Archive for November, 2007

Paris Photo – The Empty Centre

Monday, November 19th, 2007

The ‘Central Exhibition‘ of this year’s Paris Photo was ‘Landscape Photography in the UniCredit Collection’, and was a part of this year’s focus on photography in Italy. The show included around 30 works by 10 photographers, some extremely large images.

Upper Level: BMW – Paris Photo Prize; Lower Level: Central Exhibition

Unfortunately, on the basis of the work presented here, the collection has not bought particularly wisely. There was plenty of evidence elsewhere on various exhibition stands that Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000) was a fine photographer, but the few prints displayed were at best unconvincing. Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) was an interesting colour photographer at a time before colour became respectable, but the vintage prints were disappointing, perhaps due to the ravages of time. There were a couple of nice prints by Mimmo Jodice (b1934) – but again better and more appropriate work elsewhere. Most photographers will be familiar with the work of Franco Fontana (b1933), and there was a good exhibition of his work in the FotoArtFestival at Bielsko-Biala last month, but again the work here was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps the only photographer whose work in this section impressed was Gabriele Basilico (b1944), though again there was better work by him elsewhere in PP.

UniCredit, one of the major European banks, was founded in Italy and started to collect contemporary Italian art, particularly photography, in 2004. Presumably they are not short of money, and apparently the collection includes 500 photographs, but on the basis of this show, they would not appear to have spent wisely.

An Italian photographer I met at PP told me that, like many other Italian photographers she had talked to, she felt that this show – along with the two other sections of the invited Italian presence, Statement: Italy and the General Section, “an overview of Italian photography from the 1950s to today” – actually failed to provide an adequate representation of photography in Italy today, but rather reflected the artists represented by the relatively small number of Italian galleries who were taking part in PP.

I rather hope she was right, otherwise the future of photography in Italy appears depressing. The 5 photographers I’ve mentioned above were all born before 1945, and there seemed little evidence here of exciting new work.

Prix BMW – Paris Photo

Monday, November 19th, 2007

At the centre of Paris Photo, (PP), is a stand displaying a car. Given that BMW are an official Paris Photo partner and provide the BMW-Paris Photo prize, I imagine it was probably a BMW, but it looked pretty boring to me.

Personally I’d like to see ban on cars in cities. For London we could use the M25 as a giant car park (it sometimes gets like that) and set up decent public transport within it. Perhaps this might even include some electric taxis and electric self-drive vehicles – perhaps at ranks like those bikes in Paris for London Oyster card users, though I think I’d favour extensive light rail links to some more central locations.

I sold the first and only car I owned in 1966, though I have occasionally hired one in the years since then. Despite what manufacturers like BMW would like us to think, there is no such thing as a ‘green’ car – running on hydrogen or not. Green ‘vehicles’ are pedal powered.

I still ride the bike given me by my eldest brother (long dead) for my 13th birthday, though almost everything except the frame and handlebars have been replaced over the years. And one of my most useful photo accessories is a Brompton, a folding bike I can carry on trains and tubes. It gets you to locations without fuss or parking problems, and also is handy to lean against walls and stand on to look over them.

I’m definitely not a car person. Though I hardly think that’s why I found the entries to the 2007 BMW – Paris Photo Prize so disappointing. The competition is limited to works by living art photographers entered by the galleries taking part in PP, and apparently 60 works were submitted from the over 80 galleries.

The 16 short-listed works were on show in a spacious gallery area on a large doughnut-shaped dais at the centre of PP, and I found the selection as a whole depressingly poor. The 2007 theme was “Water, the Origin of Life” and even works by photographers I usually admire seemed to lack inspiration. Indeed, for several of them, “pedestrian” was the word that came into my mind for their interpretation of the theme.

