Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gotham Recesses

NOTE: I always enjoy and look forward to the various notes that my perpetual nuisance dailies provoke. Yesterday's "Between Walls," brought a quick and immediate response. Several people thought literary, "a dark fairy tale," or, "could be the cover of a period romance novel!" Not surprisingly, some were theatrical, "Might be a great place to do Shakespeare!" and "Looks like the set for an opera!" Some were operatic in their delivery: "Maxfield Parrish--the sky color, the mood...." Of course some were short and to the point, "cool - what ISO?" However, it was my friend and main name man, Louie, who gave it the title I should have chosen, "Batmoon!" Thanks to all who took time to look, read, and write in.

For all those living near Warren, CT, there is an exhibition of my photos running through August at the Warren Public Library.

Also, this weekend only, the Jewish Community Center in Sherman, CT. will host the 42nd edition of The Sherman Art Show, an annual event that has been on hiatus. When I dropped off three works for the show I got a glimpse of some of the other beautiful work that will be on exhibit there. Here's a link: (

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Between Walls


Between Walls
the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

Saturday, July 26, 2008


PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: In a photograph, what separates the romantic ruin from the threatening ruin is interpretation. I believe in wandering. Yesterday I wandered in another century and wallowed in the tragedy of decay. That image was taken six minutes and thirty-nine seconds before this one. It was time enough to wander into a different cosmos.

What is the connection between the mood of a photographer and the mood of the image s/he creates? Often photographers describe a photograph as having caught what they felt as they shot it, and sometimes this happens. However, as I came off the hill where the last image was shot, the only mugger was the image in front of me; it grabbed me, but my mood changed little.

Well, yes, the smallpox hospital is a lonely place, and it makes me a bit uneasy, but that shapeless apprehension finds many different expressions. While I stood on the mound looking down into the Smallpox Hospital I was struck by the vividness of the red brick and the green vines and the way the sun transfixed them. From up on the knoll I could frame the romantic ruin a la Piranesi that I had hoped to find - nature springing fresh out of the fallen city. Then I came down off the hillock, and the same undirected anxiety found a different visual correlative and emotional content in the sign and the fence and the looming cornice, so near and yet so far from the teeming city.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dr. Gotham

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: In 1850, before the construction of Mr. Renwick's most excellent smallpox hospital, our Resident Physician, William Kelly, complained that smallpox victims were cared for in "a pile of poor wooden out houses on the banks of the river." The hospital was built by the convicts in the penitentiary less than a mile up on the island. The island is very narrow and the jail is very wide. If you walk north you can hardly miss it. It's the largest building on the island.

The jail was the first building built here after the city bought the island and set it aside for charitable and correctional purposes. The jail provides a steady work force that quarries local stone for many of the other buildings here including our hospital, and they're building a river wall around the island with the same local stone. Now that our hospital is finished and a certain other building in Washington, D.C., Mr. Renwick is busy on a great new cathedral for our best citizens, and it will someday be the pride of our city. It will be much bigger and more beautiful than his famous Grace Church.

Sadly, in spite of godly works, the smallpox epidemic is spreading, and we have begun taking in paying patients at the Smallpox Hospital. A few years back those paying patients would only come here to gawk at the crazy people in the asylum. It's just past the jail. The famous English writer Charles Dickens went there a few years back. He visited the almshouse and jail as well. I don't think he was very fair, but he liked the great staircase at the asylum. If you're interested in what he thought when he visited us on the island, click here.

Click here for a look into the future at some amazing moving daguerreotypes of our island made by a man named Edison in 1903. He made them from a boat heading south in the east channel of the river, and they show the whole side of Blackwell's Island.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

From the Tip of Hog Island Looking North

Photographer's Diary: How is it that as a child growing up in Manhattan I never got to Hog Island? I am standing near the southern tip of Hog Island looking north. Nearby the East River is flowing around me on both my right and left. Just behind my left shoulder and but a short row across the East River is the iconic UN Building where the world's business is being conducted. Hog Island abounds in paradoxes.

I never could keep those East River islands straight, but I knew there was an especially long one that stretched from up near Gracie Mansion down to near the UN that I saw whenever we rode down the FDR Drive. When I asked, sometimes they told me, "That's Welfare Island," and other times they said, "Roosevelt Island." Once they told me that it was Blackwell's Island and that there was an asylum there, and I conjured up visions worthy of Dickens.


