Journal

Williamstown at the Turn of the Millennium

Panorama of 30 Williamstown from Pine Cobble,10-22-00

 

 

 

This view of Williamstown, Massachusetts from Pine Cobble was made on October 22, 2000. I wanted a definitive view of town at the millennium. A bench mark.

I used a 1917 cirkut camera – the kind that spins around on the tripod – the only way to make a continuous view, pre digital.  It does “hick-up” occasionally. The original negative is about 5×40 inches. I scanned and digitized it. A section of this photograph is cover art of the town history Williamstown 1753-2003.

I waited until the leaves were almost all off the trees but there was still color.  Last third of leaf season is my favorite because the green is gone and leaves aren’t blocking so much of the view. Short of going aerial this is the most all-encompassing view of town. To the right is the Pownal Valley. Downtown Williamstown is in the center.  To the left we’d see Mt. Greylock but trees block the view. The Taconic Mountain Range defines the horizon.

In the years since this photo was made visible changes have occurred including the demolition of most of the phototec mill buildings. Two of the three elementary school buildings are gone.  A new one and parking lots have consumed what were the town’s large public playing field. The new Williams library is a fresh landmark.

I wonder about the past and the future.  By about 1850 most of the land would have been open space, the forest cleared for timber and to make way for agriculture – grazing sheep would have dotted the hillsides. By 2000 the forest has mostly returned, but the once dominant chestnut tree is gone. Trees are encroaching on this lookout. It appears the ash trees will be gone soon, likely replaced with black birch and oak.

Here is where we were in 2000.

It’s in the rear view mirror, getting smaller every day.

Prints suitable for framing are available.

Photography and Time

Photography and time are inextricably related in many ways.

Most immediately, a photograph is created in a finite, measurable period or exposure time. Its effect will greatly influence the appearance of the photograph. Whether a moving subject will appear sharp or blurred are examples of this. Exposure time is a corner stone of every photograph.

One second time exposure, East Beach, South Dartmouth, Massachusetts

The passage of time after a picture is made is another factor that affects the meaning. Photographs are often referred to as a moment frozen in time. As time passes and the distance grows between the frozen moment of the past and the present, circumstances change, and with them meaning. This is why family pictures are so treasured. Take your ordinary snap shot. When you make it, it shows a family member as they are now. Put it in a drawer and forget it for a few years. Pull it out and use it to compare how a person has grown in the ensuing years. Put it back in the drawer and forget it until the subject has died. Dig it back out and the photograph has an entirely new significance. Years later it will be your decedents looking at the photograph from yet another perspective.

Ask any one, “If you were fleeing from your burning house and could take one armload of possessions, what would you take?” Photo album would be on that list. Photographs can have very high value.

And then a funny thing happens. After several generations there is a disconnect. When the subject is beyond living memory and not an exceptional individual in the eyes of history the interest and value leaves the photograph. They are often stored away in the basement, attic, or trash – some are donated to photographic archives.

kid at Christmas with tree and model train, circa 1935

Unidentified child at Christmas, ca. 1935, Negative was found in the dump

My perspective came in several forms.

For the recognizable views, streetscapes and such I was always comparing what was to what was left – and then doing the figuring as to what had caused the change. In a few instances I made contemporary views of earlier recorded scenes. This is a guaranteed formula to make photographs of interest. It is a common practice. In one example a group of photographers retraced and rephotographer the 19th century western explorer photographers. It was called the Rephotographic Survey.

In my tenure as curator of photography at the New Bedford Whaling Museum I presided over thousand of 19th century portraits. Value was there to be extracted, but for reasons that had nothing to do with why they were originally made. With family connections severed interest turned to styles of dress, occupation, station in the community and the historic process by which the photograph was made. At that time I had only experienced the passing of less than three decades. I spent my days with tens of thousands of images of 19th century New Bedford, but it was a different place ten decades later. Up the street at the Standard Times – the local newspaper – their name for their archive was the morgue. Which is accurate. The people in the photographs are dead after all. But I never though of our collection in those terms. I see in photographs eternal life.

