The Art Of Photography

I am always intrigued by where art intersects, by the similarities and differences in how we create, and in what mediums we choose. One of those mediums that I am very bad at, is photography. A good friend of mine gave me a nice camera but I still struggle to produce photos. The camera is very forgiving and takes my poorly framed shots and sometimes makes them look good. I keep practicing and hoping.

That same friend is an amazing photographer, so I thought I would ask him a few questions. Please note that the photos in this post are the sole property of Bruce Albert and cannot be downloaded or used without his permission. 

I hope this conversation will inspire you to head out into the world and take some pictures.

For a bit of background, what intrigued you about photography, and how did you get started?

Like for the rest of my generation the camera was kind of a big deal, hauled out on birthdays and holidays to take posed pictures of dressed up kids. When I started hiking and climbing I was fortunate to get a Kodak Instamatic which I lugged everywhere. Shot volumes were so low then; a twelve exposure roll could do for a week’s trip. Somewhere in there I developed both a passion and something of an aptitude for it. With my purchase of my first “real” camera in 1970 I was off and running.

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

I know you have taken thousands of photos so this is probably an impossible question, but do you have a favorite? Or one that just stands out more than others? If so, why?

I checked just now. I have 7,600 scanned Kodachromes representing about twenty-five years. In the digital department I have about 80,000 images that are “mine” and another 40,000 of so of ski racing…all from just another twenty-five years! These fall loosely into various genres, e.g. landscape, candid portraits, travel, and such. Within each genre there are a fairly small number that stand out as favorites, but I can’t think of an instance where there is a single favorite. I can’t assuredly state ‘why’, because it’s so subjective, and because I don’t have a single photograph that I view as perfect. There are always flaws, and my favorites are the ones with the fewest flaws. Thinking about answering your question just now I realize it’s the (absence of) negatives that rule my judgment as much, or more so, than the preponderance of positives.

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

Are there certain environments that resonate with you, that you might seek out, or is photography more a matter of going prepared no matter where you are?

Landscapes, of course, and mountain landscapes in particular because that’s where I developed my appreciation for photography. Any environment where light and color create an evocative mood. People, portraiture, candid portraiture in particular.  At a time when the world is absolutely drowning in landscape photography, rendering it harder and harder to do something new and unique, people and their expressions are infinitely variable. Also I’m lately drawn to exploring the effects of deliberate motion on a still photograph…ways in which motion contributes and ways in which it does not.

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

You take amazing close-up photos of things most people wouldn’t even see as they move through their day. Does photography make you slow down and be more aware of what surrounds you?

Seeing and photographing things…plants, bugs, birds….close up has caused me to be absolutely fascinated with all that can be observed at very high levels of detail. There is a vast amount of order, detail, and beauty in even the very smallest of things…and I believe that extends even at levels of magnification unavailable to me. Not to go too far down that path in the context of this discussion, but I see an argument there for creation over evolution; how else could such magnificent, tiny, and precisely arrayed structures be so ubiquitous throughout nature, but that some force had a deliberate hand in their design? 

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

You also take amazing broad-view action shots (thinking of skiing). It amazes me how a still photo can show movement and not just be a blurry mess. Can you talk about that a bit?

A photograph can be dead sharp and still imply motion if one or more of its visual elements do. Ski racing’s pretty easy in that regard for a couple of reasons: first, racers are often in a leaning position that implies they would tip over if not moving, and second: the skis themselves flexing and shedding snow are obvious signs of motion. So I shoot racers as super sharp as I can get them, 1,200 second and up to 1/8000. This gives me a really good look at the person, the reflection in the goggle or the eye within, legibility of even the smallest print on clothing or gear, all that stuff that will look pretty cool on a 24 x 36 print, and yet dead obvious that they are going very fast and on the edge of control as well. 

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

There’s other ways to imply motion, the use of relatively slow shutter speeds and camera pan to blur everything except the object being tracked. This yields wonderful results, but it’s a low percentage shot; you get a lot junk and a few keepers. When I shoot a kids ski race, for maybe two hundred kids in a two run event, I’ve got, per kid, two chances, maybe three seconds per chance, to get the money shot, and I’ve got an obligation to get a money shot of every kid if I can. There’s no re-dos. And so the only logical choice for me is to shoot the fast shutter high percentage shots. When I’m just out horsing around, or if I shoot training where they’re doing multiple, multiple runs, then I can experiment, and I get a lot of good stuff that way.

