Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Cleaning out the basement this week I found this old paper written by my mom.
It's an artist statement she wrote long ago for an intro photo class. This was 1989. My younger sister had just left for college the year before. Empty nest. I think my mom felt freed up all of the sudden, so this was one of several art classes she explored around that time. Photography didn't really take. She wound up becoming a sculptor. 

Looking back on this note now I'm struck by how similar it is to Stephen Shore's foreword to the original Uncommon Places. I'm not sure why this passage was removed from the second edition. To me it seems to activate the whole book: 
"The trout streams where I flyfish are cold and clear and rich in the minerals that promote the growth of stream life. As I wade a stream I think wordlessly of where to cast the fly. Sometimes a difference of inches is the difference between catching a fish and not. When the fly I've cast is on the water my attention is riveted to it. I've found through experience that whenever —or so it seems— my attention wanders or I look away then surely a fish will rise to the fly and I will be too late setting the hook. I watch the fly calmly and attentively so that when the fish strikes —I strike. Then the line tightens, the playing of the fish begins, and time stands still. Fishing... is an art that calls forth intelligence, concentration, and delicacy."
I'm pretty sure my mom was not familiar with Stephen Shore when she wrote her statement. But the comparison to fishing seemed natural to her, just as it did to him. 

Sometimes I wonder. Of all the fish in the river, the one that finally comes home with me is Photographer. It's a lovely fish in some ways, true. But also troublesome. If I were trying to stink up the whole joint I couldn't choose a better catch. 

I can't remember either of my parents ever pressuring me to pursue any career. Or any interest at all really. There was never any talk of "You should think about Y," or "So and So is doing X." I think they knew that whatever was going to develop would come out eventually. And they were wise or lucky enough to suspect that pressure would have no effect. Or worse, an adverse one. I'm not sure the exact reasoning. I just know they were completely supportive and open to whatever path I followed. Even if it eventually led to shooting people. 

Of course if I'd developed into some Tea-Party dickwad there might've been some second guessing. Even parental love has its limits.

Let your kid do anything. It was a great arrangement as a kid, but now that I'm a parent I find myself wondering if I can follow through. It's a philosophy that requires a certain leap of faith. I think if left to their own devices, all three of my sons would choose a career of sitting on the couch playing video games forever. And if I yelled at them that they were wasting their lives it would make them even more determined. So at this point I'm not sure how much pressure, if any, to apply, or in which direction, or toward what. But they're young still, with many reels to cast.

My mom has been sculpting some far out stuff lately. Mostly bronze. I don't really understand it. I think it's about some novels she read. If you can imagine a novel transformed into a giant phallic bronze thing with spools and candles and rope, it's sort of like that. I don't have any context to even begin grasping what it's about. But there's no question her sculpture is 100% hers, and that it's pretty far out. 

I found this photo with my mom's note. I think she took it during her photo class but I'm not sure. It's definitely from that time period circa late 1980s.
That's my dad posing near some of his stuff. His daily coffee. His survey transit. A drawing of him playing guitar. A poster of Mt. Bachelor where we learned to ski. Looking at the house he built on a wooded ridge about 50 miles from the nearest stoplight, where we were raised raw and unpressured. I think it was an ideal place to grow up, but I know many people growing up in other places also feel that way.

You'd think a country bumpkin like me would've learned to fish as a kid, but no. I've never understood the appeal. It's too stationary for me, too much like meditation, which I've also never been good at. 

I suppose writing is similar, sitting in one place watching the thoughts float by. But with writing at least you have something to show for it in the end. You always catch something tangible even if you're not sure the species. But mostly it's just waiting.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Q & A with Michael Northrup (Part 2)

Michael Northrup has been one of my favorite shooters for a while. Back in 2007, he was the very first photographer I interviewed for B. Since then we've kept in touch periodically, but I hadn't thought much about him until the other day when I stumbled on his new book Babe at Ampersand in Portland. "Gently humorous but decidedly jubilant color photographs of his daily life," is how the publisher describes his work. I guess that's as good a description as any, because Northrup's photos are pretty tough to classify. All I know is the book looked awesome! I bought it on the spot, returned home, and sent Michael a few questions.

