Italy, Street-Level

Pigeon on street

What travel writers fail to write about, but what every traveler to Rome quickly understands, is that the vitality of Rome is at street level, in the shops and alleys and plazas down below, not the arcing walls and commanding towers above. From the agrarian countryside of windblown trees, summerfallow fields and feeding doves, to the stone walls, tenements, and ancient shops of the city, the feeling of humanity – not the highbrow renaissance kind, but the hunkered down, feeding and slurping kind – permeates the land.

At such an early hour there were no people. I went to the dining patio, still pearly with dew and waking, and sat beside a fat, solitary pear dangling over the table. The furniture was plastic and artificial, the table cloth a gingham red; a wild, viney rose bush ran the length of the railing, sprouting and sprawling beyond a narrow planter. Two pigeons strutted on the concrete, their cooing displacing the silence.

“Si, you go there, if you like, to take breakfast.” Alberto, our front desk clerk with a wandering left eye instructed us in the hotel amenities when we arrived. “I can go early?” I asked. “Anytime. All the time.” He shrugged. “Is open always.”

The sun lifted and daylight fell down the canyon walls. A waitress appeared to prepare the tables for breakfast. At each table she placed white crockery – cups of varying sizes for coffee, milk and cereal. She set down wicker baskets of small jams and jellies and individual packages of Fette Biscottate. When Harumi tried dunking one of these in her coffee, it fell apart before it reached her mouth. The girl rolled out trolleys bearing cisterns of hot coffee, hot tea and hot milk. A final tray with a domed glass case she filled with fresh croissants, both plain and sweetened. She didn’t speak. She moved silently.

The city woke, and we went out into it. Along the streets, shutters were being rolled open and windows washed. It was Monday, so shelves got their weekly dusting and signs their makeover. Rome stopped being a pallid warehouse of coveted antiquity – as it appeared on every summer weekend – and started being a thriving city.

“Giorno,” they said. It was the sound of a swallow, or hiccup. I couldn’t tell if it was coming out or going in, but it was how these men – these grey-haired clerks, middle-aged with that Roman rotundity all men over forty seemed to develop – said hello. In the abbreviated morning greeting, they conferred casual respect and an comfortable awareness of their clientele, the way a fat uncle doesn’t get up when you enter the room, staying instead in front of the television, burping.

Customers came for the legs of ham as wide and deep as a lute, for wheels of cheese, for buckets of salamella piscante. They bought deep-fried, stuffed olives, frozen octopus and Speedy Pizza, “alla Four Margherita” inside. They came in their auntie dresses and reading glasses and bags of goods already filled at other stores, and they were served with direct and simple care. They were like family.

Outside, the square was dominated by a statue of the martyred, hooded and solemn-looking Giordeno Bruno. His execution, after a life of persecution and accusations of heresy, was a death by fire at the hands of 17th century inquisitors. The statue was his record. At its base was a fruit stand.

Stalls mobbed the square and turned Campo de Fiori into a lively morning market. Stalls overflowed with cherry tomatoes, string beans both verdant green and psychedelic pink, unpolished apples, zucchini, peppers curled and folded into themselves like soft plastercine. At the lettuce stall, a dizzyingly diverse range of boxes were individually labeled: scaroia, cicoric, spinaci, caitaga, finocchi, ruigheita, rugola, taglio, apolloti and toglia di quereira.

“Do you speak English?” A small, blond woman in her late-thirties approached me at the fruit stand. Another woman in front of me had just bought a monstrous cluster of green grapes. I was considering the single small vine remaining. I could wash them at the tap and gobble them up in one sitting. Before Harumi was finished with her picture taking.

 

“Yes,” I said. I lay the small cluster back in the box and waited for the clerk to look my way.

“You never touch things in an Italian market!” She said this with a pinched, urgent look on her face. Her hand sliced through the air as she finished.

“I’m buying this.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said in her tight British accent. “Never.” She turned and walked quickly away.

Hers was the condescending need to educate. She’d likely been in Italy before, perhaps she was one of those British tax or weather exiles that warmer, cheaper European countries seem to attract. Like Canadians in Cancun. She was a fan of D.H. Lawrence, or Shelly and Keats, and she spoke Italian in the same pressed and clipped manner she spoke English. She knew Italy, and had a self-impressed fool’s maternalism over its customs. She saw an American (what else?) and needed to teach him a lesson.

