Darkness in Las Vegas

July 1st, 2017

Dark VegasThere are still plenty of people in Las Vegas who remember the days when the mob ran Las Vegas.  On my last trip I met a couple of them – a barman and a taxi driver.  The taxi driver had a business card that described him as ‘driver and lifetime Las Vegas resident’.  He described how he and his mother had both worked for in mob-run casinos and lamented the decline in standards and increases in petty crime in the city since the mob had lost control.  Asking a few questions the apparently utopian picture turned out to full of darkness.  He admitted that now and again those on the edge of the city would find that their dog would bring back a human body part “sometimes a femur, sometimes a skull” from a desert burial.  I commented that this was a pretty significant downside but he was adamant that this was not a real issue on the basis that everyone knew that if you were stupid enough to steal from the mafia you would be killed.  I remained unconvinced.  He told me about the mob museum (Formally know as ‘The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement’ which is well worth a visit.

The barman, who I’ll call Michael,  told me a couple of stories about legendary mobster  Anthony Spilotro portrayed in the Martin Scorsese movie Casino as Nicky Santoro.   Michael was sitting next to Spilotro at a bar where he was working but off-duty.  There was a lot of talk in the city about a very senior level falling out between Spilotro and his fellow mobsters, Michael slid down a couple of stools saying ‘I hope you don’t mind Tony, I just don’t want to catch a bullet’.  Spilotro laughed, but two days later he was found dead, buried in a cornfield.  In the movie he was buried still breathing, but this the facts are less remarkable; later mob testimony revealed he as beaten to death in a basement and moved to the burial site.  Michael was also asked to retrieve and return Spilotro’s wife’s handbag (or purse as he put it) from a bar where she had left it.  He couldn’t resist taking a peek at the contents.  Inside the handbag was a .38 snub nose revolver, a huge wad of hundred dollar bills and a small bag of white powder…

Spilotro’s story is an interesting one: he came into contact with organised crime at an early age as his parents ran a Chicago restaurant that was adopted by the mob.  He became a “made” man in the 1960s and was sent to act as the mob representative in Las Vegas in the 1970s.  He founded a burglary operation, known as the Hole in the Wall Gang with his brother; it was their unsubtle entry methods that earned them the gang nickname.  Unfortunately for Spilotro this overt criminal behaviour led to him being blacklisted by the casinos, which compromised his official mob representative role.   This did not sit well with his bosses and associates.  In January 1986, at a high level mob the problem of Spilotro and Las Vegas was debated and the agreed conclusion was ‘hit him’.

On that trip I spent most of my spare time in Downtown Las Vegas, which for me is by far the most interesting part of the city; it is full of character and rather gritty in comparison to the high end experience of the strip.    You can find the pictures from this and my other trips at the Las Vegas gallery on this site.  There is also an earlier blog on Las Vegas.  The accompanying picture for this post was shot with my Leica Q at f1.8, 1/5000 of a second with -0.6 EV, using the electronic shutter.   The leaf shutter on the Leica Q is virtually silent and will go to 1/2000s after which the electronic shutter takes over on the way to a maximum 1/16000s – making the Leica’s fast aperture usable even in bright conditions.   What I like about this shot is the strong full-length shadow, the inclusion of the big Fremont street neon signs in the background and the gentleman’s white jacket, hat and shoes which contrasts nicely with the dark tones that dominate the shot.  The Leica Q’s incredible sharpness on the subject compared to the background helps make that contrast even stronger.

Encounters with Japanese Dragons

June 23rd, 2017

Encounters with Dragons screen“In Japan, the dragon is a good guy, not a bad guy.”    This was the comment of our guide in Kyoto on a recent trip across Japan, where we had a few memorable encounters with Japanese dragons.

Benevolent, auspicious, just, a bringer of good fortune and wealth, the Japanese dragon (Ryū), like its Chinese ancestor, is an ancient mythical creature that is very different from its malevolent, treasure-hoarding Western equivalent.  Like many mythological creatures, it is a composite beast and has the head of a camel, the eyes of a hare, the antlers of a deer, the neck of a snake, the scales of a carp, the paws of a tiger and the claws of an eagle.

Our first dragon encounter was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a name that refers to both one of the 23 city wards in the metropolis and more commonly to the large entertainment, business and shopping area around Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest railway station.  Painted on a wall behind a statue of a female deity playing a lyre lurked a fabulous white dragon on a black background surrounded by stylised swirls, it looked like some great, nameless tattoo artist had decided to take their artwork to a much grander scale.   I was mesmerised and spent some time shooting the combination of the statue and the dragon mural with my Leica Q whilst my companions retired to a nearby bar.  You can see both this image and the others mentioned in this post in the Japan Gallery.

The Asian dragon’s origin predates written history, but had achieved its present form of a long, scaled serpentine body, small horns, long whiskers, bushy brows, clawed feet and sharp teeth by the 9th Century, by which time it was part of Buddhist mythology as a protector of the Buddha and Buddhist law.    These traditions were adopted by the Japanese and the character for dragon (龍) is much used in temple names.  Dragon carvings also adorn many temple structures and most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their dharma halls, often painted inside a circle in the centre of the ceiling.

At the Zen temple of Kennin-Ji, in the Gion district of Kyoto, we had two dragon encounters in rapid succession.  The first was an incredible dragon painting on a sliding fusuma door, which is shown in this post.  The horns are larger than normal, the whiskers are so long they look almost like tentacles, and the dragon appears to be swimming through time and space; peering at us with us eyes that give a hint of otherworldly vision and knowledge.   The second was the vast painting of Twin Dragons that covers the entire ceiling of the Hattou (dharma hall) of Kennin-Ji, the oldest temple in Kyoto.  Kennin-Ji was founded in 1202, though the earliest surviving structure the is the Chokushimon (Imperial Messenger or Arrow Gate) that is dated to  from the Kamakura Period  of 1185-1333.  This building still bears the scars from the Onin War that reduced much of Kyoto to ashes during the 15th century in the form of  arrow marks.  The dharma hall that houses the Twin Dragons was constructed later, in 1765.  The dragons themselves were painted in ink on paper by Koizumi Junsaku (1924 – 2012), a noted painter and pottery artist, between 2000 and 2002, and installed in 2002 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the temple.   The dragons cover 175 square meters rather than occupying the usual circle in the centre of the ceiling.  This was at the bidding of the abbot of Kennin-ji who requested that the artist make dragons “rampage across the ceiling”.  They rampage in spectacular fashion and I spent a good while admiring them.  A bought a copy of the painting and it is now framed and up on the wall at my home in Oxfordshire.

In modern Japan, Zen temples and Shinto shrines often stock their garden ponds with carp, which grow to great size in a spectacular range of colors.  Keeping them is partially inspired by Koi-no-Takinobori, the Japanese name for a Chinese legend of a carp that became a dragon after swimming up a waterfall.  We saw many incredible Koi in Tokyo and Kyoto, but I will not count them as dragons.

Unlike the Western dragon which is essentially a winged fire-breathing lizard, and a creature of the earth, the Japanese dragon is a wingless (but sky dwelling) water spirit.   At the Hakone Shrine (Hakone Jinja), at the foot of Mount Hakone and along the shores of the lake Ashinoko, our dragon encounter was at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Ryujin (龍神).  Ryujin is associated with rain, good catches for fishermen, and with agriculture.  According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto ‘The dragon kami is connected with agriculture because of its characteristic as a water kami. Prayers for rain were performed at rivers, swamps, ponds, and deep pools which were regarded as the abodes of the ryūjin.’  At the shrine is an extraordinary  Chōzuya (purification basin), where holy water spouts from each of the nine dragon’s heads.  It was the dragon highlight of the trip.  Four dragon encounters is not a large number, but they were of the highest quality and I will never forget them.

