Saturday, 26 July 2014

Trials and tribulations

This week just gone I think I've managed to put a project to bed. After the hot weather and bright sunshine putting me off doing anything that involved moving about for ages I had two evening sessions with the camera trying to add to the collection of shots for my Autoflora project. My enthusiasm had been rekindled after carting my camera to the Post Office the other day and finding some inspiration for my village 'project'. That got me keen to do something more focussed.

This has been ongoing for a couple of years. It's only possible to do much with it for a few weeks each year. Too soon and there are no plants growing between the cracks, too late and they have either died of natural causes or been sprayed with weedkiller by the council. In the place where I take the pictures time of day is important too, so it has to be evening. Again timing is critical and after a certain point my shadow enters the frame.

After working out a viewpoint, focal length and shutter speed I was determined to do it properly this time. The tripod went with me and the remote release. That way I'd get more 'keepers' with the plants and foreground sharp. Or so I thought. As it turned out I didn't. Back home I reasoned why that was the case, and a trial in the back garden revealed that the problem was mirror/shutter shock using the camera in burst mode. Using mirror lock up I could get sharp-enough frames at 1/10th sec and 200mm. Another attempt would have to be made while I was still in the mood.

The first problem to hit was the remote release playing up. Long story, but my own fault. Still, I could use the receiver as a cable release so all was not lost. The burning issue was if I would be able to time the shots while limited to one frame at a time? I'd been using burst mode to give me a fighting chance of getting one out of three or four with a car in the frame. As things turned out my 'hit rate' was much better!

Using the mirror lock there were still bits of the plants which were blurred, but that's unavoidable as the draught from the passing vehicles moves them. The kerbstones and tarmac were as sharp as I could hope for. Success.

It didn't take me long to get the shots I was after. Given that they are all just variations on a theme it didn't seem worthwhile to carry on taking more of the same. Certainly not when I have already got a number of similar pictures on file, plus variations which were made on the road to the current stage. I reckon the project has gone as far as I can take it - unless I think up a different angle to approach it from.

In other news. The sandplant continues to throw up occasional interesting pictures for me. I liked the way the folds of the plastic mimicked the folds of the leaves in the shot on the right. Despite the seemingly endless opportunities and inspiration the place provides it really is time for me to put some order into the pictures I've made there. Even if I carry on visiting and photographing the place. What kind of order that might be is what's stopping me. I should edit the 600+ frames down to 200 or so, then whittle those down into a coherent set of 50-100. What I could then do with them once whittled is anyone's guess!

The Vintage Village series continues on it's whimsical way. I still can't decide if it's 'serious' or just a bit of fun. Trawling car boot sales and charity shops for old frames and making 'aged' prints to go in them is the kind of thing an art student would do. Which is why I'm reluctant to do it myself!

These 'vintage pictures often come from the rejects from my more self-consciously serious picture taking walks around the village. Trying to find things, and ways of photographing them, which will build up to a picture of how I see the place, without avoiding the obvious views, is a challenge I enjoy.

Making the church spire a small element in a picture was one way of including a village landmark in a less than obvious way. Another, which I'm not entirely certain of, was to photograph the modern Catholic church so that it was out of focus while the spindly sapling was sharp. Not a very original concept, but the result was moderately pleasing. Although maybe a lower angle might have been better. Damn those creaking knees...

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Tom Wood says;

I think I understand why I like Tom Wood's approach to photography.

“The important thing is not to have an aim, I just go out the door and, whatever’s real, I try and deal with that.”

"When the stuff is too journalistic and documentary then it is journalism, if it is too conceptual and arty then that is another thing, but where the two meet - that is interesting."

None of which is as easy as it sounds...

The trade off or balance between art and documentary is ever present for me. I firmly believe that it is photography's ability to record, to make documents, that is it's greatest strength. Which is not to say that those documents can't go be something more.

I now regret that I didn't make an effort to document the demolition of the mill by the canal. When I moved to the village in the late 1960s and on until the eighties it was a major employer in the area - my mum worked there. It closed as a weaving mill in the nineties and became a factory shop. When I walked by it last week the last of it was gone. Soon it will be another housing estate. Maybe someone else has recorded its passing in full. The few pictures I have taken are gathered together here.

