Hamlet, the Photographer

During a screening of the National Theater’s latest production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch at Symphony Space on Sunday, I was reminded of a few lines where Hamlet advises his actors, prior to the ‘play within a play…’

He begins with “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…” as the speech progresses, Hamlet the Life Coach suggests…

…you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

Seemingly directed towards actors playing a part, these lines are universal.  In so short a text, Shakespeare cautions us to beware our own eagerness of showing and not telling.  He is putting us in control of presenting our work, be it poetry, acting, photography, and betting that we will see our audience as a discerning group.  They will most certainly be aware of our attempts at deception through over-editing or cliches.  In other words, play to the finest.

Photography’s ability to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ runs a wide gamut.  To begin with I will use an obvious, and some might say vulgar, example (apologies in advance). The subject of HDR photography came up with a group of students during my Art on the Tracks workshop with Janina McCormack.

In HDR Imagery we see an attempt to maximize detail throughout the tonal range of a picture — and while I will leave the ‘Issue of Taste’ to another post — these images often sacrifice the very things they aim to maximize, impact through contrast.  What is often created is an image that is essentially all mid-tones.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but if we are looking at scene encompassing deep shadowed areas and bright highlights, employing techniques such as this might make things look a bit… o’erdone?

In contrast, I recall standing before a print by Amy Lamb in a private collection in New York City.  Here are pictures that clearly define their subjects. As she says:

“I noticed that the forms I observed in flowers were found throughout the universe in spiral galaxies, branching rivers, layered rock formations, beautifully symmetrical organisms, and more.”

The beauty is in the order with which these objects fall.  Lamb doesn’t have to overstate her subjects for her photographs to have impact, but she understands how to accent their natural elements so that one may see the thing as clearly as possible.  Within the studied restraint of her work, lies power.

… the mirror up to nature.


Chattanooga Parking Lot

Saturday, October 15, 2015

I’m waiting for the sky to darken to achieve a balance of light between subject and sky.  I’ve practiced this a thousand times before: set up the large format camera, and wait, wait, wait.  I took up a habit of keeping a written record of my experiences during these times, when observations are not quite ready to be suspended…

It’s mid-October, but the breeze, more like wind, and the milky grey sky feel as if it’s late November.

Second day out of New York City and my mind has been all over the place.  I know what I came here for but my trip has no purpose yet.

Up here on a parking lot roof in Chattanooga–the Choo Choo right next door, the sign jutting up into the sky, quite assertively.  I am feeling pangs of isolation.  The faint numbness of uncertainty — I’m not sure what this trip holds yet… it is 5:52 and the day is closing.  I have a habit of questioning my purpose on the first couple days of heading out to photograph.  I get so tired sometimes of having to pass through this stage of disinterest, to get into the feeling of working, but wasn’t it Diane Arbus who said that the “Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination…”? 

I can relate to that.  Whether one is working in the studio or landscape,  it is the process of working that becomes the driving force.  Steaming through those hours or days of frustration in order to achieve a decent picture, or a line of text.

Assertive choo-choo, indeed.

Choo-Choo, Chattanooga, Tennessee

O. Winston Link

When I wanted to start creating more meaningful pictures,  one of the artists I looked to for inspiration was O Winston Link.  His best known images chronicle the final days of steam railroading on the Norfolk & Western Railway, the last American railroad to use the steam locomotive in a big way.  Link, a native New Yorker, sought to represent the railroad as well as its surroundings — the people and rural enclaves that relied on the railroad as much as the railroad did on them.

It is this contextual sense which gives Link’s images, shot primarily at night with intricate flashbulb setups, a lasting importance as artistic and historical documents.  In a country where the interstate and automobile have replaced the railroad as the heart-and-soul of small and mid-sized cities, Link’s images allow us to experience a time where things weren’t so easily accessible, where a forlorn steam whistle punctuated one’s day, and where the wanderlust of the steel rails beckoned many.

Highball for the Doubleheader, April 23, 1959.

Link passed away in 2001, but has since been honored with a museum in Roanoke, Virginia. A collection of his photographs will be exhibited at Robert Mann Gallery in February and March.

O. Winston Link at Robert Mann Gallery

February 8, 1957

Engineer J. R. Harrell at Shaffers Crossing Roundhouse, Bluefield, WV.

How Weather Simplifies

Snow has always simplified my task in photography.  In many respects it reduces the scene to its essence.  When I’m lucky the composition presents itself in the mind’s eye with great alacrity — and other times I find myself looking for a more essential interpretation.  I’ve always wanted to photograph the Roosevelt Island Tram, which connects Manhattan Island to Roosevelt Island, but it was only when I was out in the snow did I fully realize how much the bleak snowy background helped accentuate the red tram and black cables.

All images are from the New York City area during the most recent snowfall.