Sunday, 23 March 2014

The good, the bad and the downright useless

Me at 15, Physics Department Darkroom,
Cardiff University
Many photographers in the past and now, have depended on good technical support. A good technician is worth a lot. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best and some awful experiences with the worst. I was a photographic technician myself for the first five working years of my life. I was very young and thrown into undertaking important support work for research students at a university, so no room for mistakes or months of work would be ruined. No pressure then! It was an object lesson in understanding what was required without any ambiguity, doing tasks properly and promptly to a high standard and anticipating the various needs. It gave me a great grounding in how to be part of a support team and a lifelong respect for and appreciation of, good technicians. 
Stickle Ghyll, Cumbria

I have always made my own prints and see it as being a seamless section of the whole process. I have also enjoyed learning all the various skills involved and having the maximum control over my work. I also enjoy the alchemy involved, whether it's the chemical or digital kind. However, for all kinds of reasons many well-known photographers have depended on printers for their work and there is no doubt that a good printer is priceless. An understanding of the photographer's work is vital and a sympathy with their style. 
Part of my darkroom chemical shelf

All technicians have their idiosyncrasies but all the good ones I have worked with are fastidious about orderly working methods and consistency. I worked with one who managed to run a very large set of excellent facilities in a university with over 300 students studying photography. How he and his small team did it I don't know. The demands were enormous but everything ran well and chemistry etc. never ran out and equipment always worked. 
Gwynedd, Wales

How different from an earlier experience when I worked as a guest lecturer in a small regional college. The technician there was the most incompetent buffoon that I have ever come across. Everything was constant chaos. Broken and missing equipment, darkrooms in disarray and the chemistry a mess. The students were desperate one afternoon for film developer. There was a queue waiting to process film and he had failed to keep stocks up. He winked at me and said, "watch my secret quick method of mixing developer". He took a 5L plastic bottle and placed it in the sink of a tiny chemical room with no extractor fan. He put a funnel made out of a sheet of stiff A4 paper in the neck of the jug. 
Another part of my darkroom chemical shelf
The next bit is complicated. He turned on the hot tap until it ran almost to boiling point and tipped both parts of the developer powder into the paper funnel; even though it's essential to fully dissolve one before the other. Very quickly he then swung the tap over the funnel, swirling the jug as a sort of attempt at a kind of mixing, while at the same time jabbing at the coagulating powder in the funnel with a wooden ruler to force it down. All this time the powder was blowing up around the room filling it with chemicals. All this had to be completed very quickly before the paper funnel disintegrated. He managed it in about 15 seconds. Quick indeed. What was now in the bottle however, was just a lot of undissolved powder in suspension, in a solution that was about 30 degrees too hot to use. He then went home. The students were distraught. I managed to salvage the situation by spending an hour or so stirring and shaking the solution and then placing the bottle outside in the snow for a while to cool to working temperature so the students could process their films. 

You may think that someone like this had no future. You would be wrong. He is now the chief technician in charge of the photographic department of a major police force. The mind boggles. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Location, location, location.........

Benbulben, Co. Sligo, Ireland
I am often asked if I have a favourite place or location to photograph. The simple answer is no, or more correctly, the location of the project that I happen to be involved with at the time. Once a project has passed, I always feel that the country or location has given me something in return for my efforts and I look back on the project with fondness. I really can't think of any place I have photographed that I would say 'never going there again'. I'm not sure if that's because I did my research well beforehand or because I became attached to the place as I discovered more about it.
Ty Bach Under a Tree, Tregaron, Ceredigion, Wales

It helps, I think, that I try to photograph in locations that are not always on the tourist trail, even if one exists in some of the places I have found myself. Most of my images are not necessarily about the most obvious aspects of a country or location, although some might be. It also helps that I try to immerse myself in the history, culture and topography of the country or region and by so doing heightens my interest in the place above my immediate photographic needs. In turn this fuels my interest in the place and almost always leaves me with indelible memories and knowledge. 
Pen Gelli Forest, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Very often, although the images I make will be my main point of reference in the future, other memories will linger too. Chance encounters with people on my travels, chance conversations that reveal much more than a casual passing through and area might reveal. Such things are what memories are made of. 

