Category Archives: black & white

Shape of Light at Tate Modern, London

The exhibition ‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art‘ is showing at Tate Modern, London until 14 October 2018. It charts photography’s role in twentieth and twenty-first century efforts to explore abstract art but it does it in a rather staid, historical/academic – and expensive – way that gave no clue about the sense of play involved in creating abstract art. Nevertheless it is a good synopsis show that achieves what it ‘says on the tin’.

seated man views abstract photos

Even the staff get to appreciate the art sometimes, though the first 10 rooms of unremitting black & white images did start to get dreary (never thought I’d say that about b&w photos, but there it is).

This exhibition is a journey through photographic abstraction from the early twentieth century to the present. It demonstrates relationships between different photographers and different media, with the occasional painting and sculpture added to the mix. Most of the exhibition is a steady progression through varying approaches to abstraction. When you consider that the primary use of a camera is to record what’s in front of it, using a camera to make abstract photos is fighting the natural characteristics of the medium. In this exhibition we see the world presented from bizarre viewpoints, the use of long focal length lenses to compress perspective and close-ups to distort scale. We also find photographic materials used outside the camera to record the action of light, and even invisible radiation, directly. The first ten of the twelve rooms are almost entirely black & white prints.  I hate to say this as a black & white enthusiast, but ten rooms of black & white abstracts did start to become kinda’ boring. But then finally as we approach the 21st century colour starts to happen. Hurrah! It starts as a dark blue whisper of large format Polaroid prints then finally, finally bursts into the exuberance that can be abstract art. It’s true that colour film wasn’t available in the early 20th century and unfortunately there was an almost universal attitude that serious photographers only made black & white images – and what a missed opportunity that was! Rooms 11 and 12 of the exhibition seem to conflate colour film and digital technology as a single giant leap away from photographers worthily pursuing abstraction to artists playing with photographic means to create abstract art. With the depth of analysis given in the first ten rooms it felt like the final two rooms were rather rushed and cramped, not in their physical space, which was large, but in their balance compared with the previous part of the show. I feel this is a missed chance to show more of the diverse abstract photography being produced in the last three decades, and the show under-represented the possibilities digital technology has brought to the arena. I swung from feeling turned off by too much black & white imagery to wanting ‘more! more!’ of the latest works.

Broadly the exhibition was organised chronologically, though thankfully not too strictly, and each room had a contextualising statement that could be read or ignored as you please. Although there are well known images by photographic ‘names’ it was good to see these balanced with less well known equals. It was also good to see a sprinkling of Japanese photographers in with the predominant European and American names.

Abstract art is viewed by some people like wallpaper: decorative but shallow in meaning, and using photography to create abstracts can tempt the viewer into trying to work out what it was in front of the camera. The first approach has a lack of engagement, the second is engaged but missing the point. There is a relevant quote buried in this exhibition: when commenting on the title of a proposed abstract photography exhibition in the late 1950’s Minor White wrote to the curator ‘…I think that “towards abstraction” is a dead end for photographers to follow – whereas “towards revelation” is towards life itself.’ [letter from Minor White to Grace Mayer. 1959]. As Minor White implies, abstract images require engagement by the viewer as well as the photographer and without this willingness to engage imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually, this exhibition would be an overpriced expensive waste of your time. But if you want a good assembly of abstract photography set in an historical context, take a deep breath and shell out the £20.

I wouldn’t consider any exhibition worthwhile without discovering a few delights, and this show didn’t disappoint me. A few of my memorable images are:

Iwao Yamawaki. Untitled (Textile Abstraction). c1930-3.

Iwato Yamawaki’s image caught my eye not just for its own quality but for the similarity to ‘Tights‘ (c.2011) by Daido Moriyama. Given the dates it is easy to imagine that Moriyama could have been inspired by Yamawaki.

Chiemsee at Breitbrunn. Original by Peter Keetman. Shape of Light exhibition, Tate Modern

Peter Keetman has an eclectic eye for the abstract image but this one particularly caught my eye. It is on the cusp between reality and unreality, and I think it is this that gives it so many possibilities for the imagination. Is it a landscape? Or perhaps a photomicrograph? Or something else entirely? Unusually for an abstract, it has a strong sense of perspective.

E.I. CTY1. Original by Anthony Cairns. Shape of Light exhibition, Tate Modern.

E.I. CTY1. Original by Anthony Cairns. Shape of Light exhibition, Tate Modern.

I’ve been wanting to see this work by Anthony Cairns since I read about it last year. The images have a hint of the quality of old tintypes about them: quite dark and melancholic, as if uncertain whether to be a negative or a positive. They are an abstraction of reality (but aren’t all photographs?) ‘though anchored in reality so not fully abstract, but definitely worthy of a place in this show. I like the way the multiple shadows caused by refraction through the acrylic mounts gives the images another dimension too.

Awoiska van der Molen: Sequester

In short, Sequester is one of the best Photobooks I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s why…

Sequester the book

Awoiska van der Molen’s book Squester

…I use a 5-point scale when I’m deciding whether I like a cup of coffee (Yes, this is a photo blog not a coffee blog, but bear with me). Here’s how it goes:

  • Yuk, tip it down the sink
  • Nah, that was too much of an endurance test
  • Well, someone might like it but it’s not for me
  • Hmm, nice but rather 1-dimensional; something’s missing or dischordant
  • Yummy, I could drink that again!

