A couple of weeks ago I was in the U.S. and I visited fellow blogger Pat Coakley, at her home. As we shot the breeze I brought up the subject of portaiture photography and the sorts of images people put up of themselves on their blogs.
I mentioned that I find self selected portraits fascinating because they give such an interesting insight into the mindset of of the sitter. Often I see photos of female bloggers that to my mind show a preoccupation with their self image of themselves as sex objects rather than humans that happen to be female. A similar thing goes for many men with the added conceit that conveys an attempt to look either seriously “deep” or macho.
Now I know it’s human nature to feel exposed when displaying a photo of oneself and it takes a fair amount of courage to let down our defences and allow someone else the try and show a little more about ourselves to others. I’ve often thought that the higher the defences that a person presents, the weaker and more vulnerable they feel. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that the people who “let it all hang out” are usually very brave confident people (either that or drunk!) and I’ve admired them for it.
I hold the advertising industry largely responsible for the mass negative self-consciousness I see exhibited in western society. Our self image is constantly under attack by businesses that want us to feel that we need to buy their products to feel better about ourselves. Like some kind of insidious water torture, the steady dripping of corrosive advertising messages is eroding away many of the fragile positive attitudes we may have of ourselves, to the point that a lot of us feel we can’t be photographed, “warts and all”. As a society we have been brainwashed into thinking that everyone else in our society has to find us sexually alluring at all times. The ad industry would has us believe that we are constantly on some kind meat market catwalk with the spotlight on us, and the rest of the society we live with is the audience of buyers.
Crazy making stuff.
As I was ranting on along these lines, Pat asked me what sort of portraits did I think people should put on their blogs. My answer was, “a character portrait”.
By a character portrait, I mean a portrait that gives some kind of insight into the character of the sitter, rather than a fruitless (and to my mind, an excruciatingly embarrassing) attempt to cover-up and compensate for their ad industry created insecurities.
To my reply Pat said something along the lines of, “well then, take a photo of me to show what you mean”
So without allowing Pat to make any adjustments to herself I grabbed my camera and took a few shots right where we were sitting at the dining table.
I always like taking portraits of people looking straight back at me. I’m of the opinion that it’s almost impossible to hide on one’s face, what is going on internally in one’s mind. Having a portrait is quite confronting for most of us and I love how when people look down my lens back at me there is usually a questioning openness in their expressions.
Pat gave me a look that appeared on the surface to be a mixture of defiance and vulnerability that intimated to me, “I’m trusting you here”.
Needless to say, I love the photos I took of Pat (even though the depth of field is a bit shallow) because they show her the way how I see her (it’s always going to be a subjective projection from my point of view). In the few days that I spent with Pat I received the impression that I was in the presence of an erudite and compassionate being.
The photo above is all eyes and mouth and in the kindest way I feel that sums up Pat. The eyes are always observing behaviour and soaking up beauty, while the mouth is often transmitting wisdom and insight.
It’s a silly question I know, but I raise it because just about every reference to Geiranger I’ve come across on the net has things like ” voted best travel destination in Scandinavia by Lonely Planet” or “Geiranger is the crown jewels of the fjords”, etc, writen in them.
There is no doubt about it, Greiranger and the surrounding area is jaw-droppingly beautiful…… that’s if the weather is good. It would be very easy to go to Geiranger and not see much except for rain and clouds, but when the clouds lift it’s hard to imagine many places in the world that would be more spectacular.
I find it interesting that we as humans like to create hierarchies. The web is full of silly lists like “10 most beautiful places to wake up in” (Lonely Planet isn’t what it used to be and has much to answer for nowadays). Such lists tend to be written about places which recieve the most visitors, not necessarily the “best” (whatever that would actually mean and how could it be measured?). Luckily there are still quite a few very beautiful places left that are visited by so few outsiders that any publicity in their direction gets lost in the noise about the more well know places.
Mercifully, places like Geiranger which are so well known and crawling with tourists (like me) are truly beautiful and seem to be able to withstand the influx of its many admirers. As for the other little gems that haven’t attracted the world’s attention, let’s hope Lonely Planet never hears about them.
