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Here we stand, on the shoulders of those who came before us

Message from the President
November 2011

Presidents Report To The Club ’77

A great deal of activity has taken place during this past month. The Society has been “Restructured” and several new committees have been formed. The members who have accepted appointments have held a number of meetings and plans have been formulated for the coming year. This decisive action is a tribute to the seriousness of purpose of the various committee members.

Several events come to mind and should be mentioned, one of which was the well-attended and exciting meeting for the selection of best prints of the year – an event that will be long remembered. Another achievement is the publication of The Silver Image Newsletter. It was a tough assignment, tirelessly pursued, and successfully carried out. Much determination and imagination was demonstrated by the staff involved. And finally, the scheduling of the annual banquet meeting (a first) for January 25th. It is at this function that the new officers will be installed, awards given for the best prints of the year, and recognition made to various individuals for outstanding service. Harry Booker of Mainland College will be the speaker of the evening at this gala event.

I might observe that prints submitted for monthly competition and critiquing have shown a decided improvement in craftsmanship, and even more important, in picture content during the past year or two. I have entered prints for such judging and critiquing as often as possible and have likewise benefited. I would urge all members to participate as often as possible in the monthly competition.

On a final note, let me say I am very pleased by the response of members when I asked them to serve on various committees. We have a talented group working diligently to fulfill their programs.

1977 should be a stimulating and exciting year for the Society.

William J. Ullman
President

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During our September program meeting, we had a visitor to HPS, John Vogt. Mr. Vogt is a former member and past president of Houston Photographic Society. While he was cleaning out old stuff from his house, he came across a box of HPS memorabilia from his time with us. He brought the box to me thinking we might be interested in it contents.

Yes, yes I was.

Buried within the well-organized box of papers contained the origins of what you read above and it’s an integral part of the history of the Houston Photographic Society as well as the first issue of The Silver Image newsletter.

The excerpt above is from a man who was instrumental in building the Society into what it is today — Bill Ullman.

I was 7-months old when this first newsletter was distributed. It was the first time for the annual awards banquet awards and a tradition that continues to this day.

While we may no longer have The Silver Image published monthly anymore, thanks to HPS webmaster Don Hill, we have a website, a Facebook as well as Twitter presence that gives HPS a global presence.

We still have a year-end print competition, monthly print competitions, and program meetings. Latter years would add the portfolio challenge (now called the portfolio review) and an annual exhibition at the Houston Public Library-Downtown.

It’s hard to fathom that someone out there today my grandson’s age will talking about the long history of HPS — possibly even referencing words I have written.

Reading that statement and the rest of the articles in that first newsletter made me realize the unwritten tradition that we have in the Society too — service.

HPS could never have survived for the past 64 years without a steady supply of people willing to give a little of their time and talent to keep the Society alive and well. When times were tough, members stepped forward and ensured that the Society would still be around for another generation. I think these past decades have shown the quality of people that make up the Society.

With the Thanksgiving season coming upon us, I find myself thankful to all of those who have given a little of themselves to make HPS what it is today. Even the small roles that no one remembers build upon the foundation we already have.

On the inside cover of that first newsletter is a list of people who held officer and committee positions in 1977. I only recognize one name. I never met any of them, and doubt I ever will. But, all of us in the Society today stand upon their shoulders as well as the work of the countless others who came before and after them.

Thank you, all of you.

I have scanned the entirety of the January 1977 issue and read through it. It’s interesting how much and how little has changed in 34 years.

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

An architect and an engineer walk into a bar…

Message from the President
October 2011

An architect and an engineer walk into a bar after spending the afternoon looking over the construction of a building they were both working on. They both grab a stool and look at a half a mug of beer left from the previous occupant. The inevitable conversation starts about whether the mug is half full or half empty.

The engineer starts talking about what tools and formulas he’s going to use to determine if the mug is even the slightest bit more full or empty.

The architect explains to his companion that the number doesn’t really matter, but he will present the beer to the viewer so they feel the mug is however full he wants them to see it.

The bartender lets them squabble about it for a few minutes before quietly walking over and pouring the beer down the sink. The bartender smiled and wiped off the spot where the mug sat and he told them, “I don’t care how full or empty it is. It was making my bar look messy.”

 


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I think as photographers, we sometimes get so caught up in trying to convince each other that our point of view is correct, our technique is better, our skills are better, and/or that our philosophy about art is somehow superior to all others. In doing so, we miss a very important aspect of photography.

