Workshop at Linhof & Studio

Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.

Friday, 21 March 2008

This is my last post...

well here anyway.

Don't despair (unless of course you're cheering?) because I'm moving my blog to my new website. I hope that you will both continue to read my ramblings and post your insightful comments at the new location.

I'll see you there!

Thursday, 20 March 2008

A comment on Stieglitz's notion of Equivalence?

My thanks to Lee Weller from Tasmania who sent me this wonderful Schultz cartoon. It just underlines how big a part the viewer plays in the life of any image!

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Even by my own lax standards...'s been too long since I last posted anything here. Having been ticked off by half of my readership (the other one hasn't even noticed I've been quiet) I've decided that I ought to let you know what I've been up to!

Around the second week of January I joined Joe Cornish, Eddie Ephraums, Phil Malpas, Clive Minnitt and Richard Childs for a week in a small cottage at Culnacraig near Achiltibuie in the northwest Highlands. I had been really looking forward to this trip as it was the first time that that select club The CUBS (Complete & Utter Bastard Society) had had an outing since four of us travelled together to Utah in 2003. However the weather seemed set against us making many images with persistent rain and – the real killer – gale force winds for almost the whole week. This meant that we were reduced to trying out our culinary skills on each other (never mind animal testing, some of the meals that I prepared should definitely be banned!) and trying to fill the endless evenings with interminable games of Scrabble accompanied by the pathetic sound of sheep bleating as they flew past the window at head height in the raging storm.

As usual when I go away after a long period without any time off I went down with a case of man flu – a very serious illness! I felt miserable not only because of my respiratory problems but also because the much hoped for opportunity to make images in the convivial company of my peers seemed to be passing me by. Everyone else seemed to be effortlessly making images but I just couldn't see anything. Joe was his usual positive self, Clive was as enthusiastic as ever, Eddie was coming back from a few hours in the rain with some truly astonishing stuff but I could see nothing. I think that a lot of the problem was the pressure that I was putting on myself to perform. Rather than communing with my surroundings, I was getting so desperate that I ended up just looking to acquire an image, any image!

I don't normally think of myself as a very competitive person but this situation was definitely bringing that trait out in me. It almost physically hurt to see them all making interesting images when I had a creative block and I found myself wanting to compete for the prize of an image. Of course this was entirely the wrong approach and for a while I just sank deeper into the mire. Perhaps I should add that there was a degree of external pressure to make an image. Phil & Clive wanted Joe and I to be their 'readers' for the 100th issue of OP and their On Location column. I certainly didn't want to be the one who let the side down by not coming up with any results.

Eventually we got a clear slot in the weather and some interesting light. Hey presto! I found an image. Perhaps I should just listen to the advice I give other people in these circumstances – just be! Sit quietly and take things in, take time to tune in to your surroundings and the image will come to you.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Wishing all my readers a prosperous, creative and happy 2008...

May you all have great light, make amazing images and contribute to the discussion here on Oceans of Instants!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Lost in translation...

I've just returned from a visit to my local Waterstones. Whilst browsing for Christmas presents (tis the season to spend money...) I came across a copy of a book called Journey Through the British Isles with photographs by Harry Cory Wright. It is one of the recommended books in my local branch, receiving fulsome praise from a member of staff in the Hereford shop. Intrigued that a book of landscape photographs should get such 'positive' publicity I spent a few minutes studying it. You will have gathered from my use of the word fulsome that I was extremely disappointed with what I found between its covers.

First the good news; the paper stock is fine and the reproduction of high quality. The excellent author Adam Nicholson has written the forward. It is a large book (192 pages and 30.5 x 37.5 cm) and hence feels like the price of £40 is justified. The publishers synopsis states:

In the tradition of the great journeys taken by such photographers as Fox Talbot, Fenton and Bourne, Harry Cory Wright set out, in March 2006, on a quest to capture the variety of natural landscapes that make up the British Isles using a large-format plate camera. Beginning in the fragile, frozen beauty of Unst in Shetland at the spring equinox, he travelled down through the Western Isles and mainland Scotland to Northumberland and further south through England and Wales. This stunning book documents Cory Wright's remarkable journey. Each photograph is infused with the unique spirit of its location - from vast, wild mountain ranges to verdant, dewy forests at sunrise, from windswept beaches in winter to fields bathed in late summer, early evening sun. It is a unique photographic record of a journey through some of the most breathtaking locations in the British Isles. Cory Wright's Gandolfi plate camera captures images of exquisite detail and intensity. This is a magnificently produced, large-format book that will appeal to anyone interested in landscape photography.