Snippy bitch.

 

Conversations ranged around us, between customers and clerks, between co-workers, between neighbors and neighboring shopkeepers… and of course we could understand none of it.

“Get your damn bike out of my way!”

“I’ll ride where I want. Move your blasted store.”

“Move my– why you pig-faced sodomite. You ride that thing back this way and I’ll–”

“And I’ll ride over your fat ass. Then I’ll ride over your mother.”

“No mothers! Hey, no mothers! Vino!”

“What?!”

“This son of a bloated pig – hey, whose your mother?! – wants to meet the Father, the Son, *and* the Holy Ghost.”

“Let’s send him on his way then.”

“Come on then, you two. Let’s go. Right now.”

This might have been what they were saying, these three middle-aged, stubby shopkeepers in their white aprons, shapeless caps and open-collar shirts. Might have been, had they not ended the loud, sharp exchange – the hand-clenching, arm-waving, red-faced dialogue – with laughter and claps on each others’ back. The sun had crawled down the high apartment walls and hit the piazza floor.

A Splash of Colour

JL Tyler PhotographyHokkaido isn’t all grey seas and skies. Flashes of colour are few, true, but enjoyable when they come. You can see the brilliance this field of yellow sunflower brings, catching my eye from the highway as I speed through a recurring thunderstorm.

But sometimes the colour appears, and nothing else. Take this second picture, for example. That’s a brilliant sunset happening midst a grey, growling sea. And the dragon-shaped outcropping of rock is a dramatic counterpoint and foreground. But this wasn’t just a scene I stumbled upon; this is a man-made shot.

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As I was driving along the coastal road on a western peninsula of Hokkaido, the sun was setting and I got a shot of the dramatic rays of light piercing the clouds and the sea. But that was it: a great sky, and a fairly boring everything else. Then, about 5 miles down the road, the dragon rock appears, but by now, the sky’s rays had disappeared, so the backdrop to the dragon was, well, a boring sea.

With a little creative layering and blending, I produced the shot you see there. The images were taken 11 minutes apart, on the same stretch of road and in the same forboding twilight. The shape of the dragon is very real, and is, I learned, a landmark on this stretch of road. But the combination of sky and rock wasn’t happenstance. And the dramatic splash of sea, sky and colour, of my own making. The creative thrill of photography isn’t just looking through the lens.

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More Portraits

JL Tyler PhotographyAs I was building out this next round of portraits, I realized that was a lot of luck involved in capturing most of these. As I read more on portraiture, though, I see there are unifying elements that make a portrait a strong portrait, and some of these elements are caught in the photos below.

Any photography website or tutorial will tell you there are a few key techniques a photographer must consider when creating a portrait. The eyes of your subject, for example, need to be sharp and show life; some detail such as hair or clothing needs to be sharp and clear; the texture of the skin, depending on the look you want to achieve, needs to be smooth and well-lit (flattering modelesqe look) or coarse and gritty (real-life look); and the lighting needs to be flattering and emphasize whatever it is you want the viewer to focus on. If you have control over your subject, you can also use posing techniques, but my level of street photography doesn’t allow this.

JL Tyler PhotographyI’ve got a mixed bag of six portraits included in this post, and each of them relies on one or more of these details to make them appealing. The above two shots, the pepper vendor and the biker, don’t necessarily rely on eyes to make the shot; the pepper vendor is squinting and the biker is wearing shades. I think the critical element in both of them is texture and detail. You can see the texture in the pepper vendor’s forehead as well as in the well-oiled tracks of his hair (he had a cool top-knot in the back). With the biker, the texture of the leather is more dominant than his face, and that seems to underline the “biker” nature of the portrait. The fact that he just looks tres cool, and has a background detail of a manly eighteen-wheeler barreling in from camera left, is a bonus.

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The next two photos, Woman with Cat and Two Sisters, both rely on eyes. The highlight of the former is, of course, the beautiful almond shape of her eyes framed by the elegant eyebrows, as well as the finer set of cat’s eyes ready for comparison on the right. There is also a liveliness in the woman’s eyes that seems enhanced by, or as a result of, the hug she is giving the cat.