Then I realised I use pretty much the same criteria when I’m reading a photobook or visiting an exhibition. I know others who are more analytical in their approach, and a lot of people who are less so. As a practitioner I know that there is a danger of over-analysing my own work, at least while I am creating it, but I think that at least some enquiring thought about my own and others’ work helps me learn and improve, so I shall try my coffee criteria on photography for a while and see whether it works out.

There aren’t many coffees photobooks that make it to the Yummy point of my scale but Sequester is one of them. The title comes from Awoiska van der Molen‘s desire to isolate herself on the Canary Islands with a camera and film for periods of introspection where she seems to be using landscape and the photographic process as a metaphor for her thoughts and a process for artistic development. She acts instinctively while taking the images and enjoys the delayed gratification of film processing but this also allows her mind to work on the memory, so post-visualisation is an important part of her work. All the images in this book are consistently melanistic (to use an appropriately organic term) but in this instance I don’t find the dark tones depressing but rather they inspire me to look more closely, to enquire more deeply into the hidden detail of the shadows and to appreciate the rare quality of the few highlights. Van der Molen describes her images as not so much representing a moment in time but more part of a continuum; evoking a mood is what she aims for.

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers' Gallery, London

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, recently

She photographs in short bursts of about 3 weeks at a time. The first week is spent exploring then by weeks 2 and 3 she is ready to be productive. For the images in Sequester she returned to the Canary Islands several times. It is hard to say why she responds to some landscapes and not others but Spain and The Canaries appeal whereas Italy, for example does not. It seems to be related to the impact that man has had: she prefers a light, understated influence rather than obvious layers of history.

Original photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Images alone don’t make a book – they have to work with the construction, layout, paper, printing and typography, and that’s what makes this book special. The designer, Hans Gremmen, has done a brilliant job on this within the constraints of commercial production. A master stroke was including every third section printed in white ink on black paper. My main criticism is for the way some images bleed across the gutter to the opposite page. This normally ruins the photograph’s carefully considered composition however van der Molen’s primary concern is not for conventional composition but for tones, light and shade, and mood. So in this instance I have to forgive what I normally consider bad practice in the interest of bleeding the image off the edge of the page, which is far more important here as it implies the image being a window into a bigger world.

Sequester is up there with the yummiest of photobooks but if photographs are inherently history then photobooks are even more so (Sequester took about 3 years to publish). Awoiska’s photography has evolved since these images were made and I look forward to following this artist’s journey through her personal landscapes in the future.

Matej Sitar’s page-turning video of Sequester is at https://vimeo.com/122460044

Awoiska van der Molen has images on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, as a nominee for 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize until 11 June.

Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

newYorkSleeps

The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

timesSquare

Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

Masahisa Fukase: solitude or loneliness?

The show ‘Solitude of Ravens’ at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (until 23 April 2016), has a bleak mid-winter feel. A profound sadness pervades Fukase’s images which were made over a ten year period following the photographer’s divorce. The images speak not just of solitude or being alone but of a deeper loneliness that may have become – or been caused by – a long-lasting period of depression.

MasahisaFukase-1

The photographer Masahisa Fukase peaks at us from between two Raven images

I can imagine the photo series starting as a means of working through a traumatic period but inadvertently becoming a brake on emotional recovery; as if the photographer is mired in a self-perpetuating cycle of depression rather than finding an upward recovery towards a happier springtime.
The motif of the unfairly maligned raven recurs through the series as a bird of ill omen. The birds are frequently depicted in silhouette like shadow puppets subject entirely to the external control of the puppeteer, alluding to the lack of control the photographer may feel over his own life.
Sharpness and definition are rare commodities in these images, which are more about mood than content, about emotion rather than fact. There is a muted tonal pallet: black shapes and grey textures dominate even in the non-Raven images.

MasahisaFukase-3

Limited tonal range, blur and grain typify the images in ‘Solitude of Ravens’

The photographs are not sequenced but several are placed close to each other to emphasise their similarity. Fukase originally made the series in 1982 but the images here are a re-working by a friend of his, with some additional ones. Most of the photos are printed beyond the image frame giving a rough-edged look with a hint of 35mm film perforations, reminiscent of a frame from a movie or a keyword chosen from a sentence: a staccato summary of a bleak period in life.

MasahisaFukase-2

The show is not ordered like a narrative but there is an association of pictures that seem to speak to each other

Masahisa Fukase died in 2012 after being in a coma for 20 years following an accident. One is left with the distinct impression that his was not a rich and happy life. But the show is a masterful demonstration of how photography can be used to evoke emotional intensity and as such is well worth seeing.

Clare Strand: performance photography

Clare Strand's Getting Better and Worse at the Same TimeGrimaldi Gavin Gallery, London, are currently showing Clare Strand‘s latest photographic works (ends 6 June 2015), which they describe as revealing “Strand’s discordant relationship with the photographic medium, exploring its promise and limitations through unexpected and eccentric means.” Such a description has me rubbing my hands in anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed: I loved the sense of directed play and the irreverence towards “art”, which is something I wasn’t expecting at a gallery situated in an area of London renowned for being rather affluent and well-heeled.

