Archive for November, 2009

Charis Wilson

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Thanks to James Danziger on his ‘The Year in Pictures’ blog I learnt recently of the death of Charis* Wilson, and he gave a link to her obituary in the New York Times which gives a good idea of her life and the support she gave to Edward Weston, as muse, driver, writer and companion during their eleven years together.

These were Weston’s most productive years  and the book which she wrote – with Wendy Madar – ‘Through Another Lens – My Years with Edward Weston‘ , published in 1998, I think gives a real insight into his creative processes – definitely something to be read alongside his sometimes rather pompous but often fascinating Daybooks.

Her writing is a vital part of ‘California and the West‘ “with 64 photographs by Edward Weston” and as well as the text of the book based on the detailed logs she kept on their journeys, she wrote the Guggenheim application that made it possible.

Although biography can sometimes be a distraction from actually seeing and evaluating the work of photographers (and others)  – and the intense fascination of many with Weston’s love life is perhaps a good example of this – it can also give insights into the work.  ‘Through Another Lens‘ I think does that for the partnership between Weston and Wilson that led to some of his best work.

Of course Charis Wilson had a long and interesting life away from Weston – she was only 19 when they met, 30 when they separated and lived to 95.  You can read a little more about that too in the NYT obit.

* from the Greek  meaning ‘grace’ and pronounced ‘Karis’

Internet Photo Criticism II

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Great Photographers on the Internet, Part II which was posted on The Online Photographer on Saturday is another of those parodies of the kind of comments that get posted on internet photo-sharing sites, with photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Frederic Sommer  getting the Flickr treatment.

If you missed it before (or even if you didn’t) Mike Johnston’s original Great Photographers on the Internet – where Bill Brandt and Garry Winogrand are among those getting some helpful advice – is also worth a look.

Terry King at Photofusion

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Some thirty years ago I was sitting in a darkened hall in Richmond where an elderly man, a long-retired advertising photographer, was talking about the small, high contrast black and white prints which he had entered over the years for the Royal Photographic Society annual exhibition. What was unusual about these photographs by Steinbock was that they contained not a milligram of silver, but had been made on ordinary drawing paper using some black pigment, gum arabic and potassium dichromate.

It’s a story I’ve told before at rather greater length, on the occasion of Terry King’s 70th Birthday celebration, also attended by the man sitting on my left in that hall, Randall Webb, who was later co-authored  ‘Spirits of Salts:  A Working Guide to Old Photographic Processes’ with Martin Reed of Silverprint.

Although I’d heard of the gum bichromate process before – it was highly favoured around the start of the twentieth century among those involved in the ‘Photo-Secession’ and the pictorialist movement of the time, including Edward Steichen and Robert Demachy – and had seen prints made using it, this was the first time I’d heard and seen anyone actually telling how he made these prints.

Later, probably in the pub next door, the three of us decided we were all going to have a go at the process. Gum arabic wasn’t a problem as cooks used it and tubes of watercolour are readily available, but potassium dichromate was more of a problem. But not for me, as I was then teaching chemistry and knew that we had vast quantities of it in our chemical store, over-ordered by previous staff in the days when it was used in large quantities for cleaning glassware, and promised Terry a bottle.

For Terry it was the start of a new career in alternative processes – and you can see some of the results on his Hands on Pictures web site. Together we went on to explore more or less the whole range of alternative processes: salted paper, kallitype, Van Dyke, platinum, cyanotype, carbon and more.  For me it offered an interesting insight into the history of photography, but Terry found these processes the perfect expression for his own photographic work, and went on to research and produce his own variations – the “Rex” processes.

You can also see his work in a new book, ‘Beware the Oxymoron‘ which combines his photography with his poetry – and the preview gives you a good idea of both. I’ve enjoyed his poetry too over the years – particularly some of the limericks that he used to write every day on his short train journey in the days when he worked in a London office – and much more recently I spent an enjoyable evening at a Richmond pub where he and other poets performed their work.

Terry has also taught many others these processes, at colleges around the country (and abroad) and in courses at his Richmond studios. It was hardly a surprise to hear that his  Gum Bichromate Workshop on Jan 9, sponsored by Ilford Photo to coincide with Photofusion exhibition about the art of darkroom printing featuring Bill Rowlinson and Richard Nicholson booked up rapidly (though when I looked the web site reported there was one place left.) Of course if you can’t get on this, Terry does offer longer courses on his Hands on Pictures site.

As well as this course Ilford Photo have also sponsored an experimental print workshop with Branka Jukic on 23 Jan – places still left – as well as a fully booked course in December on black and white photographic printing with Nick Jones.

Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Also showing at Photofusion until 27 Jan 2010 is Richard Nicholson‘s ‘Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light‘ a series of large colour prints of London’s remaining professional darkrooms begun in 2006.

© Richard Nicholson, used with permission
Roy Snell’s darkroom.  Richard Nicholson

These highly detailed images were taken using a large format camera using an open shutter in the dark and illuminating them with a series of flash exposures. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the work areas, and although the web site describes these as  “chaotic rooms marked with the patina of time – a world apart from the contemporary photographer’s shiny computer workstation” they are all much larger and rather tidier than my own darkroom. And perhaps too I’ve gone rather further into “personalising” my own un-shiny computer set up.

