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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Svalbard

in Normal , Wednesday, February 07, 2018

 

Four books

Photography where it belongs

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I acquired four new photobooks over the Christmas period - 2 gifts and 2 gifted to myself. I’ve decided to bunch quick reviews of all four together here, because otherwise I’ll never cover all four.

four books

A Beautiful Silence - Steve Gosling

A Beautiful Silence is a collection of photographs taken over 3 weeks by Steve Gosling as part of the staff on a photographic cruise to the South Atlantic and Antarctic Peninsula. It reads much like a visual travel diary, but rises several notches above the average vacation shot collection. More than several, in fact: A Beautiful Silence goes beneath the skin of both the location and the photographer, and presents a deeply personal vision of an area that perhaps we’ve become photographically too accustomed to. The other-worldly beauty and fascination of the environment certainly comes across, but so too does the personal impact on the photographer. The sense of separation from the familiar tangibly comes across in the selection of the photographs, and the interpretation goes way beyond the superficial.

Steve Gosling also has developed a clear personal style, whether in monochrome or colour, favouring strong contrast and uncluttered compositions. I get a feeling that he tends more and more towards a preference for monochrome, and to my tastes his style works better there. In colour he prefers a certain kind of high saturation which although quite different from the usual “all sliders at 11”, burn-your-eyeballs-out style favoured by more populist photographers, it isn’t always to my taste. Nevertheless this doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere, and anyway, my tastes are not exactly a benchmark.

Technical note: The production of A Beautiful Silence was assisted by Olympus, who get a big credit, and all the photography was made using Olympus cameras. Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but since I use Olympus gear as well it is interesting to be able to compare results. In my polar photography I have seen a tendency for Olympus cameras to produce very harsh noise in the deep, saturated blues found in many iceberg shots. I see hints of the same issue in Steve’s shots. My solution has been to be very, very careful with sharpening and noise reduction in these areas. Still, the overall quality of the finished product does bear clear testimony to the fact that Olympus Micro four Thirds cameras are as significantly beyond sufficiency as any other type these days.

You can order “A Beautiful Silence” directly from Steve, via the contact at his website. No, he doesn’t make it particularly easy :-)

William Neill Photographer - A Retrospective - William Neill

I’m going to risk being burned as a heretic here, but I’ll say up front, I have not been able to engage with this book. This hefty tome presents a retrospective of work by US photographer William Neill over the last 4 decades. It is beautifully printed and presented, like all of TripleKite’s publications, and I even got my name in the credits as I pre-ordered.

There is no doubt that William Neill’s photography is technically flawless. Everything is fantastically controlled, from concept, through execution, to post-production. But the overall impression I get is that this is in fact really his objective: to achieve the perfect photograph. And the problem is, the actual subjects of the photographs seem to be interchangeable and of secondary importance at best.  All of the classic themes of “Fine Art” landscape photography are present and correct, autumnal forests, misty waterfalls, misty forests, macro flora, misty macro flora. There is even a short Antarctic section, drawn from a 5-day trip. Only towards the end does something a little unusual crop up, in a set of semi-abstract, intentional camera movement shots. And everything is flawlessly executed. The full photographic content of the book is actually viewable online.

Perhaps it is the nature of a retrospective, but I don’t get any clear sense of what William Neill is really trying to achieve.  Although, and I emphasise, the photography is exceptional, he appears to mainly travel around to find locations that will best allow him to demonstrate his commendable skills. That’s all well and good, and even ideal for a commercial photography, but it doesn’t inspire me much. Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d have thought differently, but my photographic horizons and education have expanded, and these days I’m looking for something beyond superficial beauty.

I think classic landscape photographers will love this book, though, and they are obviously the target audience. This is made quite clear by the appendix, which carefully lists all of the technical details of the photos. I’m really not sure why photography books, other than educational manuals, do this - really, does it matter that the photography used a Canikony Rocketflash XYZ1000 Mark 36 Turbo with go-faster stripes? Not to me it doesn’t, in fact I find it vaguely degrading. True, the same can be said for Steve Gosling’s book, but that is offset by the fact that it was sponsored by Olympus, who will want their pound of flesh. I’m not sure what the reason is here.

