The first day, in the desert sun…We’ve just driven from Ironbridge to Orgiva, Southern Spain. 1500 miles in three days, including a detour on day two to see our friends Alice and Jo, who run an excellent gite in the Dordogne.
On the third day, we woke up in Toledo and set off across the plains of La Mancha described in Cervantes’ epic Don Quixote. Obviously I was searching hard for windmills, and came across these by some weird serendipity. The trip through northern Spain had been notable for two things – the snow and the frequency of Repsol gas stations. Having confidently left Toledo with about quarter of a tank, after about an hour’s drive I started to fret. Not a gas station in sight. Eventually I decided to leave the highway and search for petrol instead of windmills. I found both within five minutes. These windmills were the only traditional ones I saw on the whole journey and they were on a hilltop about half a mile from the forecourt of the garage.
We arrived in the Alpujarras on Thursday afternoon. It’s been nearly six months since the last visit and we were relieved to find the Cortijo exactly the way we’d left it. A little dusty and bitterly cold, but once the wood burner was fired up and a bottle of brandy opened, the warmth spread quickly through both house and mood.
We’re staying for three weeks; not tilting at windmills, but finishing off the house ready for rentals from Easter. Only furniture to buy now and a bit of pruning in the garden. Should even be some time for photography!
So this is the year when I get to do a lot of the stuff I love doing, and let go of a lot of the stuff I don’t like doing. I’m not talking about avoiding the washing up or the ironing (though my partner will argue the toss on that), I’m talking about moving the stuff I’ve been working on in the background for the last couple of years, into the foreground.
Thirteen years as an architect with IBM has bought me a lot of lenses! As well as a property in Spain and one in the Midlands. I wish the company well, it was a great decade, but now is the time to move on to what will be for me a more interesting challenge. I’m joining forces with my partner, documentary maker Vivianne Howard, in a new venture, Helter Skelter Media. We will be moving into a studio in the Custard Factory, Birmingham on March 1st. We will be offering a range of services from Photography to Digital Media and Documentaries.
Electrical Image has always been associated with photography and that’s how it will stay. Travel, Landscape, Documentary and Fine Art photography will continue to be represented by this web site. As will my own musings on various photography related topics and the workshops I’ve been threatening to run in Andalusia.
The business of setting up a new company is simultaneously terrifying and invigorating. Helter-Skelter is defined by my Thesaurus as “chaotic and disorganised”! There are leases to negotiate, furniture to buy, thankfully not very much equipment, but accountants and lawyers are easily as expensive as cameras. The reality is I’ll probably be taking fewer photographs and spending a lot more time on Marketing and Sales. I’ll make less money this year, but my quality of life will be better.
The Custard Factory in Digbeth is an exciting place to have an office. It reminds me a lot of Camden Town in the 1970’s where I spent so much time at the Roundhouse watching the likes of Patti Smith, Television and the Ramones, Dingwalls where I spent most of the 80’s between classes at London College of Printing, promoting the likes of Johnny Thunders, John Cale and the dance night JUJU. There is an energy to the place that I really like and please Fox News pay attention here – Digbeth is in the Irish Quarter of Birmingham! It doesn’t have the music scene, but it has a thriving digital media scene and that’s just the job for us.
This new venture is a bringing together of many different things I’ve done in my life, it feels good and it feels right, like coming home. It will be bloody hard work, but as somebody once said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”! In the meantime, check back here for details of the Landscape Workshop in Andalusia.
My favourite, of all the books I have bought this year turned out to be an outsider. “Landmark – The Fields of Landscape Photography” is a compendium of the best of contemporary landscape photography, gathering 240 photographs by contemporary photographers, some famous, one not.
The form has suffered by comparison with the more fashionable and equally demanding street photography to a point where it has become unfashionable and sadly cliched.
Landscape demanding street photography to a point where it has become unfashionable and sadly cliched.
William A Ewing has curated a collection of photography by over 100 contemporary photographers that seizes this lazy perception of landscape photography and turns it on its head, giving it a good shake in the process. There are some extraordinary, arresting images here that demand second and third looks, even a re-evaluation of the form. Most interesting are the photographs showing the impact man has made on the landscape; if there is a contemporary relevance to landscape photography it is surely to be found in the pictures of Edward Burtynsky to cite one example, where the scale of human impact on the planet is explored on a grand scale.