To begin, I enjoy the heady mix of not being too sure at any moment whether I'm experiencing Hog, Blackwell's or one of the other incarnations of the place or if all the ghosts are coming at me at once.

Second, it is a place of serene quiet right in the center of one of the noisiest, busiest places in the world. Although the roar of the city surrounds me, here I can tune it out.

All around it people are moving and going places. Cars whizz up the FDR and across the towering bridge, subways tunnel through granite beneath, boats and barges pass on both sides, helicopters shuttle endlessly overhead, and yet getting here is very difficult, and there are more wheel chairs than automobiles here.

All around it New York City is building and changing, and there are new towers rising here too, but there are also some of New York's most remarkable vestiges of earlier times.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gotham 2: The Blackwell's Island Bridge

Photographer's Diary: I debated for too long over the posting of this and the previous photo, an act of vanity hardly warranted by the unimportance of the endeavor. I plead guilty to having an unrelenting attraction to, even a morbid fascination with this bridge, the way it plunges headlong into the heart of Manhattan, the way it dwarfs the large apartment houses whose windows face onto the minute details of its tracery, the way it has outlasted the horse & wagon, streetcar world for which it was built and now unceasingly dumps twelve lanes of cars, trucks, buses, taxies, bicycles, and deafened pedestrains into the busiest part of the great city. In 1903 when work on it began, few could have imagined what demands future generations would put on the Blackwell's Island Bridge or how it would have to be repurposed. I suppose I'm also intrigued knowing that in 1900, before my grandparents were married, they lived inexpensively a few blocks from here. However, as a child, before I knew any of that, I recall seeing it on trips down the FDR Drive and being impressed by its looming greatness.

Why do I shilly-shally now at posting this photo? I suppose first it's because no photo can communicate all of those feelings, and though I've carefully studied the cityscape and set the angle and edges of my shot to maximize the bridge's impact, the photo seems a bit plain, the obvious shot.

Furthermore, it seems to have little of the "fall of the leaf" quality that I've elsewhere said is essential to a good photo. Of course, how can any photo of the city not capture the transient moment? A new building, not yet fully enclosed, rises in the background. Where are the window washers or masons whose rig is parked off a balcony near where a building is bandaged. What happened there? What has taken two identical, white, service trucks to stop on the bridge's lower deck just now? Is work underway there too? Does the freight train of clouds passing over the city follow an earlier storm, or do they portend one to come?

Maybe it's also that the philosophy of this blog is not so much to photograph interesting things, as to compose light into interesting photographs. And yet I've carefully come here late in the day and waited until the sun setting behind the Hudson River penetrated the valleys between New York's towers, cast long shadows on facing walls, and bounced around off windows in ways that help to open up space and lead the eye.

And so I've debated with myself for two days. In the end, I guess, I've posted this in spite of reservations because I have to, because I'm captive to this relic of old Gotham that still, a hundred years after its completion, seems to dominate where all around it everything else has given way to change.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gotham 1: "Hello lamp-post, What cha knowin'?"

DENNIS O'NEIL: "Batman's Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Gotham is real. It's not like Superman's Metropolis off in Kansas. Gotham is much closer to home, and insinuates itself just when we least expect it. It is not mere evil, but grubs and maggots at work on the moribund remains and it laughs the joker's jeering laugh.

Sharing sparrows beneath the bridge, I wonder, how deep is the heart of dark Gotham? I think I've come to the right place despite a Samaritan who tried to send me to 14th Street. One should be able to see it here beneath this bridge or in the refuse near the water's edge. Here where the commotion of traffic never ceases, Gotham must be whispering. Or it is nearby, waiting for sunset, peering from the shadow where the alley meets the cornerstone. I look and try to snatch it in a photo. More sparrows. Must I look for it where the F train hurries beneath Blackwell's ghosts, or is it only a dark time thing, a couple of deals before dawn?

Beside me Con Edison still rumbles though they've made the emissions invisible,
and I think I hear Simon and Garfunkle dancing overhead,
and I'm still down here sharing sparrows.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Intruding on Rocks


Every rock has stories,
Though we never crack them,
Custodial gulls hover and intrude.
And when they are alone,
Their forms ripe in the failing sun,
We ask our question,
As if the rocks would hatch or blossom or spawn,
But they just roll on.
Another cliffhanger.

