Tag Archives: photographic landscape art

Little Inaka

When my son was born in 2008, I still had a fair bit of freedom. It was a good year for earnings from photography and writing and I was beginning in earnest to complete my book project on the Japan Alps. When I was away, my wife took our infant son to her parents’ home.

In 2010 things changed. My wife became pregnant with our second child and it was not so easy for her to bring our growing boy to her parents’ house as there was not enough space and he was restless. I wrapped up my book project a little early, managed a few more hikes and a trip abroad to attend my sister’s wedding. After that, my adventures seemed to have come to an end, at least for the time being.

Not wanting to give up photography entirely, I began a project of shooting locally. I purchased a used DSLR and chose some places that were within reach. I would wake up in the early morning and go out somewhere to shoot, trying to make it home by 7:30 to help get ready for the day. Three years later, my son entered elementary school and I had to be home by 6:45. We moved house and autumn brought later sunrises. My three years of early morning photography were also temporarily wrapped up. I had, however, amassed a few hundred photographs or more and set about putting them into a book. The result is this: Little Inaka.

The locations are the Sakitama Burial Mounds in Gyoda City, Hatcho Park in Yoshimi Town, a rural area in Higashi Matsuyama City, and a rural area straddling Ina Town and Ageo City. All places are in Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

IF

A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City

The Climber Within

When I was 12 years old, I went to a week-long summer camp event – five days and one weekend overnight. On the first day I caught sight of a beautiful blonde girl about my age or a year older. Throughout the week, any chance I got I tried to get near her to interact with her. On the last day she sat in front of me on the bus and I managed to spark up an animated conversation with her. Her stop was one stop before mine and mine was the last stop. As we neared her stop I tried to sum up the courage to ask for her phone number. But I did not. And she disembarked and summarily went out of my life.

Twenty-nine years later I doubt that getting her phone number would have made any big difference in my life now. But from that experience I learned (in retrospect years later) that when the time is now you have to act. Otherwise you watch the pretty blonde walk away and out of your life.

Grass and shadows at Yunoko

February 11, 2012. My 41st birthday. My wife has begrudgingly agreed to let me out of the house, even though I say that if it were not a national holiday I would be at work until late anyway. There’s no climbing mountains or photographing landscapes when out with the family, only shooting pictures of the kids. Last year I went out only twice and this year I’d like visit the mountains at least three times. My wife complains that I am free while she is stuck minding the children. But I don’t feel free knowing there is great pressure for me to make the most out of this single day. The question that has nagged me since I realized I would get a three-day weekend was whether this should be a photography outing with the possibility of a climb or a climbing outing with some photography. Last year’s trips to Tateshinayama and Ryogamisan produced few usable images because I was on the move most of the time. My submissions to Yama-to-Keikoku calendars have produced no published winners in the last three years and I have run out of “fresh” material to submit. And I gave my stock agency all my work from 2008 to 2011 that they had not yet received. In short, I have next to nothing in fresh material, and a hike to the summit means making fewer photographs, therefore, I should choose the spend time photographing over climbing in order to have photographs to submit. That’s the logic, anyway.

My target terrain is the area known as Oku Nikko. Beyond Chuzenjiko (Lake Chuzenji) and between the mountains of Nantaisan and Nikko Shiranesan lies the wetland of Senjogahara and the steaming hot spring-fed lake of Yunoko. This was where I have decided to spend my day, keeping the possibility of climbing Nantaisan seriously up front. I left home at 3:30 and arrived at Senjogahara well before sunrise. The weather report said temperatures would be between -9 and -5 degrees in Nikko, but I am quite a bit above the city, at over 1,300 metres. The air is pretty chill and even with a few layers of clothing on and a woollen hat covered by a hood I feel the cold. I set up my 4×5 camera on the viewing deck and use a bench as a Stairmaster to keep myself warm inside while waiting for sunrise. When the light does appear, it is to either side of my composition. It seems the sun is rising behind Nantaisan which looms behind me. I manage a few shots in 35mm and one composition in 4×5 before packing it in. Now what? Climb Nantaisan or head over to Yunoko?

Winter beauty at Yunoko

It is not yet 8 A.M. and so I drive to Yunoko. In the background, a white mountaintop draws my attention. I feel the compulsion to get up there! Imagine the photographs to be captured with snowbound trees in the foreground and the rockier parts of the mountain coated in thick white. I approach the ski run with snowshoes in hand. Is there a way to go up the mountain from the ski run? A sign says that there is, but I imagine the slow climb in the snow and the time it will take and figure that I would be better off trying to shoot more photographs. Instead I decide to walk around Yunoko and shoot the sunlight in the steam coming off the lake. But the route around the lake is closed due to heavy snow.

I return to Senjogahara and seek out a good viewpoint of the mountains east and southeast. The snowshoes come on and I follow a cross country trail to a promising spot where I then leave the trail and began pushing deep holes into the soft snow.

Senjogahara with the trunk of Nantaisan on the right

I struggle with the scenery. It is beautiful but not coming together for me in the viewfinder. It’s hard work getting the right composition in 4×5. I tramp about in the snow, scouting for a better foreground, at last returning to the trail. Somewhere there is a great scene here but I can’t find it. By now it is nearing noon. I had said that if I were to attempt Nantaisan I would start at 10:00 o’clock at the latest. It is already too late and I am still not feeling that I have found that special place where I can easily lose myself and emerge with a heap of satisfactorily exposed film. At last I stomp down a depression in the snow just of the trail and shoot Nantaisan as seen from between two white birch trees.

