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“Norway Texas” by Gianni Galassi

in Book Reviews , Monday, February 06, 2017

I’ve been an admirer of Gianni Galassi’s photography for quite some time. His cool, stark abstracts drawn largely from Italian architecture manage to combine precision and emotion in a way this kind of photography rarely does. I was ever more impressed after seeing his exhibition of large scale prints, Elogio Della Luce, in Venice a few years ago.

He has produced a series of books, mainly I think self-published through Blurb, and recently announced a new one which was a bit of a departure from his usual work. “Norway Texas” is a collection of photography of vernacular architecture from coastal towns along the Norwegian coast, from Bergen to the Russian border. The title draws not only attention to the parallels of the depicted scenes with the constructed landscape of the Mid West and Great Plains of the USA, but also explicitly to the cinematic atmospheres created by Wim Wenders.

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Gianni Galassi works more frequently in black and white, but this book features exclusively colour photography, which I think is an appropriate choice. The perspectives are generally a touch wider than much of the work published on his web site. These two aspects combine to remind me a little of the more romantic side of New Topographics school, with perhaps a little more warmth and saturation to the colour palette.

The streets and buildings of “Paris, Norway” are devoid of people. Now and then a vehicle or a lit window might hint at habitation, but otherwise it’s an abandoned world. I’m not sure if this is intentional, but to me this gives the collection a slightly unsettling feel.

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It would seem that a Norwegian coastal cruise threw Galassi into a rather unfamiliar context, photographically speaking, and he responded by putting together a rich and remarkably coherent body of work which is significantly different to his usual style. Physically, the book design is nicely done within the confines of what Blurb allows, and the medium size softback format gives enough space for the images to breathe while keeping the price at a manageable level.

“Norway Texas” is a subtle work, which keeps pulling me back in. You’re not going to find any fjords, trolls or waterfalls within its pages, but you will find a compelling vision of parallels in frontier communities, expressed through very fine photography.

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Monday, February 06, 2017 at 05:57 PM

Timeless, by Rafael Rojas

in Book Reviews , Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A quick survey of this website will reveal the author’s recurrent obsession with Venice. Indeed, if Venice had ice and penguins I’d never need to go anywhere else. Since another popular theme of mine is phonebooks PHOTObooks, damn it, Apple auto-correct - then there is an obvious intersection to explore. However, as I’ve noted in the past, this particular crossroads is less populated than one might expect. In fact to date I’ve yet to find a book of Venice photography that really grabs me, although I discuss on that last link, there are a couple that get close.

Well, now there’s a new candidate to consider: Timeless, by Rafael Rojas. Over the past 5 years or so Rafael has been steadily building a reputation as one of Europe’s leading and most inventive landscape photographers. It might therefore seem a little strange for his first published monograph to feature not wild, colourful open spaces, but instead restrained monochrome studies of Venice. And indeed, taking it another step away from the habitual by photographing exclusively on film. With a fully manual prehistoric Hasselblad. But I’m certainly not complaining.

The first thing that struck me about Timeless was the painstaking attention to detail and to providing a rich visual, subtle experience - and this was even before I bought the book: the dedicated website is a work of art in itself. The physical book fully backs up that impression. It arrives nestled in a black, silver printed slipcase, the book itself bound in vermillion hardcover. The whole presentation is somehow reminiscent of the spirit of La Fenice, an impression reinforced by the frontispiece. The print quality is just sumptuous, with deep, rich blacks and subtle tonalities. At the risk of repeating myself, the care and attention to detail that just leaps out of the pages is quite remarkable.

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photography copyright © Rafael Rojas

As far as I am concerned, any Venetian photobook loses points for the showing following subjects: gondolas, The Rialto, The Grand Canal from the bloody Rialto, gondolas, St Mark’s Square, carnival masks, actually pretty much anything to do with the carnival, and gondoliers. And San Giorgio Maggiore is right on the limit. Oh, and did I mention gondolas ? Naturally, I’ve personally photographed all of these hundreds of times. And naturally, most are to be found within the pages of Timeless. But, crucially, they are all treated in original and interesting ways. Moreover, Timeless visits the quiet backwaters of Venice, featuring places I immediately recognise without having any idea where they are, but could surely find. Laundry hanging out over a nocturnal Castello contrada, quiet details from areas so close to, yet so far from the swamped, stifling tourist hotspots.

