A matter of discovery--The objective and the abstract

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Donald Miller, Apr 20, 2004.

  1. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    An awareness has been fermenting within me for some time now and it is best illustrated in my observation of the nature of my images, the observation of the images of others, and the reactions of others to images (mine and others).

    When I began practicing photography over twenty years ago I began taking pictures of "things"...identifiable objects with which I and others have an awareness that is identifiable and definable. These early images may have been as simple as a single object or more complex as in a relationship between objects. These early images don't have much of an emotional content to me today. The reason that is true, I think, is that I was showing too much, showing it too well, and identifying it too completely. As I observe the images of others the same tendency seems to occur.

    I am aware that "pretty pictures" don't do much for me anymore. Pictures of readily identifiable objects do not excite me...they don't engage me and they do not keep me engaged. That is true whether these images are mine or someone elses. They portray one part of life...but they don't address the totality of life.

    I think that a great deal of our time here on this earth is not about what is seen but probably more about what is unseen. That is why photography can be such an excellent means to self discovery. While we can't photograph the "unseen"...we can allude to it in our images. That is the component of an image that keeps me engaged. That is the component that prompts me to keep asking questions.

    Last week I posted two images to ascertain the reaction of the viewers on this forum. I found the results to be informative. The one image was of a mountain stream with the trees beyond. The second image was of the streaked plastered wall with a window opening and a broken window opening beyond. The first photograph was a "pretty picture" and told a story. The second photograph posed a question. The photograph that got the most views and comments? Predictably it was the "pretty picture". Why is that? Are we afraid to confront the unseen and unknown? Are we afraid to question? Are we afraid to think? I don't know. I would like your thoughts on this. Thanks for your views.
     
  2. glbeas

    glbeas Member

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    My guess is not all folks heard or understood there was a question. I saw it as an abstract design myself.
    Who's to say the mountain stream had no questions to ask?
     
  3. Bruce Osgood

    Bruce Osgood Membership Council

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    I would agree with glbeas and go a step further.

    The image of the mountain stream I'm sure I saw but honestly can't remember it.

    The abstract I can remember today. My response to it at the time was 'why is he showing me this? What am I to take away?'

    Perhaps the photograph is an answer to a question we did not know we had?

    Wouldn't it be nice if people looked at our photographs and said: I see, now I understand.
     
  4. Andre R. de Avillez

    Andre R. de Avillez Member

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    I saw both, and remeber both (and I'll be d*mmed if I can't find them now). I commented on the treeline one, but decided to keep my mouth (hands?) shut on the second one. I simply had nothing to add. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
     
  5. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    I purposely did not identify either image for that reason. I always want an image to be a personal experience (primarily for myself and additionally for others).

    The matter of the question of a mountain stream...other then the location and other matters pertaining to the objective reality, what question could be posed?

    Prior to the post this evening, I visited with another well recognized photographer last week about this same matter. I asked this question of him..."What am I missing?" when I observed the variance in the number of views. His response was "you are not the one that is missing the point". I guess that this is a matter of different places in our view of life and of the place that photography can play.

    Bruce said:

    "The abstract I can remember today. My response to it at the time was 'why is he showing me this? What am I to take away?'...I would say in response that apparently the question that you posed "

    I would respond by saying that apparently the mountain stream was not of a lasting impression. I am heartened by that because apparently the abstract engaged you. The question of the image is one for you to pose to yourself and one for you to answer.

    Thanks to both of you for your views.
     
  6. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    Certainly true. There is no right or wrong answer to my post of this evening. Rather this is a another matter of consideration, if you will.
    Thanks for your view.
     
  7. Doug Bennett

    Doug Bennett Member

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    I assume this, http://www.apug.org/site/main/album_comment.php?pic_id=2796, is it. The pretty picture seems to be gone. You got 19 comments; not too shabby.

    I guess we've all gotten inured to it, but judging fine B&W prints by looking at a relatively low resolution digital file is poor substitute for the real thing. This print may not translate to this medium; it may, however, be a knockout as an 11x14, nicely mounted, hanging in nice light.

    "Are we afraid to confront the unseen and unknown?" I would think that this crowd would be all about the unseen, but I could be wrong.
     
  8. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    Doug,

    No, the link that you provided is not to either of the images that I am speaking of.

    Please understand that this is not intended belittle anyone or to address the number of comments that viewers offered other then to recognize that the overwhelming number of comments were about an image that in my opinion has been done to death. As I remember that "pretty picture" image received something over 20 comments. The abstract received 2, as I recall.

