Tag Archives: Creative Photography

INFOCUS at the Phoenix Art Museum

Oceano #6, Oceano, California

I’m happy to announce that one of my prints (Oceano #6, above) is included in PhotoBid 2013, an exhibition and silent auction at the Phoenix Art Museum. PhotoBid 2013 is organized by INFOCUS, the museum’s photography support organization, and curated by Rebecca Senf, the Norton Family Curator of Photography at the Center for Creative Photography and the Phoenix Art Museum.

The exhibition will be on display in the Phoenix Art Museum’s Norton Photography Gallery from Saturday October 5 through Friday October 18.  The Silent Auction will take place at the museum on the final evening (October 18), as well as online.

The online preview can be seen at www.infocus-phxart.org/auction.

The mission of INFOCUS is to promote interest in and understanding of photography through education, photographic scholarship, connoisseurship, and personal collecting. To accomplish this, INFOCUS sponsors exhibitions, programs, and publications.  PhotoBid is their major fundraiser, and allows the group to continue supporting photography at the Phoenix Art Museum.


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Using Photoshop with Restraint

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” That’s an old saying, but it’s extremely relevant to manipulating digital images with Photoshop in today’s “digital darkrooms”.

Photoshop has become such a powerful and complex program that I doubt that anyone truly knows all its tricks. I would estimate, on the high end, that I might use 5% of its total capabilities.

Photoshop’s power can truly be a siren song, and it undoubtedly has played a major role in ruining many a good image (and many more bad ones). It’s human nature to want more saturation, more contrast, more clarity, more sharpness, and on and on.  It’s also now possible to make all these adjustments in truly complex and convoluted ways, all the way down to making changes on a pixel by pixel basis.

In my experience (in Photoshop and elsewhere in life), the more complicated things become, the more chances there are to screw them up. If I’m having trouble printing an image, the first thing I do is turn off all the adjustments I’ve done and go back to square one. Often, by simplifying things considerably, I end up where I really wanted to be in the first place.

I spent many years printing in a traditional darkroom, and follow the same basic approach when I print digitally. While the tools are different, the primary goal in black and white printing remains the same: taking the tonalities that existed in the original scene and translating them into the desired values by the use of filtering, global and local contrast control, and dodging and burning (lightening and darkening certain areas of a print). A quote from Ansel Adams, as relayed by John Sexton, applies nicely: “dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made when establishing tonal relationships.”

As in a traditional darkroom, it seems best to build up to a final print gradually. A final print shouldn’t be produced in one step. Print it, evaluate it, think about it – the process takes time.  Come back to it additional times and start over if necessary. It’s an evolutionary process. As in the darkroom, once you go too far, it is often hard to go backwards to what might be a more subtle, more delicate, and more appropriate print.

My aim is to present a final image that shows no sign that it has been manipulated in any way. Although each image has been carefully processed and printed, and may have many layers of adjustments, my goal is to make those adjustments invisible.  I try very hard not to let Photoshop get in my way.

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The Print As An “Object”

When I moved to the Bay Area in the late 1980s, I was fortunate to work about three blocks away from the Ansel Adams Center.  This housed the gallery, bookstore, and offices of the Friends of Photography (an organization founded in 1967 by Ansel Adams and others in Carmel, which relocated to the Bay Area in 1989 and ultimately ceased operations in 2001).  The Ansel Adams Center was a beautiful facility on 4th Street in San Francisco near Moscone Center, in a building that formerly housed San Francisco’s venereal disease clinic, a bit of trivia I always found amusing.  There were three galleries of photography with rotating shows, one of which was always devoted to the work of Ansel Adams.

I spent countless lunch hours there.  I would always visit all three galleries, but would usually linger in the one devoted to Ansel Adams, appreciating his prints and craftsmanship.  This time spent with his prints, the final concrete expression of his vision, was inspiring and contributed to the way I look at my own work as well as that of others today.

This relates to the concept of the “print as an object” (a well-known term for which I have not been able to find a source to credit).  In addition to the image (the subject), the final presentation of the image (the object) is of supreme importance, at least in certain circles.  To relate this to Ansel Adams’ well known quote (the negative is the score and the print is the performance), many people like to experience the performance in person.

This experience is often lacking today. The digital presentation of photographs allows vastly more photographs to be viewed, but in my opinion it is not a substitute for viewing the object itself.  In many cases, the “object” may not even exist beyond its digital form. This is undoubtedly the case for the vast majority of casual photographs made today.  Although you can get an idea of the tune, the subtleties and nuance of the performance are not readily revealed.  In some cases prints may not live up to the expectations set by their digital counterparts, while in others the reverse is true.

Reports are that Bill Gates’ mansion on Lake Washington features video displays on the walls to show revolving works of art.  While interesting, the experience must be quite different than looking at the originals.  In this case, the digital presentation becomes another “object”, clouding the issue.

While I look at a lot of images online, I still try to look at the “real thing” whenever possible.  It’s well worth the effort.

