Sunday, September 26, 2021

In memoriam : The Canon Years

Alain Comeau at Schartner's Farms in North Conway, NH. 2003. Shot with Canon 1Ds. 

Butternut Squash in East Conway, NH. 2004.

It’s with a trace of sadness that I've said goodbye to 30 years of devoted service from Canon cameras and lenses. Our affair began in the early 90s with a Canon film camera, the prosumer Elan ll. That's when I switched from Pentax which I'd used since 1970. In 1972 when we lived in Minneapolis I bought a Kodak 2D 8”x10” that was built in 1941, the year of my birth. So, I was shooting 35mm, 8x10 and 4x5 since the 2D had a 4x5 back. The whole shebang including a complete darkroom cost $250. The package also came with a bevy of vintage lenses dating from the turn of the 20th century. One, the brass Hyperion Diffusion Lens, was made for swollowing the wrinkles of aging actors like, say. Loretta Young. It became "the Loretta Young Lens." The lenses are handsome, ornate, and highly effective paperweights. They are décor in Casa Immel today while the hulking wooden 8x10 sleeps like Dracula in its leatherette coffin in the garage.

I bought a Cambo 4x5 in 2001. It was a floor model from Calumet Photo in Cambridge, MA. I had used it sparingly and in November of that year Canon announced the trailblazing 1Ds, at the time the highest resolution digital single range reflex camera in the known universe. More about resolution later. Anyway, as I have described too often in these pages, I had to have it despite its $7,995 price tag. I paid $7,700. I am in marketing terms an early adaptor. Or is it easy mark?

It was a tank and it was an incredible camera. See Vanishing Point just below. The 32"x 40" of the image from the 1Ds resides on the wall above my desk. It's as crisp and unpixellated as this evening's IPA. I never used the Cambo 4x5 again or film of any kind, for that matter.

Vanishing Point, Pine Ridge Reservation, SD. 2006

Good Luck, Keeler, CA. 2006

The 1Ds introduced me to the Canon digital family. It’s successors the 5D, the 5D Mark ll, the 6D and the 5D Mark lll served me faithfully. But I was restless and drawn to the flickering flame of the fetching mirrorless camera. Yes, I just wrote "flickering flame of the fetching mirrorless camera." Alliteration flows from my fingertips.

And so, dear readers, after months of therapy, I traded my Canon gear and a boatload of cash for a Sony a7r llla mirrorless camera, two lenses and peripherals. I held the dazzling beauty in my hands for the first time a week ago and promptly suffered three days of buyer’s remorse.

Canon was my stalwart companion since 1991. It guided me into the digital world in 2002. I felt unfaithful and not a little misty about throwing her over for a newer model, so I hedged my bet and kept my 5d Mark lll and my 28mm-135mm zoom as back-ups.

Have it both ways. That’s my motto.

As to resolution, the 1Ds had 11.1 MP, the 5D Mark 111 22.3 MP, the Sony a7r llla 42MP. I couldn’t convince myself to spend another grand for the a7r lV and it’s stratospheric 62MB.

Happy Birthday to me.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Encounters of the First Kind : Amy French

While Amy French was giving me a tour of Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon she pointed at her name tag and told me, “I’m a breast cancer survivor. I just completed chemo. That’s why my hair’s so short.” It was almost the first thing she said to me.

I replied that, “It’s quite stylish.” And it was.

Mary Colter's incredible Desert View Watchtower from 1932.

Amy who manages the Desert View outpost on the South Rim of the canyon had given Peggy a tour of Colter’s masterpiece the previous day. Peggy described the experience as “almost spiritual.” She told me that Amy would give me the tour, too, if I was interested.  I was very interested. I'm a Mary Colter devotee. 

When I entered a trim woman with close cropped hair was leaving the backroom. That’s the way Peggy described Amy.

So, I declared, “You must be Amy. You gave my wife a tour of the tower yesterday. She said I might be able to get the tour, too. I can see you’re really busy. This is probably a bad time.”

The Watchtower from the east.

Amy responded, “Not at all. I have a full staff. This is a perfect time. Do you want to go up into the tower now?”

