Each negative holds a thousand photographs

I’ve been increasingly interested in seeing printed photographs, especially from the acknowledged master photographers. And so while Margaret and I were in Chicago recently we visited the Art Institute and its photography exhibit.

A print of W. Eugene Smith’s Madness moved me deeply. I’d never before seen this famous image of a woman in a Hatian mental institution, her face emerging from a sea of black, her eyes searching and frantic. I stood astonished for several minutes before this photograph, scanning for detail, reading the woman’s face, trying to determine what she felt and thought. Was she simply, as the title suggests, mad? Or was she simply frightened, or struggling to find her way? Even in the fraction of a second this image captured, it’s hard to tell.


The Art Institute’s print is astonishing. The paper’s velvety finish turned the dark into an enveloping night that threatened to consume the woman. Her face appeared as though it lay inches below the paper’s surface, as if you’d have to reach into the print to touch her.

You can’t tell any of that from this dreadful scan, which I lifted directly from the Art Institute’s site (here). Not only is it marred by white specks not present in the print, but those velvety blacks have turned muddy, tepid gray. This scan loses all of the print’s punch.

And that’s on my monitor. It might look different on yours. Yet if  you traveled to the Art Institute to see the print, it would look the same to you as it did to me.

The paper was just one choice Smith made in the darkroom. Another was the amount and placement of the light he chose to shine through the negative. Consider the image below, which I found on this page and is said to have been published in this book of Smith’s work. I believe it to be from the same negative as above, given how the woman’s expression appears to be exactly the same. This digital image reveals information on that negative that never made it into the Art Institute’s print.


Which image is true? Both. Or neither. Is there a truth in photography? Any finished image largely represents the many choices a photographer makes from the moment he or she decides to expose a negative.

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Do any of your photographs hang in your home?

John Smith shared a favorite photo on his blog recently (here) and said it was the only one he’s taken that hangs in his home.

Like him, I’m perfectly happy to view my work on my computer. But I do have six photographs framed and hanging in my home. These:

Bridgeton Covered Bridge Canadian River Bridge
Old US 36 Old US 36
Early autumn sunrise, almost Indianapolis Ford F-500 fire truck

The bridge (and Bridge Out) photos hang in my home office. I love old bridges and like these photos and thought they’d make a nice series. My prints are all 8x10s, though, and cropped to fit.


The silhouetted tree hangs because I printed and framed it for a contest, which to my surprise it won. I had a spare spot on my hallway wall so after the contest that’s where I put it. It, too, is an 8×10. I had uploaded the cropped version to Flickr and so that’s what you see in this post.

The Ford photo hangs in my bathroom. After I remodeled that room several years ago a bare spot on the wall seemed just right for some sort of hanging, but nothing seemed right until I took this photo. The red of the fire truck’s body is the same shade of red I used in bathroom accessories. So I printed it 4×6, framed it, and hung it in that spot.

I get my frames at Walmart, of all places. They have a surprisingly good selection, and quality is reasonable.

Which photographs that you’ve taken hang in your home? Tip: If you paste into your comment a complete URL to a Flickr page, or a complete URL to an image file (a file ending in .jpg or .png or .gif), the image will appear in the comment for all to see!

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No photographic experiment is a failure

Cutting the grass

While this is certainly not a great photograph, it is important in my development as a photographer. Because it was an experiment.

I had paused in my mowing, and the scene looked interesting. So I got my iPhone out of my pocket and opened the camera app. I’ve left it set on square format lately, so I went with it for this shot. I moved around the scene for several seconds looking for good framing. When I thought I’d found it I touched the shutter button.

It’s not everything I thought it could be. I hoped the uncut portion of the grass would stand out more. I hoped for a greater foreshortening effect on the mower’s handlebar. I wish I had turned the phone slightly so the top edge of the uncut grass was parallel to the frame’s top edge. And in the original image the mower body would have been better placed on a rule-of-thirds intersection. I cropped slightly to achieve it.

I’ve made a lot of photographs over the last ten years or so. Early on each photo I made was tinged with the fear of a bad frame.

Now I know I was overthinking each shot. Because when I got my first phone with a passable camera I soon realized I could take photos anytime, anywhere, essentially for free. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry anymore about a bad frame. And so I began photographing anything that seemed remotely interesting.

Snow-covered Caddy

This snow-covered Caddy was an early (2010!) experiment with my old Palm Pre’s camera. It’s not a truly great image, and it reveals some of that camera’s limitations. Yet I liked it. Still do. It encouraged me to keep experimenting.

By remaining devoted to such free experimentation I’ve been able to relax when the photography isn’t free, and when I really want it to count: when I drop film into one of my vintage cameras. There are two reasons.

First, through phone camera experimentation I’ve learned a lot of things that don’t work. So my success rate is higher.

And second, I’ve learned to relax. A bad image is no big deal, not really, even when I’m shooting something expensive like Impossible Project instant film and each photo costs me $3.

Every experiment moves me forward. I examine each photo as critically as I can. I try to emulate what I admire in others’ work. I try to take away something I’ll do differently next time.

How have you gotten better as a photographer?


Serious statue

Serious statue
Canon A2e, 50mm f/1.8 Canon EF
Fujicolor 200

This statue is in a courtyard at the Episcopal church over on Meridian St.


In the bay at Rosses Point, Ireland, is this statue of a woman stretching her arms out toward the sea. Called Waiting on Shore, it was installed in 2002 to honor the women who used to wait for their men to return from their work at sea. Sometimes, those men didn’t make it home.

Waiting on Shore

Waiting on Shore

Waiting on Shore

Waiting on Shore

Photography, Road Trips

Waiting on Shore


The Bean

What a beautiful spring weekend my son and I had been spending in Chicago — sunny but not too warm. We did all the touristy stuff, from visiting the museums to looking at the city from the top of the John Hancock building to eating deep-dish pizza and drinking Old Style beer. (My son skipped the beer, having just turned 13.) We slept in an ornate grand hotel.

We checked out of our hotel after breakfast, backpacks carrying all of our gear, and emerged onto streets surprisingly sparse of people. Fog had fallen, cloaking the skyscraper tops. In Millennium Park we came upon Cloud Gate, the giant chrome bean. It reflected the fog as a blank canvas, waiting for the city to reemerge.

The Bean in the fog • Canon PowerShot S80 • May, 2010


Favorite Photos Week: The Bean in the fog