Wind blowing through trees at Yunoko

Not sure what they were doing but they were carrying what looked like oxygen tanks and making holes in the ice

From Lake Chuzenji, Nantaisan looks like a neat conical heap of a mountain. It doesn’t look very high because the lake is at about half the elevation of the mountain. Simply, the mountain fails to inspire me to climb it. However, from this other view at Senjogahara, I can see how the volcanic crater had burst apart with a stream of lava on one side. From this view the mountain looks exciting. I am starting to feel a strong urge to get up on Nantaisan; the long arm of one side of the broken crater looks totally accessible. By now I have also learned to distinguish which peak is the summit of Oku Shiranesan. This mountain too, of which I knew nothing prior to coming, is looking very attractive in its mantle of white. But a winter mountain is not something one climbs as a quick jaunt up and down. It’s a project that takes hours. It takes three times longer to climb a route in winter than it does in summer. That much I know is sensible calculating. I am not going to get up very far on Shiranesan, and Nantaisan was said to be a short but gruelling climb. I have to remind myself that this is a photography outing by my own choosing and that climbing will have to wait for another day.

Ice at Ryuzu Falls

I go to visit Ryuzu Falls and shoot ice formations on the rocks. It is engaging photography and I experiment with multiple exposures while turning the focusing ring. Sunlight glittering off the ice formations becomes constellations of light in my viewfinder. But it is while running up the steps to the next terrace of the falls that it occurs to me that I am getting exercise for the first time today. As my heart pumps I feel the joy of physical exercise. I don’t like exercising for the purpose of exercising but getting a workout while climbing is a pleasure. Again I look back to Nantaisan.

Ice at Chuzenjiko

The last hour of my visit is spent around Lake Chuzenji just driving and exploring and looking back at the mountains. The wind here is viciously Hibernian. Water from the lake is freezing on the dock pilings. I look at the two mountains and consider how it would be to climb one on one day and the other the next day over a weekend. If I were a single man without a family I could come back the next week or later in the month. But these two mountains will have to wait longer for me.

Shiranesan from Chuzenjiko

Once down from the spaghetti noodle road of Irohazaka, I catch glimpses of Nantaisan in my mirror. Whenever I completed a hike in the past, I would always look back at the mountain whose summit I had just visited as much as possible while walking or driving away. But there is no sense of accomplishment when I looked at Nantaisan. I had not been to the summit and I was unable to content myself by thinking that I had chosen to make this a photo outing. I wonder what views I might have captured from the summit of Nantai. This was more than just photography. I needed to feel I had at least attempted to climb a mountain. But why was that so important? Twenty years ago it was all about getting the photographs. In the last few years, however, it has become more about reaching the top. The mountain is a challenge to climb. It does not care one way or another about who climbs it. But for someone like me, a mountain – a least one of these minor league proportions – offers me a chance to challenge myself, to climb over my own internal mountains. To reach the summit means that I have beaten any voices inside me that whined about physical strain, exerted muscles, a heavy pack, or cold wind. Life is not a beach. It is a mountain. And every time I reach a summit I feel satisfaction with myself. “I did it again!”

But I didn’t do it this time and more than ever I feel I have to get back to Nantaisan and Shiranesan. And so it has me thinking – though I have always maintained that I don’t need to climb all 100 Hyakumeizan, there’s nothing wrong with trying to climb more. Climbing them gives me an opportunity to visit mountains outside of the Alps upon which I focused nearly all my photographic efforts in the last few years. I have climbed 31 of the 100 by now. Could I reach 50 by the age of 50? That would mean 2 or 3 mountains a year over the next 9 years. Totally possible. I could make a list and begin planning. I could still expect to get lots of photographs. Hmm… The big question is what would the wife think? And is it fair for me to think of solely my own personal ambitions while she stays home minding the often difficult-to-handle children? At least with photography I can say I am working. But then again, the money earned from photography has until now gone towards paying for photography. Could I possibly get some good stories to write about as a climber? I sure think so.

It seems that somehow over the recent years, I have grown beyond just hiking and photographing. Now I really need to get up mountains. I can’t look at an attractive mountain without thinking how I would get to the summit. Somehow a climber has grown within. I don’t need to play in the big leagues. Even the little league summits can help me enjoy life more.

Nantaisan from Chuzenjiko

This Little Corner – A Photo Book

A Concept is Born

On many warm spring and summer days during my late teens, I sat outside on a lawn chair with a book of British Columbian or Canadian landscape photographs opened on my lap, my eyes taking their time to savour the natural beauty presented on each page. In the early mornings when I rode about the neighbourhood delivering newspapers, I made plans to visit various places in southern British Columbia and hoped to someday soon see a book come together of my photographs. The title would be This Little Corner.

As my photography skills grew and my subjects turned from the planned landscape views and geological wonders towards nature scenes and intimate landscapes, the idea for my first book changed into a book of nature photographs along the lines of Eliot Porter’s In Wildness is the Preservation of the World. Time went on and I had many ideas, but in the end I left Canada without any book being published.

Some 23 years after the book’s conception, I decided to revive the idea as I sat down in the autumn of 2010 and went over a list of ideas for my next photo book with blurb.com. There were many ideas: New Zealand’s South Island, mountains of the world, geologic art, the Canadian Prairies, autumn in the Canadian Maritimes, travel photographs from 12 countries… the list went on. Though any of those ideas would have been a pleasure to bring into reality, at the time I was becoming homesick for the mountains and nature of British Columbia and I decided that my next book would be my first book idea ever.

Scanning Nightmares

A rough selection of photographs was made and then they were organized into a rudimentary theme which in turn dictated how the photographs would be grouped and which ones would be culled or replaced. At last I brought the winners to the store for scanning. I requested the same Kodak scanning process as I had for the Japan Alps photographs. Two weeks later, I viewed the scans on my computer and was disturbed to find many foregrounds or backgrounds out of focus. Though many photographs were from my first years of photographing with slide film, I knew those images should not have been out of focus. I had been a stickler for employing hyper focal distance and even gave a brief lecture once at my local camera club about it. But when the vertical slides showed the same out of focus areas but this time across the foreground and background (i.e. along the side of the slide and not the bottom or top) it became apparent that the trouble was with the scanning and not my photography.

I brought the slides back and had them rescanned at no charge but once again most images were not sharp throughout. I also noticed that the colours of some images had changed, some for better others for worse. After a third try there were still so many images that were unusable that I gave up and put the project on hold. I later tried another camera store outfit’s service which did not scan at as high a resolution but the resulting scans came out sharp. Was this going to be good enough?