The jury included Jacqueline d’Amecourt, curator of the Lhoist Collection based in Brussels, Vince Aletti, photography critic of the New Yorker magazine, Charlotte Cotton, now in charge of photography at LACMA in Los Angeles, Roberta Valtorta, director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, photographer Massimo Vitali and two guys from BMW. They didn’t come to the same conclusion as me, but at least they avoided choosing of the more boring works.

Jitka Hanzlová, Untitled (Hungry fishes) from the series the cotton rose , 2004, Kicken (Berlin)

Czech photographer Jitka Hanzlová (b 1958) who lives in Germany was the winner of the 12,000 Euro prize. Her image wasn’t my first choice, but it was certainly one of the better entries.

Paris Photo

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Paris Photo was one of the highlights of the year for me, although there is much about the actual event and its venue I dislike. For those who’ve not been, PP is mainly a trading show for dealers, with over 80 from around the world having stands and selling product. Its an expensive business, so many are looking for big money, largely selling corporate artworks to decorate extravagantly large office walls in major cities across the world. What matters most is scale and colour and the result is big prints that often achieve the difficult task of being both boring and garish.

If you went to PhotoLondon you will know exactly what I mean. Half of Paris Photo was like this, but there was also a truly incredible amount of really excellent photography on display, including on the stands of some of the better-known US dealers. My vote for the favourite of these has to go to Bruce Silverstein, where several photographers were treated to well-displayed mini-exhibitions of their work – with a pink-curtained area with images by Joel-Peter Witkin, and another black-painted wall with images by Aaron Siskind, as well as a nice range of works from Paris by one of my favourite photographers Andre Kertesz, along with one of the first images I wrote (and lectured) about, his Martinique, made when he was in his seventies in 1972. You can read someone else’s thoughts about it here.

Other galleries with plenty to see included Laurence Miller, Robert Klein and Howard Greenburg. Vu La Galerie had a fine range of images, mainly documentary and photojournalistic, but also including a couple of John Davies landscapes from the show currently at their Paris gallery.

Far too many stands to mention were – at least in part – showing interesting work, and from all periods of photography. Many years ago I picked up a number of copies of ‘Photograms of the Year‘ from the 1920s and 30s, and some of the more interesting images were nudes by the Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol, and I came across work by him on half a dozen different stands including Kicken from Berlin and Michael Hoppen. Kicken also had some of the Austrian Heinrich Kuhn‘s large gum prints from around 1900, impressive for their size. Most of his work I had only previously seen as small reproductions.

There was also some fine work from the nineteenth century, with some of the finest images being on the stalls of English dealers, including for the first time Lindsey Stuart from Bernard Quaritch Ltd, who was showing on Baudoin Lebon stand, and Robert Hershkowitz.

One thing that was noticeable was that some galleries were showing exactly the same highly priced images as last year, perhaps an indication that these pictures were actually overpriced?

The market in photography has many pitfalls for the ignorant or inexperienced, and it always dismays me to find work that must make the photographers turn in their graves for sale. One stand had a couple of cyanotypes that I would have told my rawest student to put in the bin and have another try, and there were many ‘vintage prints’ that must surely have been taken out of the bins of the photographers concerned. It made me feel I should rush home and start looking through all those old boxes of my own ‘vintage’ prints in the loft and burn any which I don’t think reflect my best standards – probably most of the prints from my first 20 years in photography. In most cases they only got into those boxes because they weren’t quite good enough to show.

Of course the whole thing about ‘vintage’ prints is largely a nonsense. There were several opportunities in PP to compare prints of the same image on different stands made at different times. In virtually every case, the prints made later are better. And of course cheaper.

Larry Clark at the MEP

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

The Maison Europeenne de la Photographie (MEP) is perhaps my favourite space to go to look at photography, and I only wish we had something like it in London, though of course a part of its charm is that it is just a few yards from the busy pavements of the Rue St Antoine where you can eat and buy real French food along with the ordinary Parisians. I’ve spent many happy hours and days wandering the Marais, and if it has lost a little of its charm over the years under the relentless spread of boutiques it remains one of the great urban experiences.