The reason this book has become a favourite of mine is because it has caused me to re-assess my own photography. The book has been a catalyst in the crystallisation of many random thoughts into what I hope will prove to be a coherent collection of images for 2015. I couldn’t ask for any more!
Today was the last day that the Ironbridge Gorge Museums would be open until March. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get up early and investigate the Tar Tunnels, a man made construction running 1000 yards into the hill at Coalport in the Ironbridge Gorge.
I’d seen a few photographs of this place and have been meaning to take a look since I moved here. The tunnel was built in 1787 as part of a coal mine, it’s about 5 ft high, widening to 6ft after the first 50 yards and lined entirely in brick. A railway track runs the length of the tunnel, but it is closed to the public after about 150 metres.
The story is that as the miners drilled into the hill, they noticed tar (bitumen) oozing from the walls. In fact you can see to the sides of the tunnel, quite large pools of liquid tar, gathering in natural caverns. The Victorians used this to waterproof boats that carried coal to Ironbridge where it fired furnaces used in constructing metalwork. Later, once the automobile had begun to make its presence felt, this stuff was used by John McAdam to provide a binding agent for his revolutionary road covering.
It is said that the people who made their living mining this area were permanently stained by constant exposure to this treacly substance. They were known locally as the “Black Imps”. I wondered how many cancers went unobserved or whether this naturally occurring substance is carcinogenic?
To the technical stuff: This place is pretty dark so I used a tripod and made a series of long exposures at f8 at various points along the tunnel, the aim was to get as much in focus as possible, front to back, along with maximum sharpness. Conscious of the likelihood of other people arriving to explore the site, I exposed for about 20 seconds adjusting the ISO between 100 and 400 to make those exposures possible. I underexposed a couple of stops less than the meter suggested, in order to minimise the effect of the lights. A little processing in Lightroom to get some more contrast and a tiny bit more saturation to emphasise the yellowness of the brickwork and invoke the atmosphere of the 1780’s.
I have a Canon 10-22mm lens that I have used for landscapes and most recently for shooting the interior of a flat I’m selling in Brighton. I took it out of the cupboard the other day to clean it and found the UV filter was jammed. Solid. As a rock.
It helps to have a basic understanding of physics when removing a stuck filter. Gripping it hard with finger and thumb and twisting doesn’t work – the reason is that the pressure exerted by the squeezing of two points on the circumference of the filter causes outward pressure along the perpendicular axis – i.e.. the filter bulges imperceptibly outwards causing it to stick even tighter.
What is needed is even pressure around the filter – specialist devices can be obtained quite cheaply that encircle the filter – squeeze and twist. Because the pressure is evenly applied, the filter doesn’t flex and twists right off. Has invariably worked, except this time. Solid. Hmmm.
I phoned a local camera shop in Shropshire for advice. Get a soft piece of rubber, put the lens face down on the rubber and twist – the theory is the rubber grips the filter, all the way along the circumference and the twist releases the thread. Didn’t work.
I pretended I didn’t care, put the lens and filter back in the cupboard and sneaked up on it in an attempt to catch it unawares. Abject failure. Dancing widdershins at midnight around the old oak tree I muttered incantations from the Book of Thoth. Strangely this too failed to work.
The thought occurred that if the lens and filter were placed in the fridge, the reduced temperature would cause the filter to contract microscopically, freeing it from the clutches of the lens. Didn’t work.
Desperation was beginning to set in. This is not a recommended solution but I tried it anyway. WD40 does an excellent job of releasing jammed locks and so on. I reasoned that a tiny spray around the gap between lens and filter might allow the oil to seep into the thread and free the filter. I learned only that oil on the lens is extremely difficult to remove and it didn’t work.
I watched someone on Youtube take a hammer, break the glass in the filter and then use a hacksaw to saw through the filter holder. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This method would undoubtedly work, but its a high risk strategy. Very high risk.
