The Craft of Fine Digital Photography

15, July 2010 § 4 Comments

John with Amy and Carrie in the Digital Lab

I attended the The Craft of Fine Digital Photography, a two week seminar in June led by John Pack, the digital photography professor and director of the Aegean Center.  As I have only studied  darkroom photography in the past (under Elizabeth Carson, the Aegean Center darkroom photography professor) I was very excited and curious to learn about the methodology and approach to making a digital print.  John stated that his course was a poetry class — we were to discover how to become eloquent in the language of digital photography.  Personally, I was just hopeful to string together a coherent sentence.

The workshop encompassed all attributes of the digital photo workflow.   With the creation of an image every various aspect of its development was considered.  From taking a photograph and setting up the proper work conditions in the digital lab, to working on the image in Camera RAW and Photoshop in order to make adjustments to the image.  Then there are the test strips, followed by the test prints of the image.  Finally, after much contemplation and consultation with John and the fellow workshop members, we get a result: the final print.  The students were left with an understanding of how to deal with taking an image from the camera, to the computer screen and to the final print while maintaining the most control over the different conditions.  Every day we worked in the digital lab, and in the evenings we took photographs and visited areas around the Paros.

When you’re working hard, enjoying what you’re doing in the company of good people in a beautiful place like Paros, time flies by at warp speed.  Yet though it felt so quick, the amount of information, experience and growth which occurred in those two weeks was worthy of months of learning, perhaps more.  We had plenty to show from the space of time: great memories, new friendships, fresh ideas and most importantly, finished works.  Our prints showed that in two weeks time we were able to be articulate and express ourselves  in the new and vibrant language of fine digital photography.

-Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

"Olive Trees," 2010 , Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

Notes from the Digital Lab

28, May 2010 § 1 Comment

Tonight the breeze has kicked up. With the chill in the air you wouldn’t know that it was late April in Greece. From the harbor I hear the rumbling of a ferry coming in to port, the hydraulic ramp lowers and the announcement to disembark echoes through the winding streets of Paroikia: “Kyríes kai Kyrioi…” It will be sunny tomorrow, and while warm in the sunshine, the shadows will retain a cold element unrelated to the bright light of day. I have been here on Paros since early March studying photography, my photographic journey having taken me through the world and back several times. Throughout this time I have been documenting my life and travels with my camera and, if French surrealist Jean Cocteau is correct and my camera is an extension of my mind’s eye, then the images have been indicative of my state of being.

Since 2004 I have taken my photography more seriously. This has been an enlightening path and I have sought out mentors and peers in a quest for more knowledge and community. Like any journey, I have gleaned myriad experiences and mixed results. In the summer of 2009, for instance, I took part in three workshop weekends hosted by the Woodstock Center for Photography, near where I live. Although educational, I found the celebrity quality of some of these sessions disturbing, as they focused more on some vague notion of artistry and industry connections rather than skills or craft. But I still came away understanding more than when I arrived, if only to avoid the fad-driven sycophantic consumerism that feeds stardom.

Through a close friend I had been introduced to a small fine arts center on the island of Paros, in the Cycladis Archipelago. I had visited the school in late May 2009 and filled out the on-line application a few days later at a cyber-café 25 meters from the front doors. By November 2009 I had been accepted to the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts. My head swam with possibilities and options. As my departure drew closer, I became more nervous. What if I don’t measure up? What if it doesn’t work out? Indeed, what if…

When I arrived on Paros I was thrilled but terrified. There were painters, writers, photographers and vocalists-19 students in all and about half returning for a second or even third term. The majority were half my age. School began on March 8th and for the first time in many years I felt like the new kid, awkward and obvious. My first class would be Silver Photography, a black and white darkroom course taught by Liz Carson. I had had a fair amount of instruction in that genre and during the past year had been working in my own darkroom at home. This course would smooth off my rough edges and introduce me to the communal darkroom concept, a daunting prospect for a late-night loner such as myself. The second avenue was the reason I had initially applied. Digital Printing, taught by John Pack, the school’s director, would become, in the next few weeks, the most rewarding, demanding and emotionally painful experience I had experienced in many years.

