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“Vigilante” by Andrew Molitor

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, April 20, 2022

I’ve kind of stopped outward communication for quite a while. I’m having one of my periodic diversions into mediuming rather than messaging, and as usual I’ve been sucked into a maelstrom of indecision.

So funnily enough the subject of this return is quite on topic, as it is really does conflate medium and message to a remarkable degree.

The topic is a book, I think, although maybe I isn’t. It’s certainly art, and it indisputably takes the form of a book, and it is called “Vigilante” by Andrew Molitor. But I guess the book is just a record of a performance.

[Actually before I go on I should express my extreme guilt at taking so long to write this, but well at least I’m writing it before any of the other things in my mental backlog]

“Vigilante” tells a tale lasting a few months over the summer of 2021, during which Andrew posted a series of surrealist takes on the standard lo-fi local advert with tear of strips. A bit like this.

IMG 7985

I won’t bother describing the contents any more, since you can see much better for yourself in the Blurb preview. Go away and have a look, and I’ll grab a coffee and continue when you’re back.

I imagine that some clever Master of Fine Arts could write quite a treatise on this, using all sorts of clever erudite words like signify, zeitgeist, post-modem and stuff like that. I guess post-modem is wifi? Anyway I’m not really up to that.  What I get out of Vigilante is just a lot of fun, an offbeat sense of humour but also a sense of re-engaging with the world after the pandemic decade. Very unserious but very serious at the same time.

It’s also has a significant self-deprecation undercurrent, to the extent that one wonders if the author is actually British (I guess Bellingham WA is almost Canada, so close enough). Although I’m certainly no authority, my feeling is that “Vigilante” is actually a much stronger and sincere work than the average conceptual dross found in most galleries.

IMG 7986

And then ... the idea of seeing the book as a “just a record of a performance” is actually cleverly detonated on the last page, where the reader is invited to step through the looking glass.

Vigliante is low key in all respects, but also a wonderfully human work which should bring a warm glow and a smile to anybody lucky enough to read it.

You can and should follow Andrew Molitor here.

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing Awe, with Gavin Hardcastle

Not your average photobook

in Book Reviews , Friday, October 08, 2021

I’m not a huge consumer of YouTube videos. At least, I wasn’t, until the universe flipped and I had more couch time than I knew what to do with. Initially YouTube was a rabbit hole of ancient music videos and British comedy shows, but gradually I became aware of photography channels. Now, any YouTuber who starts off with “Hey Everybody” is going to get cut off before he’s finished saying “..s’up???” (and it always, always he). And anybody droning on about gear has usually lost me before he (ditto) starts. But gradually I did discover a few photography channels worth watching, at least for a while. And thanks to YouTube’s algorithms, I eventually became aware of some apparently very strange videos. And so unwittingly I stumbled into the the weird world of Gavin Hardcastle, aka Fototripper.

You’ll have to see for yourself. It is impossible to describe the blend of comedy, pathos, romantic intrigue, bitter rivalry, catastrophe and arresting photography that blends into a Fototripper video. In the infinite world of the interwebs I suppose there must be something else like it, but I’ve certainly never seen it.

Gavin manages the balancing act of taking his photography very seriously, while not taking himself seriously at all. It wouldn’t work unless his photography was excellent, but it does, and it is. He makes hours of intricately plotted and beautifully produced entertainment on YouTube absolutely free, so I felt it only fair to give something back and buy his book (this idea of giving something back is, I know, weird, and will doubtless be the ruin of me, but so be it).

In keeping with everything else, this book, “Chasing Awe with Gavin Hardcastle” is like nothing else I have ever seen. I can imagine some of the more straight-laced landscape photography community (i.e 99% of them) spluttering their Theakston’s Old Peculier* all over their 4x5 field cameras at the first page, and the average photobook seller having a coronary. Let’s say Gavin doesn’t entirely follow the Rules of Photo Monographs.

Each photo is presented together with a narrative describing how it was arrived at, and by that I mean more how he arrived more or less one piece on the spot, rather than some dry technical process description. Of course this could also easily descend into Heroic Frozen Beard Nothing To Eat For 45 Days Except My Boot Leather Just To Get One Photo standard pattern, but…. no, it doesn’t do that either. It is warts and all, with various bodily functions thrown in. It’s often hilarious, and always compulsive reading.  And guess what, the irreverent style doesn’t in any way detract from the photographs.  There is actually a short description of capture and processing details with each photo, but these are comfortably banished to their own little section. I’m sure they’re important for some people, but I really couldn’t care less.