The reason why I didn’t identify where this picture was taken in the title, as I usually do, was because I didn’t want anyone to think that the lovely little Norwegian town I took the photo in was terrible. What I found Hellish was the concept of travel that some people would have us believe, is desirable. I think that for most people who haven’t done it, a cruise would seem like an ideal holiday. A cruise of the Norwegian fjords sounds even better. The trouble is that reality doesn’t match the sales brochures.
The Norwegian fjords are beautiful but I don’t think taking a cruise is even close to the best way to enjoy them.
When I was in Dubrovnik a few years ago there were four cruise ships in port and the place was overflowing with people who had been ferried in for a few hours to look around, only to be hustled back onto the boat before nightfall for dinner and departure for the next destination. I asked one of the passengers where they had been the day before and I was told “Venice”. Venice one day, Dubrovnik the next and Athens the day after.
Thank you MA’AM!
So back to the image above. My wife and I have been in Norway for 5 days now and it’s rained every day. the thing is that it usually hasn’t rained all day and there have been pockets of sunshine. As I drove into Olden near the end of the beautiful Nordfjord I saw two cruise ships moored close to shore and the tiny town (population of about 500) was packed with hoards of tourist trudging through the rain with nothing to really look at other than a rather ordinary town with a supermarket and a few souvenier shops selling tat. There they were, hundreds of people who’d probably dreamed and fantasized for years as they scrimped and saved to go on a cruise to the fjords, wandering around in the rain with the view obscured by clouds and rain.
As if to mock the poor wet punters, an idle fake fantasy train (I really hate those things!) was parked by the cruise ship, devoid of passengers save its crew who lounged dry inside.
As I drove past I thought to myself, “you poor bastards!” …… Then I turned around and took the picture with a smug sense of schadenfreude…… as one does!
The trouble, as I see it, with cruise ships and just about any other kind of group travel is that they aren’t that flexible. You can’t just get off when you want, you have to leave when the tour operators want to leave and you have to suffer the further indignity of queueing up for things all the time, like buffets (bleeeegh!), checking into hotels, getting into coachs or ferries to shore etc. ad infinitum.
When you are in such a large group you have a much smaller chance to interact with the locals other than to buy something from them. Although the Nowegians have a reputation for being taciturn, I’ve found them to be a friendly lot, who are ready to spend a little time with people, who have the leisure to show a modicum of interest in them.
Whilst wandering around Copenhagen last week we came across this very picturesque part of town that looked as if it had been lifted from the lid of a box of assorted chocolates. The canal was spannned by a small bridge that had a little alcove poking out from the sidewalk where people were almost lining up to take photos from. One after the other we took our shots from exactly the same spot, to produce almost the same image in a Hockney-esque meditation into how time can divided up into little slices like a speciman being prepared for a microscope slide.
As I took in the scene I found myself thinking how we as humans like to congregate with other humans. Nyhavn’s picturesque nature attracts many visitors, and I noticed there were quite a few restaurants along the base of the colourful buildings that were full of people eating and drinking. I found it ironic that people wanted to eat in the middle of a “view” because so many people were milling around it, but the diners couldn’t take in the view because they were in the middle of it. Strangely enough, the other side of the canal, where the buildings weren’t so colourful wasn’t crowded at all although it offered a much better veiw of the part of Nyhavn (New Harbour) that was attracting the crowds. Surely it would be better to have the restaurants on the second floor of the buildings on the less crowded street so one could take in the full unobstructed scene.
Copenhagen is quite a small city and it’s mercifully flat which makes it an ideal place to go cycling. Fortunately the civilised and sensible Danes have built cycle lanes on most of the roads, so cycling around town is a real joy. The fact that cycling is encouraged in Copenhagen is lost on many of the tourists who choose to go on guided bus and canal boat tours to places that can be easily reached by bicycle or on foot. They can’t have all been infirm, could they?
One of the problems with traveling is that it is very easy to get into the well worn rut that has is used to help separate people from their money and to keep them unfit in the name of comfort and convenience.
Ever since I saw a shabby little collection of cheap souvenirs from the 1930s onwards, in a showcase at the old Girl Guides headquarters in Sydney, I’ve resolved to buy “nice” pieces when I’m overseas. Instead of buying lots of little tatty things, my wife and I lash out and spend what we think is a fair bit of money for what we consider is something really special.
