Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Oh deary me! Another reply to Tim Parkin.

I've had another response from TP
so here goes!

This be my final word on the subject of Velvia, and why I shan't mourn it's demise, or else I'm going to end up straying into misrepresentative circles created by Tim Parkin who evidently has some difficulty thinking outside of the technical world where he is most comfortable. (that's sarcasm btw, not the truth!)

Sorry Tim, but I just don't recognise much of what you say about my post here, I suspect you're misrepresenting what I said. And you accuse me of having hidden agendas! :-)

I was going to leave it at the last post, feeling my point well enough made originally. But I can't sit silently by without at least pointing out a few fundamental misunderstandings.

1. It seems the majority of your argument is based around some sort of film/digital divide. That's not something I recognise personally, my point was around creativity. Hit me with as many digital bricks as you like, it's not countering what I said.

2. There's plenty of wonderful landscape photography that has no need of expressing ideas in words, it is quite possible to see this in the gestural trees of Dav Thomas as a single example I'm sure few will disagree with. Or the surreally beautiful strangely compelling compositions of Mike Jackson's Poppit Sands. That doesn't mean they aren't expressing ideas (if only as a way of seeing) however much they may protest! The truth is that visual mediums can and always have expressed ideas, well at least if the artist/ photographer has one to express. I have never said that this is a problem unique to LF, that assumption is just silly. However, I think it  does suffer, which given the claims of its users' superiority strikes me as somewhat sad. I didn't use the phrase representational in my original post, I used the word illustrative, which I hoped the average intelligent reader would realise implied an emptiness of approach. I like representational, it implies an artistic to and fro between viewer and photographer through the medium of imagery. Sadly I don't see much of it about. LF Velvia users are no more immune to this than anyone. So back to my original point which is lets hope moving on from Velvia helps move things along creatively as well. You see not a veiled attack, but a hope for the future.

3. I'm quite happy to accept your point about the democratisation of the acme, if that's what you believe, but again you have introduced a spurious financial argument, when I was discussing creativity.

4. My original piece suggested that LF Velvia wasn't a format suitable for everyone. It's perhaps best at illustrating the real world, but some us aren't chasing that as a goal in our expression. In which case it's superiority is moot.

5. As for the tools mitigating approach, many film users say it helps them slow down their approach. Whether that's because they are terrified of exposing a frame of the fast dwindling stock of Velvia or not! I have long suspected that this may be as much about maturity of approach as the tools, that as one migrates up the ladder of tools one may hope the maturity grows too! I dunno I've happily spent a couple of hours refining a single composition with a DSLR in the past. I'm not really working with that sort of methodology at present though, so again, it's not for all.

6. Finally! You're entirely correct that almost all of my arguments could be equally applied to any other format of photography. If you claim to be the best, that should at least be a slight worry!

I'm not saying any of this to specifically accuse LF Velvia users of inferiority, I don't believe that for a moment (tools do not maketh a man!) but if I can equally level the accusations across the board, then please make it shake up your games, question your comfortable assertions and stop bloody whinging! 

Rob Hudson.

A reply to Tim Parkin's response.

Below is my response to Tim Parkin's comments made on my blog post Why I won't mourn the demise of Velvia: a counterblast. For those of you who aren't aware, I count Tim as a good friend, we have known each other for many, many years both online and in person. And we have frequently argued long into the night, but we do share an abiding passion for landscape and actually agree on far more than we disagree. As if I now need to point this out, this was not a personal attack on Tim, but an opportunity to give landscape photography an occasional and much needed proverbial kick up the arse. 

