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Shouting at lamposts

in General Rants , Thursday, September 24, 2015

A week or so back, I came across “Photos and Stuff”, a blog written by Andrew Molitor about, well, photos. And stuff. His writing is probably not for everybody. It’s incisive, very opinionated, frequently sarcastic, just as frequently funny, and also very well written. He doesn’t beat about the bush, much, and has no hesitation in going for the jugular. A favourite target is the hapless Ming Thein, and I have to admit that he neatly sums up pretty much all of the comments I’ve mentally written myself while reading Mr Thein’s blog. It definitely has something of a cult about it. Another is the Luminous Landscape, Kevin Raber in particular, and again, I’m ashamed to pretty much agree. I’m sure Kevin is a wonderful chap, but, frankly, he’s no Michael Reichmann, first as a photographer (to which Andrew Molitor would doubtless retort is not saying much), but also lacking Reichmann’s dry wit.

The blog has a generous helping of totally wild-eyed, off the rails, unhinged rants.  It is frequently highly entertaining, if a touch uncomfortable at times. Mr Molitor is clear no idiot himself, seems pretty widely read, and backs up his rants with some strong arguments. Possibly he’s just a little too awestruck by Sarah Moon.

But one post he wrote back in August really cuts to the bone. He argues that the vast majority of photography presented these days exists in a bubble. This bubble is inhabited by photographers, who take photographs to impress other photographers. So, for example, an arty shot of a rusted shed, which is of no interest at all beyond the amazing textures and detail captured in “the image”, showing fantastic “IQ” and resolution. To which anybody not into cameras would just shrug and say “nice shed - why did you photograph it ? And why is most of it out of focus?”. And indeed anybody into cameras would mutter about noise in the shadows, burnt highlights, and how his (always “his”) Sony Rocketblaster XZY9999X Mark 5 would do much better.  True, and funny. But, er, isn’t that me we’re talking about here ?

Of course there are plenty of bubbles, mostly repelling one another. A recently formed one is inhabited entirely by photographers with stern, aesthetic web sites, who believe that any photo is good provided it is made using Kodak Portra 400 over-exposed by at least 2 stops, preferably with 70% hazy sky, and preferably taken at midday. And scanned by some lab in Los Angeles, which really, really gets their artistic intent, like. And their credit cards.

I should hasten to add that if I understand him correctly, he’s not denigrating people who take photos for the fun of it, or even because they enjoy playing with expensive cameras. I think it’s more he gets irritated when such people start trying to pass off what they are doing as having some deeper meaning, or being “art”.

Which makes me feel even more exposed…

So, I started to think about whether I could actually describe what it is I’m trying to do with my photography. Of course, I could also go down the road of saying it’s entirely my own business and I don’t need to justify it to anyone. But I do put stuff on this web site, and on Flickr, so to some extent that’s not an honest position. Actually, I’ve got a cute rejoinder to the question of “why do I have a web site”, or rather “why do I show photos”, which is, to paraphrase Garry Winogrand, I put photos on the web to see how they look when they’re shown on the web. And it’s true enough - the posts I publish which are basically mini-portfolios are those I take the most time over. The sequencing, the harmony (or not) and the juxtaposition of set of photos brings the component photos alive to me. And presenting them in a space and format I manage is important too.  But that’s the presentation part. It still doesn’t address the question of why I’m photographing in the first place.

Probably much like everybody, I have different modes of photography. Sometimes I photograph to pass the time. Sometimes, just to record moments. Rarely, to test something or try out techniques - I can’t be bothered with that stuff anymore. But sometimes, quite often actually, a scene grabs me which I just need to distill down to something I can take away. I’ve dabbled with all sorts of genres, classic landscape, wildlife, street (sort of), urban landscape, and these have often been mixed in with travel. A large number of the resultant photos are trivial, although not necessarily bad. But there is a core set, which is actually quite large, where a very specific theme emerges. It wasn’t and still isn’t fully conscious, but it has become clear enough to me.  It’s probably totally invisible to anybody else, but that’s not a problem.  However, I have noticed that any photos I make which do provoke a stronger reaction tend to come from this set.

So, what is this theme ? Well, I’ve kind of touched on it before, but it’s essentially an exploration of absence and loss. Cheerful, huh? It’s nothing very direct: I approach things in a very oblique way, and I’m very wary of disclosing much information. It’s also not something I have any external ambition for. If anything, I suppose it’s a form of therapy. It’s not that I don’t care of nobody else gets it, it’s more that it really doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant. Although probably I would get some feeling of validation if some stranger were to pick up on it.

