Saturday, March 08, 2014

La Pasión!

Morning folks - it has been quite a while hasn't it. What have you been up to? Hopefully making the most of the terrible weather to make some images rather than huddling down in your caves and muttering.
Well, today's post made me jump from my bed at 4.45AM, so something must have fired me up . . .
And you know what, it has . . . and the more I think about it the more my blood boils and the more agitated I become.
What might this be?
The price of commodities?
The terrible injustices of Syria?
Bruce Forsyth?
Nope . . none of them.
I'll tell you in a minute - honest, I will.

Regular readers will well know that I have extolled the virtues of a book called simply "Darkroom", published oodles ago by Ralph Gibson's long-defunct Lustrum Press. Well, contained within it's pages is an article by one of my favourite photographers, Mr. Wynn Bullock.
You've heard of him, right?
If not, and before we go any further I shall direct you in the direction of his website, curated and owned by his family:

His photographs are fluid and cool; incredibly rich in detail and tone; thought-provoking and evocative. But above all else, they contain a secret ingredient - Passion.
It flows out of his images like water down a Glen. It is, as they say in some parts, as plain as the nose on your face.
I am not going to go into a lengthy diatribe about his technical prowess or compositional skills, instead I am going to point you in the direction of a statement of his, written as plainly as, er . . . the nose on your face . .
Here goes:

"In the popular magazines I see photographs by some of the best technicians in the world, but these are usually the worst pictures I've ever seen because they have little sense of tone or balance. Tone, balance and other visual senses are all part of 'eye' training. If one has a keen sense of what is needed in a picture, one has to know how to get it. But if you know a lot of technique, and don't have a sense of direction, the technique is useless. Picture sense only comes from the development of one's own faculties. Except to a limited degree it can't be learned from books or teachers. nature, from whence all things come, cannot be packaged in neat little academic boxes to be opened as needed."

Common sense and an impassioned plea from a man who made photographs better than any of us could ever hope to take.
It's a statement that has distilled in my mind for quite a number of years, and it has forced me to leap from my bed, brew a bucket of tea and get typing . . so it must mean something!

OK you're saying - he's off on one again; well I suppose I am, but what has got my goat?
Well folks, remember when you were at school and there was always some sort of exclusive elite who were never touched by anything, were always good at sports and always had girls hanging off them?
Remember how they were drawn together like flies 'round sherbet?
Well, it happens in photographic circles too.
There they are. Look, over there . . a bunch of mostly middle-aged men.
It looks like some sort of an exclusive club, full of chummy mates who are parading around with some of the most expensive photographic gear in the world!
Look, they're smirking at you and I, us plain-Jane boring and ordinary 'photographers' with our dogs and donkey-carts of old and knackered Rolleis and Wistas and Mamiya Press cameras and Koni-Omegas.
Look . . . they're pointing! They're tittering!

Well, whilst not quite like that, I can't help feeling that at its heart, it really is, and I really don't know why, because as far as I can see there's nothing being produced that wouldn't be perfectly at home on a 1970's chocolate box.
I truly feel that I am going to get a lot of flack for this, but I am on one now, so I'll keep going.
Let's get one of them over and see what they have to say.

Yes, you over there.
That's right, the one in the specially-designed-for-photographers Olive Green Paramo jacket.
Yes you . . . Landscape Photographer . . come 'ere!