Tim: Blastproofing
Rob Hudson has recently posted a ‘counterblast’ to the demise of large format velvia film. In the post he declares that the death of Velvia is actually a boon to landscape photography. And whilst I respect his write not to mourn such a niche product, I thought I’d write a short rebuttal covering a few statements from the article.
“what it looks like should probably be driven by what you are trying to say, rather than because you happen to like strong colours or prefer a particular palette”
Hmm, agree… but this predicates on a dichotomy between saturation/colour and communication/art – surprisingly I think you can have one and other at the same time.
Rob: Of course you can, and no doubt should, I have done so myself. It is a pity that so few seem to realise its even a possibility. 
“Until very recently the chosen format for virtually all colour landscape photographers of any degree of seriousness has been a large format camera very probably loaded with Velvia.”
Tim:  from Stephen Shore, Charlie Waite, Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe, Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter, Jim Brandenburg, Philip Hyde, Paul Wakefield, Neil Armstrong, Christopher Burkett, Shinzo Maeda, Edward Burtynsky etc
Rob: Well I was commenting predominantly on British landscape photography which should remove a fair few of those, but whatever, I'm pretty sure that was Velvia in Charlie's Hasselblad. It does rather make me question if the UK isn't a bit backward in these things? 
“This hegemony has in turn bred an orthodoxy of approach.”
Tim: Hegemony is strong word – implying the threat of of some sort and the imposition of a universal world view. Large format may be my particular pleasure but considering I could only find a hundred or so large format landscape photographers online compared with, lets say a few more digital or MF/35mm film users, it’s difficult to say it has been enforced in any way.
Of course in every genre of photography and in every type of equipment or medium there will be good and bad. From wet plate to iphone there are creative genii and derivative idiots. And in large format landscape photography there is sometimes a difficulty getting past the representational and to experiment. However that is why all the large format photographers I know use big and small cameras, film and digital to ‘experiment’ with.
Rob: Of course if you'd read down a little further you will have noticed that I said "I'm not saying this as some sort of paranoid, conspiracy theory, I'm sure nobody set out to create such an environment, but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself?" See another reply below for what I mean by "structural investment" . 
“For the majority (but thankfully not exclusively) of these leaders in our community the illustrative is still their primary aim.”
Tim:  – being representational doesn’t correlate with being merely illustrative. Romantic does not mean lacking in a meaning or metaphor. etc.
Rob: Again - why is metaphor and meaning such a rarity? And when expressed often trivially and shallowly? I'm not waving a finger specifically at LF here, I know it's widespread throughout photography and the art world, but does the self perception of the format as perfecting representation photography not mean there is added entrenchment? 
“When in fact alternative approaches to the art exist, but as they don’t fit in with the orthodox view, they are dismissed as inferior.”
Tim: Oooh! You’d better back this one up Rob!! 
Rob: Again I'm not saying this as if its a conspiracy, simply that the constant reiteration of superiority will have the impact of dismissal of other formats and approaches. 
“but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself?”
Tim: … Me and Dav Thomas specced out a full large format system for under 1,000 pound including tripod and bag and two excellent L class lenses. I’d be interested in a digital set up that had just one L class lens that would cost the same. And the cost of film over a year would probably add up to the upgrade cost of most digital photographers (£600-1000 a year?).
I know of quite a few photographers who have recently moved from Canon to digital, selling all of their cameras and lenses (and a few who then went back again!). In comparison with that sort of burn rate large format – amortised – is not significantly costly
Rob: By "structural investment" I wasn't talking about money, but the edifice (some of which is economic) around LF in terms of sales, teaching, writing, promotion, books. It becomes a self fulfilling fantasy that is difficult to step away from without alienating fans, galleries, magazines etc.
“One thing is certain, as the price of colour film is on a seemingly never ending upward spiral, a more haphazard, playful, exploratory approach becomes increasingly inconceivable amongst LF film users.”
Tim:  is the one area where most people commenting on large format seem to get wrong. Just because you use large format doesn’t preclude the use of other cameras. In fact I would go as far to say that large format camera users tend to own and use a larger variety of cameras in different ways. They almost always own smaller compacts to ‘experiment’ with as well (sometimes transposing their experiments onto LF – sometimes not)
Yes film costs can be expensive but they can compare with the amount spent on digital camera upgrades, lens collections, etc. LF photographers don’t tend to replace lenses as nearly all of them out resolve the film they use.
A set of four lenses (a typical collection) can be bought for about £200-300 each – making a full collection of lenses add up to less than half the price of a 24mm Canon tilt shift.
And the cost of colour film is a minimal expense with large format photography – the biggest expense is time for each exposure. And large format itself is not a limitation on experimentation – take a look at the work of Brett Weston for example or Frank Gohlke (colour too!).
In summary I think Rob is right – Fuji Velvia exerts a magical influence on people and makes the mere representation of the world enough for many. And large format ends up attractive to magic bullet chasers – however in my experience most of the people who are just after resolution will have migrated back to digital by now – hence curing themselves of the Velvia virus.
However, Rob is also wrong – illustrative/artistic is not an either or. Large format doesn’t preclude experimentation – and large format cameras don’t preclude other cameras.
Fine art photography has a certain level of distaste for the vernacular and also has a soft spot for the experimental and ‘alternative’. Sometimes this produces interesting work but on occasion it ignores work that doesn’t fit with preconception. Like all walks of life,  the good and the bad live along side each other in various proportions, but no media or material dictates the message or lack of it.
I know Rob was being a little ‘Devil’s advocate’ so I know he won’t mind the strong response 
Rob: I don't mind the response at all! :-) As I said above, I wasn't talking about financial investment, so I'll happily accept your premise that the costs may be lower. However, the fantasy that upgrading will improve your photography is a common fallacy right across the photographic spectrum, indeed it seems to have taken on epidemic proportions. It is certainly another way of avoiding confronting the gaping hole in most people's photography, which is ideas, and concentrating on the technical and the artistic superficialities. I'm not expecting everyone to agree with me on that, but from a personal perspective I don't need to be in the toyshop before I play.  
There really needs to be a significant shift towards ideas and creativity in most photographer's time and energy. Having said that, if LF promotes itself as "the ultimate upgrade" then there is the risk that it will attract just these type of people disproportionately. Technical skill and creativity should not be confused, they are separate entities that with luck may combine successfully. The trick is finding the balance. Landscape photography in that context is unbalanced! 

