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The Filmopocene

...they do things differently there

in Film , Wednesday, August 05, 2020

I always thought that my persistence with film photography had nothing to do with nostalgia, or wanting to pursue some retro look. I thought it was just that I liked how some film photographs look, here and now, not in the past. Now that I’ve largely abandoned it, I’ve come to realise that it had everything to do with nostalgia. Only with a bit of a twist.

It was part of a much larger longing, one for that halcyon period which stretched between around 1980 to 2010. That period when you could travel to discover places. Sure, you may have read about them in a similar beaten up (hard)copy of Lonely Planet (1st edition), but it was still discovery. You hadn’t seen your destination a million times on Instagram or Facebook, as a backdrop to impossibly hip and gorgeous couple. You hadn’t seen it featured in twenty thousand over-processed Serious Photographer shots on Flickr or 500px. And you didn’t have to reserve a bed three months in advance on booking.com. Actually, you could just turn up, and find somewhere nice to stay.

So in 2002, we could roll up in Oia, Santorini, and stay for a week in an old vaguely refurbished windmill right at the point of the village. Or travel around the Danube Delta in Romania, hopping on and off old ferries, hitching a ride with local fishermen, sleeping wherever we could find someone with a spare room. A year before, we could travel around New Zealand in peak season with booking anything at all in advance (although that scruffy travel guide did help). We could travel dusty roads in Tuscany, stop wherever we wanted, visit museums in Siena without queuing up, have San Gimignano largely to ourselves, and stock up on Fuji Provia or Kodak Ektachrome pretty much everywhere.

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Oia, Santorini, peak sunset, back in the Filmopocene

And that’s the trigger - I associate all of these places with boxes of green or yellow film canisters scattered on a night table or shelf somewhere, their latent images patiently waiting to emerge. That’s the world they belonged in, and that world is well and truly gone. It seems that I sometimes tried to recreate it by grabbing a few boxes of Kodak, but it was a fool’s errand. Indeed, in recent times I’ve often felt that I’m forcing myself to find things to photograph with film cameras, but when there’s something I really want to photograph, I inevitably go for digital. The hassle of carrying those little canisters (or rolls) anywhere significant has now grown exponentially - along with their price - and the magic has gone.

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The Age Of Innocence, and film. Peak Pelican in the Danube Delta, Romania

There does remain one exception for me, which is of course the Hasselblad XPan. That is not so much a film camera, more simply a camera which requires film. Film does not define it. I tried to extend this by adopting the expensive and unwieldy Linhof 612, but I was 20 years too late. If only I’d bought one back when I first heard about in New Zealand all those years ago, then it might well have worked for me. Subconsciously I was treating it as a time machine, not a camera.

This was all with a healthy dose of hindsight. I actually sold off most of my film cameras to free up some cash to go down another rabbit hole. It was only later that it dawned on me what was actually tying me to film photography, tangentially triggered by a few books I’ve been reading recently.  But the world has indeed changed, and there really does not seem to be any going back. My origins as a “photographer” are closely tied to that time of more carefree travel. Trying to cling on to it through the artifice of taking film cameras on trips and vacations is futile and just gets in the way of anything coherent I might do as a photographer.  It was, I think, this which has been stifling my creativity (well, that and chronic laziness). I still long for a way to capture that pastel evening light over Sermilik ice fjord or the Gerlache Strait. The closest I - and several others, in my opinion - have ever come to is with medium format film, and that’s gone for me now. 

But one door closes, and another one opens.

 

Antarctica, Round 5

if at first you don’t succeed…

in Antarctica , Tuesday, February 04, 2020

On Saturday I finally got home after leaving King George island, Antarctica on Wednesday afternoon. A long trip even if for the first time it involved flying over the Drake Passage rather than being thrown all over a ship for 3 miserable days.

