Jeff Wall at the Canada House Gallery, London

I came across this show in the Canadian High Commission by accident. I was walking through the north west corner of London’s Trafalgar Square, noticed that the Canada House Gallery had just opened and they’d chosen Canadian photographer Jeff Wall as the inaugural artist. The gallery is open, via a security check, Mondays to Saturdays 11.00 – 17.45 until 15th May 2015.

Jeff Wall's exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

Jeff Wall’s exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

It’s a one-room gallery and Jeff Wall’s works are decidedly in the over-sized category so you don’t get many to the metre – only five works in this case, plus some blurb. The photos seem too large for such a compact space though that’s the way Wall likes us to experience his images: to become almost part of the scene. Personally, and I would have preferred to see more, smaller works in what is quite a small space, but hey, it’s good to see another gallery opening for the visual arts and displaying photographs.

The images are an eclectic mix with no obvious theme or relationship other than a grab-shot quality to them and yet apparently they are very deliberate and considered. As Sara Knelman says in her leaflet accompanying the exhibition: ‘Wall works somewhere between the possibilities of capturing and constructing the world around us.’

If you are in central London it’s worth popping in to see the photos – and support the Canadians in their effort to open a new gallery space!

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OnLandscape conference: craft versus art

OnLandscape, an on-line photography magazine, organised a weekend conference from 21-23 November 2014. I don’t think of myself as a landscape photographer but walking and photography have been synonymous for most of my life so I thought I’d attend. Here are my thoughts.

It's a fungus. No, it's a highly eroded landscape. No it's avast underground city. Yes, it's a metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

It’s a fungus! No, it’s a highly eroded landscape! No it’s a vast underground city! Yes, it’s a metaphor!! ©Malcolm Raggett

A glance at the OnLandscape Web site and the type of photographs that many of the contributing photographers take shows the narrow definition of “Landscape” to be expected at the conference. We’re talking “Natural Landscape” here: the urban or built environment is anathema to most of these photographers, as is any sort of environmental activism. The overwhelming aesthetic derives from that long thread stretching back from today’s Joe Cornish and Paul Gallagher (colour and black & white respectively) through Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams to the American Sublime and the English Landscape painters.

Most of the conference speakers (all male, I note) talked about the business, craft and practicalities of their photography, though David Ward considered cultural origins of colour, Rafael Rojas gave an excellent analysis of his approach to fine art photography and Jem Southam showed how he used the photographic process to satisfy his curiosity about contested spaces, narrative and metaphor. Southam’s talk was the closest we got to offering an alternative aesthetic in landscape photography and, judging from my conversations with other delegates afterwards, caused strong division of opinions amongst those who heard it.

Pushing a little harder at this division, there are those who think that a photograph should depict the subject in front of the camera in the most conventionally beautiful way possible. The recent winner of Take-a-View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year was held as an example of this, and two of his prints displayed at the conference did show a distinct tendency towards oil-painting qualities. I didn’t gather opinions from everyone at the conference but my perception is that the majority of those present fell into this “conventional beauty” camp. The concept that what a photograph is of and what a photograph is about can be entirely different hasn’t occurred to many viewers, or that a series of images can be greater than the sum of the parts was only acknowledged in a superficial way (such as a book being a collection of someone’s best photographs).

orange cone by yellow rape

Is it a road cone by a field of rape? Or is it a king leading his army into battle? Oh no, it’s another metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

The photograph has a powerful hold in many peoples’ minds as a reproduction of reality. Much has been written to dispel this myth but still it persists, perhaps because that is how most of us serve our photographic apprenticeship: recording photographically as an aid to memory. Yet one of the characteristics that is unique to our species (as far as we currently know) is our use of metaphor. It seems to be inate, starting with children seeing clouds that are shaped like animals through fictions that represent real life, to lines on paper that represent gods. Why then can’t aspiring photographers make the same associations in theirs and other photographs? Perhaps because the photographer never intended it? Or because the viewer never thought to push themselves outside their normal mental comfort zone?

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

I wonder if Jem Southam’s unuttered plea for delegates to think more deeply about their photography, to let go of the camera-as-craft and use it as a tool of enquiry, will have fallen on deaf ears. If a few people are encouraged along this line of thought then I think the conference will have been a success. It certainly helped me to see the different levels and diversity there is even within the narrowly defined scope of the conference. The conference was subtitled “A Meeting of Minds”; I do hope those minds have been encourages out of their comfort zones!

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.

Nadav Kander and the aestheticisation of landscape

Nadav Kander’s latest landscape series “Dust” is exhibited at Flowers, Kingsland Road, London until 11 October 2014.

Nadav Kander, Dust.  Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

Nadav Kander, Dust.
Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

All photographers make an aesthetic decision when they choose a viewpoint and frame a photo, but aetheticisation goes beyond this to making “pleasingly beautiful” or “idealised”1 landscapes. It’s a sliding scale, with photographers like Daido Moriami and his snapshot approach at one end to the over-saturated pointless sunset at the other. In between there are professionals and amateurs emulating masters of the past, copying masters of the present or genuinely exploring and pushing forward photographic landscape aesthetic.