Photographs should be for everyone to enjoy — or not.

If we spend all our efforts trying to prove such a point to each other, we leave the rest of the world out of the discussion. I’m not saying that we have try to please the common viewer. I am saying that our work shouldn’t have to have a manual to tell someone why it’s good or not.

I’ll give you an example.

One of my uncles is a very accomplished nature photographer. Every time he comes over with a new batch of photos, it’s like seeing still frames from an HD version of Wild America. His work is wonderful, yet very different from my own.

We both travel at times and both like to make every trip a photo op. But my aunt, his wife, has the same complaint about both of us. We never show her what the places we go look like.

She told me that a couple years ago after I went to Cleveland and spent a couple early mornings walking through town in love with all the architectural details.

My uncle recently came back from New Mexico with hundreds of frames of birds and plants.

We photographed what we saw. To us, that was what the location was about. Trying to say my detailed take of Cleveland wasn’t entirely honest. It’s what interested me about the city. Birds are not New Mexico, or even a part of New Mexico, from most peoples’ perspective.

The problem wasn’t that we failed to go around and shoot landscapes or cityscapes of the places we went, it was that we presented it as the whole story. To another photographer, it may be — but not to the non-photographer. For them, it may not be a question of how sharp your lens may be, how much tonality your print contains, or even how your color and composition choices portray a particular mood. For them, it may simply be a "yes" or "no" question of whether it’s a good photograph or not.

How often have you looked at someone else’s photograph and thought that even though it’s not your usual taste, there’s something about it you like anyway?

There’s nothing wrong with making photographs that it takes a connoisseur to truly understand all the nuance and technicalities. But, if you stray too far into the technical or esoteric ends of the pool, you take away the chance for the audience-at-large to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Dabbling and experimenting to find a visual voice is one thing. Creating an entire body of work that has to be constantly explained and defended is another.  

Photography has long been the art of the everyman. Yes, there has been highly conceptual work done in the field. Some good — some worse than bad. But, the bulk of the art can be appreciated by a very broad audience.

Maybe I’m off the mark on the whole thing.

Maybe, you just see the halfway mark on the glass differently.

Either way, it’s ultimately up to your viewer to interpret what we show them.

I vote to show it to them in a language they understand.

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

Why did Murphy have to make a law?

Message from the President
September 2011

Portfolio Pieces
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It seems these last few weeks has been a series of "those" days in a row: sinus infection; followed by a viral infection; and to top if off, a fall down some stairs while carrying a TV for my grandmother.

We experienced 29 of the 31 days in August of 100°f or greater heat, which has claimed at least two trees in our yard even with watering.

Needless to say I’m not in much of a writing mood.

But, at least September is here!

I can look forward to gearing up for fall with my annual gig shooting for the Waller County Fair and Rodeo. It’s such a refreshing switch from my usual photographic flavor and it’s about as close to journalism as I ever get.

There will be ten days of rodeo, project animals, meet and greet photos with the entertainers, concert footage, carnival, cooking, food, crafts, and everything in between.

Sometimes, the weekends involve twenty-hour days because I’m in the rush to get photos edited and then up on the fair’s Website. In addition, it needs to be ready for any publications that want usage for next day.

I love it.

I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend, but once a year is enough to make you come back for more.

It’s like that old Johnny Cash song where they rolled around in the mud, the blood, and the beer. Except, I get to do it with an all-access press pass and a parking spot inside the gates!

So, instead of a monologue this month, I’ll leave you with a portfolio to peruse.

With fall around the corner, you will hopefully have your own adventure to look forward to.

I’m off to another handful of medicine and the anticipation of good things to come.

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

That that is, is. That that isn’t, isn’t.

Message from the President
August 2011

A couple weeks ago, an HPS field trip found me spending half a day looking at prints — not images on a monitor or an iPad, but real prints. Thinking about it, I realized that’s something most of us don’t do on a regular basis.

Yes, we have our monthly print competitions where we can get a wide-range of prints to view and discuss — but, this was different.

Photo by John Kleb

I didn’t really “know” any of the photographers who created these images. In the case of Helmut Newton, the photographer who already passed on, we’re just seeing what was left from his time. So, there was no personal knowledge of the personalities and people who made the photographs in the first place. There wasn’t a chance to ask about the situation of how the photograph was captured or why it was presented the way it was. In a way, I guess, I felt it was a sanitized viewing experience.

Since that day, I’ve had some time to ponder over the experience. I knew I had things I wanted to write and share about it, but I held off a bit. I wanted those thoughst to simmer a bit.

