Looking At Images

  By George Barr

This is Bill. Bill is a working rancher. William Allard (of National Geographic fame) was in Calgary to lead a workshop by The Camera Store that I had signed up for. Bill asked why I would want to attend a workshop at my age and with my experience, but I was feeling a bit stale and the idea of shooting people instead of rocks and rust, of working with someone more spontaneous and probably flexible than myself was appealing – and the workshop did that for me in spades.

I strongly recommend attending workshops if you can. You most certainly don’t need to be ‘good’ to attend, in fact the less confident you feel about your work, the more likely you are to be willing to learn. Where some show up to workshops with matted huge prints, others open an envelope of 4X6 drug store prints – and it isn’t always the owner of the big prints who has the most imagination, the better eye, or the ability to see what others will not.

Almost the worst situation is the hobby photographer with a technical background. Usually these people (read me here) take a long time to learn to see. Where someone trained in art can pick up the technical in a handful of years, hobby photographers without an artistic background can struggle their whole lives if they don’t make an effort to learn art.

Getting back to the workshop. The Camera Store contacted local ranchers familiar with modeling and working for the movie industry and they rode in while we drove into the hills from and beyond the OH Ranch west of Longview. Julian from The Camera Store organized transport and food and photo situations for us, but we had flexibility to wander around and ask the ranchers to pose or ride or whatever we needed. They cooperated all morning in good humour.

When we arrived there was morning dew, but by mid morning the light was getting harsh and a number of us headed for a small and very old barn that had been moved from Kananaskis. It was timber built with large doors facing east and west, so at noon, with the sun in the south, it made for good shooting. I made several images I was happy with.

In one exposure of the extended family (they were all related), I took several shots and the 1/4 second exposure meant that there was significant movement of some of the people in every single exposure. Poor Bill (used to Leicas and film for most of his career) was horrified when the next day I explained that I had painted in (in Photoshop) Bill from one image (in which he was still but his niece wasn’t) into the image where he had moved. As the shot was made on tripod, everything remained aligned and it was very easy to paint the sharp Bill over the fuzzy. I suppose it was cheating, though it has been done throughout the history of photography and it was done for practical and technical limitation reasons, so make your own decision about the morality of doing so.

Anyway, I’d shot the obvious poses and I’d had Bill’s brother back his horse into a stall and made a nice image in which the wear on the chaps produced some lovely silver tones, and the whole family and I looked around for another setup.

For another shot, I laid on the floor and had Bill sit in the doorway. The light outside was many, many stops brighter than the dark interior of the barn, and the shot I made suffers from a great deal of flare, both from the sun around Bill (reducing contrast) and the dust in the air (producing diaphragm fog spots), in the wrong places. A great deal had to be done in Photoshop to restore contrast to the fogged parts of the image, and in fact Bill’s forehead actually disappears into pure white in the original image.

I particularly like the placement of Bill’s hands, with all his rings, his serious demeanor, and those well worn, dirty and wet boots that shout “real cowboy”. The low camera position not only places Bill against the plain white (ie. vastly overexposed) background, it also places Bill’s head well above the camera and there is a reserved look to him, a sense of not quite being in the moment that I find appealing. At the same time, the low camera angle gives him a sense of power through his dominant position.

I can’t leave the image without commenting on it’s being in black and white. In fact I often sepia tone (in Photoshop) these cowboy images for a traditional look. Black and white does give a sense of history, but also avoids distractions and allows emphasis on tones rather than hues, shapes over details, and steps back from reality to isolate and protect the image from the mundane.