The Test Copy

The next big project was creating the map of Southwestern BC by tracing a printout of a map and then drawing in my own details – mountains, cities, etc. I scanned it at work and spent some time colouring it in on my computer. With the map ready and the text having been prepared in the early stages of the project, I was finally ready to upload the book and order a test copy.

I was both pleasantly surprised and dissatisfied with the result. The cover photo and text were not centred and in fact the cover image bleed around the edge to the inside cover. This was not how I had designed it. Also the dust jacket was not cut straight and fit poorly on the cover. But this I could chalk up as a single mistake because I had printed over 15 copies of the Japan Alps and had no such problems.

Inside the book, the Kodak scans came out either acceptably or with glaringly obvious focusing issues. The other scans, however, were surprisingly sharp and with good colour. In fact, they came out sharper than most of the images in the Japan Alps book. I decided that it would be best to check all the photographs and any that was of dubious or disastrous reproduction quality would get rescanned. I also scrutinized the text for spelling, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation errors. I found a couple of dozen small errors and fixed them up. The new scans replaced the failed images and once again the book was ready for uploading.

Now I am waiting to receive the fruits of all my labour and after a year the book project is finally completed.

This book is a collection of images I made from 1989 to 1999 and in 2005 in Southwestern British Columbia, Canada. The book is divided into five chapters: Journey, Valley, Shore, Mountain, and Beyond. Journey is mostly text documenting my journey from that first roll of slide film to leaving for Japan in 1999. Valley features photographs captured in and around the Fraser Valley, mostly nature and intimate landscapes. Shore is a smaller collection of sea shore scenes. Mountain is mountain landscapes and mountain nature captured in the local North Shore Mountains as well as in many of the big provincial parks in the area, particularly Garibaldi Provincial Park. Beyond takes a peek at some of the landscapes east of the Southwestern BC border, places where semi-arid environments create desert-like landscapes and a trip across the Coast Mountains leads to the rain shadow. The book is 120 pages and available in hard cover or soft cover and with standard paper or the higher quality lustre paper at blurb.com.

Desert Storm – Part Two

A Brief Encounter with Zion National Park

The thousand-metre high cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park had been familiar to me in photographs since I was in junior high school. Landmarks such as the Patriarchs, the West Temple, and the Great White Throne often showed up in books of natural wonders of the western United States and in photo publications I enjoyed. Zion was appropriately named because it was in all respects for me sacred ground. Here was where several chapters in the long history of Mother Earth were opened up to read in spectacular cliffs, canyons, buttes, and caps. In addition, here was the hallowed ground where so many great landscape photographers of the past and present set down their tripods and tripped their shutters.

From Saint George, Utah, the rocks beside the road were mostly red and weathered into peculiar sculptures that could resemble the petrified organs of some mammoth beast trapped in the strata of the earth. Turning off the I-15 at Hurricane, we left the fantastic red rock landscapes behind and drove past flat-topped table lands, many with layers of black basalt on top. Soon the West Temple came into view again loomed ever nearer. Then the road snuggled up close to the hills at Rockville and Springdale. I marvelled at the huge weathered blocks of sandstone that were tumbled and jammed into the small stream channels carving into the rock. Then at last the mountain-like red cliffs of the Watchman took a chunk out of the sky. It had been cloudy all morning but now the clouds were breaking into long tracks and moving to the north. I had heard of four consecutive days of rain up this way but it seemed the weather was turning around in our favour.

There was a $25 entrance fee for our vehicle but that covered all three of us too. A sign had said that the visitor centre parking lot was full; however, we found an open stall in the overflow parking. Though we had left at 7:30 it was now around noon. We had stopped for gas and a rest in Saint George but it had still taken us three and a half hours in total to reach the park. We decided to take the shuttle bus that ran up the canyon. The system was really convenient. The bus was free to ride and there were nine stops along the way including the visitor centre. One could get off the bus at any stop and then board another bus later and either continue up the canyon or catch a bus heading back down. The buses ran every six to eight minutes and ran from just after sunrise to after 9 pm. The buses all ran on propane, and the implementation of a shuttle bus system was meant to eliminate the chains of private vehicles belching exhaust into the canyon as the tourist traffic had increased significantly since the 1960s.

(It is ironic to think that in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Sierra Club was producing very large format photo art books, many of the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, in an effort to create public awareness of the need to preserve these beautiful and delicate environments. The result of greater public awareness was that more and more people came by car to see the parks and as in the case of Zion Canyon, the huge increase in vehicular traffic actually helped to deteriorate conditions in the park. Of course the Sierra Club is not responsible for this but I am sure their books did capture the minds of many people who otherwise might not have gone.)

We boarded a bus and as we drove past the red cliffs with white caps a recording played, explaining about the sights around and the history of the park and canyon. We went straight to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava and got off. The North Fork of the Virgin River comes out from the narrow canyon walls here and winds around a sandstone tower known as the Pulpit.

The Pulpit

Knowing my parents were not intending to stay long, I dashed to the river side and set up my view camera. It takes time to set up the camera and get the focus adjustments right, so I rushed while trying to make sure I got a good composition as well. Then I tried some 6×4.5 shots of the cliffs and the Pulpit and finally shot some 35mm scenes as well. After 25 minutes I found my parents sitting on a bench at the bus stop. “Did you get some good shots?” my father asked as he always does. I replied that I think I did but was only able to make maybe three or four compositions in total. We rode the bus to the stop at Big Bend and again I hurried to get something exposed on my film. We got out one more time at the Court of the Patriarchs stop and I dashed up to the viewpoint only to find it unsatisfactory. My parents came slowly up the path while I found what looked like a trail leading up higher. Ignoring the beginnings of a mild asthma attack (I always get these when I suddenly start running or walking quickly up steep trails) I ran up the sun-baked clay slope and soon found a clear patch where I could look over the trees to the three great towers of sandstone that were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a smaller tower known as Mount Moroni. All three cameras were put through the works before I packed up and went down to the bus stop where my parents were waiting again.