Now don't get me wrong - I have absolutely nothing against Landscape Photographers, because you see, at heart, I am one of them.
Right back to my earliest photographic stumblings, carefully tutored by Mr. Joseph McKenzie, I took baby-steps, toted a Mamiya C330S on a tripod and photographed the landscape.
I made images, lovingly, of the riverbank where I used to live. I processed them carefully, I printed them large and archivally on Ilford Galerie. I spotted the prints and mounted them beautifully
Remember, this was back in the 1980's when such activities were niche to say the least (well at least in Britain they were . . .and Scotland? . . . . don't get me started).
My degree show consisted of a hell of a lot of landscapes and to a man they interested nobody.
But it was in my heart. I got, as Mr. James Brown has been known to sing, The Feeling.
I would stand outside Jessops window gazing longingly at Zenza Bronicas, thinking to myself, if only I had one I could become the photographer I want to be. I was as desperate to get my hands on a Hasselblad as anything. I wanted to wander long miles and photograph the wonder and beauty of nature. But I didn't. I ended up drifting into music retail and it is only now, thinking about it and having the leisure time to practice it, that my feelings about Landscape Photography are re-surfacing again, like an itch that never quite got scratched.
But in that intervening 30-odd years a lot has changed - nowadays all I see pretty much are landscape photographs . .
They're everywhere, they're legion. People are interested.
They've got their own printed magazines like Outdoor Photography. There are numerous online magazines. There's articles everywhere about how to take a great landscape photograph. There are competitions, like Landscape Photographer Of The Year. There are oodles of workshops and seminars and trips here, there and everywhere.
And it goes on.
It's never been more popular.
And yet?

And, here I raise my head above the parapet and see who's shooting . . it has truly never been more shite.
OK, that's me damned, never to be accepted into that club by my peers.
Honestly 95.999% of modern Landscape Photography is truly terrible.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, it is dull.
Dull beyond the dullest of fat-laden bowls of dirty washing-up water.
But why should that be given there are so many people practicing it?
Well (and here I get radical again) it has its roots in a couple of things, but the most damning of them has to be complete visual laziness and . . . here comes the big one . . absolutely no feeling for the landscape whatsoever.
What a revelation. After all aren't those smug looking guys and gals standing over there going out and capturing the light for us?
Aren't they working the light?
Look he's got a complete set of Lee Filters, so he must be a landscape photographer!
She's got a Linhof Technorama, she must be a Landscape Photographer!
They've got a Phase One Digital Back mounted on an Ebony and are using Schneider Fine Art Lenses, surely they're Landscape Photographers!
Surely? They're certainly buying equipment like they are, because, remember, only the best equipment will help you make the Ultimate Landscape Photograph..
It gets worse - there are people who have the GPS co-ordinates of Ansel Adams tripod holes and go and photograph the same scenes with the same gear! The same thing happens with Joe Cornish - his followers are legion and obsessive. Bill Schwab? Michael Kenna? Yep they've all got their scene-groupies. Photographers who will slavishly follow their leaders without having a clue as to why the original photographer made their image in the first place.
You have to feel it, because Landscape is all about reacting to two things.
You think I am going to say light don't you.
'Working the Light' . . I would dearly love to meet whoever came up with that and give them a good thump.
It's shite.
You react to the place, and then you react to what that place is making you feel and how you think you can capture that feeling - if light comes into play all well and good, but it is perfectly acceptable to make a fantastic landscape photograph without mist inversions or dramatic clouds.
Landscape is all about feeling and atmosphere.
You're like an Edwardian Curator, heading off to distant lands and bringing back all sorts of exotica, except you are bringing back images, and those images are your images, your reaction to the land and how it made you feel.
And I am sorry to say, but if they look like Joes' or Michaels' or Charlies' then they are bogus.
Here's some great examples - all random and all off the net AND all from landscape photographers . . Spot the difference - it's Glen Etive and Buachaille Etive Mor:

They're decent images, but there's simply no originality or feeling.
There are four separate photographers involved here (one of them incredibly well-known) who should know better. Maybe they've not seen each others images, but then this is a connected world . . . . 
I've often wondered how it would be if Photographer A, met Photographer B whilst Photographer C and a busload of acolytes were trooping towards the same spot at the same time. 
It's pre-dawn and they're only going to get one shot at 'working the light'
Would there be a Battle Royale? Ebonys at dawn? Spot meters converted into laser-lances and men in darkcloth capes doing Kung Fu moves . . .
You can sort of imagine it can't you!
I think the original photo I ever saw made of this scene from this spot was by Colin Prior back in the late '80's and then Charlie Waite, but here it is cropping up with supreme regularity all over the shop. 
Surely, surely one person has said, I know, I'll do it, but differently. 
But no . . at least not that I have ever seen. 
Sadly, I almost think it is too late.
I look at them. I see technique, but you know what, I see little passion. They're as clinical as a rectal examination.
Compare them with possibly one of my favourite photographs from the largely unlauded these days, but hugely influential British photographer Fay Godwin:

Fay Godwin – Markerstone On The Old London To Harlech Road, 1976

To my mind a photograph so utterly packed with feeling that I think it would be hard to better it - it is laced with visual harmony, feeling and balance - sorry it is such a terrible scan though.
And seeing as I mentioned Wynn earlier on, here's a favourite by him too:

Wynn Bullock - Erosion, 1959

Again, the eagle-eyed amongst you might notice there is a total absence of dramatic skies or smokey water. It's art. 
It's passion.
It's skill and an innate reaction to the land and a careful balancing of tone and spatial relationships.
In other words, it is all HIS OWN. 
His vision and his feelings. 
A purity which is rare. 
No bullshit, no bells and whistles, just honest Passion and The Feeling.
You can read a wonderful account of the making of this photographer here:

I'll remove my soapbox now and leave you to it . . I really could have whined on for hours, but then it would get dull, but just do me a favour will you. If you go out and try to take some Landscape Photographs, please please please, before you do anything, just take your time. 
Sit a bit and listen quietly. 
Have a think. 
Try and feel the atmosphere of the place.
And then, maybe, try and make an image that is all yours.

This wouldn't be FB if I wasn't writing about my own photography too, so here goes.
I still dont think I am anywhere near being the Landscape Photographer I want to be, but I am trying hard and listening to my feelings. The below were made on 5x4 film (FP4+) and developed in HC 110 Dilution H.
The gear was incredibly lowly . . an ancient and battered Sinar F, an old 150mm Symmar-S and and even older 90mm Angulon. The tripod is about a 1960's Linhof Twin Shank, and the head an ancient and rock solid Gitzo Series 5, which genuinly did come from the British Museum. The dark cloth was two tee shirts, and my loupe a linen tester. It was lugged in an old Deuter 25 ltr rucksack!
The cost of my tripod, which can easily manage an 11" x 14" camera, was approximately half the cost of a rooty-toot Paramo Landscape Photographers Dark Cloth . . in other words around £50
If you have the feeling my friends you don't need a massive amount of expensive gear and you really don't need to join an exclusive club to make images that satisfy you.


The Haunted Bridge

The above aren't great, but I think I have captured a feeling, and that is what matters (to me).
As for the soapbox, I know it all reads like sour grapes . . it isn't, I just suppose I just expect more in such a visually 'sophisticated' world. 
Anyway, enuff zee nuff, over and out for now. Take care


  1. Well said, Phil. Shite is a right handy word sometimes, isn't it! I particularly like your Glen Esk shot. I've been there a few times and never saw that pic. Hope you left nice big tripod holes. Heehee.

    Fay Godwin's a favourite of mine as well. I've got Land and Forbidden Land amd they're inspirational. I think you're right that you have to make your own way in the landscape and not just go out to slavishly copy what you've seen on Flickr.

    Great to see you back posting again. Hope you find the time and motivation to make it more regular as it's always a thoroughly enjoyable distraction.

  2. Hi Bruce - I do like the word actually as it is so much more vehement than plain old 'Shit'.

    I've actually got a signed copy of Land, and yes, it is an inspirational book and should be more widely in print. As I said, Landscape is all about you and your reactions - I really feel that strongly - you have to immerse yourself in the landscape and let it fill you up (as it were) and then go and make photographs.

    A 'thoroughly enjoyable distraction' . . you mean like a cup of tea?