When we were in Ubud in Bali this year we saw this stone statue and we were immediately drawn to it.
Over a period of about a week we kept on going back to have a look at it.
Ubud is more or less the art centre of Bali and as such is packed with a plethora of galleries. It’s the Santa Fe of Indonesia, if you will. The items in Ubud run the full gamut, from very cheap and nasty crap, right through to mind blowingly amazing and expensive artworks.
The trouble with buying tribal artefacts in Ubud is that, often the people who are selling the items don’t know anything about them. As a matter of fact you can go into the same store on different days and be told a different story about the same item every day. Sure enough, the Balinese who work in the stores know about the local Balinese artwork, but they can be so clueless when it comes to art that has been brought to them from other parts of Indonesia. We were told that the statue we were interested in was from Sulewesi.
Since getting back home and doing some research on the net, the best guess I can make for the origin of the statue is that it might’ve come from Sumatra and it might’ve been made by the Karo Batak. The statue has design proportions and elements similar in style to those used by the Karo Batak and it might be based on naga marsarang (Medicine Horns) used by Batak datuk (animist priests) to hold magic substances. I also suspect that the creature that I first thought might be a seahorse could actually be a singa (a protective mythological creature).
To be honest though, I don’t really care where the statue comes from, as I like it, and for all I know it could be some pastiche of various Indonesian designs cobbled together by a local sculptor. I would like to know where it comes from because I just hate being ignorant about anything.
A few days before we were to leave Bali, we took the plunge and after some haggling the statue was bought for a bit under half what was asked (which probably 50% more than would we should’ve paid). The Statue is 630mm high (about 24″), 650mm long (about 25 and half inches), 25cm wide (about 11″) and weighs 39kg (nearly 86 lbs) so we arranged for sea freight to get it back home at a cost of $400 USD. I knew we would be up for customs brokerage fees as well when the statue arrived so I figured that we were up for about another $100 when we picked it up.
I picked up the statue yesterday and on top of the brokerage fees of $130, we had to pay another $93.50 for the delivery order (WTF is it, and does it mean?).
Then there was the import processing fee of $22.
Cargo automation fee of $27.50.
Terminal handling charge of another $27.50.
It was starting feel like the process was a death by a thousand cuts, but then came the heavier blow of $135.44 for the handling fee, quickly followed up by another body blow to the guts $121.
They knew they had me helpless on the ropes, so they unleashed a quick flurry of lighter blows to finish me off.
$22 for maritime security charge.
$11 for post and petties (petties? I thought this was just a beating, not foreplay).
So on top of paying $400 to ship the statue, I had to pay a further $591.44. Basically it cost us $1000 to ship our purchase from Bali.
Did I feel like I got screwed?
I was screwed, blued and tattooed!
They bent me over that counter and fucked me six ways to Christmas! They also had the audacity to act surprised when I told them I didn’t enjoy the experience and what a bunch of rapists I thought they were.
I felt so despoiled, as if I’d been subjected to some kind depraved customs broker’s fantasy. I can almost imagine what might’ve being going through the brokers mind’s as they were having their way with me.
Thanks to Joost (a visitor to this blog) I’ve just found out about Caro Emerald. I think she’s fantastic and her music will be on my next order with Amazon.
Radio here in Australia is so abysmal.
Arrrggghh! The tyranny of the majority and commercial concerns!
I’m so glad that I have friends with taste who can turn me onto new and interesting music. My wife and I are always on the lookout (or perhaps I should say listening for) non-mainstream (by Australian standards, which isn’t saying much) music, so if any of you out there think I might like something you’ve heard, please let me know about it and I’ll go and check it out.
The Alcázar of Segovia was for me, the best grand building I saw on my European trip last year. Most palaces and their selfish and clueless ostentation leave me feeling cold.
Warning bells went off in my head when I read that the Alcázar of Segovia was one of the buildings along with Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, that inspired that great exponent of kitsch and schmaltz, Walt Disney, to design the Wonderland entrance to his amusement parks. I was surprised how much I disliked Neuschwanstein and I wasn’t too optimistic about enjoying Segovia’s main tourist attraction.
