Archive for November, 2008

The Dear Leader and others

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Christopher Morris‘s video sequence The Dear Leader seems largely to show what a good still photographer he is. The video itself is far too long and its soundtrack filled with rather too much portentous music (Emily by Philip Glass from the score for the film The Thin Blue Line and Evil Grade by John Kusiak, used in the film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara, which also had a soundtrack largely by Glass.)

Essentially the movie seems a series of stills, to some of which the movement of the characters involved occasionally adds something, particularly in a lengthy shot of Bush speaking where what I assume are security men twitching in the right foreground supply the main interest. At other times it merely distracts, and there are also some downright boring long and fairly empty scenes where I longed for a single frame or even a more active pair of scissors.

I couldn’t help thinking what a shame he didn’t have his eye to the viewfinder of a still camera during some of these sequences,  still frames as yet can’t have the same quality (but of course it may not be long, esepcially with RED), but there are images that flicker through here that are stronger than some of those in his George Bush retrospective on VII, which does also contain a number of superb pictures.

You can see more of his feature stories ther by clicking on his name at the left of the   features page – unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a direct link.

Among many other articles worth reading in dispatches is a letter from John Morris written on the occasion of Cornell Capa‘s death in May 2008, but also recounting something of the tragic loss of both Werner Bischof and Robert Capa in May 1954.

I found the video on ‘dispatches‘ from a link at FOTO8  and again  on VII you can also see the pictures from Morris’s  show  My America which was at the Host Gallery recently. Currently they are showing the work of British post-war industrial photographer Maurice Broomfield, a reminder of those times when Britain still had industry.

Nikon D3x

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Given the leaks and teasers that have appeared previously there were few surprises in the description of the Nikon D3x in the Nikon Pro magazine that came through many of our doors this morning.

What is clear is that is probably isn’t a camera I will particularly want. Nikon describe this 24.5Mp ‘FX’ model as “designed with medium format photographic applications in mind” and it has the fairly conservative ISO range of 100-1600, though with boost to ISO 6400.

Its 75Mb files would for most of us most of the time be an embarrassment of riches, although its ability to shoot these at 5 fps seems pretty astounding.  It does have what seems to be a very useful DX mode, which gives 10Mp files.

Otherwise it seems very similar to the D3. Another big heavy camera that’s already overkill in various respects. The price is yet to be announced – rumoured at around $5,500, enough to put it out of my league, but still likely to make some other manufacturers wince.  And even if you’d like one for Christmas you will be out of luck. More chance if your birthday is in February at a guess.

Nikon’s recommendation for your Christmas list is the D90, a camera that in some respects, certainly according to the DxOMarks, outguns cameras including the Canon EOS 5D and Nikon D300, despite selling (body only) for under £600. And there is a rather nice sounding new DX 18-105 f3.5-5.6 VR  lens to go with it. Compared to the D3x it seems pretty compact which for me is a big point in its favour, although it still isn’t a small camera.

Along with many photographers (though perhaps not a huge section of the market) what I am still waiting for is a true digital successor to the Leica M series. Leica’s own contender, the M8, has proved to be a whole series of disappointments – not just for me but for many other users – hardly addressed by their second edition and in several ways Epson’s rather curious earlier attempt (I always feel the need to don racing goggles and jump into a sports car when I look at its top plate)  is still the best in this area, one that Leica seems to have relinquished for their S series. But both – for better or worse –  were ‘retro’ cameras, firmly founded in the 1950s, and what I would love to see is their 21st century equivalent – including the kind of low-light capabilities we now see in the D700/D3.

Cafe Ideal, Cool Blondes and Paradise revisited

Friday, November 28th, 2008

I worked on the project that became Cafe Ideal, Cool Blondes and Paradise for around ten years, and the final on-line version I mentioned in a previous post is only one of several ways that I showed the work – there were also several different physical shows. But all of these only really scratched the surface of the project, for which – at a guess –  I took around 20,000 images.

Recently a group of 25 of them have been selected for a museum collection and I’ve been getting down to scanning the negatives – mainly from around 1990 – for the first time.

Technically it wa a project that was made possible by my switch to colour negative in the mid 1980s. Until then colour neg had largely be seen as an amateur medium, while pros shot mainly on transparency, which was always demanded for repro work.

Many of the images I too for this series would simply have been impossible on transparency material, as the lighting contrast was simply too high, and shadows would have blocked to an impossible extent on the higher contrast material. The presence of lighting of differing colour temperature would also have been a challenge  on some images, but was easier to handle on neg  – though sometimes it meant waving CC filters under the lens over parts of the printing the darkroom.

Like many other things in photography, this would have been so much easier with digital – and the prints from scans are very much easier to correct.

