Further to the previous post, here’s something from an interview with Bellamy Hunt, founder of Japan Camera Hunter, in which he’s asked, ‘Why do you think there’s been a resurgence on film photography?’
‘There are a few reasons, but the main one is nostalgia. People want old cars, old watches and vinyl. They want to collect the old fliers of the raves they went to back in the day. The camera was a pivotal part of that experience of life for a lot of people. There’s also this young generation who’ve grown up with everything in their life being on line from the word go. And I think for some of them, film photography gives them this opportunity to not be online; to have something tangible that isn’t going to be shared or stolen, perhaps. Who’s going to steal some negatives?’
‘Ultimately, people just want personal moments. And photography is a relatively easy hobby to get into – you can still go out and buy a perfectly serviceable, workable film camera for 25 or 30 quid. You can then go to town and grab some film and you’re good to go. And that’s appealing; it’s different.’
I’ve been able to make progress with my Classical Contrasts project (see posts 28th &29th July and 4th June 2020, renamed Ambivalent Auras) now the Museum of Classical Archaeology has opened for booked visits. I spent a couple of hours there recently making photographs of some of the 30 subjects I need to complete the book. I felt it went well at the time, but as I was using film I couldn’t tell until I had negatives and prints in my hand. In the event, I have 19 images I’m happy with and six subjects need redoing. I count that as a reasonable success. If I’d been using digital capture the six duds could have been reshot at the time, of course.
So, why use film, why not make life easy for myself? American photographer Sarah Christianson explains why she uses film in an interview in Analog Forever (Edition 2, Summer 2020).
‘It’s a passion, a labour of love. The magic of the darkroom enthrals me, and I love coaxing images out of the materials, light and chemistry. I find I have deeper relationship with my images because of this. Shooting film slows me down – in the best way possible. I’m more careful and considered in my approach. There’s a seductive quality to 5×4 negatives, too. The historian and archivist in me also loves the physicality of film and amassing this giant collection of negatives that can be passed on to future generations.’
I share much of this thinking, though I’m now divorced from the darkroom magic, somewhat regretfully. Even 35 mm negatives are seductive – they have an iconic beauty and embody both presence and potential. The slowing down when making the photographs is complemented by the delay in seeing the final prints – and there is the pleasurable bonus of deferred gratification. The full joy of the analog world of photography is realised when the final image becomes a ‘real’ silver print with its distinctive range of tones and aura as a unique tactile object.
Yesterday, first walk in the Beechwoods since early spring. Almost dog and people free. Wrens and blackbirds in summer song. I had forgotten how dense the canopy can be in some places. Questions. Are the woods at their most beautiful in spring, summer, autumn or winter? In hangers like this, do beeches put all their energies into height rather than girth?
Thanks to my second set of eyes for looking up and seeing this picture.
A gathering of the Konik ponies at Wicken Fen yesterday. With hundreds of acres of grazing to choose from, what’s the attraction on a patch of mud?
‘Herds of free roaming Konik ponies … are helping to engineer new habitats for wildlife at Wicken Fen. As the nature reserve expands under the Wicken Fen Vision, it would not be possible to manage the enlarged reserve using traditional methods of man and machinery, instead a more sustainable approach is needed. … Grazing animals are essential to the development of vegetation in new areas of the nature reserve. The animals help keep the landscape open and help wetland and grassland plants to become established. Why Konik ponies? … The hardiness of the breed means they are more than capable of withstanding the rigours of life on the fen throughout the year and thrive on the available forage. … The Konik pony is a very hardy breed originating from Eastern Europe ideally suited to our type of lowland landscape.’ (National Trust website)
‘The Konik or the Polish primitive horse is a pony breed from Poland that lives semi-feral in some regions. The Polish word konik is the diminutive of koń, the Polish word for “horse”. However, the name “konik” or “Polish konik” is used to refer to certain specific breeds.’ (Wikipedia)
Further comments on Footfall, from a photographer friend this time. My responses in italics.
‘I have been struggling to come up with lucid comments on your book. I think the critique you got from your friend is a little harsh, and maybe not getting the point. But what is the point? It is not a photo-book per se, but does contain 6 or 8 “good” photos.’
This poses the question, what is a photo book? The Tate defines it as: ‘The photobook is a book of photographs by a photographer that has an overarching theme or follows a storyline – a convenient and reasonably cheap way of disseminating the work of a photographer to a mass audience.’ I think that Footfall is a photobook in these terms, if taken literally. Consistent photographic excellence is implicit in the definition, and I admit that Footfall sacrifices some quality for an attempt to convey ideas.I see it as a form of conceptual photography.
‘As a meditation on walking it works in parts, and the quotations are apt and quite inspiring. I do walking Meditation at times and appreciate the mystery of the process.’
I’m pleased this aspect is at least in part successful. Perhaps I should have tried to give this more focus and elaborated on the ideas more fully in the afterword.
‘When I think I have got the gist I come up against pages that baffle me, i.e. pp26/27.’
These two pictures, reproduced below, fit within the ‘interactions’ section of the book. They are of massive close ups of faces used for advertising in the windows of a supermarket and a tattoo parlour respectively. Both look out, but you can’t look in; they dominate and shock by their sheer size and demand attention. It’s an interaction that asks of us, who owns the street?