Although there isn’t much time left to see the show, leaving it until the end has the advantage that you will see more output from The Entropy Pendulum. This pendulum has a foot designed to scour the surface of a print in a central stripe. The print is changed each day and the one from the previous day put on display in one of the 35 waiting frames. The original images are not Strand’s but have clearly been chosen for their centred composition, which means the pendulum abrades and corrupts the original meaning, giving it a new meaning. Although I could intepret the images individually I couldn’t make any sense of the sequence, narrative or developing concept, which I think is a trick missed. Though it’s entirely conceivable that it was just me who missed this final point.

Clare Strand's Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

Clare Strand’s Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

The Entropy Pendulum in action

The Entropy Pendulum in action. I was attracted to the dust generated by the abrasion of the print’s surface

Rubbings is as close as Strand gets to conventional photography: she photographed the bifurcation points of trees, printed them life-size then pinned them back on the trees for a time thus letting nature create the art, and she photographed the prints on the trees from a little further away. On display were the now-weathered prints from the trees twinned with the record of the work in progress. As an experiment in random decay it’s OK I suppose, but what elevated it for me was its unintended juxtaposition with the concurrent exhibition by Robin Maddock and Benedicte Kurzen at TJ Boulting Gallery, which I saw the same day (see my review here). The latter also examined time/decay of photographic objects, and the two works together were particularly resonant.

The Happenstance Generator went even further into randomness with a selection of small images blown about as if by the wind followed by a short period to allow them to briefly settle before being blown about into another random sequence.

The Happenstance Generator

The Happenstance Generator (and a strikingly red sofa)

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log. Not content with playing with photography, Strand is also happy for us to see the artwork warts-an’-all!

As a microcosm of the random images we see everyday blurring past us and occasionally visible to our conscious mind, it makes its point well. I had expected to see a random display of images that the viewer could develop a story from during the quiet dwell time of the apparatus but unfortunately the dwell time was too brief for me to grasp more than a couple of images before they were whisked off again into the vortex of the machine, which is a shame because a small adjustment to the timer could have allowed this extra level of interaction and engagement of the viewer’s imagination. So a great concept falling just short of great implementation, well for me at any rate.

There were a couple of other works on show but I’ve gone on long enough. I call her art Performance Photography in the sense of performance art and in this too she is pushing forward conceptually. Suffice to say that I think Clare has a playful and insightful imagination that resonates with my own ‘world view’, and I look forward to seeing more of her work!

Processing C41 colour film in black & white chemistry

Summary

I have had promising results developing colour print film in standard black & white chemicals. Not only is it identical to processing black & white film but the fine grain and wide exposure latitude of C41 colour film is preserved in a black & white negative.

35mm colour print film can still be obtained in most city high streets, at least in the UK, and provides an available and low-cost alternative to regular b&w negatives for those willing to process and digitise their film.

The test

I had some out-of-date 35mm C41 colour print film (Kodak GC-400, a cheap, consumer-level ISO400 film, no longer available) and wondered what would happen if I processed it in my normal black & white developer, Rodinal (actually ADOX Adonal, which is identical to the original AGFA formula), so I fired off a roll of the colour film followed by a roll of black & white film at the same ISO400 setting, which I processed in the same chemistry for comparison. I used the same development time for the C41 film as the Massive Dev Chart recommends for Ilford XP2 (a C41 b&w negative film), so if you want to use a different developer go ahead!

The C41 film was given 18 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

Ilford HP5+ was given 6 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

The films were scanned using the same scanner and software (Epson V750 and Vuescan). Vuescan was set to auto-expose and give 2 passes for each frame, which I’ve found significantly reduces noise. The levels were adjusted in Photoshop to give a full tonal range on the histogram but no other manipulation. Samples for comparison are shown below.

The results

Inspection of the films under a loupe showed that the colour negative had low contrast and a long tonal scale together with fine grain; this is consistent with expectations for standard C41 processing. The black & white film showed normal tonal range (it was a dull day when both films were shot) but more distinctive grain. Here are the scans from the 35mm frames. The cropped images are an identically-sized area (10 x 7mm) of the frame:

C41 film full frame

Kodak GC-400 colour film at ISO400 processed in black & white chemistry, full frame

HP5 full frame

Ilford HP5+ at ISO400 processed in same black & white chemistry, full frame

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

Conclusion

C41 colour film can be processed in standard black & white chemicals to good effect. Although only one film type has been tested it is reasonable to assume that other C41 films will respond in the same way as they are formulated for standard machine processing.

The wide tonal range and fine grain characteristics associated with colour print film is retained when processed in black & white chemistry, though only a black & white negative is obtained on the orange film base of the C41 film. This is excellent for scanning but is likely to be problematic for anyone wanting to darkroom-print onto gelatine-silver paper.

If you need b&w film urgently or want to use cheap film to give black & white negatives for scanning, C41 colour films like Kodak Color Plus (ISO200), Agfa Vista 400 or any film from the Fuji Superia range (ISO200 to ISO1600) should be a lower-cost alternative to black & white film, especially if you can get short-dated film over the Internet (short-dated colour film should still be fine for black & white work as any colour shifts over time are irrelevant).

If you want gritty grain, well-tested development times for push and pull processing, or the ability to darkroom print from the negative, it would be best to stick with black & white negative film.

Esther Teichmann: Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears

Esther Teichmann’s photographs – actually more of an installation using mainly photographs – are on display at Flowers Kingsland Road, London until 10 May 2014. The images are somewhat dark and the meaning obscure so displaying them in the upstairs space with its smaller area, lack of natural daylight and lower ceiling height is very appropriate.

