Bear with me. There’s a point to this.
A couple of weeks ago, I stupidly left my phone on the train. A quite new phone to me, an iPhone 5s, I could not at the moment afford to replace it. The train was headed towards Milan. Bad news, as it would be out of range of solid, honest Swiss citizens.
Anyway, we tried calling it, and somebody answered. A guy, speaking slightly broken Italian, told he us he was near Cantú, which is over an hour away by car, and an intimidating rats nest of confusing roads south of Como. Initially I decided to try to go there at the weekend, but a bit later, decided to call to see if I could go that night (Tuesday).
Oh no, he said, now I’m in Milan. I’m taking the train to Brescia. Cue sinking feeling - Brescia is half way to Verona, and a good 2 hour drive on a good day. We resolved to go on the coming Sunday. If, indeed, we could get hold of this chap, who told me his name was Michele. Again, the conversation was difficult.
So, on Sunday I tried to call, but could not get through. We set off anyway, feeling quite pessimistic. After all, this phone represents something close to a third of the monthly income for a large number of Italians. Quite some temptation. But around half way there, he called back, and apologised for sleeping late. He promised he’s be available all day to meet up, and we arranged to wait for him near the hospital.
Pretty much on time, he turned up, smartly dressed, with my phone. He didn’t want to take any reward, but I insisted. The reason for his accent turned out to be that he was from Senegal. And the reason he was sleeping late turned out to be that he’d been travelling all week in his job, or more accurately, vocation, to arrange the financing and export of Italian light agricultural machinery to rural Senegal. After some encouragement he told us about his work, how he had persuaded companies, ambassadors, finance ministers and religious leaders to back his project. He had targeted the kind of machinery that could be affordable and practical in Senegal, and became nominated as the agent for Casorzo s.r.l in Africa
He was a really fascinating, kind, enthusiastic and open-spirited guy, and a real tonic to talk to. An instant friend.
Oh yeah, he let slip he was a Muslim. He hardly needed to say so: it was obvious, and for all the right reasons.
Five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to spend several weeks ago the Svalbard archipelago, mainly travelling around in a 12-berth yacht. This was a collective private charter, not a “workshop”, which made it just about affordable for me. A similar trip with the overhead of paying for several “educators” to come along for free would have been way more expensive and probably less fun. It was quite an experience, but photographically I haven’t really made much of it so far. The basic reason for this is that I took far, far too many photos. The total is over 5500, which is just ridiculous. The editing process just becomes impossible, mainly because of the bulk - when you have 20 near identical photos of the same collapsing iceberg, trying to choose the top pick is tedious, and when you have 300 such scenes, it gets completely overwhelming. But also, there’s a problem with focus. Not focus as in out of focus, which is a fairly common characteristic of my photography, but focus as in theme.
Revisiting this collection after largely neglecting it for 5 years has helped me to realise this. The impetus to revisiting it comes at least in part from the drastic disruption imposed on my move from Aperture, to CaptureOne, and finally to Lightroom. This move is not something I’d honestly call a good thing, but in the end, perhaps the resultant disruption will turn out to be an unexpected but very valuable side benefit.
I’ve come to realise that the lack of a meaningful, coherent theme is actually quite common throughout my photography. For example, in this case I’ve always kept to the implicit assumption that “Svalbard” is a valid theme. But which Svalbard? That of misty, gloomy seascapes? Of ice cliffs? Of glaciers calving through mountains? Of arctic landscape? Of abandoned mining settlements, or active scientific settlements? Of wildlife - and then, of seals, or polar bears, or kittiwakes? The list could go on. In my first pass, I selected a sample of 16 photos drawn from all categories, which drew some nice comments, but they don’t really say much beyond “hey, look, I went to Svalbard. I’m so cool”. Vacation shots, basically. A second set drawn exclusively from the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden was more meaningful to me, and hopefully more engaging. Having now revisited the whole set, I’ve been able to identify other themes and hopefully coherent sets, which obviously still document my experiences in Svalbard, but hopefully in a more mature way, which goes someway to communicating my reactions to the environments.
I think this teaches me two lessons: first, the old adage that less is more is never more applicable than when applied to quantities of photos. And the second, even older, is to work out what I want to communicate before pressing the shutter button. Applying these two points might help to distinguish between vacation photography and some form of self-expression. Not that there’s anything wrong with vacation photography, but sometimes that doesn’t satisfy me.
