Saturday, 14 November 2015

The curse of the camera club

Phillip Jones-Griffiths 1936 – 2008 
A few days ago I gave a talk to a historical society in North Wales. After the talk, which was well attended and well received, I was approached by three separate individuals who asked if I would also talk to their respective societies. To the first two, educational and civic societies, I immediately said yes, but due to many past experiences, I reserved my decision on the third, a local North Wales camera club, until I had probed a bit. "Have you all been to see the Phillip Jones-Griffiths exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth" I asked, already having pretty much guessed the answer. Shocked look. "Oh no, no, too far to go." "What?" I said, "It's in Aberystwyth, not Abyssinia. Less that two hours from here to see the biggest retrospective exhibition of probably the greatest compassionate and influential photojournalist to come out of the UK and he was from North Wales. A Welsh-speaking local boy. Not just his wonderful work from Vietnam and around the world", I said, "but vintage prints, contact sheets, notebooks, and correspondence with the great magazines at the time, plus his equipment and archives are on show. A unique opportunity, all this will never be seen together again". "Hmm", he said, "we don't really bother unless it's very local". "Well," I said, "I'm afraid I don't bother to talk to people who can't be bothered themselves". So once again, history repeated itself pretty much as expected and I said no to a camera club.

Over the years, presumably because of my various national and international exhibitions, publications and academic reputation, I have been asked to give talks at camera clubs all over the UK and I almost always refuse. Not out of a sense of aloofness or superiority, as teaching and enthusing young (and older) photographers has been an important part of my life and I teach, give talks, workshops, master classes and public lectures worldwide; but due to bad memories of previous talks and attitudes towards photography such as that above.

Every six or seven years or so, (it takes me that long to get over the experience), I relent and say yes, persuaded by a seemingly enthusiastic club member or out of a sense of guilt that, just maybe, I should try again and this time it will be different. Sadly, as you have seen above, it never is. When I was a young(ish) advertising and advertising photographer in the 1960's, an acquaintance invited me as a guest to a talk in a camera club in south Wales by the late, great photography historian, editor and writer Bill Jay (1940-2009) and Magnum photographer David Hurn. The club itself hadn't invited them but they were taking advantage of a travelling lecture scheme organised and funded by the Welsh Arts Council.

Both speakers were to me at the time, inspirational. Bill’s infectious enthusiasm for photography of all kinds and from all periods, plus David Hurn showing his own wonderful documentary work, together with the work of many other Magnum members. Sadly, apart from myself, it all fell on stony ground. There was much shaking of heads, mutterings that “these photographs would never win a camera club prize”, tut-tutting and harrumphing about ‘thirds’ and ‘composition’ etc. What was being shown represented the best work by Magnum members around the world at that time. Questions later were mainly of the irrelevant, toe-curling, embarrassing, “what film do you use” variety.

I went away inspired, then concentrated on personal photography projects and within a few years had abandoned the world of fashion photography to pursue my own documentary work. One thing led to another over the years but who would have thought at the time that years later, I would be a senior lecturer and subsequently the leader of the documentary photography course founded by David Hurn a little while after he gave that talk? Certainly not me. I wonder what happened to all those camera club members muttering about grain, composition and prizes?

If you are a camera club member of a nervous disposition then I’ll give you a health warning; you certainly shouldn’t read my previous blog posts about the R.P.S., also recounting real events and personal experience. Entries for 18/03/2014 “Long haired yobs” and 19/03/2014 “Never join any club that would have you as a member......” 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

It's photography, not rocket science.

For as long as I can remember people have asked me about the technical details of my image making. All the usual stuff. Conversations usually go like this: "What camera / lens / film / developer / exposure / f stop / paper / printing methods etc. etc. do you use"? When I reply with very prosaic and simple answers they seem disappointed. "But your prints are so good, you must have secret film and print developer formulas"? "No I don't, I just use very basic materials". "Ah, come on, you do really and want to keep it a secret". "No, really, just bog-standard, readily available stuff". "But I use those too and my prints don't look like yours". "I have been at it a long time so I have experience, it takes time to learn how to get the best out of your materials". 
Llyn Brianne, Ceredigion, 1986
The reality is that I am not keen on these conversations because my questioners usually end up disappointed with my truthful and hopefully helpful answers and go away disillusioned about how to progress the technical side of their work. It seems as if they are always looking for some instant 'fix', or a 'short-cut' magic formula to avoid the trek along the long road to gain skills.