City by: John Masters

John is a gentle taskmaster. He is a bright soul. He wants us all to succeed, to love artistic creation, growing continuously, both inwardly and outwardly. He wants us all to be poets. I use that term in the broader sense for I feel that his Weltanschauung applies to the whole of the student body, not just those interested in photography or the digital process. With this in mind he began by giving us a basic digital toolbox. This made us all hungry for more but he pulled us back, guiding us rather than letting us run wild. His first koan was “To play-just play”, he said. “Practice. Make mistakes.” His academic philosophy is perceptive and passionate, namely that too many colleges and universities worldwide push students through an academic meat-grinder, producing uniform post-modern drones. He hopes to introduce us to a life-long artistic substance that will have meaning and value beyond the commercial or popular. This is an enriching and painful experience, a satori from which I shall never return. But I digress. First came the pain.

When I arrived here on Paros and began to use my digital camera, I was dismayed to realize that for years I had been taking the same type of picture. My old images failed to excite me. There was no life in their shadows, no warmth in their light. I tried the old ways of seeing, but my eyes, it seemed, had dimmed. Thankfully my silver work did not suffer this dilemma, in part due to the complex ritual and practical restraints inherent in that particular format. My mood became despondent. I searched for answers, but there were none, or perhaps my ears didn’t hear them. I spoke openly with other students about this and other feelings. My psyche was in turmoil and as the days turned into weeks, my inner crisis grew.    This sense of failure intensified as spring break approached. All I could envision were my empty portfolios at the end of the term and the lonely ferry ride back to Athens. One day John took me aside and said, “I have an assignment for you. I don’t know what it is yet, but I will tell you soon…” I waited expectantly. A few days later he had my answer. “I want you to take pictures of negative space. Take only 36 images. Pretend you have a roll of film in your digital camera, not a card that holds hundreds.” I felt a weight lifting. In a deep part of my being lies the need for direction, for tight structure within which I find the freedom for work. Without this architecture my conception becomes formless and vague. He had given me a task. So I rented a little car and spent the day driving around the island. I came back and showed him my work. I was happy, but he was happier. He showed me something I had never seen in my work or myself. For years I had always been taking pictures of what drew me, but always from a distance, or at least disconnected in isolated empty space. He said, “You are good at this, but you are also in a very safe photographic place. I am pushing you out of that.” My new assignment was to find what I loved and then discover in that larger space what initially drew me to the image. “Get in close”, he said. “As close as your lens will allow. Take that picture, then come back and show me what you’ve done.” The fog lifted and my eyes cleared. Fear had kept me safely at a distance all these years but fear of what? Personal expression? Art? Myself the artist? Intimacy?

Adam & Eve by: John Masters

He wants us to be poets. He wants us to find in the visual world not just our voice, but the means of expressing it as well. He wants us to know the craft and the machinery, and then we can make our own decisions and use the best of what any tool has to offer. He wants us to play and practice. The guitarist Robert Fripp speaks of ‘the craft of guitar playing’. After almost 45 years of innovative musicianship, all of it professionally, he still sits down every day and plays scales for at least an hour. He must practice the craft of guitar playing, just as I must practice my craft of seeing and working with light and shadow. The more I practice, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I want to practice with different tools. Only then can my vision flourish.

I am not the same person who arrived here in March. I have left that man behind me, like a snake leaving its skin on a shadowy forest floor. The results of my punabbhava, my “becoming again”, are new to me and exciting and not always comfortable. A vision calls to me, a need to see light, shape, texture and movement as a single event. There is no need for explanation. My work sings and focus measures time in meters. The shadows are bright. The light is warm.

–John D. C. Masters Paros, Spring 2010

Ansel Adams @ the Benaki

2, May 2010 § Leave a comment

Marking the end of a week-long break from classes was a visit, last Saturday, to the Ansel Adams exhibit currently on display at the Benaki Museum in Athens. After a few introductory remarks by John, who worked with Ansel before coming to the Aegean Center, we began to make our way around the barn-like room whose floors creaked noisily beneath us.

Though I have been John’s assistant these past three years I knew little of Ansel Adams and his work, an astounding feat considering the world-wide popularity of his images. I was properly blown away, first by the beauty of the wilderness he photographed, and then by the care with which he consigned his images to paper. I immediately appreciated the degree to which he retained, in the printed image, the sublimity of the original. It is this that makes Ansel Adams a great photographer, the ability to shorten the distance between original intent and final product.

