Monthly Archives: April 2012

My Approach to Photography

I have often been asked about my philosophy and approach to photography. Recently I’ve spent a lot of time considering how to describe my work, and also where it fits in with the photography and art worlds. I’d like to share my thinking with you.

My work lies at the intersections of many styles and disciplines: between east and west, classicism and modernism, photography and painting, and the new technologies of the digital era versus the handcraft traditions of the artisan. To understand my imagery, one needs to see where it fits within each of these dichotomies.

Before I explain, let me mention that my primary goal is not to evoke academic, scholarly, or pedantic understanding. I’d almost rather my work not be understood–so that the response is evoked on a primal level that has more to do with the heart and gut than the intellect.

Mountains on the Beach by Harold Davis
Mountains on the Beach © Harold Davis

A great deal of thought goes into my work, but it shouldn’t have to take thought to enjoy it. At the simplest level I am trying to evoke–at both conscious and unconscious levels–a sense of serenity, wholeness, and wonder. My work can be experienced and enjoyed simply and organically for its structure and beauty.

With many of my images, unwrapping the sense of wholeness that the work conveys is not immediate. I am asking someone experiencing my images to have the patience to contemplate–and perhaps resolve a visual puzzle–but I don’t necessarily let on upfront that my viewers will be confronting a conundrum. The intellectual pleasures my work provides are subtle, and not intended to beat the viewer on the head.

Papaver and Iridaceae by Harold Davis

Papaver and Iridaceae © Harold Davis

To achieve my goals, I am prepared to bring to bear the full power, scaffolding, and tricks-of-the-trade from a number of disparate disciplines. My work uses the latest technologies and also harkens back to historic art traditions, including impressionist painting and Asian art. I am very aware of traditions of European art such as Impressionism and Expressionism, and also art traditions such as Japanese woodblock printmaking and Chinese landscape painting. When appropriate, I echo these in my work.

Star Magnolia Panorama by Harold Davis

Star Magnolia Panorama © Harold Davis

I appreciate the classical traditions of art, and I am also very comfortable working in the modernist vernacular. While my aesthetics are somewhat conservative, my techniques are radical. I am delighted to find that I can combine my love of painting with my love of photography. My work often starts with multiple digital photographic exposures and then proceeds with digital painting on the computer. I take great pleasure in experimentation while using original, cutting-edge technologies. I was trained as a classical photographer and painter, but I now use advanced digital capture techniques that allow me to extend the range of visual information beyond what the eye can normally see.

Craft is vitally important to me, and I work hard to create meticulously crafted prints from my imagery. Making prints from my work takes a great deal of hand effort, as well as the ability to harness technology. Again it is east meets west and old meets new: some of my printing substrates are newly derived, such as pearlized metallic paper, and others are ages old and steeped in history, such as Washi rice paper. It’s worth the time and effort, because my prints have the ability to evoke a powerful response in those who view them.

Museum at Bodie by Harold Davis

Museum at Bodie © Harold Davis

I believe that advances in the technology and craft of digital photography have created an entirely new medium. My years of contemplation have opened my eyes and my heart, and taught me to see more deeply. I use this alchemy of wonder to combine the traditions of painting and photography with new technology.

Related post: Harold Davis bio.

Posted in Photography, Writing


Like my Star Magnolia Panorama, I shot these Clematis flowers using a lightbox as the background. The image was shot in three pieces, each piece an HDR blend of six exposures. Exposure times ranged from 1/100 of a second to 2 seconds (each exposure was at f/11 and ISO 100 with a 40mm macro lens). I took care to keep the exposures consistent across the different pieces of the image by using the same progression of shutter speeds.

Clematis by Harold Davis

Clematis © Harold Davis

In post-production, I first combined each set of images using hand-layering in Photoshop, and also Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro. Next, I stitched the pieces together in Photoshop to create my Clematis panorama. Provided one shoots carefully, the stitching part of this process is not that big a deal.

What is a big deal is arranging the image in the first place. You can’t just expect to plunk some Clematis flowers on a vine on the lightbox (or a Magnolia branch for that matter) and have the composition work. Creating one of these images is a matter of radical deconstruction, followed by reconstruction to create the Platonic ideal of the flower—an image of the flower as it should have been, rather than as it was.

