Assignment four: Languages of Light – first attempt

When I started I thought I knew what I wanted to do with this assignment.  Having tried out one of the possibilities I am not now so sure.  I had initially rejected the idea of expanding on the idea of daylight.  Studio light I am not sure I can develop properly as the resources I have available are fairly limited.  Artificial light though does interest me and of the three earlier exercises on this subject it was 4.3 that I enjoyed the most and that I felt had more to offer.  For purely practical reasons though I was not sure I could, or indeed wanted to, go much further with exterior shots using artificial light.  What did appeal though, based in large part on the image of the view from outside into the kitchen, was the idea of shooting indoors with part of the scene obscured by an internal feature of the house – there is something that very much appeals to me, and I have explored in other projects, about revealing something by concealing part of the whole.  The idea was therefore that I would take a series of images of views through doorways into rooms, part of the view being obscured by part of the doorway or the door itself, to give a limited view into the room and just a hint about that room and its purpose.  At the same time I was interested in creating a certain ambience with the available light and choice of White Balance in the camera, the intention being to deliberately create a certain warmth, and dare I say it, cosiness.

Because of the obvious need for long exposures, all shots were taken using a tripod and I decided to use a 50mm lens (rapidly becoming my first choice for many situations – it is just such a versatile lens!).  Because length of exposure was not an issue I left ISO at 100 for maximum sharpness and shot in aperture priority throughout set at f/16 to achieve a good depth of field and to draw the eye well into each space.

The issue of White Balance proved to be a bit of a surprise.  The house is lit throughout with a mix of low energy fluorescents, Halogen, and LED lights.  Playing around in camera first I quickly discovered that the warmth that I was looking for was actually produced by using the shade setting.  It does give a noticeable orange cast but that in itself gives some of the effect I was looking for and does help to emphasise, if only of the purpose of this assignment, that the light source was artificial.  Tungsten produced a horrible, cold, blue cast.  Fluorescent on the other hand gave a much more natural, if slightly washed out result, but did not make it clear that the light was not natural.  Using Automatic White Balance, letting the camera decide produced an even more nondescript result.  Having worked this out in camera first I took all of the images using use the shade setting.  However, to give some degree of comparison, I have included shots using fluorescent and automatic settings for one of the scenes, marked on the contact sheets below (4774 and 4775).  On reflection though, looking again at 4773, I fear that in this particular case the orange cast is actually too strong so this one would need to be rethought if taken further.

This is not the full range of shots that I initially intended to take.  I was going to do more but having produced this first set and having reviewed them I have decided not to continue with this particular approach.  The problem is that while some of the images are, I think, quite interesting enough in their own right, the set as a whole does not say enough about light.  There is not enough variety.  They do not say much to me about “Languages of light”.

I am therefore going to reshoot adopting a completely different approach.  What I think is most interesting about light is the way it changes over time.  This is hinted at in what I produced for Exercise 4.2 but I think it can be made much stronger and more explicit by photographing a scene where the change of natural light and its movement is more obvious, and also record the transition to artificial light as natural light fades.  What I therefore need to introduce is a stronger temporal element and shoot over the course of a lengthy part of the day.  If I can work out how to do it from a technical point of view it would then be nice to finish with a final shot in the dark, without any artificial light but just what little light is available from the twilight or moonlight – that could be an interesting technical challenge in its own right!  It would be interesting to try an approach similar to Michael Wesely’s pin-hole cameras but I fear that is beyond me at the moment.

More to follow!

The role (roll) of film

In a recent post I wrote little about Gerry Badger’s book. Gerry Badger: The Genius of Photography – Book

Much as I enjoyed his writing and over all thesis there is one comment that he makes that stopped me in my tracks and with which I find, after a little thought, I disagree profoundly.  This is also something that coincides with me thinking more about the teaching of art, specifically photography, generally.  So, I thought I would save this little rant for a separate post.

The comment in question comes right at the end of the book, in the final coda, “Anyone can do it”  (Badger, 2007, page 233) and is worth quoting in full:

“Photography has gone electronic, and in the very near future film will be an almost extinct process used only by a few Luddites, as will the whole business of making prints with messy chemicals in home darkrooms.  The darkroom will be the computer screen.”