I spend a lot of time looking at other peoples images online: from commercialism to artistry; traditional analog capture to cutting edge digital manipulations; or master artists to those just dipping their toes in the pool for the first time. I do it because I like to see what’s out there and keep current on the trends, not so much because I’m some kind of critical expert, but a day of prints on the wall can give a whole different feel to the process of viewing.

One of the first things I noticed was that it excited me just by the idea of seeing things differently. There was no disconnect between me and the prints. Well, except for the museum workers and their fanatical enforcement of twelve inches away at all times. I think they were all ruler toting nuns in a former life, but I digress…

There were no issues of wondering if the photographer really wanted the colors to look a certain way or if the colors are just rendering poorly on the screen. There were no used car ads flashing next to them, no slideshows moving onto the another photo before you’re ready to move on, and no bad freeware digital music in the background. There were no unwanted distractions.

Another thing I noticed was size. Even a 24-inch monitor doesn’t do justice for a photograph the artist expects to be seen as 48” x 60” — not even close. When it’s made to be big, it loses a lot of impact on a small screen. It feels like a new work you’ve never seen before when you see them full-sized. Images that have intrigued me in the past left me in awe when they were presented properly. But, that was just initial impressions. Those impressions haven’t changed. What did change was how I looked at viewing images. Or rather, it made me ask some new questions.

There were no ‘like’ buttons, +1’s, thumbs up or down, or comment threads. In so many online formats today, anyone can leave their idea of critical feedback on a photograph. Anyone who weighs-in leaves their impressions on all who follow.

Yes, I firmly believe in critique and feedback. But, I wonder how often a person’s opinions are shaped because of what was said before them.

What if there was a notebook under each of Newton’s prints that people could leave comments since the first time they were shown? I’ll bet most people wouldn’t read past the first couple pages and would then base their own opinions not only on the merits of the photograph, but on the opinions expressed by those who came before them.

Everyone before you has established some points of contention or praise and people will tend to stay within those previously established talking points.

You see this online all the time.

Photo by John Kleb

The discussion becomes not so much about the work, but about the discussion of the work. The photograph is lost to the opinion mill. While I think it’s great that this spurs on discussion and gives the photographer feedback on what the masses think of their work, it can also be overwhelming.

Do you shoot solely to please yourself and defend everything you do? Maybe you just shut down all commentary? Maybe you spend so much effort trying to find the perfect combinations of aesthetics to please everyone you lose your own vision. It’s a double-edged sword. Or, maybe it’s more like medicine — the right amount can help heal, but too much is called an addiction.

Spending some time looking at prints on a wall removed all that outside opinion for me. It also made me wonder if I would view my own work differently if it was shown in a huge space with nothing to compete with my attention.

I also noticed the different reactions I had with the words that went along with images. In the Newton exhibit, it was pretty straightforward. Individual prints simply had titles, dates, and maybe a location with a quick overview of each of the portfolios. At the entrance there was a short biography of the photographer.

Contrast that with the exhibit we later viewed at the Houston Center for Photography — a few prints from each portfolio along side with the Artist Statement. In a couple cases, I enjoyed the images and was disappointed in the statements. Personal opinion here, but I don’t think you should try to impress people with overly intellectual prose when the display is about your photographs. As I said a couple time that day, I’m just a dumb boy raised on a farm. I shouldn’t have to have an English degree to figure out your photographs. But, when our guide for the exhibit gave us some background on the photographers (since he was able to meet and talk with some of them), it helped make sense of some of the portfolios. That’s something you don’t usually get with prints on a wall but is easy to do on a website.

Sometimes, it is the processes and experiences of the photographer that elevates the images.

An old debate was also re-opened. Is it a photograph if it’s not on print? It’s not so much the question of "is digital a photograph?" but what if the print only lives online? Does it have to be printed to be a photograph? If you took an image that was made to be viewed life-sized and displayed it on a life-sized monitor hanging on the wall, would it have the same effect as a print of the same size?

My only reply for this so far?

Maybe.

In my opinion, it depends on what you’re trying to show and some of the technical limitations involved (screen glare, color gamut, brightness, etc). I think it would be interesting to explore and leave it at that.

In all, the whole experience asked the age old question: What is a good photograph?

I don’t know that I’m the person to answer that or even if any one person is. I don’t know that the accepted answer ten years ago is the same as todays, or if todays answer will hold up in ten years.