Marais, 1973
The Marais in 1973, from Paris, 1973 (C) Peter Marshall

Larry Clark‘s “Tulsa, 1963-1971” is one of three major shows currently there (until 6 Jan, 2008) and is an extensive showing of his work, most of which appeared in the books ‘Tulsa‘ and ‘Teenage Lust‘.

An important part of the show was an edited version of a film in which Clark talks about his life and work. This was in English, but with French subtitles. These provided an interesting comment on the differences between English and French ways of thinking, as in many places they diverged. While Clark’s responses were American laconic, the translation was French philosophical.

Clark’s story is probably too well known to need a detailed exposition, and as I managed to lose my notes (it was a very good party on Thursday night) there may be a few misplaced details in this outline, but I don’t think it really matters.

Clark was born in 1943 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which, from memory, Oscar Gaylord Herron – also from Tulsa – described in his ‘Vagabond‘ (1975) as the jewel in the bellybutton of America, bang in the middle and as number 10 on the list of Soviet missile targets. His father was a door-to-door book salesman, but when business got really bad, left the job and worked with the family business that Clark’s mother had established. This was in baby photography, going to homes and photographing newly-born infants.

When Clark was 14, his father came home one day, took a look at him sitting around downstairs and told him he looked like a piece of shit before going upstairs and hardly ever coming down again or talking to Clark. Family life took on a very curious quality, with his father staying upstairs, eating food which his wife took up to him, although Clark also writes that his father gave him three dollars every Friday to go out.

At his school in one of the poorest areas of the city, Clark mixed and befriended many other kids who also had trouble at home. Kids who arrived at school beaten and bruised; girls who were screwed by their brothers and probably their fathers and more. Hanging out with these kids he learnt how to extract amphetamines from inhalers – his three dollars bought three of them – and get high.

Also at 14, he began to help his mother taking baby pictures, and in a year or two he was a photographer, taking these on his own. Clark realised that he needed to get away from his family, and at 18 left home to go to study photography at Layton School of Art in Milwaukee (Wisconsin). It was there he saw the work of W Eugene (Gene) Smith in Life magazine, and realised that there was rather more to photography than taking baby pictures.

When he returned home, he began to take photographs of his friends and their wayward lifestyle, very much as one of them. Then the army claimed him for a couple of years and after that he moved to New York, trying unsuccessfully to make a living as a photographer. There he met and photographed Gene Smith and also the friends he made – again on the fringes of society.

He left New York and went back to Tulsa with the idea of making a film, telling the truth about the things that were happening in America, with the kind of people that he knew. He bought a camera and sound equipment, but then found it impossible to work on his own. Looking at his photographs he decided instead that they could be a book, although there were gaps in his record that he need to fill, and he went back to photographing his friends to do this.

There is a very strong sense is which the books are like films, showing a story in a very similar way. Clark felt that photographers before him had stopped short, there were things about America that they were not prepared to show. Drugs weren’t supposed to exist in America, nor for that matter was sex (and certainly not incest) and he was determined to show the truth about the kind of life he had been a part of.

Although he exaggerates – there were photographers who had photographed virtually all aspects of the American underbelly as well as those who concentrated on Mom and apple pie – he did so in a much more personal and considerably more intense manner, pulling few if any punches. When Ralph Gibson‘s Lustrum Press brought out Tulsa in 1971, it certainly created a stir.

But in reality, little it showed was news. It may not have featured widely in pictures, but Kerouac’s ‘On The Road‘ was published in 1957 (I picked up my paperback copy on a second-hand bookstall in Hounslow in 1963) and there were plenty of other books. Kerouac’s cast of friends were of course rather more literary, but there was still plenty of sex, drugs and aimlessness, if rather less anger than in Clark’s work.

Clark was able to work the way that he did because he was living – certainly at times – the life that his friends he photographed were living. As he says in Tulsa, “once the needle goes in it never comes out.” He worked with a Leica to avoid the clunk of the mirror with an SLR, the quieter, lower tone of the slow cloth shutter getting in time, as he says, almost musical.