©Emery Roth II, 2008


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sunrise over Bass Harbor, 2008

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I didn't think this dewy morning would be photogenic. A sky unaccommodating, too hazy for photos and sun in the wrong place! I'd started photographing from across the harbor hoping the sun, still low, would add definition and color to the docks where I now stand, but all lay mute in a soupy, gray glare. I crossed to the Bernard side of the harbor expecting less. The best thing going was the surface of the water but the colors were bland. For lack of a better subject I shot at cloud forms mirrored in the harbor waters until the sun poked through. Blinding sun reflected in the windows of fishing boats - like a snagged line, a catch to the eye, that wouldn't let go.

Shooting the sun is much harder than shooting fog. Light like this is too much for the human eye. How do we shoot what's too bright to see? Turner knew the secret in Mortlake Terrace (1) (2), where the parapet wall disappears in the sun's bright glare. In fact, when it came to light, he always knew the secrets.

The photographer must violate the first commandment of photography, "Thou shalt not overexpose," but Turner gives us permission to overexpose. In a photo like this if I don't overexpose at all the shadow areas will be all murk. In fact, it is both over and under exposed. But how much of each is right? Where does one set the balance? Every case is different, and it's best to check results and bracket. One can also reduce the dynamic range with graduated ND filters, but if I'd done that I'd have missed the shot.

In the case of this image I thought the forms were too diffuse to unify into a composition and that the shadowed areas were bound to be too murky. As a result, I shot without full conviction and did not bracket. My interest was much more in composition which changed quickly as the sun rose and its reflection on the water moved past stationary objects. Well, almost stationary objects, the boats shifted ever so slightly around their moorings. It was an experiment.

I had shot this spot on the dock before, and I knew how to use the traps and decking. I positioned my tripod and left the ball head loose so I could recompose as sun, clouds, water, and boats all shifted within the stationary frame of traps and dock. From this position I would be able to catch the sun's arch as its reflection caught on various surfaces, grew and shrank in the harbor, while the frame anchored whatever was painted there. I could shoot both horizontals and verticals this way; the frame was adaptable.

At the time I remember thinking this shot was one too many, that if the shot worked at all, it would be in the previous exposure where the sun snagged on the windshield. I shot a few more anyway and in the next the sun is back on the water. Then all of a sudden the clouds were gone, the sun was up and the opportunity vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. Much later I chose this one where the side of the boat and the water explode with light. There would have been no time for bracketing, no time for readjusting graduated ND filters.

So how did I adjust the exposure? AT ISO 400, f14, 1/320th sec, I was also hunting for gulls. Well, one can always get lucky, but I believed I'd confined the overexposed areas to the hard core of brightness. A couple of test shots showed I was able to increase exposure a fair ways before the edges of the core began to bleed outward. My real worry was the underexposed area around the traps. I backed off from the bleeding core and entrusted the rest to Photoshop.

The photo is toned a good deal darker in the midrange than the scene appeared when I took it. This serves to give substance to sky and water and brings out the colors. I pushed the high end a little higher; it's the turner effect. Some will object, but it is the scene as I knew it might be.

My short lens is zoomed to 31mm.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Sandburg Fog

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: In response to yesterday's post Artie wondered if fog photos were harder to take than other photos. Those who read this regularly, know that I have a special love of fog images. My immediate response to the question was that fog pictures similar to yesterday's and today's were, at least technically, comparatively easy to take because the dynamic range from black to white was fairly compressed and could be encompassed easily within the limits of digital and film technologies. Of course that same limited dynamic range makes them harder to process and very hard to print well. Then I got to thinking...

I've always thought exposure for such pictures was not critical. Neal Parent advised slightly under exposing in the fog, and that may be right for shooting film. As it turns out, I made two exposures of yesterday's 44mm image, both at ISO 800. I'm not sure why I chose 800, perhaps it was windy, or perhaps I just forgot to turn it back after a previous shot. In any case, the two identical shots were two thirds of a stop apart, both f22, the first at 1/20th sec and the second at 1/30th sec. I made the finished image from the second, darker, of the two exposures because it was closer to the tones I imagined for the finished picture, because the first was almost glaringly bright, and because only the darker one had the headlights which I knew I didn't want to lose. ...and yet Artie has gotten me thinking...

