Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Photographs not taken

I very rarely go out without a camera of some sort but this morning I decided to go out for a walk and deliberately leave my camera at home. You don't always need to have your camera with you - in fact there are times when I think I pay more attention without it, as the camera can get in the way of looking and make you not fully aware of being in the moment.  Conversely, there are days when this is patently untrue and having your camera with you seems to heighten your observational powers.  But this morning, I stepped out unencumbered and despite initially regretting my impulse, I eventually stopped wishing I had it with me and concentrated on what my eyes could actually see.

At every turn a new vista opened up before me and I found myself not only looking but listening more carefully.  Some of the photographs I didn't take, which you will just have to imagine:
  • A dark and mysterious pond surrounded by huge, creaking, twisted willows
  • An owl flying low between the trees
  • A tumbledown brick farm building, its roof gaping and brick walls collapsing 
  • A drake with a harem of a dozen ducks peacefully swimming on the water of another pond, ringed by reeds and bulrushes.  As they saw me, they rose up in unison and flew directly towards me and over my head
  • The leaves from the row of huge lime trees in the village eddying and swirling along the road in the wind
There is actually a book called The Photographs Not Taken  - a collection of essays by photographers who instead of using the normal method of making a photograph, made one using words instead 'to describe the memories and experiences that didn't go through the camera lens.....mental negatives which depict the unedited world and the moments of life that do not exist in a single frame.'
I'm not suggesting that as photographers we make a habit of abandoning our cameras but it doesn't do any harm to leave them at home once in a while (and I'm sure the world wouldn't miss a few less images!).  Of course, you risk missing the unrepeatable shot, but there's always tomorrow.....

Monday, 29 October 2012

Close to home

As a photographer, one of the main challenges I find is to renew my sense of wonder in the world.  When you pass by the same sights day after day, it is easy to stop looking closely, to let it all pass under the radar. Familiarity all too often does breed contempt and none more so than in our immediate surroundings. Our eyes become dulled so we seek excitement in pastures new to stimulate our jaded senses. I have lived here in the country for over 17 years, walked the same walks, watched the seasons change and the landscape gradually alter over the year, and although I am still able to appreciate its natural beauty, I feel I have gradually stopped noticing things. In an effort to counter this, I have decided to embark on a series of walks within a five-mile radius of my home, photographs of which I will feature on the blog on a regular basis.

I am not intending this to be a straightforward documentary project, but more an attempt at evoking a sense of place and my relationship to it.  There will be no shots of spectacular landscapes or stunning sunsets, no picture postcard views or bright, saturated colours - it is easy enough to make pleasing images of such scenes but that is not what interests me. Let's face it, for much of the year the countryside can be rather dull - murky shades of green and brown under an overcast sky, muddy fields and dripping trees do not on the face of it make an obvious choice of subject matter but I am hoping that I will be able to find some inspiration out there!

Here are some images I took at the weekend on an extremely unpromising afternoon - cold, dull and with a light but persistent rain.  Yet some moments of quiet beauty and unexpected sights were still to be found....

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The best camera.... the one you have with you, or so goes the oft-quoted saying. There is certainly a good deal of truth in this mantra, but in my case I suspect I've been using it to justify my reliance on my iPhone Hipstamatic app as my phone is of course always with me! At the last count, I discovered I had 15 cameras in the cupboard, many of which have not seen the light of day for 2/3 years or longer. There are both digital and film cameras, sundry lenses and two plastic bags of film in the fridge. The list includes 2 Nikon digital SLRs, a compact digital Leica (abandoned in haste on purchase of my iPhone!), a Fuji Finepix, a Mamiya RB 67 medium format (the beast), a Hasselblad medium format, a Pentax ME Super, an Olympus OM1, a plastic Holga and Coronet Flashmaster, a Polaroid Image System, a couple of autofocus old style film cameras dating from the 70s, and of course the ubiquitous iPhone. So plenty of scope there for carrying a different camera with me from time to time!

I have decided to blow the dust off some of these cameras and put them through their paces over the next few weeks. This may involve a bit of relearning of old techniques, especially where the film cameras are concerned. But I hope that it will prove to be useful, and if nothing else, I will get to use up some of that old film that is taking up room in my fridge.

First off, the Hasselblad, which to be honest, has not been gathering dust as I have used it quite a few times over the last year, but not since early summer. I took it off to Highgate cemetery last week to shoot a roll of black and white film as part of my ongoing series In the Midst of Life, a project examining memorial customs and traditions. Highgate cemetery is the last of London's 'magnificent seven' cemeteries on my 'to visit' list (more details here). I processed the film myself and scanned the negatives, but plan to go into the darkroom next week and make some prints. We are so used to viewing our images on computer screens these days, that the qualities of a well-made print can easily be forgotten.