 

Esther Teichmann photographs

Large manipulated overlapping images give a surreal quality to Esther Teichmann’s exhibition

Although the images are recognisably of places or people or shells, they are altered to give them an other-worldliness. They are then overlapped or juxtapositioned to produce a surreal effect as if we have been transported to a dream-world which Teichmann is exploring both physically but more importantly, emotionally and with a strong feminine theme. A central display of coral, wood and one of my all-time favourite books “The Shell: Five Hundred Million Years of Inspired Design” points out that we air-breathing creatures can still explore an underwater world in our imaginations, where physical limitations can be overcome.

the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

Part of the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

At first I found Teichmann’s show perplexing, as if it was in another dimension that I wasn’t part of, but as I looked around (several times) I found myself becoming more involved in her exploration. Once I mentally released myself into this different, parallel world I enjoyed it. Thank you, Esther, for being my guide even though you weren’t there!

potential replacement for Polaroid type 55 pos/neg film

Polaroid 545 holder

You will need one of these film holders to use the proposed new pos/neg instant film

If you own a 5×4″ camera and Polaroid 545 back you will be interested to hear about a project to develop a replacement for the much-lamented black & white positive+negative film, type 55.

Bob Crowley in the USA is working on this and has a Kickstarter project to raise some capital. Do consider helping him out: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bobcrowley/new55-film

Harry Callahan: always the teacher

There is a great show of Harry Callahan’s (1912-1999) work at London’s Tate Modern museum at the moment (until 31 May 2014). It is well worth going to see.

Cattails Against Sky

Cattails Against Sky. Harry Callahan, 1948

Callahan’s main role and income-generator was teaching photography.  This left him free of commercial pressures and able to explore with the eye of an artist. Nevertheless you cannot take the teacher out of the images: all of his photographs are lessons in how to see photographically, from the surreal (for example, shop mannequins) to the abstract (his shots of plant forms). The examples show us that the world as seen through Callahan’s camera/eye is an endlessly fascinating place.

Mannequin Legs

New York (Mannequin Legs). Harry Callahan, 1955

I overheard one teenager ask her friend “is that a time exposure?”, and the roving security guard was seen admiring the abstract images. So for different people the show functions at different levels, which is one hallmark of a successful exhibition. For me, the abiding memory is of the inquisitiveness that Callahan’s roving eye had, and this was generated internally not by some desire to copy prevailing trends. That’s a good lesson for us all!

Grasses, Wisconsin

Grasses, Wisconsin. Harry Callahan, 1958

There’s an interview with Harry Callahan on YouTube

David Lynch at The Photographers’ Gallery

A selection of David Lynch’s black & white photographs is currently on show at the Photographers’ Gallery, London (until 30 March 2014). The pictures are moody, quizzical and elegiac. Not surprisingly, the film-maker in Lynch cannot resist using his still images to tell us a story.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

As you can see from the above picture, all the images in this show are the same in size, format and framing.  Some images are grouped together in double rows but other than that, all images have similar weight; even images with strong vertical elements that would apparently cry out to be framed vertically are doggedly landscape format.  Although the viewer sees the images one at a time, it is important to consider the exhibition as a whole (like a film) as it takes us on a journey from the outside of a grimy but active factory, with chimneys belching smoke or steam, around the corner to abandonment, then through a door to the decaying inside of the factory where time has virtually ground to a halt, and finally out to a more modern, active, but still industrial, world again where the clock is spinning even faster than before.  Humans are not shown but their presence is felt everywhere from the brickwork to the broken glass, from the wires to the wharves. The photographs were taken at different times and several locations so the story is made by the interweaving and sequencing of time and space.

David Lynch photographs

The pictures take us on a journey from the outside (on the left) through a door (centre) to the inside (right).

Although a few images use perspective to show depth and distance, most have a 2-dimensional, semi-abstract quality to them. Broken or asymmetric frames occur frequently as do strong lines, whether they are power lines, phone lines, windows, fences, barbed wire, poles or pipes. These all form strong graphical elements but they are often not quite horizontal or vertical, which encourages the viewer to tilt their head in a rather quizzical fashion in response to the tilt that Lynch has given the camera. Combine this with detail-less shadows and/or highlights, occasional camera shake or out-of-focus detail and the viewer may consider the images to be rather casual snapshots, but when put together in this show they give an impression that Lynch is quietly passionate about the subject; that he gets beneath its surface and sees that it had and still has value. He sees it warts an’ all but he doesn’t judge it, rather, he loves it.

A visit to the Photographers’ Gallery to see this and the other exhibitions is highly recommended. I’m sorry to say that TPG has now introduced a charge for entry. This is a shame and I’m sure they did this with reluctance, but it’s preferable to not having this excellent organisation. There are times when entry is free, and members get in free at any time, so do consider joining and supporting their work. 

E-magazine: 43mm

There are an increasing number of on-line magazines devoted to aspects of photography. One that has caught my attention recently is 43mm Magazine, published by TZIPAC, which claims to be “an organisation who is crazy about art and photography”. If, like me, you are more interested in the image than in how it was made, or the meaning over the content of a photograph, you should find something to interest you within its virtual covers. I’m guessing that the title is a reference to the diagonal measurement of the 35mm film frame and hence the focal length of a “normal ” lens for that format, but the mag is not about equipment or technique.