10 Days in Japan

June 15th, 2017

trees gardenBetween 13th and 23rd May 2017, I travelled across Japan with a small group of friends on a trip organised by Trailfinders.  I have wanted to go for more than a decade and my expectations were sky high, and I am happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.  I wasn’t sure what lenses to take with me, so I took both my Leica Q and the Nikon Df with 20mm, 35mm and 85mm fast primes.  I ending up using the Leica Q (28mm) and the Nikon Df with the 85mm fitted almost exclusively, both slung across my chest in readiness.  You can see the gallery here.  This was our itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo

We flew from London to Tokyo on British Airways.  Given the time difference we arrived with time to spare on our first day, which gave us the opportunity to explore the area around the excellent Park Hotel in Shiodome, our base in the metropolis.  Shiodome is close to the Ginza District, the upmarket shopping area of Tokyo, so had a short walk around the area and a lunchtime beer at the Ginza Lion Beer Hall with an accompaniment of delicious hoho-niku (tuna cheeks).  We noticed the displays of plastic food (sampuru) outside the beer hall, which seem to be ubiquitous in Japan.  None of us had slept well on the flight and our rooms had not been ready on arrival, so we headed back to the hotel to clean up and rest.  On the way back we came across Hakuhninkan Toy Park, which introduced us to the mad world of Japanese toys and collectables.  That evening we ate at Tsukada Nojo which was most notable for moromi-miso; a chunky condiment made from miso served with raw vegetables, of which we could not get enough.

Day 2 – Tokyo

  • On our first full day in Tokyo we were accompanied by our guide Akiko, who was very knowledgable and helpful.  We headed for the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū), in Shibuya, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife.  Entering through an enormous Torii gate (made from a 1,500 year old tree) we passed into a large forested area which covers 175 acres and consists of around 120,000 trees of 365 different species from all over Japan.  It is both tranquil and beautiful.  There is also a huge decorative display of sake barrels (kazaridaru) in the grounds,  which relates to the offering of sake every year to the  deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine.  As we walked though the three Torii gates, Akiko told us that we should not walk through the centre line of the gate.  This is called the Sei-Chu and is the area designated for the enshrined gods to pass through.
  • Being British and in need of a restorative cup of tea we stopped at a Cat Cafe located near the entrance to the Shrine.  Japan holds the record for the most cat cafés in the world, with as many as 39 in Tokyo.  I took a bit of a risk entering the place – I am asthmatic and allergic to cats, which is not a great combination, but observed the rather bizarre spectacle without consequences.
  • Next was Takeshita Street or Takeshita-dōri, a shopping street in Harajuku, which was packed with fashion concious teenagers, followed by Omotesandō, an upmarket tree-lined avenue, once the official approach to Meiji-jingū. These days it is a fashionable and architecturally notable shopping strip.
  • After a spot of excellent sushi we moved on to Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world.  We approached it though the spectacular Thunder Gate, and a walk down the wonderful Nakamise Shopping Street.  I found a gorgeous picture of the Thunder Gate in one of the stalls, which I was keen to buy, but the price tag was far out of reach as it was an original.  Prints will, the vendor, told me be available in about 30 years.  Not far from the temple we came across a small park with the most spectacular collection of koi we had ever seen.
  • We moved on to Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town and visited the Kamata knife shop. I enjoy cooking, and love Japanese steel, so I purchased a very beautiful chef’s knife made by Ryusen.
  • We returned to the hotel via a cruise of the Sumida river and ate in the hotel, quite worn out.

Day 3 – Tokyo

  • The Tsukuji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and is located within walking distance of Shiodome, between the Sumida River and Ginza.  Visiting it involves making a choice of either arriving at 3 AM to queue to see the tuna market open at 5 AM, or arriving by 10 AM to see market wind down.  We chose the latter.  The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood (many of which look like nothing on earth) and the place is a whirr of activity – most notably the ‘Turret Trucks’, which are extremely hazardous to the unwary.   Whilst we missed the tuna market, we did see tuna being carved with extremely long knives, variously called called oroshi-hōchō, maguro-bōchō, or hanchō-hōchō.
  • We took the tube to Shibuya Crossing, considered a must see for many visitors, and located outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station. This exit is named after a famous dog, whose statue has become a popular meeting place.  Shibuya Crossing effectively is a crossing point at the meeting of five roads in one of the busiest parts of the most populous city in the world, and the spectacle of up to 1,000 people crossing the road concurrently is quite astonishing.
  • I was keen to visit a guitar shop in Japan, particularly as Fender Japan are noted for being quite innovative.  G’Club, Shibuya did not disappoint and I purchased a low cost, light weight Japan-only Fender Telecaster that plays extremely well.
  • That evening we took in Akihabar (or Electic Town), which is  famous for its many electronics shops, its otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many anime/managa shops before exploring East Shinjuku/Kabukichu, in all its neon splendour.  It is a red light district and supposed to be somewhat edgy, but we were so mesmerised by the neon lights, if there was any menace there it passed us by.  We were not tempted to enter any of the establishments that beckoned us.

(more…)

William Klein and The Zero Degree of Street Photography

April 1st, 2017
© William Klein
Dance in Brooklyn 1955 © William Klein

I came across the work of William Klein when browsing though photography books in a book shop.  It didn’t take many turns of the pages for me to decide to buy the book and learn more about the man and his photography.  I found his raw, ironic, high contrast and grainy street photography vibrant, often strange and compelling.

William Klein came to the notice of the world in the 1960s after he was talent spotted by the art director of Vogue who saw an exhibition of his early abstract work and offered him a job on the spot.  Klein had studied painting in Paris but was untrained as a photographer and considered himself an an outsider – lacking any respect for the photographic technique he didn’t possess.  In later years he ascribed this to a contrarian instinct: “Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.”

Fashion photography is traditionally highly polished, and his untutored, highly dynamic and ironic approach was revolutionary.  Vogue subsequently financed a street photography project in New York where Klein, encountering culture shock after his time in Paris – which he feared would soon wear off – went “in search of the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography”.  To get there he employed “A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast, cockeyed framing, accidents, whatever happens…” and adopted the role of  “a make-believe ethnographer”.

The resulting book ‘Life is Good and Good For You in New York’ (1955)  became a prize winning route to celebrity, though no American publisher was willing to publish it (and didn’t for 40 years), considering it unflattering to the point of being anti-American.  Instead it was first published in Paris, Klein’s adopted home.  He followed up with books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo all in the same inimitable, rebellious style.   Despite his success he became restless and turned to film making.  His first film was Broadway by Jazz, described here in an article in the Financial Times in 2012:

Broadway by Light is often described as the “first pop film”, and to watch it now is still an exhilarating 11-minute roller-coaster ride through the neon of Broadway and Times Square. Klein invented his own kind of visual jazz – violent, vulgar, seductive and beautiful, with a soundtrack to match. The camera moves ceaselessly in and out of the alphabet of signs as the bulbs bloom and fade into abstract blobs of pure colour: Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Rock Hudson, The New York Times. Fascination. Continuous till 4am. Orson Welles said it was the first film in which “colour was necessary”.

