Category Archives: THINK PHOTOS

Photos and visual literacy, a gateway to the past, a window on the present

A Rose From Any Other Angle


Pink Roses in Our Flower Garden by Walt Holt, 2015

With so much to do and see in the summer, I decided to make the rest of the month about capturing the season in photos.  Regarding my own photographic expertise, I can evaluate photos but I have minimal talent when it comes to taking photos. Yes, I work with old photos for my books. These days, when researching away from home and with no time to waste, I take photos of material to read at a later time. Unfortunately, usually, the quality is barely good enough to read!  Also, sometimes I take quick snapshot of friends, family, places or event, but few would be good enough to publish.

My husband, Walt, is the photographer in the family. He has always taken photos but, once he retired, it became an more important hobby. In fact, he takes the time to read and reread his camera manuals.  With his artist’s eye, patience and willingness to experiment, he has become an excellent photographer.  Of course, I am biased, but it is true!


Rose in Full Bloom by Walt Holt, 2015

In fact, making cards from some of his photos is a pleasant escape for me from my own research, writing and writing-related activities.  His photos inspire me. As a result, I decided to share some during the rest of the month.

For those of us with a passion for flower gardening, the hail season is always worrisome. Before they are all stripped by hail, wilted by heat, or give way to fall weather, our taking photos is a way of remembering and appreciating them.

What amazes me about good photographers—whether amateur of professional—is that they see what the rest of us something miss. They see more detail, more colour, more possibilities than most of us experience when looking at the same subject.


Rosebud by Walt Holt, 2015

I am always encouraging Walt to take photos of our flowers. Clearly, when a rose or one very like it is photographed from different angles, at different times or in different light, the rose can be much more than a rose. It can be an ever-changing experience and “way of seeing.”

Photo Blogs: Past and Future

In my blogs regarding photos, what’s in store for 2012? As mentioned in an earlier post, my photography strengths are not related to cameras, computer photo programs and other technological concerns. Nor am I likely to write in detail about the art of photography even though I love discovering and studying great photos. However, I do have some knowledge about what makes a publishable photo and what you should think about in order to achieve reasonable quality for the published image. So, I’ll consider those topics, especially in the context of using photos to augment text or enhance publications. Also, some photos work as a means of conveying our history. As a result, I’ll discuss how we can “see” our history through photos.  And at some point, I’ll note photo sources and issues related to acquiring and publishing images. Since photo can also inspire writing, there is yet another possible topic.

In fact, I might feature a particular theme throughout a specific month. That theme could be based on a topic of international interest, such as International Women’s Day, or on a topic particularly relevant to you, as readers, or to me during the year.

As co-author of this book, I was pleased it included both colour and black and white photos as illustrations.

Many of the photos will be black and white ones from earlier times, but some will be contemporary. And sometimes my photo blog could even cover an event, which I believe will inspire photo buffs.

In studying my statistics, I found it interesting that the blog with the best hit rate last year was the one in which I talked about glass negatives. What does that tell me? There are many of us interested in the history of photography! Also, perhaps others own glass negatives and wonder how to have them “developed.” So, I will write more about such early photographic technology.

Whatever my text, I plan to post more actual photographs. Over the last month or two, for various reasons, I did not post many photos. To some extent, that related to understanding and protecting copyright, and that, too, is an important future topic. But, my intention is to keep the text in the photo blogs even shorter than my target of 400 words for other posts. And that’s today’s 368 words.

Amazing Negatives

I was definitely busy this year with photo research for the expansion of my book, Settling In: First Homes of the Prairies. The new book includes early homes from BC to Manitoba, and it spans a time-frame that begins with early forts and concludes with wartime housing in Western Canada. So, given the expanded time-frame and content, I needed new photos.

During the process, my most exciting photo finds were two glass negatives. They belonged to my mother’s friend, Kathleen Kossowan, and they were from her family’s photo collection. Although I had long known about glass negatives, I had never actually seen them. So, I found it fascinating to view the black and grey images printed on the glass “plates,” which are about 5 by 7 inches in size. Similar plates are part of many museum collections, but to be personally entrusted with two of them was thrilling and helped me feel connected to our photographic past.