As well as anger, there is also a lyricism about some of his work. In one of my favourite images, a woman sits back in a chair, seen from the side, injecting herself in the right arm. Above the waist she wears only a white bra, and she is lit strongly from the window at top left of the image. The bright light on the white fabric, and also to a lesser extent on her skin are diffused, perhaps by a little greasy fingermark on the lens or filter, creating an incredible glow.

Clark’s work influenced many young photographers, but was also important as a source of inspiration for films such as Taxi Driver and Drugstore Cowboy, and both Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant are great fans. When Clark saw Drugstore Cowboy he thought that this guy was treading on his turf, and when they met at an opening, he told Van Sant that he wanted to make a film. This led to ‘Kids‘ (1995) and other films followed.

Large Image Collections on line

MOCA search gives 182 results
Addison Gallery search finds 134 images from Teenage Lust and Tulsa
LACMA search shows 132 images

Other sites

Larry Clark on Myspace
Official Website – under construction in Nov 2007 – but try later.
Luhring Augustine

Larry Clark

Helen Levitt on Show – Paris

Friday, November 16th, 2007

One of several highlights of my trip to Paris was a visit to the Helen Levitt show – I mentioned it and wrote a little about her last month. Paris transport is currently on strike, with restricted and unreliable services, and to reach the Fondation Cartier-Bresson a little south of Montparnasse from the city centre location of Paris Photo, was a lengthy and rather tiring experience – part of a day in which I covered over 10 miles and was largely on my feet from 9am to 3am the following morning. Fortunately this was in Paris, where almost every street has some interest (and my walks are always longer grow in the taking, as I can’t resist a detour down any street that looks particularly enticing.)

Which brings me to one small complaint about the gallery space. The exhibition was shown in two large white-walled galleries, images in a single line around the wall, the centre of the room a largely empty space (with a rather lost looking display cabinet.) Nowhere at all to sit and rest and reflect on the work. Even when I haven’t had to walk, visiting such shows is a tiring exercise. The look of the rooms would also be improved by some simple elegant benches or other seating in their centre, and it would be so much more pleasant a place for the serious contemplation of photography.

There are chairs on the top floor, up a couple more flights of stairs, in a room devoted to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Here were a dozen or so of his best-known works, including 3 or 4 of his best images. The interior of the building is modernist and compliments the work of the master well, but perhaps felt just a little austere for Helen Levitt.

In the lower gallery (on the first floor) was a fine showing of her work on the streets of New York from the late 30s and early 1940s. As you can see from the feature I mentioned previously  (and also the other links in that feature) Levitt achieves a wonderful sense of capturing natural activities on the street, helped of course by the use of the relatively small and inconspicuous Leica camera (one of HC-B’s from that period is on display in a cabinet on the top floor, reminding us how much smaller they were than the current M series – I had my M8 in hand to compare.) She also made use of a device that enabled her to be looking away at 90 degrees from her subjects when taking pictures, so that although many of her subjects appear to be clear she is they, they think she is photographing something else.

It was interesting to see the several variants that she had made of some images, shown as her small reference prints she made, roughly 6×9 cm in size – a method that enabled her to see the work better. I do think it was a mistake to mount these in window matts which did not allow the viewer to see to the edge of the print and beyond, especially since the top lighting in the gallery cast a deep shadow across a significant strip across the top of each of these small images. But I also think it is an inappropriate treatment for work prints.