Well, that’s not entirely true: I am slightly astonished at the complex processing Gavin goes through with most photos, with multiple exposures of multiple focus points and intricate layering and masking to arrive at an end result. I’ve tried to get into this myself, half-heartedly, after all, I know the tools pretty well, but almost always I find I can get to where I want to with a few minutes work on a single frame. Maybe I’m lazy, maybe I’m stuck in a rut, maybe I’m just a crap photographer… maybe it’s just fine that we all have our own ways of doing things.  Then again, Gavin is famous and I’m not…

I buy photo books because I’m interested in them, not to reinforce some kind of confirmation bias, which is another way of saying that I’m not only interested in photography which drives in the same lane as my own. I’m pretty sure that if I visited the same locations at the same time as Gavin has, I would end up with quite different photos. So as a reader and viewer, I enjoy and appreciated the photos in “Chasing Awe”, but as a photographer, generally I’m looking for something else. I can also freely admit that any photos I did take at the same time and place would almost certainly be of interest to few people except me!

There are a few light criticisms I could make of the book. First of all, the layout and design - frankly it could be a bit better. In particular the typeface is strangely large. Personally I’ve found that when creating any kind of print publication digitally (say in InDesign or whatever), font sizes that look perfectly fine on screen always look too large in print.  This in turn tends to set the photos in a slightly reduced light. They deserve better. There are a few minor typos too, but, well, who am I to criticise? Personally I can’t write a single sentence without needing about 5 corrections.

This is all minor stuff, but nevertheless, possibly a consultation with a book designer could be a good idea for the hopefully forthcoming followup.

Also, this is not a criticism per se, but the book really is closely linked to the YouTube channel, both frequently cross-referencing each other, and I’m not sure it would be particularly attractive to a reader unfamiliar with the channel. Indeed, I’m not sure such a prospective reader would be willing to pay the quite high price. It would be nice to see some kind of follow-up in a more classic form, similar perhaps to “Quiet Light” by Gavin’s frequent YouTube collaborator, Adam Gibbs (who also contributes an in-theme foreword here).  But then again…

I ordered “Chasing Awe with Gavin Hardcastle”, and it took its time to cross the Atlantic by (sea)snail mail. But I devoured it from end to end within 6 hours of it being delivered. It’s a fun read, showcases great photography, has a real feelgood atmosphere, and all in all is breath of fresh air. Obviously, highly recomended.


*I’ve been gone a long time. Is that still a thing?

 

Sebastian Copeland - A Global Warning

is “autohagiography” a word?

in Book Reviews , Monday, March 29, 2021

I’m not quite sure how to approach this book review. Mainly because I’m not quite sure what drove its publication. Sebastian Copeland has been publishing eco-activist photography books about polar regions for a while now: “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev, “Antarctica, a Call To Action”, foreword by Orlando Bloom, “Arctica, The Vanishing North”, foreword by Sir Richard Branson, and now “Antarctica, The Waking Giant”, foreword by Leonardo di Caprio. Do you see a pattern emerging there?

Copeland cover

Let’s be clear, we need as much clear, informed, balanced and accessible information on the impact of climate change as we can get. But when this drifts towards self-glorification, I’m not sure it helps. For example, the various inventive ways which “explorers” find to establish firsts in Antarctica is getting a bit wearisome. Fine, it’s quite an accomplishment to be the first non-gender specific person to hop single-footed without airborne support (but with all kinds of emergency beacon…) from the Pole of Inaccessibility to Mawson’s Crack, but wrapping this up as some kind of environmental action is just mistaken - at best.

Sebastian Copeland is at least partly in that community. Apparently a fairly wealthy chap, he gets up to all sorts of escapades In The Name Of The Earth, roping in his famous buddies, and every now and then persuading a publisher (never the same one) to publish his latest selection of snapshots.

He may be on message, but he doesn’t put a lot of effort into broadcasting it. I recently watched a webinar he gave on “how can polar photography help bring about change?” under the umbrella of the Antarctica Now series run by the Shackleton clothing company. His presentation was shambolic. Even accepting that maybe some technical issues were out of his control, it was blatantly clear that he done zero preparation and was just winging it. He certainly did not address the topic of the presentation. He appeared to think it was enough that he had turned up. He’s a famous photographer, you see. The contrast with the effort put in by all other presenters in the week’s other presentations was stark.

