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Isola Nova

in Photography , Monday, December 23, 2013

Earlier this week, I was fortunate to come across a captivating exhibition in Venice, called Isola Nova. Presented by the Wilmotte Foundation, “Isola Nova” is the work of French artist Philippe Calandre, who’s work is a combination of photography, painting and video. Isola Nova presents a series of imagined new islands, drawing on both the real and the imaginary, combining elements of the real Venice with steampunk-like industry, set within a lagoon of dark, restless seas and skies.

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Utopia 3, from Isola Nova, by Philippe Calandre

The work is also reminiscent of the original Myst game, with its small, mysterious islands hiding disjointed artefacts and baffling technology. But there is something fundamental about this vision of complex yet contained worlds which strongly appeals to me. I am always drawn to islands, wherever I find them, and the real islands of the Venice lagoon are mysterious enough to me, never mind the fantastic creations of Isola Nova.

The originals are printed quite large.  The photography is meticulous, exquisite - ands largely irrelevant. This is photography as an raw material for creativity, not as the end point, and in my opinion this is truly deserving of the label “art” in a way which very, very little photography is. It’s also sort of the way I first got hooked on taking photography seriously, as an input to illustration.

I guess Isola Nova would not be to everybody’s taste, but if by chance you happen to be in Venice before Feb 15th, and you can find your way to Fondamenta dell’Abbazza in Canareggio (it’s not that hard, but it’s a bit off the tourist circuit) then really, the exhibition is well worth a visit.

Posted in category "Photography" on Monday, December 23, 2013 at 01:14 PM

Antarctica - In slow time

in Antarctica , Thursday, December 05, 2013

A while back I made a bit of a mistake. I wrote about Stuart Klipper, and in particular his book, “The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole”, here, and I was pretty enthusiastic about it. The problem is I didn’t realise quite how rare it is, and a few days after my post, coincidentally or not, Amazon and all other vendors (for example the excellent Longitude Books) were out of stock.  Bugger.  I did manage to get Amazon.de to take an order, but every now and again they send me a stream of undecipherable Germanic e-commerce babble which I assume means they’d love to take my money but they can’t. 

So I was pretty surprised not to mention happy to discover Amazon UK suggesting that I buy it new from a 3rd party vendor for just £7.22. And it’s just arrived.

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Over the past few days I’d been enjoying Joseph Holko’s Antarctic images, and feeling a little intimidated by them.  They’re dramatic, full of contrast and vivid flashes of colour, and sharp enough to cut through steel. They grab attention. I despair of ever being able to get anywhere near this standard.  But although I don’t in way want to dismiss them, I’m not sure I ever actually remember Antarctica looking like that.  Antarctica looks the way Stuart Klipper photographs it. It’s mysterious, unattainable, incomprehensible in it’s alien vastness. It’s really not the world of highly saturated dramatic icebergs and penguins that we’re getting increasingly subjected to. Stuart Klipper lets Antarctic speak to us, rather than impose his vision on it, and it makes a huge difference. He doesn’t go the uninvolved, dispassionate lengths of the more conceptualist art landscape crowd, there’s still a considerable emotional attachment involved, but you get the impression of a photographer who has taken his time to take a long look before pressing the shutter release.

Of course, Holko will sell, and Klipper probably doesn’t much. And Holko is a photographer, while Klipper has at least one foot in the “artist” camp. These are just observations, Joseph Holko is a fantastic photographer, and I’m just using his work to contrast with Stuart Klipper’s, I’m not being judgemental. But although I certainly don’t claim any artistic merit for myself, I do feel that my own photography is somewhat validated by Klipper’s. Sure, I’ve tried to go for the in-vogue ultra-impact approach myself, but I’m not comfortable with it and I think it shows. Which is probably why in my heart of hearts I prefer my XPan work. Not specifically because of the format, but because it’s on slide film, and there’s very limit scope in pushing that beyond what-you’ve-got-is-what-you-get.

Anyway, I’ve got a book to read tonight.

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Posted in category "Antarctica" on Thursday, December 05, 2013 at 04:57 PM

Workshop Season

in General Rants , Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I’m in the mood for a bit of a rant.

It’s the season for emails soliciting for next summer’s photo “workshops” in exotic parts of the world, in particular, for me, due to my track record, the higher latitudes. Although such outings have never, on the whole, been particularly cheap, despite the general economical situation, I’m getting the feeling that a threshold has been crossed: prices have passed “expensive” and are now in full blown “outrageous” territory.

