Monday, March 29, 2010

Finally! All Moved In!

Finally! All moved in and almost entirely up and running. Can't seem to get my desk top machines to go online, but the netbook is chugging along. Took a while to get back to blogging...

Spring has sprung and all kinds of flowery stuff is blooming and spreading beauty and pollen all over the lot.

Even upgraded my camera... So if it's not about the camera, this will be about a camera. Got a bit money and went and got the Canon 5dmk2. Makes huge files, weighs a ton, costs a bundle, the lenses are also pretty damn pricey, and the least expensive dedicated flash was also too much money (got it anyway). But, it is a technological marvel. Images are sharper than I could ever get with film, unless I was shooting medium top large format. Wide contrast range, intuitive controls....

But -

Getting past the camera has been the main task. I have a particular pet peeve against what I call "equipment driven photography". That's the kind of photography where the machinery used takes over from the content. The use of ultra wide lenses, just to use ultra wide lenses, for example. Studio shots where all the work has been done by assistants, including the lighting, and all the "photographer" does is push the shutter button.

The challenge is to use any tool as an extension of one's vision, not as a replacement.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Moving Day Approaches

Great Stone Face ©2010 Robert Daniel Ullmann
I am surrounded by mountains of cartons and have been busily throwing out vast amounts of stuff. Been in the same place for a long time and the accumulation of whatsits and doodads is staggering. Dead cameras, dead lenses, cables, cords and 9 volt adapters, darkroom stuff, etc. Sending out emails, packing equipment, and resisting the temptation of the miles of bubble wrap. I've spent more years on the upper west side of Manhattan than I care to think about, and this move, to the upper east side, is long overdue. Oddly enough, the upper east side is now cheaper than the upper west side. I'll be offline for a while, at least until the 4th or 5th of April, unless I start blogging from my netbook at Starbucks. Which I doubt will happen, unpacking and all will take most of my time.

Once the move is done, I will be diving headfirst into shooting.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why is Everyone Orange?

I'm serious. Why is everyone I see in print, on TV, and in movies is orange. Spray tan? Too many carrots? Can't be a white balance issue since the rest of the colors look OK. When I used to get color prints made, I always was astounded at the reddish-orange cast given to skin... One printer finally got it when I kept yelling "Paler, paler!" The effect of idealized media is so far flung that I actually saw a real live person with absolutely no lines of any kind under her eyes. Even little tiny children have these lines. Makeup is now so thick and carefully applied that it seems that most women are wearing masks...

On another note - I am moving. In about a week I will be without the interwebs for a few days.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Tribute to Durer©2010 Robert Daniel Ullmann

There is a huge change in the way intellectual property is handled. The ability to make perfect and infinite numbers of copies of everything and anything digital has changed the landscape to put some vaguely effective copyright protections in the hands of the big corporations, who can also spend obscene amounts on readily breakable (usually by some teenager) DRM protection.

I've photographed several WIPO conferences and listened to the great poo-bahs of intellectual property get it wrong. The so-called dark net was only mentioned once, China and it's pirated everything, never, and the rights of individual artists were mostly dismissed (as in the statement by a prestigious law professor that "photographers will just have to find some way to protect their work".

Yeah, sure. If major corporations can't protect their software, movies, music, books and games, how can I, with no programming skills, protect myself?

Yes, Virginia, there is the Creative Commons licensing, which seems to be a great favorite among those who already have money, and good jobs, like academics , and don't mind their work being used for god knows what by god knows who.

What to do? Organizing artists to form something like a union would be akin t0 herding hyper-active kittens. Beg other artists to stop giving their work away?

Any ideas? Anyone?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How Not to Take a Picture

World Trade Center ©1979 Robert Daniel Ullmann

I shot this in the middle 1970's - which seems like three or four centuries ago - certainly ancient as far as the technology involved has changed. While I may seem a tad outraged at the metamorphosis the world of photography has gone through, I am also very glad that for the first time in the history of photography one can obtain exactly what one wants using digital tools.

I especially love the healing tools in Photoshop - the number of times I would botch a print by inept spotting I can not begin to count.