43mm e-magazine Issue 1

43mm e-magazine Issue 1

Issue 1 contained results of several competitions and work by Sarah Jarrett and Meghan Ogilvie

43mm e-magazine Issue 2

43mm e-magazine Issue 2

Issue 2 has a monochrome theme with work by Larry Louie, Dominic Rouse, Clayton Bastiani, Scott Gilbank, Uwe Langmann and Jackie Ranken.

The magazine is published on the issuu platform, which I don’t particularly like (the page navigation is crude and there is shading to imitate a gutter down the centre of the page, which is an unnecessary visual interference to images that spread across the page). Despite this, the content is varied and high-quality. the publication is rated as 18+ as some articles may contain adult material – in the name of Art, of course.

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition

Pekka Sammallahti has an exhibition at the Siida museum, Inari, Finland until February 2014.

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition
Pekka is a professor of Sami languages. He is also a very competent photographer as this exhibition shows. There are masterful portraits and landscapes from around the arctic region that go beyond simply recording their subject to providing the viewer with insights to life and light in a region that sees no sun in midwinter. Since December/January is the time of my visit, I was impressed with Pekka’s handling of twilight and it’s limited tonal pallet.

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Another aspect of this exhibition that impressed me is the blending of black & white and colour images: this can be difficult to do but the subtle, subdued use of colour did blend very well. Many of the photographs appear to have been taken on film and spread over several decades, so I assume that the show is a retrospective; there are changes and developments is his style between sections of the exhibition that adds an interesting variability along with the more obvious thematic grouping of the images.

In case the photographer’s name seems familiar to you, his brother Pentti has an exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, London at the moment and has recently published an excellent book “Here Far Away”

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition

J-H Lartigue at the Photographers’ Gallery

Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) considered himself to be a painter not a photographer. Although from an early age he thought photography to be “a magic thing” and “nothing will ever be as much fun”, the photos he made were always personal. He moved in well-to-do French society circles and his photos amount to a personal documentation of this ‘set’ for much of the twentieth century, however the current exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery (ends 5 January 2014) focuses on his relationship with his first wife Madelaine Messager, nicknamed Bibi.

Ubu and Bibi sur la route entre Lourdes et Pau.1925  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Ubu and Bibi sur la route entre Lourdes et Pau.1925 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

JHL met Bibi in 1918. Initially he shied away from marriage, preferring his life of perpetual holiday and flirtation supported by the family’s fortune. He gradually fell more deeply in love and they married in 1919. The photographs from the period 1918-1923 are generally happy, sun-lit scenes with Bibi featuring centre-stage, though there is a very portentous image taken in London:

Bibi in London.  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. One book dates this image as 1919 however it is dated as 1926 at the Photographers' Gallery

Bibi in London. © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. The Aperture History of Photography book dates this image as 1919 however it is dated as 1926 at the Photographers’ Gallery

They had a son, Dany, in 1921 and a daughter in 1924 but tragically she died after only a few months. This event seems to have been the start of a widening chasm between JHL and Bibi: his diary does not give the impression of a problem with the marriage but he does fall in love with another woman with whom he has an affair. Bibi relies on her father for emotional support rather than her husband. The images show Bibi being increasingly marginalised in JHL’s life: she may be a small detail in a larger image, relegated to the background or even out of focus:

Bibi in Marseilles, 1928  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Bibi in Marseilles, 1928 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Although there are many clues to their deteriorating relationship in the photographs, JHL’s diaries suggest that he is unaware of the problem. It is only in 1930 and following the death of Bibi’s father, that she leaves him and he writes “My broken heart only wishes her well”.

Photographically speaking Lartigue functioned at an intuitive level, reacting without conscious thought to every circumstance and scene before him. His was a natural, unforced talent that was only recognised late in his life. He didn’t have much time for analysis, saying “To talk about photos rather than making them seems idiotic to me.” So it’s just as well he isn’t able to read this blog then!

This exhibition is sensitively curated and thoughtfully displayed: well done to the Photographers’ Gallery for fitting it in to their schedule!

Dayanita Singh: “most of my work starts with accidents”

Two artists have exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery at the moment (until 15 December 2013) but the one with the most photographic interest is Dayanita Singh (b.1961). She is particularly interested in sequencing and re-sequencing  images, sometimes as stories but often with a theme and no fixed narrative, or at least a narrative that the viewer themself supplies.

external view of Hayward Gallery

Oh good lord, another gallery that puts on photographic exhibitions and bans photography, so I can only show you the outside. The irony of this never ceases to annoy me!

Dayanita Singh’s photography is not easily categorised, which in my opinion is a good thing (too many labels can hide the photographs!). She refers to herself as an artist working with photography. Normally this would sound pretentious but in her case it is as accurate as we can get. Her early photography is black & white and had a reportage-style so you might think she would take a documentary approach to sequencing her images, but even her early work shows a departure from the straight-forward story-telling approach. she has evolved this into an ambivalence that means we cannot tell where the boundary is between fact and fiction: the unconscious assumption that we are looking at “fact” when viewing photographs must be brought to the surface and discarded when reading Singh’s work.