Klein only returned to photography in the 1980s, where his pioneering role was recognised.  Since then he has won many more awards and become known for his graphic design work, which applies bold slashes of paint to the enlarged contact sheets he had marked up in pencil years before.

In his street photography William Klein likes to get into the thick of things; filling the frame with the chaos of the city.  He mixes and moves with his subjects, embracing a wide lens for close up shots and motion blur in a way no one has before.  As he said: “sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened, I’d rush into crowds – bang! bang! I liked the idea of luck and taking a chance. Other times I’d frame a composition I saw and plant myself somewhere, longing for some accident to happen.”  An article in the  Independent in 1998 sums up his approach:

In Klein’s New York people press themselves up against the lens, dancing around the photographer, pulling faces, pretending to shoot each other, or the photographer, with toy guns. It is the kind of photography that is impossible to do today: people are no longer delighted to be snapped in the street, do not dance or horse around in Harlem on Easter Sunday for a photographer. They were intrigued by this white guy with his beautiful French wife.

William Klein
“Moves + Pepsi”, Harlem © William Klein

His preference for the wide angle lens came from the “contradictions and confusion” that it revealed, and enabled him to include many subjects in his innovative composition.  Of the blur he said: “If you look carefully at life, you see blur. Shake your hand. Blur is part of life“.   His prints use extreme contrast and grain complete the visceral effect.  The combined effect is perfect for street photography, as this post in Streethunters from 2015 describes:

Perfection. We all strive for it when it comes to photography. Perfect exposure. Composition. Tack-sharp images. But, street photography isn’t about perfection. At it’s core, street photography is about capturing life. And life is far from perfect. William Klein, in his own way, mastered imperfection within street photography and became a trailblazer.

Klein’s maverick work has an immediate impact but is difficult to interpret. This is apparently by design.  In what has become my favourite William Klein quote he said: “My photographs are the fragments of a shapeless cry that tries to say who knows what… What would please me most is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.”  Or maybe not as, in an interview in 2013, when asked which is the most gratifying medium he chose film on the basis that “people don’t know how to read photographs. There isn’t this dialogue….What you put in a photograph is not always perceived by the other people who look at them as what you wanted to say. There isn’t a culture of photography. You learn about music appreciation at schools or go to museums, but I found that generally people don’t study photography. There are a lot of things that can be said in photographs but people don’t relate to them.”

Many photographers have been inspired as much by his attitude as his photographs, which is why you will see so many William Klein quotes in posts and articles about his life and work.  More artist than photojournalist, his lack of respect for the established order, his raw technique and the way he interacts with his subjects make him  one of photography’s great sources of inspiration.

 

Alcohol, Ether and Gun Cotton

March 11th, 2017

Ruined Manor Hampton GayEarly photography was not easy.  The wet- plate collodian  process used between the 1850s and 1880s uses a solution of gun-cotton in ether and alcohol and requires the entire photographic process including coating the plate, exposing and developing it to be completed within fifteen minutes.

These and other challenges faced by early photographers were brought home to me by the the recent BBC documentary ‘Britain in Focus’, produced in partnership with the National Media Museum and presented by Eamonn Mccabe.  The first episode covered the earliest period of Photography in Britain – from polymath inventor Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s to Peter Henry Emerson in the last years of the nineteenth century.  The journey surveyed some of the greatest pioneers of early photography in their most famous locations: Fox Talbot in Lacock Abbey, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Newhaven, Roger Fenton in the Crimea, Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Robert Howlett in the Isle of Dogs and Peter Henry Emerson in the Norfolk Broads.

I am familiar with the work of most of the photographers in the program, but curiously I had not come across Roger Fenton.  I was hugely impressed by his images and a little research showed him to be an extremely important photographer.  Born into a wealthy banking family in 1819, he studied law at Oxford and painting in Paris before he took up photography, learning the early Calotype process developed by Fox Talbot.  Fenton was a founder member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), the first official photographer of the British Museum and quite possibly the world’s first officially appointed war photographer, photographing the Crimean War in the first systematic coverage of a conflict in 1855. 

Alcohol Ether and Gun Cotton
Roger Fenton’s Wagon

Fenton’s connections led to his commission by the British government to photograph the Crimean war – a conflict that pitted the Russian Empire against a somewhat unlikely alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  He took a photographic assistant, a servant and a large horse-drawn van converted from a merchant’s wine wagon to carry his cumbersome large format glass plate photographic equipment (see image, right).   The wagon offered a good target for Turkish artillery and Fenton also suffered from the high temperatures, broken ribs and cholera.  Nevertheless, and despite the long exposures and rapid processing required, he was able to capture 350 images, most of which were later exhibited across Britain and displayed to the British and French royal families.  Fenton was a technically accomplished photographer and his large format images from Crimea are striking.  They consist mainly of posed portraits and scenes and landscapes of battle sites including the iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Though he saw plenty of horrors during the conflict, he did not record any with his camera, most likely because his government patrons wanted the images that could be used as part of a campaign to counter reports of wide spread military incompetence in a war that was unpopular with both the press and the public.

The depth of field made possible by the large format, together with marvellous tone and composition make Roger Fenton’s work quite extraordinary.   In addition to his war photography he shot royal portraits, architecture, landscapes (such as those of Bolton Abbey covered in the documentary) and still life.   He regarded photography as both art and business and abandoned it entirely in 1863 to return to law when he saw its status was diminished to a craft – illustrated by the 1862 International Exhibition’s placement of photography in the section reserved for instruments and machinery.  He died only a few years later in 1869.

Large format film photography, and particularly wet-plate collodian images, have a unique look that can not be reproduced with 35mm cameras – the shot of Roger Fenton’s wagon clearly shows this.   However, the supporting image in this post is an homage to it.  The shot of the ruined manor at Hampton Gay (which burned down in 1887) gives the impression of a shallow depth of focus at distance using motion blur.  It was sepia toned and I added some grain and lens falloff in post production.  The shot was taken on a Nikon Df DSLR mounted on a tripod with a 40 second exposure at f13 using a black glass ND filter.  At some point I’d love to take a large format camera out to shoot the ruined manor, preferably a glass plate camera.  I doubt I will ever mange it, but if anyone in Oxfordshire has the equipment and expertise and is open to hiring both, I’d be very open to it.

 

 

The Windmill at Brill

November 12th, 2016

The windmill at BrillOne weekend when the weather was cloudy with very strong winds I thought I’d try out my long exposure technique described in the blog post of the same name, so I drove out to Brill with my Nikon Df.  Brill is a location well known to photographers all over Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and attractively perched on top of a steep hill, with an excellent view over the plain below.  The result is shown to the right, I was quite pleased with it.

The origin of the name of the village is derived from both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for hill (Bre-hyll). In the reign of Edward the Confessor it was called Bruhella.  It is notable for its old post mill, the timbers of which reputedly date from 1685 and the clay pits were dug for the production of pottery and Brill bricks.   The clay pits were in use from Roman times until the last bricks were produced in the 1920s.   Roman occupation in the Brill area is highly probable as suggested by finds of tiles and pottery and the square earthworks believed to have been a Roman look-out.  The village is also close to the Roman road of Akeman Street.  It was a royal manor of the kings of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period and there was a Royal Palace at Brill until it was destroyed by the Parliamentarian John Hamden in 1643.  Edward the Confessor, Henry II, John, Henry III and Stephen all held court there in the 12-13th centuries.