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Antarctica starts here

It certainly wasn’t intentional, but over time I’ve begun to understand that I am attracted to which are at the same time empty of life, but which hint at past glories, small or large. They then become spaces into which I can insert imaginary histories and narratives, all in my head, and not necessarily, indeed rarely explicit and fully formed. It’s about the ambience that a place radiates. This is probably why I am so attracted to Venice, or more specifically, Venice behind the facade. Added to the fact that it’s a set of complex, interlocking islands, and it just fits in with my psyche. Similarly, in landscape photography, while I’m as likely as the next photographer to just snap away at nice scenery, I’m much more engaged if there is some human element which grabs my attention. Generally these are elements which the “fine art” landscape photographer will ignore like the plague. However, I find myself much more drawn towards the style of a Frank Gohlke or Stuart Klipper these days, even if I’m light years away from them in terms of results.  I’m more likely to seek out a power pylon than to edit it out in Photoshop these days.

So yes, I do think I know where I’m going with my photography, and I’m also perfectly comfortable, or better, ambivalent, about having an audience. I don’t need one. I’m engaged with the work I’m producing, and, dropping for once the self derogation, I actually think I’m pretty good at it. Which probably just all boils down to me being in a very small bubble with room for one.

Anyway, all this rambling was kicked off by discovering a blog that actually made me think. Give it a try, it’s certainly more rewarding than hanging around on gear sites.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Thursday, September 24, 2015 at 08:50 PM

Time Fades Away

in Photography in Ticino , Monday, April 13, 2015

For over 15 years, the southern Swiss-Italian city of Lugano, and it’s immediate surroundings, has been my home. Lugano is a strange place. It benefits from an absolutely world class location, on a lake front flanked by two “sugar loaf”-like mountains. Historically and it is part of Lombardy and has passed under the control of Milano and Como before being grabbed by the Swiss Confederation in the 16th Century. Eventually as an aftermath of Napoleonic machinations it became part of the Canton of Ticino, a fully fledged federal state of Switzerland, but even now Ticino retains the joint title of Republic. Lugano was a favourite Belle Epoque destination, leading to the building of many classic villas and hotels. Historians and archeologists data Lugano back through Roman times, to the Etruscans, and Stone Age settlement. So one would expect a rich architectural tapestry similar to towns just over the Italian border. And one would be sorely disappointed. Lugano is, on the whole, a boring, sanitised wasteland where countless historic buildings, quarters, streets and landmarks have been, and continue to be, demolished to make way for more of the grim (but so gorgeously expensive) concrete cubes which the Swiss apparently cannot get enough of.  And of course the ranks of steel and glass atrocities without which no self-respecting Bank can be seen. And there is no shortage of banks in Lugano.

I really do wonder what the tourists who descend on Lugano from Easter to autumn make of it all. It doesn’t stand up very well in comparison to Como, a few kilometres away, or even squeaky clean Luzern further north, if you’re into that kind of thing. Sure, the landscape is spectacular, and there are countless forest and mountain trails, but as a city, well, I guess it’s ok as an overnight stop.

It could have been so different. And there are plenty of Lugano natives who are pretty angry about what has been done, but the level of petty corruption and short term greed, in an area with a pretty small population, where everybody knows everybody else, has steamrollered in the property developers. Ironically, investing in reviving and repurposing structures given character by the passage of time has led to fortunes being made in many other cities.  Here, instead, heritage has ben flogged off for the chance to buy the latest Porsche or Ferrari.

If you look carefully, you can catch glimpses of what might have been out of the corner of your eye. A few years back, photographer Barbara Dell’Acqua published a very nice book on exactly this theme, which for some reason I never got around to reviewing. Many of the scenes in “una citta dentro la citta” (a city behind the city) have already vanished.

Actually, this was supposed to just be a post with a few “clutching at straws” shots I took in Lugano over the weekend. Instead in turned into a rant. I guess I qualify as an outsider, but still, Lugano is home to me, and it really makes me sad to see what a mess money and politics has made of it.

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Posted in category "Photography in Ticino" on Monday, April 13, 2015 at 09:49 PM

Some faraway beach

in General Rants , Tuesday, March 03, 2015

There hasn’t been a lot of activity around here for a while. There are several reasons for this. First, I started getting quite wrapped up in a project that’s been on the back burner for a while, and that soaked up most spare time. What little was left ended up being devoted to reading my latest selection of photo books. Then, unfortunately, I had to deal with the sudden death of my stepfather, and the aftermath of this, which isn’t over yet. To say we were not very close would be a bit of an understatement, but it still came as a shock.