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The Two Sisters on the other hand shows, in the older sister’s eyes and overall expression, pleasant bemusement, perhaps due to the photographer standing outside her window or by the antics of her younger sister playing in shadow. While her younger sister’s eyes are closed, the joyous child’s expression is no less winning. There is also much texture in this shot. The chipped nail polish  on her fingers gripping the window sill are a dainty counterpoint to the roughness of the wood and corrugated tin of the room’s exterior. The slight scratch on the older girl’s nose brings out her character as well, speaking to, perhaps, some rough-housing fun.

DSC_2959_JTHR_NikSFX_borderSanta in Bar and Man with Tuk-Tuk are the final two of this series. I think “detail” is the unifying element of these last two (along with the beards and fantastic, groomed moustaches of each of the men). Santa was actually sitting inside the bar, behind a heavy sheet of plastic to keep out the cold (you can see the warp of the material to the right); it is the detail of the plastic and the way it frames Santa’s face that make this shot interesting.

JL Tyler PhotographyAnd finally the Man with Tuk-Tuk. Arguably there is too much going on in this shot; I might have blurred the background better (either in-camera or in Pshop) to defocus the detail and therefore focus on the man himself, but I really like the tuk-tuk approaching (you see them on any and every street in India), both for its intrinsic character and the receding depth it creates. The detail of the man himself, such as the fine needlepoint flower on his shawl, the wrapped shape of the shawl itself, and his forehead and pompadour hairstyle, all combine to create a solid street portrait of a seemingly interesting soul.

Building a Portfolio

Building out a black and white portfolio isn’t as easy as you might think. Especially when you’ve grown up in colour, shoot in colour every day (Raw, technically), and really, view life through a colour-ful mind’s eye. The solution, I dare say, is less about learning theory and practice, and more about having a vision.

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Developing the vision however, for most of us non-geniuses, means getting into the masters, seeing what has gone on before us, and getting a feel for what we ourselves would like to do. Educating myself on the world of B&W is ongoing, and involves not just absorbing the coffee-table collections of everyone from Adams to Stieglitz to Salgado, but also taking as many online tutorials as possible. But here’s the rub: the more I learn, the less I’m sure of. But also the more I’m aware of the “lack” of vision I possess. I’ve found that even when I’m hip-deep in theory or buried under wave after wave of practical advice, I suffer from an acute awareness that, um, I’m just making it up as I go along?

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Downloading a software package is, for me, a practical step. The rules and inherent structure of using a tool, seem to me to be a step in the right direction for learning about what I can do, and what I want to do. But as useful and interesting and absorbing as a package like Nik’s SilverFX is, the number of options are overwhelming; and it doesn’t simplify the creative and editorial responsibilities of pulling off, and pulling together, thematically-linked (perhaps the most basic definition of “vision”) images. Playing around is one thing, but artistic intentions need direction, commitment, choice, and these have to be in place, or in mind, before any photographer can really start to build their B&W vision.

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So suffice to say that this B&W portfolio is a work in progress. Using Nik’s SilverFX has helped me turn out a few images, which I’ve included here in a series. Four images that are united by the shared splendor of each wonderful sky. The set is certainly not visionary; more likely just something nice to look at, and united in theme. That’s a start. A step. For now.

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Standup Portraits

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For this series of portraits, I’ve divided the group into two; today I’m putting up the vertical images, and in a future post I’ll put up the horizontal images. It’s for consistency’s sake that I do this. I’m sure you’ll agree the consistency is easier to browse (no re-orienting of your monitor required). But there’s another aspect of consistency, and this time a lack of it, that I want to point out. In these four you’re looking at now, two of them are shot from down low (and I really do like the effect), one is shot with a wide-angle lens, and the fourth is shot straight on.

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This inconsistency is due to my style, which isn’t studio-based. I grabbed all these shots on the run, as it were, while travelling in India and the US, while drinking with friends in Japan. The series wasn’t conceived as a set; rather, the images were pulled together after the fact. Given my ‘druthers, I would love to act more professionally and create a series from scratch based on a consistent style, but I fear then I’d have to sacrifice the subject matter to achieve the style. Imagine trying to find a cow to stand high for me in a studio as I go low with the camera….