Brill was the scene of a battle during the English Civil War. After the Battle of Edgehill in November 1642 a royalist force occupied the village. Parliamentary troops were sent to oust the royalists, and on January 27th 1643 the two forces met in the Battle of Brill.

The royalists had thrown up sturdy earthworks, perhaps using remnants of Brill Castle. The Roundheads launched a fierce canonnade, but called off the attack after several hours when the Royalists lit damp straw on fire, creating a wall of choking smoke. Residue of the Royalist defenses can be seen in the village.  During the 1830s an attempt was made to turn Brill into a spa town, as there is a spring between the nearby village of Dorton and Brill but royal patronage favoured Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa over the rather isolated village.

The Pheasant pub has outside seating that provides access to the view over a pint, which is very pleasant in the summer.  The site of the windmill is a popular spot for a picnic, with children and dogs often scampering about amongst the undulations of the old clay pits, and of course there are plenty of photographers…

Caravaggio – The original master of darkness and light

October 28th, 2016

Always the same JesusBeyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery is an exhibition that examines the influence of one of art’s true originals, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the exhibition focuses on his influence on art via the Caravaggisti and later followers (Only 6 of the 49 paintings in the show are actually by Caravaggio), Caravaggio’s influence reaches well into to the present day; his use of everyday subjects and of dramatic lighting are cited as an influence on director Martin Scorsese, the photographer David LaChapelle and visual artist Mat Collishaw.

Caravaggio lived a short, turbulent life that was celebrated and notorious in equal measure.  He was orphaned to the plague as a boy of six.  At eleven he apprenticed in Milan but left in haste after wounding a police officer.  At 21 he moved to Rome and gained fame with the success of his first public commissions, but he was regularly in court and jailed on several occasions.  He was known for his drinking and whoring as well his brawling.  His powerful supporters helped smooth things over with the authorities but there was only so much they could do to contain a man overflowing with violence.  According to the German art historian Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) Caravaggio spend his time in Rome “in the company of his young friends, mostly brash, swaggering fellows—painters and swordsmen—who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, ‘without hope, without fear.’”  He was, as Time Out noted, a real Baroque and Roller.

In 1606 he had a death sentence pronounced against him by the Pope after he killed a well known pimp in a knife fight.  He spent the rest of his life on the run in fear of his life in Malta, Naples and Sicily. He slept in this clothes and always had his dagger to hand.  His art, unsurprisingly, became darker and he was horribly mutilated by his enemies when they caught up with him in Naples in 1609.  It is likely that they inflicted a sfregio (facial wound), as a visible sign of revenge. He died, still on the run, in 1610 aged 38.

Caravaggio is most famous for his dramatic use of light, an extreme variant of chiaroscuro, using dark shadows to produce strong contrasts between light and dark with an incredible tonal range.  With this he captured form and added drama to his scenes in a way that no one before him had accomplished.  The scenes he painted were spot lit from above; he once had a run in with a landlord for breaking a ceiling to let in light.  It is so modern looking that David Hockney has referred to it as  ‘Hollywood lighting’.   There are claims by Italian researchers that his chiaroscuro is based on a form of photographic technique – the suggestion is that Caravaggio projecting the image of his subjects onto canvas using a lens and mirror and that he treated the canvas with a light-sensitive substance made from crushed fireflies, in order to fix the image.  This hypothesis remains unproven.

He combined dramatic lighting with a new kind of naturalism – painting people from the streets directly from life, and with incredible levels of often dirty hyperrealism created without drawing beforehand.  He populated biblical scenes with Roman prostitutes, beggars and thieves, bringing the sacred and the gutter together as he did so and dividing popular opinion.  He also applied the same level of detail and realism to still life as to the people in his paintings.  Great emphasis can be seen in the still life on the table in front of Christ at the ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601), for example.  It was this combination of dramatic lighting and realism that created the pictorial and narrative power he became renowned for.  In an era when great art required powerful visual story telling, he elevated this to new heights.
Caravaggio was hugely influential throughout Italy and this spread to France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the exhibition seeks to show his influence by bringing together a collection of Caravaggio-inspired pieces.  These are my top three highlights of the show:
  • The Taking of Christ, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  Painted at the height of Caravaggio’s fame, The Taking of Christ is a high contrast, dramatic treatment of the familiar biblical story of betrayal.  It is set in the garden of Gethsemane rendered as indeterminate, dark space, lit by the moon and, weakly, by lantern held by Carravagio who peers in from the edge of the scene.   (The shot on this post shows that image of Caravaggio in the background).  The painting offers a flash illuminated freeze frame of three soldiers in black armour, their faces largely hidden, who have come with Judas to seize Christ  – one of them grasping his throat with a mailed fist.  The brutality of the state is in contrast with the calm and meek Christ, who offers no resistance, whilst St. John the Evangelist flees from the violence in anguish.   It is dense, mysterious and incredibly dramatic.
  • Christ displaying his Wounds,  Giovanni Antonio Galli (nicknamed Lo Spadarino because his father was a sword smith).  Perhaps the greatest work of one of the most talented and inventive of Caravaggio’s disciples, this painting is as hyper real is it is strange.   A pale Jesus, lit by light that appears to come from nowhere, and naked except for his shroud, holds the wound on this side apart with hands holed by nails.  He makes direct eye contact with us with an expression that is full of accusation
  • The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera.  Saint Bartholomew’s executioner sharpens his knife in preparation of the flaying his about to perform – the knife and steel forming a symbolic cross.  Bartholomew stretches out his arms to heaven, creating a powerful diagonal, his face lit by grace as much as light.  The executioner’s expression is inscrutable, which makes the painting quite frightening.

I was looking for an image to accompany this post from my day’s shooting when I came across the shot above, which was taken outside the gallery after I had visited it.  I hadn’t considered it as  a candidate for this purpose as I hadn’t noticed the image of Caravaggio’s face from The Taking of Christ in the background.  When I did I was delighted, as the subject of the shot is carrying a placard reading ‘JESUS CHRIST the same yesterday today and for ever.’  This combination was pleasing to me; there is Caravaggio, in a detail from a painting from 1602, linked to a message about Christ being the same today as he was in the past.  The picture was shot with a Leica Q at f2.8 at 1/8000 sec.  The sunlight was very bright after the heavy rain that had fallen earlier so I used -1 ev of exposure compensation to stop the highlights blowing out.   It is a high contrast shot, which is entirely appropriate for the purpose.  Between the man with the placard and Caravaggio there are also two figures that bring something to the shot.  A woman, dressed in light clothing,  scrutinises the street preacher, who is dressed in black, whilst in the middle distance a girl shades her eyes as she looks at him also.  Both these figures provide detail on different planes, which is generally desirable.

 

Fox Talbot and Early Photography

September 24th, 2016

Fox Talbot Early Photography

The recent exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum in London which ended on September 11th 2016 was described as ‘magical to behold’ by  Time Out  and ‘ground-breaking’ by The Times.  I found it extremely enjoyable as it told the story of the pioneers of early photography very capably as well as displaying a great body of their work.

