The Photographer

What Defines a Good Photograph?

A good photograph is one which evokes an emotional response. In the San Francisco area, we’re surrounded by beauty, but a good landscape image requires isolation–a compelling perspective of an interesting subject within all that beauty.  Using black and white film, the photographer must be there to snap the shutter at the moment the light becomes evanescent.

In black and white, there is only the subject, the perspective and the light. The vast interpretive power of color is not available. In black and white landscapes, it is ultimately the photographer’s use of light that evokes the viewer’s emotional response.

My images have no social or environmental message.  They have no hidden meanings to be divined by philosophical art critics.  They are not clues to a personal code.  They are not abstracts.

Most of my photographs are of isolated subjects, not broad vistas.  I seek subjects that beg a story, not tell one.  I try to capture images that will entice the viewer to imagine.

My Education as a Photographer

Bay Area photographer Steve Leonard at work, with Hasselblad camera on a tripod.I have been on a quest to make good photographs since I was in the fourth grade, some 65 years ago.  Photography was just a hobby but as I entered middle age it became an avocation. As I retired from my business career, my pursuit of good photographs became my vocation.

I had a wonderful mentor for many of those years, the remarkable Robert Byers.  Bob is a widely acknowledged artist in the creation of black and white photographic images.  He has been a good friend and trusted advisor to many acclaimed photographers including Ansel Adams and Brett Weston.

Bob introduced me to serious black and white photography by urging me to study Ansel’s Basic Photo Series, and then to buy a spot meter and practice composing images and analyzing their luminance ranges before I ever picked up a camera.  As PhotoShop began to revolutionize photography, Bob began campaigning to get me out of the wet dark room and into the digital world via a film scanner and PhotoShop.

Bob’s guidance and exhortations notwithstanding, I am largely a self-taught photographer.  Over the last 30-some years I have spent thousands of hours learning to integrate the arcane processes that can result in a photographic image that is accepted as art.  I have learned to frame an interesting composition, to manage the camera’s controls to accentuate the aesthetically critical luminance in a scene, and to translate that composition and blend of luminances through development and digital processing of the film via PhotoShop to produce an image that has some compelling sensory and emotional appeal.

Collectors of My Photographs

My fine art photographic prints hang in numerous private collections and corporate collections in offices and in public spaces in office buildings. I have exhibited several times in the Sausalito Art Festival.

I sell my prints through designers and online. I have not attempted to sell my prints in galleries or in exhibits in art shows. My paper prints are relatively expensive for work by a relatively unknown photographer.  The traditionally accepted path to recognition for a photographer has been through shows and gallery representations.  After a couple of years in the Sausalito Art Festival, I haven’t been willing to travel the country from art show to art show, or go through all the work and expense of mounting an exhibition that will only hang for a few weeks in a gallery.

Translating Fine Art Prints to Shirts

An article in Fortune magazine in 2014 gave me an inkling of another path.  It was about the brothers who started Life Is Good, the tee shirt company. I was intrigued. They started out on Boston street corners selling cheap cotton tees printed with smiley faces. Twenty-five years later, they were selling $100 million a year in tee shirts and other items. I wondered if I could print my images on shirts for a few of the 25 million people who visit San Francisco every year.

Through a year of trial and error, I discovered that I couldn’t print my images on cotton shirts and get anywhere close to the tonal range and resolution that I could achieve on my paper prints.

Technology to the Rescue

Almost by accident one day, my printer supplier mentioned dye sublimation.  It was not new science, but it was newish technology for printing on fabric, and as far as he knew, no one was using it to print on shirts.  He invited me to bring a few of my image files – along with some white, microfiber shirt samples – and he would print them on his new demonstration dye sublimation printer.

And so he did. The tonal range was terrible, but the resolution was excellent. I was encouraged, so he sent the files and a few of my sample shirts to Epson, the printer manufacturer, and asked them to go to the trouble of linearizing a printer and printing the files. They did, and sent back the printed shirts.  The tonal range was much better, and the resolution was still excellent.

It was clear, that to go any further, I would need to buy my own dye sublimation printer and also a heat press to imprint the printed image onto the shirt. And of course, I’d need a spectrophotometer to linearize the printer. My investment was approaching $20,000, just to see if I could perfect what my printer distributor and Epson had demonstrated as promising.

The Print Shop in My Dining Room

The ultimate step was to individually re-master each of my fine art image files for printing on a specific, linearized printer. The only way to do that was to own a printer. I had to know, so I bought the printer and the heat press and, not wanting to go so far as to open a printing shop at that point, had them installed in my dining room.

During four months of trial and error, I taught myself to linearize a printer.  That was the easy part.  I then selected 16 of my images and began printing them on shirts. I had to adjust nearly all the selections (see Fine Art Photographs) to optimize the tonal range for each image that the printer could produce. To get the tonal and resolution on the shirt that was reasonably comparable to my paper prints, I printed as many as 15 variations of each image. In the end, I bought 500 sample shirts and printed them with my experiments on both sides before I was satisfied with my product. It took about four more months to get the tonal range right for each of the images.

Today, if you hold up an SF Soft Wear packaged shirt, from a few feet away it’s hard to tell the difference between the print on paper and the print on the shirt.  It’s quite remarkable, even to a perfectionist like me.