Posted in Flowers, HDR

San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Staircase

Nestling among the stone behemoths that line the canyons of San Francisco’s financial district is a comparatively modest neoclassical building. This is the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute, housing a library, the oldest continuously operating chess club in the United States, and office space. If you were wandering around downtown San Francisco, unless you knew it was there you would probably never notice the Mechanics’ Institute. Blink, and you miss it.

Down the Spiral by Harold Davis

Down the Spiral © Harold Davis

The idea of the Mechanics’ Institutes was to give an education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. The first Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1823 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The libraries of the Mechanics’ Institutes were promoted to philanthropists as a positive alternative to gambling and drinking.

The San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute is one of the three that survive in the United States. It was founded in 1854 to help out-of-work gold miners. A 1906 merger with the Mercantile Library Association extended the focus of the Mechanics’ Institute Library, and today it covers all subjects with a focus on literature, fine and performing arts, history, philosophy, business, finance, and periodicals that are hard-to-find in electronic format. Membership is open to everyone, and events at the library are intended to encourage the intellectual development of members.

Mechanics' Institute Staircase by Harold Davis

Mechanics' Institute Staircase © Harold Davis

Construction began on the current 9-story San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute building in 1909, three years after the great San Francisco earthquake. The architect was Albert Pissis,  one of the city’s best-regarded exponents of classical architecture. From the beginning, the building was intended for mixed-use: office space rentals would support the library.

No one can claim that Albert Pissis was flamboyant or innovative in his designs, but he certainly was meticulous about materials and details. In particular, the circular iron stairway with walls of  Belgian black marble and Tennessee pink marble  is spectacular.

About the images: These are HDR (High Dynamic Range) multi-shot captures, made using a tripod on an overcast day. Each image was made using  a 14-24mm lens at 14mm, from six exposures at shutter speeds ranging from 2 seconds to 2 minutes, with each exposure at f/22 and ISO 100. I combined the exposures using Nik HDR Efex Pro and hand-layering in Photoshop.

Posted in HDR, San Francisco Area

Star Magnolia Panorama

To create this image of a Star Magnolia, I brought some branches into my studio and arranged them on my lightbox. I shot the images in three panels using HDR and Photoshop layer blending. Each set of bracketed exposures was biased towards the right on the exposure histogram, so I created a translucent effect in the petals.

Star Magnolia Panorama by Harold Davis

Star Magnolia Panorama © Harold Davis

The horizontal panorama effect was created by stitching together the three panels in Photoshop. Since I had been careful about alignment when I shot the images, this didn’t involve too much work—but the results are a high resolution file, capable of quality printing in very large sizes.

Speaking of printing, yesterday we made a test print of this image on Moab Paper Moenkopi Washi Unryu 55. This Japanese rice paper was created for use in high-end inkjet printers. The paper is embedded with very visible long Mulberry fibers, sometimes called “Dragon’s Breath.” The combination of this unusual printing substrate with my Star Magnolia Panorama is quite striking.



Posted in Flowers, HDR, Photography

Moab Paper to sponsor Harold Davis

While on the topic of fine art printmaking, I am delighted to now be sponsored by Moab, a boutique manufacturer of quality substrates and my paper manufacturer of choice for fine art projects. Moab is a Legion Paper brand. The Moab slogan is “Fine inkjet paper for the inspired visualist.”

Museum at Bodie by Harold Davis

Museum at Bodie © Harold Davis

I think the Moab slogan applies well to me, so the sponsorship is a very good fit. For example, my image of the Museum at Bodie, shown above, looks fantastic printed at 24″ X 36″ on Moab’s pearlized Slickrock Metallic. It’s great to be an exemplar for a product line that I enjoy using so much!

Update: I am excited to be acknowledged as a Moab Master photographer.

Related story: Making large prints on Washi rice paper.

Posted in Photography

Making large prints on Washi rice paper

We’ve been making large prints on Washi rice paper. I’m very pleased with the way a 36″ x 44″ Washi rice paper print of Mountains on the Beach (image shown below) came out today!