I’m not entirely sure yet how to present these new Svalbard sets. Some individual photos have leaked out on to Flickr, to see how they look “in the wild”. I expect some sets I will publish here, either in freeform blog post format, or as galleries. But the main thing I have in mind is a Blurb book. If I can do that to my satisfaction, then I think this new way of looking at my own photography will have drawn fruit.
A week or so back, I came across “Photos and Stuff”, a blog written by Andrew Molitor about, well, photos. And stuff. His writing is probably not for everybody. It’s incisive, very opinionated, frequently sarcastic, just as frequently funny, and also very well written. He doesn’t beat about the bush, much, and has no hesitation in going for the jugular. A favourite target is the hapless Ming Thein, and I have to admit that he neatly sums up pretty much all of the comments I’ve mentally written myself while reading Mr Thein’s blog. It definitely has something of a cult about it. Another is the Luminous Landscape, Kevin Raber in particular, and again, I’m ashamed to pretty much agree. I’m sure Kevin is a wonderful chap, but, frankly, he’s no Michael Reichmann, first as a photographer (to which Andrew Molitor would doubtless retort is not saying much), but also lacking Reichmann’s dry wit.
The blog has a generous helping of totally wild-eyed, off the rails, unhinged rants. It is frequently highly entertaining, if a touch uncomfortable at times. Mr Molitor is clear no idiot himself, seems pretty widely read, and backs up his rants with some strong arguments. Possibly he’s just a little too awestruck by Sarah Moon.
But one post he wrote back in August really cuts to the bone. He argues that the vast majority of photography presented these days exists in a bubble. This bubble is inhabited by photographers, who take photographs to impress other photographers. So, for example, an arty shot of a rusted shed, which is of no interest at all beyond the amazing textures and detail captured in “the image”, showing fantastic “IQ” and resolution. To which anybody not into cameras would just shrug and say “nice shed - why did you photograph it ? And why is most of it out of focus?”. And indeed anybody into cameras would mutter about noise in the shadows, burnt highlights, and how his (always “his”) Sony Rocketblaster XZY9999X Mark 5 would do much better. True, and funny. But, er, isn’t that me we’re talking about here ?
Of course there are plenty of bubbles, mostly repelling one another. A recently formed one is inhabited entirely by photographers with stern, aesthetic web sites, who believe that any photo is good provided it is made using Kodak Portra 400 over-exposed by at least 2 stops, preferably with 70% hazy sky, and preferably taken at midday. And scanned by some lab in Los Angeles, which really, really gets their artistic intent, like. And their credit cards.
I should hasten to add that if I understand him correctly, he’s not denigrating people who take photos for the fun of it, or even because they enjoy playing with expensive cameras. I think it’s more he gets irritated when such people start trying to pass off what they are doing as having some deeper meaning, or being “art”.
Which makes me feel even more exposed…
So, I started to think about whether I could actually describe what it is I’m trying to do with my photography. Of course, I could also go down the road of saying it’s entirely my own business and I don’t need to justify it to anyone. But I do put stuff on this web site, and on Flickr, so to some extent that’s not an honest position. Actually, I’ve got a cute rejoinder to the question of “why do I have a web site”, or rather “why do I show photos”, which is, to paraphrase Garry Winogrand, I put photos on the web to see how they look when they’re shown on the web. And it’s true enough - the posts I publish which are basically mini-portfolios are those I take the most time over. The sequencing, the harmony (or not) and the juxtaposition of set of photos brings the component photos alive to me. And presenting them in a space and format I manage is important too. But that’s the presentation part. It still doesn’t address the question of why I’m photographing in the first place.
Probably much like everybody, I have different modes of photography. Sometimes I photograph to pass the time. Sometimes, just to record moments. Rarely, to test something or try out techniques - I can’t be bothered with that stuff anymore. But sometimes, quite often actually, a scene grabs me which I just need to distill down to something I can take away. I’ve dabbled with all sorts of genres, classic landscape, wildlife, street (sort of), urban landscape, and these have often been mixed in with travel. A large number of the resultant photos are trivial, although not necessarily bad. But there is a core set, which is actually quite large, where a very specific theme emerges. It wasn’t and still isn’t fully conscious, but it has become clear enough to me. It’s probably totally invisible to anybody else, but that’s not a problem. However, I have noticed that any photos I make which do provoke a stronger reaction tend to come from this set.