I said, “Absolutely. Let’s do it.”

The view from the observation deck courtesy of Amy French who gave me the run of the joint.

This from the 'ruin' adjacent to the tower.

A window on the world

Amy led me up the narrow stairs with a leather wrapped handrail. Peggy had mentioned the handrail and Mary Colter’s superior attention to the details of her architecture. Colter was the head architect for the Fred Harvey Company for the first four decades of the 20th century and Grand Canyon National Park boasts the largest collection of her buildings in the country. To have that kind of influence on the design aesthetic of the Southwest is amazing enough but that she was a no nonsense, pants wearing, chain smoking woman in man’s world is all the more remarkable. Colter was arguably the preeminent female architect of her era and certainly my hero.

I asked Amy how she found her way to the Grand Canyon.

She told me that she and her partner David were RVing around the country. They had done menial jobs at various parks. Cleaning toilets is a prime example. They had worked at Red Rock National Monument outside Las Vegas and at Mount Rushmore before arriving at The Grand five years ago.

She told me that she was born in Arkansas, moved to Oklahoma, got her bachelors and masters degrees at Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma, respectively. She lived in Houston with her former husband for ten years. After her divorce she met her partner David and hit the bricks. I surmise she met him in the world of endurance athletics. More on that later.

They were both employed by the Grand Canyon Conservancy for five years. Amy rose through the ranks till she became manager of Desert View in July. Meanwhile David went back to medical school in Tempe after a 12-year hiatus. She told me that he had left medical school to attend to family matters but was back where he belonged, studying to become doctor. He's first in his class she told me.

Amy looked like an endurance athlete. Unprompted, that told me she used to do ultramarathons but now she preferred backpacking. “It’s slower and you can see so much more than when you’re racing down rocky trail and trying not to fall.” I can relate. David, it turns out, is an accomplished ultramarathoner who had won a dozen races in the US and in Europe. I'm talking 100 milers, folks.

Amy is also a Native American jewelry aficionado as shown by the turquoise bling around her neck. I asked her where she got the impressive piece.

She answered, “I’d like to tell you an elaborate story about buying it directly from the jeweler at a remote trading post outside Window Rock, but the truth is that I got it online. I saw it and had to have it.”

This story is part of the developing series I’m calling Close Encounters of the First Kind or Encounters of the First Kind. I have half a dozen of them so far and can visualize quite a series. My post about Ken Tinsley in Arroyo Hondo a few weeks ago launched me on the path to meeting strangers and learning their stories while making their portraits. Amy French was the first since I realized my mission in life.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The river of no return

Bubbly at the El Tovar. I toast to me.

Taking stock at 80 is a confusing and occasionally mournful pursuit. For several months the advent of eight decades on the planet has seasoned my thoughts. There have been moments as dark as night. As the song asks, “Is that all there is?” Or “Is that all there was?”

Steve on the South Rim. He didn't jump.

The theme that resonates most in the story of aging is when exactly are you old? I’ve boasted that I’ll be old when I decided I’m old or I still feel the way I did thirty years ago. Both are largely true. I still, knock wood, can do all the things I could do at, say 40. I just do them slowly. Then again, I don’t cycle or ski anymore because of my osteoporosis. I’m more sanguine than I should be.

Age they say is between your ears. By that standard I haven’t quite made the leap to decrepitude. But, boy, am I close. Punctuating my battle with Old Man Time are reality checks that tell me to accept my dotage gracefully. Each new infirmity and injury beckons me toward the abyss from which no one returns.

When the first things on my daily todo list aren’t cardio, stretch and lift I’ll know I’ve arrived at the station. Today exercise is first and foremost on my list-o-the day. Unless I run, cycle indoor, do my morning ab work and lift three times a week I’m a pissy old man. But if I were to dispense with the losing battle for youth, I’d have the time and headspace to write the fucking sheep book or the festering novel of my dreams. Meanwhile my friend John Ellsworth rolls out a novel every 40 days and all I’ve got is a tee-shirt that boasts 80 is the new 79. If I gave up exercise and, more importantly, the compulsion to do it, I might accomplish the creative goals I’ve harbored for a lifetime. If I arm wrestled myself I don’t which me would win, the cerebral creative one or the simple jock.

