Weekend update

It took a few days for the shock of Rana’s death to pass. Then I was very tired for a few more days — I slept 9 or 10 hours a night and needed a nap every afternoon. That’s passed, and now I’m spending my time finding things to do that take my mind off this staggering loss.

Nikon N90s, 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor, Ilford HP5+ at EI 1600, HC-110 B

I took the week off from the blog, which is why there’s no Recommended Reading today. It’ll probably return next week.

My company gave me two weeks off to grieve, rest, and recover. I wasn’t sure at first that I’d take it all. When my dad died, I took no time off. That was different, though. I knew for months that his time was short, and I’d processed through a lot of losing him before he died. Losing Rana was entirely unexpected and I don’t believe I would have been capable of working.

I did test the waters a little on Thursday. I had an interview scheduled for an open position on my team and I went ahead and did it. I also scheduled an hour with my boss to catch up. I got through them, but afterward I was surprisingly exhausted by the interaction.

So I’m going to take my company up on the second week off they’ve offered. I’ve nothing to do — Rana’s mom handled making all of the arrangements (obituary here) and as far as I know they’re done. All that’s left for me is to show up at the memorial service on Saturday.

I must go. I need to go. But since the divorce I’ve deliberately separated my life from my ex-wife and her family. I’m going to see some or all of them again for the first time since 2004 under these horrible circumstances, and I feel some trepidation over it.

Essay, Photography, Travel

How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

First published 3 June 2016. I suppose every American has some baggage around 9/11, even those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we were in New York I couldn’t figure out how I felt about visiting the new World Trade Center and the neighboring memorial. Ambivalence gave way to curiosity, which yielded to revulsion. Then ambivalence returned and stayed. But visiting the site was on the must-do list for Margaret’s teenagers, who accompanied us. So off we went.

World Trade Center

I took just a few photos, and only these two are worth a darn. Above is the new World Trade Center, and below is the waterfall in the north pool of the memorial site directly to the south.

9/11 memorial

These photos offer no connection to the place. This could be any tall building; this could be any man-made waterfall. I think it’s because I didn’t want to be connected to this place. And the memorial felt sterile to me.

We walked from there a couple blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel. Margaret knew only that it was a 1766 church among the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and that therefore she wanted to see it. We didn’t know its special, critical connection to the aftermath of 9/11.

St. Paul's Chapel

We learned that for eight months St. Paul’s Chapel was an aid and comfort station for everyone working the recovery. The building was open around the clock; volunteers fed and prayed with the workers and various doctors came to tend to their medical needs. Musicians even came to play for everyone.

Despite being so close to the collapsed towers, St. Paul’s survived without even a broken window.

St. Paul's Chapel

Even though this is still a functioning church with services every Sunday, memorial panels full of photographs line the north wall inside. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had hoped to get away from my feelings about 9/11 by just enjoying and photographing the architecture here. The only photos I took of the memorials are two photos of patches from police and fire forces around the world. They were sent here in a show of solidarity and mourning for their injured and dead comrades.

St. Paul's Chapel

The rest of my photographs were typical-of-me architecture shots, trying to record a solid sense of this building. Back in Indiana there are no buildings from 1766. It was a great joy to experience this one.

St. Paul's Chapel

It is a lovely church, perfectly maintained in every detail.

St. Paul's Chapel

We stepped out back and found a graveyard. In New York as in Indiana, churches used to bury their dead out back. It was surreal to see these very old gravestones amid the towering buildings all around. It was even more surreal to learn that in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was the tallest building in the city. I loved imagining a time when that would have been true. Apparently, the church was surrounded by orchards!

St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel is a stunning building. But I recognized that because I couldn’t escape 9/11 here, I wasn’t connecting to it in the ways I normally would. And then I came upon the bell.

St. Paul's Chapel

It was a gift from the city of London to the city of New York after the attack, a symbol of friendship and solidarity across the oceans. This is where it all connected for me: this tragedy had worldwide reach, and it affected everyone who heard of it. There’s no shame that my feelings about 9/11 remain unsettled, uncertain. I cried here for a minute, quietly.

I shot my Canon S95 raw, which meant a lot of post-processing in Photoshop when I got home. It takes a little time to tweak each photograph for its best look. It gave me time to process not only my feelings about our visit to these sites but also more of my feelings about 9/11 itself. While processing photos, I slowly reviewed the day and thought about each scene, including those I didn’t photograph. That time and space to think, alone in my quiet home office, let me find a little more peace.

One photograph I didn’t take was of one of the pews. A few years ago St. Paul’s removed most of its pews, replacing them with individual chairs arranged in a U. But a couple pews remained in the back. In this church so perfectly maintained, the pews were gashed and gouged and chewed up — by the heavy shoes and gear of the recovery workers who rested on them. These pews remain as a memorial.

It was emotionally difficult to follow the news stories of the recovery work in the months following the attack. I dealt with it by dissociating from it. But seeing those gouged pews made those people and their experiences real. And so I don’t need a photograph of those pews; I’ll never forget them.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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Why I published my new photo book on Amazon

I experimented on several fronts publishing my new photo book on Amazon.