Almost all these pictures were also taken with a shift lens, which again was essential to the project, enabling me work from the viewpoints that were possible and also to exercise some control over perspective. The framing in these images would not have been possible without the vertical and horizontal displacements that this lens allowed.  I still often find myself trying to push the lens to one side when working with other lenses on a digital SLR.

Many of the images chosen are ones I’ve not used before, and previously I’ve mainly scanned enprints rather than negatives, so it’s been interesting for me to see this work again in a new light. I think I will end up scanning many more images from the project and re-evaluating it.

Paris Photo: Alec Soth

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

Undoubtedly one of the greatest hits of this year’s Paris Photo was Alec Soth‘s “The Last Days of W“, shown on the Weinstein Gallery, Minneapolis stand. You can see the work, which was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Modern Painters, on Soth’s own site,  and read an introduction by Soth on their Artinfo site.

In the introduction, he quotes several Bushisms, and ends by saying that in this collection ‘I suppose I’m not really trying to accomplish much at all. Rather, as President Bush himself once said, “One of the great things about books is, sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.”’

And there are a few such here, although on the printed page or screen some lack the impact of the works in the flesh. About half the prints in the work were on show in Paris and several in particular on show caught my attention.

One of the finest landscape images on show in Paris is his view of Salt Lake, Utah, the rectangle split into two, salt below, pale blue sky above, by the thin line of a road coming from the right two thirds of the way across the frame, on it a lorry and a few smaller dots – but you need to see the actual print to appreciate it. Following it is another splendid image of a group of cadets at West Point, then a great image of a table tennis table and a mural at First Baptist Church, Bemidji, Minnesota.

Another favourite image on show in Paris that also includes a mural was of Michael and Dominique from Dearborn, Michigan, a black couple in their wedding whites (including a white top hat for Michael) seated behind a long table with a lilac fabric front on a rather battered stage; behind them a backdrop of the Nile, pyramids and moon.

“The Last Days of W”, a 48 page self-published artist book printed on newsprint, is still available from Little Brown Mushroom Books or Magnum at $17.00 (plus shipping), though I expect it will soon sell out.

Serial Numbers

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

Ed  Ruscha with his “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” and “Every Building on Sunset Strip” has a lot to answer for, although he could perhaps shift some of the blame onto Bernd and Hilla Becher in Dusseldorf.

Since they made their work, splendid though it often was, the rather straightforward and simple concept of “typologies” has provided rather easy ways to think of and carry out photographic projects, though it’s been instructive over the years to see what a pig’s ear some students have made of them. Perhaps fortunately in that it has usually been the “mistakes” that have given any interest to their work.

What soon becomes obvious is that, even given the straight-jacket of the concept, the interest in the result is still so very dependent on the photographic seeing of the photographer, a thought that came very obviously to me on seeing the black and white set of images by  Jeff Brouws, which you can see on artkrush , Twenty-six Abandoned Gasoline Stations (very consciously a direct homage to Ruscha’s work) on a stand at Paris Photo. (There is also a good interview with Brouws on the site with a link to more pictures.)

Typologies such as this are succesful as photographic series because Brouws is a photographer who very much follows the advice of the sage to “let the subject determine its own composition.” You can see more of his more recent work on his own website, where it also becomes clear that typologies greatly benefit from interesting and important subject matter.

This is perhaps even more clear in the work of the Bechers, where the intrinsic complexity of the industrial structures elevates their work above the tedium of the framework house series.

Paris Photo: BMW Prize

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

A major area at the very centre of Paris Photo is devoted not to photography but a car showroom.  As someone who was a friend of the earth before the Earth officially had Friends (and who got rid of his first and last car in 1966) I find it inappropriate and distasteful, even more so this year since it it’s a make very much associated with bankers, whose bad book-keeping has certainly not put them into my good books of late. If I wanted to worship the motor car I’d go to a car show.

The centrepiece of the show – not photography

BMW are the sponsors of the BMW-Paris Photo Prize, a contest that has always turned up some rather odd entrants and chosen peculiar winners. The entrants are nominated by the galleries taking part in the show, which accounts for some fairly unlikely submissions.

Shortlisted work for the prize displayed on the upper level

Perhaps the most unlikely this year was the winner, Yao Lu’s New landscape part I – Ancient Spring Time Fey, 2006. Yao Lu was nominated by the 798 Photo Gallery, Beijing. He photographs mounds of garbage covered by green nets and digitally manipulates them to resemble traditional Chinese paintings.  It’s more bad Photoshop than photography as I know it, though, as the pdf file says “speaks of the radical mutations affecting nature in China as
is it subjected to rampant urbanization and the ecological threats that endanger the
.” But I still think its a shame that a jury that included one photographer and one curator I admire couldn’t pick something more photographic.

