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Dumbing down

in General Rants , Friday, January 30, 2015

I’ve been a faithful reader of Réponses Photo for many, many years, and unlike pretty much all other photography monthlies, it has managed to keep my interest my including a very substantial proportion of cultural and explorative themes alongside the usual gear reviews. It also features regular and very strong portfolios of both unknown and famous photographers, often far from safe, comfortable choices, along with incisively edited interviews. The photo book reviews section is extensive and excellent. Of course, there is an element of the usual monthly photo magazine stuff, and indeed gear (especially the traditional November gear special), but in a remarkable move, a redesign about a year ago shunted all this to the back pages, and move the “arty stuff” to centre stage.

Even the featured reader photography is of a very high standard. Indeed, they rejected a portfolio I sent, so it must be! And in recent years it has gone even further, with the “Hors Series” set of special themed issues, each and everyone a remarkable piece of work, especially given the levels of 90% of the competition.  The driving force behind this marvel is the editorial team of Sylvie Hughes and Jean-Christophe Bechet. Or rather was, because it appears that in late November, the suits from the Mondadori publishing empire (principle shareholder: S. Berlusconi), which bought the title a few years back, summarily fired them.

I had noticed that the December issue was a bit lightweight, but I only skimmed it, being far too busy with other things. Then, the January issue had a sunset on the cover. This should have set alarm bells ringing, but even then it only slowly dawned on me that the editorial byline had changed, and there was no trace of Bechet or Hughes’ trademark style to be found.

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The alarming December issue with the very uncharacteristic “shoot winter light” theme and the downright informercial iPad section

Google searches led me to piece together the information, as there was no announcement. The francophone photoblogosphere is full of pretty angry people. Mondadori apparently want to raise circulation by cutting out all of the character and uniqueness of the magazine, the (relative) edginess and risk-taking, and lowering it to the standards of the rest of the How-To-Shoot-Sunsets-And_Kittens press. This, despite the fact that apparently RP’s circulation figures, while dropping, were performing considerably above market average across the whole print press industry.

The next issue apparently will lead on “How To Photograph Children”. Bugger all use to me, I haven’t got any. As far as I know. While in the past, in these parts at least, issues frequently sold out after a few weeks, I suspect that a very high proportion from now on will be going to the shredder.

This leaves me with one remaining worthwhile newstand-distributed magazine from the three languages I can read well enough: Italy’s Il Fotografo. Let’s hope that Silvio doesn’t get his slimy hands on that.

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Last man standing ?

There has been no sign so far of what Sylvie Hughes and Jean-Christophe Bechet might, or indeed could, do next, but they certainly have an audience waiting for them. I for one send them my commiserations, thanks for all the great photography they’ve introduced me to, merci très sincèrement, and best wishes for the future.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 08:33 PM

On Landscape Photography

in General Rants , Tuesday, January 27, 2015

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.

Sandflat sunset

This says very little to me other than “ooh, nice sunset”. When I published it on Flickr it was before my “title” phase and the best I could come up with was a bland, descriptive “Breiðamerkursandur sunset”.

Xpan verzasca0412 12

This, on the other, means quite a lot to me, although there’s no context here. The title “siccità” was obvious. To me, anyway.

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.

 

Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, January 27, 2015 at 08:44 PM

So, what’s it all about ?

in General Rants , Sunday, January 11, 2015

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 ?

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This photo from March last year got highly commended by Steve Gosling. It was an instinctive shot, although I was ready for the moment. If nothing else, I think I’ve got quite good at instinctive composition. So I guess this is my top photo for 2014.

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”.

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An opportunistic photograph. Taken with an old lens on a new camera (see below), to see if I could really get comfortable with all these newfangled manual focussing aids like peaking. I couldn’t.

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.

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Film: plenty of time required for scanning, not so much afterwards. Sardinia, 2014, Kodak Portra 400.

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.

ascona-lungolago1

An archive shot from my long-gone Fuji GW670III rangefinder. Probably shouldn’t have sold it.

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.