Central to the story of early photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was born in February 1800.  He attended Cambridge University in 1817 and went onto become a gentleman scientist, inventor, Egyptologist, member of parliament, mathematician, astronomer, archaeologist and transcriber of Chaldean cuneiform texts as well as a pioneer of photography.

It was a struggle with his sketchbook that put him on the road to photography: in 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, he found it difficult to capture the scenery adequately by sketching it with the aid of a Camera Lucida (an instrument used by draftsmen at the time which uses a prism to direct rays of light onto paper producing an image and from which a drawing can be made.)  This started him on the journey of discovery with light-sensitive paper to automate the process that he was to pursue at his home in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Investigations with silver nitrate and sunlight actually go back as far as Angelo Sala (1576-1637).  Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) was the first to create photograms (a process that does not require a camera) with paper masks and Talbot would have been well aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) who also worked on photograms of leaves and other objects.  These could not adequately fixed and faded quickly. Talbot built on this work, experimenting with plants and lace on paper coated with silver nitrate and fixing the images with salt to produce sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot created the first negative in 1835, which minimized exposure time considerably compared to previous methods.  He had help from his friend Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the leading British scientists of the time, and another formidable polymath, who was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor and experimental photographer. It was Herschel who solved the problem of ‘fixing’ pictures (used by both Talbot and Daguerre) and was also the first to use the terms ‘photography’ and ‘negative’.

There is some debate as to is the inventor of photography or even who was the most influential of the pioneers.  France can claim Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), inventor of a process known as heliography, who used a Camera Obscura to record an image of his country estate in 1826 via an eight-hour exposure.  Better known is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, (1787-1851), a former architect and artist who collaborated with Niépce, and who had used the Camera Obscura to assist with his paintings in his earlier career.  He developed the Daguerrotype process after Niépce‘s death – a process based on light-sensitive, silver-plated copper, unique in the family of photographic process, in that the image is produced on metal directly without an intervening negative.   Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) also holds a claim as the developer of the direct positive process and the first in the world to hold a photo exhibition.  Bayard’s story embodies the struggle for recognition and adds a human dimension in the midst of all the science on show at the museum.   It also serves up one of the most interesting images of the exhibition. Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his new positive process to the French Academy of Sciences by a friend of Daguerre, which cost him the recognition he deserved, and led him to create the first staged (or faked) photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which was on show at the Science Museum exhibition. The image portrays the photographer as a corpse, and M. Bayard wrote a fake suicide note on the back:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognised or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”

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Shooting Las Vegas

June 21st, 2016

Gambling Las VegasLas Vegas is undoubtedly one of the stranger places in the USA.   Its sheer scale, the juxtaposition of replicas of famous landmarks, the relentless 24 hour gambling and the fantasy element of the place all contribute to that strangeness.  It is also hard for me to get over it’s origins, summarised here by history.com:

A desert metropolis built on gambling, vice and other forms of entertainment…the city was founded by ranchers and railroad workers but quickly found that its greatest asset was not its springs but its casinos. Las Vegas’s embrace of Old West-style freedoms—gambling and prostitution—provided a perfect home for East Coast organized crime. Beginning in the 1940s, money from drugs and racketeering built casinos and was laundered within them. Visitors came to partake in what the casinos offered: low-cost luxury and the thrill of fantasies fulfilled.

The chain of events that led to Mafia involvement in the development of the city is straightforward enough. The state of Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, but no one paid attention until after World War II, when the Mafia, in the form of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, saw business potential.   Siegel opened the showcase 105 room Flamingo Hotel and Casino in December 1946 and whilst he paid the ultimate price for skimming from Mafia operations the Flamingo was successful under Lansky and other crime families moved in.  Properties such as the 1,000 room Stardust, the Desert Inn, and the Riviera followed.   In 1959 the Revolution in Cuba removed President Batista, who had been in league with Lansky, and with him the gambling concessions he had made to the mafia.  It also made Havana a no go destination for many high rollers who re-routed to Las Vegas, accelerating its development.     Today a significant proportion of the largest hotels in the world are on situated the Strip.

Downtown Las Vegas, the original site of the town and gambling district of Las Vegas, centres on Fremont Street.  It has had significant investment of late but still appears to be the poor relation to The Strip, or offers a more vintage experience, depending on your perspective.  On one trip I had breakfast with a fellow photographer before heading out to Fremont Street and we discussed our approaches to photography.  Fred is an out-and-out street photographer; his interest is in people, pure and simple and he has a practised technique to get in close and yet not be noticed.  I work differently as I am very interested in the relationship between the background and people in the frame.  I suppose that makes me more of a travel photographer; I want to capture something of the spirit of place wherever I am at the time.  In the shot here I wanted to combine the large ‘Gambling’ sign with the women dressed as show girls. For this shot I used a circular polariser, which required an ISO setting of 2,500 for f8, but the boost in contrast was worth it.  The noise the Leica Q produces is relatively filmic and if it appears excessive I apply Topaz DeNoise.   The other shots from my various trips to the desert metropolis are in the Las Vegas gallery.

A Game Changing Camera: The Leica Q

May 14th, 2016

Objects, Deal MarketBefore the Leica Q, I have never considered owning a Leica.  I have been 100% loyal to Nikon for film SLRs and DSLRs (I am now on my 4th generation – the Df), though that isn’t the case when it comes to compact cameras, where I’ve typically used Canon ultra compacts like the Canon S120.   Recently I started to wonder about getting a large sensor compact camera which would be more suited to street photography than my DSLR or the Canon S120.  This interest was triggered by a friend of mine purchasing a Sony RX1 which packs a full frame sensor into a relatively small package.  Initially I didn’t consider the Sony due to cost – at £2,700 this was no trivial purchase and instead looked closely at the The Fujifilm X100T and Olympus OMD 5 Mk II.  Both of these cameras have retro looks and plenty of external controls, which personally I prefer and were far less expensive than the Sony.

The Fujifilm X100T resembles a Leica range finder, is competitively priced and is equipped with an APS-C  16.3MP  sensor, a 23mm f/2 lens (35mm equivalent) and a hybrid electronic/optical EVF. Its image processor is effective in low-light and at high ISOs and there is a well regarded film simulation mode.  If you do a search for ‘best camera for street photography’ it features well and so looked like a strong contender.  The OM-D E5 Mk II is a rather different camera, as it offers a choice of lenses with a 16MP Four Thirds CMOS sensor.  It has an electronic EVF and is also equipped with a tilt screen, 5 axis stabilisation and environmental sealing, none of which are present on the Fujifilm.  It also had its fans when it came to street photography, not least because of its tilt screen and image stabilisation.  Lastly, the f2.8 APS C Ricoh GR II (one of the few fixed 28mm equivalent cameras) is also viewed by many (notably Erik Kim) as an ideal street photography camera.

Then I read started to read reviews of the Leica Q.  Pocket-Lint described it as “the best fixed-lens full-frame compact ever made” but it was Craig Mod‘s blog that really got me thinking.  It was a six month field test in Asia and was one of the positive and compelling reviews I have ever read of a camera.

“Make no mistake: The Q is a surgical, professional machine. It pairs best-of-class modern technology (superb autofocus, an astounding electronic view finder, workable isos up to and beyond 10,000, a fast processor, beefy sensor) with a minimalist interface packed into a small body, all swaddled in the iconic industrial design for which Leica has become famous. The result is one of the least obtrusive, most single-minded image-capturing devices I’ve laid hands on.”