Two of the three Patriarchs - Abraham on the left and Isaac in the centre - and Mount Moroni on the right.

In truth, though the scenery of Zion was astounding in its beauty, I was finding it difficult to be truly astounded. Perhaps because I already knew of what to expect I felt I was only seeing in real life what I had seen so often in photographs. But I think it was more so because I didn’t have the chance to really set foot on the rock and soil and take a moment to simply observe the naturally beauty and let it stir me into action. Before long we were back at the visitor centre and looking through the books and various souvenirs. My parents bought a book/CD/DVD set for my son and were searching for something for my wife. They also bought a small photo book of Zion landscapes. I grabbed a Utah Rocks T-shirt with pictures of five of Utah’s most famous places for naturally sculpted rock and a calendar by David Pettit who was pictured on the back using the same Tachihara 4×5 that I have.

We sat outside under a clear blue sky and ate lunch, me with one eye on my watch because we were planning to go to Bryce Canyon next. It was when we had finished lunch my mom said that she felt there was no time to head on to Bryce Canyon and that we should head back to Las Vegas. It was only around four o’clock and I had heard it was only an hour more to Bryce. Sunset was just at seven. We still had time. But she said they had seen so much in Zion already and there was a long drive back to Vegas. If I really wanted to see Bryce I could go by myself the next day. I was in a way surprised that they could just stop like that and talk about heading back so early. For me, it was that I had just shaken hands with Zion and exchanged a few pleasantries but had not yet begun any intimate conversation. And Bryce had been a dream destination for me since my elementary school days when I enjoyed looking through geology books. But I understood that the day with my parents was meant to be a day with them and not my own day of exploration. The arrangement was that I would strike out on my own the next day and they had offered to lend me the rental car so that I wouldn’t have to rent my own.

After a bit of discussion, my father seemed to be in favour of trying for Bryce. My mother agreed without overt reluctance and we pressed on up to Canyon Junction where the road turned east to Bruce Canyon. Here we were immediately confronted by a road closure. A construction worker came over and explained the road was closed. We asked if there was another way to get to Bryce Canyon. He told us that we should go back to Hurricane and take the route north to Cedar City. From there we could get over to Bryce Canyon. I checked the map and saw that it was going to take a fair bit of extra time to circle all the way round like that. If we were lucky we’d get there around sunset and then have a very long drive back again. Instantly my desire to reach Bryce dissipated and I was all for heading back to Las Vegas without regret. There was nothing we could do. But those red towers of Zion Canyon reminded me that I still had a purpose were I to stay.

We stopped in Springdale for a moment and checked out a shop selling rocks and a photo gallery shared the building. I went in and saw on the walls some incredible photographs of Zion Canyon and some of the local semi-arid landscape scenery. The photographer was a young guy perhaps in his late twenties named Steffan (www.steffangallery.com). I asked him about his camera and he told me that he used a Wistia 4×5 and also a medium format camera sometimes too. His film preferences were Fujichrome Velvia and Ectachrome too. How wonderful it was to find another photographer who still pursued landscape photography with film and in large format too. As antiquated and almost obsolete as shooting film with a view camera may seem in today’s modern digital age, there were still professionals who wouldn’t abandon their 4x5s. Since I was planning to return in the morning and spend the day I asked his advice about where I should go. At first I wanted to visit the Emerald Pools and make the climb up to Angels Landing but his photographs of the Narrows – a place farther up the canyon where the 1,000-metre high cliffs closed in to within five metres apart – revived in my mind images of Eliot Porter’s from Glen Canyon, whose cliffs and amphitheatres now lie drowned in the waters of Lake Powell. Stephen totally recommended the hike up to the Narrows but said both the Emerald Pools and Angles Landing would be worth the effort. Likely there would be not enough time for all of them. We discussed his forthcoming book, printing processes, and the principles of capturing great images that didn’t require lots of post processing before I left his gallery and collected my parents for the ride back.

A short distance west of Springdale, looking southeast.

So, we turned around, and as the sun was sinking in the west and the sweet light was just beginning to touch up the landscape and photographers were just stirring from their mid-day sedentary pursuits, I began the long drive back to Las Vegas without the opportunity to enjoy shooting this unbelievable landscape in the warm light of late afternoon. Being the driver, I forced a few turn outs on local backroads until I found a decent view over sage brush and sand to some mesas in the distance. The landscape began to glow warmly as the sun edged its way toward the horizon. Then we drove on into the gathering evening and into the night. It was 12:30 by the time I got to bed after dinner in Las Vegas and a shower at the resort. My plan, now discussed with my parents, was set. Off to the Valley of Fire State Park at 5 am; leave there around 8:30 and head for Zion; stay until after sunset and drive back to Vegas; and then head over to Red Rock Canyon for the dawn shoot. I fell asleep quickly.

The Japan Alps photo book

The book arrived three weeks ago and I finally got a post up about it. Please see the Project: Sanmyaku post to read about how the book turned out or go to blurb.com to preview and order the book.

A Blurb Experience

Since about the age of 17 I have wanted to have a book of my photographs published. By now I can say that this has happened on several occasions, though all of these occasions have been through the wonders of self-publishing and POD – Publish On Demand – services mostly.

I first published a series of three small (A5) size books through a service called Digital Publishing, a division of Gakken. The quality was not bad though I was limited to 24 pages and 32 character spaces of text per caption with no other text possible. Next came my big projects Earth Tones and Earth Cycles which went full-out with colour separation printing and hundreds of copies produced, of which roughly half remain in my closet (need to do more exhibitions and presentations). The print quality here was very good, in most cases excellent, and I was free to design the book and write as much text as I liked. No editor of course, so I do believe the text could have been stronger, but they are both bilingual books and meant to be photo books. Overall I am pleased and proud to show and sell them.