Hans Hansson in Antarctica

So, this was my fifth visit to Antarctica, and third as a tourist, and this time it was pretty intense. Sharing the small ship Hans Hansson with 9 other passengers, 2 guides and 6 crew is a lot more intimate than a cruise ship or research vessel. And the flexibility of a small ship meant reaching little visited locations, and also visiting more popular spots outside of regular hours. With up to three three to four hour landings per day, over 12 days, what little downtime we had was very welcome. The ship is owned and operated by Quixote Expeditions, and was chartered by Visionary Wild. Both companies showed the highest level of professionalism and dedication to excellence, both before and during the trip, with all staff and crew being very friendly and approachable.

Without really wanting to single anybody out, I have to mention Justin Black, founder of Visionary Wild. Justin is a model of what every phototour leader should aspire to. Apart from, incidentally, being an excellent photographer, he was a fantastic leader, always available to help with anything, keeping everybody safe but unconstrained, and proactively ensuring that everybody was happy. His co-leader, Daisy Gilardini, a photographer with well over 20 Antarctic tours to her name, was equally supportive, and in particular able to lend her expertise to the enthusiastic, if not obsessive wildlife photographers that made up 8/10ths of the clientele.

And those 8/10ths were the only slight problem from my point of view, as I am absolutely not an obsessive wildlife photographer. So I did sometimes get frustrated when the odd iceberg was pronounced totally uninteresting because it didn’t have a bloody penguin nailed to it. Being more a kind of ambient landscape person myself, and also fascinated by the human footprint on Antarctica, I have to say at times I just put the cameras down. This was compounded by the fact that I’m continuing to go through a very dark patch photographically speaking, and I only really got into some sort of groove in the last two days, where we were being forced by strong winds to find some very out of the way locations. Generally if I were to consider only photography as a measure, then for me personally this trip was an abject failure and a massive wasted opportunity (and particularly a very rare close up encounter with a playful leopard seal which I completely failed to capture). Fortunately, I don’t live for photography, and on the upside, it was wonderful to see my very photographically modest partner Luchiana suddenly blossom into a very fine photographer, putting assorted Leica, Nikon and Sony mega-camera owners to shame with her simple travel zoom Canon.  It’s always been latent, but now she has received plaudits she cannot dismiss.

As for the what worked, what didn’t work part… well, my Atlas Athlete backpack was fantastic, being flexible enough for full day mountain treks in Patagonia as well as onshore and Zodiac work in Antarctica. A fully dedicated camera bag might have been slightly better in Antarctica, but it is very marginal, and would have been a nightmare for trekking. I continue to be impressed by Sealskin gloves, even though I suffer from chronically cold hands (but never feet). On the camera side, the Olympus E-M1 Mkii pair gave the usual Jekyll & Hyde performance - working fine all day then suddenly absolutely refusing to focus the moment something ultra interesting came along. This might have been down to the new 2x Teleconverter on the 40-150 lens, but generally this worked very well. As usual the Olympus manages sometimes to get into completely mystifying modes now and then, but possibly this has to do with too many buttons and clumsy gloves. At times I was ready to throw the whole damn lot in the ocean, but mindful of IATO rules in pollution and the fact that I can’t think of any other system which I’d hate a bit less, I didn’t.  Certainly I didn’t envy the laughably huge 400 and 600mm full frame lenses my companions were touting, even if I have to admit they are less heavy than they look. As is the Fuji GFX100 which Justin was using, but that camera lives in a different universe to me.

So here I am with 5800 more photos from Antarctica, mostly crap, and nearly 1000 from Patagonia, and I still haven’t completed my edit of 3000 from Greenland or indeed 1600-odd from Madeira. I think I’ve got enough photos for now.

So, will there be a sixth Antarctic trip? At present I doubt it. The piggy bank is gutted, and anywhere there are other places to see. Even Antarctica is now beginning to suffer from mass tourism, with vast cruise ships lining up through the Neumayer Channel and around Paradise Bay.

But never say never…

 

Doubling down

and moving out

in Photography , Saturday, December 28, 2019

The frequency at which I updating this site recently hardly justifies the hosting fees, or indeed all the work I put into upgrading it some months back. This reflects my currently diminished interest in “engaging with the community”, where more and more I’m finding that an audience of 1 is all I need.  There’s nothing world changing or meme generating about my photography, so it would only be counterproductive, and probably depressing, to fish for likes and whatnot.  Although you’re more than welcome to boost my ego on Flickr.

