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Photography Documentaries I’ve Liked
By David Cobb
It’s been a long time since the days of the boring and staid documentary. We’re now in the “Golden Age” of this genre, and there have been a number of good photography documentaries released over the past few years. I find that sometimes it’s difficult to make a decision on a film when I love the images, but the quality of the documentary is not great. (Maybe there are poor production values, or the film needed an editor, or it’s just not that interesting. When that happens, I prefer to look at a book of the photographer’s images.)
All the films on this list are easily accessible for viewing, and for the purposes of this list I haven’t included any television series. What follows are a few photography documentaries that I’ve liked from the many I’ve watched.
- The Salt of the Earth – (2014, Director Wim Wenders) This film relives the career of Sebastiao Salgado and covers his major body of work and exhibitions. From the opening scene of images at the gold mines of Serra Pelada to his work on his most recent project Genesis, the film leaves no doubt that Salgado is one of the greatest photographers ever.
- What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann – (2005, Director Steven Cantor) An exploration into the creative mind of an artist. Sally Mann discusses her work through her successes, failures, her influences, and disappointments. There is something for every photographer to relate to in this film.
- Finding Vivian Maier – (2013, Directors John Maloof, Charlie Siskel) Possibly the most famous of all films on this list, Finding Vivian Maier is a movie about a woman who blended in and surreptitiously photographed non-stop for years with no one really knowing she was amassing a large catalogue of images. After her death her work was recently discovered, and the documentary pieces together her life from clues, photographs, and conversations with (now adult) children she looked after while fulfilling her job as a nanny. Her life is a bit of a mystery, but her outstanding photographic work shines a light into her spirit.
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – (2012, Director Alison Klayman) Ai Weiwei is a multi-media artist and dissident with homes in the U.S. and China. He’s known in photography for his “giving the finger” images and also his selfies. He might be described as Warhol, Picasso, Calder, and Banksy, rolled into one. This isn’t truly a photography documentary, but it’s fascinating and thought-provoking.
- Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe – (2007, Director James Crump) A thoughtful film which brings to life the professional and personal relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and his benefactor Sam Wagstaff.
- Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters – (2012, Director Ben Shapiro) The incredible production value, difficulty, and creativity of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs is on display in this mesmerizing documentary. The filming follows him during his work on his Beneath the Roses concept.
- Meru – (2015, Jimmy Chin, Chai Vasarhelyi) Ok, it’s not really a photography documentary, but photographer and videographer Jimmy Chin does a spectacular job of filming this first ascent. Teamed with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, the climb of the imposing shark fin of India’s Mount Meru gave me the willies just watching. There is a section of this film which showcases some of the climbing photography techniques that Jimmy Chin uses when on assignment.
- War Photographer – (2001, Director Christian Frei) A documentary of photojournalist James Nachtwey who lets his images do the talking. He’s won numerous awards and the highest honors in his profession, and this documentary captures him on assignment in Kosovo, Indonesia, Africa, and the West Bank. The film opens with an adage from Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and Nachtwey lives by these words. His photographic records of war, famine, and poverty are devastating, and his philosophy on why he’s a war photographer is fascinating.
- Bill Cunningham New York – (2010, Director Richard Press) A delightful film which follows photographer Bill Cunningham snapping fashion images on the streets of New York. Cunningham carries this documentary with his outlook on life, simple lifestyle, fashion eye, dedication, and his infectious exuberance. If you’re ever down in the dumps or want to get out of a photography rut, this film is a dandy pick-me-up.
- Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens – (2008, Director Barbara Leibovitz) This study in the life and career of Annie Leibovitz from her early days at the Rolling Stone to her work for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and her more personal work shows that even someone at the top of the photography world can still make mistakes and grow from them. Her work is astounding and her creative passion is an inspiration. The film is less in-depth than I would have liked, as some major portions of her life are discussed only on the surface.
