Archive for the ‘Photographers’ Category

D-Day 75 years on

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

What else could a photographer post on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy but a link to Robert Capa on D-Day, the huge series of investigations into what have since become the iconic images of the event, the 10 or 11 severely undexposed frames made by Capa in the few minutes he spent on the beach before rushing to jump on a boat and get his pictures back to England.

The project, launched 5 years ago today on the 70th anniversary of the event “combines elements of photo history, research in journalism, critical thinking, and media literacy” and the team, led by photography critic and historian A D Coleman of photojournalist J Ross Baughman, photo historian Rob McElroy and military historian Charles Herrick have provided us with a remarkably clear and detailed view of what actually happened on that day and later, in the darkroom and to the present day in creating and promulgating the legends around that handful of pictures.

Doubtless there will be articles published today that retell the invented story of the darkroom mishap, or repeat some of the other fabrications around the pictures made by Capa and others. But knowing the real story – or as much of it as can now be verified – doesn’t in any way detract from the power of the couple of truly iconic pictures.

It seems unlikely that we will ever know who was that ‘face in the surf‘ , though we can now be sure it was none of those who have most publically claimed to be him. I’m not sure we would gain were a positive identification possible – isn’t it better that it remains an ‘unknown soldier’ whose face commemorates the event?

If I didn’t have a busy day ahead of me taking pictures (nothing to do with D-Day) today would be a good time to get out those several books of Capa’s pictures on my shelves and look through them, along with some of the investigations and perhaps a glass or two of wine.

Those of you who would prefer a very much shorter and generally accurate account of the the D-Day pictures you can read Wikipedia’s ‘The Magnificent Eleven’, which also reproduces seven of the pictures.

And should you be in London before 29 September 2019 you can go and see the free exhibition Robert Capa: D-Day in 35mm at the Imperial War Museum, which includes prints of 10 of the 11 photographs taken by Capa on Omaha Beach, as well as “personal accounts and objects related to Allied soldiers who landed that fateful day. ”

Simple Cyanotypes

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Congratulations are due to Mike Ware for both his development of a new ‘Simple Cyanotype‘ process and for his generosity in making the details of this and all his other contirbutions over the years to alternative photographic processes freely available to all.

Back in the days when I had time for such things, in the 1980s and 90s, I played a little with most of the methods for photographic print-making using hand-coated paper, largely out of interest in the history of our medium, which was one area of my writing and teaching. I made cyanotypes, along with kallitypes, palladium and platinum prints, gum prints, salted paper prints, carbon prints, photogravure and more, some more successfully than others.

I’ve written before about how I started in this area, together with friends Terry King (and here) and Randall Webb, both sadly no longer with us. Terry went on to make a considerable reputation and something of a living as both a teacher and printmaker using these processes, developing his own tweaks on various of them. He came to alternative processes as a poet and an artist, and occasionally I and later several others helped him out a little with the science.

Mike Ware is a scientist, and approached the processes in a much more scientific way, though that did not stop him making the impressive images you can see on his web site galleries. But it did mean that he was able to develop the chemistry in new ways, notably in his improved cyanotype process, and now with the new Simple Cyanotype.

You can read a discussion of the short-comings of the traditional cyanotype, first invented by Herschel in 1842 (and used most effectively by Anna Atkins the following year) and the advantages of Ware’s new simple and safe method in Towards an Unproblematic Cyanotype Chemistry. I found it particularly illuminating in helping to explain why I never encountered some of the problems so many others had – simply the good fortune of having purchased an excellent sample of the light sensitive but “ill-characterised” ferric ammonium citrate, and chosing the right papers to use it on.

The Simple Cyanotype uses readily available chemicals which are relatively safe, though still need handling with care, particularly ammonia. I once made the mistake of sniffing from a bottle whose label had fallen off (having trained as a chemist I should have known better) which turned out to be concentrated ‘880’ ammonia, and staggered back as if punched with my nostrils cauterized.