Monday, 27 August 2012

Why I won't mourn the demise of Velvia: a counterblast.

The news of the demise of Fuji Velvia as a large format film has been greeted with dismay it seems across the photographic spectrum, but more so than anywhere in my own genre of landscape photography. Here it is widely regarded as the film of choice for its extra saturation, it's contrast range and it's ability to reproduce deep, yet believably rendered colours. Yet I shan't mourn it's demise. Not because I don't believe that it can produce beautiful results that are still way beyond anything achievable in digital, and certainly not because I have anything against film itself. My reasons are more complex.

Perhaps I should, at his point, admit that in my landscape photography I am primarily a digital and a black and white photographer. 'So why would I care?' I can here you chorus through the ether! Well the fact that my phone suggests 'velociraptor' when I type Velvia may just be an ironic software glitch born out of a limited vocabulary, or as I prefer to believe it does illustrate a sort of dinosaurism in landscape photography. Now I don't want to deny anyone their pleasure if this is your sort of thing, but I do believe the demise of Velvia might serve to freshen things up a bit, challenge convention and force a bit of a rethink amongst many of its users.

The use of LF Velvia amongst landscape photographers has become so all pervasive that apparently without irony, lower saturation and lower contrast landscape photography has become accepted as somehow more artistic. Well okay, but maybe we have a difference of opinion about the definition of 'art' here? Don't worry I'm not intending to travel that road, except to say that it is the human element of artistic expression that interests me more than the illustrative, what it looks like should probably be driven by what you are trying to say, rather than because you happen to like strong colours or prefer a particular palette.

I am still madly passionate about the landscape, as a place, as an attractive retreat and it's environmental protection from the demands of big business and overbearing landlords. So you know there's little I like more than being out there, and failing that looking at what other photographers produce. Now while I'll happily allow that there are as many diverse opinions and different stages of artistic, photographic and even spiritual development out there, there is however an awful lot of similarity in the work produced.

