Archive for October 2011

Early fall on Old Rag Mountain

It is still autumn here in Zurich and therefore I continue with two old fall color photographs. They were both taken in 2001 during a hike to Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park.
The first photograph shows bright red blueberry leaves in between the summit granite boulders (a very nice guide to Old Rag's geology is found here). I like the symmetry of the rock and leaf layers. The shrubs seem to push the boulders apart, even though this was of course not the case.

I do not consider the second photograph particularly great or unique, but I still remember it very well. It was still early fall and there were only few trees whose leaves started to change their color. But there was this one bright yellow tree that attracted my attention. My eye was drawn to this one bright yellow spot amidst the mostly green leave canopy of the forest. sy you can see, the colors just started to appear, still at least one or two weeks before peak fall foliage colors.

2011/10/30 by Unknown
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What is a photograph?

There are continuous discussions about digital manipulation and whether a digitally modified image still qualifies as a photograph. For example, Roger Overall recently wrote a column entitled "Photography vs. Image-making" for TOP that discussed digital image modifications in todays photography and the labeling of such images as photographs. The bone of contention was the selection of digitally generated images for two photography awards and the question was risen if it might be necessary to distinguish photographs that are taken in camera from images that comprise digitally created expressions and visions of the artist.
I think that these are very important questions because a photograph has an inherent "truth bias"; people expect a photograph to depict something that did exist somewhere sometimes. Therefore, at least I am disappointed if I find out that a photograph that I appreciated turns out to be a digital creation that was never discovered and observed as depicted. Do I have wrong expectations or may the label "photograph" be used misleadingly (maybe even on purpose)?

In order to reply to this question it may help to define what a photograph is. The word photography means drawing or painting with light and a photograph is a lasting recording of light (or other electromagnetic radiation) (see for example the wikipedia entry for photography).
At least for my understanding, this means that there must have been light at one time and that photography is a method to depict pieces (frames) of the real world. You may of course dispute even this statement and also consider the view through a lens or the recording on a two-dimensional surface an alteration of reality. According to this view, every single photograph represents an alteration of reality and it is impossible to draw a line in the continuum of more or less modification. I do not accept this rebuttal.

In my opinion, each photograph has content and qualities. The content is the actual subject that was photographed; a tree, a person, an animal a cloud or a complex landscape for example. For me, this is the YES or NO in photography; the bird that you wanted to photograph was either there or not (even Schr√∂dinger's cat was either dead or alive and not both at the same time, despite quantum mechanics). As a viewer, I expect that the entire content of a photograph existed at the location and the moment where and when the shutter was released.
In contrast to content, the qualities of a photograph are subjective, vary on a continuous scale and reflect the vision of the photographer. The qualities are those characteristics that everybody sees differently and comprise the color, contrast, sharpness, exposure or saturation, to name a few. Every photographer, lens or accessory displays a subject slightly differently or emphasizes another aspect of the same subject. But there was a subject (which became the content) in the real world, outside of the photographers imagination, as the source of all of these aspects. Just because the grass is greener or the sky is bluer for some people does not mean that the grass and sky do not exist or are something else. And even if a glass is half empty for some and half full for others, there is still a glass with something in it.

I think that this leads to a rather simple definition for what a photograph is: For me, an image qualifies as a photograph if only the qualities were adjusted while the content has been left untouched after it was captured by the camera. I do not remove, copy, clone, turn or flip selected parts of a photograph or add elements from one photograph to another. However, I do alter and adjust, you may even say manipulate, the qualities of my photographs. Some of you may state that this view of mine is much too narrow and restrictive and that my definition of a photograph only fits documentary photography and excludes the art photography. Again, I do not agree.
First, the documentary aspect is inherently and inseparably linked to photography. Second, for me the art in photography does not lie in the subject, but in the eye of the capturer and her or his ability to translate a real-world discovery into a two-dimensional image. For me, the goal and the challenge is not to create an amazing illustration no matter how, but to find and photograph something in the real world in a way that results in an amazing photograph. Digitally manipulating the content of my photographs would be cheating for me and therefore completely defy my goals and values.

I would like to emphasize that this is my view that I hold because anything else would betray my values. I think that everybody has to decide for her- or himself what to alter and what to leave untouched and I acknowledge everybody's freedom to set her or his rules. In many ways it is a question about means and ends.
However, I think that it is important to clearly and unmistakably state if the content of a photograph/illustration has been altered (and to clearly label a depiction whose content has been modified as a digital illustration and not as a photograph; an interesting article on this topic and on the following example is here). A very famous example is this section from the introduction in the book Migrations by Art Wolfe, but unfortunately the exact images whose content has been modified are not revealed:
".... I often had to pass over photographs because in a picture of masses of animals invariably one would be wandering in the wrong direction, thereby disrupting the pattern I was trying to achieve. Today, the ability to digitally alter this disruption is at hand. For the first time in Migrations, I have embraced this technology, taking the art of the camera to its limits. Since this is an art book and not a treatise on natural history, I find the use of digitalization perfectly acceptable, and in a small percentage of the photographs I have enhanced the patterns of animals much as a painter would do on a canvas."

