Shaking things up

Getting out of a photographic rut is quite difficult. When I shot Cinestill film back in February for a project, I was hoping to stretch my style out so that it involved more elements in the frame. My main approach was to position people predominantly in a ‘rule of thirds’ framework. My inspiration for this idea was the work of Alex Webb. I didn’t quite work.

However, I think the idea of freshening things up is a good one. When I look back at my work, I always notice that certain types of shots are dominant in my repertoire. I usually call them ‘environmental portraits’ as they often set the people in the context of their environment backdrop. This is often a reflection of how I think.

1g1a1976However, I do really like those (relatively) rare occasions in which I get up close and personal in my photography. The shots are much more intimate, involved, dynamic and intense. In the next few months, I might stick a wide angle lens on a camera and shoot specifically with this idea in mind as a ‘one project’.

img077One of the reasons I have started to set myself challenges in the form of the ‘one project’ each month, is that I want to stretch myself more creatively. This month, my interest is in trying to shoot objects that mark the presence of people in some way. I am getting more interested in vernacular photography, but I think there is a fine line between “that’s a great shot” and “who cares, that’s boring” responses to the images for me. I suspect my work this month will be the latter!

Ultimately, I would like to find ways to get out of my current creative rut to develop new ways of expressing myself photographically.

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BBC Yellowstone and Kodak Etkachrome

Yellowstone

This week I have been watching the three part BBC nature show on Yellowstone National Park. I’ve really enjoyed it, the photography has been great and Yellowstone National Park just looks incredible (I have my eye on Zion National Park and have always wanted to visit Glacier National Park in the US – one day!).

I must admit that I got a little taken with the beavers over the episodes. I thought there were no beavers in Britain. However, Eurasian beavers have been (illegally) released back into Scotland after a 500 year absence. Turns out that they are to be formally protected now as a native species. It’s good to see the reintroduction of animals, given that so many are going the other way.

I used to follow the news about wildlife, but lost track of things over the years. Now that I have recently started to resume my interest in this area, I have been quite shocked at the state of things. I guess, though, I shouldn’t be.

The show is still on BBC iPlayer.

Kodak

It’s really good to hear that Kodak is reintroducing Etkachrome. Personally, I thought that slide film was all but dead. Seems that the movie industry is loving film again, leading to a resurgence. I would love to Kodachrome come back, but I can’t see that happening. Still, when it’s available (apparently towards the end of 2017), I will get a few rolls!

 

 

Leica and street photography

Now, like a number of people who decide to get into doing street photography the word ‘Leica’ at some point crosses your mind. Those expensive little cameras with the so-called ‘best lenses in the world’. Like a lot of people, I got caught up in the hype that if I was to do street photography then I needed a small, high quality, unobtrusive camera. Of course, the Leica on paper was pretty perfect for this. Enter my M7 about 6 years ago. I bought the M7 as it was more modern than the M6, pretty cheap used as Leica’s go due to their flaky electronics and if you are mad enough to buy one new, you can still get one (I later had a Leica MP – much more reliable, if a bit slower in practice). Some time after acquiring the camera (at a very good price) from Evilbay, I managed to attach a 35mm Voigtlander lens to it. Then, I loaded up with Kodak Tri-X (because I read it was a good film, my prior encounters with black and white were all with Ilford (which I have returned to using more nowadays as it scans better)).

Now, I must admit using a rangefinder to start with was a bit of a pain, I was missing loads of shots – if anything moved it was pretty much out of the question. I tried zone focusing, but have never been that good at it. Some people are much better at judging distances than me.

Over time, with a hell of a lot of persistence, I managed to get to grips with the camera. I found out that if I didn’t use it for a while I would get quite rusty with it, but as I used it more and more, I would get back into the groove with it.

A basic kit is expensive, but they are cameras for life (well, maybe apart from my M7 as the electronics go AWOL from time to time). Whilst they are quite limited in many ways, but do excel at street and candid reportage. They are rubbish in my view for landscape and anything that requires tight framing.

However, there is something about them which makes them just lovely to use. It’s not just that you are using a piece of photographic history, but there is the whole ‘feel’ of the thing. They feel very small and purposeful.

They also are quite committing cameras to use as you don’t look through a lens, like in a DSLR. This means that you have to pre-imagine what sort of image you want. This is great as it makes you more focused on what you are doing. You can certainly do grab shots with the camera, but for me at least, the psychological attitude to using it is very different to a DSLR (I like using both formats of cameras, but I prefer the rangefinder design for more committed work).

You definitely don’t need a Leica for street photography. Any camera that you can practically use will do. Joel Meyerowitz even shot street on a 10×8 large format camera. They are overpriced, limited in many ways, infuriatingly temperamental (in the case of the M7), and weirdly cultish. However, the one advantage is that you can sell them at not much loss of money if you play your cards right. I don’t think I will be able to say the same for my DSLR if I come to sell that in a few years time…

Untitled copy 2

London, 2015. Leica MP, Kodak Portra. I finally worked out why I like this shot so much – the line of red vehicles and the expression on the woman’s face in the foreground.