We are now much more environmentally conscious, and some of those materials which we handled carefully but perhaps disposed down our drains with too little thought are now often rightly subject to much tighter controls. I was rather pleased a few years ago to dispose of virtually all of my extensive chemical collection collected over the years I worked in alternative processes rather than leave a possibly tricky and expensive problem for my executors. Chemical safety is important – and some of those needed for old processes are now unobtainable by private individuals in some countries.

It also allows control of contrast, something which was always a problem in making cyanotypes, where negatives had to be produced specially for the process. It relies on the production of a relatively newly discovered iron complex, made in solution from the cheap and pure iron(III) nitrate – perhaps coincidentally the same starting material that I had used for many of my later iron process prints, though I used it with the much more toxic oxalates. It wasn’t then an orginal idea, but one I adapted from another source and used the same solution with its excess nitrate ions still present to produce various types of print.

Ware gives full details of how to make the solution, coat paper, expose and develop, and it does really seem to be a useful new process, and I feel quite excited by its possibilities. If I had the time and not so much else I want to do it might be something I would try again, but exactly the same thing that stopped me making cyanotypes twenty or more years ago would do so again.

I didn’t really want blue prints. But if you do, this seems the way to go.

Zeke – the Roma issue

Sunday, April 28th, 2019

Zeke Magazine is published by the Social Documentary Network and “presents outstanding documentary photography from the Social Documentary Network on topics of global concern.”

SDN was launched in October 2008, and “is for documentary photographers, editors, journalists, NGOs, lovers of photography and anyone else who believes that photography plays an important role in educating people about our world.” I signed up for a free membership back in 2008, but never got around to becoming a paying member, though probably I should have done. When it started I think it was free to submit work, and I seem to recall doing so, but soon there was a fee to retain the work on the site. It was, as they say, a modest fee, but I decided against it.

You can read more on their ‘About SDN‘ page which includes the following requirements for the images they publish:

  1. Aesthetic quality. The photographs must have a strong point of view and have a deliberate and meaningful composition.
  2. Documentary integrity. The images and the writing must avoid sensationalism, factual information must be accurate, and the images must be respectful of the subject and viewer.
  3. Technical quality of digital files (resolution, focus, exposure, etc.) Only fewer than 10% of exhibits are not approved and we work with a photographers to bring their exhibit up to the level required to go live. We do not edit or curate exhibits. The content on SDN is completely user-generated.

If I hadn’t already got an extensive web site – or rather several, including My London Diary and of course this blog I would probably have thought more seriously about becoming a paying member, making more submissions and paying the fees to keep them on-line.  The membership page makes the benefits clear.

I still get the monthly newsletter, and this month’s links to an article in the Spring 2019 issue, which you can read online or susbscribe to get a print version. This is The Roma and Traveller Issue, with some fine documentary photography and some very informative articles.

I first became involved with travellers back in the 1960s – before I really took photos – when along with other students I went to protect them from eviction from one of the many cleared areas of derelict land close to the university in Manchester. We sat down to stop site clearance and were invited into several of their caravans for tea and conversation.

In more recent years I’ve been occasionally involved in Roma protests, visiting Dale Farm and in central London, but have never really photographed in depth, perhaps put off from doing so by several rather fine bodies of published work featuring them. The best known of these is of course by Magnum’s Josef Koudelka, very much a traveller himself (though not from the community); Zeke includes a largely positive review of the re-publication of that work, though having a copy of the 1975 book (the UK edition) I don’t feel the need to buy the new revised version, despite the apparently superior quality of its quadtone reproductions. Perhaps the more graphic nature of that earlier publication suits the pictures, though I’ve not yet been able to compare them directly.

Do Not Bend

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

The film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay produced by Grant Scott’s The United Nations of Photography casts an interesting light on photography in the UK in the 1970s at a time when I was just coming into the medium, though so far I’ve only taken a brief look at a few sections of it. The full film is over an hour and a half long, and I hope to have time to watch it all before long – when I may have more to say about it. If you don’t already know something about Bill Jay it would be worth reading the web site above before watching it.

