Meditative Distillations

I’m happy to announce that I am featured in the March 2011 issue of Rangefinder magazine! Contributing editor Martha Blanchfield has written a great article about me and my work, and the editors have made a nice selection of my images to accompany the article. Download this article for free!

Thanks for having a look!

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

Camera-less Seeing and the Art of Cropping

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera“. Dorothea Lange

1:1 crop from 1:1.25 original

I don’t need an Xpan to make panoramics, and I don’t need a 501CM to make squares. For me the real beauty of using a large format view camera is that the image is conceived in my mind and not restrained by film size; by viewfinder shape or coverage; or by the format’s aspect ratio. Unlike medium and small format cameras (including D-SLR’s), it is nearly impossible to hoist a view camera to the eye to frame an image. Further, because the large format image is rendered upside down and laterally reversed on the ground glass (the image is as ones eyes perceive it before the complex brain corrects it), the ground glass view is difficult to reconcile for all but the most experienced users. This very nature of the format requires the photographer to learn how to see and frame exclusive of the viewfinder. For some this is a serious challenge and shortcoming of the format; for others, like myself, it is pure liberation. My photographs are bound only by the limits of my imagination and never by any constraints imposed upon me by a camera or tradition.

approximate 1:1.5 crop from 1:1.25 original

During any given week, I view a great number of photographs that I believe would be strengthened by a simple crop. Although most photographers shoot with the 1:1.5 aspect ratio of D-SLR’s, this does not mean that one is required to visualize or process/print the full 1:1.5 frame. Even more, too many photographers are caught up with the issue of pre-cut mats being available only in this size and pre-made frames being available only in that size – stop it! Aren’t your photographs considerably more important than their finishing? If your photograph is stronger by cropping it square, crop it square! It may cost more to finish the print by doing so, but aren’t your photographs worth it?

approximate 1:1.75 crop from 1:1.25 original

You’ll find in this article three of my photographs. All originated from 1:1.25 negatives (or 4×5), but take note that none were finished with that aspect ratio. All three images and their framing were visualized without a viewfinder, and I deliberately framed the three important edges and in post-production cropped away the remaining unwanted edge (regardless of the final print’s inability to fit off-the-shelf mats or frames).

If you’re not already seeing and framing your images without the assistance of your camera, here’s a challenge for you: Next time you think you’ve got a photograph, resist the immediate urge to set up and start firing. Consider this pre-exposure editing. Set your camera off to the side and become one with your subject. Study it carefully and quietly, and determine your framing and edges before grabbing your camera. Take as much time as you need; rarely are great photographs made in haste. Once you’ve gotten this figured out, then get out your camera and capture the image that you’ve already created in your mind (and crop at will).

Free your mind and your camera will follow.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

Michael profiled in the Long Beach Business Journal

The Long Beach Business Journal recently profiled (Oct 12-25 issue) twenty-four Long Beach, CA residents who are involved with the cultural arts. I was the only photographer profiled in this issue, although my profile is mixed with other visual artists; authors; musicians; poets; and even a fire dancer! Despite the many organizational efforts within the city over the years, the arts have never been quite recognized here as they are in Los Angeles even though there are a tremendous number of artists working within the city.

The profile seems a little awkwardly written to me, although one might blame a brief telephone interview and the author having no prior knowledge of the artist or their work. But I’m not complaining – most press is good press! Thank you for reading!

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

California Desert Art

Accomplished writer Ann Japenga writes about my latest exhibition at the El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach. If you enjoy desert writing – and especially if you’re a southern Californian – head on over to her website and check out her Essays and Journalism. There’s lots of good writing and reading in there.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

Little Jewels

Some years back, I was fortunate enough to take in an André Kertész exhibition here in Los Angeles (I can hear a few readers saying “who in the heck is André Kertész?” Photographers: Please do yourself a favor and learn about him and his work). Beyond the brilliance of his photographs, what struck me most about the exhibition was just how small the prints were. Kertész worked with mostly hand-held small(er) format cameras, and either contact printed his negatives (contact prints are the same size as the original negative) or made very small enlargements (what we might today call “tiny”). What I learned from that experience was that by their very nature, small prints command the viewer to move in, get close, and enjoy a very personal experience with the print (I again experienced a similar sensation a few years later at an Edward Weston exhibition; his, too, were mostly 8×10″ contact prints). On the contrary, large prints have the unintended consequence of moving the viewer away from the image, both physically and possibly emotionally. Indeed, some images can be printed massively and will still dominate the viewers emotions and attention, but I’d suggest that this is more the exception than the norm.