    My question, phrased in another way, is why do recognized and acknowledged photographers gravitate to the "known"? Are we doomed to be copiers of copiers?
     
  9. jovo

    jovo Membership Council

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    donald poses a question that's important to consider. i've thought about it for years and have some ideas that are relevant to me.

    as a cellist and teacher, i am sometimes engaged to learn and perform (and sometimes to teach) music that is...well....obscure (to be kind). the composer has chosen to use musical language that isn't readily accessible... that isn't even particularly comprehensible after practice and study. yet, for reasons that probably have to do more with professional pride than anything else, i peresevere and learn the piece. occasionally the effort opens up an unexpected world of interesting ideas....just as often however, it's just plain awful. the thing is...music is temporal, and you have to sit through the entire performance (unless you run, quietly, out of the room.) in real time. the point is...the composer required, in fact demanded, a great deal of both performer and listener. most people have absolutely no intention of making such a committment in time and attention so the music is neither performed nor heard a second time.

    photography is far easier to dismiss. i read once that the average viewer spends no more than two seconds looking at images when there are many to view in an exhibition. so if the image is obscure and requires committment to really look at and attempt to comprehend it's not surprising that an audience is even less likely to make the choice to make that effort.

    so...neither the composer nor artist/photographer need necessarily offer work in the language of the medium that's the most readily digested, but should certainly not be surprised when there are few takers.
     
  10. Andre R. de Avillez

    Andre R. de Avillez Member

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    We know (or I do...)

    I did not mean to come off as aggressive as I did either. What I meant was this, sometimes we cannot find the vocabulary to describe our opinions correctly. Sometimes we don't know what that opinion is. That does not discredit the photograph at all. "Hallmark" type photography (no insult intended) is easier to comment simply because we have had time to formulate our ideas about them. we've seen them a million times.

    New work (or intriguing work) should ask for no more than dropped jaws from its audience. Maybe some mumbling. Gestures can't hurt either. But a gramatically structured opinion would be asking too much.
     
  11. Jeremy

    Jeremy Member

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    I'm with Bruce in that the the broken window picture readily stands out in my mind while I probably did not glance at the "pretty picture" more than once. I kept coming back to the broken window to look at and study it, but I did not comment as I didn't have any answers to the questions it posed. While at the Fort Worth Arts Festival this past weekend I bought a small print (probably 4" x 4" mounted to 11x14) and it was the only thing I bought. Why did I buy it? It was the only image I saw all day long that I could not get out of my head. A lot of Michael A Smith's photos seem to have the same effect on me: I will look at an image and it will stay with me, at the forefront of my consciousness for a long time. I will think about the image and the more I think about it the more of an opinion I form, I may love it or I may hate it (there are many in each camp) but I THINK and it is that effect I am trying to achieve in my own photography.
     
  12. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    Interesting ... I cut this out of a recent issue of the Boston Globe ... I was wondering where to post it ...

    "Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things."

    - Edgar Degas


    I do not accept the idea that the number of comments is a valid measure of the effect of a work on the experiencer. *Some* music leaves me breathless ... and speechless - my consciousness has been altered - and it will take me some amount of time to adapt.

    Andre' R. deAvillez does raise an interesting point ... After all, if we COULD (easily) describe the "meaning" of the image in words - (I would choose "convey the emotional content" ) why would we need a photograph?
     
  13. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser

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    you ask - why do recognized and acknowledged photographers gravitate to the "known"? Are we doomed to be copiers of copiers?



    i think in general, most people aren't sure how to respond to abstact imagery. from an early age we are taught somehow what beauty is, and how we should respond to it. when someone sees an abstract image they just don't know what to say or how to respond to it. they might see it, and say "wow" to themselves. at the same time, " i don't get it " because it just doesn't impact them the same way a landscape or still life or "whatever" resonates with them.

    maybe it is a learned response, or an acquired interest?

    personally, i would rather look at abstract images, things decaying, urban blight or things that are not "beautiful" . i find there are so many images that flood our everyday life - beautiful people on television & motion pictures, beautiful landscapes and still lifes, i find it all to be kind of boring. for me at least, the "other" images seem to be more interesting and revealing of the situation. i can't really explain why i think this, it is just a feeling i get whenever i see these "other" images.
     
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  15. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    I am glad you asked this and opened the door. I have been seeing your pictures and undoubtedly you have become an accomplished printer. If your prints look this good in the scans, then the originals must be fabulous, but, and here is the big but, I have found them derivative. They are all great pictures but they have been done before. I have been wanting to tell you this for the longest time, but I think it is time you pic a project and focus your vision. As a matter of fact the picture I liked the best is the one that is a pyro developer test, the one with the brick wall and plaster.

