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Viva La Cuba! (Part III)

The Cuba 2018 gallery and Galleries section debuts. Thoughts on the kind of photography I find most rewarding—street portraits.

I’m happy to report that I’m done processing the top-tier selects from my Cuba photos and as such, can now officially debut the Galleries section of nryn.com. Cuba’s the only gallery in there now but more will be added regularly as I work my way through my image archive. Gallery contents will remain sparse—images and titles only—so that the photographs can take center stage. I’ll use the blog to add pithy commentary and behind-the-scenes context for select images from time to time because blah blah blah is what blahgs are best at.

I don’t have many rules about photography. I think a good photograph can be made with any equipment and that the things people fuss about—namely focus, bokeh and to some degree, exposure—turn out to be nowhere near as important to producing an effective image as people make them out to be. I guess my only “code” in photography is that I don’t take photos of the destitute and pass them off as some noble-minded attempt to depict of the state of humankind—I’m not a photojournalist. I also don’t edit photographs much at all—my edits are mostly limited to global adjustments, cropping and cleaning sensor spots—but this, in addition to trying to get things right “in the camera,” isn’t an artistic or philosophical stance as much as it is a factor of time constraints. In any case, I tend to disregard anyone who gets religious about what “proper” photography is or how it is done. Actually, I tend to disregard anyone who gets religious about anything or who uses the word “proper” as a way to tell me what I’m doing wrong. Which is basically everyone on the Intertubes.

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My great uncle's Leica

Gear Up, Gear Down

Gear and practice.

I don’t get a lot of questions about photography. Very few people ask, “What are you trying to accomplish in this image?” Instead, most people ask questions about photographic gear. “Do you shoot Nikon or Canon?” “What lens did you take this image with?” “What strap/bag/flash/tripod/underwear do you recommend?” A lot of people confuse having a discussion about cameras with having a discussion about photography and for me, anyway, these are not the same thing. My biggest lament about photography is that the compliment you get from the viewing public most often tends to be:

“That photograph is wonderful. You have an amazing camera!”

Spoiler alert: it’s not the friggin’ camera. No one says of David Simon that his keyboard must have been magical to help him bang out The Wire. No one remembers Picasso for having exquisite brushes or Luke Skywalker for the power converters he never picked up from Toshi Station.

It’s true that gear and practice are intimately related topics in any field. The things that you do and the ways that you do them are both enabled and constrained by the tools and materials you have to work with. And these days many of us are all spoiled by choice. Commodity gear in many fields consists of highly sophisticated tools that require little skill to get started and that presume to understand your intentions so they can do a lot of the work for you. Over the years, my pursuits have generally settled on simpler tools that may require a few more skills to use but once those skills are acquired, allow me to better connect my intentions with my results.

Neither approach is unilaterally better than the other—if the results of the more automated tools are acceptable, why not do them more quickly? The people whose work and methods I find most compelling generally work from both camps and are not religious about it, and I try to echo that ethos in the way I go about things in photography, woodworking, bicycling, and so on. I tend to walk away from theoretical and “gear qua gear” monologues and gravitate instead toward conversations about intent, process and approach.

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Viva La Cuba (Part II)

Images from Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa and thoughts on the photographic editorial process.

I’m about 50% through processing my selects from the Cuba trip. When I slog through images so soon after returning from a trip, something often happens to me —I’m disappointed in the lack of variety. As regards the Cuba image archive, it’s hard to not feel like I’m drowning in photos of standing or sitting around, of places (and people) flaunting their gorgeous decay, and of old American cars. When I got back from Southeast Asia, I felt like I was drowning in monks and temples. Naples, Italy: alleys and architecture. You can try to not take these cliché shots but it’s futile — these things comprise so much of the social tapestry and visual horizon, perhaps particularly for someone whose synapses haven’t yet normalized the things it’s not used to seeing.

Over time I’ve settled on the notion that it’s best to go through images about 2-3 years after I take them. I’m fairly ruthless when it comes to editing my own stuff. I rarely post more than one photo from a given scene and can revisit a “select” for days and sometimes months. When I return from a trip, I’m still connecting images with memories. On the one hand, this is good because right after a trip the photographic process is still fresh. But in the end I think this hurts the editorial process—what’s meaningful to me about taking an image isn’t always in the image, and if it is in the image it may not be in the image effectively. For me, anyway, it takes some time for the memory of making a particular photograph or set of photographs to fade enough to be able to evaluate the image on its own terms.

Besides, it’s both fun and meaningful to revisit a photographic session—be it a trip or a studio shoot—after some time. Without the crutch of memory, I look at the images on a deeper level for things of interest and often come up with selects that would never have passed muster originally. I notice things in a photo’s background that I perhaps didn’t even notice while taking the photo. I find textures—both literal and figurative—that draw my eye in and make my mind wander. Images that are not executed perfectly on a technical level—i.e. overexposed or focused poorly—can speak volumes. But only after I can get my memory to quiet down a bit.

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Viva La Cuba! (Part I)

One more pin in the map.

I’ve wanted to go to Cuba since I was a little boy. On our family trips to Florida to visit relatives, I’d tag along with my lounge lizard uncle to socialize with his Cuban musician friends. Thanks to my wife indulging my wanderlust and holding the fort down while I made good on a childhood promise to myself—I just returned from an 8-day trip to Havana and several cities in eastern Cuba.

As you may know, if you are an American and want to travel legally to Cuba, it’s not as straightforward as it perhaps should be (and I’ve been keeping tabs on the rules for a few decades now). So a few weeks after a quick discussion with my longtime friend (with whom I’ve recently been reacquainted), Dan Tamarkin, I went with Keith and Amy of Complete Cuba, Dan and four other travelers (most of group was photographically inclined). I’m not a group tour kind of person—I’m barely a person kind of person. But unless you have the time and patience to wade through arcane government protocols (I did not), working through a tour operator familiar with such rules and regulations is the way to go, perhaps especially for your first trip there. Dan, who had already been to Cuba twice with Complete Cuba, had nothing but good things to say. And after having gone myself, I have nothing but good things to say about Complete Cuba as well.

I’ve done a pass through my photographs and a couple hundred of them pull their weight in pixels. That pool will of course be further refined, but here’s a small taste. Two more not shown here (two of my favorites, actually) will be shown at the Rangefinder Gallery in Chicago along with photos from my traveling companions and past Complete Cuba Alums.

I’m not going to try and summarize Cuba in anything but images, nor will I pretend that my photographs capture anything other than the small slice of Cuba I happened to walk through. But here are a few armchair observations:

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New and Improved

Hello. Again.

To those of you who don’t know me, allow me to state up front that I am probably not the droid you are looking for.

Those of you who do know me may be asking, “So why the new digs, yo? What happened to etherfarm?” Let’s begin by just agreeing to forget about that “yo” you just used, then let me put to rest any laments you may have for the demise of my former site. Just like a phoenix that got old, began soiling itself, went into hiding, realized it had merely eaten a bad burrito then took a few Immodiums before resuming its majestic flights, Etherfarm will be reborn at some point as both a company and website dedicated to my creative pursuits. More on that some other time.

The 4.7 humans who have followed me through the years on etherfarm.com know that it has languished for quite some time.

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