Archive for the ‘Reviews etc’ Category

Migrant Mother

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

Had you asked me a few days ago I think I would have said that there was little more to say about Dorothea Lange‘s ‘Migrant Mother’ which has already had so much devoted to it, as one of photography’s truly iconic images. But there appears to be at least one significant fact I was not aware of in the new book from the Museum of Modern Art, written by Sarah Meister.

Perhaps not enough to make me want to read the book, but James Estrin, the co-editor of Lens, the New York Times photographic blog, has written a post on it, as always clear and concise, Unraveling the Mysteries of Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’.

As the image was one of a set taken for US federal Farm Security Administration, it is of course available at the Library of Congress, where you can download several versions of it and the others Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children.

This is a smaller version of my favourite of this image, and probably the oldest. The current version of it, available for download as a large tiff if you want to make your own print, has slightly different scratches on it, and both versions would take considerable retouching to make a really good print. As the LoC page above states “This is an unretouched version of the image listed in #1. This version of the image shows a thumb in the immediate foreground on the right side.”

There is more about the retouching to remove the thumb in the book and Estrin’s post, which remind us that Roy Stryker, “Lange’s boss at the Farm Security Administration … thought it compromised the authenticity not just of the photo but also of his whole F.S.A. documentary project” although such practices were widespread at the time and “Ms. Lange considered the thumb to be such a glaring defect that she apparently didn’t have a second thought about removing it“, getting an assistant to retouch the image in 1939, some 3 years after she had made the image in February 1936 (according to the FSA, though possibly March.) Personally I’m with Mr Stryker on this.

Perhaps the most interesting issue raised in the book is that after Florence Owens Thompson came forward and identified herself in 1978, an Associated Press article revealed that she was not as had been assumed of European descent ‘but “a full-blooded Cherokee Indian” from Oklahoma‘, something that would certainly have caused the image to have been seen differently had it been known when it was widely published – and even now where considerable prejudice still exists against Native Americans.  Lange appears not to have provided the usual field notes and captions for this set of images, and to have known relatively little about her subjects.

Sarah Meister’s book is one of a series “One on One” on individual items in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. Surely a prime candidate for such a series should be a book by A D Coleman on Robert Capa‘s iconic D-Day landing image, for which the material by Coleman and his collaborators has been published online in voluminous and convincing detail at Photocritic International in the Robert Capa D-Day Project. While I’m sure that this will one day emerge in book form, I think it is unlikely it will be published by MoMA.

On the street

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

Although I take almost all of my pictures on the street I’ve never really though of myself as a street photographer, largely because I think of it as a meaningless category. If you disagree I think it is worth going back to what many think of as the ‘bible‘ of the putative genre, Bystander, and read through it carefully and critically looking at the examples. Of course there are plenty of photographs we can say are definitely not street photography, but nothing really emerges which amounts to a clear definition of a genre.

Yesterday I watched a couple of videos about street photography, both of which were mentioned on PetaPixel. For some reason the link to ‘Cheryl Dunn’s highly-regarded 2013 documentary Everybody Street‘ which is now on YouTube refused to display in the PetaPixel page in my browser, but a search on YouTube found it without problems and I was able to watch it full-screen in fairly high quality and I didn’t notice the ads.

It contains a number of photographers who have worked on the streets of New York speaking about their work, and shows them taking pictures and some of the pictures they have taken. Some are very well-known, while others less so, and their work covers a fairly wide range of practices. There is some attempt to give a historical perspective, with Max Kozloff talking about a number of other photographers from Alfred Stieglitz on.

One of the featured photographers, Rebecca Lepkoff, talks a little about the New York Photo League which brought her into photography, though it would have been good to have had a interviewer drawing her out more about this. She was one of the photographers I wrote about years ago in a series on the Photo League, but it would have been good for the film to have looked in a little more detail on some of the others, though few now survive. I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of this organisation in what later became known as ‘street photography.’

Some of the work shown and discussed in the film is quite clearly documentary photography,  and the rest seems to me too varied for the overall category of street photography to have any real use.

I think the film was about 80 minutes long, and it is certainly a very professional film, with some nice footage of New York, making me feel I should have gone there and lived and photographed on its streets, but there were times when I felt it dragged and I did skip forward a little at times. The making of the film was made possible by over $45,000 of crowdfunding but it looks as if it cost considerably more

The second film featured on PetaPixel was the curiously capitalised ‘Why you SHOULDN’T do STREET PHOTOGRAPHY‘ by UK photographer Jamie Windsor, which I have to say I found far more difficult to watch. Not because of what he said, which in part echoes things I’ve said and written in the past, but because of the production and personality of the presenter. He looks at the work of several photographers, particularly the late Hong Kong photographer Fan Ho, Nan Goldin and Martin Parr.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Fan Ho, but by the time I’d seen a few pictures found it extremely repetitive, and failed to see that it represented in any real way the changing times of the city. If you like pretty, arty photos it may be for you.

