Monday, 17 June 2013

Road Trip

The road trip is a staple of photography books. It has a long history, usually crossing the USA, but Paul Graham's A1 - Great North Road added a British flavour to it covering the length of England, as did Simon Roberts's journey documented in We English. Having an aversion to travel I'm unlikely to set off on a long road trip myself.

Last Thursday I found myself with time to kill in the small city wandering round the back streets of the city centre in the rain. One street I went down was interesting in the way it changed character along its length. Demolished industrial sites at one end, regenerated housing towards the middle with recession hit shops at the main street end. I started making pictures which began to cohere in format. Boring, flattened pictures. Just the sort I like.

I was getting into the swing of things when it all came to a crashing stop. I framed up the last picture above, checked the screen and decided I needed a step backwards to make it better. That was when tripped and I fell flat on my back. I always look behind when taking a backward step - but not this time. I managed to struggle to my feet, but the rain had got heavier, my specs were all but impossible to see through and my back was in spasm. I struggled back to my car and home.

After recuperating for a while I loaded my photos and had a look at them. Some were spoiled by rain on the lens (although I like the way it works on the Contract Parking picture), all were suffering from the 'chalky' look that small sensor cameras always seem to give me in dull light. The increased depth of field over a DSLR frame of same coverage is useful for some of these shots. The 4:3 ratio works well too. But that 'chalkiness' does my head in. On sunny days the colours are rich and vibrant.

The question is, do I go back and have a more concerted attempt using different gear or leave it and find another road to do something similar? I know that trying to retake photographs is going to create something different. The weather and light is going to be different for one thing. Trying to make preconceived pictures always leads to me becoming precious about them. I prefer a degree of spontaneity. Then again I might end up making completely different pictures because of the different equipment. If I was a hip young artist I'd just go to Google street view and 'appropriate' the pictures from there so I could make up some pretentious drivel to accompany them and justify my laziness.

No doubt by the time my back is fully recovered I'll have got distracted by some other idea and forgotten all about making another road trip...

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

When in doubt

It seems like whenever I get stuck for ideas, or when something doesn't go to plan, I end up at the sandplant. You'd think I'd have seen and done it all there by now, but for some reason it keeps making me find new ways of doing things. Quite why I'd taken three single focal length lenses out rather than one zoom which covered the same range I really don't know. What the shorter of the three lenses have over the zoom is a shorter minimum focusing distance. Not macro close, that would be ridiculous on a wide angle lens, but close. What this gave me was a different perspective - literally - allowing me a different take on the plants-in-context pictures.

The sun was bright when it broke through the rapidly shifting dark clouds. This meant the sky was 'interesting' in certain directions even when the light was soft, and there were saturated colour and dark shadows. With plants sprouting and growing there were new things to see. The ground was dusty and the pools had dried out. Everything is constantly changing.

What made me take the picture above were the rust stain and the red leaf being similar in form. There's a red and green thing going on against a monochromatic ground - almost like selective colour processing. The picture below is all about zig-zagging and horizontal lines, light and shade. Neither could have been made when the pools were filled with water. That's why the place keeps drawing me back.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Emperor's New Clothes

Artists whose work goes against the accepted conventions and which has a conceptual element to it are often accused of wearing The Emperor's New Clothes by people who don't, or don't want to, understand it.It's a simple way to put something down, requiring (it's assumed) no explanation as to why the artists are deluding themselves. Too often the artists don't help themselves by the way they support their work with wordy, poorly written, statements. Whenever I come across some challenging photography I leave reading the statement for as long as possible. That way I avoid being biased against it before I've had a chance to determine how I respond to it.

I can quite see how some of my photographs could see me being accused of wearing the Emperor's New Clothes. The picture above is another in what is becoming a series that I have (pretentiously) titled Autoflora. I don't like giving individual pictures titles, but series have to be defined for ease of reference if nothing else. For me the pictures are just pictures of things that have filled a frame momentarily. Things that I have seen and found interesting. Likewise the ongoing series, which is beginning to come together in a coherent way, which I am calling Over The Hedge because that's what the pictures will be of - things seen over, or through, hedges (or fences with shrubs behind them).

I could come up with a lengthy statement/justification for each of these series: Hedges are borders, designed to keep things both contained and excluded, how they are a metaphor for the concept of an Englishman's home being his castle, a commentary on modern society's tendency for privacy and so on and so forth. Or I could say they are simple arrangements of colours and shapes framed by a camera. It is quite possible that all of these readings/interpretations apply. That's not for me to say as doing so imposes on the pictures a particular reading of them. But photography more than any other art form (to my mind) is very much about the pictures being open to multiple interpretations because they always decontextualise the very things they represent.

