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Instructor Book Release: Casco Viejo, Ken Milburn

by Sessions Staff | August 9, 2010

Sessions College instructor Ken Milburn is one of the most prolific writers around, the author of more than 20 books on digital photography and computer arts training. Long before he wrote The Digital Photography Bible, he was a photographer who pursued his own creative and artistic passions and built a professional career with publicity, editorial, and advertising clients.

It’s great to see Ken return to his roots with the publication of a new Blurb Book called Casco Viejo. The book is a splendid coffee table book that depicts the influence of social change in Casco Viejo, an historic section of Panama City.

Casco Viejo is the old quarter of Panama City, an area whose revitalization began when it was designated a World Heritage site in 1999. In your introduction, you comment that the book is the product of “wandering at different times of day, in different weather, and in differing states of mind.”

Casco Viejo presents a photographer with a wonderful variety of lighting and contrast, as well as different opportunities to experiment with different equipment and image editing programs. It’s helped me produce and invent a great variety of subject matter (way more than fit within the “style” of this single book), giving me a seemingly endless wealth of approaches and techniques that involve my passions and which I can share with my students.

There’s also an inherent contrast in Panama City itself. Panama City is a major crossroads of the world, and that really shows in the variety of lifestyles and technologies. If you temporarily tire of the folk-art lifestyle of Casco, you can spend the afternoon jogging along the beautiful and recently completed coastal beltway, or hanging out at MultiPlaza, with its huge collection of name-brand restaurants, electronics and camera stores, Armani suits, and stores owned by just about every world-famous designer. You can even spend a couple of days wandering through the jungle, seeing the monkeys in the national park, or hanging out along the Panama Canal. My next self-published coffee table book will be about Panama City itself.

Many of your images juxtapose to the old city with the high-rise financial center across the water. What are some of the social changes in your photographs?

The Panama City population seems divided into thirds: struggling natives living in affordable ruins awaiting re-construction, “bohemians” (for lack of a better word) who are here for opportunities to sell and share their artwork and lifestyles with world travelers/tourists who love to come here, or just to share a unique adventure, and entrepreneurs who (usually) sold a house or business in their own country and want to use that nest-egg to invest in another place with huge potential, an ideal climate, and a relaxed life-style. And the best thing about Panama City is that all three groups love to intermingle with one another.

You describe your approach in this book as “highly interpretative.” How was your approach different from, say, a documentary photographer?

I wasn’t trying to do anything beyond showing my passion for what I think is beautiful, from highly patinaed and cracked walls to copious vegetation growing out of rooftops and brick-paved streets. I purposely did not put any text alongside the pictures in order to give strangers a way to discover this place in the same way that I did, one page at-a-time.

You’ve made Central America your home for several years now. Do you find it a stimulating environment for the arts and photography?

More and more every day. The local population in Panama City seems to be appreciate now that many photographers love what they see here and realize that that photography can mostly be a (mostly) good thing for them and their economy. When I first arrived here, much people were paranoid about being photographed and saw a camera as a target for theft. Lately, it’s not uncommon to see large groups of people on photo walks and groups of kids and their moms running to pose for them. (Though I’d still advise sensible caution when it comes to drawing attention to your camera.)

Several images in the book benefit from HDR processing, which attempts to take advantage of the more than 4,000 shades of brightness and colors captured in RAW images. Can you talk about the HDR processing you used in the book – and why you used it?

Well, I used HDR processing partly because I love to experiment, and partly because I love to teach the potential of HDR (which I write about at the Access Digital Photography site and I think I’ve used just about every possible technique. Since we’re mostly working with RAW images in professional imaging, there’s an awful lot that one can do to bring out shadow detail or to “polarize” a sky by just using the sliders, pre-sets, and adjustment brushes that are available in Adobe Lightroom. Virtually all the original Lightroom features are more effective and more powerful in Lightroom 3, where there are many improved features in image sharpening, noise reduction, and lens correction.

Another influence on my work are some history-breaking changes in Photoshop CS5. CS5 offers more accurate HDR composition, dedicated tone-mapping that uses virtually the same interface, content-aware fills that just “evaporate” unwanted areas that otherwise spoil the atmosphere or composition of a photo (and which used to take hours to eliminate); very accurate selection of complex objects such as flying hair using the new refine edge/mask feature; the ability to precisely bend and stretch just about any object that you can place on its own layer to either re-shape (think thin) or animate that object with puppet warp; painting effects that let you do what you used to have¬† to do with Corel Painter; and lens correction (which works in both PS and LR) which turns every camera into a view camera with a swing and tilt lens and does an amazing job of preserving edge sharpness and definition, no matter how much correction you have to make.

Phew! There’s a lot more than that. Those are just the major things, and they’ve already “revolutionized” a few hundred of my images that will have to appear in another book coming soon.

The Casco Viejo book is published by Blurb.com, an innovative online publisher that does publishing on demand as well as enabling charitable arts projects. Are you happy with the printed product, and what are some of the benefits of working with Blurb.com?

I’ve often been offered the opportunity to try out other “one-off” book publishers, but Blurb has consistently been the one that does the best overall job of providing me with what I expect. I have several close colleagues who have the same opinion. Just in time, it’s gotten even better as Blurb now supplies templates for creating books in InDesign. This also has huge potential for creating books that can be distributed electronically and read on a wide variety of “slate” computers such as the iPad. I’m already working on a couple of such books. I think there are many good reasons for both hard-copy and interactive electronic books and publishers like Blurb can be a big part of that process.

The Casco Viejo book can be previewed in its entirety as well as purchased at Blurb.com. Ken Milburn teaches courses on digital photography, lightroom, and photo retouching in the Digital Photography program at Sessions College.

Sessions Staff is a restless soul who loves to share Campus News stories with current and prospective students.