How do you know when to press the shutter? What makes you explore a scene photographically? And within that scene what creates the moment when you know NOW?

Making a "picture" is some kind of combination of previsualization (ref. Minor White) and allowing for a certain amount of accident/serendipity as you begin to create the image.  This might all happen within a fraction of or a couple of seconds.  I press the shutter when it all comes together and I feel an element of excitement.  That's a subtle little spark that happens, not a mind blowing thing. But it's felt. There is that moment of YES. I am reminded of a slide show of Cartier-Bresson I used to show my students that had a tape interview that accompanied the slide show. Cartier-Bresson described that moment as some "guttural" feeling and then he made some funny sound with his voice to describe this indescribable moment. It's like these tentacles coming down from the brain and up from the gut and wherever and whenever they meet and touch, I press the shutter.

I explore a scene photographically because the camera has taught me a way to put order to the ever-changing external, chaotic world.  And that little instrument has been a portal to my spirit, allowing me to channel a lot of unspeakable feelings and insights to my life and life around me.  Through practice, emulation, example, I've honed my vision and found my own place in this field.

Are you always ready with a camera? Or do you set aside time (with family, for example) to be present without shooting?

In the 1970s, 80s and much of the 90s I was always ready with a camera.  It went everywhere with me.  Now, not so much.  I guess after actively photographing all this time, sometimes obsessively, I'm running out of steam. I feel kind of like Muhammad Ali. After so many fights you're kind of spent. Though I'm sure his spirit, like mine, is alive and well.  I mean when did the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney write a new song? But their music is still very much alive in the world and in them. That's one of many things I like about being in the arts.

What was your impression of Minor White?

It was one of awe. The guy was a mystic. His early influence, along with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, to name a couple, got me looking at the hidden structure of the real world, i.e. the "abstract". Jack Welpott enhanced that view of Minor. When I went to San Francisco my last term of undergraduate photo to study with Jack in 1971, I arrived while he was at Martha's Vineyard with Minor, Jerry Ulesman, Fred Sommer, and a couple other guys. Minor had organized a few days for these great photographers to hang and just discuss whatever came out of the dynamic of the group. Jack came back from that trip like Moses coming down from the mount. He was profoundly moved by it. He said Minor was fascinating, Jerry Ulesmann was consumed by a new girlfriend and that Fred Sommer was absolutely mind blowing.  

Then around 1973 I moved to Boston to work at Eastern Mountain Sports and while there I contacted Minor and asked if I could meet with him to discuss some ideas I had on making cabinets for storing prints, after having made one for Jack during my trip to San Francisco.  He invited me to his office at MIT and asked me a few questions.  The three that stuck out was 1. Was I gay,  2. Did I drink alcohol, and 3. What was my zodiac sign.  I answered, "No, yes, and Virgo/Leo cusp".  

Then he invited me to do private study with him and about 9 other guys who got together once a week. We started by sitting on the floor in a few rows and we would give a back massage to the guy in front and look at images at a painfully slow pace while listening to music like Also Sprach Zarathustra. After about 6 meetings I decided to move back to Ohio to focus on my work where living was much easier. I remember meeting with him before I left and I asked him what he would do if someone like himself gave him an opportunity to study with them. He said "I'd run like hell". Then I asked him how long he thought a photographer could keep up their work without finding an outlet to show it and he said without hesitation, "About 7 years". Very curious. My experience with Jack, and my time with Frederick Sommer who I met through Jack, and my meetings with Minor let me know without a doubt I was on the right track.

What's more important to you, form or content?

That's like a "Sophie's Choice". I could ponder over that for hours. But I'd have to eventually say Form. I react to form more than I give weight to content. When we come into this world and our eyes start working the first thing we're receiving is forms without context, other than "mother". It's the basis of structure and without structure there's no order. I just made all that up but I think it kind of rings true.