OK - so what's with all this how not to stuff ,outside of my love of the essay "How Not to Tell a Story, or the Literarary offenses of Fennimore Cooper" by Mark Twain? Twain points out all of the maddening inconsistencies perpetrated by Cooper, and is writing about the low level of thought applied to a creative process, in the search for effect. It's a bit like watching someone jump out of a vehicle that is supposedly going 80 mph, and suffer nothing less than a small owie.
One of my favorites is the diving through plate glass and not getting cut to shreds.

Good art is thought out and is, I believe, part of the process of consciousness. Consciousness being a process, not a thing.

So - how not to take a picture:

Use all of the latest doo-dads your camera has to offer. Set the camera to recognize smiles, faces, night shots, use direct flash and red eye suppression, take close up shots of faces with the lens set wide so people look like fish... I'm sure there are more auto everything removing the brain from your activities stuff in the newest cameras so USE THEM!

However - if you want to make images that are powerful:

Turn off all the auto whiz-bang thought and decision removing gizmos. No face recognition, no smile recognition, no letting the camera decide whether your taking a scenic, a portrait or a nap.
Stop using fill flash and let the light work for you (Gene Smith once taught a course "Photography Made Difficult). If you are photographing a person, engage with them, talk to them... Think about the shot.

We are discussing making images that, one hopes, transcend photography.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Social Signifigance Rides Again - or, Another Rant

Another case of seeing a lot just by looking - this was shot from my window just before dinner a while ago. There are a lot of times where I'll suddenly yelp "hang on a minute, I'll catch up with you" and I stop and shoot.

Which brings to mind a discussion I once had with a friend about getting great images. The particular subject was a book of war photography. My friend pointed out, that, among other issues with the book, you had to be an idiot to not get great shots during a war. This got me to thinking and posing a challenge to myself - that since I wasn't in a place of staggering and constant beauty like Monument Valley, I would try to make powerful and beautiful images in the environment I was in (New York City) without relying on cliches and trickery. After all, the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer is not money earned - but rather the pro's ability to make good images consistently, not relying on luck or location.

There was bunch of controversy surrounding the above mentioned book, it was selling for about $100 and did a real good job documenting the horrors of war. The cry arose that the photographer was profiteering and making money using other people's pain and suffering. Another way not to pay the artist. Most, if not all, socially concerned documentary photographers have been slammed by this criticism. I even went to a lecture/workshop on photographing the homeless with all sorts of famous and near famous on the panel, and Dorothea Lange was held up as yet another example of the above, since the women who posed for the famous Migrant Mother shot, had said that she didn't want to be known as the person in the photo, didn't like the photo, and was generally all out of sorts because of the photo. OK. The photos in question have helped to raise awareness of immediate, pressing and heartbreaking human problems, photographers also need to eat, and I have never met a documentary photographer who thought they would get rich.

I've done my own work documenting poverty and social injustice, and when there still was a market for stock for textbooks I sold steadily. Never made a lot, sort of squeaked through. I doubt there's much of a market for images of the sick and suffering online, and certainly not through any venues I know.

The few photographers I have met who have tried to ride the coat tails of the Gene Smiths of the world, in order to get known and then make money, have all gotten jobs in other fields.

The real horror story in photography today is hyper-idealization and objectification. No one looks like a magazine cover or hair ad. Skin without pores? Maybe on a mannequin or a doll, but on person? Every hair in place? Perfect everything?

Body parts lifted and held in place with surgical tape, thirty-seven pounds of makeup is added, and retouching done that is just plain peculiar. I once spent an evening working at a place that retouched and prepped work for a major tabloid. Almost invisible amounts of colors had to be removed, skin made perfect, flaws that would disappear in the inking process corrected, details in black dresses and clothes brought out (again, lost in the inking processes) and all to please some publicist, since the readership didn't have anything resembling the ability to discern these "problems".

