Saturday, 22 November 2014

But once a year

I'd hoped to get into town earlier in the week but waiting for deliveries that weren't delivered kept me tied up and unable to get out anywhere. Saturday afternoon isn't my first choice for hitting the shops, and the crowds put me off searching for anything that wasn't essential. As chance had it I'd taken a camera along and there was something going on. A rather feeble event heralding the switching on of the town's Christmas lights.

In days of yore there would have been lots of cameras in evidence. I think I spotted three DSLRs, one bridge camera and  one mirrorless, today the majority were using their phones or tablets to record the goings on in either still or moving formats. Needless to say I took a fair few photographs. Most turned out to be snaps. Some were reasonable photographs - if a little formulaic. I think I got a couple of pictures. I sued to dismiss any 'street' photograph that had someone looking at the camera. These days it doesn't bother me - pretty much in the same way I don't always fret over a shot that's not quite level. These small 'imperfections' can sometimes make the pictures work.

Something I've found myself doing when photographing people in shifting groups, and I do do it intentionally, is have an out of focus person in the foreground to act as a compositional device. Something else that would probably have annoyed me in the past that I don't worry about any longer.

Wonky angles and blurry faces are two things that it takes a while to get your eye in to shoot well. It's a kind of letting go of the rigidity that the viewfinder tends to impose. That and the (mistaken) culture that stresses level horizons and sharp focus as the measure of a good photograph.

This sort of event is more interesting to photograph than landscapes. People - and animals - make for far more engaging pictures. Things are in a state of flux with new opportunities arising all the while. It's much easier to remain alert for possibilities.

It's a pity I had a rapidly expiring parking ticket cutting my time short or I'd have exposed more than the 123 frames which I whittled down to a still over-long 35 for a slideshow. I've noticed that when I'm taking photographs in a busy situation I rarely 'chimp'. After all there's no going back to get a second try when everything has moved on. You've either got a picture of you haven't!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Shoebox slides

Sometime back I found a shoebox containing a small collection of slides which my late aunt had taken during her year-long trip to America in 1967/8. I was going to post something about them here at the time but forgot!

The slides are Kodachromes in 126 format - the format of Instamatic cameras. Needless to say that accounts for the quality, or lack of it, and I suspect the slightly off framing in some pictures. A fixed focus lens and an off axis viewfinder in a camera aimed at the happy snapper aren't going to produce pinsharp, perfectly composed photos no matter who is using the camera!

Despite the technical flaws the pictures have that Kodachrome appeal, not to mention a touch of nostalgia and exoticism - some of them work for me as pictures. The first picture in the slideshow is the odd one out, being of my aunt and shot on 35mm film.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Old book, new book

At long last I have found, and bought, a copy of Ian Berry's The English to replace my long lost copy. The condition is not great but the price was bearable. If I hadn't owned a copy before I would have been more likely to pay a higher price for a better copy. Not very logical. However I'm not a book collector. It's the pictures I want to have and this 'working copy' is fine for my purposes.

Published in 1978 this was the very first photobook I bought - almost certainly in the year of publication, a couple of years after I was given my first proper camera.

There seems to be a spate of books being published at the moment of photographs made in the UK around the late '70s and into the eighties. I'm still trying to avoid the temptation of buying them because I mistrust the nostalgic effect has on how such pictures are regarded. A new collection of old pictures is a different thing to an old collection of old pictures. That's why I had no compunction about buying The English. Besides, I already own a copy - I just don't know where it is!

Although I had forgotten most of the pictures in the book I soon realised just what an influence it had been on me. At the time it made me want to take photographs. It also introduced me to looking at photographs. Mostly I think it gave me my interest in photographs of British people doing ordinary things in their natural environment.

With a more educated eye than I had back then I can see influences in Berry's photographs - in both directions. There are hints of Tony Ray-Jones in the book, and also pre-hints (if you get my drift) of Martin Parr (who has cited Ray-Jones as an influence). Maybe there is something about British life that provokes a certain kind of photography? Subtle self-mockery combined with affection is part of it. There's also an attraction to tradition. Be that ancient tradition or modern.

In the introduction Berry states that England hadn't changed much in the 15 years between him leaving the country and his making the photographs in 1975. In a lot of ways it hasn't changed much in the 40 years that now have passed. Certainly not in the subjects which a British photographer like Martin Parr chooses to  aim his lens at.

Although I like Parr's garish work it can become tiresome, and I feel that he has also become something of a brand - which I naturally rebel against. He's still a fine photographer though, and having followed his work from the project he was involved with Multistory on-line over the last two or three years the publishing of Black Country Stories tempted me to buy a copy. It wasn't a disappointment.