Once more I find myself struggling to come to terms with a 'small' camera. Daft as it sounds I prefer the results I get from my fishing compact to the mirrorless Fuji X-E2 I've been using for some time. Although I've finally managed to set it up so that I can use it more intuitively and quickly I still find a it frustrates. It's odd that little things you take for granted with a DSLR, in my case manually override the focus away from a focus point, can't be done with these 'lesser' cameras. It's handy if you are trying to shoot through a grill or branches at a subject in the background, and it's really useful when photographing people who are moving around faster than you can shift the focus point. Far better than letting the camera select where to focus too.

Mirrorless evangelists bang on about how much more accurate the focusing is with their cameras, and how superb the visual aids are for manually focussing. Yeah, but you can't have manual and auto focus at the same time. What's more the visual aids are only any use if you have time to use them. I also hate the way (at least on the Fuji) they only work in a zoomed in view of the centre of the frame. So you carefully frame, twist the focus ring and get a cropped and zoomed picture to look at - if the subject is off-centre you have to re-frame. By the time you have the subject in focus and zoomed out again you have to recompose. It's a faff. I don't care what anyone says, it's much easier (and quicker) to manually focus with the big, bright optical viewfinder of a DSLR.

Why is the picture above in black and white? Just because I don't think the Fuji makes a good job of photographing people. Skin colours always look too pinky-red and its texture unnaturally smooth. The texture thing even comes across in monochrome conversions. The woman's bare arm at the left of the frame looks like a prosthetic! All a great shame because the camera is small, light and fun and discreet to use. Maybe I should sell a kidney and buy a Leica?

For outdoor shots without people, however, it does a decent job,although I'm not sure the colours are as 'rich' as I get from my Nikons (even the compact). I might persevere with it for my latest project-without-end. Recently I've taken to wandering round the bits of the village I've never had any reason to visit in all the years I've lived here. Which makes them visually surprising and interesting to me.

Sure enough I've got funny looks and been asked what I'm photographing and why. My answers almost always result in a bemused shaking of the head!

"Are you photographing that bench?"
"Why not?"

Which is where I come back to searching for that intersection between documentary and art which Tom Wood mentions. It's all about trying to avoid the clich├ęs used in photojournalism, and the pretentiousness of art photography. For me it's about the information in the pictures allied with formal arrangements. I'm also coming to favour making pictures which need time to understand rather than give everything at a glance. Pictures where small details matter. Which isn't easy...

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The seaside stereotype and other things

Once more I wonder why I bother putting my thoughts on to this blog, but it's a way to put them in order and get things off my chest I suppose. First of all a photo of mine from today to kick the post off. The sandplant keeps on throwing things up for me, I guess because it is constantly changing with the junk being moved around and more junk turning up, which is why I keep getting drawn back there even though I try not to.

Although I had set out armed to take some more photographs for my Autoflora project the wind was just a bit too strong, so it was into the sandplant with the 50mm lens attached. As I spend most of my time these days with a 28mm (or equivalent), or wide zoom that covers that angle of view, the 50mm felt like a telephoto again! It took a while to get used to standing a bit further back from subjects. I liked the way this sheet of clear plastic reminded me of the way ice covers things in puddles, the lines of the rushes, the scratches on the plastic and the way the splash of yellow rubbish sparks against the more earthy hues.

The sandplant is beside the seaside, which brings me to my recurrent moan about how British seaside resorts are portrayed. This has been dragged up again by a forthcoming book (which I might add to my collection for the hell of it). Stag and hen parties in Blackpool seem to be too easy a target for mocking mirth. Blackpool's tackiness has been done to death over the years, and drunken Brits have been done much better in Cardiff After Dark if the photos I've seen are anything to go by. Maciej Dakowicz's pictures seem, to me, to be far less judgemental than those of Dougie Wallace.

As an aside, there is a way to approach the documenting of the British without sneering or resorting to the stereotypes of drunken louts and eccentrics. That's to show ordinary people doing ordinary things in an ordinary way using straightforward, solid, photography. A fine example of this is Ken Grant's recent publication, Flock. It's a down to earth record of the last years of Hereford's city centre livestock market. There's no irony that I can see, just people doing what they do and things as they are without obvious artistry or photographic tricks but still done intelligently,

Getting back to this 'new wave' of street-documentary photography (if that's a genre!) I get the impression that a lot of it is being made in the same way that internet-street photography is being done. With no reference to anything other than the superficial look of what has gone directly before.