When you take a photograph, does it generally look like you expect it to? If not, how closely do your photos generally match what you expect looking through the viewfinder?

It's almost always a match. The light might be working slightly different than I expected, but the design, subject and idea are damn near what I thought. I'm rarely surprised but sometimes some magic slips into an image I didn't see at the moment of execution.

Looking back on your work from 20 years ago, how has your photography changed? What are you looking for now when you shoot that your weren't looking for then? What do you think of your photos from back then?

I've gone through many morphs. I started with a view camera in undergrad and was interested in very formal images being inspired by Adams, Weston, White, Callahan, etc.  That got to feel constricting so post undergrad I bought a medium format camera so I could shoot more spontaneously and rely more on my gut. 

Then I grew tired of being limited to available light and loved the characteristic light I saw in the work of Weegee, Friedlander, Arbus, and other contemporaries of the 70s who either on occasion used flash light or used it exclusively. And I liked the fact that I always had light in my hand and could even photograph in the night. I began playing with those properties, throwing things in the air and flashed to suspend them and called that body of work "Levitations".  

Then when the color process became easily available, around 1980, I continued working from the gut with flash. But I soon became interested in manipulating the color of the light and began making portraits in normal ambient light but using a colored filter over the flash that would bathe the subject in that light. I called that series "Colored People". From that I explored making multiple colored flashes on a single piece of film creating a kind of light painting. I was using a high shutter speed with the flashes so I could get away with maybe 100 flash exposures in daylight with the ambient light just looking normal and all the applied colored flashes holding up. In just room light I could get away with up to a couple hundred exposures before ambient light looked normal. At this point it was becoming limited in subject matter and very physically and mentally demanding. But it got even more elaborate when I incorporated an on camera masking device that I shot through using a matte board to create shapes and manipulate the subject matter and colored filters to affect the subject matter. But this eventually became a burnout. Over time I found that the more time I had to affect something the more I seemed to screw it up. I was also wearing out with the darkroom and whole chemistry thing. 

In the 90s I went commercial and those projects made me even more deliberate which was both good and bad.  I think it forced me to be more careful with composition, even in my personal work. But it also pulled me from my artwork and forced me to do dumbed down work to make money. By the late 90s I almost stopped shooting altogether. What saved me was the development of digital media. It eliminated the darkroom and was cheap and easy to make images not to mention the extended control one had over the image and distribution.  And now I'm back to shooting from the gut.

I love my older images. But many that seem to be showing up in my books were seen by me more as stepping stones to other images I thought more lasting and interesting.  I have no idea what people like and kind of keep a blind eye to that so I don't start pandering to that and keep focused on what is important to me. That's probably why I don't show very much.  I leave edits to my books up to my editor/publisher, Jason Fulford at J&L Books. I think he has a better pulse on my audience and the market.

Do you have faith that good work will eventually find an audience through sheer merit? Or does it require promotion?

It's some of both. I have faith but don't know if I'll live long enough to see it come to fruition. There's a lot of crap out there drowning out some greater work. Much of life is luck and I've had my share of it. I keep reminding myself, almost daily, that Mozart was buried penniless and in a common grave. But his music is immortal and lives on…. the most any of us can hope for.

What music do you like?

Good question. I'm all over the place.  It's easier to say what I don't like.  I don't like folk, bluegrass, irish, any  traditional  European music, disco, kids music, elevator, or most rap. I think I like everything else as long as it's done well. Depends on how long I have to listen to it. I can enjoy traditional Chinese for a few moments. But I'm a rocker at heart and still play bass with a few guys.

What photobooks from the past 5 years do you like?