Goldin of course did as he suggests live the life of the subjects she photographed, recording moments in the lives of her friends and their particular subculture, with her work something of a ‘family’ album.

I share some of Windsor’s misgivings about Martin Parr and his depictions of working class life. His approach was clearly rather more distant than that of – for example – the Picture Post photographers, and sometimes appears to be very much as he suggests reflecting he prejudices of a middle-class photographer, making judgements about those he photographs.

But not all those Picture Post photographers were Bert Hardy, who grew up a working class kid in the Borough and some who managed a much more empathetic approach came from rather more patrician backgrounds than Parr.

Despite Hardy’s working class background he appears to have had no problems relating to and empathising with people from all walks of life and all levels of society. The nature of Parr’s work came from his intention to be a social commentator rather than to engage with the people he was photographing.

Taking a photograph always implies a point of view. We shouldn’t pretend to “accurately represent a culture” whether or not we are part of it, and I’m not at all sure what that means. For me, empathy with the people I photograph is vital, and to that extent I agree with him.

Much of the uneasy interest I have in, for example, Martin Parr’s New Brighton pictures, comes from knowing that his is a rather snooty middle-class exploitatative view of the working class. It gives them the edge that makes them stand out, just as Bruce Gilden’s photographic street assaults do, though in Gilden’s case I find the approach soon gets to be rather boring, the pictures more about his antics rather than the subjects he photographs. I want photography to be about the world, not about photography.

And it is perhaps empathy that I find absent in Fan H0’s work, which uses people as tokens or ciphers, something which the presentation in this video emphasizes. They remind me of my least favourite of Cartier-Bresson’s work, what another photographer called the ‘waiters’, where the photographer had clearly identified a situation and then waited for a person to put themselves in just the right spot. It’s a side of ‘street photography’, particularly loved by amateurs, that I find just boring. But I wouldn’t want to proscribe it. By all means let a thousand Fan Ho’s bloom, just don’t expect me to spend much time looking at them.

Both for the people who do it and for the audience (if any) for it, photography can be many different things. It’s fine for Windsor to state what he thinks and to ask others also to think about their own practices, but not, as his title says, to try to impose a straitjacket on others.

A Forgotten Street Photographer?

Friday, October 12th, 2018

While it’s great to see a film being made about Garry Winogrand which shows some insight into the man and his work, the description of him as a “forgotten street photographer” seems rather lacking in credibility.

Of course most people who think of themselves as “street photographers” nowadays are woefully ignorant of the history of photography including that of so-called street photography, and most people outside the photographic world would be hard put to name any photographer, certainly anyone who has been dead for over 30 years. Perhaps soon we will see a film about another of these “forgetten street photographers” like Henri Cartier-Bresson?

I’ve not seen the film, currently enjoying an extended run in New York, but I have watched the trailer and another introduction to it with more of WInogrand’s voice, as well as the preview – and many other videos about WInogrand, some of which I used in my teaching over 20 years ago. And I think the film will be something photographers should not miss. It will apparently be available later as a part of the ‘American Masters‘ series on PBS.

Vice has an interview This Forgotten Street Photographer Shot Some of Our Most Iconic Images with film director Sasha Waters Freyer which I think makes interesting reading and shows some fresh insight into the man and his work.

I’ve written about him and his work at some length, and have copies of most of his books as well as the most important works on him published since his death, and have been able to talk with one or two people who knew him working on the streets of New York. As well as this article, he gets a mention in 45 other posts I’ve written for this blog (and one other draft, about his work in Picture Post, that somehow never got finished.)

One of the problems with Winogrand is that he took so many pictures – including the many thousands on the undeveloped cassettes found after his death. Many of them didn’t really work as pictures, though without the openness they represent he would not have made those that, sometimes spectacularly, do. I feel sure that there are many images that have been published since his death (and a few during his lifetime) that do nothing to enhance his reputation, and the last show of his work I saw in London had far too many of them. Part of the reason for this lies with the art market, where anything attributed to him sells.

It’s interesting to look at his ‘Women Are Beautiful’ which Sasha Waters Freyer says “really hurt his reputation”. It obviously drew some attacks, but I don’t think he really had a reputation to destroy, and most of the attacks were based on the idea of a man publishing a book of that title rather than the work in it. As she goes on to say, “there are a lot of ways in which it is a celebration of women. It is a really important document of this period when women are entering the workforce and making themselves visible in a way that was completely new in American society.”

