Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ahhh, Film...

 ...from a photographer's notebook

Deadly Warning     ©Steve Ember

One of my very favorite episodes of the wonderful TV series M*A*S*H had Hawkeye giving Radar some practical romantic advice. Seems the shy young Corporal O’Reilly had fallen madly in love with a very attractive nurse, who reciprocated his puppy-eyed interest.

Only problem was, the nurse was more, shall we say, culturally evolved than Radar – you know, into great works of art, great books…and classical music.

Hawkeye clearly had his work cut out for him in making sure Radar wouldn’t step in it when mention of the Great Masters entered into those romantic tête-à-têtes.

Hawkeye was tutoring Radar as to what he might say when various classical composers’ names came up. I can’t recall who the other classical composers mentioned in the episode were, or just what Hawkeye told Radar he should say about them, but I’ll always remember what his guidance was, should the conversation turn to Johann Sebastian Bach.

He told the young corporal to let his eyes go all dreamy, look heavenward, and say with all due reverence, “Ahhh, Bach.”

Radar looked puzzled, but Hawkeye explained that was all that needed to be said – the nurse would certainly understand, even if Radar didn’t.

I must say that, as a classical music lover (and erstwhile classical music broadcaster), I am more likely to use the Ahhh before names like Brahms or Berlioz or Rachmaninoff…

But no matter. I must admit to chuckling “Ahhh, Bach” during the occasional playing of the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 or similar Bachiana. And yes, I did occasionally back-announce such music with a winking “Ahhh, Bach.” Could be that’s why I’m not doing classical music on the wireless anymore.

But, “Ahhh, Bach” remains one of my favorite lines from TV, ever since that M*A*S*H episode, which I know I must have seen a good 25 or more years ago (so pardon, if my recollection of details of the episode beyond the "ahhh, Bach" is less than letter perfect).

So what could the photo up top possibly have to do with Hawkeye, Radar, and ol' J.S. (ahhh) Bach?

Well, Dear Reader, the header to this wee bloggie does call attention to it containing those “musings, ramblings, and the occasional curmudgeonly rant.” We’ll skip the rant … this time...but with Hawkeye’s rationalization of “Ahhh, Bach,” the title of this little ramble might just make some sense.

Ahhh, Film…

Not too long ago, I was interviewed about my photography and one of the questions had to do with why in tunket I continue shooting film alongside of digital.

That is probably a question a serious photographer would not ask. Indeed, he or she might just get that dreamy look and say something like…“Ahhh, Film.” But the interviewer was not a serious photographer and so the question was entirely valid. Why, indeed?

The answer is somewhat more difficult than I expected. It certainly defies concise sound-bite-y answers that are the expected norm in today’s radio culture. 

Louis Armstrong is said to have once answered an interviewer’s question about what is Jazz, with the comment “Well, if you gotta ask…”

Didn’t occur to me to use that line; indeed, it would have been rude and uncalled for in the circumstances.

But how does one give a succinct answer to why one continues to shoot film. If ever a picture is worth a thousand words…

Is the photo up top (click here to see it in higher definition on my Foto-Community pages) my black and white “masterpiece?”

Nahhh (rhymes with Ahhh).

Just one of many I’ve shot on film, whether black and white or color slide or negative, over the years.

This one happens to be recent, shot just last December on a roll of Kodak Tri-X. A well traveled roll of Tri-X, I might add, as I started shooting it five years ago on a winter day in Germany. It was toward the end of my trip, and I had shot only 18 of its 36 frames. So I stashed it in my freezer for the next time I wanted to shoot Tri-X and didn’t need a full roll. There were more recent opportunities, but somehow this roll just stayed stashed in the ol’ Hotpoint’s frosty attic.

In the second half of 2012, I renewed my vows to film, in a big way, as I purchased a bunch of “new” old 35 mm cameras, and lots of film to feed them. Toward the end of the year, as my freezer is not one of those room sized monsters you can stash a deer in, and since the Haagen Dazs must always retain a certain amount of real estate, I decided to go through any partially-shot-and-stashed rolls and get out and shoot them, to test those “new” old cameras, make way for more newly purchased film, and not threaten the Vanilla Swiss Almond and Green Tea’s space...