Little JewelsTry this experiment with your own photographs. Printed small, every one of them becomes like a little jewel. I recently made an 11-print sale (all framed); six large, five small. Very small! These five were custom sized to fit very specific bookshelf spaces. Mind you, I make small proof prints all the time, but it’s a wholly different experience to make such small prints and then to frame them as the finished product! These five are finished with hand-oiled solid walnut frames, and I was taken with their tiny beauty (photo at left). Despite their diminutive size, one is commanded to move close, hold the frames, and carefully inspect all the details (right down to the framing). NO large print has ever moved me the same way. I learned this first from that Kertész exhibition, and I am reminded of it again today with my own small pieces.

I write all this as my largest-ever print (34×80″; yes, that’s 7 feet wide!) is currently at my finishing lab awaiting treatment!

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

San Gabriel Mountains Forever

San Gabriel Wilderness

Rising steeply from the nearly level plain of the Los Angeles Basin, the rugged San Gabriel Mountains provide numerous recreational opportunities and wilderness solitude for more than 17 million Los Angelenos. This rugged mountain range, which John Muir described as “more rigidly inaccessible in the ordinary meaning of the word than any other I have attempted to penetrate” (The Mountains of California, 1894), has been my recreational backyard during my entire life. I’ve stood on the summits of all its major peaks (10, 064′ Mt. San Antonio [Mt. Baldy] more than 50 times in all seasons), explored its steep and deep canyons, and have relished in the silence of its deep Wilderness. Despite its close proximity to downtown Los Angeles, its three Wilderness areas (San Gabriel, Sheep Mountain, and Cucamonga) are largely untrailed, unvisited, and offer incredible opportunities for solitude and silence like few other metropolitan mountain ranges can. “The

West Fork San Gabriel River

Angeles National Forest is an irreplaceable natural resource that gives Los Angeles County 70% of its open space, provides 35% of the region’s drinking water, and contributes clean air to a polluted region. The forest serves as critical habitat for many endangered and sensitive plant and animal species including the Nelson’s Bighorn sheep, California condor, mountain lion, spotted owl and the mountain yellow-legged frog.”

I jumped at the opportunity when The Wilderness Society recently contacted me about photographing for this campaign (my

Yucca and Wildflowers

first assignment with them was in 2007). San Gabriel Mountains Forever is a partnership of local business owners, residents, faith and community leaders, recreation groups, health and social service organizations, and conservation groups who have come together to protect wilderness and wild and scenic rivers in the San Gabriel Mountains. Most importantly, this campaign seeks to expand the three existing Wilderness areas (San Gabriel, Sheep Mountain, and Cucamonga) and hopes to gain Federal Wild and Scenic River designation for the San Gabriel River (east, west and north forks), San Antonio Creek, and the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek.

Middle Fork, Lytle Creek

Regardless of what I think of their images, I have always been most inspired by landscape and nature photographers whose work has been used to help protect and preserve threatened and imperiled landscapes (a few names come to mind: Ansel Adams; Eliot Porter; Philip Hyde; Galen Rowell; Robert Glenn Ketchum [American Photo magazine wrote recently that RGK "may well be the most influential photographer you’ve never heard of."]. As a fine art photographer, the primary vehicle for my work is the fine art print. I’m moved by the fact that my photographs adorn the walls of many homes and offices, yet the legacy I’d like to leave looks a lot like that of Adams, Porter, et al.

