Christmas message

My first. Hopefully not my last.

Well, praise the Hogfather, kill the cow and let’s feast to mark the passing of midwinter. Happy Christmas too.

From now on the days will be getting lighter and longer. It does feel a bit grim and grey to be going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and catching a brief glimpse of low-angle sun at the weekends. I do love the look of horizontal rays of light over wet fields or along city streets though. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is pretty useful to find out where the sun is going to be. Back during the summer I used it when I wanted to take a picture of a friend’s place with glancing sunlight shining down the road.

Perk Up

Anyway, enough of the practical stuff; what have you done this year?

Film has gone from moribund to perky. I hope you got yours. Some people are coming back to film and realising what is missing. No more Agfachrome 50s, no more Kodak infra-red, no more quick high street processing. Old Soviet gear that was never taken seriously has become cool (or at least the lenses have), basic-model cameras have become expensive and late-model SLRs go for 99p and postage on eBay.

The Chinese are serious contenders in manufacturing and innovation. You could take out a mortgage to buy some old Leitz Summasquat or buy brand new Chinese lenses that only lack scratches and fungus to be classic.

Digital cameras are now video cameras. And curiously, I am using a video camera to take stills. That reminds me that I have a shoebox full of small video cassettes that my dad shot over the years and no means of viewing them. Mind you, it was the same with the 8mm film my grandad shot, but I at least had the sense to have that copied to video. A VHS cassette mind, so that great idea needs to make the next leap along with the little cassettes. Compare that with the film negatives I inherited that still work. (Grumble, grumble).

This year I definitely got my photography groove back on. I shot more pictures in general, experimented more and did more with the pictures I had shot. I’ve put no effort into learning more about flash lighting or studio-type lighting in general. I’ve put a lot of effort into taking pictures underwater. Wasn’t there a beer that was advertised as ‘reassuringly expensive’? Well shooting underwater is reassuringly difficult. It’s also been my first full year as a PADI Divemaster, which is a sort of scuba sheepdog.

I broke more cameras, messed up several films with daft experiments in development, got very excited at the idea of classic lenses and then realised I already had all the lenses I needed. I even sold a lens that I was unlikely to ever use. The buyer promptly broke it by forcing it on and off a camera.

I also started this blog. If phone boxes were more common I could hold a Christmas party in one with my reader. I’m not dissuaded though: I enjoy the exercise of writing and shaping my thoughts. Got to catch them first though. But the practice of having an idea or posing a question and then developing it is fun. I have no idea where this blog is going, what I’m going to prattle about next or even if the ideas will dry-up tomorrow.

Oh, and I finally sold the remains of my motorbike and have no intention of buying another. I’ve had a bike of some type for many years but I had a big crash. My own fault: too tired, too hasty, overtook a tractor that turned right into a concealed entrance. In terms of crashes I had eight lives’ worth of luck: broken fingers and elbow, bruised everywhere (I looked like a baboon’s arse), and most of my protective clothing and crash helmet destroyed. So I’m thinking that I had a tenth percentile crash, well below average, so my next one would be more likely to be nearer the average. Statistical nonsense, but that’s it for me and bikes. But clipping a tractor at 50 and limping away with no head or spinal injuries kind of adjusts one’s thinking. I have enjoyed motorcycling tremendously, but I have stopped doing it myself. The new owner of the remains has plans to build a cafe racer and I am promised a picture. When the day comes, it will be on this blog.

Helmet

I came joint first in a photography competition! Now, that’s news. It was one round of the Sunny 16 Podcast’s cheap shots challenge. I know I have moaned about photographic competitions and judging, but this is different. This is all about pushing the limits of what can be done (or how much mickey can be taken) within a constraint. The epitome of this was the round that had a theme of Fine Art and required an artist’s statement from each entrant. Never has so much nonsense been spun to such effect (outside of an election).

The Persistence of RAM
The persistence of RAM. Geddit? Not one of the winners.
The Treachery of Imaging
The treachery of imaging. Also not a winner. Are we surprised?

What will I be doing over Christmas? Walking the dog on a beach. It’s an antidote to lethargy and television and it’s great fun seeing all the other dogs out in their Christmas jumpers and reindeer antlers.