- Inside Out: The People’s Art Project – (2013, Alastair Siddons) Street photographer JR takes his TED Talks Prize and gives it back to the people to create their own art. His world photography project helps humanize the disenfranchised from Pakistan to South Dakota as they produce giant portraits to post on the streets. They can no longer be ignored and must be seen, as they create their own power through imagery. The film is truly an inspiration to witness the influence of photography changing the common man on the street.
If there are other films you think I might be leaving off this list, let me know. Fellow Photo Cascadia members Adrian Klein and Erin Babnik shared films they liked such as Salt and The Quest for Inspiration. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’m on the lookout for these two. I hope you enjoy the films I’ve listed; many are available on Netflix so they’re easy to find and most have shorter run times. Now curl up with a bowl of popcorn and learn from the masters.
American Dreamscapes – Book Review
By David Cobb
I’ve been friends with Christian Heeb for a number of years. An immigrant from Switzerland, Heeb first got his photographic start in the U.S. photographing the Native American. His wonderment in the American myth of the Wild West led him to a variety of places including the desert southwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada range, and Route 66 among others. During his career—which includes over 200 published books—his assignments have taken him to every corner of the states and also around the world. His newest venture isn’t for a U.S. or German publisher however, but a personal project titled American Dreamscapes.
American Dreamscapes is the American dream not as interpreted by Horatio Alger, but maybe one closer to the vision of film director Quentin Tarantino. Coming of age in Switzerland, Heeb’s photography has certainly been influenced by fellow countryman Robert Frank; but Heeb also has influences in the surreal imagery of Gregory Crewdson, and the more voyeuristic photos of David Drebin. His settings also remind me of the more banal locations of photographer Stephen Shore.
Many photographers of the lost America like Anthony Hernandez, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams show the blight of American expansion and decay, and those who have been left behind or forgotten. Heeb photographs the edge of American life in a Hopperesque way: from the wayward hotel to the diner, with guns, girls, cars, and sex being common themes. This is the dark side of “when America was great again,” and this is the America that would give Dorothea Lange nightmares.
These people are not only on the fringe of society, but also on the fringe of daybreak. These are the hours when the neon glows brightly, and the hours when folks are desperate enough to commit a crime as seen in his images “The Hold Up” or “Stolen Car.” His models pose with cold distant looks, disconnected from each other and reality. In the photo “The Fun Center,” they’re having anything but fun. These people inhabit a lurid world, and they’re all trying to hang on to make it through another day.
American Dreamscapes is a limited-edition book which may be purchased in both print and digital versions from the Christian Heeb website. The book is in the dual languages of English and German.
Here is a link to download your digital copy here at his web site.
There are a number of reasons I’m drawn to photographing ghost towns. Perhaps it’s something to do for a change of pace, maybe it’s photographing the history of a bygone era, or possibly it’s my fascination with dystopian literature. But mostly it’s just fun. I’ve photographed ghost towns from Alaska to Mexico. Most of them exist from the boom-and-bust of the mining era, while others are from the days of Manifest Destiny gone awry; leftovers from a time when Americans thought if we moved to arid lands for cultivation then the rain would follow.
The ruins these people left behind are in different states of disrepair. Some are preserved as parks, some are not and are left to crumble, and others are resurrected as artist colonies for an affordable place to work and live. Whatever their state, there is always something to explore and photograph.
I’ve explored and photographed the well-known ghost towns (i.e. Bodie) to the little-known towns (i.e.) Farlin. Hell, I even did a ghost town long-distance walk across the Yukon and Northwest Territories on the 221 mile (355km) Canol Heritage Trail, and followed a World War II oil pipeline through the wilderness. The walk past little-used and abandoned autos, pump-house towns, and work stations was fascinating. Additionally, I walked the 33-mile (53km) Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, Alaska to Bennett, British Columbia that follows a land of artifacts and relics from the Klondike Gold Rush. But you don’t need to walk long distances for most ghost towns; they’re on maps and a good AWD vehicle will get you to most of them. Just remember that the majority of ghost towns are at a higher elevation and not lowland valleys, so you might need to wait until summer for access.