Nuraghi Ruins, Barbagia, Sardinia
In the wilds of the mountainous region of Sardinia for instance, two quite scary looking banditti appeared from nowhere when I was way 'off road' photographing, presumably on their land, some Nuraghi ruins I had spotted. I lifted the focussing cloth to see them looking sternly at me with their arms folded. I did what I always do when I am caught with my camera trespassing, I smiled broadly and said "good day", or in this instance, "buon giorno". They nodded grimly. This was one of those occasions when using a wooden 10" x 8" camera with a huge focussing cloth, black one side, Welsh flag the other has its advantages. You look a twit, but hopefully a harmless one. They pointed to the camera and then to my subject matter. Their English was non-existent but I gathered that they thought I was an archaeologist interested in the ruins. They then pointed to the Welsh flag side of the focussing cloth and recognised it. I think they said something about rugby or maybe Ryan Giggs, or both, I'm not sure. The ice was breaking anyway. 
Barbagia, Sardinia.

I invited them to look through the camera. They were apprehensive at getting under the cloth at first but they did, both of them, at the same time. Confused at first by the upside-down image but when it became clear they were like two excited kids. "Ah! Bellissima!" Watching two heads bobbing side by side under my focussing cloth will be a lasting memory. When they emerged from under they were both beaming. The bright sunlight glinting off their gold fillings as they grinned. From scary banditti to friendly goatherds in a few silly moments. Such encounters are part of what my treasured memories of places are made of.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Never join any club that would have you as a member......

I have never been a great 'joiner' of clubs or societies. In a way I subscribe to the old Groucho Marx wisecrack, "I would never join any club that would have me as a member". When I was getting very serious about my photography I was advised by someone who's opinion I respected, never to join a camera club, It was good advice. 
Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die!
Portrait of Mary Hillier, 1867, carbon print from copy negative.

Roger Fenton's photographic van
I should say that I am not averse to helping genuinely passionate young photographers. I have spent the last thirty five years teaching in various institutions and giving workshops and masterclasses around the country and the world. I like to think that I have helped many young (and older) people on their way to a professional career. I have also given many public lectures to institutions and art organisations around the world that have been well received and which I also found to be full of intelligent, interested and enthusiastic members. For some reason, photographic organisations are something else.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'Freddy Gould', 1866
I'm not sure which ones are worse, the amateur ones or the so-called professional bodies. I vaguely knew two members of the 'Master Photographers Association'. One was a postman and the other a bus driver. I'm not quite sure what they were supposed to be 'masters' of. There is another body or institute I think but if it is still around it has dropped way off my radar. In a way these organisations don't do any great harm, the same cannot be said for others.

The Royal photographic Society has been around a long time. I suppose at one time in the dim and distant past it had some credibility. Many prominent Victorian photographers helped form the society and then entrusted and donated their work to it, so it became the repository for much of the best work of the era. Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Francis Bedford, Lewis Carrol, Edweard Muybridge, Frederick Evans, etc. etc. etc. In reality, a huge chunk of our photographic heritage and legacy.
Edweard Muybridge, Motion Study

Sadly, for many years this was buried in the damp cellars of their London premises, un-catalogued, not conserved, out of sight and out of bounds to all but a few within the society. They treated the archive as their own personal property, not as an important national treasure and refused access to even the most distinguished photographic historians and academics. A number of so-called photography historians built  false reputations by using this archive but then refused access to others outside the society so their writings would never be peer reviewed and critiqued with reference to the primary sources. Open access since has thankfully demolished much of the credibility of their writings. It was a restriction of academic freedom not to allow access to distinguished non-member academics and the physical destruction of a unique collection.  A double tragedy. The reality was that a huge part of the collection, not just individual prints but whole albums were, with no conservation programme in place, quite literally, rotting away in the cellars. 