Mountains on the Beach by Harold Davis

Mountains on the Beach © Harold Davis

In the past I’ve created an image and then thought about what paper to print it on. With this image, the process was a bit different because I processed it with the idea from the start of printing it on rice paper—in part because the paper matches the aesthetics of the subject matter. You have to look closely to see you are looking at a beach, rather than Chinese ink brush mountains.

I really think you have to see this print to believe it—no online reproduction of the image can do the quality of this print justice.

Posted in Photography

Who owns the night?

Who owns the night? In many California parks and public venues clearly not you or me. Anyone who has spent much time photographing at night has certainly experienced being kicked out of state parks and other supposedly public spaces after sunset.

Case in point: the other day on the spur of the moment I was shooting before sunset from an overlook above Purisima Beach just south of Half Moon Bay (see photo). It was clear and beautiful, but cold and windy in the late afternoon. I was the only person there.

Purisima Beach at Sunset by Harold Davis

Purisima Beach at Sunset © Harold Davis

This land was preserved with the help of the Pensinsula Open Space Trust (POST)—click here for the POST story of this genuine accomplishment.

My appreciation for the wild landscape and the accomplishment in preserving it for prosperity was diminished when a docent arrived to tell me I had to leave at sunset. Personally, I had no problem with the docent, who was affable, and who informed me he was paid a small stipend. But it is surprising that money can be found for this in a day and age in which parks are closing for lack of funds.

I also don’t get the thinking behind ejecting people who genuinely want to use the land in benign ways—like night photographers.

I started this story by asking, “who owns the night?” A better question might have been, “For whose benefit are lands like the Purisima Trail being preserved?” I think this preservation serves the purposes of neighboring land owners and farmers (nothing wrong with them, by the way) rather than those like me who want to “take only photos and leave only footprints.”

As an action item, I would urge public land trusts and others charged with the administration of parkland to also consider the interests of those who like to be out in the night when establishing policies. This is the stance of the US National Parks, which do not restrict access at night. The night should belong to all of us—and if you take away the freedom to be out in the wilderness landscape at night we all lose a great deal.

To learn more about my night photography, check out my Night Photography Gallery, the Night category on my blog, and my Night photos on Flickr.

Posted in Bemusements, Digital Night, Landscape, Photography, Writing

Sunflowers on Black

It’s hard not to love sunflowers. Sunflowers are a sunny flower. It’s in the name, and also in the big, yellow, platter-sized flowers. They are artistic and often painted by van Gogh.

All this made me think it would be neat to present somewhat ghostly sunflowers on black. Whether or not you like this approach may depend—metaphorically speaking, of course—on whether you are fonder of the “girl next door” or like a little bit of Goth in your diet. In any case, this is a different way to view the sunny sunflower.

Sunflowers on Black by Harold Davis

Sunflowers on Black © Harold Davis

To make this image I shot three frames on a lightbox. Each frame was an HDR (High Dynamic Range) composite of six exposures. After processing the HDR frames I used them to create a panorama in Photoshop by hand stitching (the alignment was pretty good to start with).

As a final step, I inverted the white background to position the sunflowers on black, and added some overlay textures to brighten up the petals.

Click on Sunflowers on Black to see it larger!

Workshop notes: Registration is now open for Macros, Close-Ups and Flower Photography (Point Reyes Field Institute, June 1-3, 2012; information and registration) and for Dark of the Moon Night Photography in the ancient Bristlecone Pines (August 17-20, 2012; information and registration). These workshops are both under the auspices of the Point Reyes Field Institute, and are less expensive than would be possible otherwise.

We have space for only three more photographers in the Tao of Photography workshop at the Green Gulch Farm & Zen Center (August 3-6, 2012; registration and information).

We are taking expressions of interest for our April 28 – May 5, 2013 Paris workshop, and have room for only a few more photographers. Later this month my co-leader and our Director of Social Awesomeness Mark Brokering will be scouting locations in Paris and preparing our way!

As a “thank you” to anyone who expresses interest in this workshop before formal registration is available we will let them sign-up at the current listed price—we’ve upgraded the hotel and added a night to this trip, so open enrollment will be a little more expensive.

Posted in Flowers, Workshops