The artist who have the courage to go under fire, to live in horrible areas, to document the worst of our world, do not need to be brought down the the level of the K Mart shopping, painting on velvet, yahoos whose greatest angst is brought on by a lost TV remote

Artists do what artists do because that's what artists do and we'll keep doing it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Spent the day uploading images to
Fine Arts America. Pounding away at key words, meta tags and the like, editing, correcting, re-sizing and generally have a grand day at the keyboard.

The scary part is that thousands of images are uploaded every day to this one site...

I am also (this is an aside of sorts) not linking this blog to any of the cute, quaint or techie blogs out there - when I do link it will be to sites that in my extremely unhumble opinion have some real substance (no cute cats!).

Anyhoo - the link to Fine Arts America is - -
anyone out there?

Which brings me to the point of this particular round of gibbering and babbling: how the cost and ease of reproduction brings down the prices of printed and recorded matter.

The Xerox machine, the cassette deck (once Dolby noise reduction was available) and the VCR made it possible to copy printed work, music and film fairly easily. However, when sound or video recordings were copied, it had to happen in real time unless you had a large hi-speed duplicating deck in which case you were probably doing some kind of pirating.

Enter the digital age, almost anything can be rendered as digital file which can be reproduced an infinite number of times with no loss of information and sped around the world in seconds.

The two above factors ruined sections of our arts economy, and the next blow came in the form of obsolescence. Most digital gear over a year old just won't have any resale value.

On the other hand, this has led to an explosion of work. To which I are adding.

Friday, March 5, 2010

How Not to Tell a Story (with apologies to Mark Twain)

The world of photography has been in the grips of, in John Durniak's words (NY Times photo editor in the 60's and 70's) of the POB's (print oriented bastards). We are a culture that looks at art as literature (the first time I heard someone talk about "reading" a photograph I got real nervous). Images don't tell stories. They can't speak, and unless they are strung out in a series, nothing like a sentence is formed. Movies tell stories, captions tell stories, stories tell stories.

Renoir was once asked what theories he worked from as an artist. His answer was that he painted first and came up with the theories after. He also cautioned artists not to be afraid of making a pretty picture. Hindemith, the serial composer, also said that there was still a lot of beautiful music to be written in C Major.

Along with the POB's there is a sizable crowd of theory oriented bastards - who use painfully complex, artificially constructed recursive criticism to dictate to artists what they should be doing, or what they have done.

I had a friend, an extremely talented photographer, who went through Art School, and came out not knowing an F stop from an pit stop, and was running around (this happened during the era of "appropriation") re-photographing her own work, other people's work, could quote Heidegger real well, had read reams of criticism, and even criticism of the original criticism, but had lost her wonderful originality in the process.

Kenneth Tynan once said that critics were like eunuchs in a whorehouse, absolute experts on something they could never hope to do themselves.

ee cummings once wrote
"To be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing it's best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting."

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Random Notes about Stuff

The name of this Blog was inspired in part by Lance Armstrong's book "It's Not About the Bike". The struggles I have faced over the years in being a photographer in an extremely crowded, and growing more crowded by the minute, field, have been about making images no matter how the prevailing winds, economic, aesthetic, or otherwise, are blowing.

Armstrong dealt with huge amounts of cancer, I have only had to deal with more mundane issues, some severe (my daughter's health) and many not so severe, but my point is best expressed this way: no matter what has happened in my life, the thread of creativity has remained throughout, and has served as an anchor, an organizing principle, and a method to prevent entropy form having it's way with me.

Always carry a camera. I violate this one too much, and last night I wished I had a t least brought my small digital camera (I have a Canon something or other that almost fits in a pocket).

One of my pet peeves (fed and watered regularly) is our inclination to look at someone's work and call up all sorts of unpleasant biographical details about the artist. all manner of nastiness which, I believe, only serves to drag the artist and their art down to the lowest common denominator possible, thereby negating the beauty that was created. My dear departed granny used to say that we should judge the art and leave the artist's life to the biographers. There is also a tendency to equate character flaws and bad behavior with creativity. As well as an equally annoying tendency to equate great talent and skill with near sainthood. A jazz musician once wrote that being able to jam real well did not qualify you as an Albert Schweitzer. It would be nice if the common bond we found with artists was creativity, not peccadilloes.