And next year? Finding and printing my pictures of people, obviously. I also have some weird films stashed in my storage box, so I will be playing with low-contrast, with orthochromatic and some other experiments that are bound to end in tears, but lessons. I fancy having a go at checking and adjusting the shutter on my Zorki, so I will probably be breaking this too. I have a few lenses that haven’t been out much, so I could take a dose of my own medicine and go out with just one lens. That could be interesting, as the ones that have seen the most shelf time are the 300mm, the 400mm and the 15mm. I could use the 15 for the Christmas party in the phone box. I’m also going to be working on underwater flash. I’ve bought a bit of alloy strip to make a double flash bracket. If it works (and I don’t just end up with a much smaller bit of alloy strip) I’ll be doing main flash, fill-in and macro work. Now the bike has gone I can actually get in the garage to use some power tools. What could possibly go wrong…

Let’s see what I write next year about what actually happened.

In the meantime, lang may yer lum reek and up the Queen.

Peeps

One of the things I have been accused of… no, let’s call it feedback… is that I don’t take pictures of people, only things.

I’m going through an exercise at the moment of photographing my old negative filing sleeves to make a set of digital contact prints. At the same time I am writing-up simple filing notes using key terms so that I can find things again. This is all proving very interesting and reflective.

I have plenty of pictures of people, but I have realised that I tend to only print or show the ones of current people: family, friends and so on. It’s part of my (endearing) weirdness that I don’t think anyone would be interested in looking at people they don’t know. And yet I wrote about the power of some photographic exhibitions that were all pictures of people I didn’t know. I can’t claim to have their skill, compassion or insight, but I do have some nice pictures of people.

1981 11 30 a 20a

Another strand to the story is that I recently made a photobook for my mum, filled with old family photos and ones I had taken over the years. Part of the joy is the way my parents looked at each other, from an early picture with a newborn me rolling in my dad’s arms like a truculent piglet to the pair of them sat in the shade in their garden.

We also have the corridor of fame at home. This was a proper corridor in the old house, but in the new one has taken-over the study. The corridor was lined, floor to ceiling, with pictures of friends and family. There is more wall space in the study in the new house, so the pictures haven’t yet covered every wall. It’s a riotous assembly of rogues though.

Laffin Bob

So here’s the plan. I now have a project. I am going to find and print all of the people pictures I have (that I like). I am also going to fill a folder on my computer with short-cut links to the picture files so that I have the set collected into a single place. I will do the prints at postcard size. This will give me a set of new material for the wall of fame. It will also let me curate a set of images into a running order, as I liked the photobook so much I might do another one. This is what the folder of shortcuts will be for: to give me a quick method of dealing with a scattered set of files. The discovery and selection process is also fascinating, as I have been taking pictures for a long time. How skinny and young we used to be! As a boy I could have escaped from a locked room down a garden hose. These days you would have to beat me with the hose to get me moving.

DG

The selection criteria will be simple though: pictures I like that contain people. So, look out, world! Coming to a few select friends and a wall near me, the limited edition photobook Peeps.*

Actually, that sounds a bit creepy. But People I have shot would make me sound like an American. Or perhaps I go all White Album? Content first: there’s a long way to go before I worry about what to call it.

* Look up Harry Enfield and Stavros.

Pod people

Do you pod? And do you pod all the time or just on special occasions? I pod when I have to, but I certainly don’t take a tripod with me everywhere.

For years I had a Slik amateur-model tripod that did a reasonable job. It was reasonably priced, it did a reasonable job of holding the camera still and it was a reasonable weight to carry. Then one of the leg catches broke.

Not being a frequent podder, I replaced it with one of 7 Day Shop’s cheap deals. Like the Slik it was an amateur tripod with some nice features at a great price. It did great service up on Great Gable doing some star photography. If I had to use a tripod and had to carry it more than a few paces, this would be my choice.

Somewhere along the line I also acquired The Beast. I was driving into Harrogate At the time and got stopped at a level crossing. There was a parking spot just to the left of me and I was in no hurry. So I parked and had a wander around a few charity shops. Lurking at the back of one was The Beast, a Slik professional tripod with a Manfrotto geared head. The quick release plate was missing, but available online. The release plate actually cost more than the tripod. Not if you were buying it new, of course – this is a £500 tripod and head combination.

This thing is a monster. I used it when a couple of us were doing record shots for the local court and poorhouse museums. This thing could hold a parachute steady in a gale. I wouldn’t want to carry it though: it weighs about the same as me. I certainly would not have carried this up Great Gable. Although if I had thrown my coat over it, I could have slept inside.

