Sunday, 27 November 2016

"How do you get that effect?"

Long time ago, in the days when I used to, very occasionally, give talks to camera clubs when requested, (I don't any more, see previous blog posts), this was one of the more facile questions I used to be asked. It ranks alongside the popular and equally irrelevant, "what film do you use" or "is burning and dodging allowed?" This would be after I had probably poured my heart out for an hour, explaining how I devised my projects, what photographic influences I called upon, why I chose a particular strategy to make the work and what research I had done. All this illustrated profusely with my images. Then I would invite questions and hope for the intelligent but wait, poised for the inevitable. My heart would sink. 

Buttermere, Cumbria, 1991, from the series 'Northern Light'
However, "how do you get that effect?" was probably the one question that irked me most due to the shallow reading of my images. Probably this would be in response to a picture like the one here. "How do you get that cloud effect?". Me; "Um, it's not an effect, those are real clouds". Puzzled looks, shaking of heads, "no, no, really, is it a secret?". "No, they are real clouds, try looking up sometime". "But what if you go out and there aren't any clouds, how do you make them"? By then I had probably lost the will to live. 

Over the years I sort of began to understand the camera club mentality and how it had little or nothing to do with a knowledge of, or love for, photography or the representation through the medium of the world about us. No-one seemed to be interested in serious projects or significant photography, only making photographs that corresponded to some dubious system of rules. This is why the questions were always about  it being right or wrong to do this or that. As if you ticked a list of boxes when making a photograph it would, as if by magic, become a relevant image with some merit. Of course, it never does.
The Great Stone of Fourstones, N.Yorkshire, 1993 from the series 'Northern Light'

There also seemed to be an obsession with the time of day that photographs were taken, this question came up a lot. I was puzzled for ages until someone let slip that there was some unwritten, dubious, nonsensical 'rule' that it was frowned upon to take photographs around midday! I never quite figured this out and really don't want to, something to do with the light apparently! 
Seatoller, Cumbria, 1991 from the series 'Northern Light'

Then of course, there was the infamous 'rule of thirds' about which I have written before. As my photographs almost never corresponded to the camera club rule book, and I had real clouds and real people doing real things in my images and no 'special effects', my talks would go down like a lead balloon.  I would inevitably leave behind some very disappointed club members who had expected me to confirm all their false illusions about what photography is about and the various myths that are perpetuated within the club world. So to the question "how do you get that effect" my answer is - open your eyes, take in the wonderfulness of the world around you as it is. It's all there already if you can be bothered to look up from the 'rule' book... And don't even get me started on the ludicrous titles that camera club folks give their photographs..............

Sunday, 19 June 2016

How we view the world

I am often asked if I mind the fact that almost everyone has instant access to some kind of camera and that there are more photographs taken now, at every possible event and occasion and do I feel intimidated? The simple answer is no and I actually welcome the ease of image making today which makes photography much more democratic. 

This is not a new debate or phenomenon, it has been a long, gradual process ever since the invention of photography. First the province of the well-off upper middle class who could afford both the time and expense to devote to the new medium, then with almost every development in the process it become slightly more democratic. From the wet plate process which demanded high levels of technical skill combined with expensive chemistry and apparatus, through to the dry plate and then Kodak's 'you press the button, we do the rest' making photography available to almost all. 

My Dad's camera - a six-20 Kodak Junior
It was the relative ease of obtaining affordable cameras that prompted my own interest and made it possible for  me. My Father owned a reasonably good camera, acquired when he was an apprentice painter and decorator before WW2. Even on his low wages at that time he was able to buy a folding Kodak and it was with him all through his extensive service in the Royal Navy during the war and recorded his travels and was with him through a lot of action.  After the war it was used to record family life just like everyone does now with their iPads and phones. Not quite as portable and quick and easy maybe but it was still accessible to most and gave us a valuable record of our family life at that time. Having your photograph taken was still an event though, it did cost something to get the film processed at the chemist and prints made so they were treasured and not 'throw away'. 

A family friend, me and my Mother by Caernarvon Castle, 1950
He was even taking colour films and they had to be sent off to Kodak in Rochester New York to be processed at printed, there not being many places in the UK available to amateurs for this just after WW2. Luckily for me, my Dad treasured his photographs, possibly because of the trouble he took to get them in the first place and he kept the negatives safely. They are still in good condition as you can see from the scan above.  This careful preservation of photographs  seems to be in stark contrast to the 'quick delete' of the majority of images today. I do wonder how much social history will be lost, especially as even those that are saved are never printed but end up on transient social media sites. 

My first camera - Kodak Brownie 127
My Father's interest in photography sparked mine and he encouraged me. By then, simple cameras had become even more affordable  and were owned by even more families. There was till the expense of commercial processing and printing but my Father encored me to learn so for us it became slightly cheaper. While photography became more democratic  the resulting images were still treasured and kept safely.

Mantes-la-Jolie, France, 2014
There was also a slightly different relationship between a photographer and their subjects due to the effort and expense, although minimal by then, it took to make photographs. The making of photographs was a reaction to observing something that was special to you and wishing to keep it. 

This added to the memory and the experience rather than just recording a special moment, unlike today, when for most, seeing and experiencing an event or place is done through a cameraphone or iPad rather than just using it to record a special moment. The real event itself is not experienced, only seen through a digital interface to be relived in two dimensions later then probably discarded or consigned to a corner of a hard drive or disappear into the 'cloud'.