It seems landscape photography is condemned to be primarily an illustrative genre. Now I will freely admit its a stage in our progression we all have to go through, myself included. There's a great excitement in simply finding a pleasing picture of what is before us, some may even start to consider such things as composition, light and colour rendition. These are or can be important elements, but in themselves they are just building blocks, technical
considerations that go into the making of art. The next step is to learn how to express ourselves with these tools. We, as people, have far more potential, far more to express in our relationship to the land as conscious, thinking beings rather than an empty all seeing eye.

Okay, you're saying, fair enough, but what has all this got to do with large format colour film? Well if there's a prevailing zeitgeist out there that spreads right from LF film to digital, then those at the top of the landscape photography tree must take some responsibility. Until very recently the chosen format for virtually all colour landscape photographers of any degree of seriousness has been a large format camera very probably loaded with Velvia. That is a massive investment in time, learning and skill, and to some extent money. For the majority (but thankfully not exclusively) of these leaders in our community the illustrative is still their primary aim. There are good reasons for this, illustrative is what sells, (to an extent, but the falling prices of both stock and gallery images might have something to do with the market being saturated with these style of images); illustrative is easy to communicate, it appeals to our predominantly low brow popular photographic press; illustrative is easy to teach, and many make a substantial part of their income from teaching /speaking rather than doing.

This hegemony has in turn bred an orthodoxy of approach. We look to our betters to learn from, in the early days imitate them, and perhaps to explore the possibilities available. But the irony is that a large format camera, filled with Velvia (and all that investment that goes along with it) is really the pinnacle of illustrative expression. One has to wonder if it serves any other purpose, whether the tools come to predict the output? If the basis of its appeal is the reality of its expression, then give me less reality! We all do it, we find a way of doing things that we think is better and proclaim it to the world, but fail to notice that it might only be a better way of doing what we do, that others may find different routes, have differing expressions and motivations. The overwhelming prevalence of LF Velvia users in the positions of authority, in British landscape photography especially, proclaims itself as just such an acme, or highest point in achievement. When in fact alternative approaches to the art exist, but as they don't fit in with the orthodox view, they are dismissed as inferior. I'm not saying this as some sort of paranoid, conspiracy theory, I'm sure nobody set out to create such an environment, but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself? One thing is certain, as the price of colour film is on a seemingly never ending upward spiral, a more haphazard, playful, exploratory approach becomes increasingly inconceivable amongst LF film users. Maybe just that approach is needed to find those ideas that will fresh up the genre's thinking.

If you're one of the majority that think the extent of landscape's remit is simply to find pleasing shapes and nice colours, then you're probably going to disagree with me. I, on the other hand, would contend that this is a blindly technocratic, backwards and limiting approach, that has learned nothing from art in the 20th century. This taught us that art is really to be found as much in ideas, the inner expression must at least equal the outer. Now I'm not claiming that we should throw away all convention, but at least find some individuality of expression, some new ways of seeing pretty shapes and colours that doesn't rely on a rigid simple formulae of foreground, middle ground and sky. Landscape photography has long been stuck in a comparative rut, it is in need of catching up with more modern ways of thinking. Perhaps the demise of Velvia will spurn new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing? Perhaps, in the long term, the demise of Velvia will be a good thing?

Friday, 24 August 2012

Songs of Travel: an explanation

I race through your head in my dizzy dissolve. 
Edwin Morgan.

Photography has a strange effect on our perceptions. I came to landscape photography through a love of walking in the countryside, I loved the feeling of passing through a place - the feeling of timelessness that walking inspires. Yes I stopped and looked at the views as we all do, but hiking is different, the views are delightful, but they are only part of the context of a journey, especially in the poor light of memory.  And yet, in my photography, even though I wanted to share the sights I found, they became a series of detached elements, lacking the interconnection of traveling, lacking if you will the context of the journey. At best they feel like vignettes. 