A family enjoys the North Fork of the San Gabriel River

The Wilderness Society provided me with a shoot list that would keep me busy. They’d asked only for about fifteen photographs total (I provided them with thirty-four in the end), but the locations are quite distant from one another and required that I put in a number of miles on foot, bicycle, and by car. I also needed to provide a few photographs of a family recreating on one of the creeks slated for Wild and Scenic River designation (see photo at left). Because I’ve been adventuring in the San Gabriel’s most of my life, I knew that this would be a fun yet challenging assignment. The rigid inaccessibility that slowed down John Muir would also slow me down. The San Gabriel’s are a striking range, yet the range doesn’t easily lend itself to idyllic and beautiful campaign photographs that would easily sway public opinion. I would have to work hard to create ‘iconic’ photographs in a range that has little to none. The lack of trails and vistas where I needed them to be would work me even harder.

Morning light and atmospheric haze over the Sheep Mountain Wilderness

Some of my campaign photographs have already been published in several local newspapers and used in campaign materials, including on the SGMF website. A few of my favorite photographs from this campaign are seen throughout this article. While these are less iconic images of the San Gabriel Mountains,

Morning light and atmospheric haze over Cattle Canyon and proposed additions to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness

they are images that for me best illustrate the ethereal light and mood and rugged character of the range.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP? Please tell Congress that you support protection of the San Gabriel Mountains! You can take easy action right on the SGMF website (they even have a sample letter with talking points that you can use). I THANK YOU in advance for helping to preserve the San Gabriel Mountains forever!

I offer my sincere THANKS to The Wilderness Society and the coalition! It’s a real honor and privilege to have my photographs used for such an important cause in my own backyard.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

It’s All About the Light…

Wherever there is light, one can photograph. Alfred Stieglitz

Striped Butte

Striped Butte. Death Valley National Park.

Last night I gave a presentation to the Santa Clarita Valley Photographers Association (SCVPA) (a great group of people, and a more organized and attended-to camera club than I would have ever imagined). The most ironic thing about teaching and presenting is that I always learn as much as the audience. No matter how often I may speak about my work and my philosophies, I learn something about my photographs and beliefs every time.

As I moved through and talked about the 96 photographs I shared with the SCVPA, I was alerted to my use of any and all light. It’s not a new discovery, and other photographers often comment on my use of whatever light. The fact is, I have a photograph(s) in my collection to represent virtually every hour of daylight. The notions that there are only “golden hours” or “sweet light” under which to practice photography have been perpetuated for far too long amongst the nature and landscape photography community. It’s enforced by books, workshops, online photo forums, and far too many photo instructors. It’s time to change this line of thinking, for believing that photography can only be practiced for a few sweet hours of each day and then setting out to capture only specific images that capitalize on that sweet light is akin to photographing with dark blinders on. Any light is available light, and how you choose to see it and whether you choose to photograph under it determines the diversity of your abilities, your vision, and your work. I’d venture that photographers are missing a lot of beautiful photographic opportunities when they’re locked into a singular and exclusive method of photographing.

All light is available light. Sweet light is any light you choose to photograph under. The Golden Hours extend from sunrise to sunset. With few exceptions, failure to create photographs under any light is not a failing of the light; it’s a failure of vision. Take off the blinders and be free.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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On Assignment: T-Mobile

T-MobileAs a professional photographer I have photographed people, events, products, and places, but until a few weeks ago I had not yet done any professional architectural work. Coincidentally, my name landed on T-Mobile’s desk as a referral, they contacted me, and we began to discuss how I could help them with their needs. T-Mobile needed expansive and eye-catching interior and exterior photographs from two of their flagship Los Angeles-area stores for their real estate/development ventures, and I was happy to help. And then they asked for my architectural portfolio. Gulp. They were acquainted with my personal fine art work, and I had the nerve to assume that this would be good enough to land me the job. Despite the lack of an architectural portfolio, I have a strong visual aesthetic and a love for great architectural photography, so there was no doubt in my mind that I could deliver what they needed. So when they asked for my architectural portfolio, I offered the unspeakable: they would only have to pay me if they were happy with the work I produced. They accepted, and in a long one-day shoot, I produced and delivered more than double the number of images they had requested. I hired my good friend, Rob, as my lighting expert and assistant, and we enjoyed a challenging and invigorating day at two of their stores. The T-Mobile team was very happy with my work, and I was paid in record time. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

The photographer’s moral to this story? Don’t undersell yourself. Deliver more than expected. Be creative with your negotiations. Don’t be afraid to hang yourself out there and take risks. Be amazing with your customer service. Be flawlessly professional.