Another brake on my visible creativity is my processing, in both a computing as well as a mental sense, of the too vast haul I brought back from Greenland in September. The problem there is that the overall quality is too high. It was really difficult to cull the stragglers when a very high proportion of the photos was pretty good, even if I say so myself. And to a reasonable extent I avoided repetition and taking “just in case” shots. This is problematic because I don’t have to time to edit thousands of photos, and I already have a significant backlog. On top of that, I’ve been busy planning another imminent trip, once again Deep South to Antarctica, with an Hors d‘Oeuvre of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia. I’m kind of telling myself that the Patagonia leg will be focused on trekking, with at most a little vacation photography, but we all know where that ends up.

Which brings me finally to the point. My last few, far between posts have pretty much been about gear, and so is this one. After quite a lot of thought and dithering, I have decided to redouble my reliance on micro four thirds gear, and in particular Olympus. There is a significant advantage in polar regions to having two cameras, generally one with a wide angle lens and one with a telephoto, so I have replaced my older E-M1 (which did fine in Greenland) with a second E-M1 Mark II. How do I explain this extravagance? Well, lucky me, I work in a Swiss Bank, so I’m insanely rich, darling (well, really less rich than insane). And considerably more truthfully, the fact that the Mark I and Mark II have different batteries means more weight and bulk to carry, and the slightly different control and menu layouts are annoying.  The new Mark II came with a free grip from Olympus, which is also useful in Antarctica. And both, together with a set of Pro zooms covering a wide focal range, snugly fit into the camera bay of my fabulous Atlas backpack, which is perfect for trekking. So there we have it.

IMG 6237

I expect the Sigma dp0 will come along too, although my objective of keeping weight down to 20kg + 8kg backpack for a 30 day trip is under quite some strain.

Regarding the Olympus stuff, I‘ve mentioned the mushy far distance effect which I dislike a few times. Actually I‘ve looked at raw files from other cameras, including medium format, and seen pretty much the same thing, it just sets in at a greater distance or higher frequency. Probably another aspect of the same root cause is a plasticky look which sets in on surfaces like exposed rock in certain circumstances. Processing software has an effect on both of these behaviours - I find Adobe Lightroom / Camera Raw to be the least bad. Interestingly the Sigma cameras seem to be free of these effects, as does film, so maybe it is a Bayer filter thing, but these systems have their own drawbacks.

Mush

This is what I mean by “mushy”.  This is a 1:1 screenshot, probably further damaged by compression, but maybe it shows what I mean.

Finally, does any of that make an iota of difference between a good photo or a bad photo? Of course not. But it can be annoying.

So, my objective now is to take as few photos as I possibly can, and to try to be aware of and work around the limitations of my gear. Oh, and to put a memory card in.

** I was hoping to fit in a “my favourite shots of the year” before heading off, but I ended up spending the time unpacking and repacking everything again.  I’m a hopeless traveller.

 

Adrift

Ctrl-Alt-Del

in General Rants , Wednesday, September 11, 2019

So here I am, sitting in seat 2F of an Icelandair Boeing 757, on my way to Greenland via Reykjavik, about 20 years and 1 month since I was doing pretty much exactly the same thing. Back then, I had some idea of what I was looking for. In fact it was two things: a life reset following a disastrous relationship breakdown, and a attempt to reconnect with the high latitudes. Photography was not really a part of it, which is just as well as 95% of my film exposures were ruined.

Twenty years later the world has moved on. I’m really not at all sure what my reason for travelling is this time. I’m neither the person of 20 years ago looking for a new direction, or indeed the passionate photographer of 10 or 15 years ago.