So, ok, let’s ignore all that and look at the photography.  For a start, if you already happen to own “Antarctica, A Call To Action, Foreword By Orlando Bloom” (pub. 2009), then you may want to skip “Leonardo Di Caprio, The Waking Giant, Foreword By Antarctica” (pub. 2020), as it includes pretty much all the photos of the first book (itself a retread of “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev.”). Since Copeland is one of the few photographers to have ventured well into the East Antarctic plateau, it would have been interesting to see what a photographer could make of that unique landscape. Unfortunately we get very few photos of this area. Admittedly it is not obviously photogenic, but is certainly open to interpretation and imagination, and presents a challenge one might expect a truly talented photographer to rise to. Instead what we get are largely tourist-level snaps of the Antarctic Peninsula (and, to emphasise, a large number of these previously published), clumsily over processed to make things seem darker and gloomier than they really are, to fit in with a political message (and I’m saying this as somebody who is 200% onboard with the political message). I don’t want to sound arrogant, but frankly I’ve got better photos of Antarctica than most of these in my rejects pile.

This is then all interspersed with various diatribes on eco-disaster and confused popular science. Sebastian Copeland presents himself as a “climate analyst” but his Wikipedia entry states “Copeland began his career in New York City directing music videos before moving on to commercial directing as well as professional photography with credits including fashion and advertising, album covers, and celebrities”. Whatever, his explanation in “Antarctica, The Waking Giant” of why ice is blue is the most convoluted I’ve ever seen. Here’s a snippet: “unlike air, which contains all three colours, water holds only green and blue hues”.

Of course, I’m just an opinionated bad tempered old git with a vastly exaggerated idea of my own knowledge and skills, but you might want to consider what Michael Reichmann had to say about “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev.  And by the way, Gorby was pretty good at destroying the Soviet Union and abandoning its people with no backup plan, but I’m not sure of his credentials either as a photographer or a climate specialist. Finally, the list of testimonials on Copeland’s own website rather speaks for itself.

Copeland sos

The SOS image to my mind is particularly contrived as well as rather pointless. It puts me in mind of Spinal Tap’s stonehenge stage prop. The people involved in creating this montage were clearly somewhat at risk, needlessly so, and the fact that the whole contrivance is dwarfed by even this limited view of the landscape kind of negates the message. Reading Copeland’s account of how it was created, it’s difficult to understand given the complete failures of planning and logistics why he even discusses it. Of course, the same photo is repeated in all his books.

Don’t buy this book. It is not about Antarctica. It is not about climate change, It is about Sebastian Copeland’s need for acclaim. Probably he doesn’t get enough likes on Instagram.

To answer the question “how can polar photography help bring about change?”, I would rather refer you to the brilliant, softly spoken but hard hitting work of Olaf Otto Becker.  His beautiful photography - for example, “Above Zero”, from the Greenland Ice Sheet, is largely allowed to speak for itself. There was also real risk and danger involved in getting these photos, but Becker isn’t into self-glorification. Another commendable alternative would be Melting Away by Camille Seaman, to which the same criticism of over-darkened imagery could be applied, but at least is free of the whiff of hypocrisy and the self-glorification.

Persuading the world of the perils of climate change is a necessary and commendable activity. Grandstanding, attention grabbing and name dropping in order to build up a personal mythology, less so. That the photography all this is constructed around is at best unexceptional is neither here nor there in the wider scheme of things, but it certainly doesn’t help.

 

 

 

Another Place Press

happy birthday to you!

in Book Reviews , Monday, October 19, 2020

Time to confess to another addiction: Another Place Press photobooks.

APP is nearly 5 years old, and since its birth, has been a prodigiously frequent source of publications remarkable for their consistency of quality of both form and content. APP is run by Iain Sarjeant, himself a fascinating photographer, and has a focus is loosely aligned with Iain’s own work. I suppose I would describe this as an intersection between landscape, street and reportage, found also on the pages of the associated Another Place blog. The boundaries are clear, but with them there is vast room for a variety of voices, approaches, and styles.

APP follows certain guidelines: first, authors do not pay to get published. Second, costs and prices are kept under control by keeping formats small and fairly standard - although with plenty of scope for creative design. With some 40 books and short-form zines published, this seems to be a sustainable model. One can contrast with Triplekite Press, which sadly appeared to crash and burn under the weight of an unsustainable ambition (although I’m guessing, they never made any statement as far as I know).

