Monthly Archives: July 2014


Stencils are a quick and dirty graffiti. Where murals take a long time (meaning it’s easy to get caught doing them), stencils are easy to execute and you can do them over and over. The gallery below shows stencils I’ve documented in Victoria, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa & Paris.


Posted in Heart Tagged |

Canon Coffin

In the British Museum, there is a coffin that I’d like to be buried in (when I die). It’s in the Wellcome Trust Gallery (Room 24), a themed gallery on Living And Dying. The coffin is in the shape of a camera, an imaginary Canon EOS 300. Beneath it is a placard that says: “According to one story, in 1951 two carpenters, Kane Quaye and his brother, Ajetey, from Teshie — a fishing community near Ghana’s capital, Accra — made a coffin in the form of an aeroplane for their grandmother’s funeral. She had always wanted to fly but never had the chance to. This new type of coffin became so popular that Kane Quaye expanded his workshop with his apprentice, Paa Joe. Today families commission coffins with designs that represent the life or dreams of a deceased relative, or characterise their personality.” I wonder if they would cater to my friends who shoot with Nikon.

Camera Coffin

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Ogden Nash wrote:

I think that I shall never see
a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.


If Nash were alive today, he might update his poem:

I think the billboard’s here to stay
with its products on display.
If you want to see a tree,
try Home Depot, aisle three.

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Meigakure is a Zen principle of aesthetics used especially in Japanese gardening but no less valid in photography: it is the representation of a part to suggest the whole. It is analogous to the Classical Greek rhetorical principle of synecdoche. There is a difference of course (quite apart from the fact that one refers to the visual and the other to speech). Unlike synecdoche, in Meigakure, the represented part also suggests a something of the whole which is incapable of representation, something ineffable, something mysterious.

Pot on windowsill

In a way, Meigakure is the opposite of the idealized image I presented in my previous post. Instead of producing a “perfect’ photo that pretends undesirable elements from the world beyond its frame don’t exist, Meigakure draws us beyond the frame. What does the neck of the pot look like? What is going on in the world outside the window?

Chewed up tree

Related to the principle of Meigakure is Kanso, or simplicity — removing everything that is unnecessary for the photo to convey all that it needs to convey. This is not the removal of objects that “spoil” an idealized image, or that “taint” an otherwise kitschy vision. It is succinctness.

Lone Tree in Silhouette

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The Ghost Ranch Narrative

I spent last week on a photo workshop with Richard Choe at the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, NM, a 75 minute drive northwest of Santa Fe. You can view a larger selection of my photos in my New Mexico flickr album. The official Ghost Ranch narrative goes something like this:

Years ago, the land was a 21,000 acre dude ranch. Arthur and Phoebe Pack bought the ranch in 1936 and later severed a small parcel which they sold to Georgia O’Keeffe who had a strong affinity for the land. As the Packs grew older, they began to think of how best to dispose of the land. Georgia O’Keeffe wanted to purchase the ranch, but the Packs deeded it to the Presbyterian Church in 1955. They wanted to keep it out of “private” hands so that it could be enjoyed by everyone. That’s the official narrative.

It’s easy to see why Georgia O’Keeffe would be drawn to the land. It practically paints itself. She was particularly drawn to Mount Pedernal which glows in low light at dawn and dusk.

Mount Pedernal

An image is a kind of narrative. I produced a photo of Mount Pedernal which gives a narrative of raw natural beauty. But my narrative is only possible if I leave out certain information. I have deliberately framed the photo to exclude human encroachment on the natural space. I’ve left out the wires, buildings, cell tower, gravel. I think all of us are tempted to do this when we produce images.

Painting Pedernal

More than 50 years later, the Ghost Ranch includes a Welcome Centre, Museum, Corral, Dining Hall, Arts Centre, countless sleeping cabins, and a camping ground. That’s a lot to exclude if you want to tell a narrative of raw natural beauty.

Ghost Ranch Campground

Ghost Ranch Cell Tower

The official narrative is one of inclusion. The Packs didn’t want the Ghost Ranch to end up in private hands with a big “No Trespassing” sign by the entrance, so they gave it to a church.

Tree cholla

I have nothing against Presbyterians. Hell, some of my best friends are Presbyterians. I spent my week with friendly down-to-earth church folk. Here’s what I found in my frame: white, middle-class, Protestant. Nevertheless, as a photographer, I can’t help but wonder what was excluded from the frame. I didn’t have to go far for an answer.

Taos Fiesta

No Trespassing

San Francisco de Asis Mission, Taos, NM

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Box Canyon, Abiquiu, NM

Last week I took part in a photography workshop at the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico. Led by our hardy pro, Richard Choe, three of us hiked along the riverbed to Box Canyon. It’s the rainy season, with thunderstorms each night, so the trail was muddy. In fact, I had to go digging for one of my shoes. It was as if an evil spirit lived in the mud. Once it took hold of my shoe, it refused to let go.