To survive and function as an artist in this society probably takes a great deal of strength of mind and sanity, given the stresses placed on artists. In my experience, making photographs has kept me sane in a world run mad, and the every tough life situation I've been in...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How to Do It All On a Budget

One of the great advantages of having started when I did was that Ansel Adams was still alive and there was a great deal of talk about his Zone System and getting a range of tones in your prints that appeared to match what the naked eye could perceive. It also enabled us to attain highlight and shadow details that made the print, in Ansel's words "sing". Try to look at really good reproductions of his work (there are a lot of mediocre variants floating around in print and on the interwebs).
For years, photographers have used fill flash to try to tame contrast, and usually end up with a bland, too evenly lit shot.

I shot primarily in 35mm I over-exposed and underdeveloped my film and used multigrade paper and different filters (on the same print) to express the range of tones I wanted.

What on earth does this have to do with digital photography? A lot. Learning to see (pre-visualize was how Uncle Ansel put it) the end result before the camera is in front of one's face is very hard but extremely rewarding. And when I switched to digital, all of the lessons I had learned about tonal control fell right into place.

For example, when I photograph a flower, I have already decided background, lighting, color contrast and saturation, and know where to fine the tools in the software I use to achieve what I want. I shoot in Raw format because the raw file contains all of the information that hits the camera sensor. Compressed file formats (jpg's) omit information and use the camera's proprietary color ranger for jpgs.

Rough guidelines - Low local contrast, high overall contrast. Shoot the largest file format at the lowest ISO possible given the circumstances. Go for the fullest range of tones possible. This often means avoiding hard, direct light, but with care that can be handled too. Use a tripod. Turn off the anti-vibration dingus (it eats up image area).

We have a light source that is free, easily modified, quite powerful and readily available. The Sun. Most of my shots are done using some form of window light. (The exception is portraiture when I need strobe light - more on that later). If you look around a room during the day, you will see that the quality of the light changes over time, and will be different in different parts of the room. Using available light (I've never figured out what other kind of light there is, and for that matter I'd like to see a camera that you don't point and then shoot) amazing things can be done. Close observation of the way light reflects, refracts, outlines, highlights objects; attention paid to how different kinds of lights affect the subject, will do huge amounts for the eye. All of this can be done while walking around and looking at the way light hits the world around us.

All of the above technical woo-hoo to the side, I look forward to any comments...More of my work can be seen at Fine Art America ( - enter Robert Ullmann in the search box.

A final note: software! the great app wars! Most of the $99 priced programs (Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop, PhotoImpact) are more than enough for most purposes. However, if one is broke, the GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program - for Windows, Mac and all flavors of Linux) is wonderful. It's free and open source and really makes you think when you use it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Even more ranting

Photography is an expensive proposition. Early on I got around a lot of the expenses by buying used cameras and lenses, bulk film, and shot mostly black and white. As long as your glass was good and you paid attention, the quality of the image had far less to do with your dollar investment than it does now. I am certainly now too nervous to buy a used or refurbished DSLR...

The playing field is starting to level off - $500.00 or so will get a decent DSLR and lens. Printer costs are dropping (but those cartridge prices are obscene).

So - how to get good images - at least in the technical sense without driving straight to the poorhouse?

Shoot RAW.

Look at great color prints and paintings. We pollute our vision when we look at most newspaper photography with the kind of flat, muddy color inherent in the newsprint papers used.

Use a tripod (get a used heavy duty one).

Shoot a lot. Since storage space is no longer as much of an issue, shoot a lot. It is nice to have an external drive to store images on.

Someone very wise once said "We make a photograph, we don't take a photograph" being a passive observer allows luck and chance to play too large a part in one's work.

So - the advantages of digital? Huge. With a large enough memory card or cards, hundreds of images can be made. The image can be worked on over time without worrying about chemicals going bad, or paper becoming outdated. No more scratched film, dust to spot out of prints, hours of washing and drying prints (with gallons of water being used).

In any event, as, Ansel Adams once said "it's amazing how advanced photography has become without geting any better".