Although the subject matter of Black Country Stories is the English it is a completely different book to Think of England. The photographs in this book are far more 'straight'. There's very little of the saturated colours and obvious use of flash and close-up. There is, on the other hand, plenty of his wit and acute observation.

While he has been criticised, at times, for cynical, fun poking portrayals of his subjects in this book the view that comes across is more that of the affectionate mockery which I mentioned earlier. It's a much warmer look at the subjects than often comes across in a Parr book. There are a lot of semi-formal portraits (such as the picture on the cover) in Black Country Stories. By which I mean pictures of people stopping what they are doing and looking at the camera. Sort of environmental portraits, but less obviously set up. More like 'street' portraits, but not always in the street! I like them a lot.

While things may have changed on the surface over the last forty years what these two books have shown me is that underneath it all people are still people, doing the things they have always done. Be that racing pigeons or putting out the bunting for a royal occasion - a silver jubilee and a royal wedding in the case of these two books.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


My current preoccupation with the marsh saw me heading back towards it on Sunday. That was until I hit the tailback from the temporary traffic lights on the bridge that had been damaged (for the umpteenth time) on Friday. A hasty change of direction and plan was made. I thought I'd go and take some photographs of the fence surrounding one of the local nature reserves as part of my ongoing critique of the conservation business. The fence serves to keep out both non-paying guests and yer actual wild wildlife. They don't want pesky foxes getting in!

When I parked up by the side of the road my eye was, as it so often is, drawn to a partially harvested potato field. If find it much easier to make landscape pictures of the farmed land with the lines and patterns planted crops provide. The morning's rain pooled on the soil and the clearing sky helped add to the feel of the pictures. Back home on the computer I tried a few different aspect ratios (including square) but  the 3:2 ratio below was the most successful - after a slight crop from the left.

The fence proved to be uninspiring. earlier in the autumn it had been festooned with dying climbing plants and fallen leaves which I had intended to photograph sooner. Now they were gone. The signs warning of the electrification make for too obvious a comment. I shot a couple anyway. If this ever becomes a project they might make fillers. One landscape, one portrait, just in case in the way you might shoot for a magazine article to give the layout artist choices.

Leaving the fence I wandered off down a footpath that runs alongside the reedbeds. Had the light been more favourable I would have tried some shots of the reeds. I often try to make pictures of reeds for the sake of making pictures of reeds. They rarely work out the way I want them to, although some have come close. In this location I want to try to picture them so it shows how they hide nature from the people who are trying to look at it.

You can often hear birds in the reedbeds or the watery channels through them without ever catching a glimpse of them. get up on one of the viewing platforms and you fare no better because the birds tend to avoid those areas. Hardly surprising as the platforms do little to obscure anyone on them.

At the side of this platform was a pile of recently cut willow.being nosey by nature I had a look at it thinking it had been cut from a wind-blown bush to tidy it up. The gap in the reeds suggested otherwise and further inspection showed that three willow bushes had been felled. No doubt to prevent the process of natural succession that reedbeds follow to carr and then woodland. I made two pictures of the scene to illustrate, perhaps not obviously, the managed nature of this unnatural reedbed. Not too many years ago it was farmland like the potato field on the other side of the road.

In a way I suppose this is a sort of subjective or political photography. It's about the artificiality of organised nature conservation - and also about the contradiction of conservatiopn bodies claiming to get people closer to nature while all the time creating barriers and restrictions which prevent that happening in reality. I still try to make photographs that have a formal visual structure though. They have to work for me as pictures and not just as documents.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Rained off

This week saw high tides, high enough to flood the marsh. I had hoped to get down there to have a look, not for photographic reasons so much as to watch the spectacle. It didn't happen as the daylight tides were morning tides and I was stuck waiting in for non-arriving parcels. Late on today when the rain stopped and the sun was shining I ventured forth. Needless to say I was pursued by rain clouds which caught up with me almost as soon as I got he camera on the tripod.

With the rain threatening to get heavier I didn't venture far and tried to make pictures of the fence where it crosses a gutter with what looked like freshly deposited grass clippings washed up against it. The light was flat, but I'm not sure that was a bad thing. Too bright and when it is low and shadows become harsh.

All this green, a supposedly restful colour, is a bit jarring. I keep finding myself converting these marshscapes into black and white. Not making too good a job of it. It's all too easy to overdo the contrast and clarity sliders and end up with something like you see getting rave reviews on Flickr or some other lowest common denominator sharing site.

