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Africa with Athena, by Armand Dijcks

relax with a video

in Product reviews , Monday, January 11, 2016

For quite a while I’ve felt I’m way outside of the audience for photographic educational material. In particular stuff like “How To Make Perfect Landscape Photos”, etc. Not that I’m saying I don’t need them, just that I’m impenetrable to such words of wisdom.  I’ve read, and watched, everything I could find on the topic, and very little has sunk in. So my reaction to seeing such things on offer tends to be rather cynical.

So why my interest was sparked by a web site I stumbled upon during the post-Christmas doldrums, offering an “exclusive, travelogue-style video tutorial” featuring landscape photographer Athena Carey on location in South Africa, I’m really not sure. But since clicking on the preview was a lot less like hard work than, say, editing several extensive photo collections I’ve built up and ignored in the last year or so, I did so. And I was intrigued, And since it was on special offer, I clicked.

Africa with athena

I’ve seen my fair share of “video photo tutorials”. They generally promise a lot, and end up being endless, tedious talking head shots of men, usually of a certain age, fondling their cameras. Some are more professional than others, in that they’ll do some level of editing. Others just set the camera to record, stop after 2 hours and 55 minutes, and sell you the resulting yawn-a-thon for $75. And of course after watching this you’ll have fully assimilated their precious workflow and wisdom. So I’m a hard sell.

Africa with Athena” is nothing like these, and on several key counts. First of all, it is obvious from the first seconds that the video has been produced by somebody who actually cares about communication, inspiration and entertainment, and also cares about producing the best possible experience. It is clear that very little cost or effort has been spared in the making of this video.  It has nothing to envy anything you’ll find under the National Geographic or BBC banners. I’m sure that Armand Dijcks, the producer and videographer, makes mistakes just like the rest of us, but we’re not treated to them in the final product. Instead we’re treated to a technically and artistic excellent video, with a perfect mix of sweeping, dramatic but also intimate location shots, and indeed talking heads. But these talking heads - well, always the same head - are expressive and varied and shot with different angles and situations which emphasise and help to carry the message. I’m a million miles away from being any expert on the topic, but as a pure consumer, I find it a very impressive production, which is well worth the asking price.

Africa with Athena 2

I haven’t even really mentioned the content yet. Well, the content is basically Athena Carey. Hers is not a name I’d come across before, but she seems to have a good reputation. Certainly her photography has a strong personality, mainly orientated towards long exposure monochrome.  This might immediately, and inevitably, bring Michael Kenna to mind, but her work is quite different. Of photographers I know, she’s perhaps closer to Steve Gosling, but in any case she has a distinctive style. Her approach in the field, and to photography in general, which is well documented here, remind me more of the approach of my friend Alessandra Meniconzi. Both are interested in equipment up to the point that it allows them to do what they want, and absolutely no more. Indeed, the section on the contents of Athena’s camera bag veers towards humour. Essentially, and clearly getting things out of the way as quick as possible, she tells us she’s got a big camera and a smaller one converted to infrared, oh, and some filters, and that’s basically it. I don’t think brand names are even mentioned. A similar segment over at the Luminous Landscape would be 45 minutes long and sound like a 10 year old child reading the B&H catalogue. This is pretty refreshing to me, but I’m not entirely sure if, unfortunately, it’s what the mainstream audience for this type of offer wants to hear.

But there is technical content. In fact her description of how she uses Nik SiverEFX to convert to monochrome is the best I’ve ever seen, and although I’ve been using this software for years, watching this I discovered a few key points I’d never realised before.

Africa with Athena 3

Most of all the video is about a dedicated and committed photographer collaborating with a talented videographer to illustrate her process to produce a couple of photos in a particular location. It does this without being arcane, patronising, or boring. I think it is generally very hard, if not impossible, to truly express in words what makes us photograph, especially for landscape photography. All attempts come across as pompous, clumsy or ridiculous. Generally of course they’re produced by the photographers themselves, which prevents the necessary detachment. Here instead the creative partnership works very well, delivering the goods both as medium and message. It sets a very high standard for others to follow.

 

Shouting at lamposts

a touch of navel gazing

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.

drm_20130118_3717

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.

 

The Photo Fundamentalist

Well worth a visit

in Recommended web sites , Monday, August 10, 2015

During my daily random wander through the photographic interwebs on my way home on the train, I came across a very nice site, new to me, entitled The Photo Fundamentalist. It’s the work of photography Tom Stanworth, a person with a very interesting background, and plenty of tales to tell. And he certainly can tell them well. This is a site which covers a wide range of topics, not only his own photography (which is excellent), but also reviews of and interviews with other photographers, book reviews, and indeed gear reviews. Seems to be the kind of photographer I’d enjoy spending an evening in a pub with. Very highly recommended.