The axiom “Don’t look back and say wish I had” has been said lots of ways. “I wish I had” is an aging man’s lament. Half a century ago the author Alexander King, wrote the book I Should Have Kissed Her More. That pretty much sums it up, figuratively speaking.

This kind of introspection leads to bucket lists though I abhor the term. At 8-zero there are going to be things you wish you’d done and not a few things you wish you hadn’t. But unless these realizations inform the dwindling days of your life, the self-flagellation is unproductive.

Note to self, do the things the things that will fill your heart with energy and excitement. And do them stat.

That would start with a grand adventure or more correctly grand adventures. Maybe I want to visit every Goddamn place I've ever dreamed of visiting. Or maybe I want to pick a place south of the equator, buy a one-way ticket to, say Buenos Aires, and figure it out from there. Or fly to, say Paris, buy an unlimited Eurail pass and follow my whims till I’ve had my fill.

I’ve dreamed of living in a foreign county for a year. Better yet live in a city in a foreign country for a year. It’s probably a second city. Paris non. Montpelier or Grenoble oui. Rome no. Sienna or Taormina sí. Madrid or Barcelona no. Malaga or Cordoba sí.

If not now when? Gotta do whatever the hell it is while the body and mind are willing.

The flip side of doing what you want to do is not doing what you don’t want to do. If that’s selfish, sue me.

And corollary to doing what the hell you want to do is acquiring the toys you want to have. In today’s case that’s trading in all my Canon camera gear for a bright and shiny mirrorless camera kit. I have spent sleepless nights fighting the guilt of buying the camera that has twice the resolution, faster auto-focus and is two thirds the size. Just the thing for travel don’t you know? I’ve always agonized about big purchases though I make them in the long run. So, why all the angst? As my friend Terry Thompson says, "Buy the damn thing."

The first day of my 81st year began in like a dirge. It felt like I and everyone involved was going through the motions of celebrating my big day. It was a wary dance. The truth is that it doesn’t feel like a celebratory event. I am not excited about it. I don’t like it one bit.

But by noon after half a dozen happy birthday phone calls, a flurry of texts and a run through the woods the day took on a new light. I am blessed by dear friends, a wonderful wife who’s the love of my life and the best son a father could have. Blessed is a shallow understatement.

When the obligatory birthday wishes turned to conversations that were more about the caller than than me I could breath. When the interchange became about them and not me, I forgot the hard moment at hand. When I became my senior statesman, advice-giving self my spirits lifted, and the birthday bullshit faded away. In one consult I recommended a new knee. In another I endorsed spine surgery and in another I advised my restaurant colleague to take the money and run. Time will tell whether those unfortunates will do what I told them to do. I am, after all, all knowing, and the advice is free.

When your birthday falls on 9/11 there’s a pall on the entire affair. Like everybody who was alive and aware when the towers came down, I know where I was and how I learned of the tragedy. And, like anybody my age, JFK’s assassination is the first such memory. And, because we saw Bobby Kennedy speak at Hollywood’s Greek Theatre the night before his death, it’s on the list. And because I was in Chicago during the 1968 riots at the Democratic Convention and could see the cloud of tear gas from my hotel, it’s something I’ll never shake.

With one dear friend I recalled the dinner at Boston’s Pigalle restaurant on the infamous 911 when I turned 60. Charlie and I grew misty thinking about, as he put it, how young we were. He remembered that I flirted with cancelling the reservation but reasoned that cancelling would give the perpetrators a victory lap. Good call. 70 was a lunch as Alain Ducasse’s Bastide du Moustiers, our first $300 lunch. That had no life altering effect. It was simply a perfect meal in the caressing Provençal sun. I have no recollections about 40 and 50 except they both were bashes at our Lincoln, Massachusetts home. I was happy and proud of on one of them and a whiney bitch on the other. I don’t remember which was which.

Hopefully, this self-absorption will pass. 

Sunday, September 05, 2021

A splash of color, please.

