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:

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.

New (Funny) Show in April

I know I said i'd be rotating through the museum displays with some frequency, but I was really settling into the selection of Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Doisneau and Erwitt that we had up on the main wall, and having trouble motivating to change it. But when Carlos suggested we focus on April Fools Day and put up a new "fun" show i recognized it was an awesome idea and we immediately got to work reframing some of the collection.

Robert Doisneau, "Dog on Wheels," Paris 1977

Interestingly, the show is STILL Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Doisneau and Erwitt, but instead of the more romantic and moody selections we were featuring previously, for the current exhibit, we're looking at humor. Because of this, fantastic prints by Elliott Erwitt are moving center stage (For me, he is one of the most influential photographers on my street photography, and I think he could be for you too.) Come explore the funny juxtapositions and surprising subjects, the silly, the sweet, the ironic. A dozen new (old) photos by these masters of street photography will be on display through April.

Elliott Erwitt, "The Painting Studio" East Hampton, NY, 1983

Einstein at Neomodern

On display today (and for a little while) is a photograph of Albert Einstein taken at Princeton in 1941 by Roman Vishniac.

According to ICP: "Hoping to establish himself as a portrait photographer by creating a series of images of famous Russian and German Jewish expatriates, Vishniac contacted Albert Einstein and asked to take his portrait in late 1941, shortly after he arrived with his family in the United States. The Nobel Laureate sat for a series of photographs in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study while smoking a pipe, writing at his desk, having his portrait painted, and working on equations on the blackboard."

My father was a big fan of both Einstein and Vishniac so it made sense that we had a portfolio of their collaborations when the 80 year old Vishniac printed some in the 1970s. My father also collected other cool images, some iconic, of Einstein: by Hagemeyer (1931), Jacobi (1938), Halsman (1947), Karsh (1948), Orkin (1953), and others. But nothing felt as intimate as the Vishniacs, seeing Einstein at work. When I was in high school I hung one these Vishniacs above my bed, I think hoping something would rub off.

Vishniac, "A Son Goes to Chedar" (Father taking his son to school), 1937 — also currently on display at Neomodern.

Roman Vishniac was best known, however, for his intimate photographs of the Jewish ghettos in Poland just up to their decimation in WWII, and it was from this body of work that bonded Vishniac and my father. Vishniac died in 1990, but they had become acquainted in the last decade in the photographer's life, and I grew up around his prints, and their associated stories.

Photo Essay: Netflix, 2007 — The Jump to Streaming

Scientist Stan Lanning

CTO/Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt with the working prototype.

Has it been so many years? I increasingly meet people who didn’t know about (or remember) the Netflix red envelope and the delivery of DVDs, so they might not appreciate the struggle to move from DVDs to streaming. So these are images during the "Blockbuster years" and of the genesis of streaming at Netflix. Looking back now I realize what an unusual moment that was, one that I was privileged to experience. I was an employee, but I frequently kept my camera out, and everyone sorta knew this was what I did. In the years from 2005 to 2008, doubling from 4 to 8 million DVD subscribers, the already fast growing company was about to hit an inflection point—how would it leap from DVD rentals and delivery into streaming?

CEO Reed Hastings (framed by Bob Henderson, former Postmaster General of the US and Netflix exec

These images are from a single executive gathering in January 2007, where the Netflix box was completed and internally debuted, and instantly killed—spun back into Roku; while Netflix put its software inside every TV-connected device being created at the time, and continued to work on content. I've added a couple images from later that year, at a similar gathering. In hindsight, these quarterly gatherings were historic. It was an awesome time to be at the company. 



The Netflix Box, later released as the first Roku box.


Content Officer Ted Sarandos flanked by Talent Officer Patty McCord (co-creator of the "Netflix Deck") and Content Director Erin Ruane.

CMO Leslie Kilgore, creator of the famous red envelope and brand (chatting with Patty McCord) and flanked by content VP Cindy Holland (left) and Tawni Cranz (right). [Sept. 2007]

CMO Leslie Kilgore, creator of the famous red envelope and brand (chatting with Patty McCord) and flanked by content VP Cindy Holland (left) and Tawni Cranz (right). [Sept. 2007]

Sarandos with Content VPs Robert Kyncl and Erin Ruane. [Sept 2007]

Sarandos with Content VPs Robert Kyncl and Erin Ruane. [Sept 2007]


All images in this post copyright © 2007 by M.H. Rubin, All rights reserved.