Twenty years ago we could sit around and wonder at the first public ruminations on climate change. Indeed these were nothing new to me as up until that point polar climate research had been my career. It was all a bit concerning but somehow a long way off, and anyway, surely “they” would see sense and Do Something. After all, even the Wicked Witch of the East, Margaret Thatcher, recognised that it was a serious issue. Then again, Thatcher was a scientist, and with hindsight, not totally evil. So we all waited. And waited. And here we are. I think that the correct description of our current status is “totally fucked”. Rather than stumbling towards at least some kind of enlightenment, we are hurtling head on to extinction, not only of our own miserable species, but also of the whole amazing biosphere we are part of. Led by imbeciles like Trump, Johnson, Putin, Xi Jinping, Bolsonaro, Salvini and countless others, along with the shady cohort of “advisors” and billionaires who pump in the money to enable them, we are accelerating into a brick wall. It is hard to understand what motivates these people. They’re not all stupid, far from it, and they surely must realise what the real situation is. But they don’t care. Applying Occam’s Razor almost leads to the conclusion that the Legions of Hell are a real thing, and these people are the vanguard. Do they really believe they can eat, drink and breathe money?

The not so slow-motion collapse of the Arctic ecosphere is not highlighted as a last chance alarm bell, as Thatcher surely would have done, but, unbelievably, as a chance for Trump, sodding Putin and Xi to drill yet more oil. Presumeably to throw onto their mate Bolsonaro’s fires.

And yet, here I am, ranting on about this, while travelling in splendid isolation, somewhere over France, in a Boeing 757 spewing out carbon dioxide, so I can take a few photos of what remaining icebergs we might find. By all rights I should not be able to afford this flight. The true cost is far more than I can pay.

I see no reason for optimism. None at all. Sure, there are a lot of good people out there, but there are no good sufficiently empowered leaders. The problems that need to be resolved are immense, and complex on all sorts of levels. The issue of over population needs to be addressed, because this is a root cause. The planet certainly can sustain the current and projected population, but not with the current wealth imbalance.  Us Europeans and North Americans cannot continue to grab 90% of the world’s resources. The misery in much of Asia and Africa, and to some extent South America, need not exist if we had equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Certainly our living standards would need to drop a little (actually not so much) and I would not be sitting on this plane. But is this going to happen, at least peacefully? Not a chance. And that’s before we even start to look at really bring greenhouse gas emissions under control. But hey, even if we solve THAT intractable problem, there’s that little issue we have with plastic pollution. And all the rest of it.

On balance I’m relieved that I don’t have children, and that I was born early enough that I will, probably, escape the worst of this.

And yet, the USA will doubtless re-elect Trump. After all, what alternatives do they have? The numbskull British will obey the Daily Mail and elect Johnson, because Johnson offers the Daily Mail’s billionaire owners, and the billionaire friends, more money. And they’ll come up with some way to bribe the populace with some baubles in exchange for a livable future. They won’t elect Jeremy Corbyn, a thoroughly decent chap with the Achille’s heel of being far, far too honest for today’s politics. Even though Corbyn could save them and navigate a path to a sustainable future. They won’t do that, because they might have to pay a smidgeon more for their beer, and maybe take the bus sometimes rather than the SUV. Of course this is all really Darwin’s law in action, expect it’s in action on us, not on some esoteric concept like the Dodo.

So what am I doing here? If I had a following, or were An Influencer, perhaps I could claim that my matchless photography will open the world’s eyes to these issues. But it won’t. We’ve seen enough photos of Scoresbysund - it is indeed a remarkable place, perhaps we should let it be. No, I’m going for purely selfish reasons. It will be great to meet up again with my friend Daniel Bergmann, although it says something about my ability to form friendships that I have to travel halfway across the Atlantic to do so. And maybe I’ll make some new friends, who knows. But I have no expectations of making any photography of any consequence, and certainly not of alleviating the problems that my very travelling is significantly contributing to.

One hour and twenty minutes out from the slow gentle descent into Keflavik gazing out over the pink tinged clouds shrouding the ocean, it all looks so peaceful and timeless. But when we go down, as we surely will, we’ll doubtless take it with us. All that remains is, for those of us fortunate enough to have the opportunity, to enjoy it while we can. And take some photos.