This is a lightly edited version of Telling Stories : A splash of color, please my latest article in Shadow and Light Magazine

Adobe at Ranchos Plaza, Ranchos de Taos, NM

When I walked into Wilder Nightingale Galley in December, I couldn’t have foreseen that the framed print I was carrying would transform my sleepy photographic career. I was playing a hunch.

Owner Rob Nightingale greeted me warmly despite my meager contribution to gallery sales over the last decade. There have been years when I was Rob’s best-selling photographer but at least one year when I sold zero photographs and one two person show with nada zip zilch. I had always chalked up the lackluster results to the fact that “Photographs are a tough sell.” Or “Everybody’s a photographer so photography has been devalued.” While there’s a measure of truth to both rationalizations, Adobe at Ranchos Plaza cast doubt on my years of excuse making. It may actually be the work, stupid.

When I showed Adobe to Rob, I told him. “I’ve got something that might sell.” I really had that feeling. He accepted the photograph and told me, “I’ll find a place for it.” He simply signed the consignment sheet and that was that.

The very next day he called me. He reported that, “I posted it on Facebook yesterday.  I sold one 24” x 30” last night and another one this morning.” It’s a good thing I was sitting down. For a decade I've contended that photography should sell online, that it's an electronic medium. Finally, my thesis is supported with some facts.

The secret ingredient to Adobe is that it’s a toned black and white print in which I had reserved an area of color. The treatment is called Spot Color.

Encouraged by that flurry of interest I started to assemble a portfolio of images employing Spot Color. Almost twenty years ago I had a dalliance with the technique but dismissed it as a gimmick. That was then.

Reflected Sky, Bartlett, NH

My first experiment with it was in 2002 shortly after I switched to digital from large format film. In the village of Bartlett, NH, hard against the railroad tracks, was a long shuttered general store. I was drawn to the patterns of the weathered clapboard siding. Only later when I was processing the images did I see the reflection of the cloudy sky in the window panes. I rendered the photograph in color as I always do. Then using Colorize in Hue and Saturation, I created a toned black and white print. But I still had the color version so, when I recognized the powerful sky reflected in the windows, I selected the window frame, clicked Select and Inverse and toned the remainder of the image as described above. I liked the results but thought it was overkill.

Fresh Oven Bread, Taos Pueblo

My second effort came a decade ago when I processed Fresh Oven Bread from Taos Pueblo. Like Adobe it began as a color photograph and was converted into a toned black and white using the methodology above. The distressed blue door in the color version grabbed me by the scruff of the neck so that I returned to the color version of the image, preserved the blue door, and colorized the remainder in toned black and white.

In early December 2020 when I was looking for a Christmas card image I revisited the color version of Adobe at Ranchos Plaza that I had taken in January. Finally, I saw the potential of Adobe using spot color. The response to my holiday card was instantaneous and passionate. Man, did people like that card.

Puerta Turqueza, Mineral de Pozos, Mexico

Welcome. We're closed, Rice, CA

Pine Tree Café, Lone Pine, CA

When my Peggy and I started planning our fourth bi-annual show at Wilder Nightingale we decided to call the exhibition Immel + Immel New Perspectives. It was meant to suggest that something new and different was forthcoming. Part of the new was that we would work exclusively in squares. After decades of photographs in the digital 3x2 aspect ratio squares brought creative tension to the process. But the wrinkle that worked was spot color. 15% of my photographs in the show featured spot color but yet the spot color prints represented 60% of sales.

The work flew off the wall. And, amazingly, it was the aggressively priced big pieces that sold.

Last week when I brought Rob Nightingale replacements prints, he told me that he had sold two the previous day, both to young couples. They were both spot color images, of course. He observed that "young people gravitate to those images", and that I should print all the spot color images as 15”x15” images on 24”x24” paper. In other words, the big ones.

Never let it be said that this old dog can’t learn new tricks

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Bye Bye Love

Early Everly Brothers, Phil standing, Don seated.