But don’t mind me - you can, and should, order “William Neill Photographer - A Retrospective” from TripleKite Publishing, who are a truly fantastic company with unreal production values (but see postscript below :-( )

Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life - Julia de Cooker

The driving force behind “Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life” is one I can strongly identify with: the desire to capture the strangeness, but also the comfort, of a living space artificially layered over a fundamentally hostile place. Svalbard cannot of itself support human life, or at least not in the form of a modern Western culture. I suppose it could have supported Inuit communities had they ever reached its isolated shores. Nevertheless, there are three thriving outposts, Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny Alesund, and a handful of abandoned settlements (Pyramiden, Ny London). The photography in this book is drawn from inside and around Longyearbyen and Barentsburg.

The incongruous shot of a stretch limo against an Arctic background has already appeared in a number of reviews of this book in international and specialist press, but it is only one of many that could be selected as a highlight. The collection of landscapes, wide and intimate, of portraits, and of interior and exterior scenes of everyday life in Svalbard all combine to perfectly depict the atmosphere of this strange place. The photography itself is crystalline, befitting the subject. This is a book to immerse yourself in. It really strikes a chord with me, which might be a personal thing, but there is some really strong story-telling going on here.

The production quality of the book is excellent. The publisher, Kehrer Verlag, Berlin, has a very interesting and prolific catalog - I have a couple of other books published by them, “Steinholt” by Christopher Taylor, and “Restricted Areas” by Danila Tkachenko, and I’m sure these won’t be the last. There is no technical information on the photography at all (which is fine with me), but based on the general feel and the rather formal poses in the portrait shots, I have a hunch that it could be shot on large format film.

You can order “Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life” direct from Kehrer Verlag or from Beyond Words.

Abruzzo - Michael Kenna

Last but very far from least, Abruzzo by Michael Kenna. There isn’t really much I can add to any conversation about Kenna. There are very, very few photographers who have carved such a distinct, instantly recognisable style. Many have tried to copy it, but a square format, black & white and long exposures are just the ingredients, and the way in which they are blended together is pretty much unique.

Michael Kenna’s style is so fully established that it becomes almost transparent - as far as form is concerned, you know exactly what to expect, and all attention is available for the content. There is a strong element of a direct connection in his photography which I’ve rarely seen - the equipment, the mechanics of making photographs, the burden of making choices, all of which get in the way somehow, here are just invisible. We know exactly what the constraints are going to be, so we can fully absorbed by the image.

The element of direct connection is very present in Abruzzo. Immediately you feel that the photography has a strong emotional connection with the place, and wants to find out what makes it tick. Studies of otherwise banal scenes like beach umbrellas convey identity and character. There is one shot taken from a low perspective on a mountain road which just reeks of warm asphalt and pine trees.

Actually, because of this character in Kenna’s photography, I’m quite selective in buying his books. For example, personally I’ve never been especially interested in Japan, therefore his Japanese work doesn’t really attract me. Probably that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But in any case “Abruzzo” absolutely envelopes me, and I’m sure it is a book I will revisit time and again.

You can order “Abruzzo” from Nazraeli Press.


Beyond Words also stock the last 3 of these books.  Beyond Words is a bricks & mortar and online shop dedicated to photobooks, and very much deserves our support!

POSTSCRIPT - between the time I started writing this and finishing, Triplekite Publishing sadly announced they were ceasing all publication and selling off stock. This is pretty bad news - they haven’t provided any details at all, but I can only assume that financial reasons were a big part of this. Unfortunately these days the photography is all about gear and instant, fleeting validation. People complain about books costing $75 but quite happily pay $200 for a camera strap. These days, as they say, everybody is a photographer. But hardly anybody is interested in photography.

 

A Farewell to Ice

and possibly to common sense

in Science , Thursday, January 05, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I read the recently published book "A Farewell to Ice", by Peter Wadhams. It recounts Wadhams' long involvement in sea ice research, intertwining popular science and anecdote. It's quite an entertaining read, and makes some compelling points, but I came away from it feeling a slight sense of disquiet. This arose not from the predictions of the grim consequences of sea ice loss - which are hard to disagree with - but more down to the presentation.

At some point in the distant past I moved in quite close circles to Peter Wadhams. I'm not sure if we ever met, but I don't think so. But my impression is that he always had a reputation for being ever so slightly out on the fringe, which actually would probably have appealed to me. Although he has had a long and fruitful career, somehow he seems to lack a certain sense of gravitas. Of course you could also say that this is because unlike a lot of his peers, he's not a pretentious, self-important windbag. Nevertheless, his claims about a murder conspiracy directed at climate scientists a few years back were not only extremely far-fetched but also very hurtful to friends and relatives of the said scientists.