“If the gf1 so many years ago set in motion an entirely new genre of camera with micro four-thirds, the Q epitomizes it. If the iPhone is the perfect everyperson’s mirrorless, then the Q is some specialist miracle. It should not exist. It is one of those unicorn-like consumer products that so nails nearly every aspect of its being — from industrial to software design, from interface to output — that you can’t help but wonder how it clawed its way from the r&d lab. Out of the meetings. Away from the committees. How did it manage to maintain such clarity in its point of view?”

I believe that in hindsight… the Leica Q will be seen as one of the greatest fixed-prime-lens travel photography kits of all time.”

After reading that review I realised I wanted a Leica Q quite badly – but at close to £3,000 could I justify the purchase? (more…)

Back to Film with The Nikon F3

May 7th, 2016

V and A Museum Knight's TombIt has been a long time since I shot with film.  My last film camera was a Canon IXUS, an automatic compact which took APS film 20 years ago.  Though I have always had a camera to hand since I was a small boy I was strictly a point and shoot photographer until I moved to digital, and didn’t move to an SLR until after I had turned to digital.  Recently, whilst staying with friends in Stockholm, I came across an Aladdin’s cave of a camera shop, which had a number of film cameras for sale, including Kodak Instamatics, Rolleiflex TLRs and Nikon SLRs, including several F3 models, some fitted with external motor drives.  The Nikon F3 model I picked out was somewhat worn and had a hole in the bottom of the body (which I later discovered was due to a missing motor drive coupling cover) but I was very taken with it and bought it on impulse together with some Ilford black and white film.

That evening I did a bit of research and discovered that the F3, the successor to the legendary F and F2, was the last of the manual-focus, pro 35mm SLR cameras; it was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001.   Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries.  This dependance on the battery power was initially quite controversial and adoption was not universal amongst Nikon professional shooters.  Those fears turned out to be unfounded as the F3 turned out to be of the same bulletproof nature as the F and F2 and very reliable.

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The Many Pleasures of Oxford

April 24th, 2016

Radcliffe Camera OxfordThe exact date of the foundation of the city of Oxford is uncertain, but the place is ancient.  Sited on an important crossing point across the Thames, which formed the frontier between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, Oxford started as a ford for oxen (Oxenaforda).   The castle (now just a mound) dates from 1071 and the oldest standing building, the Saxon tower of St Michael at the Northgate, was built in 1040. The Domesday book records the right of the town’s Freemen to graze animals in Port Meadow free of charge – a right still exercised today. The University started in monastic halls, though none of these survived the suppression of the monasteries in the 1530s. The city was well established as an academic centre by the 13th century with University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges all founded during that century.

Academic life in Oxford was characterised by murder in the stories of ’90s TV detective Inspector Morse, and this violence in academia was foreshadowed by a turbulent relationship between Oxford’s town people and students. The most notorious incident occurred in 1354 in the Swyndlestock Tavern (a bank today), when two students took issue with the innkeeper about the quality of his wine. This dispute quickly escalated into an armed conflict that lasted three days and resulted in around 90 deaths.  Despite incidents like this and regular scholastic riots, by the mid 14th century the University was well established enough for Edward III to pay tribute to it for both its contribution to learning and the services to the state of Oxford graduates.  Several colleges were founded every century and there are now 38 in total.

Oxford’s growth was inevitably accompanied by some  reversals.  In the 12th century a fire burned the city to the ground and the black death of the 14th century reduced the population heavily; as did the sweating sickness epidemic of the 16th century.  The university benefited from these depopulations by buying up vacant property and continuing to grow its estates.

In the late 18th century Oxford connected to Coventry and the Thames, and in the mid In 1844, the Great Western Railway linked Oxford with London.  The city became more industrial when the automotive industry was established in nearby Cowley by William Morris, who built the Morris Garage in Longwall street in 1910.  The need for more space bought a move to a factory 1913 at Cowley and mass production followed, resulting in  Cowley expanding into a large industrial centre.  Despite its canal and railway links, the city had remained a tight knit , conservative and academic town, with the the university press the only large-scale employer.  The car industry transformed Oxford into one of the major industrial cities of southern England, though happily the architectural gems of the old city have been well preserved, also being spared the devastation meted out to so many other cities during World War II.

As you might expect from such a historic city, there are numerous sights to be enjoyed in Oxford, which particularly photogenic, though it is often very crowded, especially in the summer. Here are my top ten: (more…)

The Timeless Quality of Black & White Photographs

March 5th, 2016

Timeless Quality of Black and WhiteBlack and white images often possess a timeless quality that is more difficult to achieve with colour images. This is largely because colour provides more visual clues as to when a photograph was taken. Variance in the colours themselves can sometimes suggest a specific era –  the difference between the colour renditions of the 1970s for example, and today are often discernible; this is due to differences in colour processing, which have changed significantly over time.  The first permanent color photograph was taken in the 1860s using the colour separation method, which required shooting three separate black and white photos using three different coloured filters which are then projected together to create a color image.   By the first decade of the twentieth century colour separation using the Autochrome process which used millions of tiny colour filters made of potato starch spread over the surface of a plate of glass was available.  In the 1930s multi-layered colour film was developed, the first of which was Kodachrome.  The 1960s saw the development of instant photographs by Polaroid, and in the 1970s the C-41 chromogenic colour negative process replaced the C-22 process that Kodak had introduced in the 1950s.  Printed colour images may also be subject to varying degrees of instability as they age, which is also helpful in dating them.

With the advent of digital photography these clues have disappeared, but colour is also an element of fashion which inevitably gives a better sense of when the picture was taken.  Regardless of changes in fashion, colour provides a level of detail absent from black and white pictures – there is just less information for us to process, making a picture more difficult to date.   This is helpful in many genres of photography but is especially so for travel, street and portrait photography.  Whilst we know the approximate date we took our pictures, if when these photos were taken is difficult to discern, it seems to imbue them with additional value.  Why this should be a virtue is largely attributable to the notion of the ‘classic’ – something long-standing that does not date with age.  Synonyms of the word classic give us a clue to the value implied by the term: simple, elegant, understated, uncluttered, restrained, time-honoured, timeless, ageless, abiding, enduring and immortal.   Portrait photographer Anne Geddes made the point well when she said: “The best images are the ones that retain their strength and impact over the years, regardless of the number of times they are viewed.”

Another aspect of timelessness, although more subjective, is that many photographers consider black and white photography promotes a stronger emotional connection with people.  Canadian photographer Ted Grant’s quote on this is well known: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”
   Souls being more durable and important than clothes (to all but the fashion industry!) this quality naturally creates a more timeless photograph.  Black and white photography preceded colour and so many of the pioneering masters of photography from Adams to Weston shot in black and white.  This adds a significant pedigree and a degree of nostalgia to black and white images.

The accompanying photo is of Newcastle based photographer Irena Childers and was shot in Garth Park, Bicester, as part of a camera club shoot.  It strikes me that the picture could have been taken at any time between from 1950 and the present day, but this only became apparent when I performed the mono conversion with Silver Efex.  The colour version just didn’t have the same timeless quality…

All About Tone

February 1st, 2016

 

Colossal head of ConstantineWhen a photograph is converted to mono and the colour removed, what remains is tone. Tone is in fact one of the reasons black and white photography has continued to be popular after the advent of colour.   It was the tonal quality of Paul Strand’s work that inspired landscape legend Ansel Adams to make a career change from classical pianist/bobby photographer as a hobby to full time professional.  It was the“full, luminous shadows and strong high values, in which subtle passages of tone were preserved” in Strand’s photography that Adam’s found so compelling.

