Creativity doesn’t happen on a straight line and sometimes you won’t know you’re done until you’re suddenly done

I’ve self-published five books of my writing and photography. My favorite is A Place to Start, a collection of essays and stories from this blog. The other day I looked for a photograph in that book’s files when I came across these images — the final cover for the book plus two other covers you’ve not seen before.

A few people volunteered to read an early version of the book and give me feedback. I created the first cover above for that edition. It took me all of 15 minutes to make it.

When it came time to publish the book for real, I wanted a cover that didn’t look so slapped together. I made the second cover above — and then I didn’t love it. I thought it was too busy. I liked the typeface I chose, and how I arranged the title and my name, though. I used those elements as the basis for the cover I published, the third one above.

I knew all along that I wanted to use a photo of my first apartment’s front door on the cover. That apartment was the place I started my adult life; a story I wrote about it went into the book and gave the book its title. The photo I used in the first two covers is one I made shortly after I moved in. But as I put together the final cover I remembered that I had a print of a photo a friend had made with me at the front door. I found it and scanned it. The print was borderless; I created a fake border around it in Photoshop for the cover.

The red background includes a texture I found for free online. I wasn’t confident that people would like the red, but it was better than other colors I tried. I chose that yellow for the text so it would pop agains the red.

I wanted to do more with the cover, such as make the photograph look worn and perhaps torn, with a bent corner. But that was way beyond my Photoshop skills.

When I reached this point, I realized that I probably wasn’t going to do any better! So I stopped. This would be the cover, and that was that!

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Essay, Film Photography

Ilford HP5 Plus could be the best value in film today

Film photography will always have ongoing costs — every time you want images, you first have to buy a roll of film. Then you either pay a lab to develop and scan/print it, or buy the equipment and chemicals to do it yourself. The costs mount with each roll you shoot. As a result, all but the most wealthy of us keep film photography as affordable as we can.

Last year I wrote about five relatively inexpensive films you should try to help keep your costs low. I still like those films for all the reasons I listed in that article. But since then, some of them have become hard to find. Moreover, some of those films offer limited versatility, working best under certain lighting conditions and offering little exposure latitude. And some of those films, it is whispered, have iffy quality control.

One film emerges in 2022 as a great value: Ilford’s HP5 Plus black-and-white film.

By value I mean not just price — you can buy other films for less than HP5 Plus. When you also consider quality and versatility, for the price it’s hard to beat HP5 Plus. It’s also in stock pretty much everywhere that sells film, unlike many other popular films in this era of shortages.

I surveyed the usual online film shops and found Ilford HP5 Plus available right now at these prices:

  • 35mm, 24 exposure: $6.50 – $7.00
  • 35mm, 36 exposure: $8.00 – $8.50
  • 120: $7.00 – $7.50

If you think eight bucks is a lot for a roll of film, consider that adjusted for inflation, $8.00 is equivalent to $6.45 in 2012, $5.04 in 2002, $3.93 in 1992, and $2.68 in 1982. I don’t remember exact film costs from 40 years ago, which is about when I started buying film for my old cameras in earnest. But I would have been pleased as a kid on a meager allowance to pay under three bucks for a roll of film.

Market Street towards the Statehouse
Nikon N90s, 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor

HP5 Plus offers a classic black-and-white look with a well-managed traditional grain structure. Properly exposed and developed, it offers both rich blacks and a good range of middle grays. I find it hard to blow out the highlights or block up the shadows with this film. It’s rated at ISO 400, but you can shoot it anywhere from EI 100 to EI 3200 and, with compensating development, get perfectly usable results. Some have successfully pushed it to EI 6400!

Inland Bldg.
Olympus Stylus

Why HP5 Plus and not other films? Ilford’s FP4 Plus is a close second. It costs only slightly more than HP5 Plus and offers similar exposure latitude. Kodak’s Tri-X is every bit as good and versatile as HP5 Plus, but its prices are a couple bucks a roll higher. The T-grained films — Ilford’s Delta and Kodak’s T-Max lines — are a couple bucks more per roll as well.

For years I’ve used inexpensive color films such as Fujicolor 200 to test new-to-me old cameras and for general photography when I just have the itch to shoot. I have a stash of the stuff squirreled away, but in this time of color-film shortages it won’t last forever. I’m switching to Ilford HP5 Plus.

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Strengthening the creative muscle

Since 2015, I’ve published here six days a week. People ask me how I do it. Well, here’s how — and you can do it, too.