    One consideration one must have is that the definition of a "pretty" picture has changed with time, 30 or 40 years ago your picture of the stream would have been compared to Adams's work, today is just one more tree and water pic. I see the pretty pics now as those who use a minimalistic approach. Michael Kenna, David Fokos, etc. They have become famous by getting away from the grand landscape and produce the quiet, harmonious, sort of zen images.

    I have struggled with the same problem for the longest time, I even told in an old thread how when I went to Page I just left my camera in the hotel, I felt "what is the point? all this has been done, and done very well. Does the world need another horseshoe river shot, or another slot canyon shot?" To tell you the truth it was very liberating, I just enjoyed the place, took the tour to the rainbow bridge, etc, and did not worry about a single shots of these places.

    Coincidentally when I decided to change to pt/pd I noticed something funny. Out of the many horrible pictures I made, as I improved and showed some of the good pictures to people, photographers and non photographers, the comment that I heard the most was not "wow this is beautiful" or " I love the contrast/subject/fill in the blank" what I heard the most was " I feel like I am there, like I could touch the earth/wall/object".

    Well, let me stop all this rambling and get to the point. I think we are destined to stumble in a darkroom until we find the light switch. I can only speak for myself, but I found my "switch" when I realized my strength lay in "transporting" people to the places I visit and photograph. I no longer look for the grandiose landscape, or the minimalistic quiet image with beautiful tones, I look for textures and shapes, things that make people want to touch the photograph, and in doing so I think I am developing my own personal style, which after all is what I think you are asking. How do we make our work different? How do we separate our work from the thousands who are out there taking pictures of tree and rocks? I think I was lucky to find a "course" that has made photography once again satisfying.
     
  16. georgep

    georgep Member

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    Donald you pose a worthwhile question and here is my two cents worth. A lot of this has been said before but it seems a good time to repeat it.

    It does not matter what you photograph. It doesn’t not matter if it is a “pretty” stream or broken glass. What matters is how it is seen. The universal “unseen” is everywhere, in the ordinary and in the fantastic, in the most beautiful and in the most ugly, and everything in-between. Ugly and pretty are relative and subjective value judgements that we make, based on our conditioning. There is a seeing that sees deep beauty in everything.

    Anything and everything, from the mundane to the spectacular is a manifestation of the universal. It is a mistake to intellectualize it. Seeing is not a function of thinking. Seeing is a function of being. My philosophy is that if I seek to evolve as an artist, then I must evolve as a person. As I evolve, so will my seeing. You can’t make yourself see better. Or if you try it will be fake and derivative. Even the intention to not be derivative interferes with pure seeing. You see as you are, and there is no way around it, regardless of what you think, regardless of what others think..

    This applies also to how we see the work of others and how others will view our own work. So our evaluation of our own work and of other’s work is limited by our own state of being, which is, to various degrees, conditioned, or free of conditioning. Hopefully, as we proceed through life, we will notice a cumulative growth. We might not see change from day to day but we might from year to year or decade to decade. And unfortunately we can age without evolving.

    Someone said that most artists are lucky if they have 15 years of productive work. This is a pattern that has been observed in many great artists, including photographers. So why is this “productive period” so often limited? For various reasons the person stops evolving, and if the person is not evolving, neither will the work.

    I think it might be a good sign if, after several years of work, we find ourselves dissatisfied with earlier work, and move forward. It’s not that the early work was bad, per se, but it represents a different level of evolution, a different state of being, a different way of seeing.

    George Provost
     
  17. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    Interest comments here - this entire site is always interesting.

    I have a couple of comments -

    First "Derivative" work - A student of photography once asked me for advice; his instructor had given the class an assignment: "Take a photograph of something that has never been seen before."
    My first thought was to expose a sheet of paper to ambient white light in the darkroom; process it to a totally black image - and claim that it was an image taken of a "black hole".
    The black hole will not be visible (if it was, it wouldn't be a black hole) - but the assignment was not to SHOW something that has not been seen before - but to "Take a photograph of it" ... nothing was said about "successfully".
    Then, I thought of it more deeply (I think the espresso was beginning to kick in) - *EVERY* photograph is "something that has not been seen before." No two images are exactly alike; if one was to photograph a tree from point "A" on Wednesday, April 21, 2004 at 0715 hours - It will be different from point "A" - same place, at 0716 hours... the light will have changed, the camera, if handheld, will be in a slightly different position, a different frame of film will be exposed with a (albeit microscopically) different grain pattern... the sky will be illuminated differently - with different cloud formations. No two images will be precisely "the same" - they cannot be - and when we introduce the infinite factors of "vision" and random circumstance, that difference will be greater and greater. Not only will it "never have been seen before" - it "never will be seen again."
    So - just take a photograph - any sort of photograph - that one will satisfy the requirement for "something that has never been seen before."
    My first thought was "Ah, gee - another one of those "This is an f/stop" Photography 101 Class" - but - I don't know - there was a lot more than that involved. This was a chance meeting in a Coffee House - I've never come across that student again.

