Although I’ve tried very hard, I have to confess: I really don’t like Sigur Rós very much. In small doses, ok, by the problem is all their doses are pretty much exactly the same. They just do the same song, again, and again, and again, with Jónsi warbling the same gobbledygook over the top of it on infinite repeat. But they’re extremely hip, so everybody like them. Or pretends to like them. Actually I do like the Heima film, but probably because the visuals flesh things out a bit. Otherwise, I’m calling Emperor’s clothes.
So I was quite surprised, the other day, when I stumbled across Amiina, apparently originally Sigur Rós’ string section. Their 2010 release, “Puzzle”, is really rather good. Not too overly “Icelandic”, which is a good thing, but still with a touch of the exotic. Naturally, like all good Icelanders, they sing about coffee, but never mind. Not that Icelandic “coffee” actually merits singing about. Avoiding, yes. And their song “In the Sun” (which features coffee) does start off sounding an awful lot like Ólöf Arnalds’ “Vinkonur”. But nevertheless, “Puzzle” is a gem. Quiet without being ambient, inventive without being too clever, and tuneful - quite unlike their ex-employers.
Check out their website.
Conditions for viewing the northern lights in Iceland last night were spectacular with exceptionally clear skies and high Auroral activity.
(Via Iceland Review)
Well I could soon put a stop to all that. All I need to do is just hop on a plane to Keflavik and I can guarantee 100% cloud cover, drizzle, and blown fuses in all Aurora activation circuits.
Of course they’d start up again the day I left.
Anyway what’s the big bloody deal ? For one, all Aurora photos look exactly the same, and for another, the sky’s not supposed to be that colour anyway. Load of fuss over nothing if you ask me. Which you didn’t.
I didn’t think I really needed any more Iceland photography books. I’ve got quite a lot, in all shapes and sizes. Some are excellent, some so-so, a couple are outstanding and one or two are crap. But altogether they add up to a lot. Or indeed too many.
So, when I first heard that Bruce Percy’s second book was to be about Iceland, I was perhaps a little underwhelmed. But eventually, for various reasons, I decided to order it, and it arrived a few days ago. Now, this is absolutely not a review. Bruce has stated that he doesn’t like reading reviews, and I’m not much good at writing them. But this book, “Iceland - a Journal of Nocturnes” makes me want to write about it. It’s a bit like that feeling you got as a teenager when you discovered a new band, that you wanted to keep to yourself, but tell everybody about at the same time. This book is like that. First of all, it’s not just a book of photos. It’s a work of art in its own right. Beautifully presented, with every detail obviously obsessed over, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect to find wrapped around a David Sylvian CD. The typography alone is worth the price of entry. An astonishing number of photographers show absolutely zero design skills, or taste. Bruce Percy is not among that number.
The photography is masterful and close to unique. I’ll admit I’d got a bit jaded with Bruce’s long-exposure style, finding it all a little repetitive. But that was from looking at small JPGs on the web. Here, in print, all together and given space to breathe these photos come alive. Many people, starting with Michael Kenna of course, have done the low-light long-exposure thing. But Bruce adds his own character, and in particular an extremely delicate sensibility for colour to the mix, and avoids the heavy-handedness and sterility which so many Kenna copyists suffer from.
Iceland is a magnet for photographers, and these days is heavily over-exposed. As a source of dramatic, contrasty, saturated landscapes it’s pretty much endless. Point, shoot wind up the contrast to drama+11 in Photoshop, post it on Flickr and wait for the “great capture” comments to come flooding in. Well you won’t find any such great captures here. There is plenty of drama, and indeed contrast, but it is subtle, controlled, and feels part of the scene rather than plastered on top. Perhaps because Bruce works exclusively with colour slide film, a restricted and unforgiving medium which offers little scope for Photoshopping, the natural ambience doesn’t get suffocated, and a realistic luminosity pervades.
The cornerstone of this book, though, is a few hundred meters of black sand beach, where the outlet from the Jökulsarlon flows into the Atlantic. Although many thousands of photographers have visited this area, Bruce has captured - and seemingly been captured by - it’s soul. My reading is that this beach is in some way his muse. In a collection of photographs totally devoid of any sign of life or human intervention, these lonely scattered ice fragments are recomposed into living sculptures. I was very prepared to just shrug my shoulders and think “same old”, but I was very wrong. In fact I find the rest of the photos, to one degree or another, rather incidental in this context, and I keep coming back to the beach.
What I see here is not a book of landscape photographs, but a book which obliquely reveals something of the photographer. That’s pretty common in other areas, such as street or reportage, but not in landscape, where we tend to go for the pretty picture and the quick win. This book shows how a collection of work can be much stronger than a set of random images. Iceland is the stage, not the subject.