Trail to Box Canyon

The idea of an evil spirit isn’t so far-fetched. The first settlers were brothers by the name of Archuleta, cattle rustlers who led stolen herds along the riverbed to conceal the hoof prints, then hid them at the end of the canyon where there was a larger space. The story goes that brother #1 made a transaction without the knowledge of brother #2 and buried the proceeds. Brother #2 got wind of the deal and murdered brother #1. Then he kidnapped brother #1’s wife and daughter, hoping he could persuade them to reveal the location of the buried money. But wife and daughter escaped and pretty soon a posse came looking for brother #2. When they found him, they hanged him from a cottonwood tree. Even today, if you listen closely, you can hear a man and woman fighting.

I don’t know about ghosts, but if you look closely at the image below, you’ll see the wisp of something just above the falling water. I had set my tripod in the river and was using a neutral density filter to illustrate how you get a long exposure to give water a silky appearance. While the shutter was still open, I asked Jim, one of my hiking companions, to walk in front of the camera just to see what would happen. He’s there in the picture, or at least a wisp of him. His ghost?

River from Box Canyon

When we got to the box part of the box canyon, we relaxed on a broad flat rock and looked up at the rim of the canyon looming maybe 50 or 60 feet overhead. There was a brilliant echo–perfect for an outdoor choir–but I don’t know how you could hide cattle there without muzzling them. The parabolic shape of the space creates a natural amplifier.

Looking up out of Box Canyon

Relaxing in Box Canyon

Hiking under tree

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Jim in Taos, New Mexico

God Bless AmericaLast Friday, I found myself in the town of Taos in New Mexico which was setting up for a weekend fiesta. According to Wikipedia, Taos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America (more than a thousand years). Ostensibly, I was there on an excursion as part of a photography workshop, but more about that in later posts. For now, I want to introduce you to a fellow named Jim. He was sitting on a concrete veranda looking out into the town square, watching the people go by, doing nothing much in particular. At first, I avoided him because, well … he was kind of scary-looking. He wore a bandana and orange reflective goggles. He had a scraggly white beard, beads on his wrists, and had remarkable fingernails. But when I walked past (with my 70-200 mm zoom lens), he called out to me and asked if I was getting good shots. So I knelt on the concrete beside him and we chatted as we watched the people go by. Jim told me that he’s a Viet Nam vet. He told me that he’d been shot in the head while he was serving. Given the shape of of his head, I had no reason to disbelieve him. He said he was having trouble getting benefits he was supposed to be getting. As a Canadian, I don’t know anything about the U.S. military or what people who serve are entitled to, so I just listened. My general sense is that the experience of Viet Nam vets was (and continues to be) different than the experience of military personnel who serve today. The booth in the lot where we parked our van was covered in Rah Rah signs. I doubt we would have seen signs like that in 1975. There was a lot Jim said that I didn’t understand, but I did make out that he isn’t from Taos; he lives about 40 miles to the west and came there for the fiesta. If you look at his left hand, you’ll see that he’s holding a Canon point and shoot camera. He likes to take photos, which I guess explains why he called out to me in the first place. I guess carrying a camera can be a bit like a secret handshake: it’s a way to identify kindred spirits.


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Insure Your Gear!

I was taking photos of a graveyard when a photography colleague yelled: “The spirits will punish you!” I spun around. “Huh?” And the lens that came with my Mark III kit, the EF24-105 mm popped out of the body. I mustn’t have twisted it in all the way. Time seemed to slow. The lens did a graceful arc to the ground and I thought: “This isn’t going to end well.” I tried to catch it on my foot, football style, but that only flipped it from one end to the other. It landed on the gravel and you can see the result below. Fortunately, I had put a floater on my home insurance policy, so when I got home, I called about making a claim. The rep took all my information and told me I’d get a call from an adjuster. The next morning, I got my call and he told me to send him a link to sites that quoted the replacement cost. I found three quotes, he took the cheapest, and cut me a cheque on the spot. Taking account for the deductible, I recovered about two-thirds of the cost to replace the lens. The lesson is obvious. Insure your gear. It’s cheap. It’s no-fault. It’s a painless way to minimize photographic grief.

Canon EF24-105mm

Posted in Hands Tagged |

Shooting with a Kodak Instamatic

I shot this photo of my grandmother in 1968 when I was five years old. It’s on a beach in Florida. My grandmother wasn’t what you’d call a beach person and you can probably tell that from the photo. I was shooting with a Kodak Instamatic, maybe a 104, though I can’t be sure. I currently have a 404 in my collection, but I don’t think it was the one I used when I was a kid.
Florida beach, 1968I like this photo. I like to keep it close at hand. It’s humbling. It reminds me that despite all the hardware, experience, workshops, & education, a kid of five unleashed with a point-and-shoot camera and a few simple “rules” can bring back some decent shots. There’s no substitute for raw visual intuition and most kids have it in spades.

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The Malak Karsh Garden

I have a thing for visual jokes, ironies, unfortunate circumstances, so I couldn’t resist this scene looking across the Ottawa River from the Gatineau side. The National Capital Commission has planted a garden to honour Malak Karsh, a photographer and the lesser-known brother of Yousuf Karsh. The commemorative plaque opens: “This flower bed was planted in recognition of …” So did they plant invisible flowers? Plaque to Malak Karsh, Ottawa

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