When Don Everly of the Everly Brothers died this week, it swept me back to midcentury America when the pop duo topped the charts from 1957 through 1962. It was a remarkable run that spawned a legion of schoolboy musicians like my singing partner John Ellsworth and me. More than any other act the Everlys propelled us into our five-year adventure in show business.

The Everlys' sweet harmonies spoke to us and soon we had covered all their songs. We'd sit in John’s living room, put a 45 on his record player and play a few bars, John would lift the needle and we’d hurriedly transcribe the lyrics and learn the song line by line. We’d find the key, hunt and peck for the chords and, voila, we had a new song in our arsenal. It was easy in the days of three chord compositions.

Steve, John and Toby Constance about 1962.

Whether in our short-lived rock period or in our three-year folk odyssey harmony was the heart of our music. That's thanks to Phil and Don Everly and later to the folk duo Bud and Travis. Bud Dashiell and Travis Edmonson had but one chart topper, On a Cloudy Afternoon, written by Edmonson. While the Everlys had 17 top ten records between 1957 and 1962. Bud and Travis's harmonies and mastery of the Mexican guitar inspired us as much as Phil and Don. From their songbook came much of our folk playlist along with a smattering of Kingston Trio hits and a handful of our own tunes. Even our stage name Kelly and John arose from our infatuation with Bud and Travis. At least one of us thought Kelly and John was more distinctive than Steve and John or, for that matter, John and Steve.

It’s hard to fathom that we were near contemporaries of Phil and Don Everly. Don was born in 1937 and Phil in 1940. My singing partner John and I were both born in 1941. With their musician parents the Everly Brothers began performing on the radio in the late forties. While still in high school they began writing and recording their own material. Then in 1957 at the ages of 18 and 20 they recorded their first hit Bye Bye Love. It was number two in the country. That was followed by 16 Top Ten Hits before the music stopped in 1963. The first seven hits were written by the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. Problems at #2 in 1962 was written by Don Everly, the first by one of the brothers.

That’s Old Fashioned in 1962 was the Everly Brothers' last top ten hit. And the 1984 song On the Wings of a Nightingale by Paul McCartney was the last Everly Brothers song to chart at all.

Ironically, the decline of the Everly Brothers can be attributed in part to the British Invasion led by General McCartney and the Beatles. But it was preceded by simmering disputes between the brothers and the Nashville behemoth Acuff-Rose which managed them. In 1960 they changed record labels and lost access to the music of the prolific Bryants who had written their first seven hits. Then, inexplicably, in 1961 Phil and Don joined the Marines. So, their production slipped, they couldn't tour and they no longer had the prolific Bryants contributing songs.

They toured successfully throughout the sixties, each released solo albums in the early 70s and broke up in 1973 when Don arrived for a concert so drunk he couldn’t play. After butchering the lyrics to Cathy’s Clown, a number one song he had written, Phil and Don argued on stage. Don threw his guitar down yelling, “I’m through being an Everly Brother.” Phil played alone for the rest of the set and shouted back at a sea of hecklers, “The Everly Brothers died ten years ago.”

Reportedly, Don had always felt upstaged by Phil’s sweet tenor voice. When, in fact, his driving rhythm guitar was as irreplaceable to the Everly Brothers sound as Phil's tenor and their soaring harmonies. He's reported to have said, “I’ve been a has been since I was ten.”

The Everly Brothers sang as if they were fused into a single body. Only one act other achieved that miracle, Simon and Garfunkel. Fittingly, when they played in London’s Hyde Park in 2003, Paul and Art interrupted their set by bringing Don and Phil on stage to sing. As Ray Connolly wrote in the London Daily Mail it was, “a generous homage to the sound they’d copied."

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The 80 Year Itch

The start line of the Transrockies Run

17 minutes till showtime

The afternoon that I arrived in Leadville to photograph the abandoned silver mines in the boomtown of the late 1800s I noticed a van with the words Transrockies Trail Race on its sides and a row of porta-potties in front of the town gym. A trickle of jocks entered and exited as I photographed Leadville’s handsome historic district. I nosed around a bit and asked what was going on.

“The third leg of a six-day stage race will start here tomorrow morning. It starts at 8am sharp. The start line is around the corner to the left.”