‘I see that the Divine Comedy is about a journey, but a random walk is maybe not a journey. But then everything is a journey…’
Indeed, life’s journey. The image of Dante’s path from Paradise to the Inferno introduces the section on walking as deviance, or perhaps I should say transgression. Life is full of transgressions.
‘Brownie points for doing it on film.’
A small and undoubtedly hopeless stand against the digital flood.
‘On the whole I would say it is a ‘curate’s egg’ – good in parts.’
‘PS By the way, I do like the book and often look at it. It is thought-provoking.’
If you find it thought provoking I’m more than happy.
Walking at Hemingford Abbots and Houghton yesterday. Bells drew us to the church of St Margaret of Antioch after lunch. It’s one of some 250 such dedications in Britain. Margaret, is known as Margaret of Antioch in the West, and as Saint Marina the Great Martyr in the East. She is said to have been martyred in 304; though she was declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius 200 years later, devotion to her revived in the West during the Crusades. She was reputed to have promised powerful indulgences to those who wrote or read her life, or invoked her intercessions. Margaret is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and one of the saints Joan of Arc claimed to have spoken with. Her saint’s day in the Anglican Church is 17th July.
The bells that summoned us were being played by one man on a bell frame. Known as an Ellacombe apparatus, it is a mechanism devised in 1821 (200th anniversary this year) by Reverend Henry Thomas Ellacombe for performing change ringing on church bells by striking stationary bells with hammers. He wanted an alternative to dealing with unruly local bell ringers. This method does not have the same sound as full circle ringing due to the absence of the Doppler effect, as the bells do not rotate and the lack of a damping of the clapper after each strike. It sounded more like a carillon to me. The cogs and gears of an ancient clock hang above the frame – it looks as if it might have been made by the local blacksmith.
In the churchyard a pale grey granite headstone: ‘Tom Stocker Farmer 1939-2019 True hope is swift and flies with swallows wings’.
‘Does the artist understand their work best?’ That’s the question posed in the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Summer 2021. Yes, argues critic Matthew Holman, ‘because they possess a more profound understanding of what they are up to’. No, says painter Fiona Rae RA, suggesting that ‘the artist is as clueless as anybody else is as to what their work is really about’. I don’t claim to be an artist, but the question might asked about my photography.
I gave a copy of Footfall to an artist friend (a painter) a couple of weeks ago and she gave me her opinion in a concise six-point critique on Saturday. (1) It has no clear focus, it is neither one thing nor the other. (2) Less than a third of the photographs are any good, many look like makeweights or afterthoughts. (3) It includes subjects dealt with in my previous projects. (4) The photographs are poorly reproduced, lacking in detail and depth of tone. (5) The photographs are also too small. (6) Printing is on poor quality paper. In the spirit of Mrs Lincoln forced to comment on the play, she did like the cover photograph.
Depending on what the viewer is looking for in a book of photographs, there might be something is some or all of these criticisms; but criticism should focus on how the book fails to achieve its intentions, not on how it does not come up to some other standard. In my defence I plead what I said in this blog on 29th January: ‘Regardless of the weather and at no particular time, I’m strolling the streets camera in hand from the same starting point, home, waiting to see what turns up and relying on the gift of serendipity. I’m not aiming for beautifully composed and exposed pictures. Perhaps some will be, perhaps most won’t. I want to explore the often messy nature of urban walking in the changeable dour months of winter that will transition into hopeful early spring.’ An afterword in Footfall covers some of this.
Still, maybe the intention is not clear and this statement could have been repeated and elaborated on in an introduction, but there are times for eschewing such hand holding, for showing not telling. The viewer/reader can be expected to work at a book and tease out some of its meaning. For example, there are two particular consecutive photographs in Footfall that with careful study reveal some of what this exploration of the nature of urban walking about. As with the earlier book, Undertow, it’s a matter of exploring the about rather than the of.
Anyway, to quote Fiona Rae again, ‘…I think I prefer art that’s prone to misunderstanding. Art that tells you what and how to think and feel always remains somewhat at the level of instruction and illustration…you’re probably being told what you already know.’
I introduced my Walking project on 29th January 2021. Around 50 photographs from it have appeared up to 29th May, when I described bringing the work together in a Blurb book, Footfall – copies arrived on the 7th June. The project was originally conceived as a largely photographic exercise, but evolved into something closer to a reflection on the nature of urban walking. This was influenced by simultaneously reading around the subject, especially The Walker – On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City, Matthew Beaumont, 2020, Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin, 2016 and Wanderlust – A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit, 2001. Brief quotes from these and other writers accompany the photographs. Footfall is structured very loosely around seven implied themes: how and why; pleasures; interactions; epiphanies; deviance; urban environment; philosophy; and threats. The book concludes with the following short afterword describing how it came about.