Upon arriving for the first time, I like to get that establishing shot. Maybe it’s an overview of the entire town from a nearby highpoint, or possibly it’s a shot of one of the more prominent buildings in town like the mine itself. If the light is not right, I’ll come back to that establishing image as the light improves, but at least I’ve found what represents the town as a whole. Once I have the establishing shot, I begin to look for the intimate. Ghost towns are known for what’s left behind. It could be a table setting, an old poster still on the wall, or implements hanging from the ceiling, but I look for those things that might tell more of the story of the place I’m photographing.
Ghost towns usually have plenty of texture and plenty of rust that can create interesting patterns of shape and color. I look at the old boards for details of pattern and rusted old cars with peeling paint can offer a myriad of abstract compositions too. If artists are moving into the area, look for the weird. Near a Nevada ghost town I photographed, there was a whole field of cars planted in the ground grill first. The exposed sections of the autos were covered with graffiti art exploring life, politics, and the exotic.
Since this is a ghost town, also look for the creepy. I had one ghost town all to myself in the middle of Montana. I walked into an old abandoned hotel to look around and then heard something upstairs. When I walked upstairs I just saw a long hallway of light and dark, and thought to myself, “I’m not going down there.” But I did try to capture in a photo the way I felt at the time.
Also when you’re visiting a ghost town look for the cemetery; there is always one nearby. Some can be quaint, others historic, and still others a bit spooky. Any way you capture them, the images can be interesting and will also help tell the story of place. Ghost towns are also a great place for night photography, and light painting the old buildings while photographing the stars overhead can make for a fun evening shoot. If you’re photographing at night, use common sense and leave the steel wool at home. Sparks from these efforts can level a whole town, and enough historic relics from California to Florida have already been lost to photographer’s fire.
In 2017 I’ll be returning to Montana to conduct a photographic loop of the western ghost town locales. I hope you can join me. You can click here for more information.
Book Review by David Cobb
“Unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art.” Sally Mann
Sally Mann photographed what she loved: her land, her husband, her children, herself; but where does her creativity come from? In her new memoir Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (2015 Little, Brown, and Company) Mann gives us insights into this world by exploring her life, family, friends, death, and sense of place. She never writes directly about her creativity in this memoir, but it exudes from the pages; like the oppressive humidity from one of her summer Virginia landscapes.
In the chapter ‘Hold Still,” Mann goes through the process by which she photographed her children, from the mundane to the disturbing. Her likes, dislikes, successes, and failures are all there to see. The images from this time period brought her celebrity status and with it controversy, and that fame and contention added a creative temperance to her psych. She sums up this thinking with a quote from writer Adam Gopnik, “When we hit pay dirt, we often find quicksand beneath it.”
Mann seems to credit her mother’s side of the family for not only her work ethic, but also her romanticism of the land, her love of place, and the land which she inhabits. If it’s her family and her own life on the land which built a foundation for her landscape images, perhaps it’s photographer Michael Miley and her artist friend Cy Twombly who helped shape and inspire her landscapes. She photographed Cy Twombly’s art studio in her early years and noticed by doing so her work “changed from documentary to evocative.” Mann’s landscapes aren’t the usual fare you might be used to seeing on the internet—they can be dark, moody, and claustrophobic, while also being timeless or by hearkening back to a bygone era.
Maybe her landscape images changed because of her father’s influence. His life-long fascination with death and his own stoic demise appears to influence her last chapter of creative energy. After a death on her land, she wondered how the land had changed for her with that incident and set about capturing it with images. She writes that “It’s not that we southerners are exactly in love with death, but there is no question that, given our history, we’re on a first-name basis with it.” For me, her photography at this time goes to another level. Before my workshop in Florida this year at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden, a professor sent me an email question about “how to capture kami (spirits) of the garden?” I could now point him to the ending chapters of this book as a guideline.