    Something else I've been turning over in my mind is the idea of "Our reaction to abstract images being a conditioned reflex response - taught to us by our parents - or whoever".
    Seems to me that "abstracts" are of value for just the opposite reasons - we do NOT have any conditioning for them - they are above all - above rational explanation.
    Once upon a time in the Gallery of Ipswich (Massachusetts, U.S.A.) I had a number of my works hanging. Two visitors entered - and it quickly became obvious that they were "Deconstructive Critics" (what status in the world of Critics the held was and is unknown). They proceeded to "do their thing" with each and every image - "The horizon is in the wrong place... the balance between light and dark is wrong ...", ad infinitum - ad nauseum. I had one of my patented Inner Tube Slices firmly installed between my teeth.
    They came to my "Abstraction #26". Stopped them in their tracks - cold. "How did you take this one?" My answer was, "Well - it was an unusual process" ... being as evasive as I could be while maintaining truthfulness. Completely blank expressions spread over their faces - and silence. They moved on - what critique can really apply to an "Abstraction"? It is by its very nature unexplainable - and un-critiqueable.

    I *love* abstractions ....
     
  18. photomc

    photomc Member

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    Don, Great Thread and good for you for going there. Your comments as well as those by Jorge G., as well as those of others all seem to be going to the same place to me. It is what WE (the individual) feels when we pick up the camera (read tool) to capture something that WE SEE. The path to that point is definitely strewn with the images of ever book, photograph, etc that we have seen and like/loved.

    We many times do not know why we like/love an image - many times not any other persons that sees it - "gets it". How often do we see an image at a time when we can not capture it, and then search for the same image over and over...it may have been there only for the moment, we saw it, but just did not get to bring to everyone else.

    We are all at different stages in our journey to create - dare I say, ART. Some of us have just started, others have started but do not know it, still others - like many on this site, have moved forward and are at a level where they have found what it is they are looking for.

    Now, as to if anyone else will see our vision or even like it? That is a different subject worthy of many discussions. I think Keith Carter is a very good photographer, have a few of his books, but his work, still is just a little to different for me. We are attracted to so images by conditioning - meaning we see the same images over and over and want to immulate the, because we felt something when we first saw them.

    Stop and think about it..how many pepper photographs had been made when Weston made his? How many nudes in the sand were well known before he went to Mexico? The point, IMO, is that you are at a stage in your photography - read ART, that you want to stretch - do something more meaningful to you. You should do it, however everyone may not get it. If the object/image does not convey an inner feeling - i.e. it has no life, then it will fail. If you can give some of yourself to the image/art it will show.

    Just look at the images on this site, there is one member that almost always gives part of themself to each image. It shows in almost every one, there is passion in the image.

    Just ramblings before starting the work day...

    But I love the thread.
     
  19. juan

    juan Subscriber

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    A couple of points - I've never really understood the concept of a photo asking a question. Perhaps I'm not artisticly mature enough to understand, or perhaps my brain just doesn't work that way. Brett Weston (in the Art Wright film on DVD) talked about how he didn't have to ability to verbalize about his photographs.

    George Provost wrote "Seeing is a function of being." I experienced that this past weekend. I went with a group to a place on the St. Johns River - it was an hour's hike from the car - carrying my Orbit 8x10, a Zone VI standard tripod, and a backpack filled with meters, filters, film holders, etc.

    When we arrived at the site we planned to photograph, I was tired, but immediately spotted a pretty picture. I set up and shot. A real Clyde Butcher shot, except I don't think I blew out the highlights enough.(Right, Doug?)

    Then I picked up the camera and moved to what looked like another pretty picture 20-feet away. After setting up, I decided I didn't like it, realized how tired I was, and sat down on a tree root with my feet still in the water. I was too tired to do anything except "be."