Collodion wet plate negatives were used from about the 1850s to 1880s, and since the ones I was offered were from the early 1900s, they had to be silver gelatine dry plate negatives. With the process invented in 1873, the negatives were widely used from about 1880 to 1920. In Alberta, museums and archives such as Glenbow in Calgary recognize the importance of photos to understanding and appreciating our history, and they have been supportive and helpful to me regarding my projects. Although glass negatives are part of their collections, having the negatives developed or scanned would be a big ticket item for their budgets, and cost concerned me, too.

As an individual writer with limited resources, although I wanted to use one or both images, I wasn’t sure if I could locate a local photographer or photography business able to develop them. Years ago, I had found an individual to develop black and white film negatives, but having the work done had been costly. This time, despite the availability of better technology, I assumed having the glass negatives developed might prove impossible or very costly.  So, as an experiment, I tired scanning the negative on my printer. The result was dismal, and the images were far too dark to see.

Next, I went to my favourite camera and photography store, Vistek, in Calgary.  The professionals there would have more knowledge and better access to whatever equipment might be needed. The individual with whom I had worked previously regarding special orders said, “Yes. We should be able to do the job.” Unfortunately, there was a problem with paper being stuck to one of the negatives, but that is another story. I had the two images scanned, and one will be on the cover of Settling In: Early Homes of Western Canada. The book should be in my hands in a week or two, and needless to say, “I can hardly wait!”

In the meantime, my sincere appreciation goes to Kathleen Kossowan and her family, the photo wizards at Vistek, and my editor at Detselig Enterprises, James Dangerous, who chose the image for the book cover. On behalf of myself and other photo buffs, many thanks!

Portrait or Headshot?

This portrait of my grandfather is one I value but it tells little about his life.

Are you writing a life story? Do you want to include a portrait or two of your subject? Let’s say you are planning to write a lengthy book or a short article. Your purpose could be to present the life of someone you admire or someone whose life has troubled you. You might be contributing to a family history or paying tribute to an individual on a special occasion. Whether your audience is family or readers in the larger world, likely, you plan to include at least one picture of the individual, and you are stuck. Which one is best?

At an earlier date, I wrote about a Karsh exhibit, and most certainly, he was a master at capturing personality in portraiture, but let’s be realistic. You won’t have Karsh quality photos at your fingertips.

 In fact, I seldom use headshots to accompany my writing. Why? Well, usually, they tell us very little about the person. Subjects pose for portraits, so the photos don’t capture the natural expressions of the individual. When possible, I prefer photos that have “story” or even actions in them. I like ones in which people are surrounded with things that are actually part of their lives. Of course, the individual may be away from home or even on a very exotic holiday. As a result, holiday photos may not reflect everyday feelings. When travelling, people are often more or less happy than when we are at home. Still, there is personality and story in such photos.

But headshots! Well, probably most people have cringed at the image of themselves used on passports, driver’s licences and similar identification documents. When I see my own, I can’t help but think, “Is that really me?” However, for legal documents, officials don’t want us to smile and look happy. Rather, they prefer to see the way we will look when police stop us with ticket in hand.

Am I saying that a portrait never works for me? No. Sometimes, photographers have interesting backdrops or subjects are encouraged to dress in costume, and I find those photos fascinating. But the backdrop or costume is not the person.

Also, some portraits convey little of the personality of the individual but reveal a great deal about the era of the photo. For instance, the hairstyle might be a perfect reflection of how the individual responded to the culture of the time. And that is personality. Whether the hair style comes from the late 1800s, 1920s or 1960s, we learn about both the person and the time frame.

However, the best portraits tell us even more about the person. Of course, most are still just head-and-shoulder shots, but if the person is wearing a uniform, we learn a great deal about the individual. If the uniform is a prison, school or military uniform, we have the potential for story. If the clothes are expensive-looking, we have yet another story.

Some headshots do tell us very little. Maybe you have to choose two headshots to create one story. For example, in one portrait the subject is a teenager but in the other, the person is now a senior. The differences are always significant. Some of the changes relate to weight and age, but occasionally we see personality changes, too.  The happy young person became bitter, or the angry teenager has developed smile lines. We know there is story behind the very different images, and generally, we would love to learn more. If there is nothing to discover in the image, if it is simply a headshot, keep searching for one that has a little more meaning or story.