Landscape work

Sometimes it’s just nice to do some landscape photography. Usually nowadays, I like to photograph what people are up to – usually on the streets. However, sometimes I like to step back and just enjoy nature’s light shows as they appear.

One of the things that I used to do a lot, and would like to do again, is long distance treks. I love putting on a backpack and walking long distance trails. Over 20 years of walking I have managed to hone my pack down (including an excellent 1kg Terra Nova Laser tent) to about 8kg, excluding camera kit (I am happy to post up my kit list if people are interested). I have always taken an SLR (film and more recently digital) on treks, as I have never been able to get along with the limitations of compact cameras.

I spent a good 6 years climbing all over the dolomites as part of my treks. Northern Italy is a place that I know quite well,and love, due to the stunning mountains there. I should perhaps put the photos of the treks together into some sort of project.

One of the things I like about trekking is obviously the stunning scenery. Spending a few weeks (or months on another occasion) in the mountains is quite an experience. Not only did I get super fit, but I also found that my view of life became much more simpler and clearer.

With limited access to the internet and other sources of technology, I found that things became easier. Each day was simply about setting a goal of getting from A to B, then doing it. Until my first daughter arrived 5 years ago, I only really used a camera for holiday snaps. I used to do wedding and some advertising photography some years before, with my main personal interest at the time being seascape work (living in Cornwall it was hard not to!). However, when I went off to study, I pretty much dropped photography for a good 10 years. As is typical with most people, having kids makes you get your camera back out!

I don’t tend to do landscape work that much at the moment. I have been shooting a project in Wiltshire called ‘Landlines‘ (it’s a poor edit, the previous one was better) on and off for the last few years, but it’s very slow going. I will probably reshoot the project over the next few years as I like the idea, but not the images. The main reason I don’t do much landscape work is that much of the stuff I see online is not very inspiring. I went to a local exhibition recently, and whilst the landscape work was pretty, I didn’t find it stood out from the multitude of shots that I have seen before. The main reason being that if I have seen Durdle Door once, I have seen it a thousand times, so why do I need to see it again with a slightly bluer sky or something?

The problem I find with landscape work is that people are always trying to create the iconic image – when I prefer nowadays to work with a series of images to create a narrative. When you have seen so many so-called iconic images, you get a bit numb to them. So, I think this year, particularly with the arrival of the large format camera (still need to get the lenses, etc…), I think I will revisit the great outdoors to do some landscape work – particularly as it seems a good topic for learning how to use a large format camera.

Any way, here are a couple of pretty pictures from my treks to round the post off with…

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Refugio Lagozoui, Dolomites 2011

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Swiss Alps, 2008

Life in large format – Part one

Well, I am one step closer to working in large format now. I have bought a beautiful Ebony field camera. Mind you, that’s all I have bought so far. I still need to buy a lens (hopefully with lens board and shutter fitted), dark slides, dark cloth, film, etc. I am meandering across Evilbay and websites to find the rest of the kit.

To say that this is going to be a journey of discovery is probably a bit of an understatement. I have never even held a 5×4 inch camera until last weekend, so learning how to use it is going to be interesting. I have, however, managed to find some videos on YouTube about how to set up and use a large format camera, which is already very helpful.

Naturally, given that it is a large (and heavy) camera which can only shoot one image at a time the whole approach to photography needs to be different. Obviously, I need to slow down – in fact this almost Victorian era camera is going to force me to do this. I don’t mind this, as I have been purposely using a Mamiya 7ii for a while to force me to make my work more considered (you get 10 shots per roll of film on this camera). Then, there is the whole setting up, focusing and shooting experience – once you have focused and loaded the film into the back you are into the realms of guesstimating what the image will look like – unlike my usual cameras I won’t have lovely big viewfinders to peer through. After that, I need to work out how to get the film posted off somewhere to get it processed, as my local processor doesn’t do large format. I have seen a few places online, but would prefer something local. I could try and do it myself (I have processed E-6 slides before and black and white), but time is the main issue for me with a young family.

I am both excited but also anxious about the whole thing. I am excited as large format images look stunning when they are done well. The level of detail in them and particularly the tonality blow away any thing else that I have access to (I don’t have access to a 100mp Phase one 645 camera at £32,000!). But, I am anxious to say the least about actually using it. I am really clueless in this area of photography. But, if anything, I like the challenge of learning something new. Until I decide to take on the MA in documentary photography (a long-term goal), I have always taught myself how to use a camera – for me the process of discovery is part of the fun of trying out different cameras!