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

Do you have certain things you look for, or do, in order to frame a shot?

I confess both to being challenged by through-the-viewfinder composition and to cropping relentlessly. Rarely do I see a photo straight out of camera that I cannot improve with a crop. A lot of times I can see the shot I want but find it impossible to get the camera in the right spot, and so crop the shot I want from a larger image. There are a number of compositional rules, and while my work might be said to adhere to some of them, I don’t have them in mind when I compose. Action is easy, just hanging on for dear life trying to keep the focus point on the subject and not cut off feet or other such sins. Portraits, too, are easy; the task is to capture the moment and the light; the face is a given. But landscapes are tough for me. I look for..balance…I guess, for lack of a better word, and a way to represent the mood the scene evokes in me. And forests are the toughest of all; I can be spellbound by the beauty of a scene and totally unable to find the composition that tells that tale.

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

Can you tell me about the gear you might take with you on a normal day of photography? And also explain a bit about what the gear does and why you choose it?

Too much, of course! There are really two cameras for any photo location: the camera you’re willing to carry there, and the camera you want to use after you’ve arrived. I’ve got two different types of bodies, high resolution and sports/journalism/event high frame rate. The former go traveling and hiking while the event camera is built to survive wars and riots and goes to sports and social events. Three zooms get me from ultra-wide angle to medium telephoto, I have a super telephoto for sports and wildlife and a close focusing macro lens for the little stuff. Choice for the day is based on what I’m after; the most commonly used items are the three zooms. And, not to forget, I’m like a lot of other photographers, an old gearhead with disposable funds. A lot better work than mine is done daily by talented artists with far more modest setups

It always seems like when I take a photo of beautiful scenery, it rarely translates as nicely to a photo. How do you know that what you’re taking a picture of will actually make a good picture? I know with digital cameras you can take thousands to get a single good photo, but I imagine there is also skill involved. 

I don’t know if a particular attempt will make a good photo or not until I see it on a big monitor. Granted with digital you have instant review, and that helps a lot with exposure and such, but for me it takes the big view (or a print!) to decide. Skill and experience combine to lessen the amount of wasted shots, and aid in correctly setting the camera to achieve technical necessities. But the composition either works or it does not, according to a visual aesthetic that I have only partially mastered. As I said above I crop relentlessly. So often I get home and see that while a picture is a failure, the picture I hoped to take is contained within and may be cropped into existence. Modern super high-resolution bodies help a lot; one can crop pretty drastically and still have enough pixels to get a large sharp print. If I’m doing any sort of artfully pretentious type stuff I’m tickled if I get one image a day that meets all my standards. Normal “I was here with you on our holiday” pictures should yield a high percentage of acceptable results. For sports/action stuff it’s really game on; my minimum standard for that work is 3-6 technically and visually acceptable images per athlete per run. For a big event this can easily run to a thousand or more ‘keepers’ per day out of maybe four thousand shots, all needing to be post-processed and cropped to my satisfaction before they go up on the website.

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

As a writer, music helps me move into a story world and close out the real world. Is there something similar for you when taking photos, or working with them?

When shooting, no, I prefer to have no distractions whatsoever. When editing, sometimes, maybe. In general I multitask poorly and can really only focus on one thing at a time if it’s something that’s important to me. I cannot, for example, be in a conversation and shoot photos at the same time. I have to block the speaker out or set the camera aside.

Are there certain environments or settings that you find difficult to photograph? Why?

Yup, public settings where strangers are present and figure prominently in a shot, because I feel a bit like a sneak or voyeur if I concentrate on a stranger without prior consent. In travel situations I will ask, saying ‘excuse me’ in the local language and pointing to them and the camera. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, and I’ve never been declined. Depending on the context of the situation I will also offer or donate an Euro or two, which never hurts.

Stuff I don’t/wouldn’t do would be any thing that’s exploitative of suffering or situations that would be considered private. This includes virtually all nudity; there’s just entirely too many creepy old dudes doing that sort of thing and giving the form a bad name.

An elderly friend once told me she no longer paints because she no longer feels the need to ‘own’ what she sees. Do you think there is a form of ownership in capturing something on film?