Artists making a living by landscape photography are restricted by their market; they tend to photograph in a way that will sell. This frequently results in the commodification of a mythic landscape using lowest-common-denominator aesthetics. So as a professional artist/photographer Nadav Kander has a difficult path to tread with “Dust”. In this work he chooses to document a “dirty” landscape – radioactive ruins on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia where atomic bombs and missiles were tested – in his characteristic quiet light reminiscent of the Dusseldorf School (Gursky, Ruff, Struth et. al.). Sometimes he chooses a camera position that only shows one side of a building, giving a static 2-dimensional impression but more commonly he shows us 2 sides, giving perspective, a little more dynamism and a greater sense of reality. He gets in there and shows us individual buildings or at least what’s left of them after an atomic blast or quake.  Thankfully there are no aerial photographs, which I find too distant and abstracting to get me involved. Kander’s landscapes are under-stated, controlled and consistent but not so consistent that they become boringly repetitive. They engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally without bludgeoning them with a message. Given the subject, I find his images err on the too-comfortable aesthetic side, but like all good art the work poses questions rather than provides answers so I can forgive his tendency to over-aestheticise. Having said that, he stays safely within his own photographic aesthetic to great effect: the viewer can almost hear the Geiger counter clicking away in the background. If you like Kander’s previous work you should be impressed with this new one. If you don’t know his work I highly recommend seeing Dust.

There’s an interesting interview with Nadav Kander on Vimeo and there’s a (slightly expensive) book. If you can’t get to the exhibition, do check out the book.

 


1 dictionary.com

Shy Cone

cone and cathedral spire

Hiding in the shadow of a larger cone – St Magnus Cathedral spire, Kirkwall. ©Malcolm Raggett

Nautical Cone

nautical cone

In the Orkneys a cone is never far from the sea. ©Malcolm Raggett

Candida Höfer: images of Villa Borghese

I have been a fan of Candida Höfer’s quiet, frozen-in-time style of photography for a long time, but I only know her work from books so I was really pleased when I heard she has a show on at Ben Brown Gallery in London. I made a bee-line for it on the first day.

Ben Brown Gallery

I was the only visitor in the Ben Brown Gallery – how lucky am I?! the uncluttered space suited the images of Villa Borghese, which contain both empty space and lots of detail.

Candida Höfer was a student of the Bechers at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie  from 1976 to 1982, where she was contemporary with the likes of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. This school of photography encouraged students to find then stick to their own photographic path, though within the framework of the built environment and a series-approach to image-making. Höfer’s own path has taken her from 35mm to 6x6cm then to 5×4″ film, but virtually always in colour. She has specialised in architectural interiors but she achieves something more than a competent photographic record. She manages to use the underlying dicotomy of photography, that it both abstracts the scene as well as records the detail of what is in front of the camera, to great artistic effect. I have been a fan of her images for a long time but I only know them from books, so it was with cautious anticipation that I went to this exhibition of her large prints. I am always skeptical of photographers who exhibit large prints; it seems to be what their buyers demand but does the photograph really benefit aesthetically apart from the initial visual impact? Well in Höfer’s case, yes they do have value at the larger size, allowing us to see details that are less apparent in books.

The opening image of the show at the Ben Brown Gallery.

The first image of the show at the Ben Brown Gallery. The central statue is an androgynous figure with a rather surprised female top looking down at the erect penis of the bottom half. No doubt the cause of much amusement to visitors over the years. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

 

All the pictures on show use single-point perspective, giving the exhibition an immediate visual coherence and symmetry. But not quite: although the basic architecture and composition is often symmetrical, the decor and sculptures break the symmetry in a way reminiscent of Chinese art. I wondered whether Höfer was now adopting single-point as a personal style but a check for other Villa Borghese images on-line show that she also uses dual-point perspective where she feels it is appropriate. Her photographs do not include people and her style has been referred to as The Architecture of Absence, that’s to say that people are implied rather than present. Her photos here are no exception and conjure up a mental image of noisy, unruly crowds of visitors waiting impatiently outside while the photographer works quietly and unhurriedly inside on our behalf.

As a public art gallery, the Villa Borghese take precautions to protect the works. Candida Hofer cooses not to remove these features. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

As a public art gallery, the Villa Borghese take precautions to protect the works. Candida Höfer chooses not to remove these features. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Examining the detail in these large prints becomes an act of meditation after a while.  You will soon notice that Höfer has chosen not to remove the guard chains around the sculptures even though it would have been feasible to do so. I think there may be two reasons for this.  It reminds us that this is now a public place, but it was not always so, having started life as the estate of a high-ranking cardinal in 1605 only becoming public in 1903, thus the chains link us through layers of history from the private opulent space intended not so much for living in as impressing other members of the Roman elite, through to today when this level of ornamentation seems excessively ostentatious and over-the-top.  The chains also point out that all things pass, but a legacy of culture from the past lives on, and the photograph asks the question of anyone collecting it “…and what legacy will you leave?”

I recommend exploring Candida Höfer’s photography if only by visiting this exhibition, which is on until 19 September 2014. The gallery is in the Oxford Street/Bond Street area at 12 Brook’s Mews, London W1K 4DG.