SF Bay Month of Photography

 Elliott Erwitt, East Hampton NY (1983)

Elliott Erwitt, East Hampton NY (1983)

There are a host of cool photographic events and exhibits this September, all month, all over town. Organized by the BAYMOP,  it should be a treat for the photo-oriented. NEOMODERN is participating by hosting a series of TUESDAY TALKS (every Tuesday in September from 6-7pm). Each talk will get up-close with some beautiful prints, and dive into some creative and historical topics, a different theme each week. I'll be talking about prints from the collection here and adding in work by local artists.

Here's the line-up:

SEPT 4: Harry Callahan, Wright Morris and Photographic Composition

SEPT 11: Henri Cartier–Bresson and the Decisive Moment

SEPT 18: Humor and Creative Juxtapositions: Elliot Erwitt and Robert Doisneau

SEPT 25: Beyond Cliché

Come on by, it should be fun and interesting (and a great way to see some fantastic museum prints up close). I think this will be good not only for the photo-oriented, but anyone who is interested in seeing their smartphone pictures get better quickly.

On Seeing

"Brooklyn Bridge" 2018 (© MH Rubin)

 "Coit Tower, 5:32am" 2015 (© MH Rubin)

"Coit Tower, 5:32am" 2015 (© MH Rubin)

There are so many people taking so many photos, it can often seem impossible to take a unique and personal image. A guideline I enjoy: could my photo have been taken by another person on another day? The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described "the decisive moment" where the image reflects an absolutely special instant: it couldn't have been taken even a moment before or after.

Not every image holds up to these thresholds, but they're good reminders as we take our snapshots: what am I bringing to this image? Why this and why now? One of my personal practices is to go shoot iconic subjects, things we've seen shot by a million people all the time, and from there, see if I can see things in a new or at least relatively novel way.

As Susan Sontag so nicely points out in her landmark work "On Photography," there's a difference between a photo of a beautiful subject, and a beautiful photo. Working on this is part of the fun of photography.

New Masterworks on Display: Wright Morris and Friends

Even fans of classical photography are often unfamiliar with the work of Wright Morris (1910-1998). He's slightly more famous as a novelist and essayist than he is as a photographer; wikipedia describes him as "known for his portrayals of the people and artifacts of the Great Plains in words and pictures, as well as for experimenting with narrative forms." I've always liked his simple and still formal compositions, and the textures he captures. He also was a San Francisco local, having retired from teaching at SF State College in 1975 and living the last decades of his life in Mill Valley.

Wright Morris, House in Winter, Lincoln Nebraska, 1947

George Tice, Country Road, Lancaster PA, 1961

It seemed appropriate to accompany the Wright Morris work with a few pieces by Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) and George Tice (b.1938). Wolcott was a contemporary of Morris' and she is also not as well known as she should be—her work often showed small towns and daily life during the Depression; Tice is a working photographer (in his 80s now) and master printer, but his images have a simple elegance that I find nicely juxtaposed to these earlier artists.

On display now at Neomodern are works by Wolcott, Tice, Yavno, Guttman, and Canner.

Color vs Black & White

While most customers want color prints, I'm partial to black & white. It's not to look nostalgic. It's just that we can modify the shades of grey in ways you can't with color, to affect how people look at the image, what is the focus, what's important. For example, look a picture that includes the sky. In a color image it's perhaps blue. But in greyscale what happens to blue? By adjusting the filter the blue can be sorta white, or very grey, or even approach black. None are "false." There is no "real" grey shade that equals blue. So you can decide, based on the specifics of your image, how you'd like the blue sky to look. One reason Ansel Adams' prints are so dramatic is that he used a red filter to make the blue skies dark, which makes the rocks (and moon) stand out in certain images. Here's the same image with different filters on the blue sky:

 Original shot. 

Original shot. 

This is not only the case with blue, but with all colors -- although it's a particularly striking effect with blues and also with greens (sometimes a field of grass should be dark, to make it disappear, and sometimes light, to highlight objects in the grass). Where this is particularly important is when the color (blue or green or whatever) is distracting and draws your attention away from the subject. Playing with the greyscale versions of the colors helps you control the attention of the viewer.

 Filtering the blue towards white.

Filtering the blue towards white.

 Filtering the blue towards black.

Filtering the blue towards black.

I like that shifting an image to monochrome is a reminder that in actuality all photography is surreal, even when it looks "natural" — we experience the world in a large and continuous way: this abstract freezing of a slice of visual space, for a fraction of a second... and the colors we see with our eyes are very different from what can be captured... no, photos are abstractions and b&w is a gentle reminder of that. 


 "Boardwalk, Santa Cruz" 2011 (iPhone 4 photo © Michael Rubin)

"Boardwalk, Santa Cruz" 2011 (iPhone 4 photo © Michael Rubin)

Be mindful of the colors in your image. Does it matter to the story you're telling? Is it distracting from the subject or is it part of the subject? Lots of colors give your eyes lots of targets to focus on, but this can be a detriment to a powerful image. A good rule of thumb: examine a photo in greyscale, think about where your eye goes, and how the composition is working; and then ask if it's *better* with color.

Finally, be wary of over-saturating the colors: too much richness can be distracting and even grotesque. It's like too much salt when you're cooking: it definitely adds taste and makes other ingredients taste better, but too much can be a bit sickening. Sometimes subduing the colors produces a stronger result. Adjusting saturation of an image, both a little up and a little down, are often interesting ways to refine a print.