She likes working with the book as a finished product, though I use “finished” in the sense of being final rather than necessarily polished. Some of her books have a raw notebook quality. Blue Book (2008), containing mostly photographs taken during the “blue hour” of twilight and are printed as postcards before binding into a paper cover – this works. Go Away Closer (2007) takes a more chapbook-like approach with a careful sequence of images that show loneliness and absence even when there should be joy – again, this works.  And her latest book File Room (2013) is a beautiful presentation in images and words of the mountains of paper kept in Indian archives by their archivists – this really works.

Not all of her books are this good (Dream Villa, 2010, is a particular dud, with dark images split by the gutter and printed on glossy paper that seems to reflect every light in the room simultaneously) but that’s the nature of artistic work – some of it can be either misjudged or it just doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Although her books form part of the exhibition, about half of the space is for wall-hung images and the other half is Singh’s latest concept of the mini-museum. In this exhibition we see the Museum of Vitrines, the Museum of Furniture, the Museum of Machines, the Museum of  Men-Recent, the Museum of Photography, the Museum of Little Ladies 1961-present, the Museum of Embraces and the Museum of Chance (phew!)  This last one is the largest, from which I think we can deduce Singh’s approach to photography – take the pictures and worry about how you’re going to use them later! There is nothing new in the fundamental concept of these museums: they are collections of themed photographs. What she has done that is new is put them together in a way that allows for the pictures’ storage and flexible display in a well-made, inventive and functional piece of furniture, hence we find sculpture and photography in harmony.

exhibition signature image

The signature image of the exhibition. It can be seen in several of the Museums. © Dayanita Singh

Photography can be a wonderfully precise tool. It can also be informing, narrative, moving, ambivalent, equivocal, obscure and impenetrable.  Dayanita Singh has examples of all these on display in this exhibition (to cram that many adjectives into one exhibition is a badge of honour for any artist). By the end of it I felt that I had been experimented on rather than simply challenged. At the time I felt exhausted but on reflection this is an exhibition I would recommend to anyone interested in the artistic use of photography. Go see it!

Tony Ray-Jones at Media Space

The spacious and underwelming entrance to Media Space at London's Science Museum

The spacious and underwhelming entrance to Media Space at London’s Science Museum. Media Space is next to a cafe, which has the potential to provide a social space for photographic gatherings and possibly fringe exhibitions. That thought might be a bit radical though, given their archaic attitude to taking photos within the exhibition – as regular readers of my blog will know, galleries that ban photography in photographic exhibitions are one of my pet hates, and now I can add Media Space to the list of offenders! (for copyright reasons, according to the entry staff).

Media Space is a new 500m² gallery within London’s Science Museum – more details. The Science Museum also runs the National Media Museum (NMM), which houses the UK’s premier collection of historic photographs and photographic technology. The NMM is located in Bradford, about 325km (200 miles) north of London. Unfortunately the NMM sits in isolation photographically speaking. It would be great if it had acted as a nexus for other permanent photographic activities but this hasn’t happened. London is really the place in the UK for photographic exhibitions and galleries, though of course there are significant periodic events in places like Brighton and Derby. And, of course, there is the rising consumption of images on-screen and on-line to add into the risk factors to consider when exhibiting physical photographic prints. Now, finally, the museum has bowed to the (almost) inevitable and created Media Space so that the NMM’s collections can be better appreciated. Hooray for that!

Only in England

The inaugural exhibition is drawn from the work of Tony Ray-Jones (1941 – 1972). The exhibition also includes early black & white work by Martin Parr and though excellent, I have not included it in this review. At first I was surprised at how small the exhibition was but I was deceived by the clever layout of the dividers used to hang the photos; these hid the full extent of the gallery’s space. When I finally left the exhibition and looked at my watch I realised I had spent 3 very enjoyable hours looking at the images!

Although raised in England, at the age of 19 Tony Ray-Jones (TRJ) won a scholarship to study at Yale University, USA. He took a year out and worked in New York City, then graduated in 1964, photographed in the US before returning to England in 1965. This period in the US was when he honed his personal style, though his notebooks, some pages of which are in the exhibition, indicate that he was raring to photograph not only the British but throughout Europe. Then, in 1971, he returned to the USA to teach in the San Fransisco Art Institute. Shortly after arriving in the US he was diagnosed with leukemia; he came back to Britain for treatment and died on 13 March 1972 at the age of 30.

Tony Ray-Jones. 1970. By Ainslee Ellis

Tony Ray-Jones. 1970. By Ainslee Ellis

In 1968 the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London held its first photographic show. TRJ’s photos were there and they “…took the British photography community by storm and… …heralded a new departure in photography.” [exhibition poster]. TRJ’s style has no obvious predecessor: although documentary, it goes beyond simply documenting and shows a personal, wryly humorous view but of an outsider looking in. He did admit to being influences by Bill Brandt’s book “The English at Home” (1936), and this made him see the goal of his work to be in book form: “A Day Off” was eventually published posthumously in 1974 by Thames & Hudson.