Frederick Evans, Wells Cathedral
We will never know what has been lost as they consistently refused access and the priceless collection was never properly catalogued. We can only speculate but needless to say they are irreplaceable. 

To say that this was a national scandal would be to understate the case. Imagine the outcry if it became known that, say, the National Gallery had allowed their collection of Turners, Constables, Reynolds and Gainsboroughs etc. to rot in a damp storeroom? What the RPS did to their collection was the photographic equivalent of this. 

When they moved to their ludicrous and ridiculously overblown premises in Bath and asked for financial aid, this was rightly refused until they handed over the soggy remnants of this fine collection. Most of what remains was transferred to the National Media Museum, Bradford, where it was conserved and catalogued but most importantly, freely accessible to all. It has now been transferred again to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The RPS has no role at all now except to attempt to sell its utterly worthless, so-called 'distinctions' to gullible members of camera clubs. 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Long-haired yobs

If you are involved in any profession or creative media for long enough, you are bound to observe and experience transformations over a period of time that profoundly change your chosen employment or occupation. I have been involved with photography for long enough to see many such changes over the years.  Some important milestones I have been fortunate enough to witness first hand, to 'be part of history' so to speak. Not because I was or am particularly important, I have just been around a long time and have become involved. On a number of these occasions the importance of those events did not become obvious until years later.
'Murmurs At Every Turn' by Raymond Moore, 1981

One such was the Raymond Moore exhibition at the Welsh Arts Council in Cardiff in 1968. I attended the opening but I didn't realise at the time that it was the first one-person exhibition of a living photographer organised by an arts council in the UK. It helped to change the status of photography at a crucial time for British photographers. Later he became a very respected photographer and teacher who helped changed attitudes towards photography in the UK. Sadly, since his death his work seems to have dropped off the radar a little, due in part to unseemly legal squabbles over his estate. It should and deserves to be seen more. Apparently, my hardback, signed, first edition copy of one of his books is now worth silly money. 

Creative Camera Owner, October 1967
Another occasion when I was present at an event that changed photography was also a chance happening. Bill Jay was editing the then seminal and evolving 'Creative Camera Owner'. This had changed from a largely amateur publication - 'Camera Owner' and was undergoing the transformation into 'Creative Camera' by stages. Even the size of the words 'creative' and 'owner' on the cover marked that transition. Creative Camera became a unique publication and a respected and influential magazine for many years. I have almost every copy and they are treasured. Bill later founded and edited 'Album' magazine in 1970.
Creative Camera Owner, December 1967

He also organised talks by prominent photographers if they happened to be in London. These, combined with the work to be seen in 'Creative Camera' and 'Album' provided a unique opportunity at that time to both see and hear about great photography by great photographers. Bill somehow persuaded the Royal photographic Society to lend him a room in their London premises for these talks. For a young(ish) photographer like me at the time they were very influential. The talks were well attended by like-minded young photographers, the new generation if you like. 

I would sneak off my work in the photography studio a bit little bit early to catch the train from Cardiff to London, just to attend these evening talks. I would then return on the (very) late overnight 'milk' train, snoozing most of the way to catch up with sleep, to be back and working at the studio by 8am. It was clear however that many at the RPS were not too happy about hosting these. I can't remember who the speaker was that night but the keen and expectant audience, many like me had also travelled a long way, were waiting in a corridor and there was some mix-up with the room. A very irritated and impatient grey suited RPS official really didn't like all these eager young people cluttering up the premises even though they had come to hear, see and learn about great photography. (Because of my involvement in photography education in future years, I happen to know that many in that audience went on to become world-leading photographers). He shooed us away as if we were dirty farm animals that had strayed on to his neatly manicured lawn and uttered the immortal words that changed the influence of that organisation on British photography for ever. "Get these long-haired yobs out of my corridor". 
First edition of 'Album' edited by Bill Jay

With nowhere to host these well-attended talks Bill Jay approached the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the Mall, London, who immediately offered a free room. The popularity of these talks and the enthusiasm for this exciting new wave of British photography was noticed by a young curator there - Sue Davies. She responded to this by founding the Photographers' Gallery and the rest, as they say, is history. The RPS is now (and was then) a total irrelevance and the Photographers' Gallery continues to flourish and influence.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Forgery or alchemy?