We stayed in a very beautiful hotel right at the back of the castle, and as soon as I clapped my eyes on it, I was gob-smacked. Appearing through the early autumn foliage was, what has become for me, the epitome of what a castle could be.
Neuschwanstein rankled me so much because it was so ersatz; tacky in such a mad and over the top sort of way. A pure folly of brainless selfishness.
Segovia’s castle is obviously a defensive structure where some very powerful had people lived, but for me what saved it from being dismissed as yet another monument to greed, was that as far as the palaces I’ve experienced, it was relatively restrained.
Sure, the form of the Alcázar follows function, but there is also plenty of evidence of a desire to build something beautiful that not just the owners will see.
One of the things that struck me about Europe, was the fact that architectural beauty is important. I guess it’s a sad thing about wages becoming more equitable in the first world in this modern age that we live in. No more cheap labour to suck the life out of and exploit. No more decoration, just for the sake of it.
So many buildings (here in Australia at least) are built for a price nowadays and aesthetics have largely been abandoned in much of the public architecture I’ve seen sprouting up lately. For every Renzo Piano or Frank Gehry there seems to be thousands of tasteless architectural versions of Myrmidons, ready to churn out as many eyesores as they can.
Although most of the Alcázar is comparatively modest and functional, compared to so many other royal residences I’ve been to, there has been a fortune spent on the ceilings. It’s obvious where so much new world gold was spent. After all, this was the home of Isabella and Ferdinand, the alpha couple of their time.
As I looked up at the ceilings, I found myself thinking about Christopher Columbus going cap in hand to the King and Queen as he promised to make them so much richer.
The ceilings are proof that Columbus was a man of his word.
Perhaps this heavenwards manifestation of wealth was an early form of prosperity preaching. Go with the right god and you’ll hit the big time. Jesus is my main guy and his co-pilot the pope, let me take all this great stuff from those heathens.
So watch your step, or your arse will be mine!
Despite thoughts about what was done in Isabella and Ferdinand’s names, my wife and I never tired of seeing the Alcázar rising like a beautiful Renaissance stone battleship, out of the rocks.
Today I went into the city to meet up with fellow blogger Vanille who has come over from New Zealand with her husband, Paprika for a short trip.
Vanille is a French woman with a real sense of style, a fabulous food photographer and cook who has a deep interest in architecture. So when I offered to show her and Paprika around town I felt a little worried about where to take them. The weather as been pretty lousy here in Sydney lately so I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the easy way out with a trip on the harbour which always pleases. I asked what places they’d wanted to visit and the told me the Powerhouse museum and Darling Harbour. I’ve been to those two place several times and felt they weren’t that interesting but I thought that they might be of interest to others who had never seen them so I didn’t try to dissuade them.
Sydney is like any other tourist destination, in that it has heaps of over hyped opportunities to blow money and time on very little.
The first place we went to was the Powerhouse Museum which features technology and design. Although the Powerhouse museum was much vaunted in various design media when it was first opened, it is now a tired old triumph of style over substance. Dark displays hidden under noisy soundscapes and wretched projected video excess. I felt embarrassed that I was there with people of obvious taste and intelligence. Mercifully, Vanille and Paprika were self assured enough to let me know they’d rather see something else, so we bailed and headed for nearby Chinatown for lunch.
Despite the best efforts of whatever committee that has tried to turn Chinatown into a tourist experience, it is still a great place to go for excellent and cheap food. I particularly recommend the Sussex centre which is basically an Asian shopping mall that has a fantastic food hall of very authentic Chinese food from all over Asia. One of my favourite dishes that I like to turn visitors (who are unfamiliar with the food of South East Asia) onto, is the laksa (I prefer the Katong style).
After lunch we went to Darling Harbour which, despite being promoted as a tourist attraction, is nothing more than yet another retail mall with more tourist nick-knacks per square metre than just about anywhere else in Australia.
I think that what the people who design such places don’t understand, is that there should something that makes the place worthwhile to visit on an intrinsic level rather than just a place to shop. Darling harbour is just one of those lame-arse copies of the glasshouse Eaton centre in Toronto Canada with very little to offer to anyone other than pathological shoppaholic. At least it’s near the water and gives a good view of the city.
