allow lots of freedom to the user and for the masses of amateur photographers like me, they are just great.

To become better at creating visual images, I have now bought and used four different cameras in the past eight and a half years — none of them strictly speaking “professional” but the last three, at least, top of the range instruments for amateurs.  As to whether I’ve learned to use them “properly”, at least think I know their capabilities and can recognise their shortcomings.  And much as I’d love to have a full-frame DSLR with a 36MP sensor, I know that I’d need to have a full-time porter to lug it and the tripod around (which makes me revere some of the 19th century photographers, such as Eugène Atget who photographed old Paris daily for nearly 40 years around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, lugging around 40 kg of equipment, including toxic chemicals when they went out for a photoshoot!).

My early attempts at image editing were pretty basic and although today I am now more proficient and a little more sophisticated, I realise how much I still have to learn.  

The fact is that I enjoy the editing as much as holding a camera and looking through a viewfinder — perhaps even more so.  There are still people around who seem to think that holding the camera and editing an image (on a computer, the current equivalent of the darkroom) are two separate processes and that somehow feel that if you have to edit an image a lot that it shows up your shortcomings as a photographer. And, yes they are separate — one happens “in the field” as it were and the other at home — but they are really two parts of one process, i.e. creating an image.

What I mean is that when you look through the viewfinder, you make a series of decisions — consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously — unless you let the camera “decide” everything for you automatically.  Each and all of these decisions influence the characteristics of the final image.  Think about it.  You see what you’d like to photograph.   You’ve already chosen the lens on the camera.  You choose the angle of view. You select the frame. You select the aperture and shutter speed.  You take a light reading and compensate if necessary and many more things, too. In essence, you compose the image. When you’re ready, you click the shutter button.  

And then you go home and download the images and start working — adjusting exposure, white balance, contrast, sharpness, shadows, highlights, colours and many more parameters as necessary, all in the search for an image which satisfies — which is absolutely not the same as replicating exactly what the eye saw!  If you think about it for instance, until about 60 years ago, colour in “serious” photography was frowned upon and most photographs were in B&W, which is, most certainly not what the eye saw.  Incidentally, I often find that as I see something or some scene that attracts me, that I say to myself “black and white”, even though I see it in colour.  Moreover, on editing, it usually proves to the case; the colour version can be very ordinary — if not rubbish — whereas the B&W can be brilliant.

My photographic education and enlightenment (perhaps the correct term to use for photography) is an ongoing process.

 … to be continued

 

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In the beginning …

Three trees fog 3Pre-Prolog

I think it’s time to restart a blog.  I wrote one intermittently a few years back and then Apple, in one if its clean-up operations, decided to scrap iWeb and I stopped writing.  Apple does this from time to time, like last year when it decided to stop developing its image-editing software, Aperture.  In that case, rather than stop taking pictures, I moved over to Capture One, and now that Capture One has just released its Version 9, I am really glad that I did.

 

Photography and Me

The reason I wanted to restart the blog concerns me and photography.  As some friends and neighbours know, I’ve been out and about most days during the past eight years with camera in hand.  Out and about is really a rather conservative way of describing what I do and where I go.  When we’re in Tel Aviv (which is most of the time) it involves going out for 60—90 minutes, usually to the Yarqon Park about 200m from the house and walking west to the sea, through the promenade known locally as Tel Aviv Port and then choosing a return route to the house.  Usually about 5 km altogether, sometimes a little longer.  On occasion, the route varies — I walk eastward, or south into the city — but usually it’s park and port.  When we’re in London, it’s a similar story — south to Primrose Hill, sometimes through The Regent’s Park into the West End, sometimes east and north to Hampstead Heath.  Over the past eight years, I’ve noticed and noted many different activities and taken lots and lots of photographs.

Under the bridge

However, like many people who take photographs in the digital age, I have become increasingly frustrated by my inability to disseminate my images. For a long time, I sent email attachments to friends and acquaintances but that was hardly adequate.  I post occasionally to Facebook but as I have no desire to be inundated daily with hundreds of posts, I limit the number 0f my Facebook friendships to a quantity I can deal with.  

Last summer, a real photographer whose views I respect suggested that I produce a Tel Aviv “Park and Port” book and I got as far as separating my Tel Aviv images from all the others and within those, marking the 5,000 or so that contained either “Park” or “Port” — but no further.  

And then something happened that I hadn’t foreseen.

The story goes something like this.  In May 2014, I was approached to act as a volunteer photographer for the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition.  I was reluctant at first using the excuse that I didn’t have enough experience.  However, I did it and learned more in those three weeks about being a photographer — however unprofessional I was [am] — than in the previous six and a half years.  

Rubinstein chamber

As soon as the competition was over, and while everything was fresh in my memory and in possession of 2,000+ images, I wrote up what I called my “retrospective diary”— purely for my own edification.  I sent it to a small number of people who I thought might have some interest and that was that, more or less.  In the three months following, I thought that perhaps I should develop the “diary” into an article for some journal or other but, as one tends to do when a deadline is imaginary or non-existent, I did very little except build a small bibliography of which I read a small number of items.

Piano Diary

About a year later, about three months ago, I thought I really ought to do something about it and get something out before the next Rubinstein cycle in 2017.  So I added to the bibliography, rented a work desk at an “urban space” in downtown Tel Aviv, and started to read in earnest, taking notes and sketching out an potential article.  I was just getting into it when I read several papers on music competitions by a sociologist, Lisa McCormick.  Reading the third paper in this series, I saw a reference to a book by Dr. McCormick, Performing Civility, which was published by Cambridge University Press in September or October 2015.  I downloaded a sample of the book to my Kindle and on examining that, bought and read the book.  Lo and behold, this really well-written, interesting book turned out to be an extended version of the article I was planning to write!  I corresponded with Lisa McCormick who has just joined the Sociology Department at the University of Edinburgh, and came to the conclusion that an article on music competitions would be a complete waste of time and effort (which, like most things, is not quite true because I will write something, but specifically on the Rubinstein Competition).

So what to do?  How should now I occupy my time, having been beaten to the post (by about two years, at least) by somebody far better qualified by me to have tackled the subject of music competitions?

Initially, I withdrew from dealing with the issue head-on and let my subconscious deal with things.  And then I remembered that in June last year, just about a  month after Rubinstein, I gave a seminar in the Department of Geography at the University of Haifa entitled: “The changing eyes of a human geographer: How being a geographer has influenced what to photograph and how to do it”.  Originally, I had intended it as a serious seminar that I might work on and turn into a paper.  In the event, the presentation was postponed and I gave it on the last day of the school year and it was intimated that I might “lighten” the content as the folks were celebrating the end of another year.  I gave a “slideshow” — but a high quality one, I might add.

Anyway, not having looked at what I had originally prepared for the presentation for over a year and a half, I discovered something quite coherent which could be worked on.  So, last week, I took it out and read the 6,000 words (in retrospect, at least twice as long as would have been justified by a seminar).  It wasn’t bad for a start.  But how to proceed?  An article for a journal perhaps?  Perhaps the book that Itzik Canetti had suggested to me earlier in the year?  After a little contemplation, I decided that a book was too big a project at this stage and I really didn’t want an article for an academic journal.  To be honest, I don’t think I have the patience to submit a paper to an academic journal any more and deal with snooty editors and snotty reviewers (of which I was one for 35 years) — much easier to try something a little easier at first and if it goes well, perhaps I might turn it into something a bit more serious.

So I decided on an SW photography blog — something where I could show and explain some of the many images I have taken over the past few years.

[To be continued]

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