Thursday, 29 November 2012

A sea of faces

Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery. I very rarely do portrait work myself but I still find images of the human face endlessly fascinating. It is often said that a good portrait should reveal something of the subject's character but in reality looks can be deceptive and it is a bit simplistic to draw evidence of a person's inner life from their outer appearance. It's more likely that looking at a portrait reinforces our sense of what it means to be human: we may get a feeling of identification and empathy or sometimes the complete opposite - antipathy and alienation, or we may like to attach our own narrative to the picture on show.

I usually approach this show with mixed feelings and inevitably feel let down when my favourites fail to win a prize! Without exception every year I find the reasoning behind some of the judges' choices unfathomable - why some were picked and others ignored - but as always with photography and art in general, preference is entirely subjective. The exhibition attracts a huge number of entries and the selection process is entirely anonymous. The successful entrants range from  professional photographers submitting highly polished work commissioned by newspapers and magazines through to students and amateur photographers.

On display are the usual suspects - wan and miserable young people staring balefully into the camera, a sprinkling of glossy sports stars and celebrities, some of staggeringly huge proportions where every pore and hair is magnified, and a couple of provocative nudes including some children, which given current issues surrounding child welfare I found rather surprising! I felt that some hardly ranked as a portrait at all and seemed more like a figure in the landscape, so small in the frame did the person appear. In amongst this lot however were some gems - a beautiful and quietly dignified portrait of a girl with Down's Syndrome, a Libyan migrant worker caught through a rain-streaked bus window, an African boy framed by the natural light streaming into a dark schoolroom - all really strong and memorable images. Unfortunately none of these images seem to be available on the web but here are some of the prize winners and a few others that caught my eye....

1st prize winner: Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera  

 2nd prize winner: Lynne, Brighton by Jennifer Pattison

 Lola Smoking from the series Off the Set by Alice Pavese Fiori

Michael Stipe by Matthew Lloyd

Kitty, Christine and Kira by Lydia Panas

Gillian Wearing by Robin Friend from the series Sanctuary: Artists and their Studios

Julie Hill by Peer Lindgreen

Hilary Mantel by Michael Birt

The exhibition runs until 17th February 2013 - details here.  All images copyright the artist.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Dark Days II

My struggles with the local landscape continue....

Some photographs taken recently with an old Olympus OM1 that has been lurking in the cupboard unused for a number of years. It feels strange to be using a lightweight 35mm film camera after lugging around medium format or digital SLRs. I used film that has been in the fridge for about 5 years but it seemed to have suffered no ill effects.  Film used was Ilford FP4 which is supposed to be very fine grain but on scanning the negatives, the grain seems to be quite pronounced.  I think this may have more to do with the scanning process than anything else but will only be able to tell when I print them out.

When shooting with black and white film I normally 'pull' the film i.e expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights which gives more control over the contrast. The film is rated at half its normal ISO so a slower shutter speed or wider aperture is needed, giving more detail in the shadows. During processing the developer is diluted more, slowing the development process down. At the same time the developing time is cut and as the highlights develop first, they are less likely to be blown-out. This process is fine when using a faster film rated at 400 ISO but with the slower FP4 rated at 125 ISO, halving it would make it unworkable without a tripod. As these pictures were taken near dusk, they are quite dark anyway, so I decided to rate the film at its usual ISO - consequently some of the highlights in the sky look quite blown to me. The only solution would be to take a tripod with me which is not the way I normally like to work outdoors.

Some of these shots are similar to ones I took a few weeks ago with the iPhone. You can compare them here. Seeing these scanned images on the screen they look a bit woolly and seem to lack presence, but perhaps when I print some of them out I will get a better idea of their quality. The advantages of the 35mm film camera is its portability but for me, this is outweighed by the difficulties working with the fiddly small negatives. Compared with the lovely large negatives from the medium-format cameras, they seem very meagre indeed!

The question also remains, what is it I am looking for whilst photographing the landscape?  It is not my usual subject matter of choice but recently I have been giving a lot of thought to the things that tie you to a particular place.  With some people it is their roots, their community, their past, their heritage - a sense of belonging. My own ties to the location are less easy to identify but in making these studies of the landscape I hope to come up with an answer.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Spoilt for choice

We get so used to viewing images on a screen these days that it's a real treat to see photographs in their physical form.  London is so awash with good photography exhibitions at the moment that we are spoilt for choice - not that I'm complaining! Over the next few days I will post my impressions of the three I visited last week - all very different and enjoyable in their own ways. More visits planned over the next couple of weeks to catch the ones I have missed.

First off, Everything was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s at the Barbican. As ever with shows at the Barbican, this was a very densely packed exhibition, covering the political and cultural events of the two decades as seen through the eyes of 12 major photographers from across the globe, including David Goldblatt, William Eggleston, Bruce Davidson, Larry Burrows and Shomei Tomatsu. Inevitably there was too much to take in on one visit - there are over 400 works on show - and some photographers seemed to be under-represented in comparison to others. There were also notable omissions - nothing covering the events of 1968 in Paris, the Northern Ireland conflict, the Berlin Wall in Germany - in fact, very little pertaining to Europe at all. Two photographers from the USA and 2 from South Africa, made it seem slightly unbalanced, but these are minor criticisms of what is an absolutely absorbing, powerful and memorable exhibition.

It was a joy to see so much outstanding black and white photography.  Among the most note-worthy were Bruce Davidson's compelling photographs from the Civil Rights Movement (hard to grasp that these images of such hatred and brutality took place in the USA a relatively short time ago.) David Goldblatt's approach to his subject is more detached yet no less effective - his portrayal of life under South African apartheid rule is a window onto a strange and distorted world.

Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson

 David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt

As a complete contrast, I found Larry Burrow's photographs of American soldiers in the Vietnam War equally affecting.  I'm not normally a fan of huge photographs but their massive proportions and rich colours were curiously reminiscent of epic historical paintings and elevated the subject matter to another level. William Eggleston's highly saturated dye transfer prints never fail to impress.  He was represented with two separate bodies of work - a series of large-format portraits which I found personally of little interest, and a roomful of his more well-known photographs of the mundane and ordinary aspects of American life in the south, which although by now very familiar, always manage to thrill me. Also of note was the black and white work of Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu whose photographs document the postwar Americanisation of Japan and the impact of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki 15 years after the event.

Larry Burrows

Larry Burrows

Larry Burrows

Shomei Tomatsu

Shomei Tomatsu

Shomei Tomatsu

William Eggleston

William Eggleston

William Eggleston

More information  including artist interviews here. There is also a good review of the exhibition by Guardian photography critic Sean O'Hagan here. The exhibition runs until 13th January 2013.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Trees have feelings too

Some images from earlier in the year, when I began photographing trees in the landscape. I came across a number of trees which had suffered injury or disfigurement in some way or other - branches amputated or broken off, tangled up in barbed wire, initials carved in the bark. Looking out for trees with some sort of special appearance or characteristic and assigning them similar traits and feelings as human beings experience - stoicism, pain, solitude, patience, optimism, resignation, companionship, ageing - I began to see them as a metaphor for the human condition. They stand in the landscape, together or alone, young or old, healthy or diseased facing the vicissitudes of life as we do.

These initial studies were shot with the Hasselblad - I deliberately opted for a camera with a square format as I wanted the images to be considered as portraits. I was originally quite disappointed with the results using colour film - perhaps it is the fact that the overwhelming effect is of dull brown and green, but it has grown on me over the months. Black and white might be more suited to the subject matter though, accentuating the form and texture. I will need to experiment with the same shots in monochrome to compare.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Chance Would be a Fine Thing

A photograph from my series 'Par Hazard' has been chosen as the signature image to promote the exhibition Chance Would be a Fine Thing, a group show opening tomorrow where 13 photographers respond to the theme of chance. I am showing 10 images from the series which records a succession of walks I made based on the London A-Z. Organised by the Central Group of London Independent Photography, the exhibition takes place at the Mile End Art Pavilion in East London from 13th-18th November and is part of London’s Photomonth. More details can be found here.

It promises to be an interesting exhibition as the participating photographers have produced quite diverse and individual interpretations of the different connotations of chance, involving aspects of luck, risk, fortune, probability, opportunity or prospect.

Despite the current trend for staged or constructed imagery, one of photography's joys has always been its susceptibility to chance. As photographers we choose the subject matter, select the aperture and shutterspeed, carefully frame the composition; but the moment the shutter is released, an element of chance is involved: an expression or gesture changes, the sun appears, a figure crosses our field of vision.  The serendipitous moment then becomes ‘a fine thing’ indeed.

'Chance would be a fine thing' can also be interpreted as desire against the odds. Although there may be no chance, this has never stopped people dreaming.There may be fat chance, but the photographer still strives to capture his or her vision. One of the most exciting challenges for photographers is to try to evoke the tension and ambiguity in these contradictions. This is the first group show of LIP's Central London branch in celebration of its second anniversary.  

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Bright days

No sooner do I decide that I want to concentrate on perfecting dark and moody black and white landscapes, than the weather decides to come over all benign and cheerful!  It won't last so I decided I might as well go out and enjoy the season while I can - perfect autumnal weather for some colour shots taken last week. Days like this make me glad to be out in the countryside - the absolute best time of year.  Enjoy, as this blog is about to get much darker......

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Dark days

Nights are drawing in....a rushed walk at dusk earlier in the week. With Don McCullin's photographs still on my mind, I grabbed my phone and came up with these quick black and white studies using the Hipstamatic app. Just thinking about possible subject matter - will go out later with different camera and black and white film. One thing to bear in mind - more clouds would be good. I'm beginning to realise that patience is required for landscape photography!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Open Skies

Don McCullin is not normally a name associated with landscape photography, being more well-known for his war photography and urban images. Yet his book Open Skies which I have been dipping into this week, is full of the most wonderful, impelling black and white landscapes. The photographs, shot on film and printed dark as dark can be, are mainly of the Somerset Levels where McCullin settled after many years photographing the worst atrocities and harrowing scenes in war zones all over the world. This is not the standard picturesque vision of the English landscape, with summer sunshine and fluffy clouds. They show a windswept, stark expanse of countryside in winter, under dark and louring skies, and must surely be an expression of an anguished soul trying to come to terms with what he has been through. In the preface, McCullin states
"After photographing wars and revolutions for two decades, the memories of those painful years nearly always try to spoil my days, even now, here in England....My solace lies in recording what remains of the beautiful landscape of Somerset and its metallic dark skies, which give this county an aged and sometimes remote feeling as if the past is struggling against the future. The stillness of silence and sometimes my loneliness provoke my imagination, but, like the surrounding land, I am fighting to release the past in me."
I often struggle with the idea of a landscape expressing the photographer's emotions but in this case, there is no doubt that they do.  McCullin is a modest man not given to discussing the 'meaning' of his pictures - in the introduction to the book, novelist John Fowles compares his reticence with the "many photographers these days who, not satisfied with simply printing their work, have to develop it in a totally unnecessary linguistic darkroom and puff it in fashionable art-gallery jargon.  That murky slough of turgid self-justification.... Don expects his images to be their own commentary, like all decent artists." This was written in 1989 - imagine what he would have to say these days with the plethora of mind-numbing 'artist statements' which 'challenge, explore and interrogate' ad infinitum! This is work which stands on its own without the need for words. Inspiration indeed.

All photographs Don McCullin from Open Skies.