Tirrell & Martin, JSM 4053 ca 1922

Intersection of Union and Purchase Streets, New Bedford, Massachusetts, ca 1922 Joseph Martin photographer, Star Store, right, is now UMass Dartmouth Art Building Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Another way I saw this collection was through the eyes of my fellow photographers. Sure they were long gone, but with enough of a photographers’ work at hand you can tell a whole lot – plenty of which the photographer conveys unintentionally. But learning about a workers’ methods you can understand the choices they made and their creative process. At the heart of any photographers’ work is their vision, or seeing. This is a uniquely personal act. Through their seeing you can know the individual. I believe this is as close to immortality as one can come. I think it is a principal motivation to make art. Artists continue to be heard across the ages long after their contemporaries are forgotten.

James Allen (detail), Fairhaven, Massachusetts, ca. 1888 Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

 

To really understand why a photograph looks as it does go out and make a simular view. That isn’t what I was thinking at the time – but Martin and I both made these shop view with 8×10 view cameras.

Tirrell & Martin M-304, Pierce & Kilborne, Fairhaven 1920

Whaleboat Construction at Pierce and Kilborne, Fairhaven, Massachusetts, 1920, Joseph Martin photographer

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

NW Beetle, Leo steaming a plank, 10_79

Beetle Cat boat shop, Leo Telesmanick steaming a plank, October 1979

 

I left as guardian of that stable of photographers to concentrate on being a photographer. I enjoyed their company and know them intimately. I have many relationships with other photographers and artists, living and dead.

John Rudiak, Taos NM 9-25-96

Perhaps the strangest but obviously inevitable thing to happen was to have friend and fellow photographer, John Rudiak die. Since I know this body of work better than anyone I have assisted with organizing it. Where we once worked together in the field, in the lab, and in critique, he has stopped and I am still moving ahead, ahead and away. He lives in his work. More distilled and certainly less fun, but the ideas are there. I can and go to the work when I wish to visit.

As the decades have passed my perspective has changed. I now find myself curator of my own archive. This site has been an impetus to organize and evaluate what I’ve done. Photographs are made one at a time. You can’t fully understand what you are doing while you are doing it. A dispassionate review well after the shutter has clicked is much more objective. The work is evaluated in large part by comparing it to other photographs one has made. In editing, ideas, patterns and concepts are revealed. With the passage of time comes a revised perspective. It might be the best part of aging.

Time weaves its way through photographs in many changing ways.

Photoshop – What is Over the Line?

Recently in the news there was a story about a photojournalist, Allan Detrich who was fired for retouching his images with a digital darkroom program called Photoshop. Seems in a group photograph of a team a pair of anonymous legs, distracting and way in the in the background, were made to disappear. The picture looked better with out them and the message wasn’t distorted. But that wasn’t the point. The integrity of the paper had been compromised. The paper needed us to know their pictures were real. A reporter asked the paper’s editor what kinds of corrections were permitted in the digital darkroom. He replied that cropping (changing the framing), burning and dodging (making certain areas lighter or darker) or pretty much what you could do in the old, wet, analog lab were acceptable.
In the digital age anything is possible. Hollywood in particular has always used special effects to drive its industry and the realistic quality they now routinely pump out has unequivocally shown the lie that pictures can be made to be. For we who came of age in the analog era, I believe we had internal filters that kept media information in it’s respected categories. For people of the digital age that is gone. It is all one, big, swirling soup of visual stimulation.If newspapers want to hold manipulation to the old standards that is fine. Better to err on the side of the factual image, no matter how visually unappealing. Of course, long before the digital deluge, advertising photographs – particularly pictures of models were heavily modified. We knew and accepted this. In popular news magazines “straight” and doctored/advertisement photographs coexisted side by side. Standards used to depend on the situation. That is still the case.

