Tag Archives: Movies

Dead Animals

In the film, American Beauty, Wes Bentley plays the teen who moves in next door. He sells pot from his bedroom and uses the money to finance his obsession—video equipment. He loves to shoot video and produces a visual diary of the things he sees each day. In particular, he tries to shoot dead things—pets, wild animals, and ultimately Lester Burnham—focussing on their eyes to capture that decisive moment when they hover between life and death.

I’m reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson who applied the phrase “the decisive moment” to the art of photography. I think he was writing about how all the elements of composition come together (as in a painting) and are captured in the decisive moment when the photographer releases the shutter. And yet it seems to me that his decisive moment in the art of his work is not all that different from the teen’s decisive moment at the cusp of death.

There is a sense in which releasing the shutter rails against death. We want to freeze moments that will never again happen in precisely this way. Convergences, collisions, coincidences. We try to preserve these moments and offer them to the future. At the same time, we try to interpret them. We don’t offer them as raw moments; we wrap them in our aesthetic sensibilities. The moment is decisive, not simply because it freezes time, but also because it draws into a single frame all the considerations that make a good photograph.

I find myself channeling Wes Bentley’s character. When I walk in Toronto’s ravines, it’s common for me to stumble upon dead animals. I feel compelled to photograph them, not out of a ghoulish fascination, but because—somehow—that is what a camera is for. The camera prods me to take this raw visual stuff and make sense of it, both rationally and aesthetically. Shooting dead animals is easier in the winter. The corpse is literally frozen in time and so I have the luxury of extending the decisive moment over minutes, or even days if I choose to come back. I don’t need to cover my face. I’m not repulsed by the smell or by the insects.

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I see a cat (or what I presume to be a cat) but I see no tag so I wonder if it was a feral cat. Otherwise, if it was a pet, where did the tag go? It’s lying in the snow by the side of the Don River. I’m no pet CSI, but this one looks like it’s been dead for some time. Again, I’m no pet CSI, but this one looks like it’s been skinned. It’s lying on top of the fur which has been detached from the body. What happened here? Now, it lies eyeless with its nose submerged in the melting snow. How will I position myself to best capture the scene? I use a tripod and 100 mm macro lens. ISO 200 f/11 1/20 sec.

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I see a raccoon drowned in Yellow Creek. It hasn’t been a cold winter so the water keeps flowing. Animals must drown here all the time. I find something compelling about the saturated colours of the fur, the washed out reflection of the trees, the digits hanging below the surface of the water. I use a monopod and 100 mm macro lens. ISO 400 f/5.6 1/100 sec.

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I find a dog trapped between rocks in the Don River. Probably a pet that got caught in the current and swept downstream. There’s something pathetic about the way the back is arched and the forelimbs raised over its head, as if pleading. I shouldn’t anthropomorphize these scenes; the limbs are in that position courtesy of physics. I shoot with a tripod and 50mm Sigma Art Lens. ISO 400 f/11 1/4 sec.

On reflection, I wonder if there’s anything at all decisive in any of these moments. Does life in the city—forget the city—does life in late modern global culture trivialize the concerns that drove Cartier-Bresson? Am I losing my ability to distinguish the value of an animal’s life from the value of an iPod? Are all moments of equal (i.e. equally meaningless) weight whether we capture them in the past or give them to the future? Are moments neither decisive nor indecisive but simply part of that stream in which commodities are rendered unfashionable or obsolete? When I see something dead, instead of making a photograph, maybe I should shop for a new camera.

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My Name Is Bond – James Bond

While the official story holds that Ian Fleming named his most famous character after an American ornithologist, local legend tells a different story. In 1942, Fleming spent a few weeks at Camp X near Oshawa where he was taking specialized training (he was leader of a British commando unit). Fleming was staying at a home on Avenue Road, and, every day, on his way to Camp X, he passed a local church, St. James-Bond United Church. The church’s name sank into his memory and, after the war, when it came time to write about the exploits of agent 007, the name floated to the surface.