Anyhow, I picked up the developed Tri-X at the lab this evening, and got the urge to shove some of those strips-of-six into my scanner and see if some might be worth sharing.

As this particular image emerged from the scanner into my editing program (B/W film images always need some editing, if only to touch up the inevitable dust flecks that can attach to film, and which Digital ICE and similar programs for removing such little annoyances cannot remove as they do not work on black and white negatives), it occurred to me I was looking at an answer to the question of why I (and others) continue to shoot film.

No, I’ll not point out anything that distinguishes it from a digital capture…no words on texture, tonalities, character…

You'll get none of that sort of learned dissertation to slog through here. Well, not tonight at least. You see, that Haagen Dazs is waiting upstairs.

For now, just a dreamy "Ahhh, Film."

©2013 Steve Ember

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Friday, March 22, 2013

A "Tender" Moment

...from a photographer's notebook

I love being behind a camera, whether the image the lens is capturing gets recorded on a digital sensor or a sprocketed strip of silver coated celluloid…whether I’m high up in the Alps or roaming about closer to home, trying out one of my “new” film cameras.

If there is one “frustration” in following my photographic muse, it is that I never seem to have enough time to edit all of my work when I return from a trip. At least, not all at once. But, as long as “Terabyte” and Poly-Sleeves and slide boxes are in the lexicon, I know the worthy images I do not deal with in short order will patiently await their turn for later discovery, sometimes with Christmas morning effects on the photographer.

There is a particular joy in “re-discovering” images that, in some ways, makes up for any frustrations of the “wish I had more time for this” variety. Sometimes, the “re-discovery” takes, er, decades. Such was the case when I bought my Nikon film scanner in the summer of 2009 so that I could bring my slide and negative images into a more modern workflow. Did I ever go on a tear that summer, diving into long-unopened boxes of slides and letting the ol’ Coolscan have its way with Kodachromes and Ektachromes and all-kinds-of-other-chromes, splashing their lovely little pixels on my screen for cataloging and tweaking. Oh, yes, and re-living the rich memories of travel (and other) experiences they embodied.

Sometimes, returning to a group of images can produce a genuine Eureka moment, leading to creating a new print for an exhibit, or perhaps a new Photo Note Card design. And sometimes, it’s just a smile-maker in seeing a detail I’d obviously overlooked in my first perusal of a set of images. That was the case here. Just a small detail, but I feel just a little Christmas-morning-ish as I look at it.

If you follow my work, especially on my Foto-Community pages, you are aware of my delight in shooting the trains of the Rhätische Bahn winding through the dramatic Alpine wonderland of Switzerland’s Canton Graubünden.

In early October 2011, during two glorious weeks of Alpine early autumn, I spent several days along the RhB, whether chasing trains or riding them and shooting out of open windows.

On this particular day, my Bündner-friends Beatrice and Ruedi and I were riding the vintage steam train on an all-day excursion from Landquart to Sumvitg, along the line to Disentis/Mustér. The trip was pulled by the RhB’s lovingly maintained steam locomotive No.107 “Albula” (named for a major route of the Rhätische Bahn system).

As much fun as it is to ride in vintage coaches behind a huffing, puffing Dampflok through such choice surroundings as the Vorderrhein Gorge (the Swiss Grand Canyon), for the photographer, the experience ratchets up well before stepping aboard the vintage carriages.

No.107, a Class G4/5 locomotive, was built in 1906. She remains spry and limber thanks to all the TLC she gets from her friends and, of course, the support of the Rhätische Bahn for these special excursions.

Here, the old gal makes a dramatic statement that is, I’m certain, the Bündner-Deutsch equivalent of “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” as she backs her train into the Landquart RhB station. Her coal tender is stacked high with a sufficient quantity of coal bags for the day- long adventure, and the steam issuing from her cylinders and the smoke and steam from her exhaust stack tell even the most casual trackside observer she “has what it takes!”