I published my previous photo books (Exceptional Ordinary and Textures of Ireland) on Blurb, because that service is made to create, publish, and sell beautiful photo books. The print quality is very good. Their tools for creating books are so-so, as I learned when I produced Exceptional Ordinary. The layout controls were limited, and the tool was clunky to use. I made Textures of Ireland in Microsoft Word because I am highly skilled with it. Regardless of how I produced these books, they both turned out very well.

Available now – click the image to learn more and to get your copy

My big problem with Blurb is that their price for printing a single book is pretty high. To keep printing costs down, I use their least expensive option, the magazine format. Unfortunately, that limits me to the 8½x11 form factor. I’d prefer to use a form factor that fits the way I want to tell my story through photos. But other form factors have far higher printing costs at Blurb.

My first two photo books sold modestly. I think there are several reasons why, but I think their prices ($14.99 at launch) are one of those reasons. Pricing is a black art that I’m only starting to understand. But I have a theory, and it’s this: Books like these are a casual purchase, or a purchase that someone might make simply because they enjoy and want to support my work. Such a purchase needs to be priced to strike a balance: high enough to show that the book has value, but low enough not to feel expensive.

I wanted to experiment with a price of $9.99 to see if it would strike that balance, but still let me earn a couple bucks per copy. Amazon’s lower costs let me do it.

What I didn’t know was whether Amazon could print my photographs well. My Blurb books are beautiful. The photographs have good contrast and tonality. But Amazon optimized for printing books that are mostly text. Would Amazon be able to deliver good photo quality?

No, it turns out. The images are low in contrast, showing lots of middle grays but no deep blacks. Thankfully, it’s a passably good look, and it happens to suit this book’s subject matter. If you didn’t know I wasn’t fully pleased with it, you might think I meant the photos to look that way.

To be fair, I chose the least expensive paper option to keep costs down. It’s a mid-weight paper optimized for text printing. Amazon offers better papers, but they would have nudged printing costs up, threatening that $9.99 price.

As I did with my last book on Blurb, I created Vinyl Village in Microsoft Word. It’s not as flexible as a good desktop publishing tool, but for the simple layout I used it worked fine. If I had wanted a more complicated layout, I would have had to buy and learn a desktop publishing tool. Amazon doesn’t care what tool you use to make the book as long as it can output a print-ready PDF, and Word does that easily. That PDF is what you upload to Amazon.

The simple interior layout of Vinyl Village made Word a not unreasonable layout tool.

I used Adobe Photoshop to make the cover. Amazon gives you a cover template that fits your book’s form factor and thickness, and you lay out your cover on it. Again, Amazon requires a print-ready PDF of your cover file. Photoshop can output those natively.

There you have it: why I used Amazon to publish Vinyl Village. If you’d like a copy, click here for more information.

My photo essay book, Vinyl Village, is available!
Click here to learn more and get a copy!


Announcing my new photo book, Vinyl Village

My new book is now available!

It’s a photo essay about the suburban neighborhood I live in — a vinyl village. That’s where the title comes from: Vinyl Village. It’s a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the point of view of many, many walks I took through the neighborhood studying it closely.

The book is available worldwide on Amazon:

If your country isn’t listed, go to your country’s Amazon site and search for Jim Grey “Vinyl Village”. If that doesn’t work, try the URL, where you replace the XX with your country’s domain.

I’m pleased to be able to price Vinyl Village at just $9.99. (It’s priced equivalently in other countries.) Publishing on Amazon is key to me being able to offer the book at this price. Amazon takes a much smaller cut than services like Blurb, which I have used in the past. I’ll write more about my experience publishing a photo book on Amazon in a future post.

– – –

“Vinyl village” is a pejorative term for the kind of suburban neighborhood I live in: curved streets filled with frame houses, all swathed in vinyl with some brick decoration. Generally, the houses are built to a minimum standard. They are up to code, but in the least expensive possible way.

But the book isn’t about construction standards. It’s about the way the houses are built to be attractive from the front, but the sides and the back are huge swaths of vinyl interrupted only by the occasional, randomly placed window. It’s also about how the houses are arranged on the land, revealing the vinyl-slathered sides and backs of dozens and dozens of houses and making private back yards hard to come by. Finally, it’s about the high-voltage power lines and the petroleum pipeline that run through, and the Interstate highway that borders it.

For a neighborhood that has this many challenges, it sure has no trouble attracting residents. Houses for sale here frequently sell the day they’re listed. It’s rare for one to stay on the market longer than a week. It’s because this neighborhood is the least expensive way to own a home in what is otherwise a wealthy suburb with well-regarded schools. Few of us get to live in our dream homes. We find the best situation our finances allow, and if we are fortunate, we like it well enough.

Come take a look at my neighborhood. It’s so quintessentially American.

More details, and how to get your copy, at Midnight Star Press here.

My photo essay book, Vinyl Village, is available!
Click here to learn more and get a copy!


Thoughts on digital files vs. prints for archiving photographs

We’ve had several lengthy discussions in the comments here about which is the best way to make sure your archive of photographs survives the ages: digital files or prints.