So what's the bad news? Well I'm not so naive that I don't recognise hype when I see it – nor am I so naive as to not realise that similar hype has been applied to my own work. The pressures of the market encourage hyperbole, publishers do need to sell books after all. However the phrase "[a] book that will appeal to anyone interested in landscape photography." does seem a little dangerous. I realise that sweeping generalisation are always good in marketing land but this is a little too rich.

The important question is does the work justify the hype? Well, I have to say, for this viewer, a resounding no. The majority of the images feel as if anyone might have made them, they feel as if they just present what was in front of the camera without any distillation of the scene. Almost as if they were pretending to be unmediated. They feel like the kind of images that a non-photographer would have made if they had been presented with that scene. They don't feel as if they've been composed. Follow these links to see for yourself:

Candover Brook
Firle Beacon from Mount Caburn

Maybe their apparent lack of artifice is the point. Maybe Harry Cory Wright is the people's photographer, re-presenting the landscape to the public as they would have seen it (but in more detail because he uses a 10x8 Gandolfi) rather than with any sign of a photographer's mannerisms. But I don't think so, I think that he's just using a different set of mannerisms and that in fact these are quite elitist images – I'll return to this point further on.

For me the real failure of these images is that the vast majority didn't evoke any emotional response in me. As someone who's pretty susceptible to being moved by the British landscape this complete lack of evocation struck me as quite a feat. Now it might be that they're all 'growers' and that continuous study will bring wonderful rewards. I'm a fan of quiet images, however, and feel that I would recognise this quality were it present. I know that I'm in danger here of sinking without trace in the treacherous uncertain ground of taste, lost in the mire of what constitutes a 'good' photograph, but I'm going to press on regardless!

Adam P suggested in an earlier post that he might be making photographer's photographs and questioned whether this was a good thing. Someone he knows opined that he 'wish[ed] to avoid the “dreary photographer’s photography … I'll lose the visual immediacy …” ' This seems on the face of it to be a simple desire to present the world as it is. But more than this it is a desire to avoid a particular style, a photographic 'imprint' that carries with it a set of connotations that this person felt deleterious. How might one characterise this 'imprint'? The photographer's photograph seems to me to be typified by the conscious effort to distill reality (a concern with form, careful framing and composition), the deliberate manipulation of perspective (use of wide angle or long focal length lenses) and careful control of contrast & colour (use of filters). These transformations of reality are elements of a photographic syntax.

Why might these transformations be undesirable? Wishing to avoid them is perhaps a wish to avoid being associated with photography – a desire to make an unphotographic image, one that doesn't declare that it is photographic. An oxymoron if ever I heard one; there can be no such thing as an un-photographic photograph. Cory Wright's images also seem to spurn these visual signs. Instead they use elements from a different syntax; one characterised by passive compositions (an indifference to form and apparent lack of concern with framing), standard perspective (a weak relationship between foreground, middle ground and background) and unremarkable lighting (burnt out highlights, unsaturated colours, little or no filtration). I feel that this syntax is borrowed from, or strongly influenced by, a strain of Modernism – an art movement that is notoriously antipathetic to a concern for the natural world. A strange choice for landscape photography perhaps?

So why do Cory Wright's images fail to move me? Is it just that I don't understand the language that he's using? This possibility cannot be ruled out, nor that he wouldn't understand mine. Is it that I need nature to be enhanced by the photographic 'imprint' in order to appreciate it? I definitely don't feel that this is true. I have no trouble appreciating nature when I experience it but a photograph of nature isn't nature, it's something else. It begs the question, do you feel that photographers – or any other artists – enhance by re-presenting or that they reveal by their selection and applied technique? I feel that it is the latter. Of course Cory Wright has made selections, has chosen which lens to use and where to place the camera. He just hasn't revealed anything to me by those choices. Once again I freely admit that I might just be blind to his message. The syntax that predominates in landscape photography today owes much to the syntax used in landscape painting from the 17th century through to the 19th but has evolved over time. In part its strength comes from the richness of its sources. Cory Wright's images seem to turn their back on this heritage. There's nothing wrong with that per se, in fact that's exactly how revolutions in art begin. I just don't see any evidence of his application of an un-dynamic aesthetic to landscape photography revealing anything new or more importantly evoking a passionate response. The images seem both literally and metaphorically to have no focal point. I don't know what he wants me to look at in an image like Candover Brook. It seems an image willfully without direction. I certainly don't feel that, "These are moments captured and communicated with great intensity. These are timeless photographs that change your way of seeing..." as his dealer's website proclaims.

