The current events landscape makes talking and writing about photography seem rather shallow, disrespectful even. However, life should go, in all its aspects. Motorsport journalist Joe Saward expressed this far better on his blog. So I’ll carry on whining about my very distinctly first world problems here, regardless.
We’ve just about left behind the season of Lists, of “Best Of Whatever 2014”, and plenty of photographers have joined in with their best shots of the year. I haven’t, partly because being an insufferable grouch, I loathe New Year celebrations, and secondly, because I don’t honestly feel that I’ve got any best shots to show. They’re all pretty average.
There are certainly people who disagree with this. Mostly friends, or friends of friends, who’s praise of course I dismiss because “they’re just being polite”, or “they just like the subject”, or, snobbishly, “they’re not photographers”. Well actually this isn’t entirely true. At least one of these people is a respected and highly experienced creative in the photo publishing industry, and another, if I may permit myself to say so, is well-respected landscape photographer Steve Gosling, who was very positive when reviewing a small print portfolio of mine last year. I’ve also had considerable support from Olivier Duong at The Inspired Eye, who has kindly published my work both in the magazine, and on their blog. And deep down, when I look at most stuff that gets published, I know that I lot of what I do is better. So what the hell am I complaining about ?
There’s no getting around the fact that despite all the above, I am significantly dissatisfied with my photography. The question is, why? First of all, why is this such a big deal anyway ? After all, it’s only a hobby, it’s not a matter of life or death. And yet hobbies mean a lot to us, and for many people, myself included, it isn’t necessarily the case that the things you do that make money and pay the rent are more significant that those that don’t. Although I set myself on a science / technology life path many, many years ago, I’ve always had to balance this with a strong creative urge, which if left ignored, is very damaging. Initially I satisfied this through drawing and painting. Then, for a long period, music, in several forms. And finally it all coalesced into photography.
I’ve been seriously into photography since the late 1990s, boosted by a short period of (very) relatively high income in the early 2000s. Having said this I’d been taking photographs since mid-childhood, so I knew one end of a camera from another, more or less, and I’m also therefore very familiar with pre-digital photography. For the first few years I was learning a lot, and on an upward curve. I carried on using a Canon FD system, never getting into autofocus SLRs, eventually making the leap to autofocus and digital at the same time as an early adaptor of the Olympus E–1. At the same time, I made extensive use of the Hasselblad XPan I bought in 2000, and which I carry on using up to now. The learning curve was as much technical as photographic - scanners, raw converters, photoshop, filters, cameras, tripods - there was plenty of ground to cover. I suppose around about 2006 I was starting to explore the art of photography rather than the technology. And around about that point I started to want to reduce my options a little. Various people have written that the digital age is “a great time to be a photographer”. I’m not sure I agree - it’s certainly a great time to be a geek, and possibly also to be a wealthy photographer, but the relentless march of “upgrades”, which is only now showing some signs of slowing, meant that often the gear you were saving up for was obsolete before you could afford it. A decade ago you could buy, say, a Nikon F–3, and you’d be set up for years. This all started to become a serious distraction, and being a compulsive reader, I often came across writings which insidiously made me obsess about gear rather than photography. The same thing happened with music in the 1990s: the digital revolution unleashed a non-stop conveyor belt of new gear on the market with ever more options and features, and the corresponding collapse in creativity was striking.
Anyway, I carried on, trying to improve the quality of my portfolio, and trying to find a niche. Eventually this turned out to be a mix of travel, landscape and urban landscape, with a bit of wildlife thrown in: what I eventually came to describe as “opportunistic photography”.
However in the last few years things have tailed off. Photography is become more and more an addiction and a burden, and less enjoying and fulfilling. I don’t seem to be improving in any particular way, just randomly pursuing different directions to see if anything works, basically throwing mud at a wall. The endless editing and optimising of vast amounts of digital photography kills off any spark, for me. Actually I prefer the parallel process of scanning film: although it is time consuming, it feels more tangible, and the character of a particular film stock is already imprinted and difficult, indeed pointless, to try to change much. One could say the same for digital, that a given camera/sensor/processing pipeline has a particular character, but generally I find the initial look brash and tiring, and it takes a lot of work to get to a satisfying result.
The other issue is, as with music in the 90s, that there are two many options. Far too many options. The number of menu items in my Olympus E-P5 is literally mind-numbing. It seems that camera designers have completely abdicated any sort of design decision responsibility, and have passed it on to their customers. I’m sure I’m far from the only one who just wants a camera to take photos. I don’t need video. I don’t need “picture modes”. I don’t need “art filters”, or “photo stories”, or “image memories” or “sweet child perfect puppy desert mode”. If there is a automatic image stabilisation mode that works in all cases, then don’t give me 5 other variants to mis-use! All this just ruins the experience of making photographs. And if designers do want to load up hundreds of features, at least think them through! What on earth is the point of having user presets, in 2015, if you don’t give the users the option of naming them? (Ricoh, who are one of the lesser offenders, actually have worked that one out, although they couldn’t resist adding their own layers of complexity).
