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Washout

in Photography , Tuesday, May 06, 2014

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I’ve just spent 4 days in Tuscany, which has become a strong habit over recent years. Tuscany has deservedly become one of the top destinations for photographers, featuring fantastic landscape and impossibly photogenic medieval (and older) villages and towns, all shifting mood with the seasons and weather. In some places you can’t swing a cat without knocking ten tripods flying. It’s a visual goldmine for photographers from nature to street and all points in between. I’ve accumulated over 6000 digital shots from Tuscany, and pre-2004 plenty of film as well. But this year, I managed a sum total of 119 photos over 4.5 days, including friends & family snapshots. The weather was cold and wet, mainly, which didn’t help, and I struggled to motivate myself to take any shots at all. But even those I did apply a little effort to are very, very underwhelming, and even technically poor, with endemic exposure and focus errors. Of course, when all else fails, one can resort to ND grad filters (as above) to desperately try to recover a bit of drama. And when THAT fails, convert to good old grainy black and white for that authentic look.

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Actually I quite like this one but it only really works when it’s bigger enough to see the direction of the policeman’s gaze.

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The barbershop cliché...

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…and the poster cliché...

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…and wrap up with the Umbrella shot. At least I didn’t selectively colour it.

Basically I’ve gradually lost interest over the past months, and photography is becoming a bit of a drag. I think I’ve realised that I’ve hit something of a peak in my photography, but compared to most it’s a pretty low peak. I’ve tried to do all the things one is supposed to do, try new subjects, enter competitions, submit portfolios, but it’s not stopping the general feeling of decline. I’m not even interested in gear, for heaven’s sake, despite my dearly beloved’s best efforts to get me to buy an Olympus E-M1. I’ve developed pre-purchase buyer’s remorse, the ideal solution for Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

Just to show equal-opportunity all-the-gear-and-no-idea, here’s some stuff that might pass as “landscape” - well, for a beginner, anyway.

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So rather than find something more constructive to do with my time, I’m going through a process of assessing and qualifying my extensive archives. It’s not always that encouraging - I don’t seem to have taken a single interesting photograph in Italy, for example - but it might give some clue on how to rekindle my interest. Or indeed confirm that it’s time to switch to knitting, or something. Or even do the housework.

Posted in category "Photography" on Tuesday, May 06, 2014 at 07:58 PM

Restore Factory Settings

in General Rants , Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Warning: you might want to skip the bit after the photo. I think I wrote it mainly for me.

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A Camellia, a little past its best, Locarno

My publication rate here has slowed down quite a bit recently. So has my reading rate, at least of photo trivia on the web. I’ve been feeling that I’m not really going anywhere with my photography, which is nothing new, but this time it’s a bit different. I’ve been trying to move up a level, somehow, but it’s not really working, and the fundamental reason is that whatever level I’ve reached is as high as I’m going to get. In the past I’ve got around this by managing to just take personal enjoyment in whatever I do, and not get too bothered, if at all, about what others think. Which does of course beg the question of why I write all this rubbish…

I thought maybe I should enter a few competitions - why not, I’ve got plenty of photos, it’s no big deal - and Amateur Photographer’s “Animal Planet” seemed like a reasonable opportunity. I’ve got lots of animal photos. The trouble is, they’re either trite, boring, badly composed, blurry, technically hopeless, or, in several landmark cases, all these together. Hardly worth the electrons.

And then there’s this “Street” thing. Well, although I appreciate the encouragement, and the new followers I’ve gained on Flickr, I’ve quite quickly realised that this is a dangerous diversion for me. As someone who is chronically unfocussed, adding yet another pursuit is the last thing I need. And anyway, I really don’t feel comfortable photographing people surreptitiously. It’s not a judgment on anybody else, I don’t think it’s incorrect per se, but I’m not good at it.

What I like doing is my own peculiar blend of natural and human landscape photography, with some travel thrown into the mix. It’s hardly caught the eye of the specialists such as On Landscape or Landscape Photography, but that’s probably due to it being trite, boring, badly composed (etc, see above). I’m not much into wide vistas these days, although I don’t pass up a good one if it presents itself to me.  I’ve got three favourite subjects. The first, the arctic, sub-arctic and polar regions, is unfortunately largely denied to me due to cost and opportunity, and really it has less to do with photography and more to do with some deeper pull. The second, roughly speaking, is Italy, which is more fortunate as it is under 4km away. There is just something so incredibly magical about Italy. It’s hard to really nail down and harder still to capture in a photograph, and there are so many aspects to it, but a country that can include gems such as Stromboli, Venice, the Dolomites and Tuscany within it’s borders - and that’s just a starter - really can’t be ignored. And then there are the glacial valleys and high alpine plateaus of Ticino. On my doorstep. So plenty of blessings to be counted.

What I am pulling back from is the web echo chamber. I’ve drastically cut back on the photo blogs in my RSS feed, and purged everything with even a whiff of the tiresome (to me) happy clappy inspirational visionary that was beginning to make me scream at my iPad (not a good idea on the train), and the overly techy stuff, and the endless thinly disguised flogging of eBooks, workshops, etc. Nein, Danke. I’ve kept following the few well written, thought provoking, non-preachy authors I know. Funnily enough, I’ve been following a good few of them for well over 10 years.  I’m tempted to dump my Flickr account, but, well, it’s still a nice way to interact with other photographers, and 326 (wow - that many!) people seem to think I’m worth “following”.

This has a another good side effect of diluting even further the gear lust. No camera is going to make me a better photographer, or give me more enjoyment, at least none I know of. And I like the ones I’ve got, quite a lot. I strongly regret selling my Hasselblad ArcBody, as these days I think I’d use it a lot. But selling that got me to Svalbard, so it was a good trade.