Wadhams also emphasises the importance of field data and actually understanding physical processes over modelling, a point that his critics in the denial looney corner conveniently overlook, but which I fully concur with. In fact my own skepticism about modelling as the solution to everything played a large part in my forced exit from the field, many years ago. It wasn't a good line to take when dealing with a boss who seemed to actually live in a computer simulation.

But back to "A Farewell to Ice". The big problem is that Wadhams cannot help himself from making dramatic predictions. Does it really matter if the North Pole is ice free next year or in ten years? Or even in a hundred years? The big fight now is countering the blatantly dishonest denial campaign, and its harnessing of an army of illiterate trolls and pseudo-scientists. Giving them a headline like "all ice will disappear next year - oh, and by "disappear" I mean only 1 million square km will remain - is a gift from the Gods. He may, god forbid, even be right, but it's neither here nor there. There is little point in writing a book like this and playing to the gallery. If it cannot even convince a mild skeptic, what is the point? Allowing it to be so easily dismissed as wild-eyed scaremongering is extremely careless, to put it mildly.

I'm also a little puzzled about the bibliography. If he believes that Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles were so important, why does he not reference their research, in particular Laxon's exhaustive, diligent and controversy-avoiding work on refining techniques for determining sea ice freeboard (and hence the key thickness measurement) by satellite remote sensing? All I can recall is a dismissive, generic comment on missions such as Cryosat. Well, ok, maybe upward facing sonar from submarine is more accurate, but he's hardly going to generate much coverage that way.

So, "A Farewell to Ice" is a good, accessible book, and a worthwhile and recommended read. The science is extensive, fairly comprehensive and sound. But in failing to rein back on some of the more emotive aspects, it also ends up as a lost opportunity, and does little, for me, to dispel the vague feeling that maybe he is just slightly bonkers.
 

The Arctic in Hamburg

up north

in Photography , Friday, April 15, 2016

I’m currently participating in a weekend workshop run by Icelandic photographer Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson, and organised by Leica Fotografie International (LFI). Fortunately LFI don’t discriminate against non-Leica owners, so they let me in.

Ragnar is known as a black & white photographer. If I were known, it would not be as that. He is also known as a “people” photographer. Ditto. And he uses Leicas. So, what the hell am I doing here ? Well, firstly, he’s also a very fine and accomplished photo book author (and writer and storyteller), and I’m very interested to work out how to progress from single photographs to coherent series. Also, similarly to a workshop I attended a while back co-run by Neil Buchan-Grant, who is predominantly a portrait photographer, I find I learn more from people who do different things to me than by those who do the same. Generally, by now I should be more or less able to photograph a landscape. Emphasis on “should”. But my soaking up methods, approaches and techniques from photographers working in other styles, I hope to add other dimensions to the stuff I do.

Well, that’s the theory. I also enjoy hanging out with people like Ragnar, who is erudite and very funny, apart from being a fabulous photographer (and apparently professional pilot), and with the other people on the workshop (most of whom who own Leicas - but they still talk to me).

Hamburg is not a place I’ve visited before, and tomorrow and Sunday I have the challenge of putting together some kind of coherent series. Not to mention a self-portrait, somehow.  I’ve had a bit of a dry run today (“dry” meaning in torrential, relentless rain), and the following is the shot I like most so far.

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Oh, and LFI have kindly lent me a Leica Q - the most expensive camera I’ve ever used. Hope I don’t drop it or leave it on the U-Bahn.

 

612

svalbard rewind

in Photography , Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Sometimes photos pop up out of the past and demand my attention.  This small set has been incubating for a while: they originally date back to 2010, but sat on the shelf for quite a while as they needed some special attention. As regular readers of photoblogography will doubtless be aware - or would be if there were any - I managed to destroy my panoramic camera while on a yacht in Svalbard, which was a bit of a bugger, as I had specifically intended to use that format.  So, I had to use by Olympus E-3 as a backup, while attempting to imprint on my brain how I wanted to crop the 4:3 frames.  Of course the E-3 is only a 10 Mpix camera, so the resultant crops are not really printable above A4. Whatever.  And I also decided to crop to 612, since I was cropping anyway, which I don’t usually do, and as the aforementioned regular readers know only too well, 612 is the perfect format camera which I’ve never owned and probably never will. 

Anyway, here are the snapshots.

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