Wandering down the gutter I was starting to see things hat might make pictures. Framing was difficult and the rain was getting heavier so I was rushing a bit and not concentrating as I should have been.

The wide open space and the almost uniform green makes it difficult to find pictures. Getting in close and concentrating on details without showing the sky seems to be the way my eye is being drawn. If the rain hadn't got so heavy I might have got in closer still. I see the gutters as canyons in miniature. No doubt if I put some Lego figures down in them and shot them with a wide angle lens at their level that would be really 'creative' and I might become a Flickr sensation! Instead I'll probably make some boring pictures of grass, mud and water.

I'm unsure quite why I've cropped all these pictures to the square. You'd think that a wider aspect ratio, even a panoramic one, would suit the broad horizon of the marsh. Concentrating on details seemed to leave too much space around them.

PS The more I look at that first colour picture, the more I'm preferring it to the conversion!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Still struggling on

The marsh continues to interest me. Partly because it's always there, partly because I'm determined to make something from it. When I saw a chance of a sunset on Friday I hastened over there for the last hour or so of light. I was just in time to see a wildfowler heading over the floodbank. As chance had it I'd gone prepared for any eventuality with two cameras and two lenses. A hasty snap of the guy striding across the marsh ended up being the best shot of the evening.

Once more I found a black and white conversion worked better for pictures of the marsh, and in this case a letterbox-crop seemed to suit the scene. I'm much more comfortable making landscape pictures which contain figures. It seems to give them a point of interest beyond looking pretty or atmospheric (which is something I rarely manage). It also feels more truthful to me than the majority of landscape photography that eliminates all signs of human intervention. Beaten by the failure of the sunset to materialise, and by my hopeless eye for a landscape picture, I packed up early.

Saturday was poultry show day. This being my fourth visit it was harder to see new pictures. This often happens with a subject. When it's a new experience you see things freshly. There are all sorts of opportunities to make pictures. At a second visit you work on things you realised you could have done. On a third visit things are becoming familiar but you still have refinements to make. After that it gets harder to avoid repeating yourself (although you can do that in an attempt to make a better picture of something you have shot previously). A few weeks back I put a set of  my poultry show pictures together in a Blurb book. They printed out better than I'd expected, particularly the shots taken with a compact camera.

Undeterred I set out for the poultry show armed with a fisheye lens to try something different. That didn't work! As per the last visit I stuck to the 50mm and 28mm lenses. I guess I could have used a zoom covering the same range and more, but I prefer the two lens approach for some reason. I knew before I got home that I hadn't taken as many photos as on previous visits, and that I wouldn't have as many decent or half decent shots. It turned out I got four good ones. Which isn't too bad for two hours shooting. One I think sums up the whole show. It has a chicken, eggs, and people. Even if the eggs and people are out (deliberately) of focus.

Although presenting the shot on its own makes it appear that all I did was frame and shoot, that's not the way it happened. My biggest photographic failing is a lack of patience. Probably the main reason I'm rubbish at landscapes... However, at the show I took my time waiting for the right frame to materialise. Three out of the four decent shots came about that way. The frame above was number four in a sequence. The first three were similar except the chicken was looking out of the frame to the left. As soon as it turned its head I knew that if the shot was sharp on the bird I'd have he picture. For once I got technical perfection in a good picture.

The show shed is a bit of a nightmare to work in owing to the lighting. It being lit by fluorescent tubes is bad enough ,but no matter what white balance I set it seems to alter depending whereabouts in the shed you go. Drove me nuts.

Sunshine on Sunday tempted me back to the marsh. This time with a plan. Turn right and check out the gutters. Unfortunately my plans went awry. The sunshine was great. The problem was that it was casting my shadow on the scenes I wanted to photograph. Still, it's a lesson learned.

Once over the floodbank I saw a shotgun cartridge and took a low, wide-angle shot (bad pun) of it. It wasn't up to much. Then I did something I never do. Picked the cartridge up with a view to placing it somewhere it would make a better picture.

It's strange that it looks like it just as 'honest' a picture as if the cartridge had been found there. Doesn't feel right to me though.

I struggled on trying to make 'landscape' pictures. The old sweeping vista stuff. That was until I saw some foamy water flowing in a narrow gutter. Somehow that felt more evocative of the marsh. I made a few quick snaps. The light wasn't quite right (harsh shadow at the bottom), and I could have done with getting into a better position, but they might have given me the clue I need. get in close and concentrate on details rather than try to show everything. We'll see.