It would be great to be able to press a big RESET button and get back to around 2001 when I was really discovering all this stuff.  But maybe reducing the external stimuli will help me to remember the fun of exploration.

In the meantime, how better to re-state my dedication to landscape photography and my dedication to stay on the path than branching out into flower photography ?

Yep.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Wednesday, April 09, 2014 at 10:37 PM

Self Plagiarism

in Photography , Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Over the past few days I’ve been going through photos taken over the last 10 years or so from a particular corner of Tuscany, with a project in mind.

I was quite surprised to come across these two photos, one, on the right, taken this year, the other a few years back.  I had no recollection of having taken the earlier shot.

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Neither of these are cropped. The composition is straight from camera. The cameras are different, but the focal length of the lens is identical, so is the aperture, and the exposures are within half a stop of each other. Both are handheld. In both cases here, these were the only shots I took of that particular scene, so there’s no element here of random coincidence. It’s also notable that the spot I took the shots from is far from obvious, and not that easy to get to, at least not the final few meters.

The common wisdom heard from various photo gurus is that to be a Real Photographer you need to develop your Style & Vision. Problem is, as far as I am concerned, I’m far from clear what these things are. Adobe don’t sell them, well not yet anyway. But I am becoming aware that if I have any merit in my photography, or maybe some kind of “signature”, it might lie in the direction of composition. Whether or not that is the case, it certainly seems that my eye has gained a degree of consistency!

Posted in category "Photography" on Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 07:49 PM

Landscape within

in Photography , Tuesday, December 04, 2012

I received some very nice feedback from Bruce Percy about the post I wrote about his latest book, Iceland, A Journal of Nocturnes. He was particularly taken by my observation that it seemed that Iceland was the stage, not the scene, for his photography.

What I meant by that is that the photographs in his book, in particular those of the black sand beach, work at several levels, and the dominant one, for me, is not the purely pictorial. By concentrating on a very limited, but infinitely variable, subject matter, and imposing further constraints such as low, winter light and film as a recording medium, he removes distractions and sets the stage for a very personal narrative. He communicates using shape, form and especially a very personal colour palette, rather than words, but a strong message emerges, conveying a degree of serenity but at the same time inner conflict, uncertainty and doubt. The positive wins over, but there is a strong tension there, and while the photography is undeniably beautiful, it isn’t blandly pretty.

And all this led me on to another train of thought altogether, which is going to twist this article into a rather more introspective thread. It occurred to me on reading Bruce’s feedback that perhaps my “review” itself was working on more than one level. Superficially, it’s talking about Bruce’s book, but at the same time it’s revealing something about the way I tend to conceal myself with misdirection and obscure, convoluted references. Maybe I’m actually obliquely referring to my own approach to photography, which is far less defined, or indeed accomplished, than Bruce’s, but when I think about it, reveals more than I imagined.

This started out with the observation that Bruce’s landscape photography very rarely includes any kind of human element - there’s not much crossover with his equally excellent travel portraiture portfolio. One exception is his work some years back on Torness nuclear power station, which actually first brought him to my attention. In my case, maybe the photography that I have an emotional investment in is precisely what I call the “human landscape”. Of the several sets of photos from Iceland I’ve published here, the one which feels most personal is exactly the one entitled “Iceland - the Human Landscape”.

These human landscape photos of mine are static. There are no people in them, just traces of where people have been. They usually record abandonment in some form or another, or isolation, or both, and the direction is firmly towards the past. I guess a psychoanalyst would have a field day with that - and rightly so. My other landscapes are perhaps sometimes reasonably accomplished, but I think they’re fairly sterile, like a great deal of landscape photography. I’m very fond of the long exposure rocks and water stuff, although in my defence I could plead that there’s an abundance of that sort of subject pretty much on my doorstep, so it would be perverse to avoid it. I do try to avoid the overblown Velvia look, and not to go overboard with the autumn leaves strewn over mossy rock stuff (although sometimes temptation is hard to resist).

There is more to this than just photography. Many years ago, during my two sojourns in Antarctica, although the nature and landscape was overwhelming, what really captivated me where the traces of the attempts of people to colonise, if only briefly, this utterly inhospitable landscape. Places like Deception Island, Port Lockroy, and much further South, Druzhnaya 2 (probably now completely vanished). It was the same in Svalbard, where I found myself as much if not more fascinated by places like Pyramiden, or the much less accessible Grumant (therefore more appealing), than glaciers and polar bears.

Back to the present, and much closer to home, I’ve recently spent a lot of borrowed time on a couple of projects exploring the woods near where I work. I’ve already published one of these here (The Pipe). The next, probably called “The Beaten Track”, is in progress, and required quite a lot more scrambling around, some of it verging on perilous. Both of these, especially the latter, once again centre around decaying signs of past human activity.

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Strange device half buried in snow, Druzhnaya 2, Ronne Ice Shelf, Antarctica 1988

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The “Texas Bar”, Liefdefjorden, Svalbard, 2010

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Vanishing point, Camorino, Switzerland, 2012

The more I think about it, the more the subconscious drivers become clear. By building up an imaginary narrative around ambiguous signs of the past, I’m trying to build a past for myself, something that I can take root it. Due to a somewhat nomadic childhood, growing up in a confused state between several cultural frameworks, I don’t really have anyplace I can really call “home”. Whenever people ask me “so where in England are you from ?”, I have no answer. I’m not really from anywhere, and this has always led me to feel unsettled and to some extent insecure. So, it seems that this desire to belong is somehow expressing itself through my photography. Not necessarily my best photography in any aesthetic sense, but my best in the sense that it actually means something. So perhaps that’s why I’m so into photography - it gives me a stage to create an imaginary past on.

Well, why not ?

Posted in category "Photography" on Tuesday, December 04, 2012 at 07:49 PM

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