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Wandering Around

Copyright © Jim Banks

Quite a few years ago, I was showing a portfolio of commercially-oriented work around in an effort to drum up more business. I met with an art director who looked through my portfolio carefully, and then remarked, “you just wander around and take photos of interesting things.”

I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I later concluded that he was right.  That’s what I liked to do, and that’s what I thought was one of photography’s major strengths: finding interesting subjects, compositions, patterns or drama, and capturing them through the magic of photography.

“Wandering around” has always been my approach to landscape photography as well.  I’ll have a general idea of where I want to look, but that’s about as far as my planning takes me.  I much prefer to wander around and let the photographs find me.

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Twelve Significant Photographs

Ansel Adams wrote, “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”  In today’s age of cell phone cameras, Facebook and Instagram, is this a hopelessly outdated notion?

It’s estimated that there are currently about 90 billion photos on Facebook, with 6 billion more added each month.  Granted, most are posted as a means of personal communication rather than as any kind of artistic expression, but that’s a lot of photos!  Flickr, a photo-sharing site where the photos presumably have more creative intent, already hosts about 5 billion images.

The technological sea change that photography has seen in the last decade has exponentially increased the quantity of photographs, but not necessarily the quality.  While it’s generally easier, faster and cheaper to make photographs than ever before, that doesn’t necessarily translate into better photographs.

Oceano #1, Oceano, California © Jim Banks

The key word in Ansel’s quote is “significant”.  Of course that means different things to different people, but in this case I think he meant portfolio- and exhibition-worthy prints that would stand the test of time.

I feel that this seemingly modest goal is still valid in fine art landscape photography.  Although it’s very easy now to make hundreds (or thousands) of images in a day, the best still come from deliberate observation, selectivity, timing, and circumstance, with a little bit of luck thrown in.  They then have to survive a ruthless edit and pass the most important test of all, the test of time.

All in all, twelve significant photographs in a year is quite an accomplishment.

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Oceano is a special place. The tiny town of Oceano lies near Pismo Beach in Central California.  However to most people, Oceano means sand dunes.

Oceano #2, Oceano, California © Jim Banks

In the early1900s there were grand plans to develop the area as the “Atlantic City of the Pacific.”  The dunes were subdivided and sold.  A boardwalk, Grand Pavilion, and pier were constructed, all of which have been reclaimed by the shifting sands.  In the 1920s and 30s, the dunes were inhabited by the “Dunites”, a loosely formed group of artists, mystics, and misfits who claimed the dunes as their home.  In the 1960s, the area was discovered by dune buggy enthusiasts, who used it without restriction.  That development, along with the passage of time, moved the remaining Dunites out of the dunes, with the last one leaving in 1974.

The State of California has since stepped in, creating an official State Vehicular Recreation Area along the beach and in part of the dunes.  However, a good portion of the dunes, known by the Dunites as the “High Dunes,” has been preserved.

The dunes were photographed extensively by Edward and Brett Weston. A well-known Ansel Adams photograph was made there, and many other photographers have followed.

In February of this year, I decided I’d like to see Oceano for myself.  The area is still a bit quirky, with beautiful dunes surrounded by farms, RVs, a small airport, housing tracts, and the Off-Road Vehicle Recreation Area.  Wilderness it’s not

However, when you get into the high dunes themselves, it is still a beautiful area.  You can see what attracted so many to Oceano.

Even though so many have already photographed the Oceano dunes, it’s a place I’d like to explore more myself.

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Appreciating Black and White

My early experiences in photography were purely in color.  I don’t think I understood the point of black and white photography for quite some time (presumably due to a lack of exposure to it).

I was a Freshman at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1975.  This was the year that the Center for Creative Photography, founded by Ansel Adams and the University, was established.  I was vaguely aware that the new Center was being constructed in a former bank building on Fourth Street near campus.  Although I knew very little about it, I thought it sounded interesting, and I did go there once it opened its doors.

Regretfully (and embarrassingly) I went in, took a fairly quick look around, and then walked out.  I didn’t have the background to appreciate what must have been on those walls.   I remember that the prints were fairly large, and that many were black and white, but they really didn’t catch my attention.  I’m now saddened to think about the opportunities I may have missed.

I first began to become really aware of black and white photography about nine years later, as a result of the all the news coverage following Ansel Adams’ death in the spring of 1984.  Although I knew who he was through his TV commercial for Datsun and his environmental activism, I didn’t know much about his photography.  After his death, I remember being moved by his black and white images, shown in newspapers and magazines and on television.

The following year for Christmas my parents gave me his Autobiography, and I was hooked on black and white photography.  The first chance I had to see his prints in person was when my wife and I took the train from Los Angeles to San Diego to see an exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park.  I have since seen countless exhibits of black and white photographs (of Ansel’s and many others).

Although I enjoy looking at color photography, for my own creative photography I exclusively work in black and white.  From my own experience, I have come to the conclusion that black and white photography may be an acquired taste.

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