A portrait of the photographer
Me out working on this blog

I set aside time almost every day to work on the blog. I get up earlier than I otherwise need to every weekday so I have at least one morning hour to brainstorm post ideas, write, and/or process photographs. I often spend my entire Saturday morning working on this blog.

I write about a well-known set of things. They say there’s no greater tyranny than a blank page. I’ve overcome that by narrowing down the kinds of things I write about. Most of my articles are reviews of photo gear and film, road-trip reports, essays, and personal stories. My fallback is to write about photographs I’ve made, whatever comes to mind. Even though my shtick is varied, it’s not overbroad. Truly, to generate an article all I need to do is buy an old camera or a kind of film I’ve never shot before, use it, and write about the experience. Or take a day trip to some Indiana city, photograph it, and write about it. The best part is that these are things I enjoy doing anyway. Sharing the experience with you heightens my pleasure with it.

Through these things, I’ve built a strong creative muscle. The more I publish, the more I publish. Once I start generating and executing on ideas, more and more ideas generally come. Sometimes I have more ideas than I have time for! If I don’t write them down, I lose them. Other times, work or family consume my time and thoughts. When that happens, idea flow slows or even stops. To re-prime the idea pump, all I have to do is pick a kind of article I normally write, and write one. My go-to is to choose a photograph and write whatever comes to mind about it. Then I write another, and another. Very soon, article ideas start flowing in again.

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Essay, History

Walking the fine line between telling the truth and avoiding woke excess on state historic markers

Sycamore Row
2018 photo

In 2020, when the historic marker at Sycamore Row on the Michigan Road was damaged in an accident and replaced, its text was revised. The original marker told a story of the sycamores growing out of sycamore logs used to corduroy that section of road. Unfortunately, that story has never been confirmed and might just be legend. The new marker tells instead of the trees’ uncertain origin.

The marker now also tells in thumbnail the broader story of the Michigan Road in northern Indiana, specifically calling out how Potawatomi Indians ceded land for the road under intense pressure. When the Michigan Road was surveyed starting in 1829, all of northern Indiana was Native American land. The Michigan Road opened northern Indiana to white settlement, which ultimately displaced Native American tribes. In particular, a band of Potawatomi who lived near Plymouth were marched out of Indiana at gunpoint, passing by this very spot on the Michigan Road on their way. 859 tribe members were forced out; 40 died on the way. This is known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death.

Sycamore Row
2021 photo
Sycamore Row
2021 photo

A historic marker has only so much space to tell a story. The Indiana Historical Bureau, which oversees the state marker program, reached out to us at the Historic Michigan Road Association to review the proposed text on the new Sycamore Row marker. I was pleased that they addressed the original marker’s likely error on the sycamores’ origin, and touched on the Potawatomi story.

Pennsylvania’s historic marker program was in the news late last month (story here). The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which oversees that state’s marker program, has reviewed all of the state’s 2,500 markers and is beginning to revise and even remove markers as they work to correct factual errors and address language that might now be considered racist or otherwise objectionable.

At the time that article was published, the state had removed two markers, revised two others, and ordered new text for two more. In particular, they removed a marker at Bryn Mawr College that noted that President Woodrow Wilson had taught there. Bryn Mawr requested the removal over Wilson’s stated beliefs about the intellectual capabilities of women and his segregation of the federal workforce.

The commission has also ordered changes to the text on a marker about Continental Army Major General Anthony Wayne to remove a reference to him as an “Indian fighter.” It also removed a marker that noted a 1758 military victory that the marker said “established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States.”

At least with these three markers, Pennsylvania has edged into tricky territory. Woodrow Wilson was wrong about women and segregation, but he will forever have been a President of the United States and that makes his involvement at Bryn Mawr significant. While we should look back with sorrow and shame over how the United States treated Native Americans, the fact remains that Gen. Wayne fought Native Americans. And the aim of so many early American military victories was to claim territory for white immigrants. More sensitive language can be chosen in these latter two cases, but I’m uncomfortable with simply removing language that is true because of current sensitivities.

I’m pleased that Indiana has so far walked this fine line successfully with its historic marker program.

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Essay, Photography

What’s the point of single-use cameras?

Last month, Kodak introduced a single-use camera loaded with its iconic Tri-X black-and-white film. It got a lot of news coverage in the film-photography community.

I don’t buy the hoopla. Single-use cameras aren’t all that useful, and they’re certainly not economical.