After returning from that Swiss visit in 2011, I posted several RhB images on my F-C pages (you can find them all in the “Rhätische Bahn” folder), including one capturing this same maneuver, from a Fujichrome transparency. 

But the reason this digital image jumped out at me when I returned this week to the folder containing that day’s shoot, has to do with that tender. And not the coal bags peeking out the top, either!

A "Tender" Moment on the Rhätische Bahn

While the vintage carriages of the Rhätische Bahn were dark green, as seen here, if you are familiar with present day RhB trains, you know they are a distinctive bright red (giving the railroad its sobriquet “Die Kleine Rote”). With such familiarity, one could draw the conclusion that, below the unglamorous coal bags in the tender was a vibrant, perhaps impressionistic, “mural” depicting those bright red trains, passing through a forest of evergreens, perhaps along the Albula Line, under the deep blue sky of a sunny day in the Graubünden Alps..

Nice thought, but you’d be wrong ;-)

What makes me really glad I poked around again in that folder is the serendipity created by the combination of lens angle, the ambient sunlight along the platform, and the fact that unseen across the platform from the vintage train, sat a conventional red consist of “Kleine Rote” carriages, just waiting to reflect along the flanks of the tender as ol’ 107 backed her train past.

Oh, heck, maybe I will call it a “kleine” Eureka-Moment.

©2013 Steve Ember

"A Tender Moment" is now available as a Photo Note Card. To see the design, and to see a higher definition image, please follow this link.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year...

...from a photographer's notebook

As Spring, meteorologically speaking at least, prepares to make her 2013 debut, accompanied in the eastern U.S. by expected rain and snow showers, the electrons marching between my trusty Technics SL-P999 CD players and the electronics that make my monitor speakers sing have been engaging in a playful tug of war for the past while. There’s the warmly exquisite Bert Kaempfert instrumental “Two Can Live on Love Alone” (highly recommended for taking the edge off any wintry chill) on Deck #1 sharing the stage (taking turns, of course) with, on Deck #2, something equally exquisite and timeless, which just happens also to be timely, Ella Fitzgerald caressing the Frank Loesser lyric to “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year.”

Also vying for attention is the decision for a photo to present on the wee bloggie that might suggest the delights that Spring has in her pretty basket…for those who wait.

From the musical “tug of war,” I don’t suppose you’ll be at all surprised if I “give up” and offer two photos, one warm and Spring-y, and one chilly and rainy (but with a warm heart).

The image up top of the Botanic Gardens, close by the Capitol in Washington, captured on Ilford XP2 Super, was actually taken on a late summer day in 2012, but the result suggests Springtime to me. The skies over Washington that day were laced with glorious, ever changing formations of cirrus clouds against the deep blue, providing abundant inspiration for walking about with my Contax G2, its 45 mm Zeiss lens wearing a red filter.

And now, for something entirely different (and in keeping with the forecast)…

Eternal No.2 - University of Glasgow in the November Rain                                                                       ©Steve Ember

A photographer’s first visit to a place usually comes “front-loaded” with high hopes in the direction of photo-perfect shooting conditions…or at least the desire to have his hands more fully occupied with cameras, lenses, and objects other than those pesky “mini” umbrellas that so easily become inverted and useless when rain is joined by wind gusts.

Didn’t take very long for that to happen on this November afternoon in Glasgow, as I set about exploring the city’s hillier parts. Why am I flashing just now on Max von Sydow in “Three Days of the Condor” as he decisively mashes an umbrella into a trash receptacle on a rain soaked brownstone-lined Manhattan street? 

The University of Glasgow sits on high ground in the city’s West End. It is said to offer commanding views of the seaport city on the River Clyde. I’m certain it does and I hope to enjoy such views…one day. But on this particular afternoon, as I stepped out of the taxi I’d finally given up and flagged, the city below was obscured in mist, the winds were whipping the rain, by now solid and discouragingly persistent, and the umbrella-less photographer decided to take temporary shelter within.