Looking at the winning entry

I took some time going round the works shortlisted for the prize that were on show in Paris, and picked my own top five (not in order): Janne Lehtinen from Finland, Yuki Tawada, Ken Kitano (click on the pictures to see them larger) and Nobuhiro Fukui from Japan and Atta Kim from South Korea.

But this, as I’ve mentioned previously, is the year of China, thanks to the Beijing Olympics, so perhaps Yao Lu’s victory should not have come as a surprise.

Paris November: Guillaume Lemarchal

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

Galerie Michèle Chomette: Paysages exfiltrés – Guillaume Lemarchal

Galerie Michèle Chomette did have a small notice on the street, but from then on you were on your own.  At first we walked through into the courtyard, but it wasn’t there and we came back to the doors on our right and found a complicated entry system, that didn’t appear to work. We would have given up, but a more persistent Frenchman tried every button on the entry phone and had a long conversation with the only person who would answer, a young woman who lived on the first floor and had never heard of the gallery. Eventually she was persuaded to let us in to the building and we walked up the two floors to the gallery, which was showing the cold winter landscapes, Paysages exfiltrés, of Guillaume Lemarchal.

Although I’d taken the precaution of being accompanied by an interpreter, she proved of little assistance over the title of this show. Did it simply mean without using photographic filters – certainly it wasn’t the tobacco graduate school of landscape that many of the more  commercially successful British landscape photographers have flogged beyond death. But perhaps it (and we think the closest English equivalent might be “unfiltered”)  is also meant to imply something more philosophical than practical, that Lemarchal is not viewing the landscape through the conventional frames of reference of landscape art.

The spaces that Lemarchal photographs are empty. In particular although they show the residues of human action they are unpeopled, and often further abstracted from their history by a covering of snow. He likes to work in winter in northern regions, north Germany, Estonia and the Ukraine, and his palette is thus largely cool and unrelieved by warm tones.  They are open and inhabited by light.  Often there are deserted – or rather abandoned – buildings, perhaps once part of secret military installations, sites with a certain mystery.

Although it’s work that I think has a considerable presence and power, I didn’t warm to it – perhaps because of the very coldness of the landscapes he depicts. Lemarchal is a relatively young French photographer (b 1974) and earlier this year this work won the 2008 HSBC Foundation for Photography award.

I can’t find a good selection of this work on line, though there are small images on the links above, and a rather nice image of a piano here – click on it to see it larger. But the best place to see his work on line is on his portfolio site, where the  mémoires et murmurs page contains a number of these pictures. But there are pictures on his other pages that I admire more.

No 2 ID Cards

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

There is a particular satisfaction in photographing an event where there is really very little visually to work with, and coming up with some even half-decent pictures, and the demonstration against ID cards outside the Border and Immigration Agency provided me with that.

Nov 25, 2008 saw the start of the programme to track the every movement of all of us in the UK by our government with the start of the issue of biometric identity cards. You can read some of my thoughts about this and see the other pictures I took on My London Diary.

Wellesley Road in Croydon sprouted tall buildings in the late 1960s, in an attempt to imitate Manhattan in Surrey. Most now look rather grim and dated and they have been joined by newer buildings. The ensemble forms an efficient wind-tunnel providing a blisteringly cold gale to chill the protesters.

Among the few who came to brave the Arctic conditions was one man who has managed to get his fingerprints and DNA profile removed from the police national databases – and you can read more about him there too.

Paris November: Galerie Berrger

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Galerie Berrger: Callitypie: Julia Zeitoun and David Rase

Berrger are of course manufacturers of photographic films and papers, and now also make inkjet papers and COT-320, a 100% cotton paper designed for hand coated alternative process work. The two photographers on show had used this to make kallitypes, which use the light sensitive property of iron salts to produce silver images. It’s a process sometimes thought of as a poor man’s platinum print, and visually the two can be indistinguishable, although kallitypes have a poor reputation for stability – and certainly some but not all of those I made round 20 years ago have faded.

David Rase took Rodchenko as his inspiration for a series of modernist square format architectural studies. Although I liked a number of the images, I couldn’t help feeling that they might better have been printed using normal silver gelatin paper or probably even better as inkjet prints., and the highlights  did not quite seem as clear as I would have liked.  I think the images made good use of the square format.

Rodchenko’s pictures of similar architectural material – such as his Mosselprom Building, 1926 in the linked feature – show his use of unusual angles and a very strong sense of design, but have a clarity that was missing from these prints.  Modernism in photography after all swept away a pictorialism that had given great attention to the actual print and aimed for a machine quality that was exemplified by the glossy bromide print.  That doesn’t of course rule out using kallitype for work such as this, but somehow these prints didn’t quite seem to me to come up to the kind of quality needed – and which one could find for example in the platinum prints of Frederick Evans.