These images will have a particular fascination for those of us who are or have been photographic printers, and for those who know the work of the printers concerned – or know them socially, but it is perhaps work for a limited audience rather than for the wider public.  They were certainly attracting a great deal of attention and comment on the opening night – where quite a few of those whose darkrooms were shown were present.

As one of the limited number of darkroom geeks, I would have liked also to have seen the other ends of their darkrooms – the wet side rather than just the dry bench with their sometimes magnificent enlargers.

You can see more from the series on  Richard Nicholson‘s web site, where you can also see examples of his portrait work and an intriguing urban landscape series of garages and pramsheds in Tower Hamlets, which are really just my kind of thing.

Bill Rowlinson – Printing Legend

Friday, November 27th, 2009

When I was fairly new to practical photography, back in the 1970s, I came across a slim volume which, rather amazingly, was tucked away on a shelf in my local library. They didn’t have a large photographic section – I can only remember one other book, but, equally amazingly, that was Paul Strand‘s ‘Living Egypt.’

The very slim volume was an early edition of ‘The Print‘ by Ansel Adams, and very soon I was myself the proud owner of the latest 1968 edition of the same work, the bible for anyone wishing to become a master printer. Of course some things, even then were outdated and some materials that he mentioned not available in the UK, but although it covers the whole process of making photographic prints in great detail, it was always the principles that mattered.

From that book I taught myself to print, although other aids soon came along, and another vital step was a pilgrimage up Muswell Hill to the store above the pharmacy where Peter Goldfield had begun to import that holy grail of black and white printing papers, Agfa Record Rapid, and later with his partner Martin Reed, produced the Goldfinger craft book. Martin went on to found Silverprint, still in business selling fine photographic materials a few minutes walk from Waterloo station – and the Goldfinger book can still be download from the site as a pdf.

Darkrooms certainly had a magic, perhaps still have it, although we’ve seen some great losses – particularly when cadmium was taken out of many papers, making Record Rapid just another paper. Of course there were also advances, and in particular Ilford’s Multigrade papers giving a flexibility that almost persuaded me it was no longer vital to have two developer baths. And personally discovering that with sodium lighting carefully adjusted to avoid any fog that darkrooms didn’t need to be dark any more.

It wasn’t long before one or two people were asking me if I would print their work, and I briefly considered setting up as a photographic printer. But only very briefly, because although I enjoyed the challenge of printing my own work, I really did not wish to spend more of my life in the darkroom. And perhaps also because I knew there were people who did it so much better.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

The current show at Photofusion – until 27 Jan 2010 – celebrates the art of arguably Britain’s finest photographic printer, Bill Rowlinson, who died in 2008, aged 78, leaving his collection of prints to Photofusion.

Many of us have worked late in the darkroom, making exposure after exposure trying to perfect the dodging and burning or the contrast of an area of a print, only to find once the prints are toned, washed and dried that the difference that seemed so critical in the safelight are hard if not impossible to discern in daylight, and I suspect that some of those in his collection may be ‘extras’ produced in this way, but certainly all those on show are excellent examples of the printer’s craft.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

It’s helped of course by the fact that he worked with many of the best photographers around, making his name in the 60s printing for Sarah Moon (who I was delighted to meet and talk to over a couple of days in Bielsko in 2007.)  Also in the show are several of his fine prints for Bill Brandt, as well as some works by Julia Margaret Cameron. Not that he was old enough to have actually worked with her (she died in 1879.) These prints will have been made from copy negatives of prints and were made for the Dimbola Trust which runs the museum in her house on the Isle of Wight (although I think from originals in another collection.)

There are also some intriguing pictures Rowlinson printed for the Kobal collection, along with work by other photographers including Barry Lategan, Jon Swannell, Clive Arrowsmith and Jimmy Wormser.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

Of course, photography over the past ten years has largely moved to digital, and perhaps the age of the master printer is over. Quite a few of those remaining in London were at the opening last night, including Adrian Ensor, who spoke briefly about Bill Rowlinson at the opening and is appearing in a gallery talk there on 8 December together with Steven Brierley of Ilford and Richard Nicholson to talk further on Rowlinson’s work and “the evolution of photographic printing over the last 40 years.”  You can also hear Adrian Ensor talking with Bob Miller about his contacts with Rowlinson and some of his uncoventional techniques on the Silverprint site.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

Ilford did much to promote photographic printers in the old days, running their Ilford Printer of the Year award for around 25 years, starting in 1968. This was I think unique in that it  gave equal billing – and the same generous prize money – to the photographer and printer. Rowlinson won his first Ilford Printer of the Year Award in 1975.  Ilford – now Ilford Photo – formed from the ashes of the former Ilford imaging group by Harman Technology – exists to be “passionate about black and white” and is producing and promoting photography using black and white film and traditional darkroom techniques.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

A short visit to the working darkroom at Photofusion brought back memories, but its several years since I’ve ventured into my own darkroom to make a print. Perhaps one day I’ll go back again, but with every advance in inkjet printing I feel it’s less likely.