Portfolio: SF Conservatory of Flowers

This was a trip to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park (Feb 12, 2017). Lots of people are there taking photos of all the gorgeous flowers and cool spaces, so i wondered if i could create some more unique images in the well-shot space.

NOTE: I've decided that when it comes to taking pictures, beginners shoot while they're moving, hobbyists stop moving for a moment to shoot, and experts wait.

I've found I can turn my mood around simply by taking pictures. Even if i'm grumpy (say, because I've been dragged somewhere I didn't want to go) photography engages me, gives me something to do, forces me to stop and look when i might otherwise not be paying attention. I like the pictures from this afternoon in part because i tried a few different kinds of visual styles: backlighting, short and long depth of fields, color and black-and-white, abstract and realistic. Photography as a hobby is very much like an augmented reality (AR) videogame: looking through the device as you interact with the world, seeing what you can collect along the way, keeping yourself entertained and challenged. As you get better, it gets more fun.

Here are a few images from the ten I printed. The rest are here.

Photo Essay: Carrara

Along the coast of Northern Italy is Carrara—the town where for millennia the whitest, finest marble on earth has been harvested. It is from here that the marble for Rome's Coliseum was quarried. It is from here that Michelangelo hand-picked his chunks of marble from which to carve his best-known works (including "David.")  There is something mythical about Carraran marble. I couldn't separate the shape from the stone. I couldn't separate the stone from the place. 


In the last days of October 2015, i took off by train, by bus, by thumb and by foot (not necessarily in that order) to see if i could reach the quarries and to explore. Over the course of a week I made my pilgrimage from Turin to Riomaggiore, down to Carrara, and then to Florence, where a number of Michelangelo's pieces can be seen —an unfinished few, and of course, David. 


The quarries of Carrara are still active, worked by about 1000 men, a job that has been in their families sometimes for generations. Originally marble veins had to be leveraged where stones would naturally cleave apart with a chisel. Today diamond-coated "rope" is run across the face of these mountains.

Workers walk around among the 40-ton chunks and rate them for quality. Trucks race up and down the mountain delivering them. The white calcium carbonate powder that covers all surfaces is not particularly unhealthy to breath, but it makes the risk of snow-blindness among the workers something they protect against.

(For all 15 images in this set: http://www.byrubin.com/archives/#/marble/

When I returned from Carrera, I made 10 prints. I've got hundreds of pictures of that trip, and i sorta skim them every now and then. But the prints I made get imbued with more importance simply because they exist as objects, and the images fixed there become iconic.

I didn't purchase souvenirs of that trip to Italy. But i have a piece of Carraran marble and I have these 10 prints I made.


Remembering Bodhi

2018-04-24 11.09.53.jpg

My sweet old dog Bodhi died this week. It was hard for me to know how to process the loss. Jennifer made a little memorial for him, complete with candles and little prints in painted frames. I've got tens of thousands of images, so I began digging through a decade of photos looking for just the right picture of him. I found one I took with my iPhone a few months ago.

Next I decided to go through the process we ask people to go through at Neomodern: I signed up for an online concierge appointment...

Yesterday I got online while Arturo tweaked the photo. It's a tricky one to print. I wanted Lee in shadow so it took an extra moment to notice her; if she's too light you see her immediately... too dark, she gets lost. Arturo did a great job. By the time I got to the gallery Bodhi was mounted -- but i didn't want it framed yet -- i wanted to add a little private note to the print before it was placed into a frame, out of view, but permanent... then a few minutes later the framing was done.

I miss Bodhi, but I'm happy to have this print... happy to have this framed. I don't know what it is about a photo, but it felt important to have a nice print of him. Healing begins.

 Arturo sent me a link that let me see him working on the image.

Arturo sent me a link that let me see him working on the image.

 Adobe Lightroom showing the image uploaded and the image as it is being enhanced... sometimes the adjustments are very subtle, but they matter a lot.

Adobe Lightroom showing the image uploaded and the image as it is being enhanced... sometimes the adjustments are very subtle, but they matter a lot.



What Neomodern Exhibits

 Irving Penn, "Frozen Foods, New York" 1977

Irving Penn, "Frozen Foods, New York" 1977

In the collection of photography I manage are works by artists including Jerry Uelsmann and Irving Penn, and I like their photos very much. But the question comes up: should I show them in the NEOMODERN gallery on Union Street? Similarly, I'm sometimes asked by other artists—painters and ceramicists—if we might ever do a show of their work.

Even though I like all this work, it's pretty clear to me that NEOMODERN is not showing any of these things. So how do we choose?

 Jerry Uelsmann, "Floating Tree" 1969

Jerry Uelsmann, "Floating Tree" 1969

Here's our exhibit guidelines. First, only photography. We're all about photography and we're only going to show photography. So if it's not photographic, it's not even in the ballpark. Next, even for photographs, none that have special effects. Additionally, no photos that are the result of studio work. We want the gallery to demonstrate the best works in one particular style—a basic "street photography"—not because it's better than some other visual style, but because it is work regular people can typically do with their smartphones. NEOMODERN wants to show artworks that consumers can emulate in some way, and that we believe has something to teach us about photography. So we show great photos, whether by Cartier-Bresson with a Leica, or my dentist with an iPhone, but only straight, candid, not "produced" images.

So we won't show paintings. And unfortunately, we're not going to show Uelsmann or Penn either. But it doesn't mean we don't love them.