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.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The curse of the camera club

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. 
Phillip Jones-Griffiths 1936 – 2008 
"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 fashion photographer in the 1960’s, an acquaintance invited me as a guest to a talk at a camera club in South Wales by the late, great photography historian, editor and writer Bill Jay (1940-2009), and the photographer and member of Magnum, David Hurn. I don’t think the club had invited them directly but 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 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.