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Now this last shot stands out, again for a lack of consistency, but this is something you the viewer can’t see. Let me briefly review what you can see: the subject is of course the first boy with penetrating eyes and a Mona Lisa-smile; then slightly back of him are two friends with serious trepidation written in their brows.

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On the left side are railway tracks leading first to a cross, then to curves heading elsewhere,… these tracks help in leading the viewer’s eyes through and eventually out of the picture. But what you can’t see is the next minute of time after this shot was taken, and this is what I like: the boys break from their trepidation and wonderment and turn into laughing and giggling urchins mugging for the foreigner with a camera as they walk home from school. They are filled with fun and boyish charm, but none of the mystery that you see in the image. There is a complete lack of consistency in their behaviour – that which is captured here, and that which I retain in my mind’s eye.

Perhaps a lack of consistency is a good thing. Sometimes.

 

A Mountain of Choices

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Fuji-san is an icon, not just here in Japan, but the world over. Representative of symmetry, perfection, peace, it is captured in centuries of art, first brushed, then sketched, and etched, and woven, and developed, and on and on…. Whenever I see Mt. Fuji, I get the same inspiration as countless millions before me: I want to, yet again, take another snapshot. I learned early, though, that it is impossible to capture one perfect view of Fuji-san, and therefore repeated impressions are not just acceptable, but required.

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Selecting the right image for portfolio inclusion is at once easy and difficult. On the one hand, it’s easy because I don’t have that many “worthy” snapshots, so the overall lot I have to cull through is limited. On the other hand, when choosing images for a portfolio, relying on “it’s good enough” is setting the bar too low; finding the best of the best is critical to, first, a personal sense of achievement and, second, appreciation of any kind from your viewers. The four I’ve pulled together here please me, for now. I’ve got two over water, and two over land. Clouds are present, and some foreground baubles.

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While the beauty of Fuji-san’s shape and symmetry never vary, and using them make it easy to pull off a color snapshot at sunrise or sunset, since engaging on this B&W journey, I’ve had to begin to appreciate different aspects of a “quality” Mt. Fuji image.  The soft reds of the sun, combined with that iconic shape, are enough to create a memorable image, but you’re relying a lot on the colour and resulting mood. Black and white is nothing if not mood, but you can’t use colours to create it; instead, I find I’m focusing on clouds, and foreground, and contrast (of course!). I’m not saying anything new to someone already skilled in B&W, but for the student of photography, like me, this is new and important stuff.JL Tyler Photography

This last shot, with the split rocks (they’re actually tied together by a barely-visible rope, related to the Shinto religion) and the crashing waves in the foreground is somewhat disappointing due to the muted nature of Fuji-san herself. In the colour version, the sky is a deep, rich blue which permeates the air; converting this blue to monochrome, however, results in a dim, muted background. You can see that the whites of Fuji-san’s cap are much less white than the crashing wave; my first reaction was to amp the whites of that snow to give the same charged feel of the waves, but the effect didn’t work.  It’s background, and needs to feel like background to the viewer. Hmm…. More struggles with what I think is good, and what is good.

 

 

A Graveyard for Boats

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Japan is an island, and water is a large part of the culture. I’ve gone on many trips in-country, and was never far from the oceans and rivers and the people that live and thrive nearby. Fisherman are a recurring image in my photos, but the fish themselves are fewer and further between; they tend to show up frozen on a dock, with a gaggle of bidding buyers flailing above. Boats are represented as well, but are usually moored, their character somehow subdued.

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I came upon this boat graveyard in western Hokkaido. Sunk in a field of grass, in an out-of-the-way section of pier, lay a score of abandoned fishing boats. As I walked through the field and noticed the detail of broken mast, punctured hull, twisted netting and bows asunder, I realized these workhorses of the fishing trade had not lost their glory or their bearing. They were not subdued; in fact, they were very much full of expression.

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The smooth slope of hull is as graceful on land as it would have been at sea; you just feel it’s misplaced. The mooring posts still appear strong, as if they are wanting that corded rope to wrap itself around them again. The lines and characters of the names painted on each hull are smudged, faded, but they still feel as if they are providing identity. And the tilt of each boat is no less dignified for it occuring midst the waving grasses. There is still grace and beauty in this field. There is still voice.