From the death on her own land, she travels to Civil War battlefields such as Antietam to represent the landscape and death that took place there over 150 years earlier. These chapters are well-covered in the documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann. The film also mentions the irony of her collodion process in the creation of these prints, and that collodion was also used to hold wounds together for the injured on the Civil War battlefield.
Her work changes from the metaphorical to the literal, as she photographs at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility known as the Body Farm. The program records decomposition and decay of the human corpse. Her work here for the New York Times Magazine added to her closing chapters and furthered her creative exploration of death.
Overall, Sally Mann’s Hold Still is an outstanding book on many levels. Intellectually interesting, whimsical, and humorous; and at times it carries the shock value of a who-done-it novel. Ultimately for me this memoir is about creativity, and it’s a look into the soul of an artist. By taking a page from Sally Mann, I wondered how those around me and the land I hold dear influences me and contribute to my artistic process–and that’s the kind of thinking that can help artistic creativity and growth.
I don’t pretend to be a wildlife photographer; I do enjoy photographing wildlife and observing the behavior of animals in their habitat. If wildlife wanders into my landscape image I enjoy including it, and when I photograph wildlife I prefer to include it as part of the environment as opposed to creating a portrait image. Including an animal in the scene gives the viewer a gauge by which to measure the grandeur of a landscape; creating a sense of scale. It also tells the story of their habitat and under what conditions they live, which is far more interesting to me than a portrait. Of course, some wildlife is small, so the landscape adjusts accordingly to maybe a handful of leaves or the grasses of a prairie and entry to the den.
If I plan on photographing wildlife in a landscape, I first increase the ISO of my camera to 400 at a minimum. In addition, consider opening the f-stop up to f11 or even f5.6 for more shutter speed. Obviously this will create a shallower depth-of-field, but photography is always about trade-offs so consider what’s best for the image before you shoot. By increasing the shutter speed, the animal’s movement won’t be blurred. Of course, if you want to capture the motion of an animal with image blur, then keep your ISO on a slow setting and just pan your camera with the animal to capture the sense of movement. (I find this works best between 1/15th of a second and 1/40th, depending on the animal’s speed.) Be careful when approaching an animal, since it is wild, unpredictable, and there is no need to cause it undo stress–all good reasons to keep your distance and capture it in its environment.
As a general rule it’s best to have the animal walking into the scene in order to create a suggested line of site, and to lead the viewer’s eye through the composition. A catch-light in the animal’s eye is also important since it suggests life. Keeping the eye sharp is key, so focus here first and then recompose if necessary. I also try and separate the elements; I may wait for the animals to spread out a bit or shoot before and after my subject is behind that tree and not while the tree overlaps my subject. I also wait until the animal has a clean background. I don’t need branches or sticks protruding from the back of my subject’s head, so I keep it clean and I keep it simple.
When it comes to wildlife photography ethics automatically come into play, and for me I think it’s best to be an observer and not a participator in the scene. I don’t want to stress an animal, I’ll never bait it, and I won’t call out to it for better eye contact. I figure wildlife already has it hard, and I’m not there to make it any harder on them. If an animal changes its course or behavior because of me, then I’ve failed in my approach. If you’re photographing in a group, keep your distance and don’t surround your subject. Always give it an outlet for escape, which will create less stress in the animal, better photographs, and probably more time with your subject. There are enough stupid photographer videos online already, and we don’t need to add to the collection.
Hopefully these handful of tips will better help your photography and also the wildlife you’re there to photograph-enjoy and observe.
Most landscape photography is shot with a wide-angle lens to accent that leading line or capture that vibrant red sunrise. Using a telephoto lens to capture a landscape offers a different challenge and a different way of thinking. The goal now is less about distortion and more about compression to help create patterns or an interesting layering effect. Currently, about one-third of my landscape images are photographed with a telephoto lens.
A few tips to help create telephoto landscape images:
• If it’s windy stay low or find a wind break. As you zoom-in camera shake is accentuated, so to keep things steady cut down on your surface area and get low to create less wind resistance on your tripod and camera–wait for a lull in the wind before taking the shot. If that doesn’t work, use a wall, structure, tree, or something for a wind break. Hanging your pack or a weight from your tripod may help create stability.
