Monday, December 28, 2015

Not quite winter...

...from a photographer's notebook

It was late in the afternoon on the 30th of November 2014, and while I was trying to be a good lad and keep my nose to a rather long audio book narration in progress, cabin fever got the better of me.

Besides that, I was itching to try out the lovely Nikon 85 mm f/1.4 manual focus lens that had just come back that week from being repaired chez Nikon.

So, a short drive to the nearby rural byways around the town of Clifton, Virginia, with the 85 mounted on my Nikon FA loaded with Kodak BW400CN – just a 24-exposure roll, as I wanted mainly just to confirm the lens was playing nice with the camera and stopping down as it should.

As I said, it was late in the afternoon, and the sun was already too low in the sky in terms of the byways I was cruising to suggest any interesting motifs in black and white.

Until I paid some attention to the sky!

I love shooting winter-bare trees. Sometimes with their complex tentacled forms silhouetted in telephoto-compressed perspective against geometrical forms of soaring office or hotel towers in New York or Chicago…always against the fiery postlude of a glorious winter sunset. Contrails from passing jetliners, brilliantly illuminated by the low angle of the sun? Bring ‘em on!

Usually my choice for shooting such motifs, especially those after sunset moments, is in color, whether digital or on a nice well-saturated chrome film like Fujichrome Velvia or Ektachrome VS.

But on this particular afternoon, I had set out in a purely black and white frame of mind. I did take a nice dark red No.29 filter along. I pulled off the two lane road, screwed the 29 onto that big bright 85 mm and indulged my senses in one of the most dramatic after-sunset skies I’d seen in quite some time.

Looking through the 85 mm field of view with contrasts magically enhanced by that dark red filter, I was treated to a dramatic pattern of stratified cloud traces, crisscrossed in multiple directions by streaking contrails.

Naturally, those patterns so artfully created by the collaboration of Mother Nature, Boeing, and Airbus would have been striking in color…

But necessity being its usual good mother, I went for it in black and white, and when the processed BW400CN arrived, I was so glad I had. Free of the “distractions” of color, the images could instead focus on the graphic play of those winter trees and the ethereal forms that made the sky so special and evocative in those last moments of afterglow.

Did I say “winter” trees? Well, yes, they are what I’d call winter-bare, having long since shed their remaining leaves by this last day of November. Indeed I called the first image I edited from this shoot “WinterTrees at Sunset.”

But somehow, as I worked this one up, I immediately recalled a favorite scene in a favorite movie. And, in that flash of cinematic recollection, the title wrote itself.

Not quite winter…

There is a wonderful, gentle moment in “Three Days of the Condor,” a film perhaps not best known for “gentle” moments.

If that “Not quite winter” did not register with you, it will as I describe the scene between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

In this superb 1975 suspense drama, Redford plays a CIA “reader researcher” in New York named Joe Turner. He and his colleagues at the “American Literary Historical Society,” housed in a classy east side building, spend their time reading books and feeding into the CIA computers all manner of plots to be analyzed and compared to existing or planned CIA operations.

One day, Turner returns from picking up lunch for his coworkers to find everyone has been assassinated. An attempt by his superiors to safely bring him in goes badly awry in an alley behind a west side hotel where he has been instructed to rendezvous with his section chief who has flown up from Langley.

Thus, at loose ends, able to trust no one, and badly in need of a “safe” place to sort things out, he abducts Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway’s character) outside a shop and forces her to drive him to where she lives in Brooklyn Heights.

Hoping the evening news will shed some light on what actually went on behind the Ansonia Hotel, where he narrowly escaped being shot that afternoon, he waits for the news to begin.

Director Sidney Pollack was in top form and this brief interlude is poignantly effective. I might mention those old enough to remember the once and former Eastern Airlines are treated to a delicious little late-Eastern “time capsule.” Remember, it is winter – the film takes place during the Christmas Season – and as Redford switches on the TV, a harried looking guy in a raincoat on a New York street looks up…at an Eastern jetliner soaring above (probably heading somewhere tropical and sunny) as an alluring female vocalist asks “shouldn’t that be you there?” It was part of Eastern’s “You Gotta Believe” campaign, one of their best…

Those familiar with these rambles will understand the occasional musical or airline “tangent,” but that commercial before the news serves a purpose, as Redford views Kathy’s stark black and white photographs on the wall of her flat. Oh, did I mention she’s a professional photographer (a character Dunaway would later expand on in “The Eyes of Laura Mars”)?

He asks his skeptical hostage, “Is this what you do, photography?” As the Eastern commercial is replaced by a tender cue by the film’s composer Dave Grusin, there is this dialog between Redford and Dunaway:
Turner:   Lonely pictures.
Kathy:    So?
Turner:   You’re funny.  You take pictures of empty streets, and trees with no leaves on them.
Kathy:    It’s winter.
Turner:   Not quite winter.  They look like…November … not autumn, not winter, in-between. I like them.

So there we are…Tangents, Thy Name is Thunderflakes.

But a title I rather like for a new black and white photograph I’ve become rather fond of.

Besides, I get to tell you about a favorite scene in a favorite movie. And even if you don’t care a bit about Eastern Airlines commercials…or lonely photographs of empty streets, check out “Condor.” It is still one hell of a ride. And while you’re at it, enjoy how the superb actor Max von Sydow turns a sinister European contract killer into a gentleman you might just like and admire…

And now, if you’ll excuse me, time for dinner…and the umpty-umpth viewing of “Three Days of the Condor.”

©2015 Steve Ember
PS: You can view the photo without the Blogger clutter here.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015


...from a photographer's notebook

No doubt, you have already gathered today's ramble will have nothing to do with crazy conversation or, for that matter, chatty locomotives.

It’s my birthday today.

As regular visitors know, your loyal scribe rarely misses the opportunity to link his birthday and trains, whether the full size or the model variety.

I was delighted to have my photograph “Loco-Chat” selected for inclusion in the Maryland Federation of Art’s annual “Small Wonders” Show at the Circle Gallery in Annapolis.

“Loco-Chat” was taken at Steinbach in eastern Germany’s Erzgebirge region, close by the Czech border, along the Preßnitztalbahn narrow gauge steam railway.

Before being attached to its train across the way at the Steinbach station, the little steam locomotive is having all of her needs seen to by an attentive staff. That means sufficient coal in her tender and ample water for making lots of steam. The water spout has been pulled away, having done its job, and the engine driver and his colleagues are confirming that all is “in Ordnung.”

I love shooting steam trains in the snow, and while this particular photo doesn’t speak to it, the afternoon along the narrow gauge route from Steinbach, through the pine forests to its other terminus, Jöhstadt, was intermittently alive with huge swirling snowflakes.

The MFA “Small Wonders” show takes place during the Holiday Season each year, featuring smaller than usual items in the Gallery that just might appeal for gift giving.

So, if you have a steam train lover on your list, this one might make for a nice surprise; and, measuring only 11 inches square, it would not require moving the Rembrandt from its place of honor. The photograph is available for purchase during the show, either at the MFA Circle Gallery or by visiting the MFA web site:, and, afterwards by contacting me directly via my web site

The show will be on view through Christmas Eve. The gallery is just across State Circle from the State House.

You can see a fuller rendition of "Loco-Chat" here; and, if you remember the children's story "The Little Engine That Could," there is another version of the photograph, especially for the young and young at heart.

Alle Einsteigen - All Aboard!

©2015 Steve Ember 

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