Glyndebourne

This picture of concert-goers at Glyndebourne uses juxtaposition of disparate elements for its humour, which occurs frequently in TRJ’s images. This image was used on the jacket of his book “A Day Off”. 1974. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

Although our eye is immediately drawn to the central couple, it is typical of TRJ for our curiosity to be engaged about what could be happening out of frame - something that the other people are more concerned about but the couple are oblivious to. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

Although our eye is immediately drawn to the central couple, it is typical of TRJ for our curiosity to be engaged about what could be happening out of frame – something that the other people are more concerned about but the couple are oblivious to. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

The use of space is of great significance in many TRJ images. Sometimes everyone is crammed together but more often he uses space to separate or group the "actors" in the scene

The use of space is of great significance in many TRJ images. Sometimes everyone is crammed together but more often he uses space to separate or group the “actors” in the scene to show 3 or 4 stories at a time. Image by Tony Ray Jones.

The main focus of the exhibition is, rightly, the photographs, but there are extracts from notebooks and a selection of contact sheets that give us an insight into TRJ’s working method. He was a list-maker. Here’s an example:

ON ARRIVING IN TOWNS LOOK FOR

A Central Square
B Old town
C New town
D Poor Quarter
E Rich Quarter
F Suburbs
G Apartment Blocks
H Foreign nationality quarters
I Station  cafe  pubs
J Town Hall
K Parks or Commons
L Markets
M Library
N Museum
O Bus station
P Factory area (industrial)
Tourist spots
Clubs & Societies

It sounds formulaic but his photographs are anything but. The curator, Greg Hobson and guest curator, Martin Parr, say that they were particularly looking for TRJ’s use of space when selecting the images for the exhibition, and they have certainly managed that. Not only do we see some images with no space and others with lots of it, but we also see images that pushes our interest to the edge of the frame and cleverly use space beyond the rectangle of the photograph: people in the photos are frequently looking beyond the frame, which directs our attention out of the picture and makes us curious about what it is that they are looking at. This makes it easy for us to construct many fictions around the photos, and is a quality that makes it possible to look again and again at many of TRJ’s images without being bored by them. Another notable quality is that none of the people pictured appears to be aware of the camera so TRJ must have had an uncanny ability to blend in with his surroundings and become effectively invisible.

This is an excellent first exhibition in the new Media Space. Given the huge collections held by the National Media Museum there is no shortage of material to display here, I just hope that the finance can be found for it to continue for a long time to come. I also hope that the emphasis will be on the image not the technology – a danger given the nature of the host museum. It is particularly good to see this initiative at a time when museums’ funding is very tight – well done to the Science Museum and NMM!

How to be a Postmodern photographer

Use of colour cast and camera phone only scores 2/10 on the snob annoyance scale

Use of camera phone, colour cast and no eye contact only scores 3/10 on the snob annoyance scale. Copyright Malcolm Raggett.

Here’s a great little article from Digital Camera World: How to Drive Photography Snobs Mad. The more of these “faults” you introduce into your photographs, the more Postmodern you will be!

camera phone, blown-out highlights, tilted horizon, no eye contact, visible noise, soft. 6/10 - getting better but room for improvement!

camera phone, blown-out highlights, tilted horizon, no eye contact, visible noise, soft. Score: 6/10 – getting better but room for improvement! Copyright Malcolm Raggett.

PAGE 1 –  Blown-out highlights
PAGE 2 –  Soft images
PAGE 3 –  Visible noise
PAGE 4 –  Shooting portraits from below eye-level
PAGE 5 –  No eye contact
PAGE 6 –  Colourcasts
PAGE 7 –  Converging verticals
PAGE 8 –  Tilting horizons
PAGE 9 –  Imperfect joins
PAGE 10 –  Great shots from compact cameras

Four Chairs on a Beach

This image is not about 4 chairs on a beach. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

This Image is Not About Four Chairs on a Beach. PEI, Canada. iPhone 4, Hipstamatic, Gsquad lens, BlacKeys Supergrain film. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

Roger Ballen, Photographer. Oh, and psychologist. And geologist.

If you haven’t come across the curiously deep, off-balance and sometimes disturbing  photography of Roger Ballen I recommend seeing this LensCulture interview

The Bite. Copyright Roger Ballen

The Bite. Copyright Roger Ballen

Urban trees in infrared

I have a few rolls of EFKE AuraIR820 left in the fridge. It’s not being made any more, which is a shame as it has an ethereal, grainy quality that suits some subjects. I thought I’d try it on urban trees to see how they react in infrared. They work well against dark, IR-absorbing buildings but the biggest surprise was how reflective some clothing is. I suppose this makes sense if you want to stay cool but I hadn’t considered this in advance. The slow shutter speed – around 1/8th second – has added to the ghostly appearance of the people.

urban trees in infrared

urban tree in infrared

Edwin Smith and Slow Photography

part of the Edwin Smith exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, Essex, UK

part of the Edwin Smith exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, Essex, UK

Edwin Smith (1912-1971) was, in his own words, an architect by training, an artist by inclination and a photographer by necessity. Despite his self-deprecation, he is widely acknowledged as the finest architectural photographer of the 20th century and his photographs were a source of inspiration to me in the 1980s as I developed my own “eye”. They are still proof to me that a photographer needs both technical skill as well as aesthetic judgement to make a fine image. But the surprise lesson I took from the exhibition of his work is that, despite the ease and speed of today’s digital image-making, there is a strong case for “Slow Photography”, in the same vein as “Slow Food”, for the appreciation of well-prepared ingredients.

