Infrared photography is a curious beast. It can yield spectacular results, both in blacks & white and colour. It relishes the bright, contrasty conditions which are anathema to many other styles of photography, allowing those of us in sunnier climes to carry on clicking away during the long hot summer. And yet, how many famous infrared photographers are there ? I can actually only think of one well known photographer who’s core body of wok relies on infrared, and that’s the late Simon Marsden. Marsden’s work is so unique and recognisable that he successfully sued U2 for plagiarising him with the photo on their album The Unforgettable Fire. But most of time, infrared photography is basically just a shallow trick, a way of making unremarkable compositions look good purely due to the unearthly representation of light and shadow.
Simon Marsden needed the IR look to convey his vision of gothic decay and uneasy spirits. Some landscape photographers make good use of infrared from time to time, but sparingly. Personally I think that whenever the medium - infrared - is prominent in the description of a body of work, that work is going to fall flat. Either the work needs the look - in which case there’s little point in making great announcements about it - or the work needs to be salvaged by an unusual medium (quite often Kodak Aerochrome these days). Personally I feel Richard Mosse fits into that category, but I’m in a minority there.
I’ve played around with infrared for years, both on film, using Kodak monochrome and false colour, and on digital, using either a blocking filter on a normal camera, or more recently my Olympus E-P3 converted with an 830nm filter. Up until recently I’ve been quite unmoved by the converted camera, as the out-of-camera look is missing the appeal of film infrared. The key characteristics of Kodak EIR were high grain and strong contrast, as well as a strong glow around highlights achieved at a critical - and hard to master - exposure level. Actually getting a good exposure on EIR was very hit & miss. Of course with a converted digital camera it’s all far too easy - with Live View you can even compose in infrared. But still, the exposure can be a bit tricky, as the camera electronics are designed to deal with visible light JPEGs, and histograms and all that stuff can be a bit misleading. Also, some lenses are very prone to heavy flare in infrared, while being perfectly well behaved in visible light. I also get the impression that there is flare at sensor level too - apparently that is a thing.
Then, after you’ve got the shot, converting the purple/red tinged monochrome image to something that looks like IR as we expect it is also not that trivial. Actually Lightroom has got quite a good preset which can help to get pointed in the right direction, but it’s not enough. I’ve started experimenting with Silver EFX Pro to see if I can get a look I’m happy with. If that works out, maybe I’ll come up with some idea that actually benefits from infrared. But no graveyards - that’s been done.
A few weeks ago I participated in the workshop run by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson and hosted by Leica Fotografie Internal, in Hamburg. My motivation for attending was as a long-time fan of Rax’s photography, and at the same time a hope that a few days of mentoring by a dedicated black & white, people and storytelling photographer would give a useful nudge to my dedicated colour, people-less and non-storytelling photography. Oh, and add to that my total lack of Leica ownership. Well, spending a couple of days two years ago with Neil Buchan-Grant in Venice certainly expanded my horizons, so why not. Of course, in that case I had my relatively strong relationship with Venice to fall back upon. Of Hamburg I knew precisely nothing.
The workshop attendees were not exclusively wealthy Leica owners. A few were clearly ultra-wealthy Leica owners :-). And a handful were, like me, non-Leica owners, and a few people even confessed to prefer colour. So I wasn’t totally isolated. And of course I got to pretend I owned a Leica for a weekend, as I casually laid it on the table at Starbucks.
Unfortunately the weather on my first day in Hamburg was worse than dismal. Incessant, bucketing rain, empty streets, terminally grim. It wasn’t even that kind of bad weather which is good for photographers. Nope, it wasn’t even good for ducks.
We had a quite loose assignment. Apart from a directive to produce at least one selfie (Rax has a sense of humour), the general idea was to produce a coherent series of some 20 photographs, which could be edited down in one to one sessions to 6, together with a set of 6 from previous work which we were asked to bring along. Finally the completed work was to be presented to the group.
Well, most everybody else wandered off and produced some nice black & white street photography. You can see some of it here. I’m quite impressed with what some people managed to produce. I certainly didn’t manage to tune in to Hamburg street life in that what.
Instead I reverted to type and tuned in to waste and desolation. I fixated on a few hundred square meters around the new Überseequartier U-Bahn station, which emerges like a buried alien artefact in the middle of an area of mostly disused dockland being transformed into Living Spaces for Bright Young Things etc. I found the state of transition quite captivating, if hardly up-lifting. However it did offer plenty of opportunity for a formal approach to urban landscape.
The selection curated by Rax narrowed down to 5 photographs, as can be seen at the end of the LFI gallery linked above. I respectfully disagree with part of his selection - my own set is here.
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.
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.
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.
17mm, or 35mm in old money. Before, and after, a pair of casual shots. Hardly the stuff of dreams, or exciting world explorer stuff. Just a connection to my everyday world, at probably my favourite focal length.
(Olympus Pen E-P5, 17mm f1.8 lens)