A few years ago I also used Asuka Books, a service that prints POD books of 20, 30, 40, 60, and 80 pages in three different sizes. The quality is decent considering it is not colour separation printing and the books look rather nice for show, however again there is a limit with the text and no layout options. Also each single copy is expensive.

The dream of having a book of my photographs published by a real publisher who would pay for the whole darn thing and make it look really top notch and professional has never died. I have been preparing my photographs for a project called Sanmyaku: Photographs from the Japan Alps and I have sent out a proposal to four publishers so far, all of them returning the proposal with their reason for why they won’t or can’t take on the project.

As I wrote on my other blog, I found out about Blurb.com and decided to check it out. The details of my first experience can be found here. I will continue with the results of my test copy and what happened next.

First off, the test copy came out quite nicely. Looking at the cover it looks just as though it popped off the shelf at a books store, and opening to the first few pages I think the quality of the photo reproductions looks very good and the text and premium paper look perfectly professional too. Any criticisms were restricted to slightly oversaturated photographs and slight discolouration occurring in some photos that are obvious without looking at the original. Most of the photos look very nice and only when compared to the image on screen does the book loose some of its lustre. But I have seen that even with big publishing houses. I once saw a slide presentation by a professional photographer from Canada and was very impressed with many of his images. Later when I looked at his book though, I found the colour was off in some photos and in others the colours had lost their variety of hue and tone, particularly a twilight view of a rising moon comes to mind.

Since the book quality was nice enough I went ahead and put together the whole 120-page book. Here are the problems I encountered.

As I mentioned in the other post, the flow text boxes continued to haunt me with gremlins. The final line in each box would not be justified all the way to the edge of the box. I could correct it, but later when I opened the program (BookSmart) again, other lines had indentations. Furthermore, I created a text box with the title text centered and the rest justified to the left, but when I opened the program later the title had become justified to the left and the first few lines of text centred. Not sure why that was. I corrected it but it happened again a few times.

I had mentioned my problem to the Blurb customer service staff and they had responded very quickly (four hours maybe?) as asked me to create an archive file of the book and send it to them, using a program they have for that purpose. At first, I thought I had the justification problem licked but once I added footers in order to add page numbers the justification went to heck. Suddenly each page was treated separately by the program, meaning the last line on each page was considered by the program to be the end of a paragraph and all was justified left leaving a gap at the end of the line. I tried to make an archive file but the program crashed. I asked for help again and quickly received a solution, but it wasn’t necessary as when I opened the program again I had no troubles saving the file. Then I tried to send it but found it would take over three hours for the file to be sent. When there was only 41:41 remaining the program crashed and I had to start again twice before it was finally sent, at last only requiring just under two hours to send it.

I was sure the customer service people were tired of my long messages but I was surprised and a rather peeved at the reply I received. After all the hassles I had had with the flow text containers and the great lengths which I went to in order to send them an archived file and explain in detail about my problems, I was advised simply to not use the flow text containers. Edit your text so a paragraph ends on each page, I was told. At first, I was severely irked and felt that if this was the simple solution then I could have saved myself many hours of frustration. I sent a message to the support staff firmly stating my dissatisfaction. Before a reply came, I looked over my text and reread the advice and realized that it made sense after all. The support staff admitted the program was not working for me and that in order to finish my project in time (to get the 20% discount on orders they were offering until the end of July) I should just try to rework the text. I found it was not so difficult to do this and in the end, out of five pairs of flow text containers, only two have a small, period-sized character indentation at the end, almost unnoticeable.

One word about the colour of the photographs: the Blurb site has information explaining how on your computer screen you see RGB (Red, Green, Blue) while the printing process uses CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK). Because of this difference it is very difficult to know exactly how your photos will appear in the printed book. They do offer webinars for assistance and pages that explain how to get the best colour out of your photos. There is also software you can download that can show you how your photos look in CYMK. I tried to download it but it needs to work with PhotoShop, LightRoom, or some other well-established photo editing software. I inquired to the customer service again but was told I also should have a monitor calibrator and a desktop computer, and that it wouldn’t work with a laptop. So not having any of these four essential things I wasn’t able to download the software and try it out.

I received some useful advice from four photographers who had published books with Blurb about colour correcting. They all said brightness was an issue and that the photos would need to be brightened by about 15%. I wasn’t sure how I could do this and be certain I had brightened them enough, so I guessed and made corrections to brightness, histogram, and saturation using Gimp, a free download. Perhaps I could have done better if I had all the proper gear but as I said above the results turned out mostly alright.

Looking through many of the photo art books in the Blurb Bookstore it seems there are some really talented people making photo arts books with Blurb. I have enjoyed looking through many books and even making contact with a few authors and photographers. Now I just have to wait to see how my book, The Japan Alps has turned out. Though it won’t match the quality of Yama-to-Keikoku or Nihon Kamera books and their ilk, I expect it will look as good as some of the books I have seen on the shelf.

Eliot Porter and Las Vegas

One night a few weeks ago I learned that wife and son would not be home and I was faced with suddenly having a chunk of time dropped in my lap. Always saying, “If I only had more time to myself I could get so much done,” I welcomed the opportunity to get my office in order and tackled the large boxes that had come over from Canada a year ago. I was particularly interested in opening the boxes that contained my precious photo art book collection. Buried away in boxes in the corner were treasure troves of inspiring landscape and nature photography by some of my favourite photographers.

When at last I had opened and examined the contents of every single box, I reworked my bookshelf and stocked it with the books that gave me the greatest pleasure. Among the many titles were eight books by American landscape photographer, Eliot Porter (1901 – 1990). I had first come across Porter’s works in a book entitled The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado when I was searching for photography books of landscapes of the American southwest. Soon after, I found In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, Porter’s first book with the Sierra Club and the book that really launched his career. Other books turned up around the local libraries and it was at this time that many of Porter’s books came to be published, including his autobiography Eliot Porter, his photographs from Iceland, and his final book before his passing, Nature’s Chaos.