The real star of Timeless, and indeed Venice itself, is stone. Stone in all its forms which has been used to create this absurd, impossible city, floating on a bed of mud and ancient wooden pilings. The photography revels in the endless combinations of texture of stone, the interplay with glancing natural and artificial light, with fog, with water, always reminding of the sheer unlikeliness and ingenuity of it all. Through the study of light and stone Timeless gets right to the heart of Venice. It’s a book to revisit and explore time and time again.

Obviously, I fully recommend this book. You should stop reading right now and get over here to order it. And yet…

And yet, Timeless is missing one important dimension for me. It’s obviously very subjective, but what else would it be: colour. For me, there is something absolutely unique about colour in Venice, especially winter light. It is incredibly hard to capture on film, needing an extremely delicate touch, and so I can understand the temptation of black and white. I don’t want to imply that black and white is some kind of surrender or second best choice - personally I’m completely inept at it, not that I’m much better at colour. But there still seems to be a certain strand of opinion that colour photography is for tourists. I’m certain Rafael Rojas does not share that view, and I understand that Timeless has certain set parameters, within which it succeeds brilliantly, but I’d love to see him produce a colour photography companion.

[Disclosure - I should note that Rafael and I are friends, but I’m a full-price paying customer, and this review was neither requested nor influenced in any way]

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Tuesday, January 24, 2017 at 08:47 PM

A Farewell to Ice

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.
Posted in category "Science" on Thursday, January 05, 2017 at 06:21 PM

The Digital Print, by Jeff Schewe

in Book Reviews , Thursday, August 20, 2015

I’m firmly of the belief that a photograph isn’t finished until it is printed. And yet I make very few prints. The reasons for this include a lack of time, a lack of space to hang them on the walls, a lack of people to show them to - nobody I know is interested - and not forgetting pure unadulterated sloth. And then, when I do decided to settle down and do some printing, stuff always goes wrong. Either the printer comes up with one of it’s various ruses to frustrate me, or I forget to set something up correctly, or the colour profiles have mysteriously corrupted themselves. And then when it does work technically, the print seems to lack a certain something. A couple of days ago, I was trying to print a photo taken back in June in Norway, and on paper it just looked flat and lifeless.

Drm 2015 06 04 P6042591 1

Flat & lifeless in Norway

It was mainly to address the last point that, pretty much on a whim, I decided to buy the eBook version of Jeff Schewe’s “The Digital Print”. A successful and award-winning commercial advertising photographer, Jeff Schewe has become a well-known and larger than life figure in the world of digital imaging. He’s a very strong advocate of all things Adobe, having been closely associated with the company since very early versions of Photoshop. While earning a lot of well-deserved respect he has also cultivated an abrasive online personality especially on the forums of the Luminous Landscape. To say he doesn’t take fools gladly - or indeed anybody expressing a divergent opinion - would be as much of an understatement as to say he quite likes Lightroom. Having followed his curt, rude dismissals of all and sundry over the years, I’d decided I couldn’t stand him. Ironically, a quick glance at pretty much any personnel report on me over the past 300 years will say pretty much exactly the same thing. And that’s in person, not online. Anyway, I refused to buy his two books “The Digital Negative” and “The Digital Print” because (a) I didn’t like “forum Schewe”, and (b) I was anti-Lightroom. Well, that was a serious case of cutting off my nose to spite my face.

As it turns out, “The Digital Print” is probably the best book on digital photography I’ve ever read. It has immediately made a significant improvement to the quality of the prints which I’m able to make. Rather than just provide a dry set of instructions, it has the knack of encouraging the reader to think about how to make a good print, of what it actually means to represent a digital image on paper, and then concisely and clearly provides the technical information you need. It focuses squarely on Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom, and mainly on Epson printers, although Canon gets a look in. I have an Epson printer and I use Photoshop to print, but generally I wouldn’t touch Lightroom with a bargepole. Apple (may they rot in corporate hell) forced me to abandon Aperture, and I now use Capture One, with round trip to Iridient Developer for top picks. But the presentation of Lightroom Print Module in “The Digital Negative” is the most persuasive argument I’ve ever seen to switch. Comparing a sharp ORF file with all sharpening turned off in Camera Raw and Capture One shows noticeably more detail in Capture One. But frankly it’s unlikely to be significant in a print. Still, another migration is too painful to contemplate, and in fact a large part of the content of the book is applicable to most imaging software.