In the main these showed that Levitt moved relatively little when making her images, with at times a slight investigation of different framings. Often it was more a matter of taking a series of images as the children got on with their play. It was particularly intriguing to see the other versions of her image of black boys climbing and playing on the imposing porch of a otherwise rather bare brick building. In the selected image, one clings to the top of the porch, either about to climb up or let himself down , with another boy crouching down on the top looking at him, while another pair stage a boxing match to his right. The figure next to the crouching child has his fists up in a fighting stance, while the boy dead in the centre of the lintel, turned away from the photographer, apparently lands a powerful straight left to his left eye. A fifth figure hides behind the right-hand column, arms and legs on each side and peeping out at the woman with the camera. The image is a glimpse of the kind of dangerous activities that boys will get up to, emphasized by the height of the doorway and the risk of falling, both from that precarious grip of the clinging boy and the play-fighting on the top.

Another striking image of boys playing on the street shows two of them holding up the empty wooden frame for a mirror, with the broken shards in the gutter in front strong evidence as to what has rather recently happened. A couple of boys are examining them carefully as the others look on, none more intensely than the boy on a bicycle we see framed in place of the mirror. So intense that one can imagine that it was his stare (or perhaps something rather more physical, as if he had tried to ride through that mirror) had shattered it to fragments.

The show also had a few examples of Levitt’s work from Mexico, shown along with the similar images by Cartier-Bresson; it was his work – including these images – that inspired her to photograph people – after seeing it she lost interest in pictures of buildings or landscapes.

The upper floor concentrated mainly on her colour images some from the 1960s but also later work. These pictures were published as the book ‘Slide Show‘, which was also on display in the gallery. The book is actually considerably more impressive than the show, partly becuase I think the selection of images is a little different, but perhaps more importantly because of the sequencing and also the quality of the images.

It was interesting to be able to compare the actual prints on the wall with the versions on the printed page, and I spent some time doing so. In almost every case there were significant differences, and in most cases the book version was preferable. That the exceptions were mainly some of the dye transfer prints is perhaps unsurprising.

Probably some of the other colour prints may have changed significantly since they were produced. They were not so obviously poor as some of the high-priced vintage prints on offer in Paris Photo, but certainly the book prints had a ‘cleaner’ look and often had better shadow and highlight detail. I think the few prints on display in Paris Photo may have been better examples than some here.

I find her colour work uneven, with some finely captured little happenings, while a few left me rather cold and sometimes puzzled. Perhaps the images I like best are the more dynamic, where Levitt has captured the moment, such as the woman reading her newspaper on a windy street corner, rather than those that simply seem to me to be about colourful scenes.

Despite my quibbles it was really splendid to see such a collection of Levitt’s best images on display, and when I left well after an hour after I had arrived (together with the walking it meant I was rather later than I had intended at the MEP, and at the party after that) but feeling uplifted by the experience. Coming out from the Impasse in which the gallery is located and turning across the main road to the rue de la Gaite in the fading light I did feel somewhat gay, my tired steps a little lighter as I danced past the sex shops and theatres.

Peckham or Paris?

Monday, November 12th, 2007

If I wasn’t going to be in Paris on Wednesday, I would be heading instead for Peckham, where the Peckham Literary Festival 2007 kicks off with two events I’m sorry to miss (though I could hardly have attended both.) The festival programme continues until Sunday and so far as I can tell contains no photography, although earlier in the year I wrote about the show ‘Peckham Rising’ at one of the festival venues, which included photographs by Thabo Jaiyesimi and Daniele Tamagni.

Things have been happening in Peckham this year – and I was also there for the Human Rights Juke Box and the I Love Peckham festival. If you can’t get to any of the events you can listen to a little of the music which will be performed at the festival from the new album “Psychogeography” described as “ a collection of dark but warm songs about losing vital limbs, nursing small birds, conversations with insects etc.

It’s hard for me to see Paris clearly – it has so many memories. Some of them are in the pictures I took there in 1973, on my second visit to the city (now all this site should be working – apologies to anyone who found some missing images earlier.) These are are couple of salted paper prints I made in the 1980s.

And no, I never made the edition which is referred to on the print above, which was a kind of joke. I think I probably made 3 or 4 prints – and they were all different.