While every APP book is different, they have certain things in common. Design and production standards are very high, layout and sequencing also. The cost of standard editions is usually well under £20, which is excellent value for money. If you want to get away from the Look At Me! world of Instagram, and the Look At My Gear! world of YouTube, reading and studying these photobooks is a path back to sanity and enjoying photography as art and personal expression.

I guess if one is looking for downsides, it could be said that the overall feel of the APP catalogue tends towards the melancholic. Being a miserable old git this strikes a chord with me, but perhaps limits the audience a little. Note however there are exceptions.

Personally while I enjoy and find inspiration in each book I buy, they do leave me with a certain sense of frustration that I cannot myself aspire to this level of coherent expression or quality of photography, but at least I can get some sense of residual satisfaction from supporting the authors and APP itself.

Generally I think the whole photo community owes a debt of gratitude to Iain Sarjeant for bringing the work of so many unsung talents to light, and for his dedication to this project. I’m sure it has been far from easy. Here’s to the next 5 years!

Postscript

I certainly haven’t bought every publication from the APP catalogue, but from those I have, here are 4 of my favourites:

photo of 4 books

 

 

For your reading pleasure

elitist, moi?

in Book Reviews , Friday, October 09, 2020

Some two years back, news emerged on the intrawebs of a new online magazine called MediumFormat.  This appeared to be a collective effort, with at its core, a terrible trio of Ming Thein, Lloyd Chambers and Patrick LaRoque. My immediate thought ws “there’s no way I’m going to pay money to read the shallow ramblings of these three tedious egomaniacs”, which may be seen as a little harsh, but is pretty much a reflection of my prickly personality. So I ignored it.

Fast forward to lockdown hell, when I was rapidly running out of displacement activities, I saw a reduced price offer on the magazine, giving access to the whole archive. Since it appeared that the influence of the above trinity had dwindled, and under editor Olaf Sztaba there seemed to be some depth of content, I took the plunge.

October2020

It was a good move. MediumFormat has rapidly progressed to become a genuinely interesting and very well curated magazine, with insightful interviews and articles featuring both well and lesser known photographers. It has also moved away from being technology oriented - recent issues have practically no gear content. The latest issue has raised the bar further with an interview with Michael Kenna, and clearly the plan is to carry on at that level.  Early issues confirm my personal opinion of Ming Thein as terminally dull and didactic. Patrick LaRoque continues to come across as somebody creating a stylish echo chamber to provide confirmation bias to insecure owners of Fuji cameras. At best, just an enthusiastic gear head.  However my opinion of Lloyd Chambers was pretty much reversed.  His website remains dreadful, but under a good editor he actually comes across as as a thoughtful, engaging chap and a pretty good photographer.  His technical articles in MediumFormat are genuinely useful, and quite approachable.

In fact MediumFormat puts me in mind of another undeservedly maligned magazine, to which I’ve subscribed for quite some time, LFI (Leica Fotografie International). I do not own any Leica cameras, and have no desire to change this. I have no axe to grind against Leica, but they do not produce any cameras which would comfortably address any needs I have. And in fact, LFI keeps the gear side of things well isolated at the back of the magazine. This part is indeed to be taken with a grain of salt, consisting mainly of hagiographic articles on Leica gear written in complete isolation from the rest of the market. Still, they’re entertaining at some level.

Umschlag EN

The rest of the magazine is something else entirely and comprehensively lays waste to the idea that Leicas are bought only as bling by elderly doctors, dentists or “The Chinese”. The photography portfolios are widely varied but almost always excellent, and come from a wide range of photographers, from legendary to (so far) unknown. The reasons for using Leica seem to be mainly down to usability.

While the linking attribute is the photographers use Leica cameras, this is not pushed at all in the text. Clearly pretty much all of the photography shown could have been taken with devices from other companies, here Leica is essentially used as a filter.  The playing field is also pretty level - certainly the cameras do not have to be current models, nor are more lowly models excluded. Forum trolls who constantly rag on Leica and Leica users could do worse than glance at a few copies of LFI.

I actually had the pleasure to meet some of the LFI editorial team a few years back, all shockingly young and enthusiastic. I mentioned to one that I could never afford a Leica, and the reply was “neither can I, but I love to see the work done by those that can”.

So, there you go. If either of these two magazines are mentioned online, most of the response will in the form of insults hurled at Leica, Hasselblad, etc and (especially) their owners. But if you are more interested in excellent, varied photography than silly partisan fanboy wars, you might like to give these a try.

 
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