Tonal range refers to the range and distribution of tones in an image from the darkest to the lightest values.  An image with a wide tonal range will include very dark (black) and very light (white) elements, whereas as one with a narrow tonal range will be limited to a more restricted area and will have less contrast.    Lighting conditions have a great impact on tonal range.  On a misty day in Oxford, UK the difference in brightness between the lightest part and the darkest parts of the scene will be relatively insignificant, but under the harsh light of the mid day sun in Arizona the range will be much greater.  Extremes such as that aside, images with a wide tonal range tend have both greater contrast and greater appearance of drama and depth. A narrower tonal range makes the image look flatter, though this may be by design.  Tonal range is influenced by the amount of and quality of light (harsh or soft) and the reflectance of the subject.  The addition of a polarising filter, something I use extensively, improves contrast and can thus help expand the tonal range.   Tonal range is different from dynamic range which refers to the ability of the camera’s sensor to capture shadow detail from the darkest values and highlight detail from the brightest values in the same shot.   Dynamic range is maximised in RAW format which records all the image data the sensor is capable of recording, and is one of the main reasons this format is used.  Cameras.about.com describes the the tonal range of a digital image as “the number of tones it has to describe the dynamic range”, which helpfully describes the difference between the two.

Tonal contrast is created when light tones and dark tones are adjacent to one another – it has the effect of directing the viewers attention to the contrasting area and is the basis of the success of many black and white images.  It is an essential element of composition, but is not as well known as other compositional rules such as leading lines, the rule of thirds, framing, and diagonals.

A tonal curve is typically applied to the image by the camera by default as the image data from the photo sites is linear (the values are directly proportional to the light received), whereas human vision is non-linear.    The process is known as  (tone curve correction aka gamma correction) and makes the pictures look right to the human eye on a screen display. This process generally lightens the midtones.  This default tonal curve can be adjusted in the curves tool of RAW  conversion programs (such as the ageing but excellent Aperture, which I still use).  The Aperture user manual describes the use of the Curves tool quite well:

“You use the Curves adjustment controls when you want to manually set the tonal values of the shadows, midtones, and highlights in an image using a tonal curve. Unlike the Levels adjustment controls, the Curves controls do not reapportion the luminance values in the image by constraining the white and black points. Instead, you use the Curves controls to precisely remap the position of the midtones relative to the white and black points. Because the human eye’s perception of light is logarithmic rather than incremental, a curve is necessary to distribute the luminance values across all tonal ranges in an image in a way that matches how the eye perceives light in nature.”

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The Importance of Form

January 16th, 2016

Marina City ChicagoWe have had colour photography since the 1930s and the invention of Kodachrome, though it took until the 1970s for it become the norm.  So why has black and white photography persisted?

Perhaps the most obvious difference between colour and b&w photography is that unlike their colour equivalents, black and white images are not direct renditions of their subjects.   By omitting colour and substituting shades of grey, black and white photography presents an abstract and therefore less realistic image.   This takes us into the representational world of art, where the artist tries to portray what is perceived and interpreted with the mind rather than what is seen directly by the eye.  Both the artist and the photographer are working with a 3D subject in a 2D medium and this is where black and white photograph has an advantage over a colour rendition – black and white excels at tone; which describes the darkness or lightness of a particular area of an image.  This is important as tone is essential to convey the illusion of form – or how the subject looks in three dimensions.  Black and white draws more attention to the shadows and lines that depict form and gives a better illusion of depth.    This is one of the reasons that black and white is often an effective medium for both landscapes and architectural shots as it can emphasise the shapes and forms within the scene.  The case for black and white is even stronger with a side lit photo where light  intensity varies across the person or object and the scene is subject to strong shadows.  This is one of the reasons why I am fond of film noir which uses a lot of side lighting, shadow and contrast as opposed to the the more evenly exposed lighting of mainstream Hollywood.

On to my example, which is a shot of the columnar and iconic Marina City Towers on Chicago’s Riverfront, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg.  This is one of Chicago’s most notable buildings and was designated a city landmark in 2015. I was much taken with this 65-storey building complex, the tallest residential concrete building in the world at the time of completion in 1964, and known locally as the ‘corn cobs’, as I was driven to my hotel in a taxi.     At the time I thought it was the world’s most elegant car park, but actually only the lower 19 floors are used for parking, whilst the upper floors contain apartments, restaurants and a concert hall.  The towers were used as a back drop for a chase scene in Steve McQueen’s 1980 film ‘The Hunter’ .  In his last film appearance, McQueen played a bounty hunter who is himself being pursued by a psychotic killer and chases a fugitive up the parking ramp in one of the towers before the car he is pursuing skids off the edge into the Chicago River.

I shot the towers from several locations, including the river, whilst on an architectural tour of the city, and eventually captured this image, which I felt depicted the organic form of the building best – the contrast between the light edges of the circular elements and the dark background, together with the sweeping curves of the tower in the foreground, draw the eye  and help describe its form.  It was shot in the morning, and, as usual,  I used a circular polariser to darken the sky and increased the contrast between the building and its background.  I took the shot with a Nikon Df with a ‘walk around’ 28-300 lens at ISO 200/45mm/f11/1/250 sec.  The towers have a constantly changing pattern of light and shadow over the course of the day and are an ideal subject for black and white photography as well as a great piece of architecture.  I was much taken with Chicago, which I visited for the first time in 2015 – it is undoubtedly one of the finest cities for modern architecture in the world and I am keen to return to capture more of it, but my enduring memory of my first visit is those iconic, sci-fi columns of Marina City.

In Praise of Deal

December 29th, 2015

I recently returned from a Christmas break in Deal, Kent.  It is where I spent the first 18 years of my life and is still very special to both me and my children.  We stayed in an eighteenth century cottage in Middle Street, which is in the heart of the conservation area (the first in Kent) – where the press gangs and sailors of Nelson’s navy once roamed and one of the most beautiful streets in England.

The Ship Inn, Deal
The Ship Inn, Deal

Deal is steeped in history – originally known as Addelam, it is mentioned in the Doomsday book, and is unique in once having been a port without a harbour.  Instead, the anchorage known as The Downs located between the Deal shoreline and the notorious ‘ship swallower’ of the Goodwin Sands  provided shelter for ships in the channel, and Deal became a thriving port.  Over time the Downs and the maritime traffic it generated made Deal worthy of protection by castles in the town itself and at nearby Sandown and Walmer and to become home to the Royal Marines.

In 1702 it was described as one of the four great ports of England, along with Portsmouth, Rochester and Plymouth and the town formed part of the defences of what became known as “the invasion coast”.  Deal also had a unique status conferred upon it by Royal Charter in the 12th century which established the town as one of the confederation of five ports (The Cinque Ports) to serve the crown with ships as the need arose. In return the towns received exemption from tax and tolls.  This led to extensive smuggling, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Deal’s smuggling activities were so notorious that Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger had the town’s luggers (large, two masted open boats) burned on the beach.  Deal’s boatmen also went to sea to for salvage and to save the lives of shipwreck victims and there has been a lifeboat stationed at nearby Walmer since the mid 19th century.  There has also been a pier at Deal from the same period, though the present one dates from the mid 20th century.