Winogrand thought it would sell, calling it in private “The Observations of a Male Chauvinist Pig” and hoping it might appeal to a different market, but it alienated too many and was too highbrow and insufficiently raunchy to attract the ‘Pigs’ he had anticipated. But it remains one of his best books, perhaps because of the focus given it by the problems in his personal life and the film sets out to examine him as a male artist and to understand how his “relationship to marriage and children and family … impacts (his) artistic output.”

Of course there are many other articles and reviews of the film (which has a Facebook page) you can find on-line. One from IndieWire by David Erlich caught my attention for this paragraph:

“Street photographer?” What a sterile way to describe someone who just captured what he wanted — who didn’t wait for permission to take pictures, or require an assignment.

Memory Card Failures?

Monday, October 8th, 2018

I’ve generally been lucky with memory card failures over the sixteen years I’ve now been using digital cameras, and I don’t think I’ve lost a single image due to them, though writing this is likely to provoke disaster. A few times cards have simply refused to work when I’ve put them into the camera either on first use (and one batch turned out to be very convincing ‘fakes’ for which I got a refund) or after some time when they have worked without problems. Once or twice I’ve had cards fail with pictures on them (or formatted them by mistake in a camera with dual card slots), but so far I’ve always managed to recover the images, though often it has been a lengthy process.

What I have found is that many ‘recovery’ programs have failed to recover any images, and the only one I’ve found to work reliably has been an old version of Rescue Pro, which came free years ago with SanDisk cards but is no longer supported by them. You now have to pay to get a working version, though a free download will show you whether files can be recovered. I didn’t try every other product on the market, but most I did failed. They may work for some causes of card failure, but didn’t help me. An article recommends some cheaper alternatives to Rescue Pro I haven’t tried (and links to more) that are cheaper and might be worth considering, and I’ve also found Recuva useful – and there is a free version.

That old version of Rescue Pro is slow and rather opaque, but it still works on WIndows 7, though I think it was written for Windows XP and may not run when my next computer is on Windows 10 (or 11.)

I began thinking about this after I put the SD card with all my pictures from last weekend into my card reader. Windows gave an error message asking me if I wanted to format the disk. Fortunately after I declined the offer the card read without problems. I do try to remember to always format cards in camera after I’ve copied the pictures from them and before using the card again, which I think is good practice.

Also when I’m away from home for more than a day or taking pictures I try to back up the cards I’m using on to my notebook computer every day, so that at worst I should only use a day’s work.

Catching up on my reading this morning I came across an article on PetaPixel by photographer QT Luong, Lessons from Losing a Week of Photos to Memory Card Failure, in which he recounts his problem with a corrupted SD card. He tried various software recovery programs without luck, and then some commercial recovery services who again were unable to bring back his files by their normal methods, eventually offering to charge large sums for further detailed examination of the card with no guarantee they could recover any data. At which point Luong decided it was simply not worth continuing.

It is an interesting article and very much a warning to the rest of us not to be complacent about the problem, as well as suggesting some strategies. In particular it might be a good idea to back-up while working using both card slots on dual slot cameras, even though this may slow down the rate at which the camera will work.

As Luong states, not all cameras have dual slots, and when Nikon and Canon recently announced mirrorless cameras with only a single card slot (like the Fuji cameras I sometimes use), there were many comments from photographers that this made them unsuitable for professional use. I’m more inclined to think that way after reading Luong’s article, though I do still wonder how many of those making the complaint actually currently use the second slot in their cameras for back-up.

Luong also quotes some statistics, looking at the star ratings given to several UHS-II cards in Amazon reviews. Although overall ratings are generally high, there were an alarming number of 1-star reviews for some cards from top brands, as high as 17% for the Lexar 2000x, while others were a more reassuring 3%.

Of course people who buy a card that fails are far more likely to contribute a review than those whose cards just keep on working without problems. I don’t think I’ve ever submitted a star rating for any of the cards I’ve used. But these 1-star ratings almost certainly give a good comparative rating of the reliability of the different products.

It also seems likely that the faster the card and the more complex the higher the failure rate is likely to be. My good luck so far may well be because I’ve never bought the fastest cards and I don’t think I have any UHS-II cards.

I’ll keep using that card that gave an error message as I suspect it was itself an error, as it was not repeated when I re-inserted the card into the reader. And I’ll make sure to format the card before next use. It might too be worth carefully cleaning the contacts on the card in case they have picked up some dirt or corrosion.

Lightroom Sucks?

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

PetaPixel recently published an article by wedding photographer Andy Hudson with the title Lightroom Sucks: An Open Letter to Adobe in which he goes through a number of the problems – mainly fairly minor niggles – that he has with Adobe’s Lightroom software.

I’m not an uncritical user (my wife says of anything…) and there are a lot of things I would like LR to do better, but for me it’s still the best of the bunch and seems to show some improvement with virtually every new upgrade. A recent one which made the ‘Auto’ button in the Develop module work so much better has cut down the work needed considerably, though there are some types of high contrast images it consistently gets very wrong.