Note: Only the left and center photographs are mine in the attached T-Mobile advertisement .

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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Lessons in Light and Visualization

There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” photographic light. There is just light.
Brooks Jensen, LensWork.

Just last week, while photographer Floris van Bruegel and I walked towards Death Valley National Park’s Ibex Dunes, Floris commented that I used direct light in my photographs more than most photographers. I harbor no shame about this, and believe that I’m at an advantage in being able to visualize photographs in whatever available light is before me. While many nature and landscape photographers would have you believe that we are limited to the Golden Hours or to the twilight found at each end of the day, there simply exists light that best benefits your subject or light that is less than ideal for your subject. If you’ll contend that the light is “bad”, I’ll counter that you’re just looking in the wrong direction.

VoyagerThe photograph at left, Voyager, was made in the extreme southern end of Death Valley (the Valley proper, that is) last Wednesday. The time was 9:30am. I was up at 5:30am that morning. I had already covered a fair bit of ground, and had even cooked and eaten breakfast by the time I found this scene. I would estimate that 99 of 100 photographers would have told me that this was horrible light and no photographs could be made. Were it not for my experience and ability to visualize a scene in the final print (there is no such thing as PREvisualization!), I might have concurred. Fact is, were it not 9:30am and had the sun not been beating harshly on this wet mud, I doubt that I would have ever been able to see this. Before you rule out “bad” light, rule out your preconceptions and make the exposure. For digital photographers, this costs nothing. For film photographers, it costs only a modest amount to expand your seeing and possibilities. What could you possibly have to lose?

Voyager - raw film scan

Voyager - raw film scan

I’m about to do something here that I don’t believe I have ever done online before: share a raw film scan of the original negative (no manipulation). A cursory glance at the raw negative might lead one could suggest that this is “bad” light, but the proof is in the final print. The exposure was calculated to preserve all highlight and shadow details (no bracketing; no guesswork; I teach my film exposure techniques during my film-based workshops). From the moment I found the scene, I visualized not “bad” light or a difficult-to-print negative; I saw a voyaging vessel in a distant galaxy and a luminous final print. When Ansel talked about “visualization”, he was referring to this ability to visualize a final print (not the “capture“). I would venture that this is one of the most difficult if not liberating ways of seeing. If one cannot visualize the final print, one is not seeing the light ;)

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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Only the Best Will Do

A couple of days ago I launched a new website for my custom printer/paper profiling business, Great Printer Profiles.com. In doing so, it occurred to me how many photographers still use “canned” printer/paper profiles provided by paper manufacturers free of charge. Some who use canned profiles don’t even have a calibrated display. Sure, canned profiles and an uncalibrated display won’t stop you from getting decent-looking prints out of your printer. But if you think you’re putting only your best work out there, only a custom profile built for YOUR paper and YOUR printer will do and you need to have a calibrated display and an entirely color-managed process. Now, this is starting off sounding like I’m pitching you my custom profile or other services, but wait – there’s more :)

I follow a number of online photography forums – some technical, some creative – but what consistently strikes through many of the forums is the number of ways in which photographers try to cut corners, hasten their process, or use inferior materials; mostly to save money somewhere along the way. I see many recommendations for low cost/poor quality mouldings and frames; recommendations for low-cost inkjet papers; low-cost non-archival framing materials; photographers who leave large format for digital due to the cost of film; etcetera. I like savings as much as the next guy, but if you’re promoting yourself as the best in your class and market yourself as a “fine art photographer” – I’m sorry, only the best will do.

Consumers and buyers are a savvy lot. They can easily tell good from inferior work, especially when the work is available for viewing side-by-side, and unless your market is high-volume low-dollar, your buyers and collectors expect better and more. When the “competition” amongst photographers for buyers and clients is at an all-time high, only your BEST can separate you from the herd.

Want to be professional and wow people? Want to charge and get more for your work? Don’t show or market anything less than your best photographs. Don’t cut corners. Don’t use canned profiles, cheap inkjet paper, cheap frames, and non-archival materials. When cost and convenience trump your quality, it’s your art that suffers for it. Make everything you do better than the way every other photographer does it. Only your very best will do.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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