After purchasing a handsome wool scarf in the rich blue tartan of the ancient institution (oh, yes, and another mini umbrella) in the University’s shop, I transitioned into photo-challenge mode, and was ever so glad I did. Rather than risking another early mini-umbrella demise, I decided to spend some time under the shelter of the university’s expansive Cloisters passageway, looking out into the quadrangles on either side, as rainy afternoon gave way to rainy evening and lights began casting their reflections in the wet walkways…providing inviting motifs for the cameras I’d been sheltering in my pack while waiting for the opportunity to deploy them.

This is one of my favorites from that interlude. I like the eternal calm that the bench and the history laden stone and ironwork bespeak. The steak dinner that followed a few hours later, also looking out into a rain-soaked Glasgow night, allowed the visitor to reflect on how easily one puts rain and chill in their place when a trusty camera is close at hand and the other hand is wrapped around a choice libation rather than a mini umbrella...

If the scene speaks to you, it is available in archival gallery prints and as a custom printed Photo Note Card. Ditto, the Botanic Gardens image up top. Those links will take you to the actual card layouts. Inside panels are blank; back panels have narratives. Like more information? Be in touch at the e-mail address in the right-hand column.

Oh, should I have also been playing Johann Strauss Jr's "Voices of Spring" waltz?

Cheers, and keep an eye out for the robin - I think he'll be wearing a trench coat with deep pockets for worm-stashing. 

©2013 Steve Ember

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Steam in the Snow

   from a photographer's notebook...

I love steam locomotives. And I love photographing them. Come to think of it, can one actually separate those two loves? Certainly not this fella.

I have chased them and photographed them in every season, and on both sides of the Pond; but if I have a favorite time for shooting steam locomotives, it is definitely Winter.

A steam locomotive is a living, breathing, huffing, puffing creature…with personality that diesel and electric locomotives can not match. But when you can find one in a snow-covered landscape, it is even more dramatic to look at (and, of course, shoot) as it discharges voluminous clouds of steam from its cylinders into the chill winter air, and blasts that mixture of steam and coal smoke from its stack. Of course, it also issues steam from other orifices, like the safety valve and whenever the engineer blows the whistle.

And if it is pulling a train of vintage passenger cars on a wintry day, there is also the romance of steam swirling all about the carriages from the lines for steam heat, enveloping that woman of mysterious mien greeting the man in the trench coat and slouch hat, perhaps passing some clandestine object to him, carefully wrapped in a folded-over Berliner Zeitung, or just lovers taking leave of one another, before that first mighty CHUFF from the engine coaxes the romantic world on wheels into motion.

For years, I’d wanted to shoot steam in the snow, and finally got the opportunity on a visit to Germany in the winter of 2008. In the Erzgebirge region of eastern Germany, close by the Czech border, there is a narrow gauge steam railway called the Preßnitztalbahn. It operates on 750 mm gauge tracks between Steinbach and Jöhstadt, running along the rushing Wildbach through dense pine forests and into open meadows, behind black and red huffing, puffing east German steam locomotives.

I was hoping for snow to add drama and atmosphere to my shots, and was delighted when those big, fat, wet snowflakes began to swirl and intensify.

As we in the mid-Atlantic region awaited further prognostications from the weather gurus on Monday about the significant storm that was to arrive sometime late Tuesday night and drop copious amounts of wet snow all day Wednesday before it all ends…I was trying to decide which photographs to bring to the Art League Gallery Monday evening, for jurying for the March exhibit...

Well, guess I made a fortuitous choice. Happy to learn Tuesday evening that “Steam in the Snow No.2,” shot at the Preßnitztalbahn station at Steinbach, was selected for inclusion in the show.

Oh, speaking of vintage, my photograph "B-25" (not a locomotive, but the WW2 bomber) is also on display.

If you’re reading this in the local area, please join us on Reception Night, Thursday the 14th at the Art League Gallery in Old Town Alexandria, 105 N. Union Street in the Torpedo Factory Arts Center. 6:30 to 8:30 PM. 703-683-1780.