To my mind, Vanille and Paprika were starting to look a little dispirited with some of Sydney’s major tourist traps and when the pouring rain came I knew I had to think fast.
Vanille has studied architecture and we had been talking about the design of various things so I thought I should show her the beautiful Queen Victoria building as a way to show that not everything in Sydney is a clumsy and crass attempt to separate tourists from their money.
The Queen Victoria building (also known as the QVB) is a stunningly ornate sandstone shopping centre built in the late 19th century that has been recently renovated.
It’s a building that has much old world charm and it offers so much more than a chance to merely shop. The QVB is an aesthetic tour de force that is so rare in these days of soulless shopping malls and tourist traps.
I went to Cockatoo Island (one of my favourite places in Sydney) on Sunday with some friends to check out part of the Sydney Biennale. I was instantly reminded of something a set designer once said to me about a detail on a set I’d spotted (I used to be a set builder in the theatre) that needed to be sorted out. She said to me, “oh don’t worry about that, if the audience notices, it will be a sign that the play is a flop”.
I remember being stuck by what she (the set designer) had said, and how true it was.
Not long after, I was involved with the complicated construction of a set that was built on two revolves that when rotated would break the set in half and then produce another scene as the old scene rotated off stage. There were three amazing set changes that happened with the audience watching . It was all a very magical theatrical experience and an excellent piece of set design.
The trouble was, that the play was so bad that the only thing the audience applauded were the set changes!
I’m not kidding.
Cockatoo Island is an old dockyard from the early 19th century. It’s now decommissioned as a dockyard but a lot of the old decaying buildings are still there. The whole place is a sort of monument to a shabby kind utilitarian brutalism that has almost been malevolently designed to be as ugly as possible. The strange thing is that now that the paint is peeling and iron is rusting Cockatoo Island has to my mind become a wonderful place.
Visual roughage for the eyes, if you will.
As part of the Sydney Biennale a free art exhibition is currently showing on Cockatoo Island in the various buildings. The only problem was, was that most of the art was so weak that the venue totally overwhelmed what was being shown.
I didn’t see anything that I thought was particularly interesting, never mind anything mind blowing. A few pieces were O.K. but there was nothing that I saw that I thought required more than a few seconds to look at.
Several years ago I was having a bit of a moan to a camera salesman about the limited tonal range that digital cameras could capture. I complained about how the clouds were always blown out and shooting into the sun was pointless because most of the sky would go white. I also mentioned that I thought that even the high end digital SLRs still had a long way to go as they weren’t that much better that the little compact point and shoot cameras.
Luckily the guy I was talking to, unlike so many sales clerks, actually knew what he was talking about and he said that I should take a look at the Fuji Pro S3. The Fuji is basically a Nikon body with Fuji’s super CCD in it. The store where the salesman worked didn’t sell the Fuji and at $3500 AUD without a lens it was way out of my price range. Like a lot of things that I can’t have for whatever reason, I sublimated my desire for the Pro S3 and put it on the back burner of my mind.
Some more time passed and about 9 months before I went to Europe last year I bought a second hand Fuji Pro S3 body, over the internet for $650 AUD. I was pretty happy with the results I was getting with my new camera and I took it on my overseas trip where I took over 4000 photos with it.
About a month ago, I helped out a friend of mine (Mark) who owns a Nikon D200, get his beautiful landscape photos from a recent tirp to California, ready for an exhibition. Mark was a bit concerned about some of his shots because the skies were blown out and the clouds had lost their details. I asked Mark if he’d shot in RAW and he said “yes”, so I said to him, “don’t worry, you’ll be amazed at what information we will be able to pull out of a RAW file”.
I was looking forward to showing Mark how much detail we were going to pull out of his skies and clouds. I got quite a shock when I opened up Mark’s images in Photoshop and there was much less detail than what I expected. I’d become so used to the extended tonal range of my Fuji, that I thought it was “normal” and I was really disappointed for Mark. Although we got some nice results for Mark’s exhibition, I knew the Fuji would’ve provided much better results.