‘The street is the only region of valid experience’, according to Andre Breton in Najda, quoted by Matthew Beaumont in The Walker – On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City. If this exaggerates the pleasures of the street, one should expect no less from a Surrealist; and we live in curious pandemic times when walking has been one of the few valid experiences available, so it’s allowable. ‘No walk, as far as I am concerned, is ever wasted’, claims Beaumont, ‘In contrast…to a car journey’. Walking makes him feel alive and ‘vitally connected to the city’s ceaseless circuits of energy and, at the same time, delicately detached from them.’
‘In this spirit, I’ve walked the streets from my home regardless of the weather and at no particular time of day, camera in hand, waiting to see what turns up and relying on the gift of serendipity. There is nothing new in this. Artists such as Sophie Calle, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and many others have explored the walk creatively throughland art, conceptual art, street photography and film. Footfall is a record of time and place and offers a reflection on urban walking.’
‘Footfall is the result of 36 walks taken between 20th December 2020 and 29th March 2021. All photographs were made on film.’
Walked out along Cow Lane, Rampton, yesterday – early to beat the sun. A favourite fen stroll. The scent of elder flowers has replace the cow parsley. A weasel and a muntjac deer ran across the road ahead of us. Cautious fen farmers usually use redundant machinery or concrete blocks to bar their crops to undesirable intruders – this one has a rustic barrier to protect his field of beans.
From my reading about photography and photographers over the years I’ve accumulated a feeling that many a shoot has been saved by the telling image made on the last frame (not to be confused with a ‘film end’). It’s probably a false impression, but it remains. Googling something like ‘last frame’ or ‘end of the roll’ provides no evidence one way or the other, instead you get taken into the realms of film buffery and carpet retailing. And I did discover: Sami Matarante (aka Sami Jones), who has compared first and last frames (www.thesamijones.com/blog); and an Instagram account dedicated to the first frame of a 35mm roll, f1rstoftheroll.
Perhaps there are examples of photograph gold in the last frame, but I’ve probably turned a couple of examples into a generality without any evidence to back it up. It isn’t without a certain logic, however. As you use a roll of film on a single subject or event, you can build confidence, get to know the subject and refine what you are trying to achieve, so the last 10 frames might be better than the first.
I decided to look for evidence in my recent walking project (now called Footfall), in which I made a final cut of 85 images from nine 35mm rolls. Pictures were selected from all but four of the 36 frame numbers, giving an average of 2.5 pictures per frame. Four images each came from frames 6, 8, 12, 17 and 36. Amalgamating the numbers in four groups gives the following picture: frames 1-9, 20 images; frames 10-18, 17; frames 19-27, 19; and frames 28-36, 26. Taking a doubly selective tack, a selection from a selection, my favourite four images are from frames 3, 20, 26 and 34. There’s not enough here to support the hypotheses of film end bias. The bias is in my mind.
Eighteen contributors to the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine (No. 151, summer 2021) were asked to nominate ‘The artists they think every child should see’. Just one, Lily Bertrand-Webb, herself a photographer, nominated a photographer. She said: ‘The photographer Bill Brandt – his distorted close-ups of ears and hands on pebble beaches are so imaginative and playful. I used to try to copy them when I was by the sea as a little girl.’
Vespasian was Roman emperor from 69 to 79. The fourth and last in the Year of the Four Emperors, he founded the Flavian dynasty that ruled the Empire for 27 years. Figure: one of The Twelve Caesars, Italian (Roman) School … Continue reading →
Last week was a modest feast of TV photography. I watched the final of the re-run of Sky Arts 2017 Master of Photography contest (winner Gillian Allard); and caught the first in the BBC 4 series Great British Photography Challenge. The latter looks like a rip-off of the former, but they are really very different. The Sky offering has high production values and budgets – with the BBC you are sent to Brighton or Birmingham, Sky sent you to Lapland or Morocco (and there was an eroticism assignment, I can’t wait to see the BBC’s alternative). Sky had judges that were refreshingly tough for reality TV; Rankin, who is mentoring the BBC contestants, is more avuncular than acerbic.
What the series have in common is a peculiar view of what makes a master of photography. It was too much to hope that they would be asked to go back to basics: the blessing and curse of digital photography is that all too often you can get away without knowing any of this, the camera does it for you or you rely on post production or both. But f-stops and hyperfocal distances wouldn’t make very good TV. More worrying was the way the contestants were sent out on diverse assignments and given an hour or maybe a day to come up with images worthy of a master.
The BBC challenges so far have included wildlife, fashion and celebrity shoots, smart phones on Brighton beach and in a gym, and documentary of a wholesale market. While the contestants each purport to have an area of specialisation they seemed to set out with only a hazy understanding of how to go about the assignments. This was exemplified by the documentary where there was little grasp of how to approach it and build as story (the clue is in the word, ‘documentary’). Perhaps the Newport School model – establishing, relationship and close-up shots – is passé, but it tells the story. Ultimately it’s all superficial – if it makes exciting TV, and that’s doubtful, it doesn’t make good, and certainly not great, photography.
Watching Mark Lawson Talks to David Bailey on BBC 4, the same night as GBPC episode one, was an antidote to this instant approach to photography. The master summed up the gap: he said that with modern digital photography anybody can take on great picture, ‘I can take two’; he was too modest to add ‘day after day.’