Not ownership, per se, but what you accomplish with a photograph is capture a moment…a very short slice really…of time, and preserve it for as long as the photo exists. Moments not photographed exist only in the mind or maybe vanish forever. So you can take a picture, print it, and store it away somewhere. Fifty years later you can pull the photo out and revisit and relive the moment in time when it was snapped, through a barrier of course, you can’t go there, but you can still get as close as can be gotten; you are allowed to see. This is especially true if you haul the print to the point it was taken, and especially easy if you’re given over to sentimentality. 

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

The same is true of art. In Berlin, on the Unter den Linden, there is a massive bronze statue of Frederick the Great surrounded today by the modern hustle and bustle of the crowded city.  A kilometer down the street in a museum is a nineteenth century painting of the same scene, done in the exaggerated perspective of that time, showing the traffic of the day: horses, mongrel dogs, noblemen with swords. Each time I am there I have to visit both, to experience the juxtaposition of different points in time that the experience provides.

Photo copyright Bruce Albert 2021

And my favorite question – what is one thing you wish I’d asked, and how would you answer it?

Do you regret not shooting more?

Yes! So many events, days, and moments are in my memory only, because I did not have my camera with me. I would like to have been able to hold those moments in my hand and revisit them. Especially in film days I could have shot ten times as much and not overdone it. At the same time, the advent and ease of digital has really changed the photographic world and has made photography, especially of famous subjects and venues, ubiquitous. Italian coasts are lined with photographers, retired dentists on photo tours, lined elbow to elbow, tripod upon tripod, all waiting to take their perfect shot of sunset on the Cinque Terre. In Florence, the statue of David, everyone’s favorite seventeen-foot-tall naked guy, is surrounded by a tightly packed sea of humanity, like pilgrims circling the Kaaba Stone in Mecca; each and seemingly every one of them holds their phone high above their head…desperately hoping to get that perfect shot for their Instagram.

I’d like to thank Bruce for taking time to answer my questions, and for trusting me with these photos. If you’d like to see more of his photography, please click on the link below.

Transition Stories

I’ve been struggling to write a new story for a year now. During all these months and discarded words and shifting ideas, (and some angst blog posts!) I’ve put a lot of thought into why this one is so hard. I’m finally recognizing these things.

My writing has changed. Not the process, but the stories that come to me. I don’t even really read the genre I always wrote in – mysteries – any more. I have spent this past month clinging to what I used to do, only to realize I’ve been letting go for some time without knowing it. I think a seed of change fell when Sam died. The third year anniversary of his death will be here in days. Another seed when my sister died. That first anniversary was just here. Another seed was the arrival of COVID-19. The virus forced me to look at old nightmares and fears and why I move through life the way I do.

All of those things make me lean more, now, to stories about loss and grief and letting go, and the need to believe that myth and magic are still out there somewhere.

I’ve been trying to make the new story into something its not. Even the characters have been trying to tell me to knock it off. Last week I wrote a scene of dialog between two characters. After, I wondered if I’d given away too much, too soon. But then it dawned on me why I kept going back to that scene. One character says to the other ‘in other words it could be this, or that, or something else entirely!’ and I realized they were telling me I didn’t have a clue what the story was about.

And all of that makes me realize I have to finally, fully, let go of what I wanted this to be originally, and let the characters live their story. I also realized that this one may simply be a transition story for myself that never gets published or shared. It may be my way of learning what no longer works. I think this will actually end up being a short story or novella. The ending feels near.

This story is set in a place I visit but don’t live. I love that area but in writing, I feel like a visitor, just touching the surface of the land. That works okay in one way because the protagonist is a visitor, so the place won’t feel like home to her until the end. But it’s shown me the words don’t flow as easily on land I’m not immersed in.

Recently I was talking over all this with a friend who is having similar struggles with her art. She suggested I take a notepad and walk in the woods. When she said that, I felt a sense of ‘that’s what’s missing’ and a tingle of excitement that another story is out there waiting.

It makes me realize that the forest and mountains are where the stories are that really sink into my soul. That’s where the magic and mystery and myths are. That was brought home to me even more yesterday when I met with two friends to talk about an old abandoned homestead out in the woods. I immediately felt that pull – who were its people? Where did they go? Why were they there? What was out there in the woods with them?