Following are the standards to which photojournalists are held.
The NPPA Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics states:
“As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.
“As photojournalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its images as a matter of historical record. It is clear that the emerging electronic technologies provide new challenges to the integrity of photographic images … in light of this, we the National Press Photographers Association, reaffirm the basis of our ethics: Accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession. We believe photojournalistic guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph. Altering the editorial content … is a breach of the ethical standards recognized by the NPPA.”

In the last couple of years I have been putting my many negatives through the Photoshop mill on their way to creating the digitized images you see on this site. Much can be said about the changes in the photographer’s workflow but the digital darkroom has revolutionized the field. One way of thinking about a negative is as a writer’s rough draft. The idea is there but it needs polishing and articulation. Or as famously stated by Ansel Adams, who trained as a classical pianist, “the negative is the score and the print is the performance”. Ansel Adams could well be considered the definitive American landscape photographer. And boy did he manipulate – in the field and in the lab. He even wrote a series of books describing how he did it.

In the early days of the medium, landscape photographers struggled mightily with restrictive processes and ridiculously heavy and bulky equipment. Despite this burden some really great photographs were produced. One of the best of the American western photographers was Carlton Watkins. He did a major series of Yosemite in the 1860s. Yosemite was dramatic fare and from the beginning attracted photographers who produced scenic views with the hope of selling prints. As is still the case, there were spots from which the view was best reveled – and this is where the standard views were made from. One favorite view was from atop the Mariposa Trail looking toward falls and half dome. At this location there was an opening and a clean view could be had. All except for one tree that’s branches partially obscured the view. What to do? The cut and paste of Photoshop was a hundred and thirty years in the future. How about climb the tree and saw off the branch? Oh yes they did! In fact photographs made at this spot can be dated by the progression of missing limbs. Good thing our Allan Detrich didn’t take his boss literally about only manipulating to pre digital standards and saw those distracting legs right off the guy in the background!

 

 

 

 

 

 

C.L. Weed, Mariposa Trail, ca. 1865

 

 

 

 

 

Carlton Watkins, Yosemite, Best General View, ca.1865
Photoshop has improved my work a lot. It has allowed me to make excellent photographs from imperfect or damaged negatives. It has given me controls to probe the negative for the most articulate interpretation. It has also presented the opportunity to make significant revisions. This is where the question arises – what is over the line? Where even is the line?

For me, the answer is to make the central idea of the photograph the top priority. Mostly this means adjusting the color, contrast, lightness and darkness until it feels right – same as the old days. Here is where we depart for the old days. What about a zit in a portrait? Gone. How about a road cone in an architectural view? Gone. How about a tree branch in an architectural view? Optional. How about a tree branch in a landscape? Hummm. Nope, that stays. That black hair in the sky is history though. Ok that was all pretty straight forward. It was the Concordia Yawl reunion series that really forced my hand.

You’ll recall it was 1988 and the Concordia Yawls were meeting for an unprecedented reunion at their homeport of Padanaram. I was to photograph these thoroughbreds as they formed up and romped about in Buzzards Bay. I had taken to the air in a tiny, door less chopper. I was strapped in. It was windy and noisy. The view was out of this world. The boats looked incredible as a group. All the planning, the weather, everything had fallen into place. And now I was to make the pictures others could only imagine. Then it happened. First one, than several motorboats chugged into the fleet. Against yachting protocols these lunkheaded power boaters couldn’t resist the view and drove their ugly white plastic pieces of shit into this scene of perfection! I screamed, I pleaded and screamed some more. It didn’t matter they couldn’t hear me. So I made my photographs, knowing as I did I had come so close – but missed. It was cruel and it made me nuts!

Fast-forward nineteen years. I was scanned my originals, cleaning up the dust spots, and there was a tiny powerboat the size of a piece of dust. Zap – it was gone and in it’s place only the shimmering sea. I had crossed the line of journalistic integrity. The picture looked better though – and that ugly boat shouldn’t have cluttered up the view in the first place! I was over the NAAP’s line, true. But the pure idea of the photograph is my standard, which these powerboats were hurting, not helping.