Yesterday I was in Brighton for the afternoon and thought I’d pop into Clocktower Cameras to ask their advice. I handed the lens over the counter saying “I expect it will just come off in one twist…”. The chap looked at the lens, twisted it once and the filter came off. I had tried it myself yesterday morning and it was solid as a rock. Clocktower Cameras have some weird voodoo that is beyond the ken of mere mortals like me. They are also really nice guys, very knowledgeable and a reminder if one were ever needed that a local camera shop is worth its weight in gold.
Lessons learned? When putting a lens filter onto a lens make sure it is set correctly in the thread. Do not leave it loose or it will fall off. Do not tighten it too much or it will jam. Keep a set of filter grips in your camera bag. Clean your kit regularly, especially after shooting anywhere where there is sand, dust or soil – a single grain of sand or grit can and will cause this type of problem. Do not place your trust in witchcraft and avoid WD40 – it is the plaything of the horned one…
A bit of fun with the Brighton & Hove Camera Club this week taught me a couple of interesting lessons. I’d really recommend this to other camera clubs as it brought a host of hitherto unseen photographs out of the shadows and gave everyone an opportunity to see other people’s work in a collection. The challenge was excellent for participation, because of the format, everyone in the club was dragged in within a couple of days – like a chain letter, the participant list grows exponentially.
The rules of the Black and White Challenge are very simple. The person issuing the challenge posts a photograph every day for five days. On each day, she issues a new challenge to another photographer. There are no prizes and it is much less nerve-wracking for new photographers than entering a competition is. I remember the tension of my first competition only too well – mine was the second to last photograph reviewed by a visiting judge who had already displayed a view of photography that seemed to combine the narrowness of a fanatic with the casual cruelty of a sadist. By the time he reached my photograph my fears had multiplied and expectation diminished to a point where anything other than disqualification seemed like a momentous victory!
The beauty of the format is that it encourages people to take a fresh look at their archives. Landscape photographers suddenly show a penchant for street photography, sports photographers for still lives. Five good photographs in five days is asking a lot of even a full time photographer – I think it was Ansell Adams that remarked that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop” – good is not the same as significant, but still a tall order!
We used the club’s Facebook page as the forum – with the result that an already vibrant page became Turbocharged almost overnight. Such was the popularity of the challenge that someone has already proposed a follow up. In Colour.
So what did I learn from the challenge? I deliberately avoided photographs I’d already exhibited, so I took a look at monochromes I’d shot in the last three years or so. iPhone, Canon, anything was up for selection. The lesson I’ll value most was – spend some time looking again at the archives. Generally I shoot to an idea I have and I view the day’s shots through the prism of this idea. Consequently some perfectly good photographs get overlooked. I’d always liked the IBM Conference shot – taken on an iPhone in Barcelona, I’d seen the extreme contrast created by a half open door and waited patients until the right combination of people arrived in the right place. I had to anticipate the timing of the shot and there were several rejects, but this one came out exactly as I’d anticipated.
The Beachy Head shot was taken using a combination of Graduated and ND filters as it was directly into the sun. I was very close to the cliffs edge on a fairly windy day and for some reason attracted a procession of other photographers who seemed to think this was the only place to take a shot from. Strange and potentially suicidal behaviour…
The Shanghai picture was taken on the day I arrived, I had to buy an umbrella and my original intention was to shoot the cityscape provided by the business district in the background across the river. The rain put that idea on the shelf and I had to think of another approach. I decided to back off and shoot from a distance, using the lines and reflections in the concrete as leading lines. The success of the shot depended on a combination of people being in the right place to provide depth front to back. In this I was often frustrated as many walkers politely stopped and waited for me to finish the shot!
My final submission was taken in Bangalore this Spring. I’d become fascinated by the posters, advertisements displaying an idealised version of the Indian male. Implausibly macho, impeccably poised, a combination of stereotypes resulting in an impossible to live up to ideal. This shot was taken some time after I became hopelessly lost in the back streets behind a market. A perfect combination of reality and fiction, the shot exactly captured the ambivalence I’d felt about these advertisments.
I had a great time trawling through my archives for these pictures and was happy with the way they turned out as a set. More fascinating though was the experience of seeing other people’s work, people whose work I thought I knew quite well, submitting often surprising and occasionally stunning pictures. I’ve grown to expect “stunning” from many of the photographers in this club, but the Black and White Challenge inspired some fantastic exhibits.