Large triptychs on exhibition in Laas, Italy
When I'm deciding on the appropriate size for the exhibition prints of a particular body of work, a large number of factors come in to play. How I wish the work to be viewed is the main consideration, this can include the style of presentation too. The exhibition space obviously dictates both size and quantity and with a touring exhibition one frequently has to devise different edits for venues that may vary in size. 

Small B&W and large colour prints on exhibition, Vermont, USA.

To frame or not to frame, style of frame, are all part of the decision - making process one has to make as part of the exhibition process. 

You also have to factor in costs of course. Large prints 
cost large amounts of money. Transporting these both within the UK and abroad involves great expense and logistical problems. I have been very lucky in recent years to receive grants from numerous arts bodies and to deal with galleries that take care of all this. The financial assistance combined with prints sales has enabled me to produce prints to whatever size and style I think fits the project and gallery space. 

'Wildwood' exhibition at the Fotomuseum, Antwerp

Mostly, the logistics are taken care of by the various venues.  I have also been lucky with sponsorship from photographic companies who provided materials and equipment over the years and at one time I had a sponsored car too.

There was a time however when I wasn't as fortunate and had to count the pennies - literally. I remember as a young teenager looking longingly at packets of 10" x 8" paper in the photo shop and wishing I could afford to print to that size instead on the little 3 1/4" x 4 1/4 " paper that was all I could afford. Then I hit on a plan. Someone in the chemistry department of the university where I was working told me that used fixer - 'hypo', would turn a copper coin silver if I dropped it in. The silver that the fixer had dissolved from the exposed film or paper would deposit itself on to the coin. I tried it and it worked. It was only microns thick of course and tarnished and wore off quickly but I had already worked out how I might make a bit of money with this. 

The old pre-decimal UK penny was similar in size to the old half crown. If you are from outside the UK or too young to remember, I'm not going to go into details about the old UK pounds, shillings and pence currency. Suffice to say a half-crown was worth thirty times the old penny. Trouble was, the penny was copper and the half crown was a silver coin. Ok, you have already guessed! Armed with a silvered penny made in my darkroom I would get upstairs on the bus from Splott into town, preferably after dark when it was gloomy. The regular fare was 5d. I would proffer the silvered penny and get, most of the time, 2s 1d change. Sometimes I got a clout from the conductor but I always made sure I had enough for the fare if I got caught. A few bus journeys and I had made enough for my packets of 10" x 8" paper. Luckily I don't have to resort to such criminality today!

Friday, 7 March 2014

Going platinum

I have never been a great fan of so-called 'alternative processes' in photography.  The work  of all those photographers who dabbled in salt prints, bromoils, cyanotype, gum bichromate etc. etc. never interested me. I was never keen on the actual photographs these people made and those processes always appeared to be an attempt to disguise the fact they they were photographs. I suppose in a way I am a wee bit of a purist about the photographic image. I like photographs to look like photographs. 

Having said that, there are two other processes, apart from the traditional silver / gelatin print for black and white or chromogenic print for colour that I do love. 
Francis Bedford, Aberystwyth, The Parade and Beach, 1860's

I have a couple of beautiful prints by Francis Bedford. They date from the 1860's and are views of Wales. They are both gold-toned albumen prints and are still in near perfect condition, a testament to his processing, (or his assistants) at the time and the efficacy of gold-toning. They are contact prints, full of detail and have a lovely dull sheen to the surface.

The albumen printing process introduced by Blanquart-Everard in 1850 came about at the same time as negative making improved and the rendition of fine detail. In particular the introduction of the wet collodion process by Frederick Scott-Archer. The combination of a contact print made on albumen paper from a wet plate negative still has a beauty and charm that is hard to beat today.