Eliot Porter spent the summers of his childhood on an island in Maine which his family owned. As a boy, he was first interested in photographing birds. He later began photographing nature and landscapes more. He became acquainted with Alfred Steiglitz and in December 1938 he was granted an exhibition at Steiglitz’s gallery “An American Place.” The success of his exhibition convinced him to give up his work in biochemistry and become a full-time photographer.

Over the next 24 years, Eliot Porter held his exhibitions and took assignments for the likes of the Audobon Society and sold his photographs to publishing houses and periodicals. His big break came when the Director of the Sierra Club, David Brower, had a chance to see his exhibition “The Seasons” with excerpts from Henry David Thoureau’s book Walden. The exhibition became Porter’s first book In Wildness is the Preservation of the World and the first of many titles that the Sierra Club would publish. As his career blossomed and reputation spread, Porter enjoyed rare opportunities to photograph Antarctica and China. As well, he traveled to Africa, Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, and many places across the United States. Many of his photographs made their way into books.

When Porter’s son, Johnathan gave him James Gleick’s book Chaos, Porter said that he felt as if all he had tried to capture in nature in his photographs seemed to be summed up by this new science of chaos theory. James Gleick was contacted and a book idea came together. Some time after, Porter passed away shortly before his 89th birthday. At least one other title has been published posthumously, a collection of his photographs of the Grand Canyon.

I always enjoyed Eliot Porter’s photography exactly because I felt he was very honest about representing nature on film just as one would expect to find it in real life. His photos were never about impossibly vivid lighting situations, shriekingly dynamic compositions, or unbelievable convergences of weather and light. His works show us just what nature is: simply complex, complexly simple, and beautiful for what it is as we find it. I spent my early years seeking out in the forests of my city scenes like the ones he had captured in Maine or in the Adirondack Mountains. When I gave my first slide presentation at a local Lutheran church, the pastor commented that my photographs showed the beauty of what could be found right under our noses. It was also thanks to Eliot Porter’s photographs that I wanted a larger format than 35mm and purchased a Pentax 6×7. Many of my early photographs with that camera bear resemblance to his works, I like to think.

I never made the time to travel south to the desert lands of the American southwest, the places that not only Eliot Porter but landscape photographers around the world come to explore through their lenses. The closest I came was in 2006 when a friend and I tentatively planned a ten-day excursion to the Grand Canyon and neighbouring canyons. My friend decided to spend his money on snowboarding and my parents invited me to stay with them in Hawaii for a week, and so the plan was scrapped.

Then came the news a few weeks ago that my sister was getting married in Las Vegas and my father and mother felt I should be there for the event. I agreed but had not the financial means of getting there. Of course, my most generous parents offered to pay for my ticket. How could I say no? I would see my only sister tie the knot with the only man that has ever lasted more than one Christmas with her, and in fact has lasted the last few years. That was something in itself! My parents did not fail to mention, however, that they would be visiting Bryce Canyon and that I was welcome to join them. Suddenly it seemed the impossible had become possible. I, the poor photographer living in Japan with barely the means to plan a summer hike in the Japan Alps, would have the opportunity to see for a day or two a little of the desert lands of America. Granted, it would likely be a day touring with my parents who are in their mid-seventies and perhaps a day on my own. I would have enough time to be introduced to canyons Bryce and Zion, and maybe the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas.

Now those Eliot Porter books are within easy reach on my shelf, and my 4×5 camera sits in my closet awaiting its next assignment. Sheet film stays cool in the refrigerator. Two days. I can’t expect much. But I know I will be in a personal piece of paradise when I step out onto that dry sand and rock, set up my tripod and camera, and for a moment believe I am experiencing the same thrill that Eliot Porter did every time he set his tripod down in the American southwest.

A Visit to the Stock Agency

Wednesday morning I went to Ginza to bring photographs to my stock agency. I hadn’t been there since January 2007. My visit was long overdue, I reckoned. How I came to work with that particular stock agency and the details about stock photography are worth a post of their own, however, today I want to write about the three topics I discussed with the staff and my observations and opinions about those topics.

The photographs I brought down were only a selection of my 35mm slides captured over the duration of 2008 and 2009. I have not yet organized my medium and large format transparencies. On the top of the stack of slide sheets, held in a very full binder, were my photographs from New Zealand. The foreign landscapes drew immediate interest from the two women staff members and they called over a male colleague whom I had never met before. There was much buzz about the images and comments were made such as, “The air is so clear, the atmosphere so alive,” and, “There are very positive feelings in these images.” To which I mentioned that my wife and I were married in New Zealand and the photos were captured during our honeymoon.

“That’s it! Your photographs exude happiness and love,” said one of the female staff, beaming at me. “Yes, look at this series here – there is a very positive outlook toward a bright new future,” the other woman chimed in.

“I guess it’s like the beginning of a new and happy life,” I ventured. A chorus of agreement came from all three staff. The man added that my photographs contrasted greatly with the photographs of a much older photographer whose work they received. His work was dark and moody, expressing finality and demise, the opposite of what they were seeing in my work.

“You shoot with the same film and maybe even the same camera, but as a foreigner there is a noticeable difference in the images you produce,” I was told.

I agreed that I had noticed a difference in styles between people of different nationalities (I have actually written a 1,600-word essay on the topic of how cultural differences show in landscape and nature photography, and it has been rejected by two western magazines so far), but what interested me more were the comments about the mood and emotion expressed in my photographs. As I mentioned to the staff, New Zealand has cleaner air being in the Southern Hemisphere due to there being less continental land mass to contribute dust, volcanic ash, and pollution from fires or human industry, and that New Zealand’s much smaller population means there is more space for natural and rural landscapes. They claimed, however, that even though New Zealand was naturally so well endowed, my photographs had a distinct stamp on them.

