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Book Review: The Last Ocean

in Antarctica , Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I’m gradually building up quite a large library of Antarctica literature, science and photography books, but my most recent acquisition is easily amongst the best.

The Last Ocean - Antarctica’s Ross Sea Project”, by John Weller, caught my eye in a fairly highbrow Art bookshop, the sort that usually only stocks books with blurry, grim, preferably black & white photos.  Certainly nothing as common as nature photography.

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But The Last Ocean _is_ nature photography. Actually, it is extremely good nature photography, possibly the best contemporary Antarctic photography I’ve ever seen. John Weller’s photography is restrained, giving the land, the sea, and its native inhabitants space to breathe. Unlike so much other work, these photographs are about their subject, not about where the photographer has been or how hard he/she can push the saturation slider.  They are sometimes dramatic, but it’s never forced. This photography draws you in and captivates you. It doesn’t make you go “Wow! Great Capture! You must have a great camera!”, but rather it demands that you linger and let you eyes explore. It’s meditative, subtle and thoroughly gorgeous.

But that’s not the end of The Last Ocean by any means.  Photography is only half the story. The book is full of excellent, reflective essays on the Ross Sea ecosystem, and anecdotes about making the photographs. In fact I found that I had to read the book twice, once for the essays, and once for the photos. And then I read it again, twice.  The essays are not of the clingy, preachy, hand-wringing variety one might fear, but rather are informative, scientifically literate and very readable.

The Last Ocean is associated with the wider Ross Sea Project, a voluntary organisation started in 2004 to promote the establishment of a marine protected area (MPA) in order to conserve the pristine qualities of the Ross Sea, Antarctica. There’s also a film. But start with the book. You won’t regret it.

And if you happen to browsing Orell Füssli’s art book section in Zürich, watch out, they may still have some copies. They’re near the blurry, grainy black & white naked ladies books.

Posted in category "Antarctica" on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 06:57 PM

Antarctica - In slow time

in Antarctica , Thursday, December 05, 2013

A while back I made a bit of a mistake. I wrote about Stuart Klipper, and in particular his book, “The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole”, here, and I was pretty enthusiastic about it. The problem is I didn’t realise quite how rare it is, and a few days after my post, coincidentally or not, Amazon and all other vendors (for example the excellent Longitude Books) were out of stock.  Bugger.  I did manage to get Amazon.de to take an order, but every now and again they send me a stream of undecipherable Germanic e-commerce babble which I assume means they’d love to take my money but they can’t. 

So I was pretty surprised not to mention happy to discover Amazon UK suggesting that I buy it new from a 3rd party vendor for just £7.22. And it’s just arrived.

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Over the past few days I’d been enjoying Joseph Holko’s Antarctic images, and feeling a little intimidated by them.  They’re dramatic, full of contrast and vivid flashes of colour, and sharp enough to cut through steel. They grab attention. I despair of ever being able to get anywhere near this standard.  But although I don’t in way want to dismiss them, I’m not sure I ever actually remember Antarctica looking like that.  Antarctica looks the way Stuart Klipper photographs it. It’s mysterious, unattainable, incomprehensible in it’s alien vastness. It’s really not the world of highly saturated dramatic icebergs and penguins that we’re getting increasingly subjected to. Stuart Klipper lets Antarctic speak to us, rather than impose his vision on it, and it makes a huge difference. He doesn’t go the uninvolved, dispassionate lengths of the more conceptualist art landscape crowd, there’s still a considerable emotional attachment involved, but you get the impression of a photographer who has taken his time to take a long look before pressing the shutter release.

Of course, Holko will sell, and Klipper probably doesn’t much. And Holko is a photographer, while Klipper has at least one foot in the “artist” camp. These are just observations, Joseph Holko is a fantastic photographer, and I’m just using his work to contrast with Stuart Klipper’s, I’m not being judgemental. But although I certainly don’t claim any artistic merit for myself, I do feel that my own photography is somewhat validated by Klipper’s. Sure, I’ve tried to go for the in-vogue ultra-impact approach myself, but I’m not comfortable with it and I think it shows. Which is probably why in my heart of hearts I prefer my XPan work. Not specifically because of the format, but because it’s on slide film, and there’s very limit scope in pushing that beyond what-you’ve-got-is-what-you-get.

