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!
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.
Milky seas and murky clouds have become something of a cliche these days as a short trawl through Flickr will certainly demonstrate. Its a device I’m certainly guilty of using, perhaps more than I need to, so receiving a copy of Michael Levin’s Zebrato on my birthday was a welcome reminder of just how powerful this effect can be in the right hands.
The effect is achieved through the use of, typically, a ten stop filter, applied to reduce the amount of light entering the lens and thereby extend the exposure without blowing out the highlights. I use the Lee “Big Stopper” filter and although expensive, I haven’t seen anything better although the B&W equivalent runs it close. The B&W filter is a screw in that effectively requires a further step up adapter if you want to use it on more than one lens. The Lee filter requires the Lee filter adapter which has the advantage of offering further slots to insert for example a graduated filter to further control the exposure across the whole image. In addition to the filter, a good tripod is required in order to minimise movement in the camera and, for the same reason, a remote trigger. I use the Canon intervalometer which enables me to precisely time the exposure, but the ordinary remote trigger without timer is perfectly adequate for the purpose as long as you have a watch which displays seconds.
Levin’s work makes a virtue of the long exposure by using it to isolate the subject and generate a sense of timelessness. Minimal in extreme, the effect is to make a point of the apparently pointless, to take one part of a landscape and focus all of the viewer’s attention on the purest representation of form.
Zebrato is exclusively shot in monochrome in locations all over the world, including Brighton, where mysteriously he passed on the opportunity to add yet another photograph of the West Pier to posterity. Instead he shot west to east along the seafront, making a virtue of the natural curve where beach meets water. A solitary mysterious figure is seen lying in the foreground.
This book has made me re-evaluate what I’m doing with long exposures and has sparked some ideas about how I can photograph my new surroundings in Shropshire with a style I am comfortable with. What more can you ask of a book? Highly recommended.
The first collection I encountered of Martin Parr’s was “Think of England”, a set of images of the English at play, containing several photographs of Brighton seafront. I was struck immediately by the humour of the photographs, the visual puns and sly references to other images. This ability to both document and comment is what to my mind separates the great observational photographers from the run of the mill and it is a characteristic that runs through Parr’s photography like the wording in a stick of rock.
“The Non-Conformists” then is a departure of sorts, a tightly themed compendium of monochrome images taken between 1975 and 1980 documenting the chapel and farming communities around Hebden Bridge and Calderdale in Yorkshire. The words are provided by Parr’s wife Susie and the resulting project is a crystallisation of a way of life that is now practically extinct. This old worldliness is both striking to the outsider and very typical of Yorkshire, a county that has always struggled with modernity. My childhood memories of Brylcreem and Billy Walker, bakelite and diesel in Richmond and Swaledale during the early 1960’s seem more typical of the austerity of the 1950’s than the flower power of the sixties. Sure enough, the images in the book suggest another era entirely, more closely resembling the fifties than the onrushing punk rock explosion of the seventies.
My favourite section of the book, one that absolutely nails the class divide that is so very pronounced in Yorkshire is the chapter entitled “Grouse Shooting”. Here we see the thin lipped upper classes and their pampered spaniels at play; enthusiastically engaged in the massacre of the wildlife of the moors. Beaters, one memorably captured upended in the snow, drive craftier fowl out of their hiding places and into the guns.
Other riches offered by this book include the sublime brilliance of the photograph of the Anniversary tea at the Steep Lane Methodist Chapel, the participants lined up along the long table, posh hats and twinsets framed beneath a reproduction of “The Last Supper” and the wonderful series documenting Hebden Bridge Picture House, a struggling provincial independent cinema, where weather, seasonal sales and a paucity of available films conspire to keep the crowds away.
In summary, a wonderful, rewarding book, quite likely to be my favourite of the year. Highly recommended.
Canon make no less than three versions of the “nifty fifty”, the f1.8, f1.4 and f1.2. The pricepoints are wildly different, starting around the £100 mark with the f1.8 and finishing around ten times more expensive with the f1.2. That’s a lot of difference, so is it worth it? And perhaps more pertinently, to whom is it worth it?
To start at the beginning, the 50mm lens is probably the most widely used Prime lens in the lexicon of photography. Almost every photographer I know has at least one, most, like me start with the 1.8 which is probably the best value lens on the planet being sharp as a knife and only let down by the noisiness of the focus and the comparative flimsiness of the build.
The 1.2 is quiet and built like a tank. It weighs a lot more, but then its a small lens and balances the Canon 5D very nicely. You get the feeling you could shoot all day with this lens without putting the camera down or needing the services of an osteopath afterwards. One reason this focal length is so popular is that it more or less mimics the human eye in terms of breadth and depth of view. What you see is more or less what you get.
Another reason its popular with street photographers is it allows the photographer to stand slightly further away than the 35mm does and its size doesn’t tend to attract very much attention – the same is true of the 35mm incidentally.
The 1.2 is known as a “bright” lens. What this means is that in common with the 35mm and the 85mm it works well in low light. Wide open, we can enjoy the benefits of f1.2, the widest aperture in the Canon range, with the one caveat that depth of field, if you are close to your subject, becomes razor thin. This is one reason the lens is popular with portrait photographers – if you can get your model to be still for the time it takes to set the focus on the eye, then you can achieve stunning depth of field and wonderful bokeh with this lens.