It does contain insights from a number of photographers and others I’ve come across over the years, including a few I got to know fairly well at various times and one who is a good friend I visit regularly, and whose view on it I will be interested to hear.

It has already been shown at a number of screenings here and in the US, but Grant Scott and Tim Pellatt who were the team behind the documentary have now made the film available to view for free on Youtube.

Chick Chalmers’s America

Saturday, April 6th, 2019

Chick Chalmers (1948-1998) was a Scots-born photographer who studied in London during the brief flourishing of photography in the UK in the 1970’s, though perhaps just a little too young to really gain the exposure that he deserved before the theory-driven shutters came down on documentary photography.  In his final year as a student at PCL he produced a magnificent portfolio on Orkney, where both sides of his family could claim their origin, later published as ‘Life in the Orkney Islands‘ in 1979, and the following year got a Scottish Arts Council grant enabling him to spend 3 months touring the USA in an elderly VW camper van.

After producing these two significant bodies of work, he settled down into working as a teacher of documentary photography, still taking photographs though apparently producing no other significant body of work, but inspiring many young Scottish photographers. In 1998, after 19 years without a day off work. he was diagnosed with cancer, dying later in that year.

His work lives on, and on the website set up by the Estate of Chick Chalmers, The Photography of Chick Chalmers, you can see his pictures from both Orkney and America.

Document Scotland a few days ago published Chick Chalmers: American beauty by Colin Mcpherson, which gives more information about his American road trip, illustrating it with perhaps some of the more Robert Frank inspired images. Of course no one could make that US road trip without being inspired by Frank’s The Americans, first published in 1958-9, which was by then something of a Bible for all young photographers, along with works by US photographers such as Lee Friedlander.

An American Roadtrip was first shown at Stills Gallery in 1982, and is only now on show again for the first time in four decades at Gallery TEN in Edinburgh until 9th May 2019.

New York Times Women & Glasgow

Monday, April 1st, 2019

Just a short post today, to mention two articles I’ve seen in the last week or so that I think deserve reading. The first, in the New York Times, is very relevant to something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in Women in Photojournalism, and article reminding younger photographers and writers about photography that women have played an important part in photography for many years.

For news photography, it was really the period from the 70s to the 90s that really brought women into the industry in large numbers – and when ,as the ultralong title states The First Female Photographers Brought a New Vision to The New York Times. And to go with that long title is a long sub-title “The generation of talent brought in from 1973 to 1992 changed the paper’s look.

Of course there were women who came before that, such as Christina Bloom, the UK’s first female press rhotographer in the early years of the 2oth century, and Margaret Bourke-White and many more, but they were in a sense exceptions and it was only in the 70s or later that it really became quite normal. Not to say of course that there are not still areas of inequality and prejudice.

On a quite different subject, I was reminded a few days ago of something I’ve written about before and went again to look at the powerful images produced by Raymond Depardon in Glasgow in 1980, available on Magnum with an essay from the book by William Boyd. I’m reminded of when Picture Post sent Bill Brandt to Glasgow and were shocked at the images he sent back, cool and detached cityscapes reminiscent of de Chirico. Immediately they recalled him and sent up Bert Hardy to get his hands dirty on the street, producing a remarkable image of boys on the Gorbal streets. Depardon seems to me to to combine the best of both, surrealism and reality, in his pictures.

Blind Spot for Pictorialism?

Sunday, March 10th, 2019

Andy Romanoff‘s article,  ‘Even Ansel Adams Had a Blind Spot‘ looks at the continuation of pictorialism in photography after the emergence of straight photography around 1920, which he says ““disappeared” some very important and wonderful photographers from the history of photography“, chief among them William Mortensen and his ‘disciple’ Robert Balcomb.

While it’s true that Mortensen gets little mention in most histories of photography, the contention that Pictorialism is neglected is certainly untrue. Nor was Mortensen really forgotten, but perhaps for good reason ignored. I have a copy of ‘The New Projection Control‘ by William Mortensen, which by 1945 was in its third edition and third printing, one of 8 books by Mortensen then on sale, and when I joined a photographic club in the mid-1970s the great majority or work on display there and in the international salons could stil broadly be described as Pictorialism, still alive if not particularly well.