Julie Zeitoun‘s subject matter – details of cemetery monuments – perhaps suited the material better, but I felt her rather grainy treatment was unsympathetic.  The kallitype is a contact printing process, and it looked as if these prints had been made from enlarged negatives taken on fast 35mm film, perhaps even pushed or developed to increase grain. It is perhaps such a well-worn subject that it is hard to produce anything new.

When I worked with the alternative processes, we all either worked on large format (at least one of the people I knew had a 12×16″ camera, and on occasion I worked with a friend using 8×10″, though more often I used 4×5″ and made prints at that size – particularly when using platinum, palladium and gold) or made enlarged negatives on film.  Using large sheet film was expensive and especially with panchromatic materials needed for colour separations for tri-colour printing was a little tricky, particularly in my small and primitive darkroom, and at times we chose to work with negatives made on photographic paper, although the paper base did increase exposure times and add a little texture.

When desk top computers became able to cope with high resolution images, alt photographers turned to them with relief, printing out enlarged negatives with ease onto acetate sheets. When such negatives had been made with high-quality imagesetters in print bureaus, the quality could be superb, but some of those produced on cheap inkjet printers could only produce alt-process prints that had some of the same quality limitations to the inkjet prints from those same printers.

With increasing quality of ink sets and desktop printers – such as the Epson Ultrachrome K3 inks for colour and Jone Cone’s Piezotones for black and white printing, the quality of output from inkjet printers has reached new levels.  I soon began to find I could get prints very similar in quality to those from platinum or kallitype  direct from the printer, and although the historical processes continue to be of interest in themselves, I could see little justification for continuing to use most of them as a contemporary printmaker.  But that’s a heretical position among alt photographers!

Trouble in the Suburbs

Monday, November 24th, 2008

One of the more interesting shows in Paris last week was at  the Galerie Fils de Calvaire in the 3e, which was showing Périphéries by Mohamed Bourouissa, (click on ‘Artists‘, then select his name)  a photographer born 1978 in Blida, Algeria who lives and works in Paris. These were staged images from the estates around the edge of Paris, “la banlieue“, usually translated quite misleadingly as “the suburbs”, which evokes Acacia Avenue and rows of neat semis and bungalows rather than the concrete wilderness of these images, seen often at night. These are the “suburbs” that riot rather than those leafy roads that commuters take the Southern Railway back to.  You can see a rather better presentation of 15 of these images elsewhere on-line.

I’m seldom a great fan of staged photography; it seems in its very essence to negate the true power of photography which comes from its ambivalent linkage to the real, but these images are perhaps a little different. Bourouissa is from the banlieue and certainly knows it and its inhabitants intimately, and the scenes they enact for his camera have a raw edge that is usually lacking in staged images. The people in his images seem to be playing themselves rather than appearing to be taking roles in someone else’s fiction, and many are not far in age from the 29 year old photographer.

There is a palpable tension in the group of youths hanging around in the entrance lobby of a block in Red Square. In front of the picture I felt much of the kind of hesitation and fear that a resident might feel on coming home and coming upon such a scene. Visually the square of the title on the back of one of their jackets in an otherwise grey scene carries a suggestion of that menace. Bourouissa says of his work: “What I am after is that very fleeting tenth of a second when the tension is at its most extreme. We have all known those imperceptible moments when the tension seems more violent than the confrontation with the other. At that extreme point, anything could happen, or nothing,” and this picture illustrates this to perfection.

There is a similar frisson in an image made in what looks like a car park next to some sports facility at dusk, where at right a man sits on a low wall drinking beer from a bottle, while at left another in a bright yellow jumper stands behind an open car door. In the centre of the picture, caught in the light, a man holds a large white dog, caught apparently in mid-air as its teeth seize the jacket of another man.

Another remarkable picture concentrates on a face to face confrontation between a black and white youth, seen from just behind one of them, looking over his shoulder towards another black youth who stands coolly a metre of so back, recording the event on his camera phone.

I can only find a postage stamp size image of ‘The Reflection‘ on line – on the Fils du Calvaire web site – follow the link in the first paragraph and click on ‘Works‘, then Périphéries, then the second thumbnail to see a slightly larger thumbnail.  A youth sits back to the camera facing a small wall made of around 25 discarded TV sets piled up 3 or 4 high on the edge of a concrete area on an estate. His shoulders are hunched and he looks down. What can’t be seen in the small reproduction is the reflection in one of the screens that gives this large – roughly 5′ wide – image its title on the gallery wall, of a tree hit by sunlight on its bright yellow autumn leaves, contrasting with the drab blacks and greys and dull greens of the rest of the scene.

The notes with the show refer to photographers including Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Karen Knorr, but frankly I found his work considerably more interesting, perhaps because it has something they all seem to me to lack, a concern for the subject.