I’m not surprised by this because I’ve always preferred the settings of woods and mountains. It’s just been brought home even more now.

So, this one set between sea and land will be my transition as I slowly figure out how to move forward. It’s almost like being a brand-new writer again – learning the process of what works and what doesn’t. What to hang on to and what to let go of.

And how to turn toward all those new stories waiting out there in the trees.

‘This Deep Panic’ Book Trailer

I think a few of my friends were skeptical when I said I wanted to make a book trailer. I’d seen several on media sites and some were fantastic – like movie trailers – and some were not so great. I was lucky enough to know a fantastic cinematographer who was willing to take on the project. Because I couldn’t afford licenses for music, Sam went to friends of his, who created the soundtrack.

If you’re not familiar with Sam Nuttman, take a look at his website.

We spent a lot of time getting ready, which was a learning experience for me. Sam read the book and pulled out the scenes he thought would translate to a short video. He then created storyboards and he worked on dialog and timing, since obviously a video that is less than two minutes can’t show a whole novel.

Kaiti Hylands created character sketches for our storyboards.

I put out a ‘casting call’ for friends, asking them to come out in the rain for two days, for no pay, and just to hang out and have fun. And believe it or not, they did! An added challenge was making sure everyone stayed in their ‘pods’, kept their social distancing in place, and wore masks.

I couldn’t figure out antlers for the windigo monster, played by the only one with acting experience, Jim Burgess. But my friend Sabrina jumped in, finding antlers and showing up with a box of bones, ace bandaging, bags, rope, and moss. Jim showed up more prepared than I was, with costuming and props.

We shot scenes with the Windigo along a popular hiking trail. There were hikers that passed on the trail during the time that Jim and his antlers moved through the trees. I wish I could have known what they were thinking as they picked up their pace.

We need to applaud Beth, the sister of my friend Karen, who came to be in the video and got more than she expected. Sabrina and Karen had way too much fun using fake body parts. Beth had to lie on pavement in the rain for the shots. At one point, Sam yelled ‘cut!’ and those in the scene all wandered away. But Beth didn’t hear, so she kept lying there in the rain, perfectly still, true to her role. Next to her, Sam had the camera rolling for the next shots. Eventually he glanced down and saw her, asked if she was comfortable, and let her know she could get up. I have to admit, there was a lot of laughing. I’m glad her scenes ended up in the final cut. She deserved it.

The crew did an awesome job with makeup, not only creating injuries, but taking my friend Gloria Two-Feathers, who is a children’s author, and transforming her into the Stone Woman.

We shot scenes at night in the parking lot near the Index Town Wall where rock climbers go. We’d hoped to show a part from the book where a piece of scalp is on the hood of a car. So my husband took a hunk of chicken, rubbed in dog hair I collected from our floor, and topped that off with fake blood. After filming, instead of bagging it up to take home and throw away, he tossed it into the woods, thinking it would be raccoon food. Unfortunately, it was pitch black out there. He ended up tossing it so that it hung up on a branch at the edge of the climber’s trail, much to the consternation of climbers who later saw it. That scene didn’t make the final cut because the chicken just kind of went ‘splat’ on the windshield.

Angela and her wonder-dog Bailey, normally work ski patrol, with Bailey excelling at avalanche rescue. Angela had to run and fall at the right spot so that she landed in front of a severed leg (fake of course). Bailey loved this new game, running along with Angela. Sam was on the ground, camera in hand, and Bailey would get in front of him so her bottom was in his face, tail going madly. At one point she thought the leg was much better than a stick to shake and run around with. We wondered then if we could do some sort of blooper reel.

Having never been involved in something like this, I thought people would show up, say their lines, and go home. I didn’t realize that they would have to say their lines multiple times. That some would have to fall to the wet forest floor over and over, landing just right on their mark. That some would have to drive an old truck many times through shallow flooding conveniently provided by local beavers. All these friends ended up out there in the rain for two full days.

I started this wanting something to look forward to and something that would be a fun day with friends in a community I love. And that’s exactly what it was.

I now have a professional book trailer that I’m almost afraid is better than the book (being my own worst critic).

But more importantly, in this horrible year of 2020 with so many sad things surrounding us, there are two days that will be gems in my memory, filled with laughter and rain and woods and mountains and most importantly, friends.

So, if, after reading all this, you’d like to see the end result, here you go.