The Photo Fundamentalist

The only problem with the site is that it is feeding my feelings of gear inadequacy. As somebody who could nominally at least describe himself as a landscape photography, since I sold my Olympus E-5s, I don’t really have anything that quite fits the bill as a landscape camera. Everybody and his dog - Tom Stanworth included - is going on about these Sony A7 things, but having looked at them again yesterday during a stopover in Heathrow airport, I’m really not convinced. The lenses are so big and heavy that I might as well go back to a DSLR, and I really do not want all that weight and clutter anymore. I also tried an Olympus E-M1, and was not all that excited. Given that I’ve been using Olympus digital cameras for well over a decade, I should have been able to switch it from Manual to Auto Focus, but it defeated me. I could get the Live Control Panel up, but I couldn’t change the focus mode. Possibly it was defective. Or possibly somebody had customised it out of existence. But anyway, it’s ok as a camera, and it is the “common sense” choice for me, but fundamentally it doesn’t offer much over my E-P5 apart from improved handling. Really, there’s nothing on the market which gives me much of a buzz right now.

So anyway, great web site, but it’s made my gear paralysis worse!

 

Land | Sea

It’s Landscape, Jim…

in Book Reviews , Monday, December 22, 2014

My published photographic output has been decreasing a lot recently. I’m continuing to lose interest in my own output, a trend which has been ongoing for a least a few years. On the other hand my interest in other people’s photography remains high, and there are a few books and other publications I’ve discovered over the past few months which deserve an overdue mention.

Towards the very top of the list is the high-end periodical “Land|Sea”, published by Triple Kite in association with OnLandscape. The first (and I really hope not the last) issue features in-depth interviews and portfolios from a series of artists nominally working in the Landscape area, but who’s output diverges significantly from the standard long exposure crowd-pleasing beach+rocky headland+castle+sunset bilge. Throughout the pages there lies ample proof that there is at least as much scope to be creative in landscape photography as to be a copyist.

Landsea


The first issue features Joe Wright, Valda Bailey, Al Brydon, Giles McGarry, Finn Hopson and Paul Kenny. There’s plenty of variety but the quality is constantly high. The scope is very inclusive, ranging from (fairly) straight landscape, to abstract, to urban landscape and much else. The publication quality is sumptuous, beautifully printed on heavy grade paper, and the writing, typography and layout are of a very high standard. The online magazine OnLandscape has featured some very accomplished photographers and sets the bar high - Land|Sea carries on the tradition in print.

Personally I find printed photography much more involving than viewing on a screen, even when the screen is high quality. For me, layout and space contributes a lot to the experience, and being able to sit back and enjoy such a high quality (and ad-free) print experience easily beats squinting at my iPad.

Apart from Land|Sea, Triple Kite publishes equally high quality monographs from a range of photographers, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing about a few of these in the near-ish future.In the meantime, if you’re at all into quality photography, you deserve to buy yourself a copy of Issue 1 of Land|Sea as a New Year present!

Land | Sea is a courageous initiative from Triplekite Publishing, leaving behind the safe waters of so much landscape publishing and making a very strong claim to entrance in the “art photography” market. Given the “pretty pictures” baggage that goes with the general view of landscape photography - notwithstanding Gursky, Burtynsky, Lik (er, sorry?) et al, - it’s quite a tall order to gain any traction, but I certainly wish Land | Sea a long and successful life.

 

Whytake

and why not ?

in Photography , Thursday, March 21, 2013

Whytake describes itself thus: “whytake.net is the first Social Network dedicated exclusively to Nature Photographers - Designed by Nature Photographers, for Nature Photographers”. I discovered the site about a year ago, if I remember correctly following up a link to one of the founders, Rafael Rojas (a really excellent photographer, by the way).

Whytake net  the global community of nature photographers  Inspire Connect Explore

Whytake is really nicely designed, and has a very different ethos to Flickr, 500px and the like. By limiting the number of photographers that members can upload to 48, it encourages a portfolio mindset, rather than the usual “spray and pray”. The Nature theme is strictly enforced. It is also rather light on the social side, which could be seen as a plus or a negative. There is no commenting on photos, no groups, no - thank god - awards.  You can add other member’s photos to your favourites, and that’s it. Members can create fairly extensive profiles, and also add posts to a personal wall.  There are centrally organised “photos of the day” and challenges, and that’s about it. Pretty refreshing really.

The average quality level borders on intimidating.

Whytake seems to be more about discovery than self-promotion at the moment, and providing the essential tools for “discovered” photos to market themselves.  By defining and maintaining tight constraints, it encourages quality. It’s also totally non-commercial. Whytake seems to be something of a well kept secret, I’d say it deserves to be more widely known.

 

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