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What is a “photo workshop” anyway ? I suppose generally one might imagine that it involves an intensive period taking on a challenging subject in a small group setting, led by an experienced photographer who also happens to be a good teacher - a rare combination. That photographer might even, in an ideal world, have some formal teaching qualification of some kind. And actually, in the worlds of studio and street photography, such workshops do exist.  But what I’m talking about is nature photography workshops, in far flung places, and the nature of these is more group travel with a focus on photography, and with optimised itineraries and schedules.

Obviously some places are hard to get to, and hard to travel around if you don’t know the area or language. So the first advantage is that somebody else takes care of the logistics, and you pay a price which covers your share of the overheads and a fee for the organiser / guide, who after all is making a living. Fair enough. But where things start to go a little out of control is where the guide is basically a hired hand and the workshop is run under the aegis of some “star” photographer in who’s glow you will theoretically bask. And who will basically be taking their own photos, building their own portfolio, and actually getting paid to do so. Of course there is a sliding scale here. I’m absolutely not going to name names, but there are some “star” photographers who will go out of their way to help and advise their clients, and there are others who will behave like absolute prima donnas, considering that their clients should stay out of the way and speak only when spoken to. 

As far as costs go, here’s one benchmark: in 2010, myself and 9 others arranged a co-operative tour of Svalbard. We hired a 12 berth ocean-going sailboat, with expert crew of two, for 14 days. The cost, including all food, fuel, harbour charges, etc, worked out at almost exactly 50% of the mean price being charged for several significantly shorter and/or less flexible trips offered for 2014. Even assuming that we got a very good price, one can’t help but wonder where that 50% is going. Well, actually you don’t need to wonder too much.

So what, though? It’s a free world, and if people have the money and feel that the prices are justified, well then the market is well adjusted. But on the other hand, it is driving access to places which should, and could be, an accessible dream to a lot of people, into the luxury market. And that’s a shame.

There is also the label “workshop” itself. I may be wrong, but I would imagine that the average person is not going to head off to the Arctic to learn how to set an aperture or exposure dial. And yet many prospectuses seem to offer just that - and little else. Some vendors are actually forthright about this, and differentiate between “workshop” and “expedition”. This is commendable, in my opinion.

So what should you do if, say, you want to go to the Arctic, to Patagonia, to Greenland or other far flung destination ? By all means search for “workshops” on offer. But also look for general interest tourist trips, and compare prices. Then you’ll get some idea of the markup charged by the star photographer. If it’s over 25%, forget it, it’s money down the drain. You’re basically buying bragging rights to say you’re Best Friends Forever which whichever Canikon poster boy. Also, on the vendor’s website, in the workshop pages, look out for photos taken by workshop participants, and not (only) the photographer him/herself. Such photographers who are genuinely pleased to showcase their clients work are probably those you will learn the most from, even if their own work is not full-on National Geographic level.  Ideally, if you feel you can manage it, try to organise your own group on a cost-sharing basis, and write your own agenda. It’s not as hard as it seems. And don’t get discouraged by ridiculous, inflated prices which would take you over 3 months to earn.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 08:11 PM

Review: Image Interpretation Techniques

in Book Reviews , Thursday, August 29, 2013

The internet has brought about a huge change in book publishing. In the “old days”, getting a book published meant getting a publisher, an editor, a designer, a printer, a distributor and probably a lawyer or two. All this presented a high bar to entry, and although self-publishing, at a range of levels, could work, generally you had to jump through the hoops, and this provided a reasonable quality filter. Nowadays all you need is a desktop publishing application and a web service.

One area which has bloomed in this new world are photography “how to” eBooks. There are countless examples on offer, on topics ranging from the ultra-specialist to getting started guides, and quality ranging from absolute crap to excellent. And with wide ranges of pricing to match.

There are various ways to evaluate eBook quality, including design, layout, writing, photography and content. They don’t always come together - I have examples of eBooks which look gorgeous, but where the content is a severe let-down, basic to the point of laughable. I’ve also had to hack through jungles of mangled prose delivered with all the grace of a 3rd rate corporate PowerPoint presentation, to get to a kernel of valuable information. I haven’t come across many photography eBooks which tick all of these quality criteria, but of those that do, several come from the (digital) pen of Bruce Percy.