My second love is for platinum prints. In many ways I suppose for the same reason. Its rendition of detail and surface lustre is lovely. With platinum you also have the extra bonus of a longer tonal scale. They are also almost always contact prints from the original negatives as it is a printing-out process. 
Cader Idris, platinum print

This is one process that I have used myself, in just one body of work some years ago I made a limited edition of ten platinum prints as a part of it. When I was making the 'Cader Idris' work I noticed that there was one part of the mountain that most walkers raced past without really noticing in the race to 'get to the top'. I determined to make some work around this short stretch in a way that would engage the viewer to observe it a little more closely. I also wrote a 'haiku' for each of the photographs that was included with the portfolio.
Cader Idris, platinum print
Reproductions never quite do justice to the quality of originals of course and is probably one of the reasons I encourage people to visit museums and galleries to see originals. Many public collections also have print rooms where you can handle the originals and examine them without the intrusion of frame and glass. Nothing beats it. 
'Cader Idris' platinum portfolio
'Cader Idris' platinum portfolio

If I wasn't so busy with other projects at the moment I would pick up this process again. It's one that needs a setting aside of plenty of time so will be something for the future. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The race to the bottom

Having written about the decline of income for stock photographers yesterday, I open up the discussion forum of a well-known picture library this morning to find a debate raging about one library now giving away certain work for blog and online editorial use. Naturally there is uproar on the forum and I do genuinely feel for those photographers who are going to lose out. I suppose it's another reason for me to be grateful that I don't rely on this particular aspect of the photographic 'industry' for a living or a major part of it. 

The stock library in question waffles about 'encouraging advertising' and 'monetising certain content' (whatever that means, sounds like marketing speak, something I have never understood). The bottom line for photographers though is that their work will be given away and used for free.

We understand that markets have changed and the publication and consumption of all kinds of art forms have undergone a radical transformation over recent years. However, there seems to me to be a basic right that the creators of works of art, in any medium, have a right to a reasonable return on their creations. They should also have a right not to see these 'stolen'. Breach of copyright is theft, pure and simple but the attitude is that if you steal an image from the web or copy a cd that it's ok. In turn this leads to a lack of respect for any created artefact and the notion that 'if it's out there' then it's public property. 

Until the 1988 copyright act came into force, photographers were very much discriminated against. The 1956 act's wording did not grant, automatically the copyright to the creator of a work. Markets and technology has changed dramatically since then so it does need tightening up now. However, the solution still lies largely in what creative people allow to happen.

Fish & Chip cafe sign, Conwy, North Wales
We know it's hard making a living and maybe sometimes we let work go 'on the cheap' to make a sale or build up a reputation. There has to be a limit though. If you think your work is worth something then you owe it to your own self-respect to hold out for a reasonable return. Of course there will always be someone who will 'do it cheaper'. There always has been and always will, that should not prevent the true professional from being just that, professional. That includes expecting a reasonable professional fee for work undertaken or use of copyrighted material. Unless of course you are happy to live on the breadline, or on fish and chips.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Taking stock..........

I have been lucky to have earned my living from photography all my working life. Others dream of this and always have. Even all those years ago when I was working in Cardiff, there were always young people knocking on the studio door wanting a job - my job. 
Chateau Vaux Le Vicomte, Maincy, France.

Photography has always appeared on the surface to be an 'easy' way to make a living. Until, that is, the reality kicks in and it dawns on them that it's hard graft. It always has been. You also get those who don't want to commit to full time graft so think they can make a few pounds extra at the weekend. It used to be the wedding photography amateurs. The friend with a half-decent camera to do it 'on the cheap'. I suppose they are still about.
National Botanic Garden of Wales

The proliferation of cameras, phones with cameras and image sharing on the internet has seen a huge increase in the number of individuals making photographs now. No bad thing as I have always believed in photography as a democratic medium. However, alongside this is the belief that it is now easier than ever to make a living.
The proliferation of images and of those making images that they think are 'saleable' has, ironically, made it even harder to earn a decent living from photography. The market is now flooded with 'stock' images that can be bought for a dollar from 'microstock' picture libraries. The amateurs of course are happy to let their images go for peanuts as it satisfies their craving to at least pretend to be professional. The actual reality of earning a living doesn't come into it.