• Use the zoom function and live view together for sharpness. If you have a live-view function on your camera it comes in handy for telephoto landscape photography. I check out my scene through the live view and then press the zoom feature to get a closer look and to manually adjust the sharpness. The live-view feature can also offer mirror lock-up which will help with camera shake. If your camera doesn’t automatically offer this feature, turn on the mirror lock-up function when photographing with a telephoto lens to avoid camera shake.
• Use a polarizer. Compressing a landscape image over a great distance will also compress all the dust, haze, or fog in the scene. This can produce atmosphere in your image and help to create mood, but chances are more likely it will just generate blur. To cut through this mass of miasma use a polarizer, this will also cut down on glare.
• Use a lens hood. When I’m using a telephoto lens for landscape photography, I’m often shooting into the light for a backlighting effect. Using a lens hood can go a long way towards cutting down on lens flare and unwanted glare.
• Use a tripod. This may be a no-brainer, but I’ll state the obvious. Handholding to take a telephoto image only accentuates camera shake, for the best and sharpest landscape photo use a tripod.
When using a telephoto lens, it’s our job as photographers to simplify an image down to its prime elements—and to pick out order from the chaos. I pay attention to the light, patterns, key features, and leading lines to help me look for subject matter. Overlap and layering helps create depth, and the compression of these features helps create form from this flatter telephoto perspective. When practicing telephoto landscape photography, it’s usually best to take the high ground. By looking across or down on the landscape you’ll be offered a better view from which to pick out your subjects and shoot. If my subject matter is without much depth, I’ll usually use an aperture setting around f8 or f11; but if there is depth to my landscape, then I’ll shoot from f16 to f32.
I hope these tips prove useful and inspire you to take out that “longer” lens when photographing a landscape.
The spring wildflowers have started to pop in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon, so I thought I’d take the time to explore a technique I often use for photographing spring wildflowers called “shoot-through” or “cramming.” I had used this technique for a number of years before I learned macro photographer Michael Brown coined the phrase “cram-it.” It’s fun, and it takes a bit of practice, so if you’re willing to give it a try here’s how to do it.
I often use a telephoto for this procedure, and employ this method when I want to eliminate distracting elements or when I want a wash of color throughout my image. I use a fairly wide-open aperture setting and find f2.8–f5.6 works best. I place my lens against a number of blossoms while selective focusing on a background flower. The front images are blurred and help obscure a number of distractions like twigs or branches. They also create a more ‘painterly’ feel to the photograph.
I loved the color of these tulips on top of a rock, but couldn’t photograph them without including distracting parts of a nearby house. My solution was to lay my lens right in front of a bundle of red and orange flowers and then “shoot through” them. This added a nice wash of color across the stems, and also eliminated the distracting staircase and window of the house.
In a recent photo of water lilies taken on the Big Island of Hawaii, I was going for more of a Monet feel for the image. For this shot I used my Canon 70-200 telephoto lens, my Kenko Pro 1.4x teleconverter, and my Canon 500D close-up filter. I placed my lens right in front of a clump of grass and “shot through” it. The shallow depth-of-field gave me the softness I liked, but “cramming” with the grass lends an even softer look and captured the Monet feel I was after.
I’ve posted a couple of other examples of this technique below. You can find this tip and 99 others contained in my e-book 100 Tips to Improve Your Flower and Garden Photography.
Ode to the Silhouette
By David Cobb
Silhouette: The dark shape and outline of someone or something visible against a lighter background, especially in dim light.
There was a time in photography when the silhouette was used more because it had to be. There wasn’t much dynamic range for a camera to work with so your options were limited. When photographing a strongly backlit subject without lighting or flash, you either chose to show detail of the subject and over-exposed the sky or you chose to expose for the sky and lose the detail of the subject to create a silhouette. The latter option was often chosen.