All too frequently it is the seriousness with which artists take themselves and their work that makes everything seem so pretentious. A couple of things I've stumbled across this week renewed my faith that there are 'serious artists' who do not take themselves, or their work, over seriously. The first was Cornelia Parker's refreshing attitude to what she does, almost being reluctant to label it as Art (deliberate capitalisation), on the BBC programme What Do Artists Do All Day?

The second thing that I liked was in this month's BJP. A number of photographers of various ages from 19 to 100 discussed the notion of a creative peak in a lifetime. The message I got from it is that some peak early, some late, some have a series of peaks (and the younger ones take themselves more seriously than the older do). In other words, and unsurprisingly, everyone's different. It was Saul Leiter's attitude which I approved of most. "I don't create, I take photographs," he said. And later that he doesn't spend time critiquing his work because "some is good, some isn't." He also expressed a dislike for the notion of creativity.

This, to me, is a healthy and pragmatic way to approach making art (deliberate lack of capitalisation). It's just something that some people do. Admittedly it's something which is totally absorbing when it is being done. The end result is merely the outcome of the process, a process which is mostly looking and thinking with a bit of making thrown in. It can often be the case that the more looking ad thinking you do before opening the shutter the better the pictures will be - even if the picture itself is quickly taken.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Up close

Having bought a macro lens specifically for photographing dragonflies then losing interest in that when I'd got the hang of it I reckon it's time to get shut of the thing. At 150mm I find it a bit too long for occasional close ups for my website, so something to replace it would be required. This morning I messed about with combinations of extension tubes and a teleconverter with my fast 85mm lens shooting stuff in my pond. That lens was chosen because it has a f1.8 aperture so using tubes and a converter won't lose too much light (mainly for focussing), and also because it's sharp with smooth out of focus areas.

I reckon it should do all I need it to do with the results only being for web use. And if I get the urge to photograph any small critters up close it should suffice for that too - if I use all my stalking skills. With no replacement macro lens required I can look think about a 28mm lens. Using the 14mm on the G2 has got me seeing in that field of view.

100% after processing (inc. some sharpening) - it'll do for me.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Reading, thinking and planning

Once more I walked to the Post Office this morning and once more I photographed the same couple of gates, one of which has a prominent Private Land  sign by it.

This afternoon I took down Fay Godwin's Our Forbidden Land from my bookshelf. This is a (somewhat annoying in places) 20 odd year old polemic on behalf of the Ramblers' Association bemoaning the way people in this country are prohibited form having access to walk where they please. The photographs are intended to show how the land is segregated and despoiled. This is not the reason I photograph keep out signs. I like the graphics, the way they decay, and I often see irony in them - particularly on or around nature reserves which are places supposedly intended to encourage people to look at and choose to conserve nature, yet everywhere you look there are signs making sure you only look in the designated places.

Just as interesting to me as the signs of prohibition are the signs directing people to the places they are permitted to set foot. To me they are just as much a part of the restrictions. I think it's time to gather some of my pictures of signs together, and to make an effort to take more. I'll even include some which tell people to keep away from places I have access to because I pay to go fishing there!

Further on from the gates I snapped another 'over the hedge' picture. I'm not sure I'm quite getting what I want from them yet. Then again, I'm not quite sure what I do want from them. Perhaps it's time to gather them together too.

Saturday is the village's Walking Day. The fair is already setting up on the shopping precinct car park. Forty years ago it was held on a mown field. The smell of trampled grass on a summer evening was part of its charm. Both the pageant and the fair are 'perfect' photo-subjects, packed with activity and colour. Will I be able to resist their picturesque charms again this year?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Questions of scale

Most hobbyist photographers pray for sunny days. Particularly for shooting landscapes. I was tempted out the other evening and suckered into trying yet again to make some normal landscape pictures.  And yet again I found the overwhelming greenness of the summer countryside a verdant mush. I threw in some leading lines and a framing branch or two. The results were the usual dreck. I still kept trying.

In the mean time I'd seen some subjects which were in line with pictures I'd made at the quarry. Jumbles of branches and shadows playing on tree trunks and such like. While quickly made and hand held it was more interesting trying to make pictures from them.

I did have one attempt at a more traditional landscape picture of a tree. The difference being that I wanted to incorporate the line of pylons in the picture. Although I had two lenses with me one proved too long and the other too short to get the framing and perspective I wanted. Zooming doesn't alter perspective, and it's by altering position that I was able to position the pylons where I wanted them in relation to the three's branches. It would have been much easier to do this in a painting by simply moving the pylons exactly where they ought to go. But that's the challenge, and difficulty, of photography.