Hmmm, I should probably refer you to the opening line of the introduction to my work at the gallery , Uprise Art, who advertised me on their blog with this line: "Who hasn’t read a book since the 70’s? Meet Michael". I just bought a recent signed book by Joel-Peter Witkin. I got a christmas present a couple years ago on Paul Outerbridge and one from an old hero of mine, Les Krims who said he liked my work. That's about it. I remember in the late 80s I was a finalist for a teaching position at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the interview was going well til someone in the back of the room asked "What do you read". And I replied "I don't read books". There was a pause and then one of the faculty came up and said "Thanks for coming in". I actually think I have a reading disability that was never caught. It's painful for me to scan the printed word and keep focused and accurate. I drift and mistake words for other words that look like the printed one. It's my cross to bear.

What do you think a photograph generally describes best? The world in front of the camera? Or the world inside the photographer's head?
Well I guess that depends on the "head". If it's empty then the photo is simply describing the world. If the head is extremely versed in the medium and is a very complex head, then it's telling more what's inside. But that leaves out the viewer to qualify that question. I once had a student, of simple origins, who finally came back to college after giving up a career of working at a chicken plant. He was humble, called me Mr. Northrup. I'd say, "Jim you can call me Mike".  And he'd reply "OK, Mr. Northrup". I thought his images were mind blowing but I don't think he had any idea how or why they were working.

Tell me about this photo from Babe.

The photo of the bird cage was created using this homemade masking device.

I made multiple exposures on a single piece of film. The center of the mask was cut in slices and I photographed through each slice one at a time, moving the cage from slice to slice.  Keeping all the exposures identical makes it look kind of seamless.  

I picked the bird cage because, 1. we had one, and 2. it was kind of iconic for me from childhood days. The architecture is the president's home at Shepherd College and the columns gave a simple classic bit of architecture for the cage to work against. I'm just weaving together stuff from my life. Often times my choices of people, objects, and settings are like the old Surrealist exercise from early 20th century called "Skipreading" which I learned from spending some time with Fred Sommer at his home in Prescott, AZ. A person would take a book and pick, hurriedly and unconsciously, random pieces of text by just scanning and grabbing words. When read back, this would often come out not making much sense but sounding like amazing and beautiful poetry. I think my photos work very much like Skipreadings…

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Negative Creep

I enjoy many aspects of photography but looking for negatives is not one of them. In fact it's usually the biggest pain in the ass imaginable. My office walls are lined with negatives and print boxes. I try to keep them well labeled and organized. Still, finding any particular image is always something of a treasure hunt.

(Yeah, it's gonna be another "my process" post. I can feel you reaching for the next link already. Feel free to skip if you're looking for the latest hot photo trend.)

For the past few years my filing system has been pretty good. I make work prints of the photos I like (about 6 months after shooting). I write the date and roll number on the back of each one. So if I can find the work print it will lead me to the negative. But that's a big If. The thing is, my work prints are sort of scattered. I'm never exactly sure where I've filed something. Most photos have multiple characteristics. A photo like the one below for example could go in the dog box, or lineups, or family photos (it's my brother in law), or street photos, or who knows where. So I have to look in this box or that one until I find the right one.

If I worked on projects it would be easy. I'd look in the box marked Every Building on the Sunset Strip or Barfly Portraits or whatever. God how I envy those photographers who can just finish a project, put it in a big box and there it is. If they ever want to find it, it's waiting. I imagine that a book is sort of like that. Tidy. Contained. With clearly marked words on the spine. Look at William Klein in the video below casually leafing through one of his books. Look at how perfectly organized his contacts are (around 1:00 in). And his negatives in their nice wooden cabinet. Look how relaxed he seems with his hair down in his leisure suit.

Instead my photos run together in a big stream. More of a river actually. My archive may be only slightly larger than Klein's but the pain-in-the-ass factor beats his by several orders of magnitude. Definitely not leisure suit material.

I keep about 500 of my alltime favorite work prints in a box, so that's usually the first place I look. But sorting through them can take a while, and most of the time the photo won't be there. And the search is always a big stress. Like, will I find it here? Will this be the box? That one? I don't have all day. I've gotta go out and shoot later.