I can’t believe that all of this is not counter-productive. If cameras are getting so complex to use, then people will stop enjoying them and stop buying them, and they’ll use their phones instead. Actually, the digital cameras that I find the most satisfying to use are the ones with the least features: my two Sigma Merrills, which, within their very tight restrictions, produce beautiful output. They’re also easy to use, with a well designed, simple user interface, although the lack of any kind of useful viewfinder adds further serious limitations.
Some time ago, Brian Eno described the problem he was having with digital music technology: “The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates “more options” with “greater freedom.” Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users: “How do we pack the maximum number of options into the minimum space and price?” In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options.” —sound familiar ? It does to me. The last sentence might just as well be referring to Leicas.
So what of the future? I really believe that if I could give it all up, I would, but addictions don’t work that way. I’m getting more and more close to the idea of reverting to film cameras, partly because I like the output, but more so because the cameras are far more enjoyable to use. I’m still principally interested in the end, not the means, but I can’t help but waste hours reading addictive websites like this one, dedicated to film cameras. There really does seem to be a revival going on, and the same thing has been seen in the music world. Not just vinyl records, but companies likes Moog Music being revived and flourishing. It would be interesting to see a camera following the design philosophy of the Moog Sub 37, and no, the Fuji X-T1 is not that object - it doesn’t take film. So yesterday, having seen a local shop advertising a Leica M5 for a very attractive (and affordable) price, I seriously considered giving it a try. Until I saw the price of Leica lenses, even secondhand. Oh well. But I do have a couple of Olympus Zuiko lenses, one of which I took for an outing yesterday afternoon, so now I’m looking around at OM bodies. I already have the Olympus XA and Minox 35ML, but neither are really good for precision work. I’m not fully convinced that 35mm is the way to go (I’m not even convinced that film itself is, either), but it could be a good start. I do really wish I’d held on to my Fuji GW670.
That’s one part of the story, and something that might help to revive my enthusiasm. But the other part is the output side. Putting stuff here, and on Flickr, and wherever, is all very well, but only for so long. For a couple of years I’ve had several book ideas floating around my head, and that has to be the next step. Even a self-published book on Blurb that nobody buys is a big step up from a random photo stream on Flickr, I even if I wonder if within my huge digital vaults I have enough material to tell just a few stories. But this has to be the next objective, something where I’ll make a real commitment to doing something constructive. In fact, the couple of very limited edition self-published calendars I’ve produced so far are by far the most satisfying thing I’ve done.
This is the conclusion I’ve come to after quite a few weeks of introspection: without some tangible result, there’s no satisfaction or sense of closure to be found in many pursuits, including photography. Just playing about with cameras doesn’t do it for me.
Last week, prolific blogger Ming Thein published a piece describing his less than successful attempts to find art gallery representation for his photos. This generated a huge number of comments, remarkably so for a non-gear post, but perhaps driven by a certain sense of schadenfreude that the omnipotent and omniscient Ming had been rebuffed. Well, that’s just human nature, I suppose, but the question “is it (photography) Art” continues to bounce around.
If I really had to make a black or white, proviso-free call, then I’d have to say “no, it isn’t”. But the world doesn’t work like that. In view the answer is closer to “not usually”. I’m not in possession of much art or history of art education, although I’m probably a bit above the average level, so I don’t have much grounding for my opinions on the matter. But this is the internet, so that’s totally irrelevant.
The vast majority of photos, including the vast majority of those which are described by their authors as “fine art” are not art. They’re illustrations, recordings, mementos, with a common theme that they are representing a thing, rather than an idea, or indeed an idea of a thing. Photography is usually an end in itself. People like taking photos, it’s an activity. Perhaps Vermeer liked painting, and didn’t care much about the product, or the fact that it made him a decent living, but we’ll never know. Actually, while remembering that I know nothing of the History of Art, I do wonder when art became “Art”, rather than home decor (John Berger’s classic “Ways Of Seeing” has some key insights into this, if you can get past the rather dated marxist polemic).
In my understanding, the product of Art cannot be decoupled from the process of Art. Both rely on each other to grant validity. This is where movements such as surrealism or cubism arise. Photography with a purpose which can be clearly articulated can be Art, but generally individual photographs, while they might express the vision of the photographer, and be beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking even, largely remain craft. There’s also the aspect that probably most photographers aspiring to “artist” status really want to get people to buy their stuff to hang on their walls. Popular art, not fine art. Peter Lik, not Ed Burtynsky. Most artist don’t make a lot of money, although Burtynsky might be an exception. Art also seems to need to be curated, which would imply that there is more than one level of interpretation going on, and that the original body of work is strong enough to both attract and survive curation. A semi-random selection of photos, however excellent, isn’t going to get far in such a process.