So, what is this theme ? Well, I’ve kind of touched on it before, but it’s essentially an exploration of absence and loss. Cheerful, huh? It’s nothing very direct: I approach things in a very oblique way, and I’m very wary of disclosing much information. It’s also not something I have any external ambition for. If anything, I suppose it’s a form of therapy. It’s not that I don’t care of nobody else gets it, it’s more that it really doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant. Although probably I would get some feeling of validation if some stranger were to pick up on it.
It certainly wasn’t intentional, but over time I’ve begun to understand that I am attracted to which are at the same time empty of life, but which hint at past glories, small or large. They then become spaces into which I can insert imaginary histories and narratives, all in my head, and not necessarily, indeed rarely explicit and fully formed. It’s about the ambience that a place radiates. This is probably why I am so attracted to Venice, or more specifically, Venice behind the facade. Added to the fact that it’s a set of complex, interlocking islands, and it just fits in with my psyche. Similarly, in landscape photography, while I’m as likely as the next photographer to just snap away at nice scenery, I’m much more engaged if there is some human element which grabs my attention. Generally these are elements which the “fine art” landscape photographer will ignore like the plague. However, I find myself much more drawn towards the style of a Frank Gohlke or Stuart Klipper these days, even if I’m light years away from them in terms of results. I’m more likely to seek out a power pylon than to edit it out in Photoshop these days.
So yes, I do think I know where I’m going with my photography, and I’m also perfectly comfortable, or better, ambivalent, about having an audience. I don’t need one. I’m engaged with the work I’m producing, and, dropping for once the self derogation, I actually think I’m pretty good at it. Which probably just all boils down to me being in a very small bubble with room for one.
Anyway, all this rambling was kicked off by discovering a blog that actually made me think. Give it a try, it’s certainly more rewarding than hanging around on gear sites.
Hello. My name is David. I’m a cameraholic.
The evidence is unforgiving. A list of the cameras I’ve bought since photography became my principal pastime makes for sobering reading, especially when set aside the productive output.
|1998||Ricoh GR1||new||Given away|
|2000||Hasselblad Xpan||new||Lost at sea|
|2000||Canon T90||s/h||Given away|
|2001||Ricoh GR1S||new||Retired, defective|
|2007||Ricoh GRDII||new||Retired, defective|
|2008||Ricoh GRDIV||new||Stolen in Buenos Aires|
|2010||Hasselblad Xpan II||s/h||active|
|2011||Olympus E-P2||new||Stolen by Spencers Camera, Utah, USA|
|2012||Olympus E-P3||new||active, converted to IR|
|2012||Sigma DP2 Merrill||new||active|
|2013||Lomography Belair 612||new||shelved|
|2014||Sigma DP3 Merrill||new||active|
|2014||Ricoh GR Digital||new||active|
This doesn’t include a couple of older, rescued film cameras, and several point & shoot digitals. And of course it doesn’t include the lenses, the tripods, the software, the books, the filters, the camera bags, the “workshops” and Lord knows what else. I’d probably have done better putting it all towards drink instead.
I did actually sell a good deal of gear last year, with the idea of consolidating and buying something new (and improved, of course). But I kept bailing out of decisions. At present even the sight of a camera shop makes me feel nauseous and jaded in equal measures. Of course there is a huge list of new, improved, sensational, must-have, deeply desirable cameras, but actually I don’t desire any of them. I certainly don’t need them. Even if I did buy one, I don’t know what I’d do with it. My interest in adding to my archive of somewhere between 50 and 60000 photos is flatlining.
This year, so far, I have spent precisely half an afternoon dedicated to photography. It was ok, but hardly essential. In the past I’d be climbing the walls through frustration and not getting out and photographing, now I’m just relieved to be past all that. The only camera that I’ve actually enjoyed using recently is the OM4Ti.
What is glaringly obvious, at long last, and to me at least, is that gear absolutely does not increase quality of photos or enjoyment of photography. I can’t say that I’m no longer interested in photography - I wouldn’t be writing this if I were - but I’m not much interested in photographing. I’m dedicating some time to assembling the first of what might be a series of Blurb-published book, and it is quite interesting that the photos I’m selecting - on the basis of interest and coherence - tend to come from over five years ago, and from the more humble camera/lens combinations I’ve used. In a way that’s encouraging.
Perhaps I’m a recovering cameraholic?
A couple of days ago, Ugo Cei published a “A curmudgeonly look at the current state of landscape photography” rant on landscape photography which has stirred up quite some debate.