“The Digital Negative” is written in a very accessible and concise style. There is humour (sorry, “humor”), but it’s never forced, like in so many of these books. And there is no padding, although the depth of the section on Colour Theory might seem a touch excessive. Really, I think most photographers just want to know how to setup colour management and get good printer profiles. The nuts and bolts under the hood are all very well, but frankly, about as relevant as a Photoshop binary dump to most people. But the rest, covering not only preparing and printing the file, but also selecting paper, displaying and storing prints is captivating. The very detailed section on managing Epson printer settings is worth the price on its own. I’ve found out some secrets about my Epson 3800 which I have eluded me over than five or six level six years that I’ve owned it. The end result is a big smile on my face and a lot of fun making prints.

So as you can tell, if you’re at all serious about printing digital images (and that includes scanned film, by the way), I thoroughly recommend this book and herewith will consume copious amounts of crow. I should probably buy Jeff Schewe a drink or five.


p.s. - Jeff, “tirer” in French also means “to print”. A photographic print is “un tirage”. I guess 27 million people have already told you this.

 

 

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at 08:34 PM

Avannaa by Tiina Itkonen

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, April 22, 2015

This is a book review I’ve spent longer than usual thinking about. I’ve wanted to get it out there, but at the same time not rush it, because the subject really is something quite special. And I’ve been busy with a lot of other stuff so finding time hasn’t been easy.  The subject is Tiina Itkonen’s book, Avannaa, for which I was pleased to be able to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign.

Avannaa

Avannaa is subtitled “Photographs of Greenlandic Landscapes”, but it is much more than that. It is an expression of one person’s discovery and connection with a faraway world that most of us can only dream of. And unlike so much landscape photography, especially that in the polar latitudes, which largely consists of trophy hunting, this is the product of a long term, deep relationship with both the natural and human landscapes. Added to that, Tiina Itkonen as a photographer has a delicate, precise touch which brings alive the subject matter, and communicates her passion for Greenland, without falling into the trap of the over-processed, superficial quick thrill effects which are so commonplace these days. 

These photographs are clearly born from patient observation, of clicking the shutter only when the moment demands it, rather than from rushing around snapping everything in sight and hoping that something can be made of it all later. They have plenty to say, but prefer to say it quietly. The strong visual and thematic coherence add to the sense of depth and meaning.

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Uummannaq II, Greenland 2007 © Tiina Itkonen

You can dwell over the landscapes in Avannaa without them grabbing you by the throat. Every new visit reveals something else, and serves to increase appreciation for the photographer’s talent. This is not the kind of photography which is going to appear on the front page of “Awesome Digital SLR Photography Monthly”, or gain 1000+ faves on 500px, but it could well grace the walls of art photography lovers, which is probably why Itkonen is better known in the art photography world, with serious gallery representation, than in the camera buying world.  Indeed, there is not one word about cameras or technology in either Avannaa or the earlier Inghuit.  Having said that, the technical quality of the photography is flawless. As a large proportion of the photography is in panoramic format, with a ratio of 3:1, and has a very film-like palette, with remarkable detail, one could guess at the use of 6x17 camera. But it really doesn’t matter.

It takes a lot of dedication to complete a body of work such as this. Greenland, although reasonably accessible these days, is still a remote a difficult place to get to grips with. Many people would consider a quick summer flight to Nuuk, or even Kulusuk, as epic enough, but reaching the communities of the north-west coast, and living amongst them not only in summer, but also in winter, and repeating the experience time and again, well this ventures well into the territory of obsession.

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Masaitsiaq 1998 © Tiina Itkonen

In her earlier work, Inughuit, Itknonen focused on the Greenlandic people, mainly through intimate portraits of daily life. In Avannaa the people are still there, but the landscape now takes centre stage. However, you still get the strong feeling that the landscape is shaped and given meaning by the people who live in it.  This is the big difference between the High Arctic and the Antarctic. The Antarctic really is an alien place, survivable only in artificial circumstances.  But the High Arctic, as terrifying as it may seem to a comfortable West European, is and has been home to many, many generations, and these people have given the landscape life through myth, legend, and everyday life. The landscape and it’s inhabitants are closely intertwined, and removing one or the other from any photographic representation removes the magic.

If I had to find something to criticise, it would only be a slight regret that the format isn’t a little bigger, so that the panoramic frames do not have to run across two pages. But the economics of book publishing these days probably push that kind of luxury out of the bounds of reason.

I guess you can tell I like this book. I’m looking forward to Tiina Itkonen’s next works. You can - and should - buy Avannaa here.

A couple of shots of the book, to give a general idea:

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Avannaa 003
Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at 08:26 PM

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