There was one fairly disastrous upgrade recently, so buggy that Adobe had to replace it at short notice, but other than that I’ve had no real problems with the upgrades. I’ve tried some of the alternatives over the years and have not found anything yet that suits me better.

One big advantage for me is that for my subscription – about £10 a month – I also get the latest version of Photoshop. It isn’t a program I use a great deal now, but there are some things it can do that I need, and the old version I actually owned wasn’t always up to the job. Photoshop also gets new and improved features, though nothing in recent updates that really makes a lot of difference.

Where I am in full agreement with Hudson is that it would be good for Adobe to spend rather more time on sorting out bugs and issues and concentrate on this rather than new features. It would be good too if they could improve the speed, but I suspect any really useful improvement could only come from a complete change in the way it is written and developed, really going back to square one.

My computer which runs LR is now antique in computer terms, bought in 2011, seven years ago. It beats the minimum specification but with Windows 7, an Intel i5-2500 CPU at 3.30GHz and only 8 Gb of memory it isn’t as fast as I’d like. So sometimes I do find myself waiting a few seconds for the screen to reflect a change I’ve made.

So far, the hassle of re-installing everything on a new machine has put me off upgrading, though at some point I will have to do so. I’d expect LR to be a bit nippier when I do.

One thing that makes LR easier to bear is that I don’t rely on it to do an initial edit of the pictures I’ve taken. It is agonisingly slow at going through perhaps 500 pictures on a memory card, even with a USB 3.0 card reader. Some years ago I tried out FastPictureViewer Professional, which claims to be the fastest image viewer in town and also features:

“full color management for faithful color rendition, instant zooming to 100% and back, to check for sharpness, instant RGB histogram to evaluate the exposure, instant lost shadows / highlights view to see where the blocked-up shadows and burned-out highlights zones are located and their extent, and instant EXIF shooting data at a glance”

As well as selecting the images you want, FPV can also give your pictures a star rating that LR understands – and you can use this to select them, and you can export them either as you go through them or as a batch.

It’s software that solved the worst of my speed problems with LR – but it is Windows only. Possibly there is an equivalent for Mac users, though I doubt if it will quite match FPV, which claims to let you review up to 4,000 pictures an hour – surely enough even for the most profligate wedding photographer. And for the same money you can still get a rather faster machine using Windows than Mac. Macs have their good points, but value for money generally isn’t one.

FPV can actually do  considerably  more than I’ve suggested, including an IPTC editor and lots of other stuff – like using your camera tethered, none of which I’ve really explored, though I expect some features could save me even more time. It has become my default image viewer for almost any kind of image file. Now costing around $50 it has kept my sanity. Probably. So highly recommended – and I don’t get a penny for saying so.

I suspect some of the problems I do have with LR are ones that I could solve if I really read the on-line help and found out how to do things properly. But things have to be seriously impossible before I turn to the help.

The most annoying thing for me happens when going through a number of images to refine my selections (once imported into LR and previews have been made I don’t find this too slow) If I’ve held the arrow key down for too long (often a momentary sleep after a long day and a few glasses)  LR starts going though tens or hundreds of images after I’ve taken my finger off instead of simply moving to the next image as intended.

I’ve found no way to stop this (though it shouldn’t be too hard to change the programme to avoid) but at least it doesn’t usually move the film strip and if I click on the image I wanted to move to it will finally jump back to this. But for a minute or so there is just nothing I can do other than watch and curse.

I’d also like to be able to lock the sort order of the image. Usually I want it to be date ascending and set it to this, but after various selections and exporting etc it generally changes to some order based on these operations. Perhaps someone somewhere thought this was a good idea, but I don’t.

It would be nice also to be able to change the sort order when in the develop module, rather than have to go back to the Library module, but that’s a minor gripe.

I only suffer from a few of the problems that Hudson describes, mainly that there are sometimes a few seconds wait for the display to catch up with what I’m doing. Several I’ve yet to encounter – changing catalogues for example have never given up on me.

I do have a problem with loading images from LR to Photoshop, but the reason is not a LR problem but simply that PS is too slow to load. The simple solution is always to have PS already loaded when you want to export an image from LR.

We’d all like every piece of software to work better, but I do feel that Hudson is going a little over the top. Though perhaps I’ve just been luckier than some, and I do wonder if Mac users may have more problems.

At the bottom of the article is a poll – and I voted ‘I use it and it’s ok’, which turned out at that point to be the majority view.