Not that the skill requirement is over complex or ultra demanding but it does take time, patience and a basic understanding of the materials you are using. The problem is that few have the humility to accept this, or are willing to devote the time to learning these basics. They scour photo magazines and read internet blogs in a vain search for the 'holy grail' of technique that will transform the technical side of their work overnight. 
Sardinia, 2000

It's a shame that so many potentially good photographers have wasted years of their life in this fruitless search for the 'magic potion' they assume will transform their images at a stroke. In reality they would have been far better served by heeding the advice that they were no doubt given by the majority of prominent photographers and sticking to basic, good materials and getting the best out of them. Constantly changing techniques and materials just means that they never really get to fully understand their potential and you end up spending time playing with techniques rather than concentrating on the image making. As a consequence it's a double loss. Mediocre technique and a lack of progression in the photographs themselves.
Sardinia, 2000

There are a few simple axioms that I have followed all my working life in photography and they apply as well to using digital equipment and techniques as they do to my film-based work. Cameras and lenses - buy the best. Not what you can afford, I do mean the best. If you can afford it without a struggle or your eyes watering then you are probably buying too cheaply or a multi-millionaire. At a stroke, this eliminates all the 'excuses' you can make about poor technique or having to fiddle with equipment. In terms of materials, also buy the best but this you will find is also the simplest and most easily available. I have had the privilege to meet and work with a host of great photographers over the years, worldwide. Although their styles differed greatly, the common denominator was that the equipment they used was the best and their materials were almost always very straightforward. 
Part of the 'Wildwood' exhibition

I carried over this philosophy with my recent colour work too and to the use of digital equipment and techniques and it still applies. I read reams of stuff on photography forums about photographers trying this or that technique, constantly swapping computer programmes and fiddling with this or that control. Me? I use the best equipment and lenses, (some lenses now over 60 years old but because I bought the best at the time, still perfect today). I also use the simplest and most basic programmes and 'fiddle' with my images only in very minor ways. Keep it simple and master the basics. I have seldom needed any more and it allows me to spend more time concentrating on the important stuff. The world around me and how I wish to interpret this. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The lure of the local and the curse of the parochial

 Every now and again I send out information to my many contacts in the gallery, museum, publishing, education and media world about my latest work and projects. In this way, they can be kept abreast of what I am doing and it's also a way of allowing them to re-connect with me if we haven't been in contact for a while. Responses are overwhelmingly positive and can lead to fruitful, mutual collaborations, exhibitions, projects or publications. Occasionally however, I can be rocked by a bizarre response that displays a staggering, blinkered attitude to the world of the visual arts. The key word here I think is 'world'. 
Barbagia, Sardinia, 2000 From the exhibition 'Sardinia' 

 One of the great qualities of visual art and photography is that it allows people to connect with a world that they never knew, or possibly might never experience. I have never been surprised, but always gratified by the ability of worldwide audiences to understand and appreciate work I may have made in places other than where I might reside. I remember many visitors to my numerous exhibitions in other countries being absorbed and intrigued by work I may have made in places they have never, or may never visit. I also remember and am grateful for, the enlightened attitude of those galleries and publishers both here and in other countries that have had the vision and open minded attitude to support my work and to allow it to be seen by a wider audience. After all, isn't this just what visual art should be about? Work I have made in Wales has been seen in many European countries, the USA, Canada, etc. Likewise major institutions have acquired prints for their public collections. Ditto work I have made abroad has been seen and purchased in and by institutions here. 
'In Wildwood', published by Lars Muller, Switzerland

A major Swiss book publisher produced a book which did not contain one image of Switzerland. A prestigious photography gallery in Belgium hosted a show of my work which contained only photographs of Wales and the USA. I remember the interest and pleasure the local population in a remote village in Sardinia derived from seeing images I had made of the Welsh landscape during the period I was photographing theirs. I could go on but you get the idea.