The Tri-X Single-Use Camera costs about $15, and offers 27 exposures. Ilford also offers a single-use camera with HP5 Plus inside; it costs about $12. And both Fujifilm and Kodak offer single-use cameras with ISO 400 color film inside. I’ve seen them available for anywhere between $12 and a whopping $20.

Why buy one when you can buy an old point and shoot camera for under $20 at a thrift shop, load a roll of film of your choice — and reuse the camera? Even the simplest point and shoot probably has a better lens than any single-use camera, and you’d be money ahead after only a few rolls of film.

I can think of only one reason to buy a camera like this: you need a camera but don’t have one on you. It happened to me once. I had flown to Washington, DC, on business. On arrival I learned that an illness had postponed my meetings by a day. I had a whole day to myself, and I’d never been to DC before! I stepped into a drug store and bought a single-use camera, and then took the subway to the National Mall to do some sightseeing. (I stumbled upon a mostly struck set from the movie Forrest Gump that day; read that story here.) Here’s a photo I made of the U.S. Capitol with that camera.

US Capitol, 1993

But this happened in 1993, long before all of us had a camera phone in our pocket. Today I’d just use my iPhone. It’s not my favorite camera, but neither was this single-use camera I bought. Both would have gotten good enough shots for an unexpected day as a tourist.

I think disposable cameras sell primarily to people with too much disposable money.

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Essay, Old Cars

The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems

Originally published 22 July 2016. When we look back at the past, all too often it’s through rose-colored glasses.

But who doesn’t like to indulge in nostalgia? I sure do. I especially enjoy photographing classic cars and reminiscing about times when they still roamed America’s roads. One of my favorites is the 1966 Ford, like this convertible I found at the Mecum auction in May. My dad owned one when I was small, a two-door hardtop. I spent many happy hours in its spacious back seat.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

Check out that styling! This long, low car looks so purposeful, so strong. Aren’t those tail lights just the bomb? It’s so much better looking than the tall, blobby cars they make today. And they made these cars out of heavy steel. You could sit five people on the hood of this car! Man, didn’t things just make sense back then? Today’s cars are bodied in steel so thin that if you sink your bottom onto a hood, you will dent it.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

But those wistful memories can’t mask the truth: you’re safer in any modern car than in this one. And it’s not just that this old Ford lacks airbags and has only lap belts. Fords of this vintage were famous for sloppy handling, making it hard to quickly steer to avoid a crash. And the brakes are drums all around, subject to fast fading during a hard stop. Oh, and see that steering wheel? It’s mounted to a rigid steering column. In a head-on crash, it becomes a missile that smashes into your face. In modern cars, that column collapses on impact. Also, in modern cars a safety cage frames the entire interior to resist crushing in a crash. That thin exterior sheet metal, along with everything else outside that safety cage, is designed to absorb impact and keep you alive and intact. If you had a serious accident in a ’66 Ford, the car would crush in, and you would absorb the impact. The safety advantages of modern cars are well documented; check out this head-on crash between a 1959 and a 2009 car to see it in action.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

When we look back on the past, we often fall prey to nostalgic preferences and the fading affect bias. In other words, we tend to remember the past’s good parts and forget the bad. It’s human nature to forget that in a crash, an old car like a 1966 Ford would cheerfully maim or kill you, and that far fewer people die in crashes per mile traveled today than 50 years ago.

But this forgetting tends to make us think whatever bad things are happening now have sunk society to new lows. We live in a time of great national economic uncertainty, racial unrest, and global terrorism. The specter of authoritarianism and fascism has risen in this year’s Presidential election. We have a right to be worried, angry, and even afraid. But think back to any time in the past and consider national and world events then. Racial tension has always been with us and has led to violence at various times in our history. Terrorism has been going on for years, but until the last 15 years or so it was largely a problem only in the rest of the world. Our government, a magnet for narcissists, has always contained people who have committed crimes and immoral acts. And at various times in our collective memory, we’ve been at war, or in economic recession or depression.

Life is like riding a roller coaster. While you’re on it, it’s scary. You don’t know what is coming: tall loops, long drops, hard turns. Yet when it’s over, we look in a new light at the parts that scared us. Retroactively, we find them to be exhilarating — or, at least for those of us who don’t enjoy roller coasters, safely completed. What was unknown is now known and our minds reframe the experience accordingly.

We look upon past times like roller coasters we’ve ridden: reframed based on what we know now, viewed through nostalgic preferences and fading effect bias.

We face very real perils and need to address them squarely. But perils have always existed. Now is not necessarily worse than any time in history.

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