This ability depends entirely on discipline and careful attention to craft. It is a lesson many of our students learn at the Aegean Center and one I also learned when, two semesters ago, I prepared for a solo concert with singing student Chelsey Ternes. My goal was to move an audience the way I myself am moved by my favorite performers and so often by  fellow singers of the ensemble. I embarked on a months long practice schedule during which I sought to correct the vocal problems that impeded my way. I cannot determine the degree to which I achieved my original aim, but I performed the concert confident that I had done my best  and determined, at its conclusion, to continue in pursuit of my goals. I believe that Ansel served a similar if not greater compulsion. (Incidentally, Ansel was originally trained as a classical pianist. In materials presented to his workshop in August of 1983, he writes “I was trained as a pianist and I know the meaning and the fruits of discipline. Without it, I would have progressed slowly, if at all, in photography.”)

As we circled the exhibit a second and third time, students would stop to discuss the elements in Ansel’s photographs that informed their own work as painters, writers and photographers. Fielding questions were Jane, Jun and John, who, at one point, referred to Ansel’s work as poetry.

I think he’s right. Ansel’s photographs, like the writings of Emerson, are the result of long hours spent in nature, in introspective solitude. To capture, for instance, the Clearing Winter Storm, Ansel had to have been there for the storm itself. I pictured him, alone in that vast wilderness, moving through the falling snow. I felt the coolness of his reddened cheeks and the air that filled his lungs. I then saw in the sharpness of his prints an attempt to recreate the clarity of mind which only nature can bestow.

Alongside a brief biographical timeline was a picture, taken in 1930, of a young Ansel in his darkroom. At the tail-end of the exhibit was another, of a much older Ansel. Before us was evidence of a life filled with good work, the result of a dogged dedication to craft. I envied him this and left, wanting to dedicate my own life to something so beautiful. I suspect the students were likewise motivated, as they hurried to catch the afternoon ferry back to their studios and to our pretty little island.

SS

The Art of the Digital Photograph

2, August 2009 § Leave a comment

Intensive Digital Studies / The Art of the Digital Print

July is usually a quiet month at the Center.  This year was an exception.  John Pack lead a two week intensive course in The Art of the Digital Photograph.

Many photographers share the idea that the print is the final rendering of the artist’s intent, and this demands an extensive and deep working knowledge of the tools and process of the medium.  Using digital tools to produce that important manifestation of the idea in a print has become too dependent on the tricks of the equipment rather than the skill and judgment of the photographer.  In two weeks of exciting and intensive learning John guided a small group – eight participants – through the intricacies of the entire digital workflow with specific attention to Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS4 as  photographic tools to an understanding of how to bring the image to the concluding expressive print that emerges from the printer.

John’s extensive knowledge gave us a broad understanding of the possibilities, which he then attempted to scale down to workable tools we could master in the time given.  Time was a major factor.   We worked 6, 8 and even 12 hours a day for 13 days.  Yes, we did take one Sunday holiday.

After the first few days of deluge, the group rose to the challenge of learning myriad details while constantly reassessing its understanding of what the results would be.  A list of the Photoshop and Printer techniques we studied would include extensive colour management, monitor calibration, tools, layers, masks, ICC colour profiling (building our own profiles), and much more; this would be only an outline of the wide scope of knowledge we acquired on how to see and feel the images as they progressed.

John’s enthusiasm for the digital medium, coupled with his deep respect for every detail, carried us through to a collection of photographic prints which were a great satisfaction to each of us.   We all shared knowledge and ideas.  The group, working together, became an important part of our learning, as John had intended.  We concluded with a very stimulating sense of new knowledge and the ability to carry this forward to create the quality of photograph that was our goal.

The Church of 100 Doors

25, May 2009 § Leave a comment

Paros Church 1

Photography student Alice Houston recently captured the morning light that has visited the Church of a Hundred Doors since the fourth century AD.

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Paros Church 3

Paros Church 8

March 25

6, April 2009 § 1 Comment

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Photography students took advantage of the colorful pomp and circumstance of this year’s Greek Independence Day Parade in Paroikia. Led by the local marching band, school children paraded along the windy waterfront in traditional Greek garb. The symbol laden foustanella, pictured above, was worn by the military in the revolution of 1821. Its 400 pleats mark the 400 years of Ottoman rule in Greece.