 

In search of the Emperor Penguin

see those dots on the horizon there ?

in Antarctica , Sunday, January 01, 2017

At the end of November, we set off on a 10 day "expedition cruise" operated by Oceanwide Expeditions, branded as "Search for the Emperor Penguin". The cruise, aboard the M/V Ortelius, was to head into the northernmost region of the Weddell Sea, and hopefully reach Snow Hill Island, where a number of Emperor penguin colonies had been discovered some years previously. Snow Hill Island is actually well out of what was usually understood as the range of the Emperor, being well North of the Antarctic Circle. The colony had been reached twice before by tourist operations, several times by the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov chartered by Quark Expeditions, and once by Ortelius itself in 2013. Ortelius is quite an unusual Antarctic cruise ship in that it has a helideck and hangar, and enough space for 2 to 3 helicopters. In this case, 2 were carried. The ideal situation would be that the ship would be able to get close enough to Snow Hill island to be able to use the helicopters to ferry passengers to a location on the sea ice at least 2km distant from the colonies, from where they would be reached on foot. This is a pretty ambitious plan - with a lot to go wrong. It appeared than a significant proportion of the passengers did not really realise quite how ambitious it actually was, and how low the chances of success were.

In order to succeed, the following ducks needed to be in a neat row:
- ship able to reach within approx 40km of the landing target
- adequate visibility for safe helicopter operation
- low enough windspeed for safe helicopter operation
- calm sea conditions
- penguin colonies actually there
- sea ice conditions suitable for safe travel by complete amateurs

In the past years, very few of the conditions had been met. Up until 2016 Oceanwide had 4 attempts at carrying this through, with a success rate of just 1 actual landing (if I understand correctly). This time round, absolutely everything worked out fine ... except for the last point. The Ortelius encountered open water for almost all of Admiralty Sound, but the remaining sea ice, where the colonies are located, turned out to be in very poor state. In several areas there were surface pools, along with areas which looked recently refrozen, and there were many rifts and cracks. A little to the south there was open water into the Weddell Sea, as far as the eye could see. Possibly it might have been feasible for experienced sea ice travellers to make a safe traverse, but no way could 110 blundering tourists be unloaded. Furthermore the helicopter crews did not feel that the ice would reliably support the weight of a helicopter.

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M/V Ortelius up against the sea ice west of Snow Hill island, with Lockyer Island in the background.



So, sadly, that was that. There were a lot of very unhappy punters on board, but while it was natural to be disappointed, a lot of people seemed to think they were on a day trip to Disneyland or something. Antarctic operations, especially tourist cruises, need to take a very conservative approach to safety. Anything that goes wrong would very likely go wrong very badly. There was perhaps a significant lack of timely information and explanation provided by the staff, which didn't help the atmosphere, but that in itself changed nothing so far as conditions were concerned.

Everybody did at least get an overflight of the colonies, and spotted a few solitary emperors on sea ice near to the ship. These in themselves are experiences that very few people have had, but these days it seems that expectations run ridiculously high. The desire to grab photographic trophies to post on Facebook or wherever blinds people from the richness of actual experiences.

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Emperor penguin colony from the air (the dots on the right). Being British (well, sort of), I obeyed the rules and didn't take a telephoto lens in the helicopter.



As it turned out, the colonies appeared to be thriving. As I understand it, we expected to find 3, in fact there were 5. I'm not sure how much longer this will be the case though. By the look of things the sea ice is very vulnerable. Very strong currents run through Admiralty Sound between Snow Hill and James Ross Island, which I assume are driven by the Weddell Sea gyre, and if there is a complete breakup in a summer season, it is hard to see how it will recover. Multiyear ice seems to be very sparse. The breakup of the Larsen A & B ice shelves in the same region has been partly blamed on rising surface water temperatures, so the outlook cannot be good. With no sea ice there will be no penguins.

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Emperor penguin on the sea ice edge



The standard price of this trip is, for the lowest standard two berth cabin we had, $13K per person. Fortunately we got an extremely reduced offer, or I would not be writing this. I get a reasonable salary, but $13K for a 10 day trip is way beyond reality, never mind pain threshold. Oceanwide expeditions is a good company, and they are quite open about the chances of success - meaning physically reaching the emperor colonies - but unless it is something you really, really want to do, and are prepared to take a big gamble, there are much better Antarctic cruises on offer at very significantly lower prices, including with Oceanwide. Helicopters don't come cheap.

 

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