The hyphenated church name theory is probably no better than historical fantasy but, since we’re in the fantasy mode, why not ratchet things up a notch? Here’s a fresh speculation: while in Toronto, Ian Fleming almost became a Trappist monk. Instead of writing Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang and Dr. No, he almost ended up writing meditations on the contemplative life and tracts protesting military spending.

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In his memoir, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton  writes about his younger brother, John Paul. Like Thomas, John Paul had drifted across the Protestant/Catholic divide and had even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. For whatever reason, the idea never took hold. John Paul was an impulsive young man and suddenly ran off to Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. The U.S. wasn’t in the war yet, and, I suppose, John Paul was itching to see the sort of action he couldn’t get south of the border. Merton writes that “he was in camp, somewhere near Toronto.”

One of the things I like about John Paul is the fact that he was a photographer. Their father had been a painter, and both sons inherited his artsy fartsy sensibility, Thomas, with his poetry, and John Paul, with his camera. I can imagine how, as training trudged from 1941 to 1942, John Paul grew bored of the Air Force. On Saturday nights, maybe he came into town with his camera, hoping to shoot some action—bar fights, girls, whatever caught his fancy.

I can imagine him sitting by the window of a pub on Eglinton Avenue when a proper English gentleman strolled past. The gentleman paused, struck perhaps by the sight of a young man reading a newspaper while a draught sat chilling on his table beside a Rolleiflex. After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. Fleming joined the young John Paul and they began their conversation by wondering how small one might engineer a camera for use by, say, a spy agency.

Series 372, Subseries 58 - Road and street condition photographs

By the typically circuitous path that conversations take, John Paul let slip that he had an older brother, Thomas, who had become a novice monk and had joined the Abbey of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky. Without thinking, Fleming blurted: “What the deuce would a man do such a thing for?” He was so flustered, he dangled his preposition. Being a good Church of England man, himself, it never occured to him that real people might choose celibacy. Nevertheless, he was fascinated to learn about Thomas Merton’s decision and left the pub with the monk’s address.

The two men struck up a correspondence and, after the war, Fleming even visited Merton at Gethsemani—not so far-fetched when you consider that Merton entertained many famous personages including Joan Baez and Thich Naht Hanh. Together, the men drank a toast to John Paul Merton, whose plane had gone down in the English Channel in 1943. For a time, Ian Fleming flirted with the idea of becoming a monk, but finally dispatched the idea with the publication in 1953 of Casino Royale. After reading the novel, Merton allowed their correspondence to peter out.

As an afterward, I note that St. James-Bond United Church no longer exists. As the congregation’s numbers dwindled, it opted in 2005 to amalgamate with the congregation of Fairlawn Heights United Church. Together, they worship as Fairlawn Avenue United Church. In 2006, most of the church was demolished. Now, a retirement residence stands on the site and incorporates features of the previous building.

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A photo apropos of nothing.

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Playing with MacPhun Software

I recently bought a suite of photo “enhancement” apps from MacPhun. I use the word enhancement in quotes because I feel conflicted about such tools. They make it easy to inflict an endless array of cheesy effects on unsuspecting photos.

The “to app or not to app” debate reminds me of an episode from the novel, Diva, by Delacorta (Daniel Odier), which also appears as a scene in the movie of the same name. The opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins, is giving a statement to the press when a reporter asks why she refuses to record her performances. She answers that the performance is a special moment which a recording can never capture. She then mentions Glenn Gould by way of contrast. Gould famously refused to perform and devoted himself, instead, to the post-production process.

A analogous debate has raged in the world of photography since the discovery that film negatives could be manipulated. But what was once an esoteric art practised by a handful of darkroom geeks is now accessible to anyone who owns a smart phone. And so the debate has gained new force. Purists insist that everything rests on the process; their aim is a Platonic photograph captured fully formed in camera without the need for post-processing manipulation. The rest of us aren’t so skillful or we’re lazy or we like to play with all the latest digital tools. We draw an analogy to Glenn Gould and wonder: if the object is to produce a compelling image, what difference does it make which process we use to create the image?