Or might the crux of the matter be that the syntax that he is using and the one that I, and I would suggest most of my readership, use have evolved from quite different foundations and now have quite different resonances? His syntax has, as I suggested earlier, evolved from Modernism. As such the images have a resonance that appeals more to the art market than the general public (and a consequent economic value). The syntax that underpins my work originated within the American landscape photography of the early part of the last century. Its pedigree, whilst recognised by fellow photographers, has somewhat less cachet than Modernism (and a consequently lower economic value).

It's like he's speaking French (a language in which I only have a smattering of understanding) and I'm speaking German (of which he is equally ignorant). Each has our audience of fellow native speakers and a tiny minority who speak both languages. Does this then mean that there's no such thing as a bad photograph, only something that doesn't translate well? Certainly not! I await your comments...

Thursday, 29 November 2007

To make or not to make...

On a recent trip to Scotland with a workshop group we twice visited Loch Clair in Glen Torridon for dawn. On both occasions the light was stunning, with the mountain Liathach bathed in a deep red glow for around ten to fifteen minutes – a time period consistent with an LF photographer being able to capture an image! On the group's second visit the cloudscape was amongst the finest that I have ever witnessed. On both occasions the other photographers in the group worked feverishly to capture something of the beauty laid out before them. Yet I found myself unmotivated to make an image. The scene was sublime yet, despite the abundant water, it singularly failed to float my boat.

I began to think that perhaps there was something wrong with me (highly likely). What exactly was stopping me making a picture. I know I'm not known as 'Mr Vista' but I do like a wide view so that didn't seem a likely explanation. There had to be something about this particular wide view that was inhibiting the action of my trigger finger. This worried me for the rest of the workshop. As a landscape photographer how could I not make an image of such an amazing sight? One thought was that maybe it was because I'd seen it before. In truth, not this particular view but similar ones. I don't like to feel that I'm repeating myself so I often conduct a kind of internal examination (ooh, err missus!) of my motives to make sure that I'm not taking the easy route and treading exactly the same well worn path. To add another twist, it had long been an ambition of mine to make an image across Loch Clair in great dawn light. Yet I literally couldn't make the image. No matter how hard part of me wanted to I couldn't bring myself to put the camera on the tripod. Perhaps I was just losing enthusiasm for landscape photography, becoming jaded after years of chasing the light. Perhaps it was time to pack away the dark cloth...

Then, a few days later (on a different continent) a scene grabbed me by the throat and I felt compelled to make an image. Any thoughts of being jaded disappeared in the instant that I recognised the possibility for the image. No longer "a washed up has-been" I returned to the problem of why I couldn't make the earlier image. It occurred to me that though I had hugely enjoyed the experience of those dawns I had also instinctively known that any image I made would be a pale ghost of the depth of feeling that I had experienced. What I had experienced was literally ineffable and any image of it would lack depth and subtlety. It would have had an undeniable attractive, but superficial, gloss imparted by the amazing light but in fact the strength of that light would be counter productive; any hope for subtlety and richness drowned in a crimson flood. Evocations beyond 'Gosh!' or 'warm' beaten to a blood red pulp. The point I'm trying to make is that sometimes you can't say what you feel in a single image. Its range is too poor, its sensory inputs too restricted. I'm not likely to take up cinematography any time soon but it is important to realise the limits.

Like many things it's blindingly obvious once you know it. But it surprised me that it has taken me quite so long to make the realisation. Obviously I've been 'not-making' images for decades, taking the decision to move on and find something else. But usually this was because the subject failed some quality test of my own devising or that what I was striving to achieve was beyond my reach technically, not because simply it was too good. Perhaps it's just another excuse to not take the camera out of the bag, or perhaps it's a sign of some late-found maturity in my photography. I hope it may be.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

A Photographer's Photograph?

I received a very interesting email from Oceans reader Adam musing on whether there are two classes of photograph; layman's photographs and photographer's photographs. Here (with his permission!) is his text in full for you to ponder on...

A few months ago a friend was looking at some of my photos and said of a fairly straightforward shot from Red Canyon (Utah) that it was a photographer’s photograph. I asked him to explain, and he said something about the way trees were placed around the image, the restricted colour palette (just green and hues of red) and lack of horizon (the sky was desperately bland that morning). I forgot about that conversation until recently, when as part of a discussion about photo clubs, someone else I know said that he would wish to avoid the “dreary photographer’s photography …. I'll lose the visual immediacy ….”. And this time I started thinking a bit more. What is it that makes an image arresting to the general viewer yet also evokes admiration from those who know about photography?

Let’s take the case of a wonderful landscape in dramatic light: as long as we can set up the tripod and point the camera in the right direction, then we will get a satisfactory image whether we use a simple digicam or LF big gun. It’s point and shoot, period. For this exercise I will ignore the problems of balancing out a dark foreground with bright sky etc.

