Archive for category: Artistic Tendencies

Ode to a Pittily Little iPhone Camera That Could

24 Jun 2010
June 24, 2010
before and after photographs

Click on image for a larger view.

I picked up my new iPhone 4 this morning. One of the main reasons bought it was for its upgraded camera. It’s been pushed from 3 megapixels to five and its sensor is now back-illuminated. In plain language that means I should get brighter images with more detail. Yes, I have my better and more professional cameras yet I never seem to have them when I need them. But I always have my iPhone. And, I’ve taken some pretty good pictures with it, despite its meager specs.

Before moving on to my new iPhone I wanted to say thank you little 3GS camera and show you how I compensated for its limitations. Above is one of the best images I ever took with the phone’s camera. It was all I had when I saw Glenda walking towards me. And I didn’t have much time to take the pic. No “would you move just a bit to the right” or “could you smile just a little–no a little less.” We were both on our way to work and had little time for this impromptu photo op. I was grateful she allowed me to take her picture. Any photographer will tell you that “decisive moment” is hard to capture. So I did the best I could. I made sure she was centered and focused. She did the rest.

When I looked at the image I’d taken I was a bit disappointed. Despite using the camera’s focusing and exposure box her face was in deep shadow. I thought this might be a problem when I took the photo because of the bright background. I was happy to see detail in her face and hopeful that I could use Photoshop to bring it out.

No matter what I take a photograph with I always bring it into Photoshop before putting it on out there for the world to see. And I love this post-production process. Control baby! That’s what it’s about: getting the best out of what I’ve got to work with. Back in my digital darkroom I started by lightening her face and hair. Amazingly, the detail came out nice and strong (not bad for just a pittily phone camera). I liked the warm skin tone and kept it. But to really make her portrait pop I decided to create a shallow depth-of-field, throwing the background out of focus. Digital cameras have a hard time with depth-of-field and it’s even more difficult to control when your camera is totally automatic. Creating depth-of-field after the fact is a multiple step process, something I’ve already outlined. In this case there was one last challenge: Glenda’s earrings. I had to make sure they stayed sharp, along with her face. I used Photoshop’s pen tool to create a very precise path around them so I could kept them in focus when I threw the background out of focus. With that done the pic was complete.

So, before moving on to the iPhone 4’s more luxurious 5 MP camera, I wanted to pay homage to my little camera that could. Thanks for the great pics!

I Hate Late Winter and I Hate Late Abstract Expressionism

10 Feb 2010
February 10, 2010
Scene of a snow covered car with text: When I turned 35 I could say two things: I hate late winter and I hate late Abstract Expressionism.

Jeff Gates, From a Series of One Acts… #7, 1987. Click on image for larger view.

Before moving to the DC area I spent a year teaching art in Minnesota. I learned to drive in the snow that winter and am proud to have survived a week of -90F (-68C) windchill. But that pales by comparison to what the Mid Atlantic is going through right now (okay, what I’m going through right now). It’s a blizzard out there and believe it or not, I think this storm is worse than the snowpocalypse that inundated us this past weekend.

We’ve been off of work since Friday afternoon. As managing editor of our museum’s blog, Eye Level it’s my job to keep the blog posts on schedule. But, like everything DC, all activity has come to a standstill. So this morning I decided it was time for an art-related snow story. I did a search of our collection and found a beautiful image from Robert Singletary called Snow on the Chesapeake Bay and wrote a post on it. But in looking through the 196 search results for “snow,” I suddenly came upon the photograph above. I’d forgotten it was in American Art’s collection. And how appropriate for today. More importantly it still resonated for me.

I hate late winter. And, actually, after this season I think I’m on pretty solid ground when I say I just hate winter altogether. As for late Abstract Expressionism, the energy of its predecessor was no longer there. Like late winter it had lost its attraction.

I was young when I made that image. Thirty-five to be exact. So it’s nice to see I still feel strongly about the weather. Oh, and about my art too.

One Day in East Berlin

08 Nov 2009
November 8, 2009
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, East Berlin, 1974

An East German Volkspolizei guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in East Berlin, 1974, © Jeff Gates. Click on image for a larger view.

I am slowly unearthing photographs and memories from my 1974–1975 trip to Europe. I took this image at East Germany’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I remember thinking the pomp and circumstance of the East German soldiers as they marched in front of the monument reminded me of ours at Arlington Cemetery.

While smoking was much more prevalent in both the East and West in the 1970s, I took notice of the large number of people in East Berlin with cigarettes in their hands. The man in the background on the left is striking a pose I often saw during my time in the eastern half of the city.

From here I went looking for a place to eat and found the cheapest dinner I had throughout my seven months in Europe. It was a full German meal, heavy on the wienerschnitzel with lots of heavy bread and vegetables, all for an astounding thirty cents American. I ate early to get back to West Berlin before dark.

For a young college student traveling on a budget that was the sweetest taste Communism could offer.

Related Post: Encountering the Berlin Wall (and its version on NPR)

On Being a Voyeur: I Have No Complaints

04 Oct 2009
October 4, 2009

When I was in San Francisco last week for meetings I stayed with good friends in Noe Valley. Being a seasoned commuter I left the house each morning precisely at 7:55 and walked down to Market Street to catch the MUNI downtown. My Bay Area mornings were like every workday morning for me –a walk and then a hop onto mass transit.