His latest eBook, “The Digital Darkroom: Image Interpretation Techniques” doesn’t really break any new ground - in fact the topic has been done to death by the likes of Michael Freeman, John Paul Caponigro, Alain Briot, David duChemin and a host of others - but it just does it better, by avoiding mystification and waffle, and bringing a very welcome clarity of expression to the table.

The topic is essentially an extension of ideas about image composition, discussing how you can use digital darkroom tools to help to lead the eye and to enhance the composition you made in the field. There is no discussion of technology here, just the ways in which generic software tools can be used. This in stark contrast to another eBook I purchased not so long ago, on Dodging and Burning, which I expect to cover similar ground, but was actually a sumptuously designed never ending rundown of various things you can do in Lightroom. I don’t even use bloody Lightroom. While I expected it to be an enjoyable read, I didn’t necessarily expect to learn that much from Bruce’s book, thinking that I already know this stuff, and that anyway it will be applicable principally to Bruce’s very distinctive style. I found out I was quite wrong, on both counts.

The book starts off by discussing visual paths through an image, and how the eye can get attracted - or distracted - by some sometimes quite innocuous areas. Where often people will tend to boost things, like saturation or contrast, Bruce shows that locally reducing such parameters can be more effective in achieving a good balance. It also helps that his example photos are pretty good from the outset, in that it the subtle enhancements he makes are all the more impressive in their effect. A set of case studies demonstrates various techniques, and includes the application to portraiture as well as landscape. I have to say the book immediately made me take a closer look at the photos I’ve recently been editing, and inspired to add some touches I otherwise would not have thought of. I have my own approach to enhancing areas of images, and actually it uses a tool which Bruce doesn’t cover - but that’s all for the better, as seeing things from his perspective can only add value to mine.

Getting back to design, typography and layout, it is clear that Bruce Percy, unlike far too many photographers, not only cares about such things, but is skilled at them. It makes a big difference - so many pundits on photographic style preach from the most horrifically designed eyesores of websites.
On a final point, the vast majority of eBooks I find are of the “read once, delete” variety. This one is quite the opposite, being both a rewarding read, and a reference I’ll come back to many times.

There’s a lot packed into the 37 pages, and although the presentation is clear and easy to follow, it isn’t necessarily suitable for complete beginners. Oh, and one more thing: at £9.99,“The Digital Darkroom: Image Interpretation Techniques” is pretty expensive for an eBook. But there are those that know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Unless you fit in that category, I thoroughly recommend this eBook, and indeed the others you can find on Bruce’s web site.

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 11:11 PM

SEVEN by David duChemin

in Book Reviews , Friday, August 09, 2013

It’s just as well that nobody ever reads this stuff, because I have feeling this could be one of the most unpopular posts I’ve ever written, comparable to the time I dared to be critical of the great Andy Rouse.

David duChemin styles himself as a World & Humanitarian Photographer. Apart from this, he has authored a series of vision-oriented semi how-to books on photography, which, if you’re prepared to roll with his world view, are interesting. He seems like a very genuine, likeable, enthusiastic person, and he’s built up a great brand and a loyal following. Me, being a cynic, I find it quite hard to avoid a certain sense of nausea when he goes overboard with the (non-denominational) preaching and the hey-what-a-wonderful-world, but I guess that’s my loss.  He’s also built up an impressive eBook publishing venture, Craft & Vision, providing a platform for his own pamphlet-length books on various topics, and also those of various other authors. They’re inexpensive, and worth a punt. I’ve read most of them. Some I enjoyed, others less so, but duChemin’s own series of collections of essays are definitely worth your time and money. Finally, he also launched the Photograph eMagazine last year, which I reviewed, and subscribe to.

Along the way he’s been prone to downplay the importance of gear, which is fine, but also to some extent technique, which sometimes is ok, but sometimes not.  For example, saying that a photo shot at f/22 and ISO 800, which would have been much better at f/8, is like so because he got too involved in the shot to notice … well ok, I do that too. And then usually I realise that the photo just has to be binned, however good it might have been.

Which brings us to his magnum opus to date, his first monograph, “SEVEN; Seven Continents + Seven Years: A Photographic Journey”.

He states “I wanted to create something beautiful, inside and out. Something that was a delight to touch and hold. I wanted something that would inspire and show you the world the way I see it, in these fleeting glimpses of beauty, hope, and wonder”. It’s a lofty ambition, which raises great expectations.

