Leif Benner, Goldsmith

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I even like his watch.

The Long Version: When I write a review, I try to combine an expansive breadth of knowledge with incisive specificity. This time I can't do that – while I do know a bit about jewellery and jewellery stores, I don't spend any time researching and shopping around. Whenever I need something nice in gold, I just head down to see Leif Benner. He's a goldsmith and designer located in Toronto's Distillery district, an arts incubator that's something of a tourist attraction in its own right.

As often happens, I needed to see a jewellery designer because I wanted to get married, and found the perfect ring as soon as I walked into Leif's studio. Planning a wedding is a lot of hard work – I should know, I've watched someone do it – but working with Leif has always been easy. When Penny and I were looking for wedding bands, he deftly talked us away from a significantly more expensive design by showing us how it wouldn't be a good compliment to Penny's engagement ring. For my band, he took the time to go through a number of different options that I never expected to have, and I've come away with a ring that's exactly right for me - it's square. What more can I say?

Leif's clearly enthusiastic about his art, and I never hesitate to recommend him to anyone who's looking for something special in gold or precious stones. He's both a talented designer and a pleasure to work with. Either trait is hard to find, but getting them both together is remarkable and worth supporting. After getting an engagement ring and a wedding band set from Leif, I can't see ever going anywhere else.


Red - The Movie

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Toronto-spotting is a hobby of mine.

The Long Version: I'm not someone who goes to the movies very often, but when Penny tells me that she's scored a pair of comp passes to an advance screening, I'm not about to stay home. So tonight I found myself sitting in a packed theatre waiting for the start of a movie I'd never heard of, featuring a whole cast of stars that I had only intermittent knowledge of, without any real expectations.

Red - the movie - turned out to be a huge success. It's fairly smart, well put together, and entertaining. In its structure and style, it's almost more of a 'caper' movie than an action/adventure thriller. Being based on graphic novels gives it a certain super-hero aspect to some of the characters, but it's more of a postmodern too-cool Tarantino style than Superman, if you know what I mean. Some of the camerawork and choreography brought gasps from the audience; the price of admission is worth it just to see the most awesome exit from a police car ever conceived.

While this is an exceedingly violent movie, it's not heavy on the gore. People tend to disappear in bloodless explosions or get nocked down - there's no sense that we're in the middle of a first-person shooter video game or a slasher movie. And even places where it does get quite graphic, such as a direct grenade hit in the container yard, it tends to be as much of a visual shock as a horror show. Red doesn't seem to revel in human suffering as much as The Expendables did. In fact, I generally found that particular Badass Grandpa movie much less satisfying than this one, and Red never felt like a vanity project. If you're tying to decide between the two, unless you're a huge Stallone fan, pick Red instead.

I think this is the first time I've gone to an action movie and come away thoroughly impressed with the acting. Sure, Morgan Freeman's a given, but John Malkovich stole every scene he was in. And then there was Bruce Willis - who knew?

Even while I was watching the movie I was making plans to buy the DVD. Red will be great on a decent TV with a good sound system, but it really is worth seeing with an audience. This could become the first movie I'll watch in the theatres more than once since - I'm embarrassed to say this - Pump Up The Volume. For those who can't think back to 1990, that's the movie where Christian Slater plays a disaffected and maladjusted youth. In my defence, it had some redeeming moments (nsfw), and I was sixteen years old. But I digress – Red is one of the best movies I've seen in a very long time, and not to be missed if this genre is something you think you'd like.


The Visual Story, 2nd Edition, by Bruce Block

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's an advanced introduction of the basics.

The Long Version: It's important for photographers to be interested in something other than photography. No matter what the subject is, photos are more likely to be successful when there's an outside interest to drive them. Similarly, it's important that photographers get away from other photographers, especially the herd-mind of forums, flickr, and photo-bloggers. But that's not exactly original advice: novice photographers are often told, with sage wisdom, to study the works of master painters. Where the advice falls short is the impression that learning from other media is just for beginners, and in its very narrow view of what constitutes acceptable artistic ideas.

What Bruce Block's book "The Visual Story" brings to the conversation is a master's experience in motion pictures. Since the fundamentals of space, perspective, and composition are the same for single photos and for footage, it's easy to directly apply most of the material in The Visual Story directly to still photography. The books' content that deals with time - movement, repetition, pacing, themes - is also useful for photographers whose ambitions include cohesive portfolios and projects. There's very little that doesn't apply to stills at all, as the book is designed to provide an education, not replace a technical manual.

I was sold on The Visual Story as soon as I found it in the local MegaBooks store. Flipping through it - and the store's photography section in general - to pass some time, I hit on Part B of the Appendix: "Lenses' Effects on Space". In three pages, with six illustrations, Bruce Block not only explained depth of field in a way that I finally understood, but threw in an explanation of 'telephoto compression' as well. I walked away stunned, and promptly ordered the book from the same store's website for considerably less money, with free shipping. Gotta love the internet, with apologies to my fellow under-appreciated retail workers.

I've read Block's book a couple of times now, and I'm going through it once again as I write this review. I'm constantly being reminded of how much I get out of this book. The section on camera movements, specifically how the dolly, crane, and track differ from zoom, tilt, and pan in their depiction of space, blows away thousands of internet posts about "zoom with your feet". It's no coincidence that prime lenses now make up 75% of my collection, and that's just from getting to Page 30 in The Visual Story. Having a subtly different perspective from still photography, and having a different set of problems to solve, brings a depth and detail to discussions that generic photo-instruction books never even get into.

The essence of The Visual Story is that Bruce Block identifies six basic visual components, and discusses how they're applied in creating imagery. Essential to the discussion is the role of contrast and affinity - difference and similarity - in controlling visual intensity. In the sample above, on the right-hand page, are examples of affinity (top) and contrast (bottom) in brightness range; the left-hand page shows contrast and affinity in saturation. After all, this book isn't about taking pictures, or even making movies: it's about controlling the visual structure so that the images say what you want them to.

If I was to create an essential reading list for photographers, The Visual Story would come after "Understanding Exposure" but before "Light, Science, and Magic" and "Perception and Imaging" as the important books to read. Those four books - the last three, anyway - aren't particularly written for dummies, but they cover everything from a practical introduction through to some advanced and esoteric concepts. After that, the rest of the bookshelf is either entertainment or manuals - both of which can be useful, but none are enlightening. Sure, keep looking at paintings and photos, but also watch movies, study advertisements, and learn from graphic designers. And don't forget to be interested in something outside of photography.

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