RW45E

Ebonycamera.com

The world as raw material

Sometimes I feel like I am almost doing photography ‘backwards’. When I shoot at the moment, which is not as  often as I would like, I tend to shoot street and use an opportunistic approach. Really, what I mean is that I wander around with a camera in the hope that something visually interesting will magically appear before my eyes. As you can imagine, it’s not the most successful approach out there. Then, once I get a load of shots together, I look through the collection and try to create a set of images that seem to work together in some way. It’s a bit like Bruce Davidson’s approach, but vaguer!

In recent times I have also got quite ‘narrow’ in my choice of so-called interesting subjects to photograph. I tend to focus mainly on people, at the expense of other interesting things. I am limiting my options, rather than ‘seeing’ and opening them up. I suspect it’s a battle many people have when they do photography – trying not to get too ‘predictable’ and, well, boring.

So, this has got me thinking about how I am approaching photography right now. The images I like the most are generally black and white and shot on film. I love the grainy, coarse, arty, look of 35mm film (I obviously like colour as well and shoot in colour a lot, but I find that there is more emotion in black and white photography for me, for the most part). Three of my favourite sets of images have been done this way. Markus Andersen’s work (see the Belly of the Beast video I recently posted a video link of), Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight book and Christopher Anderson’s Capitolio. I like the look of the work, but also way that they have managed to create these almost (well, definitely in Anderson’s work) dystopian worlds. None of these projects follow a standard documentary approach, they are more evocative in their nature. There are others, like Koudelka, but I have included them here.

What they have done in each project is take what exists in the real world and fashioned the images in a way to create a whole new world. One that feels that it does exist, but also doesn’t. I like how it just trips my imagination off. You know that the images come from reality, but you know that how they have been put together creates a new reality.

Parke’s work is about life and death to me. The final images in his book of people under water and birth seem to be about regeneration or the renewing of life. What I really like in his work is how he seems to use a lot of metaphor to create an overall impression of the book. The actual story is not obvious to me, it’s more about the impressions that you are left with when you reach the end of the book.

Anderson’s work set in the late Hugo Chavez’s regime is about power, violence, uncertainty and has anxiety written all over it. I love the interplay between his images, as well as how he repeats images (like police with riot shields) to emphasis ideas of power, control, confrontation and the potential for bloodshed. It’s a very powerful book, which has created a lot of debate amongst people as to what it really means. Anderson never makes it clear in the book what the story is really about.

Markus Andersen’s work is more classic street and does have the same emotional and conceptual intensity as the other pieces of work here, but how he weaves images together creates a shadowy and edgy world, which I love. I like the less emotionally loaded flavour of his work, but I also like his intense use of light and shadow to create his images.

Anderson and Parke have seemingly gone out to shoot with some pretty clear ideas in their heads about what they want to achieve. Andersen seems to have an impression of what sorts of image and world he wants to create, but is not so conceptually loaded in terms of the story. One thing that Andersen has to play with in abundance in Australia, is the intense and harsh light. If he was in Britain, his work would be much more about shades of grey!

So, for me, there are two elements here, firstly creating a story using the images as metaphors for that story like Anderson and Parke. But also using the light to create images with a certain look, like Andersen (and Parke and Anderson). Maybe I will use these ideas to guide how I work for a while?

Kodak Tri-X (800ASA)

Salisbury

What I see depends on what I bring

At one level, a photograph is a simple thing – it’s just an image. But, at another level it’s a whole different ball game. What I see in a photograph depends on what bring – in terms of my previous experiences and how I probably am feeling at that point in time. Some photographs by their raw emotional content have the power to seemingly transcend the immediate context – they almost forcibly grab you and shake you up. Those photographs, as far as I am concerned, are rare. I can think of a lot of good photographs, but not many that have that powerful emotional pull.

Often, a photograph creates a strong emotional response in me due to the story that goes with it. This is one of the reasons that I like reading documentary work, as it provides a contextual backdrop to more fully understand the image. However, some stories just bore me as I am not interested in them. Whilst others, due to my experiences, beliefs and interests are much more stimulating. Darcy Padilla’s The Julie Project (Now called Family Love) is a very powerful story which gripped me.

This got me thinking recently about my own work. Like most people (I presume), I shoot with a particular idea in mind of how I would like the audience to respond to my work – do they ‘get’ the message that I am seeking to communicate? I have no idea really, unless I talk to people or provide an explanatory text. But, when I do that I have already sought to shape their views and opinions about the work. What might be a more interesting angle to explore is that of not providing an explanatory context, etc. to the work – just putting the images out there and let the viewer make their own minds up about the work. What expectations do they bring and does the work match it in any way?

I like the idea of using the ambiguity in the ‘space’ between my intention for the work and the audience’s expectations as a possible point of exploration. I can try to influence what people think. However, because I don’t know, nor can I know, their previous histories or immediate context, I can’t actually control what they think.

I guess the next thing to do is to explore this idea in a little more depth, and shoot some work or look at the work I have done to build something that reflects this concept.

Salisbury