Thank you for voting!
I use it and it’s perfect 5.95% (155 votes)
I use it and it’s okay 37.12% (967 votes)
I use it and it’s bad 25.87% (674 votes)
I use it and it’s horrible 11.67% (304 votes)
I switched to something else 14.4% (375 votes)
I’ve never used it 4.99% (130 votes)

I think it would be fairer to discount the votes of those who are not current users, which on the results below would leave 2097 votes. Of these, 1122 thought it OK or perfect (53.5%), which is a rather low satisfaction figure, and ought to worry Adobe. Of course those who are happy with LR are probably rather less likely to read to the end of the post and less likely to vote than those who are dissatisfied.

Fuji Freeze

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

I like Fuji cameras and have quite a set of them, along with the lenses, but can’t bring myself to rely on them. With Nikon I seldom get let down; sometimes I may have a problem getting focus (I think my telephoto zoom needs a little attention) but generally they do what I tell them to when I want them to.

The Fuji’s have great image quality – nice lenses and are around half the size and weight. I’d love to use them all the time, but they make me miss too many pictures. With the kind of work I do, every fraction of a second sometimes counts, and they are often just too slow.

I was sitting drinking a coffee with a photographer friend outside a cafe next to a demonstration a couple of months ago, and he asks me whether I thought it would be a good idea for him to get a Fuji XT1 or XT2. I had to say no, and to show him why I picked up the Nikon D810 from the cafe table, brought it to my eye and pressed the shutter. It took a picture immediately.

Do the same with my XT1 and what would happen? Probably nothing, or at least nothing for a second or so, perhaps even longer, by which time the picture might well have disappeared.

I did it for real  couple of weeks ago, with my Fuji XE3, in many ways the nicest of the Fuji’s I’ve owned.  After which I made this post on a Fuji facebook site:

Fuji Freeze hits again.

I saw what I thought would be a great picture yesterday, moved into position, raised the Fuji X-E3 camera to my eye, framed and pressed the button.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Pressed again, ditto. Several times before it eventually realised it was a camera and took a picture. But by then it was too late.The woman had turned away, the inflatable dog she was holding fallen to the ground, the kid who was staring at me had decided his feet were more interesting… No picture.

The ‘Fuji Freeze’ had hit again. I’ve seldom noticed it with the X-E3 before now, though with the XT1 I’d got into the habit of turning the camera off and on again before trying to take a picture if I’d left the camera without using it for more than a few seconds.

With the Nikons I can pick up the camera, press the button and it just works. Why can’t Fuji be like that?

As you might expect, there was a range of responses, some more rational than others. Some people had obviously had similar experiences to me, while others were clearly in denial.

Reading the comments, I thought a little more about the problem went back to the manual, and found there at least a partial explanation. Fuji mirrorless cameras (and this may apply to other marques)  do not really have a ‘sleep’ mode. The manual, under ‘Auto Power Off’ states that that the camera turns off automatically after the selected time – unless you choose OFF.

Of course not quite everything is off, as the camera has to check now and then for a shutter press or half-press, so some circuitry is active, just not that connected with taking pictures. I suspect the circuit that keeps going to do this only checks perhaps every second or two. Which would account for the sometimes very annoying wait before the camera starts up – and why it can be noticeably slower than turning the camera off and on again. Coming up from off takes under a second on the XT3.

The manual says if you select ‘OFF’ for this, you have to turn the camera off manually.And it also says ‘shorter times increase battery life’. I find I had ‘1 minute’ selected, which clearly isn’t long enough for the way I want to work.The longest time setting is 5 minutes which might be enough for this not to be a real nuisance. Changing the setting to OFF ought to be better, but I already often get through 3 batteries in a session and the camera back seems to get very hot after a few minutes if you leave it on.

If I’m correct, Fuji could solve the problem by simply decreasing the time interval between the checks for the button press to a small fraction of a second. Only Fuji would know if this is a matter of hardware or firmware in their cameras.

However, the problem that I had was a longer delay than I can reproduce through testing with different settings of ‘Auto Power Off’. So I think it is some intermittent fault – and one that some others also seem to suffer from.

DSLRs generally have a fast enough time from power off to first picture that is too short to notice, and approaches zero if the camera is left turned on. The battery drain on leaving the camera turned on is small.

The Fuji X-E3 does pretty well from power off to first picture, at around 0.7s, apparently significantly better than most mirrorless cameras. But if you want truly instant response every time you need a DSLR.

Leaving a mirrorless camera switched on rapidly depletes the battery, and the best way to work with the X-E3 and other Fuji cameras is to turn them off manually after each series of exposures, and get into the habit of turning the camera on every time you want to take a picture.  That way you are less likely to be disappointed.

Not Quite Déjà-vu

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

This morning I took a look at the front page of Café Royal Books, a small independent publishing house based in Southport, England originally set up in 2005 by Craig Atkinson as a “way to disseminate drawings and photographs, in multiple, affordably, quickly, and internationally without relying on ‘the gallery’“.