If you’d like a higher definition look at “Steam in the Snow No.2,” please follow this link to its page on Foto-Community. There, you can also see other images from that visit to the Preßnitztalbahn by navigating the folder "Vintage Steam-Europe." Also, in honor of its inclusion in the March Art League show, I'll be adding this image to my range of custom printed Photo Note Cards. It can also be purchased in archival gallery prints. If you'd like more information, please e-mail me at the address in the right column.

By the way, if you enjoy watching European steam locomotives (in enchanting miniature landscapes), may I call your attention to a most entertaining DVD ;-)

Now, to make sure I know where my snow shovel is lurking…

©2013 Steve Ember

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ring Them Bells...

      from a photographer's notebook...

As regular visitors know, I sometimes form these curious thought-associations with music while I’m out shooting…or sometimes it strikes when I’m up late editing my images. No matter, once formed in those little neurons and synapses that play behind the camera eye, there becomes an indelible connection with a particular photo…

Once upon a time, Broadway composers John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote a little story- tune for one of their favorite performers, Liza Minelli.

It was a cute little playlet of a song called “(You’ve Got to) Ring Them Bells.” It told the story of a gal living in an apartment building on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Liza sang, in a thick NooYawk accent, about the frustrations in finding romance of one Shirley Devore. Poor Shirley’s getting all kinds of “tsurus” from her parents, relatives, and friends, who fear she might not, well, you know, find a mate. What’s more she’s just shy of thirty-two and still living at home with her parents.


Liza claimed it was a true story about someone she actually knew. She told it to Kander and Ebb, who had actually written the actress’ first show on Broadway, “Flora, the Red Menace.” The result was “Ring Them Bells,” with which Liza delighted audiences on television, in live performances, and, of course, on her album (yes, that’s what we called collections of songs on, umm, records…) “Liza with a Z.”

So, Shirley decides to take matters into her own hands. She goes to Chase Manhattan, “Where I got me a friend,” a reference to a TV ad campaign for that bank.

“And so she borrowed a thou' and called TWA,
 And told her mother and dad that she was Up and Away…”

Another delicious reference to its period and the once wonderful Trans World Airlines, gobbled up some years back by the once wonderful American Airlines.

“I'm gonna travel the continent, a month, maybe, two,
And haul me home a hus' [band] if it's the last thing I do…”

And of course, the chorus was “You gotta ring them bells, you gotta ring them bells”

A sly hymn to getting proactive…although I’m not sure that word was quite so overused back in the era of this song.

Well, dear “Shoyley” traipses about the continent, but fails, for whatever reason, to “foind” Mr. Wonderful.

London (she gets romantic, he gets a bronchial cough)…Brussels (no joy)…
Madrid, where she finds a handsome creature, but one “who threw the bull, but was no matador.”

Ah, but fortunately, someone tells her she can't possibly go home without seeing Dubrovnik, a current travel hotspot.

There, on the beach, she meets the boy who sets off “them bells.” And we share the joy of her discovering he has a flat at “Five Rivuhside” (her apartment building)…and that they’d been next door neighbors all the while. 

She can't believe it - She’d traveled the world to find the boy next door.

Only in Noo Yawk. And just a bit of magic that a brilliant pair of writers for the American Musical Theater created for a dynamic performer with whom they had a special chemistry.

Betcha a vintage IRT Broadway Local subway token the fellow in the picture, tapping on the “Liberty Bell” outside Washington’s Union Station on this perfect late summer afternoon was not thinking about this song.

But it was certainly playing on the ol’ Gray Matter Victrola that sits behind this photographer’s eyeballs and between his ears and sometimes just can’t resist playing a tune while he’s out and about with a camera…

The photo was taken last September on Ilford XP2 Super-400 film in my “new” Contax G2 rangefinder camera, using the Zeiss 45 mm lens, wearing a red No.25 filter (the skies over Washington that day were laced with glorious, ever changing formations of cirrus clouds, which I’ll show you some other time).

Oops, do I hear another song from Broadway?

Oh, well, we’ll catch up some other time.

If you'd like to view the photo in higher definition, you may do so on its Foto-Community page. It  is also available in gallery prints and as a custom printed Photo Note Card.

©2013 Steve Ember 

Now, here's Liza (with a Z).