St. Petersburg, Russia, 2016
Of course, we photographers are obsessive gatherers of imagery and the accusation is often levelled at us that we see the world through our cameras. Not true of course for most of us as the cliche makes clear; the camera is an extension of our eyes, not a replacement for them. We have learned to absorb, appreciate, understand and revel in the many facets of our life and world and choose to record and interpret this in our way, for others.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Giving my prints the 'thirds' degree...........

I have had some positive responses to my last blog about camera clubs. It seems to have resonated with many, who like me, love photography, enjoy communicating our ideas and skills to a wider audience but despair at the sad antics of most clubs and the folks who belong to them, who seem to have little real interest in photography. The comments I have received prompted other memories and I have recalled, with a shudder, some more past experiences.
'Wilwood' exhibition at the Fotomuseum, Antwerp

One of my touring exhibitions was being shown at a gallery and I had travelled there to attend the opening the previous evening. I was at the gallery again the next morning giving interviews to the media, press, radio, tv. etc. A dapper, immaculately suited gentleman came in as I was in one corner of the gallery talking to the journalists. He had a row of pens in his top pocket and wearing a tie with what looked like a royal crest on it. He certainly didn't look like an ex-soldier so not a regimental tie I guessed, maybe an accountant by royal appointment?

He approached a framed print on the walls, then carefully selected one of the pens from the assortment in his top pocket and began to use it as a kind of measuring rod, placing it on the glass against parts of the image. He then shook his head and gave out an audible, sad, sigh. I was fascinated, watching him from out of the corner of my eye as I spoke to the assembled journalists and media folks. 
'Sardinia' exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Wales
There were over fifty framed prints in that particular exhibition and he worked his way steadily around the gallery, print by print. Measuring, shaking his head, sighing, moving to the next. As he drew closer to our little group around a table in the corner I was able to get a clearer view of the crest on his immaculately knotted and ironed tie. Of course, I should have guessed, it was the Royal Photographic Society coat of arms! (What on earth is a camera club doing with a coat of arms anyway? Of what possible use is this towards advancing photography?) It all became clear now. What he was doing was measuring off thirds and as my images didn't correspond to this nonsensical, mythical, so-called 'rule', which is only followed by camera clubs, he was getting more and more depressed and disillusioned with every print. After 'measuring' every image, he didn't really look at the photographs, only 'measured' them; he took one last glance around the gallery from the centre of the room, shook his head sadly one last time, dropped his shoulders, gave a final, despairing sigh and left. He was probably the chairman of the local camera club so at least that's one less that will ever invite me to speak and one less that I have to refuse. 
My work at the Feick Arts Center, Poultney, Vermont, USA

On one of the rare occasions when I have agreed to speak to a camera club (and later bitterly regretted it of course), they asked me to bring original prints.  They appeared keen to see these and as I have had many good portfolio sessions in my studio with photographers who attended the 'View Camera Workshops' I ran jointly here with John Nesbitt and on numerous other occasions when teaching here and outside the UK, I agreed. Looking at original prints in a group session around a table is a useful and agreeable way to discuss work.

I arrived laden with portfolio boxes full of mounted and matted selenium toned archival prints, plus a limited edition portfolio of platinum prints . I didn't count them or exactly tot up the value but at a guess there was in the region of £50,000's worth of my prints on the table. I was very trusting. As the members assembled, one came in and said "ah, I'll bring out my print viewer for you". "Oh", I said, curiously,"what's that?" "I have designed and built it myself", he said proudly and disappeared into a side room. A few moments later he reappeared, struggling to carry the weirdest contraption I had ever seen outside of my book of Heath Robinson illustrations or a Wallace and Gromit film. This is going to take some describing, so please bear with me.

'Cader Idris', limited edition portfolio  of platinum prints
It consisted of a large, white painted plywood box, atop a tall, three legged tripod-like base made from long lengths of thin timber batten. From the floor to the top of the box was over 7 feet. "it's tall so people at the back can see over the heads of the others", he explained helpfully.  Lengths of twine threaded through the lower part of each of the spindly legs kept them - just, from splaying out and collapsing, but they still bowed under the weight of the box. 
Portfolio boxes
By some means, I don't know how, I dared not look too closely, the large, overweight for the legs, open sided box, was fastened to the top of this unsteady, top heavy and swaying tripod contraption so that the open, large side faced outwards. It was oversize so that a 20" x 16" mounted print could be placed either horizontally or upright at the back, with room all around the front edges of the box. This room was taken up around the rim by an array of light bulbs to illuminate any print placed against the back, all connected with the most alarming lash-up of amateur electrics and exposed wiring. Leading from the contraption was a long cable with a plug on the end. I watched all this happening, speechless. As he connected this to a power point and switched on, I braced myself for the bang. It didn't explode but I stared in amazement as this now, way too brightly illuminated wooden box, perilously perched atop the spindly legs, was swaying like a metronome. "It'll stop swinging in a minute" he said confidently. "Then you can pop your prints inside one by one so we can all see". The wattage of the bulbs seemed to be greater than the heating in the hall. If the whole thing didn't collapse or the fuses blow, my prints would have been fried. "Um, I don't think so" I said, "it might be better for you all to gather around the table and we can get a closer look at the prints". He was clearly hurt and offended and went off to unplug his still swaying device, huffing his displeasure at having his wonderful invention sidelined. 
Part of the 'Wildwood' exhibition

As laughable as these true experiences of mine are, it's a very sad reflection of the state of camera clubs in the UK. I say UK because my experience of photographic societies in other parts of Europe and the USA where I have lectured, taught and given master classes is very different. I blame the R.P.S., getting rid of the posh ties and the rule book would be a good start.