Saturday, 26 April 2014

Never mind the width, feel the quality

In a recent blog I discussed the almost monoculture of the digital image among younger photographers. Not because I am a Luddite or anti progress in technical terms, but due to my sadness that a lot of people are missing out on the various qualities that a photographic image can possess. I say 'various' qualities because most often you hear the term 'quality' in discussions about equipment and it seems to be taken for granted now that there is only one 'quality' by which to compare various makes of cameras and lenses and that is digital quality. I think that's a shame.
Three of my Leicas of different vintages. IIIF from 1955 on the right. 
M2 from 1965 on the left and an M9P from 2012 centre. 

It's true of course that if the final destination of an image is the computer screen, newspaper or magazine page, many subtleties are lost. This has always been true however and it is only by enjoying the variations of qualities in original prints can you appreciate these. 

Photographers used to argue about the relative qualities and differences between, say, Leica and Nikon lenses by looking at prints. Some might argue for the 'sharpness' of a Nikon lens over the perceived smoother quality of the Leica. Tiny, subtle differences that would be lost in newspaper or magazine printing. I was always a Leica person for my 'personal' work, mostly seen as original exhibition prints, although I used Nikons for the 'commercial' stuff I undertook.
My Rolleiflex 'T'

The differences in print quality could also be observed as one used differing formats too of course. 99% of my recent work is undertaken using 10" x 8" but I have also enjoyed and appreciated using other formats over the years. 

Using larger formats is not always just about the extra quality gained, although this will always be an important factor. The actual size and shape of the camera and its format also affects how one approaches and renders any particular subject. I always had a fondness for the square format. Cropping a rectangular image to be square doesn't quite feel the same or work in the same way as composing with a square format camera.
Barber's Shop, Bridge Street, Cardiff, 1969

Making a portrait with a Leica or similar will elicit a different response from the subject than if they were photographed with a larger camera on a tripod. Place an 8" x 10" camera in front of someone and they take notice. You make a different kind of photograph. These various strategies for making images are as an integral part of the process as the look and feel of the final print. You, as a photographer also approach the subject in a different way if you use different equipment. Vilelm Flusser discussed this in his little volume entitled 'Towards a Philosophy of Photography'. With 99% of photographers now using DSLR's these differences of approach have been negated. 

Thankfully I am in the happy position of still being able to use whatever format, approach and medium I feel is appropriate for the project in hand and I have acquired, over many years, the skills to use and appreciate these and their various qualities. 
I'd like to think that the differing qualities of formats and materials still has a place in photography for those who appreciate them and the photograph as an object and in original, hand-made print form. Let's hope we never lose this. There are signs that the pendulum is beginning to swing back a little with sales of silver-based materials rising again from a low point. It would be a shame to see all those wonderful qualities being lost. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Back into the dark..........

I'm often told, mainly by people who don't know me very well but know I'm a photographer , that "no-one uses film and darkrooms any more do they? Especially now that Kodak has gone bust". When I correct them on both points they usually think I'm nuts, or lying, or both and change the subject. No point in wasting time showing them my (expensive) boxes of recently purchased Kodak 10" x 8" film  or my well-equipped and still well-used darkroom. I leave them to wallow in their ignorance. As for my stock of Ilford black and white film and paper, plus my extensive chemical stock, I don't even bother to go there with them. 
From the series, 'Great Little Tin Sheds of Wales'.
Selenium toned, gelatin - silver print

Just lately I happen to have caught on radio or read articles recently about a number of photographers who have been speaking about their love of darkroom work and the notion of the unique quality of the silver-gelatin print. For many of us, that first magical experience of seeing an image appear in the developing dish in the gloom of the darkroom was what hooked us. 
Part of my darkroom sink

As Sara J Coleman noted in her article about Magnum printer Pablo Inirio, 'Over the last fifteen years, almost every photographer I've interviewed has waxed poetic about that "magical" experience of seeing an image develop in chemicals for the first time. You have to wonder whether today's young photographers will rhapsodize as much about the first time they color-calibrated their monitors'. 

For some reason, in photography, everyone has assumed that the digital / inkjet process has totally supplanted the silver / chemical processes. This does not appear to happen in any other creative medium. You hear painters discuss the relative merits of the various media they have access to; gouache, watercolour, acrylic, oils, etc. Plus the many drawing mediums such as pencil, charcoal, crayon. Sculptors talk about the different qualities of wood, marble, stone, bronze etc. When a new material or process becomes available to them, they see it as a bonus addition, not a complete replacement of the existing. They select the appropriate medium according to the piece of work and its intended destination or the idea they are hoping to express. 
7" x 5" & 10" x 8" enlargers in a corner of my darkroom

There appears to be a new generation of photographers now who have no desire to even begin to understand or use anything other than digital media. While it may be appropriate for a lot of their work, I struggle to understand their total lack of interest or any desire to engage with other aspects of photographic media.  

They are excluding themselves from a rich seam of creativity and expression. Not to mention a still - growing and important market for fine prints. I don't think many of the collectors who acquire my work would be very impressed if I tried to palm them off with an ink-jet print. Even if I gave it a false fancy name so beloved by galleries trying to con clients. - 'giclee'. (It's French for spray, get over yourselves)!
Barbagia, Sardinia.
Selenium toned, gelatin - silver print

I'm glad that I am of that generation who came through some of the big changes in photographic techniques. I saw the huge shift from B&W work in both the commercial world and documentary photography. We learned new techniques and adapted. Ditto with the shifts to digital. I now have all those skills to hand and can use them as appropriate for various bodies of work. I wouldn't have it any other way. Now, I have to get back to my darkroom.............