I've read two distinct theories of shooting. Most experts simply advise getting the exposure right, by which they mean so the finished exposure is as close to the original as possible, at least for the critical areas of the shot; middle gray in the subject should be middle gray in the image. This is what I usually aim for. Another school of thought suggests bumping the exposure to the max, exposing as brightly as possible so long as no portion of the image exceeds the ability of the medium to record it, and adjust it back down later in Photoshop.

(Yesterday's TODAY'S)

Tonight I reprocessed both RAW exposures of yesterday's TODAY'S so as to maximize the dynamic range of each image. Spreading out of the black-to-white spectrum (the dynamic range) should make differences easy to see. What I found, surprised me. The darker image, though not taxing the range of the media, had less visual information. It was grainier and very slightly less detailed. The difference was especially noticeable along the left side of the image where the dock almost disappears into gray. Members could be recovered in the brighter image that were lost in the darker. In the darker areas on the extreme right, the darker image clotted up more, dock members were less fully formed.

But revealing detail was not my goal for the image. Indeed, I shoot in fog to lose detail. Though in this case it was true that I had worried: Would I have enough? It did seem to be a bit more crispness would not be to the detriment of the image, if not necessarily to its gain. However, color, not detail is what is critical to the success of yesterday's image. The color of the two boats must catch the eye and lead to the discovery of soft yellow and red in some of the lobster traps. If your monitor is well calibrated you will even be able to distinguish the slight green of the trees, the reddish tone of the sand and the blue of the water. The image is most beautiful to me when this is visible, even as the image approaches monochrome.

To test the validity of pushing the exposure as high as possible, I tried to process the lighter image to the darker tones I had chosen for the finished image. To my surprise, I learned this took much more reduction of contrast than I expected. In the process I noticed that the reducing contrast was taking a bit of bluish sheen from the water that was quite contrary to the flat, fog-bound image I saw in the harbor and wanted recorded in my picture. The brighter shot, brighter than the actual scene, exaggerated tonal range and in so doing upset color balances. Reducing contrast reduces detail both of edges and of gradients. By the time they looked alike, the unwanted sheen was off the water, but most of the advantage of the brighter image had been sacrificed. Only a few details showed definition missing in the chosen version. It was not enough to risk throwing out color balances especially in an image hard to process and very hard to print.

On the other hand, had I wanted a different finished effect, I had the ability to reveal detail missing in the darker version. My conclusion is bump the exposure up as a backup, but expose to the mark for safety.

Well, I've said precious little about today's image. Perhaps you can tell me what the gull is thinking about the scene in front of him.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Still at the Underdocks


The underdocks, 
boater's crawl space, 
resting place of algae covered lures, 
snagged beyond reach.

The underdocks,
sea-green perch 
where gulls stalk the glossy rocks
and grumble and caw.

The underdocks,
where ropes grouse and whine
droop and coil
round creosote and slime.

The underdocks
crustacean garden of snails & starfish, 
wood lice & barnacles, 
shipworms & gribbles.

The underdocks,
mirror world of
of raftered halls where dead men call,
and ladders plunge to the abyss.

The underdocks,
Stygian green and glossy black
where waters slide
and slip and glide and leap and fall away.

© Emery Roth II, 2008

[150mm, f22, 1/30th sec, 400]
Underdocks, 2007

Friday, July 4, 2008

Wish You Were Here

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I debated a long time before posting this. Why is that? To me it is too easy and comfortable. It is the postcard view - Bass Harbor as seen from the Port of Bernard. It says, we had a good time visiting Bass Harbor and maybe ate lobster there, but not much more.

What continues to interest me about it, and the reason I'm posting it, is its power to draw the eye deep and the various "scapes" traversed in getting there. At first glance, three pink blossoms in the foreground are balanced by a corner of Bass Harbor where two boats lie at rest and reflect on the nearly still water. However much greater interest lies around the shore of Bernard with its odd complement of fishing piers - perhaps your eye has already jumped to the last of these as it basks in the light of sunset and reflects more tremulously. This must be seen at screen size or near. Something about this pier's simplicity and the neat row of traps with their red & white buoys kept drawing my camera every time I shot in Bernard. I would have liked to try it from the water.