I thanked her and pledged to be there to photograph the start of the race Sunday morning. As an endurance athlete of modest accomplishments in the 70s and 80s I crave the hubbub, jangled nerves and good cheer that infuse the hours before a big race. I realized that I missed it though there was never a start to any triathlon where I wasn’t so nervous that I swore I’d never do another. Just writing these words gives me a major case of the butterflies. True story.

Anyway, I was downtown searching for good cup of coffee at 6:30am. I asked another worker where I could grab a latte and a pastry and she said, “Go to Coffee on a Hill. It’s right at the start line.”

Coffee on a Hill satisfied. It was arguably the lone bastion of sophistication in all of Leadville. That unto itself is a story. I can’t count the backwaters I’ve suffered but I found a good locally owned and operated coffee emporium: an oasis in a desert of convenience store java.

Pure joy

Couples therapy

As I watched athletes arrive at the start line, I was taken by the bubbling of good cheer, by the bonhomie and beaming smiles that surrounded me. The percolating goodwill and excitement were energies I haven’t absorbed since I folded my singlet in 1987.

I missed the feeling and dared to wonder if I could do a race like the Trans-Rockies. I'm pretty sure I can handle the cardio part. It's the cranky back that wouldn't cooperate. Doing the race isn’t a compulsion by any means. More like an itch.

The number one seed checks his watch

And they're off

Camp Hale here we come

Running through Leadville's historic downtown

The Trans-Rockies field was not a sea of anorexics. Some of the hardy 360 competitors were downright portly. I’m a wraith compared to lots of those folks. Does looking like you could finish the race count for anything? I thought not. Michael Duran, a Taos friend who has completed 7 of the last 10 Leadville 100 Mile Trail Races, told me that carrying extra weight could be an advantage. He said that in the Leadville 100, as in miles, they weigh you at every check point and kick you out of the race if you’ve lost too much weigh.

These days I don’t have any poundage to give up. So, I’ll have to fatten up before I do the Trans-Rockies Race next year. I bet I’ll be the oldest competitor.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Close encounters of the first kind

Hondo Valley overlook

Ben Ainsley

I arrived at the road to the John Dunn Bridge and spotted a 1980s Winnebago campervan at the vista point above the Arroyo Hondo Valley. After photographing the bridge and the Rio Grande I drove back up the hill to get a shot of the lush valley of the Rio Hondo. I parked next to the vintage camper and walked to the overlook. Seated on a rock, cigarette in hand, an older gentleman who was younger than I gazed north toward Cebolla Mesa. When I approached the precipice, he rose, walked toward me, and said, “Take my picture. I’m getting married today.” That’s one hell of an intro.

Portrait mode.

As directed

I said yes, positioned him in front of a juniper and took a couple of shots. He projected sadness and not the joy one might expect. I told him to show me the mood befitting the day at hand. We walked back to the camper, and I photographed him there. He boasted, “I bought it for $2,200.”

Ben and van

An homage to Lenny Foster's Healing Hands series. Lousy photograph but the spirit abides.
Father and son

Inside the van he had built a shrine to his son who had died “many years ago.” He pointed at his photograph, lit another smoke and poured himself two fingers of whisky.

He was getting married that afternoon and Bobby Duran was going to be his best man.

“Bobby’s my best friend. Do you know him?”

I answered that I knew of  him. He used to be the mayor of Taos. I didn’t add that he operates a non-descript secondhand store today or that a friend of mine named his jackass “Bobby” after the former mayor. They were archenemies. 

I took four things from our ten-minute encounter. Or perhaps, four truths were confirmed.

One, people are desperate to tell you their stories. They cannot wait.

Two, they'll tell a complete stranger the most important thing in their life in the first two minutes.

Three, you can form a complete picture of a stranger in a few minutes. The fictionalized life story of Ben Ainsley (not his name) would write itself.

Four, be there, be interested, and listen.

It’s a minor miracle really, what you can learn and appreciate in ten short minutes.

Take note of Ben’s Jimmy Hendrick’s tee. It’s the one his son is wearing in the photograph.