Then there are the photos from pre-2006 before I started numbering rolls. I used to shoot so much I didn't have time to keep track. I just dumped negatives chronologically into three inch binders, one per month. On the work print I'd write the date, 8/04 or something, but on the negative nothing. So the work print would lead me to the right binder if I could find it. But then I'd have to sort through all the contacts one by one. After I found the contact it was easy, because (unlike Klein) I keep my negs and contacts together side by side. But to get to that point could take a while.

Did I mention that I never mark my contacts to show which prints I've made or which frames I like? Every contact looks the same at first: blank. I can usually recognize a frame by what else is happening on the contact but sometimes it's just an isolated shot with no context. I know what you're thinking. I must be a friggin masochist. What the heck am I thinking? The idea is I like to approach the negatives fresh each time. It's like walking down a new street looking for photos. I want to keep every side avenue open, and previous marks may bias me toward a particular photo. Who knows. Maybe I'll choose a different frame the next time around.

Or at least that's what I used to tell myself. Actually my initial reasoning doesn't really make sense any more. When looking for negatives bias is a good thing. Bias helps you cut through the clutter. But I hate to change horses midstream. Or midriver as the case may be.

So it's a big fat pain in the ass when I have to look for negatives, and honestly I try to avoid it. The primary exceptions occur when someone forces my hand. This is what happened last month when I was invited by Stephen McLaren into a group show. Ten photos. Ten negs to find. Yikes! Time to put the waders on.

Fortunately Stephen told me exactly what he wanted, which saved me a lot of restless contemplation and sleepless nights, and that's before I even started searching for negatives. My only instructions to him were that they had to be photos I'd never exhibited before. He looked at my work online and came up with these:

According to the show title it's a Street Photography exhibition. I don't know if these all count as street photographs. I'm not even sure what a street photo is. But at least most of these show pavement, so that's a start.

They aren't necessarily the ones I would've picked. There's probably no such thing as that, not without insomnia. So it's a good thing he chose them and not me. I know I said ten and there are eleven shown here. Stephen and I are photographers, not mathematicians. Ten. Eleven. Fifty. To an artist they're all about the same. Let someone else worry about counting things. My job was to print these.

Stephen offered the option of printing them himself in New Orleans from a digital file. That would've simplified things. I think that's what the others did. It was tempting but in the end I decided to make my own prints in the darkroom. 16 x 20 on fiber. Pain in the ass.

I know they're not fashionable but darkroom prints look fine to me. I'm not the world's greatest printer but I can do a passable job. I print b/w. I don't have to fuss over gamuts and color casts. Instead I can concentrate on what's in the photo. If I can express the primary visual idea in the print I'm not going to worry a lot about dodging or burning unless an area really demands it. If it's a good neg I can usually pull a nice print in about an hour, and generally it will look like what's on the contact.

Maybe you can't finetune an image in the darkroom to the extent you can with a computer but that's ok with me. Sometimes a digital print can look too controlled. All the tones are perfect, every dust speck removed. They have all the charm of an auto-tuned voice. And they're ready for replication. Push the print button once and you've got a unique print. Push it 20 more times and you no longer have a unique print. Instead you've got a distribution model. Reminder, I'm not a mathematician. Twenty seems about the same as zero.

Look at this photo by Daido Moriyama. I saw it in person a few months ago at Hartman. Believe me, it's every bit as ugly in real life. Maybe creepy is a better word. There are no middle tones. The burning and dodging is incredibly conspicuous. It looks like a rough experiment. But you know what? It works.

Daido Moriyama, Boy, Miyagi, Japan, 1973
Fiber prints have character. The easel blades are never quite square. There is always a stray dust speck or five that require spotting after. Not to mention all the fingerprints. And creases and crimps. And maybe a tong mark or two. Sometimes I drip fixer in the corners as the stop bath is setting in or add a tiny photogram in a dark area where it won't be easily noticed. Some might call them flaws. I call them character. Stephen is having a cow as he reads this. He's pulled out my prints and is looking more closely. Don't worry, Stephen. Just yanking your chain.