So on the whole, most of us taking photos day in, day out, of whatever strikes our fancy, are basically dilettante hobbyists, however mean a spin of the focus ring we might make. To start to move towards art photography, I think you need to make some hard decisions. Photograph only what is defined within the expressive framework you’ve decided on. Forget Flickr, forget Facebook, forget blogging, or at least get your assistant to do these for you. Taking random photos, however excellent, doesn’t cut it. Oh, and make sure your photography is monochrome, analog, and blurry. It isn’t essential but it seems to work one hell of a lot better than color, digital and sharp (and hence landscape photography pretty much can’t be art. Ever).
You don’t need to be famous or well-known to be an artist; indeed, most artists are and always will be unknown. But starting off well known and then trying to cross over to artist doesn’t seem to work very well. The art world doesn’t seem to like. Ok, there are exceptions, arguably, like Bryan Adams, but I don’t know of any photo-bloggerati who’s work adorns gallery or museum walls.
And of course there seems to be a basic assumption that if you get your photos shown in an art gallery, then you’re an artist. Well, not necessarily. “Art Gallery” is often a delicate way of saying “Expensive Trinket Shop”, in other words, galleries show what they think will sell. They have too, otherwise they’d go out of business. They’re not museums. And as is often noted, art gallery customers are far more often than not less concerned about the artistic merits of what they’re buying than whether it will clash with the curtains.
So could I describe what I do as art? Absolutely not, although I have a dim notion about what direction I would need to go in to try to make it so. A small amount of the photography I do is informed by both a strong emotional attachment, and also by knowledge and experience of various dimensions of what I’m trying to express. I’m very, very slowly building up a small body of work which looks at the complex nature of our interaction with the high latitude / polar environment. Precious, pretentious ? Certainly. Something that others have done and are doing far better than me ? No doubt. But it is something which drives me and which I continue to try to present coherently. The rest, well, snapshots, time-fillers and pretty (and not so pretty) pictures. Below are some examples:
Not Art ?
But I bet if ever tried to sell any of these, the “penguin” shot would have by far the best chance.
Following the world of photo blogs, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the constant flux of fantastic images from fabulous places, taken by ultra-cool world traveller photographers wielding priceless gear. Locked into a day to day existence which largely means being sat at a desk all day doing largely pointless things, this can get depressing fast. I’m sure I’m not the only one bemused by the seemingly endless stream of exotic “workshops” being offered at prices that seem to start at unaffordable and head swiftly upwards. Yes, I’d love to travel the world and take photos (well, I think I would, mostly), but I have neither the money nor the time, or perhaps the drive. But every now and again I can, a little, so when opportunities arise, hopefully I can make the most of them.
And the best way to make better photos is to make photos often. Not just on vacation. Not just on the odd weekend or day out, but everyday. “But there’s nothing to photograph here”, is a frequent complaint, and certainly one I’ve made. And it’s wrong. There’s always something to photograph. If you can’t find it, you’re not looking.
My daily routine involves working in an office in a superficially nondescript suburban dormitory village, which had most of the life sucked out of it decades ago. Oh, but thousands of years ago it was a strategic Neolithic settlement. And hundreds of years ago, a refuge from bandit country. Nowadays most of that past is concreted over, though. Oh, and when I get to go out, it’s usually midday, with a harsh, burning sun directly overhead. Hardly an auspicious location for an aspiring landscape photographer. Not much joy for a street portraitist either: the streets are largely deserted of pedestrians.
So, basically it’s challenging in lots of ways. And yet most days around lunchtime I venture out with a camera, generally sticking with the same body/lens combination for weeks on end. Operating the camera becomes a more and more automatic, tactile process. And sometimes I get photos that, despite the odds, I quite enjoy. They’ll never get many faves on Flickr, and they’d get ignored on 500px. Some scenes I’ve shot many times over, noticing how slight changes in light and time of day can make a big difference.
Most of these walkabout shots get deleted. But they all help me to hone my compositional skills, and to coax some kind of coherent image from the jumble of the soulless concrete boxes so beloved by many Swiss, from the vestiges of the older village, or the in-between times. Sometimes they quite surprise me. And getting more and more instinctive about composition, especially in uninspiring circumstances, will only help when I have the opportunity to photograph something I care about. And then again, despite myself, through roaming the streets of this unremarkable, dull, unloved, half-deserted village I can’t help but develop a strange attachment to it.
All these were taken using the 17mm f/1.8 lens on the Olympus E-P5.
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.
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.
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.
Warning: you might want to skip the bit after the photo. I think I wrote it mainly for me.
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 ?