Look at the black and white of Parr as seen in The Non-Conformists and you will find the influence of Cartier-Bresson. Look at Parr's earlier colour work and there's more than a hint of Tony Ray-Jones - whose work shows the influence of Winogrand as well as HCB. These influences can be found in Maciej Dakowicz too, I feel. There's an underlying understanding of picture construction, rather than composition by numbers in an imitative fashion, or in the case of internet-street a poorly done superficial pastiche of a look.

It's all too easy to ape the look pf pictures without getting to grips with what lies beneath. Too few photographers seem to be interested in finding out why their 'heroes' make the pictures they make. Their thought processes are far more important than their techniques, or their superficial style. When you engage on internet forums it soon becomes clear that many hobbyist photographers have scant knowledge of what photography has gone before them. They know only the work of photographers who get published in the current populist photography press, and increasingly only those who have websites, blogs and Youtube channels! Some even profess to have no interest in any photography done in the past. And so they simply repeat the 'tricks' they see used by their favourite photographers. It's as dull as using the 'rule of thirds' all the time.

The aping of style also came to mind when I was looking at some more Vivian Maier pictures the other day, and again when I read (via The Online Photographer) a piece about posthumous use of photographs the photographer had never printed which contained the following:
 "Because she photographed in so many styles, her sensibility is indistinct and a signature viewpoint is absent. Depending on which picture you are looking at, she could be Weegee, Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Bruce Davidson, Andre Kertesz — even Garry Winogrand." 
That was just what I'd been thinking as I browsed a gallery after reading a bit more about her history. The way Ms Maier has been marketed is as a naive genius. The truth, it seems increasingly likely, is that she was far from that. If she was a genuinely uninfluenced photographer then she would have had a signature style.

Everyone is always influenced by everything they look at, and more so by stuff they like and look at again and again. I know I am. The easy part is recognising that. The hard part is finding a way through it! The best way I know is to try hard to make 'straight' pictures, and let your influences, your own personality and viewpoint seep in by osmosis.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The unconcerned photographer

I've just skim-read a post on the Open eye blog about environmental photography which goes on about how photography can be of use in countering the harm humankind is doing to the planet. In some small ways at local levels, maybe. But the relentless march of progress can't be stopped. Trying to turn back the clock by taking photographs seems futile to me. Perhaps an odd stance to adopt for someone who is interested in the way artificial and natural environments interact. The difference being that I'm not an ecological evangelist. To be honest conservationists get my back up. I like the way plants beat tarmac every time in the way paper always wraps stone. Instead of photographing the damage people do to nature I look at the way nature damages human handiwork. Show a seed a crack and it will germinate in it.

This attitude was also brought home to me when I saw the work of Mandy Barker who collects flotsam and jetsam to photograph to highlight the plight of the world's oceans. She also posts a ball a day on a blog. I also photograph balls, but only because I'm interested in the way they turn up in all sorts of places. Maybe there's some unconscious motivation behind it, but to me they're just pictures of lost balls. They're a device to practice picture making on. And making pictures is what photography's all about. Photographs aren't real or honest. They're artificial - from the most truthful Cartier-Bresson to the most manipulated Gursky they hide as much as they reveal. But they're all nothing more than pictures.

At the moment I'm trying to make pictures of my village, and beginning to make some progress I think. Well, I've made one which I like for it's simple formal construction, and because it hides the thing which defines the place (to those who know it). This idea of having the main subject concealed has become a regular feature of my photographs recently. No doubt a psychologist could make something of that, and an art theoretician even more... As far as I'm concerned it's a picture of a red bin, some green grass, and a sort of  'X' composition with a church spire in the background. I suppose you could dream up a metaphor fro the bridge linking the traditional rituals of the church with the modern ritual of dog walking and disposal of dog shit in bins. If your mind worked that way.

You could also make some deep and meaningful interpretation of a woman with a white pony. I just liked the way the rope and bridal matched the sandals...