 

Shooting Silhouettes

JL Tyler PhotographyEvery time I see the sun in all its warm, full-bodied glory, I want to photograph it. But without a bunch of ND filters and a lot of gear preparedness, I try the shot and end up with a splatter of white in the frame. What I look for then is something to put in front of the sun, to block it and deliver a resulting silhouette at the same time. This is almost as rewarding, and is definitely more dramatic.

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Yuma, where I’ve been lucky enough to spend few days each winter for the past few years, has given up some great images.  Each time I visit I come away with something new. Something about the thin, warm air and quality of mid-winter light, especially at sunrise or sundown, that brings out the best photos.

These photos are all handheld, with only a CIR POL filter in place. I shoot in RAW exclusively, and tweak in Pshop. In the vertical-oriented cactus shot, you can see a good level of detail in the cactus needles. I chose to not darken the shot (levels or curves adjustment) because I like the texture the extra detail provides.

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Waterworld

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To travel to Shikoku and Kyushu, the southern-most islands of Japan’s main archipelago, is to never be far from water. Whether you take the train, fly or drive, water is beside, under and around you. Outside of the urban, concrete corridors of Tokyo, past the monumental and majestic Mt. Fuji, and just beyond the ancient, wooded expanses of worship in Kyoto, you travel across land but you are thoroughly within this world of water.

Some time after returning from a recent trip, I read an article in B&W Photography entitled “How to Shoot Water.” Unfortunately, they don’t have a website of their own (!) nor a link to the article, but the photographer, Lee Frost, does. His suggestions ranged from “work in overcast light” and “use a ND filter,” to “use a wide angle lens to fill the foreground with reflections” and “use long exposures to turn water to milk.”

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I can’t say that I followed all the technical advice, since I was more interested in subject matter than technique: what I was after — and found — was images of wide open spaces and singular individuals. These two visual aspects are rare in densely-populated Japan, but they exist; you just have to travel to find them. On the ferry from Honshu to Shikoku, a crane sat  in the water like a rigid but fluid, well, crane. In the backroads of Shikoku, a solitary fisherwoman found foothold in a moving stream. From a bridge in Kyushu, I spotted kayakers navigating the dimpled waters like leaves in a creek.

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The beauty of the water, in the backyard of Japan, is undeniable. The quiet expressiveness of the scenes you will meet on this type of trip are thoroughly enjoyable. Sitting and gazing is not unknown in Japan; admiring the beauty of a rock garden or a sumi ink painting is a still pleasure many foreigners have heard about even if they haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing it themselves. But to be able to do so in the not-so-vast outdoors of Japan is a treat you should not put off. Come on in, the water’s fine.

 

Foreign Photogs in Japan

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As an amateur photographer in Tokyo, I get a real charge out of finding foreigners who have crossed over and are making a profession of taking photos. It’s not an easy city to succeed in; I’ve been trying in many different ways for 25 years. And the foreigners who are doing it are not necessarily easy to see. They blend in well, staying just out of the picture, so to speak

But I’ve found a bunch of foreigners who appear to be taking it to the bank, with just their camera, their style, and (I assume) their dogged persistence. I’m going to share more talent in the future, but for now, I highlight five that are worth a look. More power to them.

Benjamin Parks – What I like: his BW portraits (very expressive, the hardluck individuals as well as the boxers); his naked yoga (who wouldn’t?); his website’s structure and presentation.

Alfie Goodrich – What I like: the extensive, varied content that goes beyond photos to encompass everything photographic; his tutorials, a real teacher who seems passionate about what he knows; his tips and techniques.

JÉRÉMIE SOUTEYRAT  – What I like: his sensitive subject matter, even a picture of a concrete house has a softness about it; his excitement (gleaned from reading his blog); his images of Shikoku.

Jacob Hodgkinson – What I like: His muted colours, his mix of eastern and western, his portraits (cool looking stuff).

Joshua Lieberman – What I like: his people shots that combine a figure with a couple details (wow!); his interiors; his professional demeanor (as seen through his website and writings).