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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?

 

Best Cameras For Landscape Photography

it’s not what you think…

in General Rants , Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Recently the photonet has thrown up a couple of pieces aiming to list the Best Cameras For Landscape Photography. Both DP Review and Photography Life have pretty much concluded that you must have a very big and expensive digital camera to do landscape photography, and frankly, if you don’t have a $10’000 Fuji GFX100, you might as well give up. I will say that DP Review have rebalanced things a bit with a video demonstrating that you can get excellent results with a basic DSLR, but the general theme, as ever, is that for some vague reason, “landscape” photography demands huge resolution.  Leaving aside the fact that neither list includes any camera I own, which frankly doesn’t bother me, this peer pressure pushing people to buy unnecessarily complex and expensive gear makes me angry.  Gear-oriented discussion of Landscape photography comes with a number of tired, ungrounded clichés, which apart from the ridiculous and ever increasing demand for megapixels, includes equating Landscape with “wide angle”, with ultra high end lenses, and huge backpacks.

Frankly it’s all rubbish. Just a couple of years ago people were salivating over 16 megapixel cameras, and winning awards with photos taking with 35mm film.  Those ancient cameras still work, and if your photos (or indeed my photos) are no good at 16, or even 6, megapixels, they’re not going to be any better at 100. You’re just going to have a lot less money to be able to spend on travelling around to actually enjoy photography.

And speaking of travelling, airline carry-on bag dimensions and weight are constantly decreasing. If you like to have a reasonable selection of focal lengths to chose from, even “full frame” is going to become troublesome.  There’s not much point in having that super mega camera or that super bright telephoto lens if you can’t afford to travel with them.

Of course sometimes the biggest and best is justified, but either because somebody else is paying, or because you’re wealthy.  And even then, the difference in outcome is often not much more than size.  Take Julian Calverly for example: while he does a lot of commercial work with a medium format system - where he actually needs tilt shift lenses - he also produces equally fabulous work using an iPhone.

Far be it for me to lay down the law, but I’m just passing on my experience - I spent too many years in the gear acquisition hamster wheel, and frankly it has bought me very little lasting pleasure. If I look at my favourite photos, there is no correlation whatsoever with the perceived quality of whatever camera I was using. Actually most of the few photos I have which have received external praise, and even generated income, were taken using a 5Mpix camera.  A camera which just happened to have excellent ergonomics.

And that’s the key really - the best camera for your landscape photography is the one you feel the most comfortable with, which will get out of the way and allow you to concentrate on the photography. The so-called “image quality” is close to irrelevant, as pretty much all cameras today are well past good enough.  And what differences there are are far from linear - a $10’000 Fuji GFX does not have image quality 10 times greater than a $800 Fuji X-T30. In fact in many cases you’d have to look very closely to see any difference.

My advice is simple - keep the weight down, and buy something digital with weather sealing. The rest will take care of itself.

 

Valle Verzasca

landscape heaven

in essay , Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This article was first published in OnLandscape in November 2015 (Issue 102). Since OnLandscape is a (very worthwhile and value for money) pay site, it wasn’t available for general view. Well, now, with a few modifications, it is.

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The geography of Switzerland is dominated by the East-West high alpine ridges that split the country into Northern and Southern parts. The Northern part is where the major cities and industrial centres are located. The Alps themselves are the home of spectacular highlights like the Eiger, the Matterhorn, or the Aletsch Glacier. But the Southern side is a little less well known, and has a quite distinct character. South of the Rhone Valley and the Gotthard massif lies the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino. And while Ticino certainly has it’s fair share of tall peaks, the highlights, geographically speaking, are to be found in and around a series of glacial valleys descending from the high snowfields, with tumbling rivers feeding into the Maggiore Lake. Any one of these valleys, including the Maggia, Calanca, and the Centovalli, would keep most landscape photographers busy for years, but the jewel in the crown, and the subject of this article, is the Valle Verzasca, through which the river of the same name runs.