Harlech Castle, Wales
Stock photography has never been anything like even a small part of my 'commercial' output over the years. I have, from time to time subscribed to stock picture libraries if I happen to have images from my travels that might suit. In the eighties it provided a welcome small addition to my income but I was never interested in pursuing that aspect of photographic work. I had other things to do. I admire those who do however, and there are a few who, by hard work and producing a consistently high standard of work over many years who manage to make a living. They are a tiny minority and always have been. There are many more for whom stock photography provides a part of their overall income. Even these photographers are finding that they have to be producing many more images to even maintain the same level of income year on year as prices continue to plummet. 
Mantes-la-Jolie, France
I was looking through some of my library returns from the mid 1980's and the average licence fee for one of my photographs through the library was just over £100. My share was less their 50% commission of course. Nevertheless, a worthwhile income even then. Translate those prices to today and to equal that the average sale would probably have to be triple. The reality is that it is half, or probably a lot less. Some calculations give the average income per annum from stock photographs as being a dollar for each image you may have with a library and probably dropping. To even add substantially to your income would take many thousands of images lodged with a library. Take off the costs of making special trips just for stock photography and it soon becomes uneconomic.

The chances of anyone new building up a business based just on stock photography is virtually nil. Shame really as the lifestyle appeals to many who do not wish to be tied down by commissions and deadlines.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Even more books.......

My last exhibition catalogue and the 'Wildwood' book signalled both a change in my photography and the technology of printing. 

The work in Sardinia was the last that I undertook in black and white and the technology used to make the printing plates  was the traditional photo litho method. It was printed 'in house' at Aberystwyth University School of Art on an aging offset press. The technician however did a great job coaxing out some wonderful reproductions. 
'Sardinia' exhibition catalogue, 2001

The University of Wales has a great tradition of fine printing with the Gregynog Press, based at Gregynog House near Newtown. It is still producing wonderful hand bound volumes on presses that use hot metal type for the text and more often than not, woodcuts and etchings for the illustrations. 

 In the past I have been accused of being a little conservative in adopting new technologies but actually this is not true. What I believe is that we should embrace the new for its benefits and additional possibilities, while continuing to appreciate older methodologies for the qualities they have. They are not mutually exclusive. I have always learned and adopted any technique or technology if I felt it would help or enhance my work. 

Many people thought I was incapable of photographing or printing in colour because for many years I simply chose to work in black and white. While they appreciated my skills at black and white printing they seemed to forget that I had been printing in colour for commercial work since the mid sixties. Colour printing then was a long, laborious process. It involved five baths of unpleasant chemicals and took nearly an hour excluding drying the print. I must have spent, in total, many months in the colour darkroom if you were to tot up the hours churning out thousands of prints over the years. I always feel that I am pickled in formaldehyde. (One of the fixing baths contained this). 
Laying out the 'Wildwood' book

My change then to working in colour for the 'Wildwood' work was, from a technical point of view an easy transition. I made work prints in the darkroom and these were used as reference prints by the lab when they made the large exhibition prints. I also used them for editing the book layout and sequence as they closely matched to size of the reproductions on the page.

I had learned some scanning techniques and had access to a large format negative scanner that could handle the 10" x 8" negatives. This meant that I maintained control of the images and just sent scans off to the publishers. In turn they did a great job and when the proofs came back they needed little or no adjustments. One of the times when the benefits of (relatively) new technology comes to the aid of traditional image making. 

'Wildwood' book, double page spread.

'In Wildwood' book. Lars Muller publishers, 2008

From initial layout to finished book was a seamless and hassle-free process. I am grateful to Lars Muller publishers in Switzerland for their sympathetic handling of my subject matter and the professionalism of their staff and organisation.