The Fry Art Gallery, where Smith’s photos and artwork are on show until 1 September 2013, is a small gallery specialising in artists who lived and worked in north east Essex. This includes Smith, as he made Saffron Walden his home from 1962 until his death. It is a small gallery whose decor is reminiscent of the 1920s and 30s when several “names” worked in the area. The main gallery is wood-panelled, and this is sympathetic to Smith’s photographs; in fact it is a rare treat to see photographs appropriately displayed on something other than white walls!

Smith would have preferred to be remembered as an artist than a photographer and I can see why: his drawings, paintings and above all his engravings, are very accomplished; he liked to make at least 2 per day, even when he was earning his living as a photographer. The distinction between artist and photographer is much more blurred now than in his day, a blurring that I think he would approve of.

Although photographs are in the majority, there is a good selection of other media in the Edwin Smith exhibition

Although photographs are in the majority, there is a good selection of other media in the Edwin Smith exhibition

I’ve seen some writers call Smith’s photos idyllic and romantic, but remember we are seeing images taken in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. It is true that his images, for the most part, resisted the fashionable styles of the times, though touches of modernism do creep in. But you might just as well accuse Atget of the same thing (Atget was the only photographer Smith acknowledged as an influence on him). What Smith does do, and pretty consistently, is compose for depth of perspective. It is rare for him to produce a flat image and I cannot find a photograph by him that could be described as abstract.

Didmarton Parish Church. 1961. I regard this as one of Edwin Smith's masterpieces. It is technically accomplished in achieving highlight and shadow detail over a huge tonal range, as well as capturing the simplicity of the church interior in an understated, straightforward composition.

Didmarton Parish Church. 1961. I regard this as one of Edwin Smith’s masterpieces. It is technically accomplished in achieving highlight and shadow detail over a huge tonal range, as well as capturing the simplicity of the church interior in an understated, straightforward composition.

He used a sheet-film camera for most of his working life, not just because of the movements required for architectural photography, but as a matter of choice even when the technical capabilities of the camera were unused. It seems he had a preference for the slower, more deliberate way of working that this type of camera requires. There are other photographers who use large film cameras for the same reason but this exhibition is a timely reminder of the pictorial value that Slow Photography can bring. I recommend the exhibition as well as trying Slow Photography for the benefits it could bring to your own image-making.

Tulip Staircase, Queen's House, Greenwich. 1970. Another deceptively simple image with a more modernist approach by Edwin Smith.

Tulip Staircase, Queen’s House, Greenwich. 1970. Another deceptively simple image with a more modernist approach by Edwin Smith.

Edwin Smith’s printer, Roy Hammans, has produced an excellent resource about Smith at http://www.fine-photographs.co.uk/edwin-smith. Some of Smith’s more famous images are available from Chris Beetles Photography.

Sam Jones: Scottish landscapes

Sam Jones' exhibition

Sam Jones’ exhibition in the An Tobar Gallery, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

I was recently holidaying of the Scottish island of Mull and visited the local art gallery in Tobermory where Sam Jones had a landscape photography exhibition.

The print quality was excellent, but the display space was rather cramped and poorly lit (as you can see in the photo!)

The exhibition was a cut above the average landscape show, not least because all the images were black & white.   Although I am a fan of b&w photography, it presents a different set of challenges to colour, which many photographers don’t handle well especially when tackling landscapes (what you see is not what you get!).  Removing colour means that the viewer is concentrating more on form and the quality of the light.  Sam has chosen very appropriate images here, and has used the graphic qualities of b&w to advantage.  Her images all display a full tonal range with good control of highlights and shadows and a tendency towards traditional composition (foreground-middle ground – background, that sort of thing).  In a small exhibition like this, this provides a consistency of vision.  If this had been a large collection I would have liked to see some exploration of a more limited tonal range, for example fog and rain.  Well done for getting a good exhibition together Sam!

Sam is also competent in colour photography and runs one-day courses based on Mull.  I decided to book myself on one of them.  Here are a couple of the images I took that day:

waterfall appearing as a vortex

A creative approach to a waterfall. I love the vortex sucking in the water from above and swirling the fern leaves below. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

two decaying boats at low tide

I couldn’t resist a b&w image in honour of Sam! Copyright Malcolm Raggett

You can see more of Sam’s work at http://www.islandscapephotography.co.uk/, follow her blog at http://islandscapephotography.blogspot.co.uk/ or even buy her b&w landscape book!

Hasselblad V dead – long live the Square!

Hasselblad may have announced the end of the line for its long-lived V system but we shouldn’t let the square image die!  Sales were dropping and digital is the way forward for most photographers but the cameras were well-made and should last for a long while yet, but what I most regret is the demise of another square-format image device.  Although there was a small-sensor (36mm square) back it didn’t last long, and Hasselblad conspicuously dropped its promotion of the square image when it launched it rectangular H series cameras.

So here’s my homage.  Not to Hasselblad V system but to the square image.  Let’s keep it alive.  And don’t let your Hasselblad V system Rest in Peace!

CocaCola. Mexico. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

CocaCola, Mexico. iPhone/Hipstamatic. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

Windmills. iPhone/Hipstamatic. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

Windmills. iPhone/Hipstamatic. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

Great Dixter

Square Gate. Cropped from 24×36 frame. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

Street Mexico

Two hats. iPhone/Hipstamatic. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

infrared film

Squares. Hasselblad & infrared film. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

near Great Fountain Geyser

Steam. Cropped from 24×36 format. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

infrared film

Stems. Hasselblad negative. Copyright Malcolm Raggett