The Hasselblad is relatively compact for a medium format camera and can easily be used without a tripod. It is a joy to use with its waist-level viewfinder, simple operating system and pin-sharp lenses and the square image is probably my favourite format. Working with medium-format film cameras makes you slow down - there is no in-built light meter so you have to use a hand-held one and of course, no checking to see what you have shot as with a digital camera. I usually only take one roll of film with me (12 shots) so try to make sure that every one counts.  Here are some of the results.....

More from the series can be seen here

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Town mouse, country mouse

I have always been drawn to photographing the urban landscape, even though I spend the majority of my time living in the country.  The city is full of visual stimulus - a rich source of inspiration with its ever-changing backdrop and constantly moving flow of humanity. I find the country, by contrast, more difficult to draw inspiration from.  It reveals its secrets more reluctantly, requiring more close observation as the day to day changes are easy to miss.  Weeks can go by without much seeming to happen - just the daily weather fluctuations and the gradual and inevitable change of the seasons.  Perhaps I have become immune to its charms, taking its quiet beauty for granted as I rush about the London streets in search of novelty and excitement. But perversely, when I am in the city, after a few days the frenetic hustle and bustle, the sheer overwhelming noise of the place, starts to wear me down and I find myself longing for the peace and tranquillity of the countryside. There seems to be no pleasing some people!

A few months ago, in response to this dilemma, I strung together a short sequence of photographs accompanied by an audio track I recorded in the small village where I live, combining the sights of the city with the sounds of the country. It makes for rather strange and sometimes slightly comical viewing..... 

Perhaps there is scope for further development here, not necessarily in the same format as I'm not sure I want to branch out into video.  It is more the contrasts and contradictions of the city/country divide that interest me.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The end of the affair?

Over the last year and a half I have found myself using my digital SLR less and less. I fell out of love with it quite suddenly when I bought myself an iPhone last year and started using the Hipstamatic app. Seduced by the romantic aura which this app lends to images and by the ever-increasing combinations of 'lenses' and 'films' available, I increasingly found the photographs taken with the SLR dull and lacking in impact. The Hipstamatic app gives images a grungy, lo-fi or dreamlike look or else heightens the colours, adding a dramatic edge, lifting the everyday to another level.  It is also highly portable - just slip the phone in your pocket and you are ready to go.  No more aching shoulders carrying camera, bag and lenses.

Some images taken with the Hipstamatic app over the last few weeks on walks near my home.

And yet......recently my love affair with the Hipstamatic has begun to pall.  Perhaps it is the ubiquity of these intense square images all over the web.  Perhaps it is the suspicion that they are a tiny bit inauthentic - just press a button and change the look.  Afficionados will tell you that it is just the digital equivalent of choosing lo-fi cameras and old film and I have certainly bought into that idea.  The very fact of selecting the film and lens combination before you shoot gives you the feeling that you have made a conscious choice about how you want your image to look, unlike apps like Instagram and countless others where you apply a selection of filters after taking the image. Or perhaps it's the feeling that it's all just too easy.

So yesterday, on a dripping and sodden country day, the sky washed out and colourless, I decided to leave my iPhone at home and took the long neglected SLR out for a walk. The pictures are straight off the camera, no adjustments in Photoshop.  The images have a quiet authenticity about them which I find strangely appealing, a bit like having a simple meal after eating too much rich food. This is how the countryside looks on a grey October day, they seem to say, take it or leave it......

Could this be the beginning of the end of the affair? Maybe these are the first faltering steps on the road to recovery. Perhaps I will learn to love my Nikon again (though I suspect I never truly loved it in the first place, but that's another story!)

Monday, 22 October 2012


A new blog and fresh inspiration......well, hope springs eternal!  The death of the year beckons: Autumn is traditionally perceived as the season of melancholy but in its slow decay and darkening days are to be found the seeds of next year's regeneration - the perfect time, then, to start a new blog.

Previous blog incarnations were either specific to a particular project, fell by the wayside through neglect or simply died a natural death.  A certain amount of discipline is required to maintain a blog on a regular basis and I find it difficult to photograph to order. Recently I feel I have lost my way somewhat, not getting the same pleasure I used to from the act of photographing. I need to rekindle my waning inspiration and pull myself out of the rut I have been ploughing.

By examining not only my own work but the work of others, I hope to rediscover the joys of photography, in the process challenging myself to put new ideas into practice as well as revisiting old work with fresh eyes. My ideas come thick and fast, but most remain unrealised, either through laziness, lack of time or poor organisation.  I flit like a butterfly from project to project so have decided to make a virtue of my lack of focus and put it all down here in the hope that something concrete will emerge. Who knows - it may lead to a completely new direction or simply a reappraisal of what is important to me.

Watch this space.....