Last year, going to Paris and trying to fit in Paris Photo, the Mois de la Photo and the incredible fringe festival, the Off, in five days there I had little time to take pictures during the day (not much at night either) but I did manage to put together a set of work, Paris November, which does include a few pictures inside the photo fair. I won’t need to tell you guys that you can go on to the next image by clicking on the main picture – or choose any other image by clicking on its thumbnail.

Local Events, Local Papers?

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

I’m not sure if any of my local papers (5 titles, four of them free come through my door each week, several on a fairly direct route to the recycling bin) bothered to send a photographer to our local Remembrance Day parade and service. I did see one other photographer there, although I think he only took a couple of pictures – but that could have been what the paper wanted.

Remembrance Day in Staines

Or perhaps the local paper photographers were among the many people using phones and compact digitals to take pictures – particularly of the brownies and scouts in the parade? Doubtless I’ll find out on Thursday when the several hundred pages of advertising accompanied by a few snippets of news comes through the letterbox (or the following week – as two of them simply recycle stuff from the one we still pay for, in the hope it will one day have some news.)

Twenty years ago,  we used to tell our keener photography students it was worth getting in touch with the local papers, taking a few pictures along and asking if they could cover an occasional story. It got them a little pocket money, and one or two eventually ended up with full time jobs, or even in Fleet Street. (Now of course a memory, though the few times I’ve dropped into the old pubs there in recent years I’ve ended up talking to guys from the print, revisiting their pasts.)

Now, forget it.

PR shots, handouts and free snaps from people and organisations who want publicity provide 90% of the photos, with the rest coming from a few remaining poorly paid and overworked staff.

So if anyone in Staines wants to see pictures from the Remembrance Day parade and service – and it was a well attended event – they can look on My London Diary.  I went there to photograph it because I wanted to take some pictures to mark the occasion, but didn’t want to cover the national event in Whitehall – too much security, too little access. I could have gone to any of the hundreds of other such events around the country rather than Staines, but that’s where I live.

Peter Marshall 

Watching photographers: Sang Tan

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

When I first started taking pictures regularly of events in London, one of the first photographers I got to know was the late Mike Cohen (1935-2002), whose pictures were regularly used in socialist publications, particularly the Morning Star. Photographers often spend considerable time waiting for things to happen, and we often found ourselves together discussing politics and photography.

You can learn a lot about other photographers by watching how they work – where they chose to stand, how they move around a situation, how they interact with the people they are photographing… Of course most of the time at events I’m busy watching the way the event is developing and thinking where I should be, and how I might get a different picture… But you can’t help seeing what other photographers are doing, and getting some idea of how they work.

And of course, they are watching you. Certainly most of us know the feeling of finding a situation and working with it, only to realise ten seconds later that there are photographers on both sides as well as one shooting over our shoulder and another crouching in front or shooting between our legs. Its best to take it as a compliment rather than worry about it, and of course it’s one we are likely to claim repayment for before too long when we see another photographer who appears to have found something interesting.

Mike was a guy who knew who everyone was – he’d photographed working class struggles for over 30 years – and was always a great source of information. He once paid me what I think was a compliment, describing my way of working as ‘fly fishing’ whearas he was a coarse angler, getting in there and working away. His approach was certainly a reliable method of landing some big fish. Unfortunately little if any of his great record of events over the years is available on-line.

Another photographer I meet occasionally at events is Sang Tan, and watching him work it is clear that he is thinks carefully and differently about his pictures, often finding a unique way to approach a subject. He seems to be keeping very busy lately – and looking at the editorial portfolio on his new web site, the reason is clear.

The pictures there include work from several events I also covered (see My London Diary) and while I may have taken some pretty decent snaps, his usually have an unusual clarity and vision. He also covers many of the kind of high-profile events I like to avoid (or can’t get into – and usually both apply) which make his work much more commercially publishable.