As I read, “There is this prevalent style in landscape photography that aims to capture the viewer with dramatic light, strong composition and bright, saturated colors” I found myself nodding wildly in agreement, but on reflection, I’m not sure that firing at such an obvious target is fruitful. And to be brutally frank, Ugo’s own work, beautiful as it is, doesn’t seem to be so many notches away from that which he decries.
Yes, much popular landscape photography on 500px is formulaic, garish, fluff, craving attention, pandering to a lowest common denominator threshold derived from endless identical tutorials. It’s much the same on 1x, wildly so on WhyTake, and also on Flickr, even if there some dilution is evident from the sheer volume. But so what. Commentary on the post is largely split between people defending their right to be superficial, and others agreeing but without much in the way of realistic alternatives. For example, “going back to film” is a popular panacea, but film - specifically, Velvia - is actually what got us here in the first place. The opposite trend of the exaggerated “Portra 400” heavily unsaturated look, usually featuring anonymous, bland subject matter, is equally as affected as the saturation sliders to 11 wave. Black & white is a valid alternative, but equally open to wild contrast exaggeration. The dark, scratchy gothic look is also a popular counter-trend, but again, often superficial. The problem is not the presentation, but rather the content.
There seems to be a great desire from a subset of landscape photographers to produce “meaningful work”. I’d include myself in that group. Unfortunately, at the same time, they seem to crave popular acclaim, and that’s likely to be a problem (and yes, that’s me, too). The key point about social media is that the “social” part often outweighs the “media” part. Getting likes on 500px et al is not going to be hampered by showing great photos, but playing the social networking game is far more important. I honestly do not know of any inspiring landscape photographers who are stars on photo sharing sites.
It certainly isn’t impossible for landscape photography to be meaningful and artistic. Some high profile examples include Ed Burtinsky, and Salgado, obviously, but there are plenty of others out there. Some favourites of mine include Stuart Klipper, Dav Thomas, and Tiina Itkonen. I don’t think any of these are big (if at all) on 500px.
Coming back to the tricky topic of meaningfulness in landscape photography, the debate has helped to crystallise my own views a little. First of all, I would propose that any photograph which provokes some response beyond the superficial holds meaning. I do not think that landscape photography, or indeed much photography at all, generally holds explicit meaning. Why should it? We have several senses, why do we need to translate a visual, visceral response into textual description? The meaning in landscape photography is general intangible, and we should be comfortable with that. As landscape photographers, we have compositional tricks of the trade to deploy to make our photos more visually interesting. And of course these are flogged to death in magazine tutorials, how-to books, and “fine art photographer” websites. They’re all well and good, but going out specifically to find leading lines, Ye Olde Foregrounde Intereste, or s-curves is going to result in bland eye candy, although it might get you noticed on 500px. It’s the wrong way round: these techniques can be used to enhance an interesting subject, but they’re not terribly interesting of themselves.
So then, what makes a photograph interesting? Well, there are several key reference works on that topic, for example by Stephen Shore, John Szarkowski, or George Barr. But these are generic - useful, enlightening, classic maybe, but not infallible sets of instructions. I believe that individually we have to find our own parameters. About a year after I started posting on Flickr, I started indulging in a little conceit which was to give my photos one word titles. These titles were often oblique and obscure, but there was a method behind them. After a while, I started to realise that for some photos the titles came quickly, and for others it was a struggle, or nothing came at all. For some, the title turned out to have several layers of meaning, some direct, some indirect. And so I imposed the rule on myself that until a photo “named itself”, I could not post it. The photos with the strongest titles were not necessarily technically stronger, nor did they get huge acclaim on Flickr, but they were the most satisfying to me. I’ve notice other people using different ways to express meaning by association, for example by adding fragments of poetry. I’d like to think that if a photograph speaks to me in this way, it may speak to others, eventually. Of course I could just be delusional.
It’s actually very, very hard in my experience to produce meaningful landscape work which excludes human elements. So it’s a shame that so many landscape photographers seek to do just that, and yes, mea culpa. We’re shooting ourselves in both feet, as well diving deep into denial, in trying to separate ourselves from nature.
The following two photos attempt to illustrate what I’m getting at. The positive example (the second) was much harder to select.
A lot of photos I see online give homage to the hackneyed “capture the light” theme. And often that is all they do, albeit often very, very well from a technical perspective. But they don’t capture the place, and don’t hold attention beyond a quick social blast. Getting away from the addiction to instant fleeting praise may be the first step on the road to a true sense of accomplishment, but it’s a long road to take. And whatever I may have said or implied here, being dismissive about other people’s take on the wide, wide world of photography is not a step in a rewarding direction.