Today the silhouette isn’t in vogue. It’s fallen out of favor to the technology of high dynamic range which allows us to display as much detail as possible, but the silhouette is still a viable option. The silhouette creates a layer and a useful pattern simplifying form against a beautiful sunrise or sunset to make a striking graphic image. It generates mystery, drama, mood, and can help make an image more emotive. As you look for your subject, search for an uncluttered image stripped of detail and depth. (It often works best if it fills the frame in an interesting way or balances against a dramatic sky.) Try to keep your elements separate or at least the outlines defined in some way; if there is too much overlap the composition becomes confusing. Also focus your lens on the subject that is silhouetted. This is the part of the image you want to be the sharpest.
Next time you’re in a situation of choosing between showing detail or going with a silhouette, expose for the sky and go for simplicity. Leave part of the image up to the viewer’s imagination and choose the silhouette.
By David Cobb
I like variety. When I shoot a variety of images it keeps me on my toes, keeps things fresh, and lets me be creative. If I only photographed landscapes I’d be bored. By changing things up and photographing not just landscapes, but also events, macro, details, people, wildlife, buildings, interiors, food, and in black-and-white I don’t get tired of photographing any one thing. Some might say by doing many things you never get good at one of them. I disagree. I think in photography improving one facet of your camerawork can only help another facet; it’s kind of like photographic cross-training. My detail images help my compositional skills as I photograph landscapes. By photographing small flowers with my macro lens, it’s not too much of a stretch to photograph food. Photographing people lets me be more creative and interact with my subject, (plus putting a person in a scene increases sales potential in an over-saturated landscape market). If I photograph an event, it makes me think quicker on my feet and that helps me set up and get the shot faster when working my landscapes and landscape photography—and lets me apply those skills to my macro and detail images.
Josef Koudelka is one of my photographic heroes, and he stated that he was first and foremost a photographer. Koudelka photographed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but he wasn’t a photo journalist; he photographed and travelled with gypsies for years, but he wasn’t a portrait or street photographer; he spent years photographing Roman ruins, but he wasn’t a historical photographer; the time spent photographing industrial waste and the workings of man didn’t make him an environmental photographer–he was simply just a photographer who resisted any codes or labels. And he succeeded in all areas.
I’m posting some photos I’ve shot over the past few months, as an example of the variety of images I’ve taken in my photographic cross-training.
By David Cobb
The first time I explored Croatia was when I crossed the eastern border through the countries of Montenegro and Albania. Six years later I explored the western portion of the country arriving through Slovenia. Both times I was greeted by friendly faces, wonderful food, and beautiful scenery to photograph. On my first visit I had time constraints so I only made it as far as Dubrovnik, but the second time I was able to explore more of the country along Plivitce National Park as well as some of the towns and villages along the Istrian coast and a bit further inland.
Dubrovnik is a photogenic city along the Adriatic Sea. The old town consists of many ancient churches, and its polished streets make for great reflections during night photography. Climbing the wall of the old fortress you can shoot down into the city and pick out patterns amongst the rooftops.
Along the western end of the country lies Plivitce National Park and its many lakes and waterfalls. Fall here can be spectacular, and there are so many grand waterfalls it’s hard to know where to begin photographing so just start and explore. I recommend you plan on spending more than a day here.
Inland near the Istrian coastline are a number of hilltop villages surrounded by vineyards. The small towns surrounding the ancient castles are more photogenic when you walk the stone streets—and offer views down to the surrounding agricultural fields that make for great pattern photography.
The Istrian Coast is beautiful too, with its beaches and cliff-side views. As always in Croatia, the towns along the coast are most photogenic and are photographed best during sunrise, sunset, and night.
There is still so much for me to explore in Croatia, especially in some of the backcountry river canyons and mountain ranges. I plan on seeing and exploring more when fellow Photo Cascadia member Sean Bagshaw and I join Luka Esenko for a fall color workshop here in 2017. There are still a few spaces available in the workshop for those interested in experiencing this great area.