But the main reason I decided to print this show in the darkroom is I'm a goddamn control freak. Sending my file to be printed offsite made me nervous. I've actually done this for a few shows and it's worked out fine. It seems to be the way of the future. But it feels a bit like a cook offering up a recipe instead of a meal. I think most cooks are control freaks. They want to see their food through to the end, ingredients to mouth. Maybe they don't even have a recipe. They go by feel. They add some fairy dust. Every time they make a certain meal it comes out slightly different.

I was nervous about the bush lady photo. The last time I'd searched for the negative it had nearly given me an ulcer. I took the shot in 2003 during the pre-labeling era. I'd shot about 80 rolls that February and I knew it was on one of them. But I couldn't find it! I knew I'd shot it somewhere downtown Portland, but the problem was it was a one-off. The surrounding frames offered no context. I thumbed carefully through the contacts for two hours, one by one, frame by frame. It wasn't there! And it was one of my favorites! FUCK!

That was about five years ago. I'd settled down by now. This time I found it within ten minutes, right where it was supposed to be. I know I don't usually do this but I put a large red box around the frame on the contact, just to make my my life easier if I ever printed it again. There are no side avenues on that particular contact. I will always pick that frame.

The rest of the negatives turned up fine as well. I put off looking for them until the day before I was due in the darkroom. I had some coffee, started digging, and in a few hours I'd found them all. It was like a visit to the dentist which you keep putting off. But in the end it wasn't so bad.

Printing all eleven images took two solid days in the darkroom. I made 5 one day, then 6 the following week. Printing was fun! It's a real pleasure to see a tiny one inch frame on a neg transformed into a living breathing thing. And I'd never printed these particular images at 16 x 20 before. Every piece of grain had shown up for the job.

I sent them all to Stephen and told him to edit down to ten. Or use all eleven or fifty or however many. I wound up substituting for one of Stephen's picks. You'll have to visit the show to see which one. Some things need seen in person I think. It opens Friday.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Album Quiz Recap

Congrats to Jarek Sawiuk of Poland, who solved last week's album cover photo quiz in record time with a perfect score of 62. Jarek, watch your mailbox. Your fabulous gifts and prizes should be arriving soon. Thanks to everyone who sent in entries. Answer key below.

Pieter Hugo, Mallam Mantari Lamal with Mainasara, Nigeria, 2005

Various Artists - Lagos Shake: A Tony Allen Chop Up, 2008

Joseph Szabo, Priscilla, 1969

Dinosaur Jr., Green Mind, 1991

Peter Beard, Buy an Elephant a Drink, Tsavo Park, Athi River, Kenya, 1968

Elephant's Memory (Self Titled), 1969

Todd Hido, 2690, 2000

Silversun Pickups,  Neck of the Woods, 2012

Bernard Faucon, Le Banquet, 1978

Nazareth , Malice in Wonderland, 1980

Walker Evans, Railroad Station, Edwards, Mississippi, 1936

Bill Frisell, This Land, 1994

Jamel Shabazz, Flying High, 1982

The Roots, Undun, 2011

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ile de la Cite, Paris, 1952

Bill Evans, The Paris Concert, Edition One, 1979

George Tice, Petit's Mobil Station, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, 1974

Bill Frisell, Blues Dream, 2001

Margaret Bourke-White, Flood Victim Paddling a Boat Made of Wash Tubs, Louisville, KY, 1937

They Might Be Giants, Flood, 1990

Ralph Gibson, The Perfect Future, 1972

Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian, 2006

Mike Wells, Starving Boy and a Missionary, 1980

Dead Kennedys, Pastic Surgery Disasters, 1982

Harry Callahan, Weeds against Sky, Detroit, 1948

The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music, 2003

William Reagh, Woman playing guitar in Pershing Square, 1960

Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, 2011

15. Bonus Question: Bill Frisell. In addition to the albums listed above he has at least a dozen others featuring noncommissioned cover photos. I think this makes him the champ, although admittedly I'm not 100 percent certain. If anyone knows of another musician with more photo covers please let me know. In the meantime why doesn't someone out there write a post on Frisell's albums?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Convertible Bond?

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