Anyway, I’ve got a book to read tonight.

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Posted in category "Antarctica" on Thursday, December 05, 2013 at 04:57 PM

Review: Image Interpretation Techniques

in Book Reviews , Thursday, August 29, 2013

The internet has brought about a huge change in book publishing. In the “old days”, getting a book published meant getting a publisher, an editor, a designer, a printer, a distributor and probably a lawyer or two. All this presented a high bar to entry, and although self-publishing, at a range of levels, could work, generally you had to jump through the hoops, and this provided a reasonable quality filter. Nowadays all you need is a desktop publishing application and a web service.

One area which has bloomed in this new world are photography “how to” eBooks. There are countless examples on offer, on topics ranging from the ultra-specialist to getting started guides, and quality ranging from absolute crap to excellent. And with wide ranges of pricing to match.

There are various ways to evaluate eBook quality, including design, layout, writing, photography and content. They don’t always come together - I have examples of eBooks which look gorgeous, but where the content is a severe let-down, basic to the point of laughable. I’ve also had to hack through jungles of mangled prose delivered with all the grace of a 3rd rate corporate PowerPoint presentation, to get to a kernel of valuable information. I haven’t come across many photography eBooks which tick all of these quality criteria, but of those that do, several come from the (digital) pen of Bruce Percy.

His latest eBook, “The Digital Darkroom: Image Interpretation Techniques” doesn’t really break any new ground - in fact the topic has been done to death by the likes of Michael Freeman, John Paul Caponigro, Alain Briot, David duChemin and a host of others - but it just does it better, by avoiding mystification and waffle, and bringing a very welcome clarity of expression to the table.

The topic is essentially an extension of ideas about image composition, discussing how you can use digital darkroom tools to help to lead the eye and to enhance the composition you made in the field. There is no discussion of technology here, just the ways in which generic software tools can be used. This in stark contrast to another eBook I purchased not so long ago, on Dodging and Burning, which I expect to cover similar ground, but was actually a sumptuously designed never ending rundown of various things you can do in Lightroom. I don’t even use bloody Lightroom. While I expected it to be an enjoyable read, I didn’t necessarily expect to learn that much from Bruce’s book, thinking that I already know this stuff, and that anyway it will be applicable principally to Bruce’s very distinctive style. I found out I was quite wrong, on both counts.

The book starts off by discussing visual paths through an image, and how the eye can get attracted - or distracted - by some sometimes quite innocuous areas. Where often people will tend to boost things, like saturation or contrast, Bruce shows that locally reducing such parameters can be more effective in achieving a good balance. It also helps that his example photos are pretty good from the outset, in that it the subtle enhancements he makes are all the more impressive in their effect. A set of case studies demonstrates various techniques, and includes the application to portraiture as well as landscape. I have to say the book immediately made me take a closer look at the photos I’ve recently been editing, and inspired to add some touches I otherwise would not have thought of. I have my own approach to enhancing areas of images, and actually it uses a tool which Bruce doesn’t cover - but that’s all for the better, as seeing things from his perspective can only add value to mine.

Getting back to design, typography and layout, it is clear that Bruce Percy, unlike far too many photographers, not only cares about such things, but is skilled at them. It makes a big difference - so many pundits on photographic style preach from the most horrifically designed eyesores of websites.
On a final point, the vast majority of eBooks I find are of the “read once, delete” variety. This one is quite the opposite, being both a rewarding read, and a reference I’ll come back to many times.

There’s a lot packed into the 37 pages, and although the presentation is clear and easy to follow, it isn’t necessarily suitable for complete beginners. Oh, and one more thing: at £9.99,“The Digital Darkroom: Image Interpretation Techniques” is pretty expensive for an eBook. But there are those that know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Unless you fit in that category, I thoroughly recommend this eBook, and indeed the others you can find on Bruce’s web site.