But the enthusiast photographer could perhaps take a bit more care, think about using some elements of the foreground more effectively to strengthen the composition and add more impact. Perhaps using a rock the shape of which echoed that of a distant mountain. Here the photographer hopes to reproduce his own vision and uses some specialist equipment – a wide angle lens and a low viewpoint, or perhaps an LF camera with movements. By injecting his own vision, is he being creative and therefore moving towards being artistic? Well, I think yes if the resulting image is clearly more effective than that first point-&-shoot of what the photographer first saw.

As long as the image follows the conventionally accepted “rules” of composition, is sharp and well exposed, then the p&s as well as the more impactful image should get good marks from a photo club judge – and hopefully the second image will get a point or two more.

But let’s consider the case of pealing paint on a Tuscan door (forgive me DW!) where the subtle colours and textures contrast with the straight lines of the door structure. It’s a technical shot in that it would be difficult if not impossible to get the same image using cameras lacking the movements of LF. The rules of composition are probably irrelevant, the colours muted, the exposure spot on; what could or should a judge make of that? And what could an uninitiated viewer make of it? Unless the photographer manages to convey a sense of the feeling or emotion he experienced when he saw that door, the image will fail: better days gone by, current dereliction, abandonment, someone’s handiwork going to ruin…. Otherwise, it’s just a shot of a door, a so-called record shot and will be judged on that basis. Many non-photographers might just walk on by to the next print on the wall.

Or what about an abstraction from nature, perhaps detail from some colourful tree bark or contrasting colours of lichen and rock. Again the composition will probably not follow the conventional rules, and might leave the viewer to wander around the image noticing little details here and there. Some effort may be necessary and go beyond the "wow" of colours and textures to realise what the image is. Here David’s Detail at Poverty Flats in Utah is a wonderful example.

Are these last two photographer’s photographs? Possibly, but they are not necessarily dreary (certainly not the Detail). Conversely, I have seen some wonderful strong images full of passion being panned by judges for being composed not quite on the rule of thirds, or with the exposure “too dark” despite thereby separating the main subject from its background. Here the judge was seemingly looking precisely for conventional photographer’s photographs and didn't know how to react to something different. And it is that tendency to judge an image against a set of "rules" which strangles original photographic interpretation of the beauty around us.

So, what do I feel?

It's obvious that the interpretation of any image is dependent upon the level of sophistication of the viewer. An expert in Renaissance Art would certainly have a richer experience when viewing the Mona Lisa than the mythical man in the street would. The important question is should I, as a photographer aspiring to art rather than illustration, be worried that some people don't 'get' my images. I think the answer has to be a resounding "No!" This doesn't mean that I'm being elitist. I feel that my images are accessible on a number of different levels. Some viewers will only appreciate the colours or form, some think about the relationship of negative to positive space, some see references to other forms of art, some be lost in what the image evokes for them, some all of the above and more. It doesn't matter whether a viewer accesses the image on one, two or all available levels. It doesn't ultimately matter if an individual viewer isn't moved by a particular image. Neither Picasso nor van Gogh nor Monet nor Turner nor Whistler nor Mondrian nor Pollock were exactly populist for large parts of their carreers. Yet now their works are accepted as important milestones in the history of art. Popularity alone has never been a sign of quality. What would matter was if no one other than the photographer was moved by the images that they made.

I certainly don't worry that camera club judges might mark me down for not using the "rule of thirds" (this is a merely a degenerate bastardisation of the more subtle Golden Section and the fact that they probably don't know this only shows up their ignorance). Art isn't about formulas, it's not something that should be constrained by rules in this way. That doesn't mean that certain approaches aren't better than others, they obviously are. It just means that the whole exercise is more subtle and rich than any rule might suggest. Of course the real reason that judges apply rules is so that there can be some standards for comparison. And here's the fundamental flaw in the whole exercise. The appreciation of any work of art must necessarily be relative not absolute. One man's 10/10 is another's 2/10. The range of possible connotations in any image are too wide and subtle. Trying to constrain the possibilities for solving the three dimensional puzzle of composition by constraining the outcome using rules is a denial of the existence of these subtle signs. It shows a paucity of vision. There cannot be a consistent system for making an absolute comparison between one image and another. Period.

Are there photographer's photographs? Absolutely! If there weren't it would show that no one had really explored the possibilities for the medium beyond bland illustration, beyond the postcard. I feel that the image at the top of this post might well fall into the category of photographer's photograph. The only downside that I can see is that these images are probably less commercial than ones that are more straightforward.