My position in this debate? I begin with the observation that recent developments in camera technology make photography almost idiot proof. Auto-focus has become blazingly fast. In fact, it’s possible to dispense with focus altogether. The Lytro Illum allows you to take your photo and decide what to pull into focus after the fact. Add to that the proposed technology that would allow you to take perfect HDR images every time, and it becomes impossible to take a technically bad photo. Stripped of technical challenges, all that remains for photography are creative challenges. Composition and post-processing.

Maybe purists will insist on using old cameras so they can claim bragging rights for all the technical challenges they’ve overcome. But for those who adopt new tools and still want to call themselves purists, all that remains to them of creativity in the process is composition. Personally, I find that unnecessarily limiting. I like to play.

With a name like MacPhun, you get the feeling this app developer panders to people who like to play (especially if they are Mac users). Each of the tools in the suite can function as a plugin in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Although they aren’t non-destructive editing tools as you’d find in Lightroom, they get around this problem by automatically making a copy of your image source file and editing the copy instead. (The downside of this is that a copy in .tif format of a 50 megapixel image can be as large as 250 Mb and I begrudge the space.)

What follows are before and after shots to illustrate some MacPhun possibilities using 4 of the 5 tools. (The 5th is SnapHeal Pro which you don’t need if you have Photoshop but would be useful for people using other image editing software.)

First, let’s play with Tonality Pro, an app for conversion to black and white. To illustrate, here’s a shot of a horse eating grass framed by another horse eating grass. It’s compositionally interesting, but not a great shot because I was facing the technical challenge of shooting into the shadow side of a dark subject. But convert it black and white and use the handy slider to reduce the shadow and the result is vastly improved.

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Next are a couple samples using Focus Pro. In the first, I apply a tilt-shift effect to a rooftop scene in Paris. In a way, Focus Pro allows you to simulate the Lytro Illum camera. If you shoot with a small enough aperture so that most of the image is in focus, then that gives you a lot to play with in post-processing. In this case, I angled the plane of the tilt from bottom left third to top right corner. It produces the “toy town” effect, especially in the trees, that is characteristic of tilt shift lenses.

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I used Focus Pro to try a different effect with an image I took last weekend at Toronto’s Buskerfest. I mask the woman in the foreground, then give everything else a motion blur. Again, what makes it work is the fact that I shot the source image with a narrow aperture – f/11 – so I could start with most everything in focus.

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Intensify Pro is probably the most dangerous of the apps because it’s the one with all the cheesy HDR possibilities. Use with moderation. I’ve applied a moderate “punch” to a photo I took during this year’s Pride celebrations. It brings out the colours in the umbrellas and their reflections in the wet pavement. Too much? Maybe. The app also allows for black and white conversion.

Boys Holding Hands

Boys Holding Hands

Finally, a sample using Noiseless Pro, a tool for reducing (or increasing) noise. I shot these fireworks from Ward Island across the Toronto Harbour at the end of the PanAm Games. I was shooting at ISO 1250. (Despite Canon’s advertising, I find the 5DS doesn’t handle low light as well as other DSLRs, not even as well as the Mark III.) I reduce the noise in the sky, then use Intensify Pro to give the colours some punch.

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Bottom line: it’s a decent suite and works effectively (and efficiently) as a plugin to Adobe products. If you have self-control, it can be applied to make subtle enhancements to your images.

You may not need the full suite. SnapHeal seems unnecessary. There are black and white conversion and de-noisifying tools in Intensify Pro so you can probably dispense with Tonality Pro and Noiseless Pro. All the apps are available on a trial basis, so you can judge based on your own needs.

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Photo Movie: Salvador

Salvador is a great movie to watch if you’re interested in photojournalism. Richard Boyle (James Woods) is a burned out journalist (and self-professed weasel) who, along with a DJ sidekick, Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi), heads down to El Salvador to see if he can pick up some freelance work. The two Americans arrive in time to witness the assassination of Oscar Romero, the murder of four church workers, and the U.S.-backed military push to crush the leftist guerrillas. Boyle connects with a more professional journalist, John Cassady, who feeds him some work.

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Before things really blow up, they go together to photograph the bodies of the disappeared. It helps survivors identify loved ones. As they’re wandering through a dump site, they have a conversation about photography and Robert Capa:

You know what made photographers like Robert Capa great, Rich? They weren’t after money. They captured the nobility of human suffering.