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I’ve been reading a lot further and wider in the photography world, venturing beyond what I now feel to be the comfortable waters of the New American Landscape school. I’ve come across the writings of Malc Raggett, or rather rediscovered them. I don’t know much about him, and a lot of the photographers he writes about are well out of my comfort zone, but it is interesting nonetheless.

In the post “Light and Land photo exhibition, Mall Gallery, London”, he writes:

Most of the images are pictures of a place: photographically competent but lacking depth of meaning. Certainly good enough for a travel brochure, having that instant ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ appeal but little beyond. They are what I call landscape porn, that is, meant to appeal to the dopamine junky in us all. I frequently wished I had a saturation slider on my glasses so that I could turn down the colour that shouted at me from the image.

This pretty much sums up what I feel more and more about 98% of the photography I’ve seen, and indeed done myself. Devoid of content, devoid of meaning. Just endless Velvia Vistas with perfect technique and all the expressiveness of a utility bill. Maybe I’ve just gone way past the “curmudgeon” point on the cynicism scale and am redlining in the bitter and twisted zone, but honestly, words fail me when I read this sort of thing. I’d better not elaborate.

Perhaps I’d better stop writing until my mood improves…

Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, March 03, 2015 at 10:13 PM

Dumbing down

in General Rants , Friday, January 30, 2015

I’ve been a faithful reader of Réponses Photo for many, many years, and unlike pretty much all other photography monthlies, it has managed to keep my interest my including a very substantial proportion of cultural and explorative themes alongside the usual gear reviews. It also features regular and very strong portfolios of both unknown and famous photographers, often far from safe, comfortable choices, along with incisively edited interviews. The photo book reviews section is extensive and excellent. Of course, there is an element of the usual monthly photo magazine stuff, and indeed gear (especially the traditional November gear special), but in a remarkable move, a redesign about a year ago shunted all this to the back pages, and move the “arty stuff” to centre stage.

Even the featured reader photography is of a very high standard. Indeed, they rejected a portfolio I sent, so it must be! And in recent years it has gone even further, with the “Hors Series” set of special themed issues, each and everyone a remarkable piece of work, especially given the levels of 90% of the competition.  The driving force behind this marvel is the editorial team of Sylvie Hughes and Jean-Christophe Bechet. Or rather was, because it appears that in late November, the suits from the Mondadori publishing empire (principle shareholder: S. Berlusconi), which bought the title a few years back, summarily fired them.

I had noticed that the December issue was a bit lightweight, but I only skimmed it, being far too busy with other things. Then, the January issue had a sunset on the cover. This should have set alarm bells ringing, but even then it only slowly dawned on me that the editorial byline had changed, and there was no trace of Bechet or Hughes’ trademark style to be found.

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The alarming December issue with the very uncharacteristic “shoot winter light” theme and the downright informercial iPad section

Google searches led me to piece together the information, as there was no announcement. The francophone photoblogosphere is full of pretty angry people. Mondadori apparently want to raise circulation by cutting out all of the character and uniqueness of the magazine, the (relative) edginess and risk-taking, and lowering it to the standards of the rest of the How-To-Shoot-Sunsets-And_Kittens press. This, despite the fact that apparently RP’s circulation figures, while dropping, were performing considerably above market average across the whole print press industry.

The next issue apparently will lead on “How To Photograph Children”. Bugger all use to me, I haven’t got any. As far as I know. While in the past, in these parts at least, issues frequently sold out after a few weeks, I suspect that a very high proportion from now on will be going to the shredder.

This leaves me with one remaining worthwhile newstand-distributed magazine from the three languages I can read well enough: Italy’s Il Fotografo. Let’s hope that Silvio doesn’t get his slimy hands on that.

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Last man standing ?

There has been no sign so far of what Sylvie Hughes and Jean-Christophe Bechet might, or indeed could, do next, but they certainly have an audience waiting for them. I for one send them my commiserations, thanks for all the great photography they’ve introduced me to, merci très sincèrement, and best wishes for the future.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 08:33 PM

On Landscape Photography

in General Rants , Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A couple of days ago, Ugo Cei published a “A curmudgeonly look at the current state of landscape photography” rant on landscape photography which has stirred up quite some debate.

As I read, “There is this prevalent style in landscape photography that aims to capture the viewer with dramatic light, strong composition and bright, saturated colors” I found myself nodding wildly in agreement, but on reflection, I’m not sure that firing at such an obvious target is fruitful. And to be brutally frank, Ugo’s own work, beautiful as it is, doesn’t seem to be so many notches away from that which he decries.