In the landscape we are occupying the space between two worlds, our own inner landscape and the outer landscape that surrounds us. And it is this space between that I want to examine in my images. Susan Sontag wrote that a photograph "is not only an image ... an interpretation of the real, it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask". Suggesting to my mind (amongst many things) is that there is something beyond, there are possibilities beyond the simply literal.

It's one of the strange paradoxes of landscape photography that although we see a picture of the landscape it's not landscape as we experience it. As John Berger wrote "The violence is expressed in that strangeness. It records an instant sight about which this stranger has shouted: Look!" In landscape the camera can become "an estranged god".

We don't sit still seeing compositions all around, unless you're an experienced landscape photographer anyway! We are alive to the senses of movement, the wind, the cold, the damp and our eyes rarely sit still, our attention is flung from one thing to the next almost imperceptibly. Add to that the mists of memory of the journey, the pulling sensation of traveling forward, the almost meditative sense of detachment - and you will begin to understand what I wanted to explore. As TS Eliot said "Footfalls echo in the memory". It is the echoes that excite me.

For some time now I'd been puzzling in my mind over how to represent a journey in a photographic terms, not just through snapshots of particular beauty spots or even the path itself, but the spirit of the journey, the feeling of moving, of time passing as we travel through a landscape. If you have seen my previous blog you will have seen some of my early attempts.  In one of those strangely fortuitous coincidences that can at times light the creative spark, I had also been considering a return to film from digital work and was, at that time, thinking about what is special about film.

Of course I knew that film could capture time and movement through a double exposure. But it had been twenty years or more since I'd made use of film and being somewhat unsure of exactly how I would realize the idea, I decided the cheapest route would be to experiment digitally before returning to capture the desired effect on negative, if and when I found something workable. So with notebook and camera in hand I headed to the Wenallt, beech woods near my home, with the idea of conducting a 'scientific' experiment. Noting the distance traveled between each exposure and the number of exposures in each frame. I wanted to explore the possibilities, to gain an understanding through practice of what is possible visually and what fails.

My intentions started well. I wandered the woods for half an hour trying to find a suitable subject and as I was just starting to think this was an unpromising forest, I meandered off the path and spied, far off in the distance, a singularly bent tree seemingly framed by its more ordinary, straight cousins. I started slowly, just moving a few inches, taking a frame and gradually widening the distance until I was taking one frame for each of the longest strides I could manage. It was after repeating this perhaps a dozen strides that I realized the notebook was somewhat redundant, but more, that I had happened upon an idea.

Those photographs came together to form 61 Light, 61 strides through the trees and the subsequent series of shorter parts of that journey. In isolation they are not perhaps unique or special, but together I hope they form an insight into the journey, a slow reveal, adding depth with each addition. I began to grasp that it was the subtle differences between the images, which intrigued me, rather than the single images in isolation. It was like a compound eye view of time and travel and memory. Each image made up of many images and yet of almost the same view, bar ten paces or so, the journey providing the transition of time and place, and the metaphor of memory. 


That transition is most easily appreciated when viewed as a slideshow, please do have a look. 
The huge irony here of course is that having conceived of the idea as a way of returning to film, I have happened upon an idea that I strongly suspect can only be achieved digitally because of the sheer numbers of images involved. Far too many for double exposures I imagine, not to mention far too expensive if I use single exposures!

The title, incidentally, comes from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, it's not a direct inspiration (I don't much care for it if I'm honest) but Stevenson’s Songs of Travel shares a plodding, ambulatory metre. It tries to capture a sense of movement in the structure of the poetry. There are obvious similarities with the idea I'm trying to convey within the structure of my images.

Since starting my mind has been ablaze with ideas - the notebook finds its true use - only lacking the time and energy to pursue them. This remains a creative, rather than scientific experiment, so who knows where it will take us? And now the weather has closed in on my only free day this week. I can only imagine what I could be creating, what journeys I could be undertaking. But it does mean I can finally put my thoughts in writing.

You can see new additions to this project on my Flickr page.