The Verzasca valley is around 25km long, stretching due south down from the village of Sonogno, through an endless sequence of cascades, rapids and gullies until it reaches the artificial Lake Vogorno. This is created by a spectacular dam, the Diga di Contra, which was the scene for the opening sequence of the James Bond film Goldeneye, and today is famous for its terrifying bungee jump. Having passed the dam, the river threads its way in a more leisurely fashion before emptying into Lake Maggiore, a few km away from the city of Locarno.

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I defy any landscape photographer with a pulse to get further than a third of the way up the valley without demanding to stop. Even if the temptations of the artificial lake can be resisted, with the clusters of old town houses clinging to one steep side, and the emerald green waters of the lake lapping up against the forests that plunge down to the other side, once you pass the church at Berzona (carefully!) and enter the upper valley, the scenes that unfold are irresistible.

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The bedrock of the Verzasca river is mainly gneiss, and over the millennia this has been eroded by the current to reveal fantastic banding and layering patterns in the rock, which in turn has been sculpted into spectacular forms. Add to this the transparent dark green and emerald waters, a sprinkling of reflected light from the surrounding forests, and any one location could keep you busy for a week. And there are countless such locations. I am fortunate enough to live close enough to the valley to visit pretty much on a whim, and have been doing so for 15 years, but even so, on each visit I discover somewhere or something new.

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The nature of the landscape suits it to a variety of styles, from wide angle vistas all the way down to very intimate details. For some reason, very little has turned up the way of photographic publications from the area, but one book I have found, Pietre in valle Verzasca, by Mario De Biasi, concentrates mainly on detail studies of small scale rock patterns and formations. You can embrace, or leave out, the water. You can feature the surrounding chestnut forests, especially in Autumn, or crop them out. You can pick a short stretch of the river and get to know how all the little details of the flow change with the seasons and the water level. The water level is very variable, and this often leads to certain compositions being quite unrepeatable.

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After Berzona the valley contracts very noticeably, and you start to get glimpses of the river. You can also see the village of Corippo, the smallest municipality in Switzerland, clinging precariously to the opposite slope. Corippo is well worth a visit: the whole village is protected as a Swiss Heritage Site, and remains largely untouched. It was not even accessible by road until the end of the 19th century.

Some of my favourite haunts are found soon after the Corippo crossroads. This part of the river is dynamic and fast moving, and it’s well worth taking a little time to discover paths down to the rocks. A word of warning, though, which applies to the whole valley: be very careful, the rocks are very slippery when wet, and are prone to accumulate black ice the winter. You do not want to fall into that river, even in the summer. It has very strong currents and is very cold. And, sadly, it claims victims every year. Take your time, don’t go down in the gorge alone, and don’t take unnecessary risks. The water level can also change frighteningly quickly, and it is all too easy to get trapped. Since Switzerland is not much of a nanny state, and assumes you can take care of yourself, you won’t find many handrails, but there are an increasing number of warning notices in the parking areas.

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Up until now I’ve managed to completely avoid any mention of the number one attraction of the valley, the village of Lavertezzo. Let’s be clear, you’d probably be best advised to avoid Lavertezzo in the summer, unless of course your photography extends to a more Martin Parr-like style. Lavertezzo is totally gorgeous, but it is completely overrun in summer, even to the extent that large tour busses manage to get there (totally insane in my opinion, and I’ve seen some stuck in the narrow, tight hairpins at the mouth of the valley more than once). However, should you find it at a quiet moment, you’ll find it hard to ignore. The village itself is pretty, but the main attraction is the area just below it, where the river has cut channels of all shapes and sizes through a wide platform uplifted gneiss. Overlooking this is a high, narrow twin arched stone bridge dating from the 17th Century. I described Lavertezzo in a little more detail in an article I wrote back in 2009.

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The human history of Valle Verzasca has, up until the mid–20th Century, been one largely of poverty and subsistence farming. Being a closed valley, it generally attracted less attention from invaders than surrounding regions, and was something of a safe haven. It came under the control, variously, of the Swiss Confederation and various Northern Italian kingdoms, but was always heavily under dominion of the Catholic church. It was also pretty much uninhabitable in the winter, and then the population moved down to the Magadino plain, along with their livestock. Some reminder of this is still evident in place names today, for example you will find the village of Lavertezzo Piano near the foot of the Verzasca, to where the population of Lavertezzo retreated from the snows.