Although Mortensen was undoubtedly a great technician this did not make him into a particularly interesting photographer, and as Romanoff states:

“In retrospect, although Mortensen’s subject matter was often grotesque and sometimes fell into the kitschy, his mastery of craft was and is astounding. Most people seeing a Mortensen print for the first time find it hard to believe it is a photograph.”

Pictorialism had its great heyday in the years around 1900, and in particular under the curation of Alfred Stieglitz, who established an international movement called the the Photo-Secession and published his magnificently produced Camera Work, from 1903-1917. It is a movement and an age which gets extensively and sympathetically treated by Beaumont Newhall (and I think Ansel Adams) and others in their histories of photography. Perhaps suprisingly Stieglitz doesn’t get a mention in Romanoff’s post, though Edward Steichen, who designed the cover for Camera Work does. It could perhaps be described as a movement which attempted to legitimise photography as art by showing it could produce images that mimicked those produced by accepted artistic printing printing processes using only the manual skills of artists, and which concentrated on the qualities and surface of the print, often involving considerable manual intervention in its production. The object was perhaps to make it hard for people ‘to believe it is a photograph.’

Romanoff’s list of photographers who began as pictorialists but moved on to straight photography is short, and perhaps significantly omits the names of some of its greatest exponents, notably both Paul Strand and Edward Weston. These and others wanted to make work that was purely photographic, some thinking that this was how photography could truly become art, while others felt that photography was a development of the modern age, a replacement, a kind of post-art.  They certainly wanted ot make photographs that really did look like photographs.

Weston’s own struggles with the impact of modernism on photography have been extensively documented by himself and others. His work, and that of other straight photographers, both in the USA and in Europe and elsewhere was new and exciting, while pictorialism remained producing the same old tropes but with less and less creativity.

I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Adams either, but again – as with Mortensen – there is no denying his technical mastery, again encapsulated in his books. His Basic Photo Series, though by then somewhat out of date (and later editions were never quite as good), was the foundation for my own technical education in the medium, though it never led me to try and remake my version of “Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico.”

To some extent the illustrations to Romanoff’s article speak for themselves. William Porterfield‘s image was made during the heyday of pictorialism and neglected only because it isn’t a particularly interesting picture, and the four later examples do little for me. Mortensen (as did Adams) provided the images for  ‘The New Projection Control’, and a pretty dire collection they are, with the before ‘straight’ version he prints of some images often seeming to me very much preferable to his variously pimped version.

I guess it is a matter of taste, and as Mortensen says in his concluding chapter, “Unhappily, there is no known method of teaching taste, good sense and discretion. To such readers as lack these valuable qualities this book will merely discover new ways of making bad pictures.” And it did in spades. As he continues, “Babies will be butchered and ingenues outraged in the name of Projection Control“. And pictorialism.

Debunking the Capa Myths

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

I’ve several times written about the lengthy and detailed researches into exactly what happened to Robert Capa on D-Day made by A D Coleman and his team and published in a long series of articles as their research developed.  It’s a case study in thorough and diligent research, involving expertise from various fields including military history as well as photography, and one that, although not changing the handful of photographs Capa made, has certainly shown some very different readings of them.

Most of what photographic histories and biographies have told us in the past about the circumstances in which these pictures were made has been shown to be false; either deliberate invention or imaginative contructions by those well removed from the situation and with little knowledge of it.

Rather than have to read all of the over 40 articles on Coleman’s own web site (some in several parts, with the latest episode, Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (40b) a few days ago) you can now read his precis on Petapixel, still a fairly lengthy read, Debunking the Myths of Robert Capa on D-Day.