That was a great shot in Spain. One flying through the air.

Yeah, but it was more than a body, Richie. He got…why they died. That’s what Capa caught. He caught that moment of death.

You’re right up there with him, John. You’re in his league. You’re the best.

You gotta get close, Rich…to get the truth. You get too close, you die. Someday…I want a shot like Capa. Someday. Someday.

But there’s a scene near the end of the film that seems to undermine what they say. Boyle and Cassady are running in the line of fire between rebels and the military. They’re clearly sympathetic to the leftist rebels and hope to capture that decisive moment when the people of El Salvador take back their country. But the U.S. turns on its military aid pipeline, with all its big machinery. Boyle and Cassady can see the tanks and planes coming. Cassady is after his shot and stands his ground while a plane does a strafing run. Boyle watches in horror as Cassady takes a bullet. He performs a field tracheotomy with a switchblade and a pen. Cassady’s last words are: “I got my shot.”

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The problem with the scene is that, on his own terms, he doesn’t get the shot. He gets a shot of a plane flying high overhead and, maybe, puffs of dust where the bullets hit the ground. What he doesn’t get is a closeup that captures the kind of moment that he values in Capa’s work.

Boyle agrees with him – yeah, you got your shot – and promises to take the film back to New York for processing. But either Boyle’s stupid for not realizing that the shot doesn’t measure up, or he’s trying to comfort a dying man. At least that’s how I view the film. I think we’re meant to view it straight: he got his shot and paid the price. But, photographically speaking, he paid the price for nothing.

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Photo Flick: Fur

Fur is an imaginary riff on the life of Diane Arbus, who has come to be known as a photographer of freaks. That description might be a bit caricatured, but that’s what it comes down to. A more charitable way of characterizing her work might be to suggest that she sought out people on the social fringes, people who gave flesh to her privately held sense of personal freakishness (she struggled with major depressive episodes and took her own life in 1971). Starring Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus and Robert Downey, Jr. as Lionel, a neighbour/freak who suffers from hypertrichosis, the film explores the pivotal moment in her career when she shifts from dutiful assistant in her husband’s commercial studio to an explorer of dark places.

There is a key scene in the film when the audience realizes the marriage hasn’t got a chance; Diane must leave if she’s ever going to accomplish anything in her own right. Lionel has asked to meet her husband, so Diane invites him over for dinner. In the classic manner of a 50’s housewife, Diane toils in the kitchen while the two men share shots of 18 year old Macallan. Despite Lionel’s freakish appearance, Diane can’t look away. Meanwhile her husband makes small talk with Lionel but can barely bring himself to look at the man. One photographer looks with empathy; the other, with disgust. They pursue the same craft, but with different eyes and a different vision. It’s an object lesson for all photographers.

Another object lesson comes from the fact that Diane doesn’t photograph Lionel until she’s formed a relationship with him. This establishes a pattern the non-fictional Arbus followed throughout her career. We see it demonstrated at the end of the film. Diane approaches a woman in a nudist colony. The woman sees the Rolleiflex camera and asks if she’s going to take her picture. Diane sets the camera on the bench and says, “Yes, but not yet.”

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Photo Flick: Smoke

There are a surprising number of movies in which photography has an important role. Like writers who write novels about novelists, it’s almost as if film-makers need to engage in the same self-reflexive practice. What does it mean to see the world through a lens? Why do we do it? Why do we care? These questions come up quite pointedly in Smoke. Harvey Keitel plays Auggie, who owns a tobacco shop in New York. One evening, as he’s closing up, Paul (played by William Hurt) runs up, hoping he’s not too late to get some cigars. Auggie lets him into the shop, and as he’s getting the cigars, Paul notices a 35 mm camera sitting on the counter. He assumes another customer has left it behind, but Auggie tells him that it’s his camera. He spends a little time each day taking photographs. In fact, there’s a little more to it than that; Auggie has a personal project and pursues it obsessively. Every day, at the same time each day, he stands outside his shop and takes a photograph across the intersection.

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