Since 2012, Café Royal Books has published at least weekly an ongoing series of publications presenting mainly ‘British Documentary Photography since 1960’. As he says on the site:

“This type of work has historically been neglected, in the UK and overseas by major institutions. It is often neglected by the photographer too, possibly because there has been no outlet, as such, for it.”

The publications usually present a series of images by a single photographer on a single project. It may be the work from a single event or representing a much longer project.  CRB has produced some larger works, but these weekly publications are generally between 24 and 40 pages, more a zine than a book, with the aim of building up a comprehensive survey of the area of work. Some photographers are represented by quite a few such volumes, in some cases more than 20, while others have preferred to stop at a single issue.

Atkinson keeps down costs, wanting to keep the issues affordable – currently £6 each for most.  You can get every title (except the special editions etc) with a 60 issue subscription – roughly the annual output – and there are also limited editions in a boxed set of 100 books every 100th title aimed “at public collections, so the books remain accessible.”

Among the photographers who have already had issues published are some very well-known names – including Martin Parr, Jo Spence, Daniel Meadows, Brian Griffin, David Hurn, Victor Sloan, Chris Killp, Paul Trevor and others, but some of the best books are by people you may well never have heard of.

The three most recent titles are Diane Bush — The Brits, England in the 1970s,
Ian MacDonald — Greatham Creek 1969–1974 and Janine Wiedel — Chainmaking: The Black Country West Midlands 1977, each worth a look, and you can page through them on the web site. Another recent title is John Benton-Harris — The English, where I have to declare an interest, as I helped John translate his ideas into digital form. It’s a great introduction to the work of this photographer who came to London to photograph Churchill’s funeral and stayed here as one of our most perceptive observers – and was also largely responsible for the seminal 1985 Barbican show ‘American Images 1945-80‘, providing most of the ideas and contacts and doing much of the legwork for which others were rather better at taking most of the credit.

But the déjà-vu? It came on the back cover of a book by another US visitor to this country, Diane Bush, who was here from 1969 for ten years, becoming a part of the Exit Photography Group with Paul Trevor and Nicholas Battye which produced ‘Down Wapping‘. On the back cover of her ‘The Brits, England in the 1970s’ was a picture of a car parked in front of a fence, using the reflections of that fence. It isn’t the same car nor I think the same fence, nor quite the same treatment, but I immediately thought of my picture when I saw hers.

Parked car, Vauxhall, Lambeth, 1978 – Peter Marshall

I don’t think there is much possibility that I had seen her picture when I took mine, but have a nagging suspicion that somewhere, by some photographer, is a similar image that we both had seen before making our pictures.

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Chiswick House and Gardens

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

I’m not sure that the London Borough of Hounslow’s tourist industry needs encouragement, though despite having one of the world’s busiest airports (and if our current government gets its way having managed to pass a vote on its expansion, one that will certainly be, despite all promises, busier, noisier and more polluting if an extra runway actually gets build) on its doorstep it doesn’t seem to be a major tourist attraction. Most are only too keen to get away from the LB Hounslow as fast as they can, by tube, taxi or expensive train.

But there certainly are parts worth a visit. Some houses – Chiswick House, Syon and Osterley and areas of housing; a splendid piece of riverside, a few interesting small museums including Hogarth’s House. And quite a few parks with points of interest, the finest of which is perhaps the grounds of Chiswick House. And these gardens are free to visit, open all the year round.

I grew up a few miles away and visited the gardens here a few time when young, brought by my father, a keen gardener, who always carried a pair of scissors in his pocket to take the occasional cutting when no-one was looking, and when near home, some seeds of the decorative giant thistle echinops to scatter in any likely looking bare patch of ground because they were so good for the bees he kept.

Then I think the gardens were overgrown, and the giant conservatory dilapidated, but both have now been much restores. The huge greenhouse – which people always said was built by Joseph Paxton of Chatworth and Crystal Palace fame (he was a gardener and not a footballer) but wasn’t – was really built by mistake. It was built in 1812-13 to the designs of Samuel Ware and was then the longest ever, at 2 feet over a 100 yards. The 6th Duke of Devonshire was then owner of the house and ordered it to put his camellia collection in. These plants, which grow wild in much of south-east Asia, became a great craze at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, selling for high prices and making fortunes for some nurseries.  Some have survived from back then and are now very rare.

I suspect my father took a few cuttings as usual, and there may still today be some from here surviving in some of the gardens in Hounslow he looked after, though the better of these are now long covered with flats.

It was probably the high prices that made people want to molly-coddle them, or perhaps just ignorance. They grow in their native soils in greater extremes of weather than we see in England, and just a few days earlier I had seen one in a front garden not far from our home with its flowers covered by snow. Though conservatories like this one would have been pleasant places to sit and walk and view your collection of plants, so perhaps the roof and heating were more for the benefit of people rather than plants.