We can now be certain beyond any reasonable doubt that Capa went in, not with the first wave of the landing but rather later, and on the least heavily defended section of the beach, where US soldiers met relatively little opposition, and that he never quite made the beach, taking only a small number of pictures –  perhaps 10 or 12 – before rushing back to the landing craft and ship that had brought him there. Probably he made the right decision for a news photographer, to hurry back with those few pictures to meet his deadlines, but he does appear to have felt the need to support and elaborate an elaborate fiction to cover his actions. Capa was certainly a great story-teller, and bare truth seldom makes the best stories.

There was no darkroom accident that spoilt his film (and the story never made sense anyway.) Those men around the obstacles on the beach were not sheltering from enemy fire but getting on with the job of demolishing them. There were no bodies in his pictures, no bullets hitting the water. It wasn’t at all like the film version (and Capa’s published account was written as a film script.)

The research also looks at another Capa-related incident and image, the ‘Falling Soldier’ from the Spanish Civil War, where the detailed heavy lifting was done by others. It seems probable that the picture was not actually taken by Capa by by his partner Gerda Taro. The two worked as a team, and ‘Robert Capa’ was actually a joint invention of André Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle; after her tragic death – the first woman war photographer to die in conflict – many of the pictures she had taken were attributed to Capa. It now seems to have been clearly shown that this was taken during a training exercise and that the soldier had merely tripped – and that no one was killed in its making.

The publication on PetaPixel comes at the start of the year in which the 75th anniversary of D-Day is to be celebrated, and already some authorities (including the ICP) are re-publishing the old, now totally discredited legends about Capa and his landing pictures. Let’s instead celebrate them (and the ‘Falling Soldier’) for what they are, powerfully iconic images which have become invested with a meaning that completely transcends the very different circumstances of their production.

Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Shahidul Alam talks with Daniel Boetker-Smith about how his 107 days in prison has impacted the tenth Chobi Mela photography festival which opens on February 28th 2019. Because many of the partner companies in Dhaka now see it as a dangerous organisation to work with and many public spaces and government buildings are no longer available for the festival, it has been forced to return to its roots and “become much more raw and community-oriented festival” and organised more tightly around the new premises for Drik Picture Library Ltd and the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and a few other centres.

You can read more about what is happening in There’s Power in Photography: The Undying Resilience of Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival, and it does sound rather exciting, and indeed encouraging to those of us who live in rather more blasé societies where cultural manipulation is very much more nuanced.

Shahidul states “We see this year’s Chobi Mela as an act of defiance. We are still working out what we are allowed and not allowed to do, and this extends to obtaining visas for our visitors and guests” and it remains to see if some of those invited to take part, including Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy will be allowed into the country.

One of the more interesting exhibitions will be of the work of the great Bangladeshi photojournalist Rashid Talukder, born in 1939, who gave all his work to Drik before his death in 2011.   But there are over 27 exhibitions with works from 35 artists spanning 20 countries , as well as site-specific artwork by a group of young Bangladeshi artists around the festival theme of ‘Place’.

You can find more information about the festival on the Chobi Mela web site, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Boring Street Photography

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Forrest Walker’s 7 Habits of Boring Street Photography on PetaPixel (from his own web site, Shooter Files) is perhaps too kind. But there is no arguing that he is right when he says “The Internet is filled with boring street photography“.

Also 100% on the ball is his “The biggest problem is people thinking any photo taken on the street is now street photography.” Though I rather blame the instigators of all this, Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz who wrote ‘Bystander: A History of Street Photography‘ for casting their net ridiculously wide.

Perhaps what I find most lacking in that huge pile of boring street photography is intention. Other than that of making an attractive image (though most fail on that too.) You have to feel something and to want to convey it to others. And I think Walker’s bad habits are largely about not making attractive images. But good advice all the same.

Here are his 7 habits – but go and read about them:

1. Nothing of Interest in the Photo
2. Too Far Away
3. Street Performers and Homeless
4. Too Much Bokeh
5. People Doing Nothing Special
6. No Composition
7. Over Edited

And he adds (and I add a heartfelt ‘Amen!’)

Bonus: Using Black & White For Interest

As he says:

Black and white does not fix a boring photo. A boring photo is a boring photo.”