Not only do I think this is wrong but it is also wrongheaded and in the long term I fear it does photography as an art form a disservice.

Yes, photography has gone electronic, with digital camera and phones, that is inescapable, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.  Socially the impact of the democratisation of photography has been enormous.  Not all of that impact has been positive – there are an awful lot of bad pictures out there –  but there has been a great deal of good, not least, for example, in the rise of the citizen journalist (or whatever the right phrase is).  But that does not mean that analog photography is, or should be, dead, or confined to an eccentric, lunatic fringe.  No, it is not now going to be mainstream, but it is nevertheless still important.

Firstly, it is clear from an artistic point of view that there is still room, and an appetite, for the use of film, and indeed other analog processes such as pin-hole cameras (such as the work of Michael Wesely – there are various articles on the net that discuss this work, here is just one example, which will have to do until Wesely gets his own website up and running: https://pocketmemories.net/ideas/features/michael-wesely-experience-time-longest-exposed-photographs ), solargrams and cyanotypes, to name a few.  It was striking that one of the images in the Taylor Wessing show was a tin-type.  Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016, Sunderland – Exhibition   Yes, it is a bit niche, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not a valid artistic approach.

There is also clearly a wider appetite for analog photography outside the perhaps cloistered realms of contemporary art photography.  Take a look for example at www.lomography.com.  There is no shortage of makers of analog film (pace the demise of Kodak) in various formats, form 35mm to 120 and beyond, and suppliers of developing equipment and chemicals (“messy” or otherwise).  Setting up a proper dark room apart, the chemicals and other kit needed to at least develop film negatives is not expensive or difficult to come by, nor indeed, as I have now discovered, is it particularly difficult.

Perhaps more importantly there is a recognition of the importance of film photography in some educational institutions.  By coincidence I note that the August 2017 issue of British Journal of Photography has a section within it on education.  At Ostkreuz School for Photography in Berlinall new students get to play around with pin-hole cameras and then with an East German beginners’ camera from the 1950s as ways of learning the fundamentals of photography (pages 36 – 43).  

Of course one can cover the same basics without having to use film.  The same can be done with a modern digital camera, and the OCA course follows that particular route.  I can well understand that it is not going to be desirable or practical for all new students to get into film as well as having to lay out for digital kit.  Nevertheless, I can see from my personal point of view the benefits, and have gone down this route myself as an addition to my learning.

I mentioned in relation to Exercise 3.3.1 that I still have two film cameras, an Olympus OM10 (which unfortunately is not really usable at the moment as there is a problem with the coating within the lens which has broken down) and a Zenit EM.  Since then I have also invested in a Leica M3 – fifty odd years old but still a fabulous camera.  Using this has been something of a revelation.  Even using my DSLR in manual mode there are still things that the camera does for me (as also do the Olympus – which is actually semi automatic unless I use a manual override on it – and Zenit, which at least has a built in light meter).  With the Leica I have to go right back to basics and do everything.  The camera does nothing for me – apart from taking the final picture.  OK, I use a modern, digital, light meter app on my iPhone but nevertheless it is still a question of setting ISO, taking a reading, choosing aperture and shutter speed, and then focusing manually.

It is a much slower process than shooting digitally but I see that as a benefit as part of my learning.  I am forced to think more about each of the technical elements of taking a picture.  I also have to think more carefully about composition and getting the shot right, or as right as possible, from the outset.  It is not really practical to shoot off frame after frame and hope to catch the right moment as you can when shooting digitally.  I did notice that when I did the Decisive Moment assignment I was more shutter happy in my approach than considered and observational.  Going back to film is, for me at least, a welcome corrective.

I have not yet used the Leica for any of the course work.  I need to get a new scanner to digitise the negatives before I can use any of its output for the course and there will probably be limits to how much I can use it, given that for now at least I am limited to black and white film as that is all that I am currently set up to develop.  To this extent Badger is correct, at least for me, that the darkroom is indeed a computer screen.  Nevertheless it has had an impact on how I now use the digital camera.  It has made me think more and not just hold down the shutter release and hope for the best.  (Whether any of my pictures will be better as a result still remains to be seen!)  The fact that digital is now dominant does not necessarily mean the end for film.