So I was surprised to receive an e mail from the editor of one of the local newspapers here expressing their confusion and puzzlement at being sent images not made in the immediate locality and unable to understand why I would do such a thing. In retrospect however, maybe I shouldn't have been too startled by that attitude as it is in this locality I heard something similar many years ago. It was in a gallery that I was told, for the first and only time ever, by any gallery anywhere in the world, (and I have dealt with many), that; 
Connemara, Co.Galway, Ireland 1977 From the exhibition 'Celtic Light'
"Welsh galleries should only show Welsh work". "Oh", I said, "on that basis then, English galleries should only show English work, French, USA, galleries etc. etc. ditto?" "How would any artist from here get an exhibition elsewhere then and how would people from any other country see other work?" "Ah, well, hmmm". They didn't really have an answer but were quite adamant. What a sad attitude and such a parochial view. This wasn't a small private gallery but one that purported to showcase a broad spectrum of work. 

'Vermont, USA, 2002. From the exhibition 'Wildwood' 
Luckily for me I have never been refused publication or exhibition anywhere abroad on the basis that the work wasn't made in the country, let alone in the immediate locality. Just now and again though you hit a blind spot I suppose. While a lot of my work has focussed on places other than my own homeland, I have, and continue to make work here which is seen locally and worldwide. I would have thought that this would be something to celebrate, that a 'local' person, makes work within their home region that is seen abroad and also makes work internationally that can be enjoyed by the local population. It seems to me to be a rather patronising attitude that assumes any publication's readership might only be interested in anything that happens within a tiny radius of the editorial offices. 
'Victory Hall and Cinema', Llanybydder, Carmarthenshire 2004

My experience, worldwide, is happily vastly different. I am grateful for the open minds of all the galleries and publications that have published my Welsh work there and ditto to all those Welsh institutions who have had the foresight to showcase my work from abroad. In other words I am lured by the landscape of the 'local' and enjoy the work I make here but am sometimes cursed by parochial attitudes. 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Blasts from the past

There is much debate around these days about the safest way to save your images, given the nature of the ever-changing digital storage methods. How many back-up devices should one use? Is the 'cloud' safe, secure and permanent? Will the various digital formats favoured by different camera manufacturers still be compatible with the software in years to come? etc. etc. Luckily, I don't lose sleep over this as 99.9% of the images I would wish to keep are in negative form and strictly under my control. 
Cardiff, 1972

How photographers who exist solely in the digital world sleep at night after trusting their archive to the 'cloud', I can't imagine. It would be like me trusting all my negatives to be kept by a third party I didn't know and having no idea if they might even be around in a few years time. Unthinkable. 

Luckily for me I was given good advice many, many years ago when I started photographing and thanks to that I have all my past work intact and well ordered. Long before I knew about 'archival' processing I was told to wash my films and prints for forty-five minutes in running water and to use a filing system and good quality negative storage bags.  Not exactly rocket science but as a consequence, every negative is still in good condition and filed in such a way as to be easily findable and accessible. The technology for printing them isn't going to change now of course so each one, of every format from half-frame to 10" x 8" can still be printed. 

Cardiff, 1975
I'm also a great believer in making contact prints of everything so they are always available to review and peruse when a quiet moment presents itself. Scrolling through files in 'Lightroom' or similar doesn't quite allow me to have the same connection with those images than looking at whole sheets spread out on the studio bench and remembering the sequence of events that particular day. 

Mill Lane, Cardiff, 1972
Recent weeks have found me doing just this, reviewing work from the past that, for one reason or another, was overlooked and never printed at the time. Rediscovering old work is a pleasure, enhanced by the knowledge that the negative is sound and available to print without the fear of a lost or damaged file. 

A number of photographers I have known in the past found negative filing and storage a chore and didn't bother. I knew one who stapled the contact sheet to the negative sleeves and threw them in a cardboard box under his darkroom sink. He kept them for a year in case they were needed then had a throw-out. While I realise that most will never be printed my recent 'discoveries' have reinforced the point that it's wise to keep everything safely as you never know what might surface in years to come. 
Cardiff, 1975

The recent images I have found or rediscovered are from a period when Cardiff was in transition. Old streets, shops, ways of shopping were run down and throwbacks to the nineteen forties and fifties. While nostalgic and familiar, this, older Cardiff would soon disappear to be replaced with a slick, new and up to date metropolitan centre. One of the wonderful qualities of photography is its ability, through sympathetic eyes, to capture those past times and re-present them to a new audience who never knew the old city. 