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The forests surrounding the valley have a large proportion of chestnut trees. These were actually planted in the Middle Ages, and provided a critical contribution to the people’s diet. Chestnut flour is still a treasured traditional ingredient in Ticino. However, a blight leading to failed crops bought famine in the late 19th century, leading to mass immigration from the valley, and other surrounding areas, to North and South America, and to Australia. The museum at Sonogno, as well as the one at Cevio in Vallemaggia, document this period. The result was a massive crash in the population, which was far higher than today. If you follow the mountain paths from any of the villages, you quite often come across the ruins of long-abandoned hamlets invaded by the forests. It can be quite moving to sit and imagine the lives of the long-gone inhabitants of these forgotten villages. And of course, there lies another whole world of photographic opportunity.

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Upstream of Lavertezzo the river widens, and rushes over a series of rapids. This area is more interesting for the colours of the larch forests in Autumn, and for a number of quite spectacular waterfalls on the west side of the valley. But the next part is perhaps the richest of all from a photographic perspective. Below the village of Brione, the river drops about 50m over a couple of kilometres, threading its way through a field of huge boulders. You see the end of this stretch where the road crosses the river, about 5km from Lavertezzo. The east bank of this stretch is accessible from a footpath which runs from the bridge all the way up to Brione. Getting to the river itself, or to the west bank, requires a bit of dedicated scrambling, but it’s well worth it. It would take a decade to run out of opportunities here.

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From Brione itself a quiet side valley heads off to the west, the Val d’Osura. This has a quite different character, with the river sluicing over wide limestone shelves. It’s an easy hike up the narrow, largely car-free road, and well worth a detour. The main valley continues up to the village of Sonogno, where it splits. This is also the end of the road for cars, and for the Post Bus. Both branches of the valley are worth exploring, but my favourite is the westerly one, known as Val Retorta, which has many more landscape marvels to offer, and leads eventually to Püscen Negro, the highest village in the valley, now abandoned and never connected to the outside world.

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In summary, if you’re looking for a location which can offer both boundless photographic potential, and also plenty to entertain non-photographer members of the family, this is it. But be warned, you won’t want to leave.

 

 

Shooting the rapids

august outings

in Photography in Ticino , Friday, September 04, 2015

Like a moth to a flame, I can’t keep away. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent several evenings in various locations in Valle Verzasca, searching for that perfect photo which encapsulates it all. Needless to say, I haven’t found it yet, but here are some of my latest attempts.

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Some of these were processed in CaptureOne, the rest in Lightroom. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.


Off for a short break in Southern Italy now. Normal service will be resumed in due course.

 

 

Norway

let’s get started

in Photography , Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The last 6 months have been pretty turbulent on the personal front, and although it remains a constant presence, photography, and especially dedicated photography time, has taken a major step backwards. I think I can count the number of shots I’ve taken on a tripod this year on the fingers of both hands… well, maybe I’d have to include a foot or two. So, although I wasn’t treating my trip to Norway in June as photographic in any shape or form, so far it has turned out to be pretty much the main source of new images for me this year.

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This is one of those very few photos which I gave more than a few seconds though to. Even though, it is basically a roadside grab shot. And actually this particular photo isn’t going to make it into the final selection I’m working on, so it’s getting a consolation prize of being featured here.

It’s also quite unusual these days for me to make a straightforward landscape photo, which I guess this is, even if it’s pretty dull.

Norway is a country I’m discovering very slowly, through short chunks here and there. But it’s a pretty fabulous place, even if at times so similar to Switzerland that I wonder if I’m being a bit perverse. After all, why travel 2500km to explore a landscape that’s so reminiscent of the one on my doorstep? Well, Norway is at least less expensive than Switzerland (no, really, it is!).

I’m planning to add a Norway gallery pretty soon, and there are 7 rolls of XPan frames to consider too. So I guess it’s going to be a bit of a theme over the coming weeks and months.

 

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