There are many pleasures to be had whilst staying in Deal.  Here’s ten of my favourites things to do, in no particular order:

  1. A stroll along the broad promenade and then onto the pier (said to be the same length as the Titanic but actually 200 ft longer)
  2. A walk through the winding narrow streets of the conversation area to admire the restored cottages and town houses, and perhaps to visit one of the fine old pubs like The Ship Inn, The Deal Hoy or the Royal Hotel (where Admiral Nelson frequently stayed.  Nelson also donated the tomb of Captain Parker, inscribed “My gallant good friend and able assistant”, which can be found in St George’s Churchyard.)
  3. Coffee or a bite to eat in the Black Douglas (run by the descendants of the Scottish knight)
  4. Sitting out on the seafront in front of the picturesque Kings Arms
  5. Shopping for fresh fish at Jenkin’s fishmongers
  6. Lunch or dinner at The Courtyard Oyster Bar and Restaurant
  7. Browsing in the boutiques of the High Street (Deal was inaugural High Street of the year for the Daily Telegraph in 2014)
  8. Visiting my folks, who still live in Walmer, or my friends ‘The Turnips’ (You don’t know them of course, but I can assure they are quite wonderful Deal and Walmer folk)
  9. A visit to the nearby visit to the picturesque former fishing village of Kingsdown immediately south of Walmer and the beachside pub The Zetland Arms
  10. And of course…taking pictures of one of my favourite places in the world – my Deal Gallery can be found here

Artist’s and Writer’s Quotes on Photography

November 1st, 2015

These are the most interesting quotes I found from artists, writers, film makers, journalists, designers, art-critics, actors and philosophers on the subject of photography.  As with the photographers, I allowed myself only one quote for each.  Same express pro-photography views, whilst others are decidedly opposed to the medium.  Either way, they make interesting reading.

Brigitte Bardot – Actress, singer, fashion model & animal rights activist

 William S. Burroughs – Novelist, satirist, essayist, painter, & spoken word performer

“There is in fact something obscene and sinister about photography, a desire to imprison, to incorporate, a sexual intensity of pursuit.”

Mahatma Gandhi – Leader of the Indian independence movement

“I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.”

“The camera will never compete with the brush and palette until such time as photography can be taken to Heaven or Hell.”

Photographers on Photography

October 1st, 2015

These are some of the most interesting thoughts of photographers on photography, expressed as quotes.  Some of them I agree with, some I don’t – but they are all thought provoking.  I restricted myself to one quote per photographer, which in many cases, such as Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson, was difficult.   In the next post I will collect the thoughts of other creatives such as artists, film makers and writers on the same topic.

Ansel Adams –  Landscape Photographer

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

William Albert Allard – Documentary Photographer

“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer. ”

Diane Arbus – Documentary Photographer 

“I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”

Richard Avedon – Fashion & Portrait Photographer

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”

David Bailey – Fashion & Portrait Photographer

“If anyone gets in my way when I’m making a picture, I become irrational. I’m never sure what I am going to do, or sometimes even aware of what I do – only that I want that picture.”

Brassai – Photographer, Sculptor, Writer & Film Maker

“Chance is always there. We all use it. The difference is a poor photographer meets chance one out of a hundred times and a good photographer meets chance all the time.”

Andri Cauldwell – Photographer

“To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.”

Robert Capa – War Photographer

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” (more…)

When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism

September 1st, 2015

Waterloo_placeIn the earliest days of photography it took a mastery of optics, chemistry, and an arcane workflow to take and process a photograph using the cumbersome cameras of the time.  To read more about this, see my post on Fox Talbot and Early Photography.   This time-consuming hybrid discipline restricted photography to a small and skilled group of people.

The introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, an inexpensive handheld unit, changed all that, and is one of the more important milestones in the history of photography.  Like many important events, it spawned changes that its inventor could not have envisioned. The Kodak introduced a system of photography based on flexible, lightweight roll film.  In addition, it simplified camera operation by providing fixed focus, a single shutter speed and pre-loaded film.  The need to work with chemicals was dispensed with by the introduction of film processing as a service.  Together these refinements made photography far more accessible.   In 1892, the year George Eastman’s company was renamed The Eastman Kodak Company, Eastman Kodak coined the advertising slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”.  What Eastman could not have foreseen was the backlash to this popularisation of photography.

The production of a vastly increased number of spontaneously shot, realistic but unremarkable ‘snapshot’ images, prompted a protracted public debate about whether photography could be considered to be art or was purely a utilitarian medium produced by a mechanical recording device.  Inspired by Peter Henry Emerson’s book Naturalistic Photography (1889) and rejecting the notion of photography as solely a documentary medium, a small group of photographers set out to show that photography was indeed fine art.   Some of the better known are Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946); Edward Steichen (1879-1973); Edward Weston (1886-1958); Paul Strand (1890-1976);  Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79); Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901); Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936); Robert Demachy (1859-1936) and my personal favourite, the Belgian Leonard Misonne (1870-1943).   These photographers formed clubs and salons such as The Linked Ring, Photo-Secession, The Royal Photographic Society and The Photo-Club of Paris and created a movement known as Pictorialism.   Pictorialism was also the product of photography and the world of art coming closer together at the end of the nineteenth century.  Artists such as Manet and Gauguin used photographs to capture images that would be rendered as paintings back in the studio, whilst some pictorialist photographers (such as Henry Peach Robinson) had been trained as painters. (more…)

The Beauty of the Long Exposure

May 10th, 2015

Road to nowhere - the beauty of the long exposureI have seen some astonishing black and white photography that uses very strong neutral density (ND) filters such as the B+W ND 110 to blur cloud movement using a long exposure.  I wanted to get some shots with the same effect into my portfolio.  The B+W 110 is not for the faint hearted because it is so black the camera typically can’t meter or focus through it, but I’ve tried lesser NDs and they are just not strong enough for the full effect. The real full on long exposure effect can be stunning, and I obtained reasonably pleasing results on the shoot, so I’m going to keep going. The picture on the left is entitled ‘The Road to Nowhere’ and is a small road that runs just off the A41 between Aylesbury and Bicester towards Brill, where I also shot that day.  After some experimentation I found the following to work quite well:

  1. Ideally you should shoot on a cloudy day with strong winds so that you can capture the movement as a blur. The direction and speed of movement of the clouds is of interest as movement across the frame versus towards or away from you look quite different.
  2. Set up your camera on a tripod. Make sure it is really secure, especially if you are in a high wind. If you have a strap attached to the camera make sure it is not flapping about. Ideally you should be using a cable release or remote to release the shutter.
  3. Compose a test shot without the filter, in aperture priority mode – setting the desired aperture, which will typically be small (I mainly used f16). Typically you will want to set a low ISO, shoot using Raw and disable lens vibration reduction as it is not helpful on a tripod.
  4. Focus using auto focus and take note of the shutter speed.
  5. Next, screw in your B+W 110 10 stop neutral density filter, and switch to manual focus and manual mode.
  6. In Manual mode set the shutter speed to 1000 times the shutter speed of the meter reading for the test shot, keeping the same aperture setting and using the bulb setting if necessary.
  7. Take the shot and look at the result. Adjust the shutter setting as desired until you get the exposure you want.
  8. Take off the ND filter, flip back to aperture mode and autofocus and take a bracket of 3 shots that can be used with the long exposure to create a properly exposed image.