So I zapped ‘em all, large and small. It was exhilarating!

 

After almost twenty years the series was finally what I had intended all along.

Back to the Future

An interesting phenomenon occurred in the 1970s. I observed its manifestations in the fields of boatbuilding and photography. With the rampant advances in technology in the 1950s came the miracle consumer products – many based on petroleum, or put most succinctly in The Graduate – plastics. Convieniences were created – but at the expense of aesthetics. For those who cared, the answer was to look to the past.
Boats, until the 1950s, had largely meant wooden boats. It was a material that worked and had evolved into many traditional types, each a regional solution uniquely suited to its environs. But as successful as the traditional wooden boat had been, there were issues of maintenance and wood’s limited ability to take complex shapes. Plastic, blended with fiberglass promised to solve those problems. Combined with the efficiency of mass production, radical modern styling, reduced maintenance and a flush middle class eager to spend their newly found leisure time boating, the traditional boat found itself in a perfect storm. So in the 1950s and 1960s wooden boat production declined greatly. The complex skill sets that had been passed down from builder to builder were lost as the continum was broken. Appreciation for classic and historical vessels declined. The look of the waterfront changed as long-lived plastic boats proliferated and dominated the scene.Enter the counter-culture. I don’t think the wooden boat revival of the 1970s was a specific political statement but it did share many characteristics with national movements that were. Like the back to the earth movement the wooden boat community looked to the past with its human scale methods of working. A reverence and appreciation for tradition found museums such as Mystic Seaportkeepers of the torch, and along with small scale schools like the Apprenticeshop, skills on the verge of disappearing were recorded and taught to a new generation. This movement was at once championed and led by Wooden Boat Magazine as a clearinghouse for information.Some people never succumbed to plastic fever in the first place, and as such became the foundation of the later wooden boat revival. It was my privilege to know some of these individuals and I’ll be writing about them in future entries.Bob Baker, who I knew in his final years in Westport, Massachusetts was a dreamer mesmerized by the waterfront of yore. Some people are living in the wrong century. I’d say Bob was off by a hundred years or more. To keep the present at bay he lived in old houses and surrounded himself with old boats. He actively sought out significant historic small craft; several of the finest found their way to Mystic Seaport. Bob pulled rotting boats out of the bushes and made drawings, thus preserving their lines. And not necessarily showy boats either. His last projects involved the simple, common, ubiquitous flatiron skiff. These boats were so ordinary that when they disappeared no one thought to miss them. Bob’s last shop was a converted chicken coop – a good boat shop shape, long and narrow with lots of natural light and precious few power tools. He did build some new boats, but one was more likely to find a tired old boat getting a restoration, as Bob laid on hands.
Waldo Howland was either a visionary or a stuborn traditionalist. I couldn’t say which, likely a bit of both – I loved him either way. Waldo was a team builder. In the 1970s he was writing his autobiography and found me working in the bowels of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, attempting to create order of the Museum’s collection of historic photography. He steered funds into my nascent department and bent my ear with the history of things marine – not a few of which he had experienced first hand. After the Second World War, as the crowd headed for plastic, Waldo’sConcordia Company created one of the most beloved wooden yachts of all time, the Concordia Yawl . Waldo also put a good deal of work on the plate of retro designer Pete Culler. If all this wasn’t enough, he brought the struggling Beetle Cat Boat line under Concordia’s wing, keeping it viable through some lean years, until the boat buying public came back to its senses. These were some of the embers, kept live, that were later to burst forth as the modern and healthy wooden boat movement.

In photography the same tide of consumerism that swamped wooden boats brought rapid change to photography. The 1960s was the first decade that saw more color than black and white. For the convenience of the consumer film sizes were reduced. 35mm became a standard. Larger film sizes were available but became professional products. There are undeniable advantages to smaller film, such as portability and spontaneity but they came at the cost of image quality. Color photography, with its’ warm, wet processing, necessitated a nonabsorbent paper base. Which brings us back to plastic.