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Playing about with an ancient Zuiko OM 50mm lens on digital Pen

Posted in category "General Rants" on Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 11:24 PM

Let down by a lens

in GAS , Tuesday, December 23, 2014

As part of a dedicated weight saving exercise before leaving for Colombia, I decided to buy the Olympus 14-42EZ “pancake” zoom. According to reviews it is better optically than the standard 14-42, which I already feel is pretty good for a kit zoom, and so it seemed to be a good idea- Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t. The 14-42EZ is the worst Olympus lens I’ve ever used, in fact the only one I’d qualify as bad (or even less than very satisfactory). The results from it are uniformly soft, far more so than could be explained by poor technique on my part. This was not helped by the terrible “shutter shock” behaviour of the E-P5 body.  Yes, I know there’s a fix for that, yes I installed it, but not having read all the reams of internet chatter about this, and in the absence of any guidance whatsoever from Olympus, I failed to set all the correct obscure menu entries. And since I hadn’t really used the E-P5 much I hadn’t noticed the issue before (actually it seems to be much worse with lighter lenses).

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This photo looks ok as a small web jpeg…

Shuttershock

...not so good at 1:1

I also had the 40-150 “plastic” zoom with me, and that worked pretty well, as ever. I’m not sure why that lens gets so dismissed by the forum denizens. But in general I’m pretty disappointed with Olympus in general, and not regretting my decision to pass up a good offer on an E-M1. It seems that camera is plagued with exactly the same issues for which the company does not appear to want to invest in research for a fix.

At this point then I’m wondering what to do next. I’ve sold off a lot of gear this year, initially to fund a Linhof 612 (which I chickened out of), and now I have no “rugged” camera. My general idea was to buy an E-M1 at some point, but now I’m really questioning that decision. I’ve been using Olympus cameras since the introduction of the E-1 in 2003, so changing brands now would be a major shock to the system. I find the Sony A7 series interesting, but the lenses are expensive and there’s no realistic telephoto. Also, I tend to believe that rather than an expensive camera makes you a better photographer, you should first be a good enough photographer to justify an expensive camera, and my output doesn’t merit a Sony A7 system. Another option, going against the flow, would be a Nikon DSLR, but the same caveat applies. However that would open up the potential to use tilt/shift lenses … but then again, would go totally counter to the objective of having a lot weight, good quality travel kit. Based on personal experience I wouldn’t touch Fuji X-series cameras with a bargepole. Too fragile by far, and slightly ridiculous with all their design pretensions and luvvy owner clubs.

Perhaps my 14-42EZ is a “bad sample”, a concept I’ve always been a little dubious of. From a sample of internet reviews is does seem to get a mixed press, and some report very good results. But even if that’s the case, and even if I could get it replaced, which would be pretty hard in Switzerland, the damage is already done. And my confidence in Olympus Quality Assurance is severely dented. I have one major trip planned for next year which without doubt would require me to replace my now sold Olympus E-5s with something equally robust and flexible. However at present I’m feeling more like cancelling the trip and taking several steps back from photography. This might sound like a major over-reaction to disappointing performance from a (fairly) cheap lens - well, also from a fairly expensive camera, but in fact it’s perhaps the final of a whole series of nails. Investing all this time, money and emotion in photos which attract little interest except from me is getting a bit ridiculous.

Posted in category "GAS" on Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 05:24 PM

Snippets #1

in Unsolicited, rabid opinions , Wednesday, October 01, 2014

This is the first installment of what might turn out to be a semi-regular series. Or it could just be #1 of a series of 1. Basically a bunch of mini-blogs (blogettes?) inspired by random stuff I come across while commuting. Even more flippant, sarcastic and opinionated than usual.

So here we go:

Absurd gear rambling of week. Geek idol Ming Thein declares the Sony A7r as “unusable” (quick, somebody warn Joe Cornish!) and parades another million dollars’ worth of gear he’s just bought while declaring he’s just in the pursuit of Higher Art. Well, he does make some nice photos, but, really, “unusable” ?

The truly unique wildlife photography of Vincent Munier is given center stage in this month’s edition of Reponses Photo. I devoured every page, several times. So far away from the usual so-close-you-can-see-the-DNA wildlife shots.

And I’m still trying to over the shock of discovering that my 20 year old Minox 35ML loaded with Kodak Portra 400 is aesthetically more satisfying than my Olympus E-P5, and is pretty much a match technically too in equal conditions.

I came across National Geographic’s Your Shot Iceland collection the other day. To say that Iceland has become a cliché for photography has itself become a cliché. And fittingly this collection is a soul-destroying sequence of clichéd clichés of pretty much every crushingly over-exposed photo-op on the island. The dream location is fast turning into a nightmare.

And finally, on a positive note, the hopeful resurrection of Ferrania, starting with of all things, an E6 slide film. Really, who saw that coming ? Hopefully the first batch will be ready in time for my next trip to Iceland.

Posted in category "Unsolicited, rabid opinions" on Wednesday, October 01, 2014 at 10:24 PM

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