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 11:11 PM

SEVEN by David duChemin

in Book Reviews , Friday, August 09, 2013

It’s just as well that nobody ever reads this stuff, because I have feeling this could be one of the most unpopular posts I’ve ever written, comparable to the time I dared to be critical of the great Andy Rouse.

David duChemin styles himself as a World & Humanitarian Photographer. Apart from this, he has authored a series of vision-oriented semi how-to books on photography, which, if you’re prepared to roll with his world view, are interesting. He seems like a very genuine, likeable, enthusiastic person, and he’s built up a great brand and a loyal following. Me, being a cynic, I find it quite hard to avoid a certain sense of nausea when he goes overboard with the (non-denominational) preaching and the hey-what-a-wonderful-world, but I guess that’s my loss.  He’s also built up an impressive eBook publishing venture, Craft & Vision, providing a platform for his own pamphlet-length books on various topics, and also those of various other authors. They’re inexpensive, and worth a punt. I’ve read most of them. Some I enjoyed, others less so, but duChemin’s own series of collections of essays are definitely worth your time and money. Finally, he also launched the Photograph eMagazine last year, which I reviewed, and subscribe to.

Along the way he’s been prone to downplay the importance of gear, which is fine, but also to some extent technique, which sometimes is ok, but sometimes not.  For example, saying that a photo shot at f/22 and ISO 800, which would have been much better at f/8, is like so because he got too involved in the shot to notice … well ok, I do that too. And then usually I realise that the photo just has to be binned, however good it might have been.

Which brings us to his magnum opus to date, his first monograph, “SEVEN; Seven Continents + Seven Years: A Photographic Journey”.

He states “I wanted to create something beautiful, inside and out. Something that was a delight to touch and hold. I wanted something that would inspire and show you the world the way I see it, in these fleeting glimpses of beauty, hope, and wonder”. It’s a lofty ambition, which raises great expectations.

Seven cover

Physically the book is quite nice, but not exceptional. The dark brown linen hardcover binding doesn’t really fit with the content, in my opinion.  But what immediately strikes me is that the layout & typography are a bit clunky.  This is strange, because actually the quality of the layout and presentation of many Craft & Vision eBooks exceeds the contents, and his web site is very elegant. But online, electronic layout practice does not simply translate to print, and I think this is the problem.  I can’t help but compare with Bruce Percy’s books - there are some parallels between Percy & duChemin, but it is clear that Bruce is a talented, meticulous designer as well as a fabulous photographer, and his book designs are exquisite. SEVEN suffers from far too big typefaces, and a serious lack of white space to let the text content breathe. The image layout is basically “default”.  Photos are overwhelmingly centre page, with little thought of dynamics. Tellingly, the digital version is MUCH easier on the eye, and the photography looks and works better.

Ok, so what about the photography ? Well, I’m not enjoying this at all, but honestly, for what my opinions worth, left to sink or swim on their own merits, rather than supporting essays or blog posts or how-to books, for the most part they do a good imitation of the Titanic.

Individually there are some good, or even great photos. Some examples are Plate 56, a great street candid, Plate 136 (which is included on the product page), one of the few landscapes I like. But really, I’m just trying to find some positives.

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photograph © David duChemin

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photograph © David duChemin

But there’s just too much chaff, and a lot of it really doesn’t do him any favours. A candid photo of an orange juice vendor in India inexplicably focuses on a pile of oranges rather than the vendor. Four shots of a whaling boat hulk on Deception Island - which world+dog has photographed - when one would do - easily. Many shots just seem to be strangely devoid of content or dynamic.  Far too much backlighting which just doesn’t work. The shots from Iceland using a tilt/shift lens hand-held were maybe entertaing on the blog, but here, especially in context, they’re a bit ridiculous. The best stuff is a set of commissioned posed portraits of villages in Loiyangalani, Kenya, which is very competent commercial photography, but really looks like an outtake from a Benetton shoot.