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Thanks to Lliam for the photos.

Alumni Update: Adrian Eisenhower

1, April 2009 § 1 Comment

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Adrian Eisenhower recently sent us the following update about his new exhibition of photographs from the inauguration, now showing at the bau gallery in Beacon, NY:

On January 18th, two days before the inauguration, I went down to DC with a friend and videographer, Vincent Galgano. I went to make a photographic essay of the event. I brought with me three cameras: a Rollieflex, a Leica, and a digital Nikon. After walking around the mall on the 19th, I chose to use only the Rollie. The day of the inauguration, the 20th, was hectic. Even with an early start we had to throw ourselves onto the metro train. When I was at the mall I photographed alone.

After processing the Plus X with Edwal’s FG-7 and 9% sodium sulfide solution, I scanned the negatives on an Epson Perfection 4490 with Silverfast software. I was able to print at the Masters School in NY, late night hours when the students were not around. The prints were made on Hahnemuhle paper with an Epson Stylus 4000 and K3 inks. The facilities were not quite as WYSISYG or controlled as those at the Center and required some getting used to. After some fumbling they proved to be adequate.

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The images are currently a part of the show at a gallery in Beacon, NY called bau. The show, called XLIV, opened on the second Saturday of March. It was a festive evening, spared not of police, milkshakes and a Ukulele.  Shirin Borthwick, an alumna of the Center and graduate student of writing at Columbia (pictured above with me and Vincent), was able to attend.

Upcoming Show

30, March 2009 § Leave a comment

Current photography student Sam Walker will be exhibiting a series of portraits taken of the Albanian community of Paros. The show opens April 4th at Franca Scala Antiques in Paroikia.

sam-walker-flyer

Student Post: Lisbeth Carney

9, December 2008 § Leave a comment

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I come to the Aegean Center from Athens, Georgia and am taking a “gap” year before heading off to college next Fall. I was drawn to the Aegean Center because of my interest in photography (as well as other mediums) and my desire to live abroad. Originally, I had planned to be involved in photography classes only, but the encouraging atmosphere of the Center opened me to attempting courses in which I was less confident. So, what once would have been a light schedule is now a wonderfully full schedule. I am taking basic drawing, figure drawing, Greek literature, Greek art history, Greek dancing, photo history, digital photography, silver photography, and a class on the camera. One of the many great things about my schedule is that I have at least one class with almost every instructor at the Center.

Working in both digital and silver photography allows me one-on-one time with Elizabeth Carson and John Pack. With Liz I am learning the art of the darkroom and with John the art of producing a fine digital print. The first step in both classes is making photographs. From our travels in Italy and our time in Greece I have accumulated a number of images, both film and digital, that I am currently working on.

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During the first week, Liz taught all of the silver students how to develop film and how to begin printing. For many, this was a welcome review as almost all of us were out of practice and needed to be acclimated to the darkroom here. The best way to learn in the darkroom is to work when Liz is there, by just sitting down and exchanging ideas with her. Also, having her trained eye reviewing my test strips and proofs has helped me to train my own eye to see subtle differences in tonality and to see that even the slightest change can make a print look entirely different. I have progressed in my understanding of photography and enjoy working in the darkroom even if it means I am not outside in the wonderful Greek sunlight 24/7.

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Digital photography is a whole different world from silver. Our digital class consists of about ten people and we meet twice a week. We learn about Photoshop and printing by looking at each other’s work and seeing the changes we have made to our images. We also spend time working with John individually throughout the week. When working with John, I typically open up an image that I have worked on and we discuss the changes I’ve made and different ways to make those changes. Often we play around with different modifications until we find the best image.

Fall Break

12, November 2008 § Leave a comment

hazy-naxos

This semester’s fall break spanned the first week of November. Most students worked quietly in their studios, in long, uninterrupted stretches of time. Others took the opportunity to travel, some back to Athens and Rome, others to Spain, London and Egypt. Photography student Samyukta Lakshmi journeyed to neighboring Naxos which she found wild with wind and beauty.space

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