In terms of colour and clarity, the colour definition this lens enables is fantastic. As for clarity, at f2.8 it is as sharp as any lens in my collection – I’ve heard people complain it softens at wide apertures, but that’s what this lens is for – which brings me to the point of the article – who is it worth the money to? In my opinion, primarily portrait photographers needing that tiny depth of field. Street photographers can easily get by on the 1.4 I’m sure, at lots less money than this.
And what do I think of this lens? Well, things to like are plentiful, build, weatherproofness, sharpness, clarity, bokeh… the list goes on. I’m not a portrait photographer but I do cover events from time to time and this is a fantastic lens for that purpose. In tandem with the 85mm I don’t think there’s a beatable combination. Let’s hope that I get more events so that I can pay for the damn thing!
Paul Strand was an American photographer and film maker whose work I was only vaguely familiar with, as one of a number of modernist photographers who helped establish the form in the United States during the mid 20th Century. That was before I discovered this book and the fascinating story behind it.
Strand was a Marxist connected to, though apparently never a member of, the Communist Party and through his work with a company called Frontier Films fell foul of the McCarthy regime and found himself branded as “un-american” and “subversive”. Never a man to shirk a fight, his response was to insist on having his work printed in Eastern Germany on the pretext that the print process could only be found in the Eastern Bloc.
He arrived in Scotland, with the FBI in close attendance, at the same time as the American military began surveying the island of South Uist in the Hebrides to see if it were suitable to host a long range missile site. That the project should yield one of the definitive documents of the Hebridean way of life and perhaps the definitive work of Scottish photography is extraordinary under the circumstances.
Written in collaboration with Basil Davidson, the book contains a set of monochrome photographs that span portraiture, landscape and documentary in the main, supplemented with textures of stone and sky, thatched roofs and reeds. As an impression of that bleak landscape, I’ve never seen better, indeed never seen anything even approaching this standard.
Although the book is a political project it is not overtly political. It tells a story, the story of the islanders, of their values and relationship with the land and the sea, with work and the weather. In so doing, Strand asserts that the islanders are and continue to be a viable community, not to be ruthlessly ignored and exploited for political gain.
I love this book, both for the writing and the photography. It is an extraordinary achievement for an outsider to capture so accurately the soul of a community, but capture it he did. He tells the story of these islands in the hope that they might be left alone. In fact, the book was immediately banned in the USA and the rocket ranges are still there, under the management of corporations supplying the defence industry.
In somewhat prescient fashion, the book ends with the following quote: “A comic mythology sometimes found elsewhere has liked to paint the Hebrideans as pawky spongers on the governmental purse, preferring charity to fending for themselves…” Sound familiar?
I picked this book up several months ago at Charleston, home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and refuge for many of the Bloomsbury Set of artists and intellectuals. Annie Leibovitz had given a talk there. I had been out of the country at the time, but Charleston is a favourite place of mine, to visit for some quiet contemplation. The garden in particular possesses a stillness that seems to tap directly into the spirit of the long absent residents.
Pilgrimage, published by Jonathan Cape in the UK, is a very personal work put together by photographer Annie Leibovitz after some fairly random visits connected only by their significance in her life had led her to shape a project around the pictures she recorded. It is an extraordinary document of lives and legacies. She tries to recreate one of Ansel Adams famous landscapes, visits the home of Emily Dickinson and the book almost falls together in a way that is completely original and very natural.
The photographs are many and varied, it’s a wonderful book to dip into and a fascinating insight into the creative mind of a truly fantastic photographer as well as a memento of lives long completed.
Street Photography is a style of photography that celebrates the small wonders of everyday life. In the last couple of years it has become something of a fashion statement and some very wonderful photography has resulted. Indeed it has become so popular that it supports several festivals worldwide, the most notable local example being the London Festival of Photography, running throughout June in Kings Cross, Bloomsbury, Euston & Fitzrovia
This book is a record of the photography of Vivian Maier, an extraordinary woman who left an archive of magnificent black and white observational photography shot between 1950 and 1990 in boxes, unseen by anyone and only discovered after her death when editor John Maloof discovered a box of her negatives in an auction house in Chicago. The story goes that having recognised the value of his find, he hunted down other examples of her work and pieced together this book, a record of her life and her photography.
The quality of the pictures is remarkable considering she worked alone, without peers and showed her work to nobody. As a record of post war western culture it is superb, as a volume of street photography it is practically peerless. Surely a one off, never to be repeated in today’s hyper sharing, socially mediated world of digital delights. A wonderful book, highly recommended, its published by powerHouse Books and can be found on amazon for a very reasonable £31.
Robert Mapplethorpe The Complete Flowers was published by teNeues in 2006 in hardcover and features 53 colour and 227 duotone photographs ranging from his earliest work right up until shortly before his death in 1989.
His portraits of flowers are possessed of many of the same qualities as his erotic work, managing to suggest and emphasise a sexuality that some would argue is inherent in flowers in any case. Whether you agree with that or not, this book is breathtakingly beautiful. Mapplethorpe brought a fine art sensibility to photography and it is very evident in these pictures.
Quite honestly, as a birthday present this book is fabulous. As a body of work, this sets the standard.