And when I got onto my train I appeared to do what every San Franciscan did. I pretended to be in my own little world (as I pretend to do every morning on my commute from the Maryland burbs to downtown DC). Secretly, however, I was really being myself: curious as ever, watching my commuter brethren in their natural habitat on their ways to work. In this regard I am no mere amateur.

One morning as we pushed east from Church Street I spied a young man near one of the doors. He appeared to be in his twenties, with blond shaggy hair and dressed casually. He was looking into a folder. Straining my neck just a little and with experienced stealth I was able to see the folder was filled with music scores, which added to my excitement. I tracked his eyes as he read the scores line by line just like a good book. Every once in a while he’d laugh. No, it was more of a chuckle, as if he’d just read a funny passage filled with alluring innuendo from Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

He seemed to really be enjoying his morning read. Looking around, I seemed to be the only one noticing him. Ah, a hidden pleasure visible only to me. I’m such a voyeur. He was so engrossed in his music I continued to look directly at him with no fear of being discovered. You might remember I’ve been in this enviable position before.

Music Feet on the DC Metro

Interestingly, this was my second mass transit encounter with the musical staff. A few weeks before as I made my morning commute to work I suddenly looked down at the feet of woman standing next to me. Each foot sported a music notation tattoo. I so wanted to ask her the significance of her musical commitment but decided the mystery was more interesting.

In the case of the young man there simply was no photograph or video that would adequately convey the encounter. The memory of watching this little tableau unfold was more than enough. He exited the train at Van Ness and I wondered if he worked at the symphony or opera close by.

The woman’s feet, however, were wonderfully photogenic. Their position on the subway floor suggested a dancer but the rest of her body seemed more musician.

In both cases I was left with a mystery which only encouraged me to continue with my life’s work underground.

Our Real Family Vacation

13 Sep 2009
September 13, 2009
Shadow Puppets in Santa Fe

I went to Santa Fe and all I got was this wonderful portrait of my daughters. Click image for larger view.

It’s the week after Labor Day. The girls are back in school and I’ve got deadlines at work. It’s been rainy and cool and I’m starting to see just a hint of fall colors on the trees above my head. Way too early, I think. Summer, my favorite season, has instantaneously migrated to fall, my least favorite. I know what’s coming (PDF). Our family vacation to Santa Fe just two weeks ago is starting to seem like a very distant memory.

Family holidays end and what do we have to show for them? Some worn out maps; a few bills to pay. My daughters came back with a few beautiful baubles from the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe. Nice, but I’m hoping they’ll eventually look back on these annual trips with more substantial family memories (and more uplifting than my wife and I took away from our own childhood family vacations). That’s evolution, right?

In order to help that along I’ve documented our time in New Mexico. I brought my video camera but didn’t touch it once. Instead, I wanted my souvenirs to be those special slices of life in between our normal family dynamics (which never seem to take a vacation). It was a chance for me to be creative while really getting away from my daily grind.

I got my best souvenir just a few days into our trip. On our visit to the International Folk Art Museum I took this portrait of my daughters. In addition to the amazing folk art tableaus from the collection of Alexander Girard, they had an exhibition of Indonesian shadow puppets and instruments. The girls gravitated to the family room off the main exhibition space where they immediately began to put on their own shadow puppet show.

I caught them in play, but the photo reflects the girls’ relationship. My older daughter on the left, a newly anointed teen, seems to be admonishing her younger sister for something. A new constant in our lives, the image reflects our family dynamics captured on camera as a family vacation memory. So much for trying to document the “in between.”

There were other photos, more stereotypical of travel. And I hope my children remember the vacation part of these vacation images: my oldest mistakenly drinking from a large water bottle of holy water at the Santuario de Chimayó or my youngest’s excitement at attending a performance at the Santa Fe Oprah. But I’ll best remember this photograph because it reminds me of where we really spent our family vacation in the summer of 2009.

Nailing a Good Photo

09 Aug 2009
August 9, 2009
My fellow commuter on the subway

My fellow commuter. Click on image for a larger view.

It had been a long week. I’d just completed two days of teaching teachers how to podcast: a rewarding activity that reminded me of my years in the classroom. But teachers know teaching is exhausting. And teaching technology is even more so. You closely examine your students’ faces, ferreting out those who get it and those who are lost. To bridge those techno-fears I succumb to using humor to push on through. By the end of the session I surveyed the room, happy to see their relaxed faces. But I had lost my voice in the process.

So, on Friday morning, knowing that my instruction had ended and I could tie up my regular loose ends before the weekend, I was in an easygoing mood on my commute into work.

As we pulled into Union Station I noticed the woman sitting next to me. My, what long red fingers you have, I thought. If I could get a good pic of those nails holding your book’s pages at bay I’d start the day feeling creative. Should I ask you first? An age-old question. If I did your body language would surely change and that special relationship between your nails and the book would be lost. Yet, I’ve always felt a bit weird about being surreptitious. What if I got caught? What if she questioned what I was doing? So much the better I finally decided. The tension woke me up.

I pulled out my iPhone and nonchalantly aimed it her way. The man across the aisle was watching me. But my next door neighbor continued to read. When you work undercover the pressure’s on to get your shot quickly. But once I looked through the viewfinder I knew this: to get a good photo I would make myself take the extra second to compose it just right. Every extra second increased the chances of an engagement. But that’s all it took. I moved the camera a bit to the left.

I only took one shot. And I had gotten my voice back.

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