Published in 2013, the first edition of this book created something of a stir by a) being brilliant and b) being almost impossible to get hold of. Happily that situation has been resolved by the good folk at Steidl getting hold of the rights and publishing a second edition.
To the book. Minutes to Midnight is a record of a road trip around Australia that was made in 2003. When I say record, anyone coming to this book expecting high gloss renditions of Ayers Rock and Sydney Opera House is in for a rude shock. This photography is coming from a completely different place. Impressionistic and brooding, the pictures here get under the skin of both subject and viewer. If this is documentary photography, it is a documentary of the senses, an impressionistic view that seeks to record what it was like to be in Australia in 2003.
Some of the pictures come from the traditional documentary style and these pack an almost visceral punch but more interesting are a selection of shots where the subject is burned out, leaving a ghostly almost unrecognisable flare. Parke uses reflections, double exposures, found lighting and startling composition to create images that stop the viewer dead in their tracks. There is something of Daido Moriyami in these pictures. And something of David Lynch. The effect is at once immersive and unsettling.
This is a book I keep coming back to. When a good photographer starts to push the boundaries of technique and style, great things happen and this is very much the case with Minutes to Midnight. There is nothing ordinary about this book and a lot that is extraordinary.
A gem of a book. Beautifully designed and produced. Great photographs reproduced really well, a bargain price and a decent, if slightly contentious read. What could possibly go wrong?
Although I don’t classify myself as a street photographer, I have a lot of admiration for many of the photographers that do. In fact some of my favourite photographs fall into this category.
What this book does exceptionally well is to cover most sides of the discussion. People get very worked up about street photography and there are quasi-religious wars on the subject of post-processing (forbidden), mono or colour (mono), camera (Leica) etc. This book acknowledges the divisions in the community and calmly takes the view that there is room for all sorts of photographic styles, techniques and equipment within the genre. By using so many photographs to illustrate various points, Gibson makes it very difficult for the reader to maintain an extreme position.
Is the book a manual? Well yes and no. Much like the University of Life, there can be no definitive manual for street photography. It seems to me that there are broadly three schools, one where the art is in capturing a moment and condensing all of the emotion contained in that moment into a solitary image. Another where the art is to arrange everyday figures and objects into a pattern which has resonance to the viewer. A third where the photograph is about shapes, light and shade. Graphic design using found components. These things can rarely be taught and I think that is what draws so many people to street photography. It looks as though it should be easy, but isn’t!
To conclude, I bought this book on a whim, not my usual fare at all, but I’m very glad I did. And at £8.38 from Amazon, it’s a no brainer.
The traces of the industrial revolution are everywhere in the woods surrounding Ironbridge, I’ve walked many miles now exploring the paths which thread through the forest, frightening the odd deer into crashing through the undergrowth, and very rarely meeting any other human beings. The paths close to the river follow the old railway line that used to bring fuel to the power station. Along this track I have found the remains of old Lime Kilns used to convert the Limestone of Lincoln Hill into Quicklime for use in agriculture. A quarry, once used to supply the stone with which Buildwas Abbey is built, is now completely reclaimed by nature.
The story here is one of regeneration, I recall my friend Dana Wiehl telling me about the hills of New England, completely denuded of trees by the industrialists of the North, providing building materials and fuel for the civil war. Now unrecognisable, cloaked in some of the most beautiful forests I’ve seen. The Forests here remind me very much of that part of America, dense and sprawling, spilling over the edge of the Gorge onto the Shropshire plain. Yet here, Ironbridge Power Station nestles into the valley bottom supplying electricity for Birmingham. A strangely beautiful juxtaposition of ancient and modern.
There’s a theme beginning to emerge, it’s not the theme I had in mind when I moved here, but I’m finding traces of industry in these hills and forests, not just the industrial revolution, but modern artefacts. Satellite dishes and power stations. The contrast between the uniformity of the things left here by humans and the apparently timeless landscape with it’s rivers, woods and plains is fascinating and I’m finding myself photographing it more and more.
It’s the beginning of a new project and as usual I’m filled with optimism and not a little trepidation. I’m looking forward to the Autumn and even the Winter, because the land and the light will change, offering new perspectives and fresh challenges.