For over 100 years photographs had been made on a base of durable, achivally processable, pure rag paper. That ended with color. And then to facilitate machine processing of black and white it too was offered on waterproof, resin (plastic) coated stock. Before long, gelatin silver emulsion on real paper was a premium product. Then in the late 1970s the Hunt Brothers cornered the silver market. The price shot up and Kodak reduced the silver content of its papers. Predictably, image quality went south. Prints from 1900 were looking better that those from 1979. Achieving really fine print quality was becoming very difficult. Agfa and Ilford did offer some excellent alternatives, but the gelatin silver print had its’ limitations. As with boats, progress was not bringing us forward, it was time for a look back.

Before there were standardized, manufactured products, photographers concocted their own paper. Very simply put, paper is coated with a light sensitive substance. From the dawn of the medium in the 1840s to this day, silver has been the basis of the vast majority of black and white prints. There are however other options. Platinum and palladium were used from the 1890s until about 1915. Superb photographers such as Henry Peter Emerson, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Alfred Steiglitz made platinum prints, which have with stood the test of time. But how were we contemporary workers to use these processes from long ago? You needed to be a chemist – which I am not. My friend John Rudiak was and he helped me at a time when answers were scarce. John and Sprint Systems of Photography founder Paul Krot worked out a system, which Sprint offered for a while in the late 1970s.

It was Richard Sullivan who’s Bostick and Sullivan smoothed out enough of the many bugs so that reasonably consistent results could be obtained. Bostick and Sullivan has become a cornerstone in what has evolved into the alternative processes movement. For me the platinotype, a mix of platinum and palladium became the medium of choice for my landscape work. This century old system does demand a negative of special characteristics and it must be the size of the final print. Previously, these enlarged negatives had been made by adapting lithographic or other specialty films. These films could be made to work, but were expensisive, and often inconsistent. Enter the computer. Computer generated enlarged negatives can be adjusted to perfection. Now excellent prints can be made using vintage materials – the best of both worlds.

In both boats and photography, historic materials combined with craftsmanship and technology are proving to be the way of the future.

Analog to Digital

Most of the photographs on this site were made with good old fashion film cameras from before the age of digital.

I admit to coming slowly to the d-side, as some call it. But I’m in now and with both feet.

My biggest apprehension about digital was the loss of what makes photography such a special medium. That is its unique connection to the physical world. In a conventional photograph the light bouncing off a subject is focused through the lens and collides with a speck of light sensitive silver salt in proportion to the intensity and color of that light. There is an actual physical relationship between the scene, the negative and then the print. They are at their root, indisputable evidence of what ever it is they illustrate.

In a digital image light is focused on a chip that makes an electronic capture. This data is next passed through programs in the camera and then the computer. The file is wildly malleable until it is reconfigured as an image. The great advantage is that the considerable limitations of conventional photography are usurped. The picture is “improved”. But is it still a photograph with its integrity intact? Strictly speaking, no, it isn’t. Further more, as the public participates in digital image making the inherent sanctity of the photograph is undermined. People know a picture can be adjusted or manipulated to suit. The perception of what a photograph is has been changed. This is a loss. To purists this loss of integrity is unacceptable. I can relate.

Digital photography offers advantages. The unprecedented control makes it possible to articulate the idea of a photograph much more precisely then ever before. In the end, realizing the idea is paramount to championing any given technology.

Digital files are simpler to work with than the old system. Darkroom work can be enjoyable but it can also be punishing to one’s health. It definitely is less efficient and not as ecologically friendly as working on a screen.

One significant improvement in the new photography are the prints. Inkjet printers are capable of superior results. The new printers accommodate fine art paper stocks comparable to the fine art papers used in printmaking. I am working with a line of 100% rag papers from Crane & Company. I have spent over 30 years honing my craft and these prints are the best I have ever made.

Digital photography is a reality. This is the system by which images are transmitted and often consumed. Conventional photographs are digitized for almost any use any way.

Technology advances – more rapidly than ever.