Seven cover

Physically the book is quite nice, but not exceptional. The dark brown linen hardcover binding doesn’t really fit with the content, in my opinion.  But what immediately strikes me is that the layout & typography are a bit clunky.  This is strange, because actually the quality of the layout and presentation of many Craft & Vision eBooks exceeds the contents, and his web site is very elegant. But online, electronic layout practice does not simply translate to print, and I think this is the problem.  I can’t help but compare with Bruce Percy’s books - there are some parallels between Percy & duChemin, but it is clear that Bruce is a talented, meticulous designer as well as a fabulous photographer, and his book designs are exquisite. SEVEN suffers from far too big typefaces, and a serious lack of white space to let the text content breathe. The image layout is basically “default”.  Photos are overwhelmingly centre page, with little thought of dynamics. Tellingly, the digital version is MUCH easier on the eye, and the photography looks and works better.

Ok, so what about the photography ? Well, I’m not enjoying this at all, but honestly, for what my opinions worth, left to sink or swim on their own merits, rather than supporting essays or blog posts or how-to books, for the most part they do a good imitation of the Titanic.

Individually there are some good, or even great photos. Some examples are Plate 56, a great street candid, Plate 136 (which is included on the product page), one of the few landscapes I like. But really, I’m just trying to find some positives.

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photograph © David duChemin

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photograph © David duChemin

But there’s just too much chaff, and a lot of it really doesn’t do him any favours. A candid photo of an orange juice vendor in India inexplicably focuses on a pile of oranges rather than the vendor. Four shots of a whaling boat hulk on Deception Island - which world+dog has photographed - when one would do - easily. Many shots just seem to be strangely devoid of content or dynamic.  Far too much backlighting which just doesn’t work. The shots from Iceland using a tilt/shift lens hand-held were maybe entertaing on the blog, but here, especially in context, they’re a bit ridiculous. The best stuff is a set of commissioned posed portraits of villages in Loiyangalani, Kenya, which is very competent commercial photography, but really looks like an outtake from a Benetton shoot.

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Nice oranges, but, really…? photograph © David duChemin

But the biggest problem is that there is no coherence to this book. As a monograph, one would expect some kind of continuity or visual narrative, but it just jumps all over the place.  From black & white candids to wide screen landscapes, from the inevitable photos of colourful, wrinkly, gap-toothed Asiatic ancients and cute kids, back to some more black & white candids, jumping to the weird Iceland stuff, to some even weirder stuff from Venice, to a set from an Antarctic trip where clearly the weather wasn’t playing along. It’s not giving much of a sense of a style or vision.  The total opposite of Bruce Percy’s “Iceland - A Journal of Nocturnes”.

SEVEN is very ambitious, but ends up drowned by a wildly over-reaching concept of showing the whole world, and therefore having to include work of quite considerably varying quality just to “tick” each continent. The New Zealand photos are particularly disposable. Perhaps a much stronger approach would have been to structure it as a set of self-contained mini-portfolios from a selection of global destinations. Basically, it needed a strong editor, and a layout artist.

One of the reasons I buy photography books, especially from less well-known photographers, is because I like to support their work.  I’ll continue to buy Craft & Vision eBooks, and I don’t regret the not inconsiderable cost of SEVEN. I would normally say this, or indeed expect to say it, but I have to say for all the locations in the book which I have also visited, I’ve either got better shots, or similar shots (near identical in the case of Milford Sound) which I’d never even think of publishing. I expect books like SEVEN to contain photography far better than I could achieve. It’s a bit of a shock when they don’t.


Postscript

Despite the fact that nobody will read this, I’ve hesitated a lot before publishing it. I’ve searched for other reviews of the book, and found just one, which frankly doesn’t say very much… one can infer anything from it. So why publish such a negative review, especially when I really, really wanted to love this book? Who am I to say such things? I think it’s a reaction to the massive dumbing down of photography everywhere, the “great capture, please visit my page LOL” theme that runs through the community these days. SEVEN unfortunately to me seems to ride on that sort of empty praise, and sometimes line have to be drawn. It should, and could have been so much better. And yeah, I know, my stuff sucks and I have no right to criticise genius etc etc. I know. Save your breath. It’s not the point.

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Friday, August 09, 2013 at 10:13 PM

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