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Nice oranges, but, really…? photograph © David duChemin

But the biggest problem is that there is no coherence to this book. As a monograph, one would expect some kind of continuity or visual narrative, but it just jumps all over the place.  From black & white candids to wide screen landscapes, from the inevitable photos of colourful, wrinkly, gap-toothed Asiatic ancients and cute kids, back to some more black & white candids, jumping to the weird Iceland stuff, to some even weirder stuff from Venice, to a set from an Antarctic trip where clearly the weather wasn’t playing along. It’s not giving much of a sense of a style or vision.  The total opposite of Bruce Percy’s “Iceland - A Journal of Nocturnes”.

SEVEN is very ambitious, but ends up drowned by a wildly over-reaching concept of showing the whole world, and therefore having to include work of quite considerably varying quality just to “tick” each continent. The New Zealand photos are particularly disposable. Perhaps a much stronger approach would have been to structure it as a set of self-contained mini-portfolios from a selection of global destinations. Basically, it needed a strong editor, and a layout artist.

One of the reasons I buy photography books, especially from less well-known photographers, is because I like to support their work.  I’ll continue to buy Craft & Vision eBooks, and I don’t regret the not inconsiderable cost of SEVEN. I would normally say this, or indeed expect to say it, but I have to say for all the locations in the book which I have also visited, I’ve either got better shots, or similar shots (near identical in the case of Milford Sound) which I’d never even think of publishing. I expect books like SEVEN to contain photography far better than I could achieve. It’s a bit of a shock when they don’t.


Postscript

Despite the fact that nobody will read this, I’ve hesitated a lot before publishing it. I’ve searched for other reviews of the book, and found just one, which frankly doesn’t say very much… one can infer anything from it. So why publish such a negative review, especially when I really, really wanted to love this book? Who am I to say such things? I think it’s a reaction to the massive dumbing down of photography everywhere, the “great capture, please visit my page LOL” theme that runs through the community these days. SEVEN unfortunately to me seems to ride on that sort of empty praise, and sometimes line have to be drawn. It should, and could have been so much better. And yeah, I know, my stuff sucks and I have no right to criticise genius etc etc. I know. Save your breath. It’s not the point.

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Friday, August 09, 2013 at 10:13 PM

Global Warming is a Marxist Plot

in Science , Thursday, July 11, 2013

Watermelons”, by James Delingpole, is a major broadside against the acceptance of anthropogenic, in other words, human-influenced, global warming, otherwise known as AGW.

As an alumni not only of UCL’s Climate Research Group, indeed a founder member, but also of the British Antarctic Survey, de facto I would not be expected to align myself with the sceptics and deniers of AGW. Even worse, my University research work was on physical and computer modelling of vertical-axis wind turbines. Delingpole is not big on wind energy. But if my science background has taught me anything, it is to consider all aspects of an issue, so I was genuinely interested to see what Delingpole had to say. And according to Amazon reviews he’s an entertaining writer. So why not?

I decided not to read any further reviews - most on Amazon are pure hagiography anyway - but to make up my own mind.


I have to confess I’d never heard of James Delingpole. I haven’t really followed the AGW sideshow of warmists and deniers, and I’ve got very little patience for the question “do you believe in global warming?”. Belief doesn’t come into it. On this topic I base my views on proven facts and well reasoned hypotheses. And on those grounds, frankly, I lean towards the “insufficient data” response so far. As does a good proportion of the scientific community. But this leads us to the crux of the problem: many people, including most journalists and all politicians, cannot deal with anything beyond “yes” or “no”. Or what a man in the pub told them the other day. James Delingpole is less complicated: he can’t deal with “yes” either.

“Watermelons” actually makes several very valid points. Principal amongst these is pointing out the scale of the industry that has grown up from the AGW theory, or “threat”, and that fact that it could be very awkward for a lot of very large vested interests if AGW were to be disproved. He also, correctly in my view, exposes the excesses of the large eco NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth who have long since abandoned their grass roots calling and turned into massive global corporations. But then he calls out the motives of the Greens, claiming that it’s all a global sinister conspiracy to destroy the capitalist growth economy and dismantle civilisation. Hmm. Well, how does that square with the aforementioned NGOs becomming the epitomy of capitalistic achievement? Again, it’s not a simple case of black and white.