Beast

This is the tripod I used to straddle a lightbox when I was taking pictures of my negatives. Even though it is, in effect, leaning over to one side it’s heavy enough that it won’t tip. The geared head is useful too. It lets me finely adjust the direction of the camera with no risk that it could slip afterwards. There is always a fear with a heavy lens or camera that a slip ends with a crunch.

The Beast is useless for action though, but then, isn’t every tripod? When I was off to photograph some bike racing I needed some form of support for the long lenses I was using. I don’t have the option of pushing the ISO to phone numbers. Actually there was one guy there who had set up the biggest lens I’ve ever seen on a tripod and left it in the same place throughout the event, firing it by remote control. Rather a cynical and mechanical way of getting results, I think. Or perhaps a very good use of time and resources by a professional.

What I had instead was a monopod. And not just a monopod but a MONOPOD. This is a Benbo job, as robust as one of the legs off The Beast. It extends to longer than my height, so it easily supports a camera at eye level. I’ve got a V-shaped bracket on the top (thank you, 7dayshop) rather than any kind of mounting screw. This means that the monopod supports a long lens, allows panning or rocking back and forth to get best focus, and decouples instantly when I lift the camera away from it. I could probably use it to fend-off dogs or alligators as well.

Mono

From the practical to the surreal – back in the day you could buy a multi-function camera support. It was basically a plastic G clamp but the advertisers said you could screw it to a tree or attach the little legs to turn it into a table tripod. Total con, but I bought one. Still have it. Never used it. It’s like those Swiss Army knives that are so fat with extra blades that you can’t carry or use them. But if I ever do have to attach a lightweight camera to a tree or fence, I will wonder where I put it.

clamp
Might be useful for attaching a camera to a beer glass

I tend to shoot a lot of stuff that is fluid (not a deliberate pun, honest) where a tripod is out of the question. I did try in the past to recreate something like a rifle sling, where I could pull the camera against myself , but I couldn’t make it work well. It might be worth trying the idea with a mirrorless camera, as you don’t need to hold them to your eye to use them. It did feel like a good method for pulling the tripod socket out of the camera body though. Anyway, people shoot with five-digit ISO these days and don’t need a tripod for support.

So there is a bunch of other stuff I’ve tried to find a comfortable support. Some people rate the little tabletop tripods. I’ve tried one, but I find it too small to be a tripod and too big to be convenient. When I’ve been out at night in urban areas I have tended to use a beanbag. Easy to place on a wall or even the ground and not too much grief to carry about. It still means that you are carrying around something that weighs as much as a camera and isn’t a camera, though. I saw one of those useful ‘ten tips for steady shooting’ articles that suggested using a bit of string with a 1/4″ bolt on the end. The idea is that you put the bolt in the tripod socket of the camera, drop the string on the floor, tread on it and pull up on the camera. Instant steadiness without the need for a tripod.

Mini

It does work, after a fashion. You really need the tripod socket to be central on the camera and it’s a fiddle to fit and remove. Ideally, before you use it in anger, you will practice and tie a knot at the point your foot should be. And remember to take it off before you try to walk away. I believe there was an equivalent in days of yore when real men used TLRs of pulling down on the camera to tighten the neck strap as a form of brace. A bit like the rifle sling idea, but practical.

pod
A beanbag with a tripod screw

I suppose the ultimate aid to steadiness is something like the Zenit Photosniper or the Novoflex. I’ve written about them before. And like the photographer’s waistcoat, all sadly confined to a more innocent past. These days you can get arrested for taking a picture out of an airliner window.

But these days it seems to matter less. I’ve seen someone shooting a group in dim light that I would have needed a tripod and flash for, and all he did was push the ISO. The results were fine, maybe even better than using flash as there were no awkward shadows. If looking at the back of your camera is chimping, can I call this cheesbugging? (It’s an ISO ‘pod. Sorry.)

You heard it here first. And last.

Update – I found the weird clampy thing.

Clamp thing

Pictures at an exhibition

I did a rare thing t’other weekend and went to that there London, in this case to see a couple of exhibitions. Tish Murtha and Tony Vacarro, since you asked.

It got me thinking about an exhibition of Don McCullin’s stuff I saw in Salford and an autobiography of John Phillips.

All four reported some form of social documentary. Tony, Don and John reported on wars and conflicts. Tish recorded England’s war on the poor and women. Tony reported the second world war through Europe as an infantryman, completely against the rules. John reported the build-up to the same war as a Life journalist and had access to the great, the good and the royalty of Europe. Don covered just about every conflict that fell into that period of universal peace that followed the end of that world war. And Tish looked at housing estates, pubs and seedy clubs to reflect the realities of the end of shipbuilding and mining.