A couple of days later, with the weather holding, I went back for another try with a more suitable lens. Despite a lot of looking and trying I still couldn't quite make the picture I was aiming for.  In fact I'm not sure if I want to move in closer or stand back for a wider view, or if the pylons ought to be less prominent and the picture more obviously of a tree. Perhaps I'll have another try.

After my first attempt at the tree I went to another area that intrigues me but which is difficult to photograph. I did, however, make a rather laboured shot of a keep out sign to add to my collection. I suppose it's a landscape picture of sorts but more of a heavy-handed commentary. If I was being clever I should have made the sign less prominent, and maybe put it out of focus.

After my second trip to the tree I headed for the pier area. There were plenty of people around but I've got tired of the whole 'street photography' thing. Not just trying to do it but looking at it. It's ubiquitous. Which makes me wonder why anyone would want to sign up for a workshop in the genre. If there is one area of photography that should be about doing your own thing it's the branch that calls itself 'street'. I'm coming round to thinking that the way to picture people candidly, doing what they are doing, while avoiding the clich├ęs of 'street' is to put them in a wider context. Rather like the pylons in the landscape. Time to turn the axiom that says you have to get in closer to make your pictures better on its head.

I like what's going on in the picture above. It has an abstract almost-symmetry to it (which I think is always more visually interesting than an actual symmetry as it makes you look longer and harder trying to spot the discrepancies), there's a sense of light, and there are two groups of figures. Landscapes by 'the old masters' very often contain animals or people, sometimes for allegorical reasons or to give a sense of scale, but always because they engage viewer.

The pier itself is oft photographed. There was another bloke there with a camera and tripod. Finding different ways to picture it is a real struggle. The obvious pictures are so obvious that you take them anyway and regret it later. As the pier runs out to the west a favourite time to photograph it from the sea wall is at sunset - so I try to avoid that time of day if at all possible!

When the tide is well out the pier always looks like a rather pointless construction. So that's when I like to photograph it. It wasn't always thus. Steamers operated from the pier in its heyday, but tidal forces have altered the coastline and silted the channels over time. That's why much of the pier actually extends over dry land and an artificial lake rather than the sea it used to. Strange place, Southport.

Saturday, 1 June 2013


Another branch of my local camera shop had a 'preview day' for a forthcoming Olympus camera today. I was carefully avoiding a trip into the city (a title recently bestowed upon the town, which isn't as big as a city ought to be in my book) until I had to go there to purchase something for work. As it turned out what I wanted wasn't in stock and I ended up with 90 minutes of free parking. Long enough to walk to the camera shop. Damn. On my way there and back I made a few snaps.

After perusing the used equipment cabinet I made to leave. The only thing was the guy demonstrating the new camera looked bored, so I thought I'd give him something to do. There were actually two camera being demonstrated. Last year's model had a viewfinder and appealed much more to me. I had a play around with it and it felt really nice. It wasn't as big as I'd imagined, only taking up as much room as my plasticky Panasonic. With a pancake lens on it it would slip into a jacket pocket just fine. The electronic viewfinder was much better than the one in the Panasonic - not surprising given how quickly technology improves.

By all accounts it's a very capable machine. But at over four times what I paid for my camera it's a lot of brass to fork out on what I use pretty much as as snapshooter. The screen doesn't flip round either, so it wouldn't double as a fishing camera. I still don't get the whole concept of these small system cameras - apart from them being small. I reckon small cameras should be cheap. If you buy into the system, using the best lenses, you're paying almost as much for them to get what amounts to a crippled set up. It might be smaller and lighter, but it's not as good or versatile as a DSLR system. The batteries only last a fraction of the time for one thing.

That said, the form factor is appealing and it does encourage you to carry the camera everywhere. If there was one with a better viewfinder, flip round screen, and improved dynamic range compared to the one I've got I'd consider shelling out a coupla hundred notes on it. Trouble is, it'd likely be three or four times that and I might as well get a crop sensor DSLR with a flippy screen! Then again, with care the camera I have can do a decent job when I think about what I'm doing.

One of today's themes was, as often it is, symmetry - with a bit of subtle recession commentary thrown in.

I always find it hard to resist signs.

I'm almost converted to the 4:3 aspect ratio now. Maybe not so much converted as accustomed. I found it difficult to 'see' pictures that worked with it before, often cropping to 3:2, but now I understand it better. I'm also experimenting with the 16:9 ratio too. Sometimes cropping to it from 4:3.

While I'm more flexible in this now I have come to realise how important it is to be consistent with formats when creating a set of pictures. Mix them up too much and the coherence gets lost in the muddle. I think two formats can be used in one series provided they are used consistently, one each, for landscape and portrait orientation. If presenting as pages in a book or in a slideshow then they ought to be presented in groups of three or more of a format. Too much switching is tiring on the eye and mind, I think.