I didn’t need another book about Iceland. But I did need this.
The latest edition of the online landscape magazine, On Landscape, features an article by Julian Barkway on challenging yourself to climb out of the rut of playing to the gallery and trying to create that perfect, wildly popular Flickr masterpiece. What he has to say certainly resonates with me, although I’m probably several miles further up Cynicism Street than he is. Although I might well see things differently if I were myself a wildly successful babe magnet on Flickr, based on a certain amount of observation and quite a lot of behind the scenes knowledge on content-sharing social websites, I’d say being popular on Flickr (or most other photo sharing sites) has more to do with who you are than what you photograph. I could - but won’t - name a number of highly talented, successfully published photographers who maintain a presence on Flickr and get almost no “action”. I could also easily link to others who’s mundane shots regularly gather 3 or 4 hundred comments. And of course there are talented photographers who are very popular. The dynamics are complex.
I am going somewhere with this ramble, and it is sort of related but different. Every now and again I dig out old photos, especially those on film, and re-evaluate them, whilst gradually building up archival scans of as many as I can. And I come across more than a few shots which I’d discarded when they were fresh, because they didn’t fit the template I was looking for. It’s clear that I had a strong bias towards photos that were closer to those from photographers who’s work - and indeed lifestyles - I aspired to at the time. Since I was, even unconsciously, trying to emulate somebody else’s style, basically it rarely worked. On the other hand, I’m beginning to discover a series of photos which I’ve always been conscious of trying to make but have never been satisfied with, which tend towards a subdued feel with delicate colour and just a touch of ambiguity.
A bit like this.
The recent announcement of the demise of Kodak Ektachrome E100G - along with all other Kodak slide films - however predictable, came as quite a shock. At the time my stocks of E100G, in my opinion the best slide film ever, were 10 rolls. I’ve just ordered
another 50 3 5-packs and whatever loose rolls my supplier can find, and in the meantime I’ve used 5. It will be interesting to see if Fuji are still making my second favourite, Velvia 100F, when I run out of E100G. It was never a very popular type, and that makes it a marginal product line in a very marginal product range. But if not Fuji, who else? Agfa? REALLY? The writing really seems to be on the wall now.
Of course this reopens the age-old Filme Vs Digital arguments. I’ve long had a foot firmly in both camps, and at the same time I’ve been an avid reader of the saner end of the ongoing debate. There are countless very persuasive exponents for and against fim, both making very convincing points. If you remember Paul Whitehouse’s character, Indecisive Dave, from the Fast Show - well, that’s me when it comes to film versus digital.
Apart from the overall arguments about image quality, film brings some practical issues with it. First of all, it needs to be developed. Since I really only work with slide film, then this means lab E6 processing. Long gone are the days of 24 hour turnaround - or even 1 or 2 hours in pro labs. Now it’s a week if you’re lucky. I recently discovered a convenient and remarkably well preserved local photo shop (no, not the abomination from Adobe) that would take charge of my films and could be trusted to ensure that the lab they get sent to follows my instructions and doesn’t cut them up. And sometimes even with 2-3 days turnaround. However, for the last batch of 5 I was charged CHF25 each. That’s basically $25. Each. Plus the initial cost, factoring in delivery, we reach CHF40 per film. That’s untenable, especially as one film had only 4 exposed frames due a mid-roll battery failure on my XPan.
Then there’s scanning. When all is going well, I actually quite enjoy scanning, up to a point. I’ve got a well tuned workflow, and things usually come out as I expect, but one thing I can’t easily fix are dirt and scratches due to careless processing. Processing that cost CHF40, that is. And as I’ve written before, my Minolta MultiScan Pro is showing signs of old age. Dust remains a constant issue, but a good supply of canned air - although good canned air is getting harder to find - and a VisibleDust sensor brush for awkward cases helps considerably.
The impatiently awaited new Plustek Medium Format scanner might be a god-send, at a price. But with no new film to feed into it, it might end up missing the bus.
But really, is it all worth it? Having recently seen what really high-end digital can do, the image quality argument is hard to make. Nevertheless, in my opinion, a correctly exposed piece of Ektachrome, or Fujifilm, has an immediate presence that (my) digital cameras can’t quite match. Of course the density and saturation of film can easily be replicated in digital post processing, but the sharpness of a good slide film is another matter…if, of course, you have a scanner and a scanning technique that can retain this sharpness into a digital file.
Essentially I’m not really fixated of film, but I am very attached to my XPan, and that doesn’t do digital. I’ve been having some thoughts about how to transition to digital panoramic photography - or perhaps transition back - but that’s the subject of another post.
In the meantime, I’m off to round up the last straggling rolls of Kodak Ektachrome E100G.