What can I possibly add to what they have done, other than to feel very humble? And angry at the actions of governments and people in power.

We say that the role of journalism is to speak truth to power. I don’t see this working. Why would power listen to inconvenient truth, or fake news as we call it now? I do see journalists trying to speak truth about power. And if the truth be spoken clearly, and if enough people can hear it and care, then perhaps power can be brought to account. Who am I kidding? Power means not being held to account. Perhaps we can teach those who hold power to behave better by throwing them out when they don’t? The purpose of democracy as a system is supposed to be to enable the peaceful transition of power. But that means allowing the people to vote and allowing them to be informed.

Sigh.

And now we return to our regular programme, known as reality. It’s a shame that journalism, and within it photojournalism, have faded. Abroad isn’t foreign any more if the foreigners can post pictures on social media. And why maintain a foreign correspondent if the people involved in the affair will do a show and tell for free? So newspapers lay-off their staff photographers and poke their journalists to make headlines out of Twitter feeds. What we gain is immediacy. What we lose is analysis. We worry about Yemen but would struggle to name its bordering countries.

I have spent a lot of hours commuting. Initially I had the radio news on and thought it would keep me informed about the world and its works. But it grew on me that I was hearing a repetitive and superficial reporting of events with little discussion of their meaning or place. So I dumped the news. Instead I listen to long-form pieces where someone talks about a subject they have been researching, investigating and developing. Or I listen to discussions between well-informed people and a curious and challenging interviewer. I don’t shout at the radio anywhere near as often as I used to. I can still skim the BBC website for the headlines, but I now know that they are clickbait.

I had a similar epiphany some years back when I did a bit of contracting at News International. If I had thought about it at all, I had some ‘hold the front page’ idea of newspapers being about telling people what was going on. Not so – the purpose of a newspaper is to sell advertising space. You get people to buy the advertising medium by making it interesting. Somewhere in there could be a bit of journalism, as long as it doesn’t take too long or cost too much.

I don’t know where to go for the equivalent in photojournalism though. Pictures need words, too, just as words need pictures. Go and look at McCullin’s work in places like the Sunday Times magazine. His pictures are remarkable and stand alone, but the addition of words gives context. These people are fighting, but why? These children are starving, but why is this one being treated differently? We’ve all seen the picture of the man being executed in Viet Nam. Does reading the circumstances change your view of events? Or did the newsreel film captured at the same time only serve to inform the SFX team on The Deer Hunter what a head wound looks like? Or am I getting cynical in my old age?

IMGP5731
So what is happening here?

There is also a strange delivery of what is held to be balanced reporting. This usually means though, that the considered and enumerated views of an experienced expert are matched with the opinion of someone handy who happened to have the opposite view. Or we think it balanced that a majority view backed with massive evidence is balanced by an outlier (global warming). This is easy to do with words and happens a lot. I’m not sure if I have seen the picture equivalent – perhaps people still think that a picture is a true record of events while words were made-up? Or are the people who see crisis actors in every American shooting the equivalent of the person who thinks the oceans are rising because of the dirt carried into them by rivers?

IMGP5910
Or here?

I don’t know what the answer is. I do wish we could weigh the value of an opinion in terms of the effort the person has made to form it. In photography terms I would like some words with my pictures to explain the context and help stop me jumping to conclusions. I don’t mean some convoluted and obscure artist’s statement, not unless the picture is meant to be art and then it’s part of the entertainment. For news and social documentary I would like context. Take the pictures I’ve put in this post as an example. Without context they could mean whatever you read into them. I stake no claim to be anywhere near the four photographers I named above, but you could still start a war (or at least escalate one) based on my pictures.

I’m not sure that a picture is worth a thousand words. If the picture has any social relevance or commentary I would like to get a thousand words with it.

Northallerton war memorial weekend, June 18th 2011.The Russians.
I wonder what’s going on?

Perhaps we will get fed-up with cursory likes on social media and empty clickbait reporting and go back to considered expertise? Or perhaps we shouldn’t care, because it has actually always been like this and the only change is that social media is a better mirror?

I’m off to my shed to grumble against the world.

Update – seen this article? https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/research-review/what-do-newspapers-lose-when-they-use-non-professional-photography/