I think it’s a tempest in a teapot, because it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone will care about our photographs a generation from now.

You might be able to make some of your photographs last. Print them, frame them, and give them away as gifts. If you’re able to find or make a market for your work, sell some of your prints. People tend to keep the art that hangs on their walls.

But that will likely represent a small fraction of your output. What about the thousands of other images you’ve made in your lifetime?

The sad truth is that you are almost certainly not the next Ansel Adams, Henri Carter-Bresson, or Annie Liebovitz. It’s unlikely that someone will discover your work one day like it’s a treasure trove, a la Vivian Maier.

Even if your photos feature generations of family, soon nobody alive will remember the people in them. Your children, if you have any, might enjoy keeping a small selection of family photos after you die. If you’re lucky, your grandchildren will want a couple of them.

Because most your images are unlikely to survive the generations, I claim that it doesn’t matter how you keep them. Store them as digital files, as prints, or both. You just have to be intentional about it and do the requisite work.

Digital files

A scan of one of my negatives from July, 1982

“But file formats will become obsolete!” That’s a specious argument. The JPEG has existed since 1992; the TIFF since 1993. Because technology changes incredibly fast, any digital format that survives 30 years is essentially permanent. Software will be able to display and manipulate our photographs in their current formats until after we all die.

Even if JPEG and TIFF were superseded, there will be software that lets us convert our files to new formats. It will be a boring job, but we will be able to do it.

Your bigger worry by far is a hard-drive crash. A good backup practice can eliminate your risk. I back up to an external hard drive and to a cloud storage provider. Every time I add, change, or remove a file, software on my computer instantly doubly backs it up. When my main hard drive failed a few years ago, I lost no files. Also, your backups make it easy to move your files when you buy a new computer, as you must every so many years.

You will also want to add notes to your photo files to remember key information about them. I store camera, lens, and film, as well as a description of what and/or who I photographed. At least on Windows, you can do this right from the operating system, no special software necessary. It’s easy, but tedious.

You will also need to create some sort of system for storing and searching your photos. I store mine in folders by year, and then by date/roll of film. I should have started using Lightroom or a similar program to tag them all from the beginning so I can search them and find individual images. I didn’t, and now I have an enormous job ahead of me someday.


If you choose to print your photos, you will want to choose a good-quality printer or printing service so the images last. Inexpensive prints, such as those from the drug store, are likely to fade sooner. You will want to write details on each photograph, and then store them in acid-free boxes, probably separated with acid-free interleaving paper.

You probably won’t print everything you photograph, as storage will soon become a problem. For this reason, I print and store only the small fraction of photos I like the most.

Because a flood or a fire would destroy your prints, consider printing doubles and storing the copies at a different site.

Passing on your work

After I’m gone, I hope that my children will keep at least some of my printed photographs, maybe even frame one or two of them to display in their homes. Printing and storing only my favorite work will make it much easier on them to do this — they will pick through a few hundred prints, rather than tens of thousands of digital files.

I could also store my favorite work on a thumb drive or special external hard drive for that purpose. Make it two, with one stored offsite, in case something happens to the first one.

But whichever I choose, I have to keep after it, and make sure the chosen images make their way into my children’s hands after I go.

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Comparing the Canon PowerShot S95 to the Apple iPhone 12 mini camera

This may not be the most useful post in the world, because who other than me regularly shoots these two cameras? Who knows, maybe this post will end up ranked #1 on Google for “Canon PowerShot S95 vs. Apple iPhone 12 mini” for the five people a year who might do that search.

But on my Ride Across Indiana, I sometimes made a photo of something with both cameras as I thought I might want to use the image for that night’s blog post and to share with friends on social media. I didn’t have any way to get photos off the S95 and into my phone.

Every digital camera makes decisions in its software about how to render a scene. It’s fascinating to me how differently these two cameras manage the light.

In each of these pairs, the Canon S95 photo is first. I’ve done light post-processing on all of these photos but they are not substantially changed from how they came from the camera. Sometimes I tried to zoom the iPhone and the S95 to the same extent, and sometimes I didn’t.

I notice three main differences: the iPhone tends to pull out shadow detail to the point of flattening scenes, the iPhone over-sharpens everything, and the S95 is far more likely to blow out highlights.

1: Old alignment of the National Road west of Dunreith

National Road west of Dunreith
National Road west of Dunreith

2: Indiana Statehouse.

Indiana Statehouse
Indiana Statehouse

3: My bike by an abandoned bridge west of Plainfield.

Abandoned US 40 bridge west of Plainfield
Abandoned US 40 bridge

4: Rising Hall in western Hendricks County.

Rising Hall on US 40
Rising Hall on US 40

5: Old house in Putnam County.

Old house on US 40, Putnam Co.
Old house on US 40, Putnam Co.

6: Bypassed US 40 bridge, Putnam County.

Old US 40 concrete alignment with bridge, Putnam Co.
Old US 40 concrete alignment with bridge

It’s great to have a capable camera in my pocket all the time. But I think I prefer the S95 shots every single time.

I wish I still had my old iPhone 6s — I don’t remember its camera doing such aggressive processing.