Eventually, one moves across the jetty and the harbor inlet to the ferry terminal on the Bass Harbor side and the green, steel trusswork that supports the ferry boarding apparatus. The intricacy of its structure adds delicacy and helps make the small scale convincing. Beyond is an outer harbor where sailboats are moored, removed from the commercial fishing boats of the back harbor. The outer harbor is still bathed in sunlight and capped by the last of what were especially pretty clouds. A few of those earlier clouds would have been nice. Even in jpg and reduced resolution, however, the masts catching full sun invite the eye, and lead one to scan the opposite shore. An island? An arm of the mainland? I'm not sure. I had a great time; the lobster was fresh. Wish you were here.

I spent some time determining the right height at which to set the camera and where to place the horizon. As I recall, I pulled back a bit to assure that there would be clear gaps delineating each level of the harborscape.

In many ways this is the opposite of yesterday's posting. This was taken with a 22mm, (moderate wide angle) lens. It draws the eye deep instead of compressing toward a plane. In the end I confess to preferring yesterday's shot of the inner harbor with its risky cropping and weighted composition, and its traditional uprightness. Whatever else that one may have or lack, it has a bit of attitude.

[22mm, f14, 160th, ISO 400] For what it's worth, had I not reduced the aperture to f14, I would not have caught the gull. If I were not hoping for a bird, it would likely have been at f22 or f25.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Family Tradition

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The telephoto lens is a powerful tool for snatching bird images out of the sky and deer images out of the brush. Its optical effect is only to narrow the cone of vision and bring distant things close, but those who have spotted telephoto use in film, recognize how it also compresses space. A person running toward the zoomed video lens appears to run and run but to get nowhere. The runner's form does not increase in size as we have learned to expect.

In still pictures the telephoto can be used to present a similar paradox; something is apparently wrong with the perspective, but what exactly? We sense distortion. In fact, telephotos are much less prone to distortion than wide angle lenses. The exaggerated curve of the wide angle lens must distort to pull the very broad cone of vision onto the flat, narrow plane of the film. Tip the camera up or down and the distortion of the resulting video can almost produce nausea as from motion sickness. Directors have used this to suggest the surreal. In contrast, the telephoto lens provides a very accurate, perspective arrangement of the objects in front of us but makes us think we are closer to them than we are. If we shot with a wide angle lens and then cropped to the center section (where distortion is minimized) it would look much like what the telephoto lens sees. Is it true that as a wide angle lens can make us queasy, a telephoto reassures with its orderliness?

The essential fact here is that we don't see the way a telephoto lens sees. We are used to the particular cone of vision of the human eye. How different the world must look to the compound eye of an insect or to animals whose eyes are positioned on the sides of their head! However, their brains, like ours, have learned to resolve such vision into some continuous, distortion-free reality. The "compressed effect" of the photo above depends on how it differs from the reality our brain assembles from the data transmitted by the the eyes' lenses and recorded by the eyes' photoceptors. We look at the compressed image of the telephoto which our brain processes as if it was our normal field of vision and seen close up. Why, it wonder, is perspective not diminishing size and arranging space in the customary manner. The effect seems more like an architect's elevation than reality. Of course, one needn't understand what's happening to recognize (and if you're like me, to enjoy & try to exploit) its capacity for composition and expression.

I call these images, "compressions." I began shooting them when I started photographing barns. This image of the port of Bass Harbor might be a companion to "Wharves at Dusk," taken three miles down the road at Southwest Harbor. I like the sense of artifice they give to photo reality and the emphasis they place on the flat, rectangular surface. Deep perspectives draw us into picture space - lead or focus the eye toward the vanishing points. In so doing, they naturally make some things more important than others. In compressions, as in Medieval art, importance is size-based, and the effect is more of simultaneity. The transactions occurring inside the little, red country store are no more important than the dramas that might be unfolding behind any of the windows in the homes or warehouses; life inside the boats is more important because larger, but life goes on everywhere across the image, though hidden from view. Such images ask me to wonder about the lives lived behind these facades. Do they also add a sense of universality to the image? Do they place extra emphasis on color and form? Is it their suggestion of folk art? I'm still trying to understand why they have a special appeal for me.

Similar view - 2007.

[110mm, f14, 1/500 sec, ISO 400] The only reason for the high shudder speed was wind and floor thump as people crossed the small deck from which I shot. It could easily been cut in half and either the f-stop or ISO adjusted accordingly.]