But, I am curious about the contemporary answer to the ancient question. In fact, I’d like to know your opinion on it. Send me an e-mail with the subject line “A good photograph is…” and finish that thought.

I’ll give it a couple weeks and post some of the results.

Let’s see not only what the common opinion is, but if it turns into a discussion about the discussion.

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

Unicorns, fairy dust & magic bullets

Message from the President
July 2011

jkleb-color-07052011

There’s one thing I’ve noticed about photographers that sets us apart from other artists — the search for the magic thing that will make the process easier or the photos better. The only other group of artists that are as bad as we are about chasing magic bullets might be musicians.

What I mean by this is that we have a tendency to look at the work of others and think that if we just had their special thing (camera, lens, location, lights, software, mojo, etc…), we could somehow improve our own photography. We’ve all done it at some point or another.

Don’t deny it, acceptance is the first step to recovery, you know. I’ve done it.

I have a little stack of gear that sits in the corner collecting dust because it didn’t live up to my expectations or lack of skill in really using it right.

There’s a ring-light adapter I just had to have (that’s too bulky for me to use and I really need another speedlite to dedicate to it), a cheap no-name flash (that was a waste of $80 since it only worked for about 6 months), cheap Chinese radio triggers, UV filters, screen covers, etc. Thankfully most software come with a trial period before you make a purchase you regret later. You would think after doing it a few times I would learn not to buy something based only on what others have done with it.

Alas, no.

My recent foray into large format has shown me that I still suffered from Magic Bullet syndrome. I had grand plans of stunning photos, super sharp focus, straight verticals, and a look that only a view camera can give. The glory of sheet film beckoned. I was going to catch the unicorn.

Yeah right!

I discovered that I’d forgotten how little latitude film possesses compared to digital I’ve been shooting for years now; how film is a beast that has to be constantly fed by your wallet; that tray developing in a non-dedicated space makes you use a lot of words that you tell your kids not to say; and, I discovered the reasons why smaller formats gained popularity so quickly.

It gets funnier.

I thought that if I could just get quicker feedback (instant gratification), I could adjust and shorten the learning curve (fairy dust) and really get this large format thing down. I was looking for a magic bullet, aka Instant Film.

Fuji was able to supply this new habit with pack film. After searching around I found a good deal on a pack film back and a bunch of other film holders locally including film for a bit of a discount if I bought it in small lots.

I was ready to catch that unicorn this time. Or not.

Instant film means that within a minute or so, I know I still have no idea what I’m doing. And, it only cost around $2.50 per lesson if you don’t factor in the cost of the gear.

Out of $50 of film, I found one frame somewhat acceptable. It took a few months, but it finally showed me that I was chasing a horse with a twisty horn on its head using sorcerers’ bullets and slinging glitter around like Rip Torn on a sugar high. It’s soul sucking, wallet draining, madness!

I caught myself becoming a full-fledged fairy-dust junkie.

My eBay watch list was getting full of processing machines, large format film scanners, and obscure lenses.

Nestled somewhere in there was a simple reflector for my studio lights since I needed to replace one that was damaged a couple months ago. A simple $30 reflector surrounded by thousands of dollars of unicorn hunting gear — it’s a simple reflector I’ve used a thousand times that’s currently being held together with gaffer tape and being used on a weekly basis.

Was Nero’s fiddle a unicorn? Maybe.

Like I always do, when I’m trying to learn a new skill, I try to read up on how others have done it before me. It’s easy to do and pick up on the tools they used. But, that leads you to magic bullets.

Now, what’s important is how they used those tools and what their expectations were from them.

Last week I came across an article with an Ansel Adams quote in it — “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

Okay, if Adams was happy with once a month after a lifetime of work, I don’t need to be so hard on myself.

Another quote was from one of our contemporaries, David duChemin; “There is no unsuck filter (in photoshop).”

Yes, fairy dust is a myth.

jkleb-bw-07052011

So, does all this mean that I’m going to pack up all the film gear and go back to the digital I know so well? Absolutely not!

It simply means I’m going to take a slower pace and set reasonable goals.

Within a couple years I’ll have the basics down and can begin working on style as well as technical skills. At the same time I began on the large format journey, I dusted off the 35mm bag too.

I’ve had more success with that I think than with the view camera, but I wasn’t trying to build a landmark out of that work overnight either.

Maybe my pace is a bullet with no magic whatsoever.

It gets there when it gets there.

~ John Kleb, 2011 HPS President

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