It is not the first time that Japanese people have commented on the emotional expression of my photography. One person I had never met once left a comment for me saying that from my photographs she could tell I was a sincere and caring person. All the years I spent interacting with the camera clubs of the Greater Vancouver Area back home in Canada, or during the five dozen or so slide presentations I gave to camera clubs, outdoor clubs, nature clubs, and at libraries in the same area, no one ever mentioned the emotional content of my photographs as a reflection of myself. I wasn’t even aware that there was any emotional content. People would ask about the technical aspects (what film, what filters, what time of day, what location, etc.) or comment on the quality of the light or any peculiar features in the subject, or say how a particular image made them feel. My own approach to photography is simply to seek out things I find interesting or beautiful and record them on film as well as I can, and when the occasion presents itself, capture beautiful moments in natural light as well. When I was first ever asked if I had made some conscious effort connect a spherical rock with the moon or the earth and if I had had cosmic visions while making the photograph, I felt it rather anticlimactic to respond with, “No, I just thought the rock looked very nice.”

The way many Japanese people have responded to my exhibited or published work has sometimes left me feeling as though I am still standing in shallow water, unable to see the depths of my own soul that apparently comes out in my photography at times.

After everyone had calmed down about New Zealand, the man returned to his work and the two women continued to pour over my slides, the rest being all Japanese landscapes, mostly from the three ranges of the Japan Alps. I inquired about the number of people shooting digital and the demand for digital photography. I was told that some photographers they represented used digital exclusively, some used both film and digital, and many others continued to strictly adhere to film use. There is still an appreciably large demand for film images from photo editors in Japan, they said.

I expressed my concerns about purchasing a digital camera: the cost being very high for a top-notch model which would be rendered obsolete in a few years. One of the two women included the cost of a personal computer as part of the cost of digital photographer, and I brought up other associated costs as well, which I mention in the post preceding this one. I told them that I would hesitate to pay 400,000 yen for a top-of-the-line model when I could still make great photos with a less expensive model. But how would it look in a photo credit to see that my photograph was captured with an 80,000 yen camera? What would people think? “Oh, he’s only using a Canon Kiss (for example) so he must be just an amateur. A real pro uses a Canon 5D II,” or whatever is in the hands of the real pros these days.

I was told that the most important thing for art directors and photo editors was file size. They don’t care what camera was used. The question always asked is, “How big is the file?” Expensive cameras come with many bells and whistles, most of which I would never use. I was told that I didn’t need to splash out for the fully loaded model. As the most important thing is file size, a cheaper camera that can shoot around 12 mega pixels is fine. If I put the same care into capturing digital images as I do with film images then the work should speak for itself, I was told. Though I am not in a position to buy a digital SLR yet, it’s nice to feel that I don’t have to eyeball the cameras that cost as much as a five-year-old used car.

Having brought only 35mm photographs, I had to ask about another issue that has been on my mind a lot recently, so much so in fact that I am working on an article in Japanese for submission on the topic. I mentioned that in Japan there is a great preference for medium or large format photography over 35mm photography. One of the woman responded by saying that for photo editors in Japan, the final presentation of the published images is of paramount importance. The focused areas in an enlarged photo should appear tack sharp. For that purpose, medium format (typically 645, 6×7 format, or panorama formats) or large format (usually 4×5 inch) are preferred. Harkening back to the discussion about large digital file sizes, I could see how size mattered.

I mentioned how for many western photographers, what mattered was capturing the moment. Many pros, particularly those who had to travel on foot up mountains, made their careers using only 35mm in the days before digital. Galen Rowell is an excellent example of a guy who always believed it was better to travel as light as possible and even forwent a tripod at times, using other tricks to ensure sharp images. He felt it was better to travel lightly and swiftly and not miss the moment as opposed to weighing oneself down with a heavy pack of camera gear and missing out on shots.

I told them about my dilemma with carrying a pack full of cameras and gear. In the days when I traveled with only a 35mm body and two or three lenses, I shot so many images. The camera was quick and easy to use, and the zoom lenses gave me a broad range of focal lengths from which to choose. I rose an hour or less before sunrise and reached my sunrise photo shoot location, often scouted the day before, and as the light of daybreak progressed, I was busy swinging the camera round on the ball head capturing shot after shot. When the show was over I could pack up quickly and move on down the trail to the next location.

Now with three camera bodies – 35mm, 645, and 4×5 – and a selection of lenses, I struggle up the mountainsides and try to reach camp and set up before sunset so I can get over to a good viewpoint to shoot the evening light. In the morning I sometimes wake up two hours before sunrise and climb to a vantage point in the dark. I have to study the possibilities before the sun comes up and make a plan for equipment use, and arrange my gear on the ground accordingly so it is easy to grab. I find I am shooting fewer images and spending more time handling my gear. I also have missed some superb moments because I was either struggling up through the forest with a heavy pack, resting longer than I had budgeted for due to the fatigue of carrying such a heavy pack, or because the time it took to prepare the larger cameras for the shot was longer than the duration of the light I had hoped to capture.

With a mountain trip coming up this weekend, I have been deliberating which cameras to bring. The 35mm only would liberate me to shoot fast, easily, and plenty but would not bring me any larger images to slide under the noses of the Japanese photo editors. Adding the 645 would mean having a camera nearly as fast and with three fixed lenses, but also it would add weight. Or should I go with the 6×7 to get larger slides but with fewer options with only two lenses and a shallower depth of field? Or should I stop being a wimp and encumber myself with the 4×5? In my alpine weekly calendar there have recently been two very good examples of reasons to shoot with a 4×5 camera over smaller formats. But what if I bring it like always and end up exposing only a few sheets of film, like on my last few outings? Is it worth it to haul that much weight around?

The two women at the stock agency told me that the 645 should be just fine and I didn’t need to concern myself with how even bigger transparencies would possibly mean more sales for me.

When those discussions were over, it was time to finish up my visit and head to work, and on the train back to Saitama I was turning the days discussions over in my mind.

The Waiting is Over

Now the cycle begins again

Last Thursday I stopped in at a book store and found a camera magazine that I had been waiting for on the shelf, the February issue of Nihon Kamera (日本カメラ). In it were eight pages of my New Zealand landscape photographs. They looked great. I knew the photos would be in an upcoming issue but I didn’t know when exactly. I had submitted them back in June of 2009, and in November I had called the magazine to ask if anything was happening with my photos. They told me at the time that they liked the photos but hadn’t made any decision yet. They would contact me before the year was over.