Also on the web site is another side of his work, black and white street photography. We’ve seen a lot of nonsense in the past couple of years about a new street photography in London, as if there were not many photographers around who have been – and still are – working in the genre. And, as this site clearly demonstrates, producing considerably more interesting work than has been in those recent ‘new‘ shows.

Of course one of the many problems that photography still suffers in the UK is extremely partially sighted curators. Speaking about John Benton-Harriss move from the USA to London in the late 1960s in Poland recently, I talked about him “moving from a New York where he knew everyone who was everyone in photography, to a country where there was nobody to know.” Forty years on I’m not sure things have really changed that much.

Peter Marshall

What do you wish you’d known?

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

EPUK (Editorial Photographers UK) had the great idea of asking a selection of their members what they wished they had known when they started in the business. As might be expected, they got some rather varied answers, including one from the guy who regrets keeping “the can of compressed air, the can of WD-40 and the can of spray mount on the same shelf“.


Had he read my advice, he would have known he should in any case have been using a Hurricane or Rocket Blower on his sensor and not wasting the planet on doubtful products, which are tricky to remove. And almost certainly non-archival, though that was probably the least of his worries.


You might like to guess some of the other things before you go to the article. But while there, don’t miss the link to Sqweegee’s Blog on the site. The latest posting is about the Plodshop Creative Suite, “developed by Warren Terror Software, is designed to address major security issues in industry standard photo manipulation software such as Adobe Photoshop and Tesco PhotoRestyle.”

Lens Care

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

So often I come across something on the web and think who are these people write such nonsense. So I wasn’t surprised to find a piece on lens cleaning, written by a person described as a “successful author” which didn’t really offer a great deal of sensible advice for the practical photographer. But it did make me want to write more about the subject. Below you’ll find sections on Lens Handling, Lens Changing and Cleaning Lenses, all vital parts of the photographic process for the practical photographer.

When shooting with digital, I’ve had – or at least noticed – more problems with dirty lenses. Perhaps it is the shorter focal lengths of DX format cameras that make the defects more visible, or just the fact that now I view every image at around 15×10 inches on a high quality computer monitor makes minor defects jump out.

Digital has in some respects led to us demanding more, although I think this is only part of a changing attitude. Looking at an original Edward Weston image in a show a while ago, I was shocked by the number blemishes in this otherwise superb contact print. Even when printing from film, I would have taken a spotting-brush and dye to the more prominent of the largely white dust spots. Photoshop and other software of course makes this require considerably less skill – and in particular allows us to correct any mistakes we make.

Spots on digital images come from dirt on the sensor rather than the lens, but muck there can lead to unsharp areas, diffuse darker regions and excessive diffusion from highlights – more serious problems that can be hard or impossible to correct, as well as lower overall contrast.

We need to get into good habits of lens handling – particularly when using interchangeable lenses – to avoid getting lenses dirty, as well as learning good methods and practices to clean them once they are dirty.

Lens Handling

  • always keep rear lens caps on lenses when not on camera;
  • always use a UV or similar filter on the front of lenses where this is possible;
  • for lenses with protruding front elements, use a suitable lens cap when not in use;
  • inspect front and rear elements of all lenses for dirt before every photographic session;
  • practice lens-changing and adopt a simple, effective procedure (see below);
  • always check and clean immediately if necessary when you think you may have put a finger on a glass surface.
  • if possible, use a lens hood – its most important job is keeping fingers etc away from the glass;

Lens Changing

A sensible and consistent lens-changing procedure can save time and reduce the amount of dust reaching the sensor as well as making dirt and fingermarks on lens surfaces less likely. It helps if all lenses, cameras and rear lens caps have clear markings for lining them up – and if necessary it can be worth adding these – or making them clearer – with a paintbrush and a small dab of paint (or nail varnish or correcting fluid etc.)

