in Photography , Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Sometimes, it takes a while for things to sink in. I’ve been vaguely aware of the “other kind” of landscape photography for a while, and of the whole “New Topographics” thing. I didn’t get it. On superficial browsing, all I could see where apparently involving photos of bland subjects, often totally violating the Rules I read about in glossy magazines and on self-proclaimed Fine Art websites. They were a million miles away from the sweet, sugary hit of Velvia-fuelled landscape photography, but little did I realise they were a million miles in the right direction.
A turning point was my discovery of the work of Stuart Klipper, a photographer who is perhaps not quite within the same school, but who has a lot of intersection points. I recognised in his work something which I was trying to get to myself, albeit mainly unconsciously. Another key moment was reading the collected essays of Frank Gohlke, and finding not the dry academic I expected, but an erudite, entertaining, inspiring and very human voice. It seemed a bit absurd to read about photography I wasn’t looking at, so I went ahead and ordered the anthology of his work, “Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke” . And for good measure, I also bought Stephen Shore‘s “Uncommon Places”, which I’ve been scared to approach for ages, although I greatly enjoyed his book, “The Nature of Photographs”.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to write about either book. Endless essays and theses have been written about both photographers. I have neither the art education nor the breadth of expression necessary to add to these. But I will say that I am enormously impressed by both sets of work. They are quite distinct, although roughly ploughing the same furrows. I think it would help anybody who fails to understand what a photographic style is to study these books. If you allow it to, the photography reaches very deeply. Precisely because the subjects generally lack any kind of “wow” effect, the only thing going on is the photographer’s expression of an exploration of visual space. I think it is as pointless to try to connect to some other form of expression: another case of dancing about architecture. A photograph can communicate without any support or form of explanation, much as music, or poetry, or other art forms can in their own domain. And both of these photographers communicate beautifully.
Of course there is a lingering suspicion that this is academic, University Professor stuff, with a pinch of Emperor’s clothing, and quite possibly really actually is just dull photos of boring places. Well, perhaps generically there is some truth in that, bit in these two books I’m finding a great deal more honesty and genuine inspiration than in the gobbledygook of the weekend warrior self-nominated Fine Art Landscape Photographers with their Mystic Visions, Golden Light and Artist’s Statements, their Buy my Prints, Take My Workshops and all the rest of the Canikon-fuelled bollocks. And I haven’t got the faintest idea what camera Stephen Shore or Frank Gohlke use.
Personally this is helping me to get a grasp on the look that I aspire to, futile as it may be, somewhere on the knife edge between the “topographics feel” and mainstream landscape. The emotionally detached, neutral, challengingly bland tone of the Dusseldorf school is a step too far for me. I can understand or even appreciate it intellectually, but I’m not an intellectual photographer. Then again, maybe it’s just another step I need to take. But apart from all that, these two books are an absolute must for anybody really wanting to take off the water wings and explore the wider world of photography. Oh, and they’re both absolute bargains.
in GAS , Wednesday, February 11, 2015
A couple of announcements on the gear side of photography have sparked my interest in recent days. First, the emergence of the preview of Apple’s “Photos” application. This is supposed to replace both iPhoto and Aperture, although exactly what Apple means by “replace” might not quite match up with the expectations of long-term users of either application. The synchronisation between devices is something that’s been missing since the 3rd party Pixelsync was murdered by Apple, but otherwise there’s little to be optimistic about. On the Aperture side it looks fairly grim. Photos is showing some sign of innovation on the manipulation front, but the effort seems to have gone into a narrow range of tools. Aperture’s in-depth colour controls don’t seem to have been taken over, for example. That’s not good, as Aperture was lagging a bit behind competitors such as Lightroom and CaptureOne in that area anyway (although perhaps far less so that internet chatter would have you think). But on the organisation / editing side, it’s a total wipeout. There seems to be basically no tools at all. You get Apple’s hardwired idea of how your photos should be organised (“Moments”, “Collections”, etc) and that’s basically it. And as for metadata, well, someday perhaps. Maybe a third party plugin will support it. And that’s the basic issue - Apple wants us to wait, and wait, and wait, and then (maybe) rely on some 1-man band App Store plugin developer to provide Aperture feature parity. Well, no thanks. This is not the sort of house of cards I want to entrust a lifelong endeavour to. Aperture was - and is - fabulous, but it clearly doesn’t fit into Apple’s corporate vision, and indeed probably never did. I suspect it was largely sustained, as a square peg in a round hole, by Steve Jobs’ foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of Adobe. Aperture was a throwback to Apple’s last-century culture. It has no place in the world of the iThing factory. Photos, on the other hand, is iThing to the core, which is probably excellent news for
selfie addicts casual photographers and Apple shareholders.
The other news is from Olympus. The latest OM-D camera, the (deep breath) OM-D EM-5 Mark II, might tempt me where the OM-D series so far has not. The big deal for me is not the 64Mpix sensor-shift high resolution mode, although that is interesting, but rather the long awaited (by me at least) return of the swivel mounted rear screen, which was such a key feature of the E-3 & E-5 DSLRs. The EM5.2 also seems to carry over the rugged build of these two. Olympus is pretty much the only company to have ignored the line that swivel screens are too fragile to include on weather sealed, pro-build quality cameras. I certainly never found any issues with their implementation on the E-3 & E-5, despite those cameras being roughly handled in a fine selection of aggressive environments. Unfortunately the E-5.2 does not have the phase detect auto-focus which provides full compatibility with Four Thirds lenses. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the EM1.2 for everything to fit together. But this time around, I might, possibly, be tempted. I’m due to visit the Icelandic highlands in the summer, and at present I don’t own a camera which would put up with much of the weather encountered in those regions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
in Photography , Monday, January 26, 2015
Last weekend, we went off for a weekend’s skiing in Andermatt, about an hour away. Due to combinations of fog, wind and headaches, we didn’t exactly overdose on the slopes, but a walk up the valley, initially in a snowstorm, but later in the afternoon with the sun breaking through, turned into a totally impromptu photo session.
The best camera, as they say, is the one you have with you, and in my case the Ricoh GR I had slipped into my pocket is quite possibly the best I have from a purely image quality point of view. Possibly even beats the Sigmas. But sadly, lacking an accurate eye-level viewfinder, in this kind of light and conditions, even with the very bright screen, composition often boils down to guesswork.
Anyway, I’m quite pleased with this little haul. Unexpected, and pretty satisfying.