Yes, much popular landscape photography on 500px is formulaic, garish, fluff, craving attention, pandering to a lowest common denominator threshold derived from endless identical tutorials. It’s much the same on 1x, wildly so on WhyTake, and also on Flickr, even if there some dilution is evident from the sheer volume. But so what. Commentary on the post is largely split between people defending their right to be superficial, and others agreeing but without much in the way of realistic alternatives. For example, “going back to film” is a popular panacea, but film - specifically, Velvia - is actually what got us here in the first place. The opposite trend of the exaggerated “Portra 400” heavily unsaturated look, usually featuring anonymous, bland subject matter, is equally as affected as the saturation sliders to 11 wave. Black & white is a valid alternative, but equally open to wild contrast exaggeration. The dark, scratchy gothic look is also a popular counter-trend, but again, often superficial. The problem is not the presentation, but rather the content.

There seems to be a great desire from a subset of landscape photographers to produce “meaningful work”. I’d include myself in that group. Unfortunately, at the same time, they seem to crave popular acclaim, and that’s likely to be a problem (and yes, that’s me, too). The key point about social media is that the “social” part often outweighs the “media” part. Getting likes on 500px et al is not going to be hampered by showing great photos, but playing the social networking game is far more important. I honestly do not know of any inspiring landscape photographers who are stars on photo sharing sites.

It certainly isn’t impossible for landscape photography to be meaningful and artistic. Some high profile examples include Ed Burtinsky, and Salgado, obviously, but there are plenty of others out there. Some favourites of mine include Stuart Klipper, Dav Thomas, and Tiina Itkonen. I don’t think any of these are big (if at all) on 500px.

Coming back to the tricky topic of meaningfulness in landscape photography, the debate has helped to crystallise my own views a little. First of all, I would propose that any photograph which provokes some response beyond the superficial holds meaning. I do not think that landscape photography, or indeed much photography at all, generally holds explicit meaning. Why should it? We have several senses, why do we need to translate a visual, visceral response into textual description? The meaning in landscape photography is general intangible, and we should be comfortable with that. As landscape photographers, we have compositional tricks of the trade to deploy to make our photos more visually interesting. And of course these are flogged to death in magazine tutorials, how-to books, and “fine art photographer” websites. They’re all well and good, but going out specifically to find leading lines, Ye Olde Foregrounde Intereste, or s-curves is going to result in bland eye candy, although it might get you noticed on 500px. It’s the wrong way round: these techniques can be used to enhance an interesting subject, but they’re not terribly interesting of themselves.

So then, what makes a photograph interesting? Well, there are several key reference works on that topic, for example by Stephen Shore, John Szarkowski, or George Barr. But these are generic - useful, enlightening, classic maybe, but not infallible sets of instructions. I believe that individually we have to find our own parameters. About a year after I started posting on Flickr, I started indulging in a little conceit which was to give my photos one word titles. These titles were often oblique and obscure, but there was a method behind them. After a while, I started to realise that for some photos the titles came quickly, and for others it was a struggle, or nothing came at all. For some, the title turned out to have several layers of meaning, some direct, some indirect. And so I imposed the rule on myself that until a photo “named itself”, I could not post it. The photos with the strongest titles were not necessarily technically stronger, nor did they get huge acclaim on Flickr, but they were the most satisfying to me. I’ve notice other people using different ways to express meaning by association, for example by adding fragments of poetry. I’d like to think that if a photograph speaks to me in this way, it may speak to others, eventually. Of course I could just be delusional.

It’s actually very, very hard in my experience to produce meaningful landscape work which excludes human elements. So it’s a shame that so many landscape photographers seek to do just that, and yes, mea culpa. We’re shooting ourselves in both feet, as well diving deep into denial, in trying to separate ourselves from nature.

The following two photos attempt to illustrate what I’m getting at. The positive example (the second) was much harder to select.

Sandflat sunset

This says very little to me other than “ooh, nice sunset”. When I published it on Flickr it was before my “title” phase and the best I could come up with was a bland, descriptive “Breiðamerkursandur sunset”.

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This, on the other, means quite a lot to me, although there’s no context here. The title “siccità” was obvious. To me, anyway.

A lot of photos I see online give homage to the hackneyed “capture the light” theme. And often that is all they do, albeit often very, very well from a technical perspective. But they don’t capture the place, and don’t hold attention beyond a quick social blast. Getting away from the addiction to instant fleeting praise may be the first step on the road to a true sense of accomplishment, but it’s a long road to take. And whatever I may have said or implied here, being dismissive about other people’s take on the wide, wide world of photography is not a step in a rewarding direction.

 

Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, January 27, 2015 at 08:44 PM

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