And if you are not a gardener and wouldn’t know a camellia from a chrysanthemum, you will almost certainly have some familiarity with the drink made from the dried leaves of one variety of camellia. We call it ‘tea’.

The rest of the gardens were really the start of a new movement in garden design, the first “natural” garden in what became known as the ‘English Landscape Movement’, designed by William Kent for Lord Burlington, who also had the house built to his own designed, aided by Kent and copying the work from various Italian buildings, particularly those of Palladio.  The house was built in 1726-9 but work went on with gardens for some years. Although the gardens may be natural they contain many unnatural features of classical origin, the house and gardens representing Burlington’s attempt to create a Roman villa situated in a symbolic Roman garden.

Photographers will of course recognise them as they featured in several fine pictures by Bill Brandt, and of course many other photographers including Edwin Smith.  I’ve made a few pictures there in the past, but make no claims for these hurried snaps taken on a dull and wet day on an outing with others who were keen to get back to the car.

Both house and gardens are worth a visit, and the gardens and conservatory have been well restored (doubtless thanks to idiots buying lottery tickets.) There is a charge of entry to the house which is run by English Heritage, but the gardens are free. There is also a newly opened restaurant in which we had lunch, but I’d recommend a riverside walk from here to one of the Hammersmith pubs for a proper meal. You could also visit (on a Thursday or Saturday aftenoon) the small William Morris Society museum on Hammersmith Mall, and if sufficiently organised to book in advance, take the fascinating guided tour of Emery Walker’s house in Hammersmith Terrace.

Chiswick House Gardens


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My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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Lange & Winship at the Barbican

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Opening shortly at the Barbican is ‘Dorothea Lange / Vanessa Winship – A photography double bill‘, with Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing showing together with Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds in the Art Gallery there from 22 June —2 September 2018, presenting the work of two photographers I greatly admire.

I’ve several times printed a copy of Lange’s best-known picture, ‘Migrant Mother‘ from the high-quality large Tiff file that I years ago downloaded from the Library of Congress, and have written on several occasions about this and other works such as her ‘White Angel Breadline‘ from 1933 which prompted her career as a documentary photographer.

The show apparently has a large section on this work, and you can read more about it and see the some variants on a page at the Library of Congress, where you can see all her work for the FSA (a search using the term ‘Lange, Dorothea’ yields over 4000 items, though not all are photographs), and find more about various shows of her work. On the Library of Congress they reproduce Lange’s own story about how she made the picture, written for Popular Photography in 1960:

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

But apparently Florence (Owens) Thompson, the woman in the picture saw it differently, according to her grandson’s recollection (I think recorded in Anne Whiston Spirn’s book on Lange Daring to Look, and mentioned in my 2008 post on that)

 “a well-dressed woman jumped out of a smart newish car and started taking pictures, getting closer with each shot. Florence decide to ignore her.

After taking the pictures, Lange is said to have told Florence who she was and that she was working for the Farm Security Administration and to have promised that the pictures would not be published. Next day they made the front page of all the newspapers.”

Lange gave a long interview to Richard Doud in 1964, a year before her death. You can hear 12 seconds of her voice and read the lengthy transcript  in the Smithsonian Oral History Collection.

Some brief biographical details I wrote almost 20 years ago about Lange may be of interest:

Dorothea Lange was born in New Jersey. She gave up training to be a teacher to become a photographer, working part-time in the portrait studio of Arnold Genthe before studying with Clarence White.

She moved to California, meeting Imogen Cunningham and opening her own portrait studio. In the early 1930s she began to take pictures of people suffering from the effects of the Depression, such as the ‘White Angel Breadline‘ in San Francisco in 1933.

The following year she met sociologist Paul Taylor who she was to marry (after divorcing her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon) and began to work for various Government projects, most notably the Farm Security Adminstration.

Her career was interupted by illness for almost ten years from 1945, following this she travelled extensively around the world with her husband before settling down to photograph things ‘close at hand‘ around her home and family.

One single picture she took for the FSA stands as an icon of the depression. ‘Migrant Mother‘ shows a mother looking worried into the distance, as if wondering what future there is for her. One child lies sleeping on her lap, two older children frame her, turned away from the photographer with their heads bowed. Lange recorded that the mother was aged 32 with 7 children; they were migrant pea-pickers but the harvest had been ruined by frost so there was no work. They had already sold the tyres from their car for food and were now living in it, keeping alive on wild birds the children caught.

Surprisingly the article in yesterdays Observer, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing review – a visionary whose camera never lied by Laura Cumming fails to even mention that the show is on together with Winship’s, though possibly this was made clear elsewhere in the print edition. I’ve long been a fan of Vanessa Winship, and have several times mentioned her work here (I think this is the 15th.)