It was just days before I left for my two-week winter holidays that I received a call and a PFD file by email explaining what photos they would use and what information they needed. I stayed up until 2 in the morning that night preparing all the captions and explanations in Japanese, and emailed the info to them the next day.

Then I heard nothing from them.

But at last, the magazine was published and I can see my photos in print again. I am especially pleased because six of the eight photographs were taken in 4×5 format. That is, I took the photos with one of those old style type cameras (though mine is new) with the bellows and the cloth you need to stand under in order to view the scene and focus it.

Now, before this recent excitement dies down, I find myself already thinking about the next submissions. I have two that are nearly ready and some that need time to be prepared. It takes many weeks to select the images to go with the idea, and to write out the idea and check it over a few times if it’s in English, or to study and prepare the text in Japanese and then ask someone to check it over for me. Photo and article submissions to magazines don’t get prepared quickly, and the time to wait for a response can be anywhere from a few days to over a year. The norm is several months. However, since I now support my family with my teaching job, I have to earn money from writing and photography in order to continue photographing. This has forced me to stop being lazy, to keep brainstorming new ideas and getting submissions in the pipeline, thus the increase in success I have had since my wife stopped working to be a full-time mother.

I also have my stock agency from which I can earn money through the publication of my photographs, but I don’t make much from them and I haven’t sent them any new material for two years now. So one of my big projects is to complete a selection of photographs from 2008/09 to bring down to them, as well as to start preparing this year’s articles and portfolios.

Inspirations

Last week I got a call from Nihon Kamera. Since June, they’d been holding a submission I sent of landscape photos from New Zealand’s South Island. At last the verdict was in and they are going to run eight photographs over eight pages in an upcoming issue. When I checked the PFD file they sent, showing me which photos had been selected so I would know what captions to provide, I saw that six of the eight photographs were shot in 4×5, and the other two were shot in 645 format and 35mm format. I was very pleased and excited that so many of my 4×5 photographs would see publication; however, it wondered about the two dozen 35mm slides I had included in the submission. Why was only one 35mm photograph selected? Were the 4x5s just that much more eye-catching, or was it a question of quality (sharper images)?

Looking at the 4×5 photographs that were selected I can say that they represent the best of my large format images from my last trip to New Zealand, but also that there were not so many successful images out of the batch. Furthermore, I noticed that my 4×5 landscape photos from New Zealand do not resemble the style of large format Kiwi photographer, Scott Freeman, whose book New Zealand Photographs is one of my favourite photo art books. Because Freeman shoots many scenes of rocks and geologically related subjects, I really enjoy his work and it inspires me to go out and shoot similar scenes in Japan. But my New Zealand large format landscape images are quite different in spite of our common interest.

Shooting in 4×5 is not easy, as I wrote about at length a few months back. However, I still find it really fun to shoot with the technical view camera and rewarding when the images turn out successfully. One of my favourite contemporary 4×5 photographers is not world famous though his work has been published in Hungary, as well as North America. Adam Gibbs is a British-born photographer who has been living in Canada for at least a couple of decades now. During my stay in Canada between December 2004 and March 2006, I had the opportunity twice to meet with Adam and swap favourite photo books. His web site is linked from this blog, and just the other day I took a casual stroll through some of his galleries, once again marvelling at how skilfully he captures mountains scenes, canyons, forest floor detail, sea shores, and so on, with his view camera. Between Adam’s web site and Scott Freeman’s book, I was well charged with inspiration, but to add to it was a book I found at the library called “日本列島の20億年” (“Nihon Rettou no 20 Okunen – The 2 Billion Years of the Japan Archipelago”). Large format colour photographs capture scenes from around Japan and text describes what is in each image from a geology perspective. There are volcanoes and uplifted mountain ranges, glacial valleys and sea cliffs, tuff strata and lava flows. The book has me all fired up to start shooting more geology-based subjects as I used to do long ago before I became obsessed with the Japan Alps.

Then on the train the other day, I was reading an interview with a Japanese photographer who has made his name and fortune shooting in Canada and Europe. He is only four years older than me but he already has ten books published, three or four in the last two or three years. This at a time when publishers are saying that the photo book market is suffering terribly! One comment that photographer made was that you should photograph what you love and he loves to show places where people live, especially where people live close to nature, and he cites Prince Edward Island as one of his favourite places for that kind of photography.

I sure wish it were me who had so many photo books published. But I do recognize that his favourite subjects are much more accessible to the public in general than mountains and rocks. Many more people can imagine traveling to a European town or to P.E.I than those who want to climb a mountain or study rocks in the bottom of a canyon. His words come to me, though, just at the time when I have decided to work not only on shooting mountain scenes but also to seek out and photograph interesting rock formations and land forms in Japan. It might be harder for me to find success like that but I will be shooting what I love and that is one very good reason to look forward to future outings.

The third and final source of inspiration came from a small book of photographs by Makoto Saito, a photography instructor in Tokyo and writer for Gakujin magazine and editor for the members’ magazine of the Society of Scientific Photography. His book, “山のふしぎ” (“Yama no Fushigi – Mysteries of the Mountains”), is a collection of various photos taken in mountain areas all around Japan. The subjects are extremely diverse: mountain peaks, clouds over ranges, small nature close-ups, people adventuring in the mountains, medium scale mountain nature scenes, waterfalls, and so on. His work is in some ways very similar to mine and yet in some ways a level above mine – almost attainable if I work on it a little harder.

I would love to capture some of the scenes in that book but I have to get to those places first. And then I would love to have a book of my best images published but I need to get recognized by publishers as a worthy investment first. I guess it will take some time and a lot more effort. Thanks to the sources of inspiration I mentioned above, I am very excited about what I might be able to do in the coming year.

And for starters, I can look forward to my next published work in Nihon Kamera magazine.

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve, Ahuriri Valley, South Island, New Zealand.