The front cover of Migrations with digitally cloned zebras and other, less controversial books from the oeuvre of Art Wolfe.

It is obvious that Mr. Wolfe and I have different values and definitions of a photograph. Nevertheless, I own several of his books and I appreciate many photographs which I believe (hope?) have not been enhanced in any way as described above. However, I was (and still am) disappointed when I read the cited passage in the introduction of Migrations. There are several statements in that paragraph that disturb me, but I  cannot deny myself the comment that I have never read before that cameras may be somehow limited because they lack the function to selectively flip or copy pieces of a frame and do not automatically correct a scene in order to create the picture the photographer had in mind.

2011/10/26 by Unknown
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Zurich sea of clouds

As promised in the second before the last post, I am showing you here another photograph that was taken just a little after the mystic foggy winter forest photograph. After having worked on the foggy forest subject for a while, I decided to continue my bike ride further uphill. The fog became denser and denser, but the sun seemed very close and I suspected that there might be an impressive sea of fog covering Zurich. I hastily and expectantly pedaled to a viewpoint from where the city and lake of Zurich lie below and on a clear day the mountains are visible on the horizon. 
In the sun!The highest building in Switzerland just cuts through the fog, Zurich, Switzerland.
The spectacle that I witnessed was much more impressive than I could have hoped. At the beginning, only the newly built Prime Tower barely reached through the fog and the whole city and lake were blanketed by a fluffy white sea of clouds and fog. 
Zurich, Switzerland
The smoke and smokestack of a waste-to-energy plant also broke through the white blanket as I enjoyed the view and the warmth of the glistening sun. The sea of clouds disolved layer by layer, slowly revealing the city floor by floor. For almost an hour the panoramic view of Zurich constantly changed until the sun had evaporated the white soup completely and the city had appeared. Indeed a very memorable morning of which nothing could have been guessed if I had stayed at home. 

During fall and winter, fog is a common guest in Zurich. The moisture from the lake and the entrapment of cold air by the chain of hills around Zurich (which causes a temperature inversion: cold air at the bottom covered by warmer air above) can lead to the formation of ground or high fog, which can prevail for days or weeks. You never know exactly if, when and where it dissolves and these are the times when on the weekends everybody heads to the mountains to hike, climb, ski or tobogganing. 

2011/10/23 by Unknown
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The tripod, a bear and sharp photographs

Today, I would like to tell you about an unexpected benefit of carrying a tripod: We are on vacation in New England at the moment and about a week ago we undertook a wonderful hike in the White Mountains, tellingly on the Frankenstein cliff. Although we did not meet Frankenstein, we encountered a black bear that tried to sneak up on us. Instead of being scared away by our presence, as it should be the nature of a wild creature, it kept approaching and following us. Shouting and screaming caused the imposing bear to hesitate only shortly and it kept trotting behind us (easily close enough for a nice portrait shot, but at that moment photography was not a primary concern of mine anymore). Desperate for a more drastic measure to chase the bear away, I pulled out my tripod, extended its legs and started to wave it nervously and agitatedly (in combination with ever louder shouting). Although it is a wimpy, lightweight tripod that you can easily carry around for days, the bear seemed impressed and decided - to our all relief - to abandon its five-course menu, to leave the hiking trail and to disappear in the woods. We still finished our hike in record time and kept shouting and screaming all the way until we reached a more frequented trail, where we even used the tripod to take a photograph - a self-timer shot of the intact family. To be fair, it should be mentioned that fatal black bear encounters are rare and that the situation may not have been as dangerous as it seemed (although "our" bear looked intimidating and dangerous to us).
I already liked my tripod before and feel only confirmed in my appraisal for its qualities as a perfect hiking and traveling tripod by the newly discovered scarebear effect. If correctly used and ready at hand a tripod can be a very helpful tool; both for taking sharp photographs and for avoiding sharp bear teeth. As a side note, I would like to claim that a tripod can effectively stabilize your camera only if the center column is NOT extended. Therefore, I have cut the center column of my tripod, as you may observe in the above photograph. Since this is only a kludge, I would really like somebody to produce a lightweight, sturdy and small tripod without center column at all (but instead with an included leveling base). 

2011/10/20 by Unknown
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Florian's photos: Mystic foggy winter forest

This is a photograph from the recently added trees gallery. The photograph was taken last winter in Zurich, on the Käferberg. It was a cold and foggy morning and I was hesitant if I should venture out at all and where I should head. Luckily, my wife encouraged me to go for a photo bike ride in the cold and suggested the forrest as the goal.
In the Waid, the fog was thick, but the sun was just breaking through, trying to dissolve the hazy soup. I really like how fog can transform any scene and creates constantly changing nuances of lights, shadows and colors. Fog has the power to render the ordinary unique, just like snow and shadows can as well. Fog also transforms any scene in an almost black and white scene with just a subtle hint of color. This is my most preferred of several photograph because for me it captures the mood and light of that moment the best. I had even taken photographs on regular film, the first time again since long, but the roll is not even developed yet. I may post the analogously captured version of this view another time and I will also write about another photograph that I took a little later on the same morning in a follow-up.