The best of these posts is I think  Sweet Nothings – Vanessa Winship written in 2009 which included a couple of her portraits from Turkey.  In a more recent post, I quoted from Sean O’Hagan’s blog in The Guardian:

“From Mississippi to the Black Sea, Winship’s poetic, masterful photographs show how hard it is for people to belong … so why don’t British galleries acknowledge her as this large Madrid retrospective does? She deserves it”

At the time I commented: “Though I’m afraid the explanation is unfortunately rather simple. She is a real photographer, and there is no major British gallery with a real interest in photography.” It is great to see her work acknowledged at last in the Barbican show.


Reviews and Real Life

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Before I buy a new camera, I always spend a long time reading through the various reviews available on the web, both the highly detailed ones such as those by Digital Photography Review and those by photographers who have spent some weeks actually working with the cameras and give a more personal evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses.

Of course they have there uses, and are certainly a lot more reliable than the opinions posted as reviews by some popular Internet figures or those user comments collected on some sites. Most internet reviews are not worth the bits they are written with – which come more or less free.

While it’s relatively easy to get the technical details right – it usually just means transferring them from the manufacturer’s data sheet – what is usually more important in practice is how the camera and user interact. Harder to quantify or even describe, and something that in the end is very individual.

I currently use two Nikon bodies, a D810 and a D750, and the differences in specifications are not great. The D810 is heavier and has better weather protection, and the shutter sounds smoother – and of course it costs rather more. The placement of buttons on the backs are different and the D750 lacks a separate ‘OK’ button, using instead the centre of the four-way controller. It’s a minor nuisance.

The D810 produces larger files, but normally those from the D750 are perfectly adequate and the D810 merely serve to fill up your backups faster. I do prefer the larger files for my panoramic work, where the D810 also scores with tilt indicators for up and down as well as for left and right. But apart from the relatively small increase in image size, the image quality is more or less the same.

The two most significant differences for me are actually things I’ve never seen pointed out in reviews. On the D810 it is possible to lock the aperture (and I think shutter speed) when using the camera on a manual setting. This means you can decide you want to work at – for example – 1/500th f8 and you can do so, allowing the camera to alter the ISO to give correct exposure – if possible on its auto-ISO setting. Unless you choose an aperture and shutter combination which is outside the range you have set for auto-ISO but with a little photographic nous this is unlikely.

You can use the same technique with the D750, but there appears to be no way to lock the aperture or shutter speed in manual mode. Whichever you leave on the primary command dial (in my case aperture) gets readily knocked around as you (or at least I) use the camera. The command dial doesn’t have sufficient resistance to movement for a clumsy fumble-finger like me, and I can suddenly find that I’ve taken a few frames at f45 rather than the f8 I’d intended, which can easily result in considerable underexposure even if I’ve set a maximum ISO of 12,800.

I’ve tried various ways to counter this. The most successful seems to be to tape over the command dial, but then sometimes you do want to change aperture, and have to peel back the tape which then often falls off and gets lost. The black masking tape I used also gets uncomfortably sticky.

My latest attempt to ameliorate the problem has been to reverse the direction of travel of the aperture control, which hopefully will mean that I get f4 instead of f45 when things go pear-shaped. Since I normally work with a wide angle at f5.6 or f8 this will only mean a two stop difference so perhaps less of a problem, and the depth of field with a wide angle will usually still be sufficeint. I’ll also reduce the maximum ISO when using the technique, perhaps to ISO3200 so the risk of overexposure will be less. It’s only very special conditions that need a higher value.

The second annoying difference is when using an FX lens in 1.2x or DX mode, which is a cheap way of effectively getting a longer telephoto. On the D810 there is a well-hidden way to get the viewfinder to display a greyed out area around the actual image, so that details outside the frame are visible but it is very clear they will not be recorded.

Quite why this should be obtained by setting Custom Setting a6 AF Point Illumination to OFF is a mystery only known to an inner circle of Nikon Illuminati, who may also be able to tell you (though they may have to kill you afterwards) why the equivalent CS a5 does not give the same effect on the D750.

Of course you do get a viewfinder frame to show the reduced image area. But as I can tell you from too frequent experience, it isn’t always easily noticed. It wouldn’t matter if it were not for the D750 to occasionally decide to spontaneously change the image area. It is possible to map the change to one of the function buttons or pressing the command dials, which could easily lead to such a mysterious event, but I’ve certainly never done so.

Modern cameras are simply too complicated, giving too many options. Both these cameras have instruction manuals with over 500 pages and there are just too many interdependencies, with one setting affecting another. Back in the old days you could just pick up almost any camera and just use it. Perhaps it’s time for a campaign for real cameras that real people can use. Or are they called phones?