Oh, and by the way, I object to the misuse of the term Luddite, which, if nothing else, shows a lack of historical awareness.  Here is a quote from the Wikipedia entry on the Luddites:

“The group was protesting the use of machinery in a “fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labour practices. Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste as machines would replace their role in the industry. It is a misconception that the Luddites protested against the machinery itself in an attempt to halt progress of technology. However, the term has come to mean one opposed to industrialisation, automation, computerisation or new technologies in general.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

On this basis I would be, and indeed am, proud to claim to be a Luddite, albeit a Luddite working within the digital realm!

Badger, G, (2007). The Genius of Photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

https://pocketmemories.net/ideas/features/michael-wesely-experience-time-longest-exposed-photographs

http://www.lomography.com

British Journal of Photography, Issue 7862, August 2017

Tony Ray-Jones: American Colour 1962-1965 – Book

I bemoaned in an earlier post the fact there is so little of Tony Ray-Jones’s work that is still in print (Only in England – Exhibition) so I was delighted to come across this book from a publisher previously unknown to me, Mack Books.  How I missed them is beyond me as they publish a small but interesting and challenging range of books, including some from well known artists.  I discovered them by chance when I learned that they are going to republish Alec Soth’s brilliant book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which seems otherwise to be available only at second hand prices that would make your hair stand on end!  (http://www.mackbooks.co.uk)

Anyway, this book is fabulous.  I was aware that Ray-Jones had spent some time in America and that he had shot there in colour but I had never before seen any of this work so this was quite a revelation, otherwise being familiar only with his later work in black and white once he had returned to the UK.  The hallmarks of his later work are all there – the clever compositions that look as if they have been dashed off but are actually very carefully considered, the probing but still sympathetic eye – but all in glorious colour, lovely rich but never garish colour.

I flipped through all the pictures first before reading the introduction (it is not a very big book) and was not surprised, having done so, then to read that Robert Frank in particular was a clear influence on his work at the time – The Americans had been published only a few years earlier.  Some of these pictures could easily be by Frank, were it not for the colour.  Others are clearly direct homages to Frank but the colour at least brings something new and individual to certain scenes that are already familiar from Frank’s work.

Lovely stuff!  There is clearly a lot more of Ray-Jones’s work in the National Media Museum archives (now swallowed up by the maw of the Science Museum?) and I for one can only hope that more of it will see the light of day.  But what are the chances?

Frank, R (2016).  The Americans.  Göttingen: Steidl

Ray-Jones, T, (2013).  American Colour 1962-1965.  London: MACK

Gerry Badger: The Genius of Photography – Book

It has taken me a while to work my way through this book (which oddly is listed in the course reference material as both “Essential Reading” and “Recommended”!) taking it in in just small chunks, more by accident than design.  In retrospect I feel that this was perhaps the better way to approach it, giving it time and space to sink in.  I was initially expecting a conventional, chronological history, but it is more interesting and richer than that, concentrating more on a thematic and conceptual approach.  From the viewpoint of questions of aesthetics I think that Shore’s book is much more helpful, but this book has much more to say about the social issues, and social impacts of various approaches to photography.

The subtitle of the book is “How photography has changed our lives” but it strikes me that this is a bit of hyperbole tacked on by a copy editor.  It is not a phrase that Badger uses, nor is this an issue he investigates in any depth.  Yes, he does look at photography’s social impact but that is not the same as showing that life would in some way have been different but for photography.  In any event it strikes me that it is not photography as such that has had an impact as the basic nature of photography has not changed in essence since Niépce and Daguerre started capturing light in the early 1800.  What has changed is the technology and with it the ubiquity of cameras in various forms, of photographs, and indeed of “photographers”  SO, I would argue that it is technology that has changed our lives, not photography, which is merely (!) one of any number of manifestations of that technology.

What I get though from this book, above all else, is a greater sense of the different types and approaches to art that photography is capable of providing than the other books that I have read recently about photography as contemporary art, even though they all cover very similar ground.

Badger, G, (2007).  The Genius of Photography:  How photography has changed our lives.  London:  Quadrille Publishing Limited.

Shore, S, (2007).  The Nature of Photographs.  London:  Phaidon.