2011/10/18 by Unknown
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Florian's photos: Trees

My tree gallery comprises views of trees from close or far and in groups or solitude; compositions in which trees are the dominating feature, only to be challenged by light and shadow. I particularly like scenes where light, shadow or snow emphasize the inner structure of trees. There are no autumnal trees - these belong to the autumn color gallery - and vast views including trees belong to the landscapes
I have spent a lot of time selecting and developing these photographs, but I am still in the process of organizing everything into meaningful and distinct categories. This process is also necessary in order to limit the selection of photographs because I find online galleries that are plastered with virtually identical images most annoying. So here is my tree collection; 12 photographs as in all my galleries. The 12 photographs will change periodically, but if you crave for more and want to see all the photographs, there is a link to more tree photographs below the gallery title; like it is done in my other galleries. I am quite satisfied with this solution and hope that you are too.

2011/10/15 by Unknown
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My photo treasures: Paul Nicklen

There are few photographs that I find unconditionally great, but "Polar Bear and Reflection" by Paul Nicklen is one of these photos. For me, this picture comprises everything a great photograph should: It shows the subject in a new fashion, is perfectly framed and represents a clear, harmonic and minimalistic composition. The polar bear almost seems to float in the void and the bear's "cool" glance at the photographer and viewer is the icing on the cake!
Photograph © Paul Nicklen, "Polar Bear and Reflection"

Emphasizing one photograph of the huge body of work of Paul Nicklen may appear unjustified. But on the other hand, you may already have seen some of the extraordinary photographs of Paul Nicklen. He is famous for his extraordinary outdoor photographs of mostly polar regions. He has done numerous stories for National Geographic, including work on the atlantic salmon, the incredible leopard seal encounter or recently the spirit bear. Paul Nicklen has also published a wonderful coffee-table book entitled "POLAR OBSESSION", which everybody should buy (it only cost 29 USD at the moment!).  Paul Nicklen uses his photography to rise awareness for the profound impact of the melting polar ice on these ecosystems and our planet as a whole. You may also want to read one or the other interview with Paul Nicklen (for example here, herehere, or here) or, much more impressive, watch Paul Nicklen's TED presentation below. It lasts almost 18 min, but it is absolutely worth your time. Enjoy!

2011/10/13 by Unknown
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Autumn colors: flittering cherry leaves

Another seasonal photograph; this time of impressionistic autumnal cherry leaves. This is one of the old slides that I have recently scanned - it was taken 18 years ago. I am quite proud of this photograph because the idea to capture the flittering of the leaves was entirely my own and this was the first such photograph that I ever took. I do of course not claim that I have invented taking impressionistic photographs with long shutter speeds, but at that time I had never seen a comparable photograph and this is what counts for me. In a similar case I have also once "invented" the coefficient of variation during my studies; only to learn that it was commonly used by statisticians - as you see, I am quite ignorant. Either way, I still like this photograph very much and it reminds me of a wonderful fall foliage photography afternoon.

As a comparison, this second photograph was taken at the same time of the same tree but obviously with a much shorter shutter speed (and a tripod, as the first one as well). I also quite like this photograph, but it is very different and, in my opinion, less special the the flittering leaves above.

2011/10/09 by Unknown
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My photo treasures: Tom McLaughlan

To mention and present the photography of Tom McLaughlan in social web media may appear a little bit like bringing owls to Athens. Tom McLaughlan seems extremely well connected to large photography groups on flickr and Google+ and is highly appreciated for his photography.
I would like to alert you of Tom McLaughlan's work because I very much appreciate the clear, minimalistic and geometric compositions. The photographs attest to an individual style and a very conscious observe of his environment. The subjects that Tom McLaughlan photographs are very diverse and often very colorful, which I also like. Especially the ministract collection is a fascinating potpourri of discoveries, hidden details and views mostly in the human environment. Ministract is a term invented by Tom McLaughlan as a label for photographs that are both minimalistic and abstract but do not fit either category satisfactorily. It is a very popular theme on flickr as well as on Google+, where Tom McLaughlan just established the Ministract Monday. This will certainly become a source for numerous fascinating contributions around this topic!
DissymmetryPhotograph © Tom McLaughlan

2011/10/06 by Unknown
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Autumn colors: Moved autumn trees

Reds, whites and oranges blowing in the wind. The fall foliage display is about to start and I look forward to our leaf peeping trip to New England.  This is an autumn color composition that I like quite a lot. It was taken in 2001 in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, which is a wonderful weekend fall foliage trip from the Washington D. C. area.

2011/10/02 by Unknown
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