A while back I’d been talking to Mark about his decision to buy the camera he did, and he said he’d been influenced by Ken Rockwell’s camera reviews
To me Rockwell is one of those guys who would have people believe he knows all about cameras. From where I stand, I’d say that he still has a lot to learn. Here is an example of what he has said on his website:
I think what people like Rockwell are lacking, is an understanding of how important post processing of images is.
Just like in the old days with film, one couldn’t get a really good image until they’d figured out how to develop their own negatives and do their own printing. Darkroom skills used to be essential to get images to look like they did to the photographer when they saw the scene originally.
“What!” I hear you cry.
Yep, cameras don’t tell the “truth” as we know it. Cameras, film, CCDs only approximate what we see. The huge difference between an image taken with a camera and a scene seen with the human eye is that the eye has a brain behind it that makes all sorts of decisions about how the scene is going to be interpreted by the viewer. Cameras, for all their electronic wizardry are basically very, very, very dumb.
Have you ever noticed how flat and boring so many photographs are when you get them back from processing or look at them on you computer monitor in comparison to when you were looking at the original scene? The camera has no way of prioritising what is important to us; what should be emphasised and what should be ignored. To a camera, every scene is made of elements that have no meaning or aesthetic weight.
Your eye has a far wider acceptance of tonal range than any film, camera or CCD. Plus our brain automatically adjusts to what we are interested in, whereas a camera has no way of knowing what is important to us. Now I know there’s bound to be some smart arse reading this, who will pipe up and say, “oh yeh, what about exposure compensation?” The trouble with exposure compensation (particularly with digital cameras) is that if you expose to retain detail in your highlights, your shadow detail will be lost, and vise versa if you expose for the shadows.
Back in the days when film was king, the maxim of, “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights”, was the catch cry of the masters of the darkroom arts like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The old photographic masters knew that most of the tonal information could be captured if you knew how to control the process.
Nowadays in this age of digital cameras, the darkroom has been just about replaced by Photoshop.
Now many people think Photoshop is for “jazzing up” images and that somehow using it is “cheating”. These same old purists would think nothing of selecting a particular film stock for it’s saturated colours, or printing papers for it’s rendition of flesh tones or ”pushing or pulling” colour film to affect its colour balance, etc.
Back when one worked on an image in the darkroom, it was accepted practice to dodge and burn a print, because of the fact that film and the paper being printed on couldn’t deal with the complete tonal range. The same goes for the printing industry. The highest quality fine art books, especially those with high quality black and white images, use a process called “duotone” to get a tonal range that is close to a hand processed photographic print. A duotone is basically two images at either extreme of the tonal range that are printed on top of each other.
So in a long winded way, I’ve tried to point out that it is necessary to have as wide a tonal range as possible so that the end product image, can be as close as possible to the scene first seen by the photographer. The wider the tonal range, the wider the options are when it comes to how one wants an image to look in long run.
The trouble with reviewers like Rockwell is that they seem to have limited knowledge about what’s really going on when one takes a photo and what’s really important. So many of the specifications that people masturbate over, are in the grand scheme of things, not that important. Unless you’re a sports or wildlife photographer, who cares if your camera shoots 5 frames a second, if your tonal range is crap and it causes highlights to be blown out, while your shadows are just black blobs?
When it came to the misrepresentation or misinterpretation of facts, my grandmother used to parody an unscrupulous cloth merchant, saying, “never mind the quality, feel the width”. Just to emphasise how ridiculous, whatever illogical or misleading thing was being said.
Much of what is in reviews isn’t all that relevant to the photographic cognoscenti. Knowledge is power, and it pays to be an educated consumer. The trick, and this goes for just about everything in life, is to pick the right people to listen to and learn from.
Yes their reviews are very in depth and require a fair bit of technical knowledge to interpret, but I’d say just take a deep breath and look up the terms that you don’t understand as you go. Eventually you will build up enough knowledge to make informed decisions on you own instead of being misled by people with big holes in their knowledge like Rockwell.
One more thing, if you are shooting to save your files as JPEGs, do yourselves a favour and stop it. Start using RAW because you will get far better results because the RAW file format is much more versatile as it contains way more information.
Here’s a video tutorial on how to adjust RAW files as they are opened in Photoshop.
This next tutorial is on another important Photoshop technique, “masking”, by the god of Photoshop, Russell Brown.