    After about 5 minutes of sitting, I found enough energy to move my eyes. I began to see the cypress knees, the water, the reflections, the trees, the Spanish moss as an abstraction. I made three negatives moving my tripod less than 6-feet total.

    This was my first experience with simply "being." Now I need to achieve this state without exhausting myself.

    As for the seen and unseen Donald addresses, I think of Hemingway, who said his novels were strengthened by what was left out. I think he's saying the same thing.
    juan
     
  20. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    John,

    The "unseen" that I speak of and "what was left out" as you relate of Hemingway in his novels...is the component that poses the question, in my opinion.

    In an image, if we show too much we ourselves and most viewers cease to be engaged. If we show too little, most will not be comfortable in deciphering the image for themselves.

    I think that the aspect of photography that is seductive is that it is capable of a fairly accurate depiction of objective reality. For many of us, we get hung up on depicting objective reality...or copies of what we saw as depictions of objective reality by some preceding photographer.

    There is nothing wrong with that level of involvement if one wants to practice at that level. However, I think that there are levels beyond the seductive and simplistic. At some point comes the realization that "the emperor has no clothes".
     
  21. Michael A. Smith

    Michael A. Smith Subscriber

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    There is so much I would like to comment on and so little time as I am traveling right now. This will be pithy. Sorry for that.

    George Provost's words should be read over and over. They are right on.

    All photographs are abstractions. They are not the thing.

    It does not matter if what one photographs is a grand landscape or a close-up of something unrecognizable.

    As I have said before, and George paraphrased me here, "It is how one sees not what one sees that makes any photograph interesting."

    Juan: Sounds like you got it. All it usually takes is the ability to be still and to observe. I recommend that everyone pick a spot, wherever you happen to be when you are reading this will do just fine, and just spend 10 or 15 minutes looking in one direction. If you are alert and can see, all kinds of things that will make wonderful photographs will appear. No special places required.

    Don's comments about showing too much are in some ways right on. But "too much" does not have anything to do with the amount of space depicted. A grand landscape may not show too much, and a close-up may indeed show too much.

    With one's photographs one wants to challenge oneself. If when you make the picture you are sure you have a "great one" chances are it will be boring. if you are not sure because you don't quite understand what you are seeing, although it looks good on the ground glass, there is the possibility you might have something exciting.

    Photographs that ask a question: if you don't fully understand what you are photographing, the photograph will ask a question. What that question is, who knows. "Asking a question" is not to be taken literally. It is a way of saying that something is challenging and outside the realm of expected experience. It is a phrase, I myself never use.[/i]
     
  22. mark

    mark Member

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    Donald, which pictures are they? I intentionally don't go to galleries very often because I often find myself seeing those images in the compositions I make. I don't know why. Mybe because, as Jorge said, I see that it has been done before. By not looking at those images i am free to concentrate on my images. When images are mentioned I think hmmm...I would like to see that and then I can't find it.

    You draw a pretty rigid line between what you call a pretty picture and an abstract. You give the abstract much more importance than you do the pretty picture. I cannot agree. In my opinion they are both the same in weight and meaning, and importance. It just depends on who you are talking to. I cannot imagine you wasted your time taking and printing a picture just so you could start this thread. You do not seem like that kind of person. Just as the objects in the abstract drew your eye so did objects in the stream. What was it that did that? I assume you had entirely different reasons for exposing the different shots, there fore they would each be viewed differently.

    What question(s) could not be posed?
     
  23. Francesco

    Francesco Member

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    The challenge for me right now is to take what "has been done before" (I believe that, on the basic level, most things have been done before) and to execute it "perfectly" as to become my own - and in so doing others no longer see it as contrived or derived but as coming from me and is therefore original.

    On a side note: it is surprising how much is around us for the taking and in such a very small amount of space.
     
  24. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    As I have previously stated...there is no right or wrong answer to this matter. My interest from the outset was to kick the "walls out a little bit". To challenge the basis of my and our photography. As my friend Jim Shanesy (C6h6O3) said last week when we discussed this matter among ourselves "If we don't stir it, it won't stink".

    Thanks for your thoughts.
     
  25. glbeas

    glbeas Member

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    As an inveterate explorer I am always intrigued by places and things like where does it go, where does it come from, what's in it, etc. I guess the abstract was just another pretty picture to me :smile:
    Food for thought, thank you!
     
  26. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    What the ...???

    .... And just WHAT "kind of person" is he ... or anyone else here - "Supposed" to be?

    Take photographs .. start threads ... mat and display them ... mount them on balloons and float them over Boston -- or do whatever the @$%@ else you want to do with them. ALL of it is OK with me.