Of course, for this to happen, those images have to still be available to be printed and published in a variety of forms and contexts. Luckily for me I still have them safe so I can rediscover a part of my cherished past work and environment.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The roads not taken

One of the wonderful things about photography is how many routes it is possible to take through the medium. Starting work at age fifteen with little or no formal education I knew little of the many possibilities that would, in time, open up to me. I had been taking photographs since the age of eleven but without the benefit of any great knowledge of the history of photography or how the wider 'business' really worked. My parents took 'Picture Post' and I was vaguely aware of the wonderful picture stories in that magazine and, of course press photographs in newspapers. I'm talking about the 1950's here, before we had television at home, so these, apart from cinema newsreels were the only source, for us, of news imagery. 
'Picture Post' cover, 1950's
I'm not sure if it ever occurred to me before I left school that photography would eventually be my life's work but very quickly after I started working in a photographic environment I realised that this, in some form or other, is what I wanted to do. 

My photographic work at Cardiff University, although fascinating and a great learning experience, really didn't capture my imagination in the way that other photographic work did. 

'Picture Post' cover, 1950's
The scientific, technical side that I was undertaking there, while demanding in certain respects failed to excite me in any visual way. Certainly not in the sense that I had been absorbed by the images I had seen in 'Picture Post', 'Illustrated' and other magazines and journals. 

I was fortunate at the university to be surrounded and supported by a number of staff members who were keen photographers and had contacts in the photography world outside of the institution. Someone suggested that I might have a look at being a news photographer, and through a contact, managed to get me to 'shadow' a photographer from the local newspaper for a few days in my holidays. 

These were pre-35mm days and almost all press photographers used Rolleiflex's. I had recently acquired one, albeit rather old and very well used. Accordingly I turned up at the offices of the 'Western Mail' and 'South Wales Echo' with this at the start of my few days with my Rollei, not wanting or presuming that, as I was being given a favour anyway, to also expect to borrow equipment. I was introduced to a few of the 'staffers' and noticed they were eyeing my camera. "I know it's a bit old and battered but it works fine and the lens is good" I said, apologetically. 
A Minolta Autocord from the early 1960's
Then I noticed their cameras. The Western Mail didn't run to expensive Rolleiflex's for their photographers and this I realised later, was a bit of a sore point among them. They were actually eyeing my camera with a tinge of jealousy. They were issued with the much cheaper Japanese copy of the Rollei, Minolta Autocords. 

No matter, they were generous with their time and patience with me and I was shown around the darkrooms and how quickly they could process film, edit and make a print to meet the deadlines.  The Western Mail was a morning paper but the 'Echo' was an evening paper with several editions printed during the afternoon. 

I was aware of the images that appeared in these papers of course and as local publications, although the Western Mail had a wider, more (Welsh) national readership, I wasn't expecting staggering, hard-hitting stories requiring photography. 
My current Rolleiflex

However, the reality became, for me anyway, rather more prosaic and predictable than I imagined and I think I quickly realised that local 'press' photography was not the photographic road I wanted to travel. It certainly wasn't what I thought of as 'news' photography.

Off out on the first day and some predicable 'handshake' photographs of 'dignitaries' and a shot or two of the fishermen on the end of Penarth Pier. Day two more 'handshake' pics, local library closing and big waves breaking over Penarth Pier and seafront. Day three ditto handshakes and yet another of Penarth Pier, this time a mumuration of starlings over the sea at dusk. Day four we got a church fete being opened by a 'D' list celebrity and instead of Penarth seafront I think we did something at Barry Island. 

'Splott, Cardiff', 1969
I take nothing away from the photographers who were all hard working and certainly encouraging to me. It's just that I shuddered at the thought of spending my career in photography on the same, repetitive 'stories' day in, day out in the same locality. I was grateful for the experience and the kindness shown to me and the nudge it gave me to decide that I was going to devote my time and life on more meaningful photography.  
'Splott, Cardiff', 1969

Within a few years I was engaged in a vastly different photographic world and undertaking 'personal' projects in Cardiff, dealing with the destruction of the area I was from and went to school that were to prove more rewarding in the long term and set the future for me. I also sold the Rollei and bought a Leica instead.