Exactly how you do this will depend on your camera and working conditions. I use cameras that allow easy one-handed removal and insertion of lenses when the camera is on a strap around my neck (Nikon and Leica.) Here is how I do it on the Nikon:

  1. Put front lens cap on camera lens (most lenses I don’t use one.)
  2. Switch camera off (Nikon says so, but to be honest I don’t usually bother)
  3. Take new lens from bag with left hand, align its marker correctly to fit the camera, remove rear lens cap with right hand and hold it in right palm with little third and little finger.
  4. Grab the lens on camera with my right hand. The second finger can press the lens release button while you hold the lens to remove it. With practice you don’t drop the rear lens cap!
  5. Move the new lens in your left had into position, insert and twist to lock.
  6. Use your left hand to put the rear cap on the lens you’ve just removed; if you use a front cap, replace that, and put the lens away.
  7. Remove any lens cap from the lens on camera, store suitably (those I have live in the compartment in the bag for the lens when not on them.)
  8. Inspect front lens (or filter) surface for dirt, clean if needed. If you switched the camera off, you now need to switch it on.

It seems complex when you write it down, but is really fast and simple to do with a little practice. If you are not using your camera on a neck-strap, you really need to find a suitable clean surface on which to rest camera and lenses during changes – if I’m carrying my bag, the open bag will do.

Of course the fastest and cleanest way to change lenses is not to change lenses, but to have each on a separate body. I often worked this way with film and a couple of SLR or rangefinder bodies. But the digital SLR bodies I’ve used are a bit larger and I find it too encumbering to have a pair in use.

Lens Cleaning

Rule 1 is don’t – unless you have to. But be paranoid about checking they are clean.

Lens cleaning should always be a two-stage process:

Stage 1: remove any loose dirt or grit;
Suitable tools include a rubber bulb blower and brushes.
If you use brushes you must ensure they are kept clean and particularly they are free from grease – some retract into a plastic cover, others can be kept in a resealable plastic bag or box. Brush lightly holding the lens so dust will fall down away from it.

If you have nothing else with you, a good strong blow is better than nothing; you will get some spit on the lens, but this will (and must) be removed in the next stage.

This stage is vital, as any grit left in place can damage the lens surface in the next step.

Stage 2: remove grease and other adhering dirt;
Camera stores sell microfibre lens cleaning cloths, together with various liquid lens cleaners.
You can also use a ‘Lens Pen‘ which incorporates a brush for stage 1 cleaning and a chamois pad with graphite for stage 2.

Keep cleaning cloths in a resealable plastic bag or box. Normally you should put one or two drops of cleaner on to a part of the cloth, then wipe the lens gently. Then remove cleaner and dirt with a dry part of the cloth. Never put more than a single drop of cleaner on a lens – they can run down and get inside lenses, possibly dissolving glues and greases, damaging the lenses and also putting dirty on interior surfaces.

Lens Pens are effective and very convenient when on the move, but need replacing perhaps every six months or more frequently if you use them much. Normally you need to breath on the lens before using the pen. (Be warned, there are imitations of the original Lens Pen some of which may be ineffectual or even harmful.)

If you have nothing else with you, any clean soft cloth is better than nothing. Many of my shirts usually fall into this category!

Other Cleaning Methods

Rain Drops are not something I recommend for cleaning lenses, but another hazard on your lenses when taking pictures. I carry a large microfibre cloth, sold cheaply for general cleaning in a ‘pound store’, about 12″ square, for gently mopping the lens. Again it has a plastic bag to keep it clean when not in use.

Or you can be like Martin Parr in ‘Dirty Weather‘ and just enjoy the distorting effect of the drops. Unfortunately it’s less likely that any clients will love it. Unless you are Martin Parr.

Spring Clean: Although not really suitable for routine cleaning, products such as Opti-Clean are remarkable for restoring lenses to an ‘as-new’ state. This is a liquid that you paint onto the lens, letting it run down and cover the surface. It rapidly dries to form a polymer coat that can then be peeled off, taking the dirt with it.

Opti-clean must never be used on plastic lenses, and you also should avoid it coming into contact with the plastic parts of some lens bodies.