And this runs all through the book. It thrives on polarities, on stereotyping, on tarring all with the same brush. All it takes is one scientist to be found - alledgedly - tampering with the evidence, and then all scientists are “liars”. I don’t particularly want to rehash the ins & outs of Climategate, but one particular stolen email is held up as evidence of extreme evil:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last twenty years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline”

Anybody with any passing familiarity with research work will see little wrong here. Perhaps if we substitute “trick” with “technique”, and realise that Nature is the most prestigious and tightly reviewed science journal around, then it becomes clear that the first part refers to a well accepted adjustment to account for known distortions. Same for the second part, this referring to the extremely well documented fact that tree ring count data needs to be treated carefully for recent years. This, in an email which was never intended for any other than close colleagues who understand the shorthand and can read between the lines. This is not evidence of any kind of fraud. And worse, I don’t doubt that Delingpole knows this.

That some scientists did a deal with the devil by exaggerating some of their predictions in order to encourage funding, that some politicians saw a fantastic vote-grabbing potential in a dumbed down version of these predictions, and that a whole bunch of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and career Greenies then jumped on board, well this is none other than the capitalist growth economy, which the author defends tooth and nail, hard at work.

There is little real addressing of the science in the book. It is dismissed as a new religion, with climate scientists as its high priests. Actually, I note that in his blog Delingpole refers to them as climate “scientists”, presumably because they don’t do real science. When he does mention science, it’s usually to dismiss the “hockey stick” graph of accelerated warming yet again, with the usual fallacies, or to come up with claims like Arctic sea ice only recedes in the summer but freezes again in the winter, or that the Northwest passage was perfectly navigable a century ago,since Amundsen sailed through it. What he fails to mention is that it took Amundsen 3 years, wintering over twice in sea ice. On the other hand, this year, a normal sailboat, with an experienced skipper, can just sail straight through.

The old chestnut of the Medieval Warming Period (MWP) comes up a lot too, as “proof” that AGW doesn’t exist. What he seems unable, or unwilling, to grasp is that likely natural drivers for the MWP are reasonably well established, and that climate variation, both global and local, on all sorts of timescales, is well accepted. AGW theories concern themselves with modification of the natural variability due to human activity, largely due to carbon dioxide (not “carbon”) emissions. Still, in respectable scientific circles the jury remains out on the real impact. But as mentioned before, expressing reasonable doubt isn’t good for funding.

But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Delingpole claims it’s not about the science, and anyway that he is not a scientist. Rather, it’s about massive scale misrepresentation. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t give him an open license to misrepresent in turn.

Frequently I started to get the impression of some incipient eye-swivelling as Delingpole ranted on about one or other of his more far-fetched conspiracy theories or character assassinations, but most of the time he pulls back from the brink just in time. However, he goes way beyond the acceptable in his treatment of Michael Mann, and his characterisation of Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring” as a “mass-murderer” is unforgivable. His description of pretty much everybody on the opposing side of his arguments as “Nazis” is also a little tiring.

But despite this, I do find myself in agreement with him on some of his specific criticisms of bodies like the IPCC, and some instances of scientists overstepping the mark. I also share his dislike of the extreme end of the Green movement. But the general tone of the book is of a foaming-at-the-mouth, sub Jeremy Clarkson rant, preaching to his followers and making no attempt at reasoned dialogue. In this he lets himself down. AGW has been used and abused by far too many agenda-owning special interests, and there are tales there that deserve to be told. But wrapping it up in a vitriolic and very largely unjustified attack on dedicated working scientists is not the way to go about.

I approached “Watermelons” with an open mind, I read it right to the end, and I even found myself nodding in agreement more often than I might have expected. But my remaining impression is of a foul mouthed attention-seeking little boy screaming “ITS NOT FAIR!!!”. A balanced debate on AGW is urgently needed, but “Watermelons”, sadly, is as unbalanced as it gets.

Posted in category "Science" on Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 07:24 PM

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