Asylum: Christopher Payne

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Many years ago I had the opportunity to photograph the interior of an abandoned hospital and there was certainly something in the atmosphere there that I responded to although I don’t think I truly managed to capture it in my pictures (though I think I did a bit better in a later project on abandoned workplaces in London’s docks which are on my long list of work to put on line at some point.) But it perhaps gives the work of architect and a photographer Christopher Payne’s photographs in his recently published book “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals” from the MIT Press a personal resonance they might otherwise not have.

Certainly I was very impressed by the slide show of this work, Emptied But Still Secret,  on the NY Times Lens blog yesterday.  For me it is very much the details that speak most strongly – the racks of patients’ toothbrushes, the bathtub in a vast area of floor and blue tiles,  a white straightjacket hanging on a white wall, and the details of the beauty salon. Although some of the interior scenes are also impressive, it’s perhaps where the work becomes more architectural photography – and particularly in a couple of exterior views – that I lose interest.

Of course I’ve photographed many buildings myself, some well, many badly. Most pretty averagely, and these two images would appear to me to fall squarely into that category. A shame when the some of the other work is so strong.

Payne‘s web site does have some fine black and white architectural work – including a nice series on substations and some pictures from New York’s High Line.

Which reminds me of a quite different set of pictures that I wrote about some years ago, Joel Sternfeld‘s 2000-2001  High Line series, which can still be seen on the High Line site, where you can also see work by a number of other photographers, particularly in the section headed ‘Art Photography.’

One Law For All

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The idea that we are all equal under the law is a vital part of our understanding of human rights and equality, but it hasn’t always been like that (and still isn’t in some respects.) At least until relatively recently in the UK, some of the medieval privileges of the church still gave clergy (or at least Church of England clergy) some special protection, and institutionally the Christian churches are still protected by laws such as our blasphemy laws.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

On Saturday, Peter Tatchell reminded us that the church still enjoys some extra protection, and that he had been convicted under the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act after his Easter demonstration in Canterbury Cathedral – and he was fortunate to be up before a  judge with a sense of humour, who fined him £18.60 for the offence. And at the same event, Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris told us of the need to repeal the Blasphemy laws (and he’s tried.)

But although ‘One Law For All’ is against all religion-based law, it’s main focus is on Sharia law, because of the special position it has in many majority-Muslim countries around the world, but also because of attempts to introduce it – if only on a voluntary basis – into the legal framework of countries including the UK.

The problem with Sharia – as with our largely vestigial religious laws – is that it was conceived in a very different society to that we live in. At the time it represented a radical and forward-thinking approach to issues of justice and the rights and responsibilities of men and women compared with the then current practice. But times and societies have changed dramatically since then so that the views codified then no longer represent the kind of spirit and way of thinking that they then did. Laws need to evolve as society evolves or they become ossified into reactionary and outdated practices.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

The idea that disputes in 21st century Britain should be settled by rules fixed absolutely more than a thousand years ago in a very different feudal society is untenable.They conflict with the ideas that have developed since about human rights in general and about the equality of women in particular.

The use of Sharia law is no more acceptable than would be tribunals based on fundamentalist Christian precepts or indeed those already existing of the Beth Din, although I think it is beyond dispute that our ideas about human rights and the value of human life have been very much influenced over the centuries by the insights of all three religions.  And while I found myself very much in agreement with the aims of the ‘One Law For All’ campaign there was a kind of sectarian anti-religious fervour from some of its supporters that I found both a distraction and a detraction from its purpose.

Photographically there were few problems with what was a relatively small event – a couple of hundred people, including a very large number of speakers. It was perhaps difficult to know how to make use of the row of small coffins in front of the main banner and hard to incorporate them with the speakers; shooting wide enough to get them in made the speakers on a small podium a few metres further behind rather small, and moving further back to cut down the effect of the different distances wasn’t possible as the audience was in the way.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

I did try to use just the words ‘NO SHARIA’ from the banner with some of the speakers, but it wasn’t very exciting. But there was considerable freedom to photograph them from different angles and distances and I felt I did get at least one decent picture of almost all those who spoke.

One Law For All does have some graphically very strong placards, but it was perhaps a pity that there were not rather more of these.  They worked rather better in the demonstration in Trafalgar Square last year where they formed a good background to many of the speakers. But I did get a few pictures I liked of the audience.

Partly because I was still feeling a little drained after the flu, I’d lightened my camera bag by taking only the D700 body and a few lenses – the 24-70mm, 10.5mm fisheye, 20mm and a 55-210mm.  I took a few pictures on the 20mm, but nearly all on the 24-70 and 55-210, and kept finding myself wanting to change between these two. It would have been a lot easier with two bodies.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

Part of the reason for the frequent changes was simply the very large number of speakers – and I’d decided I would photograph each of them. In most cases I took both full length pictures with the wider zoom and also fairly tight head shots with the longer lens.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.
I haven’t cropped or corrected the vignetting on this image

The 55-200 Sigma is a  ‘DX’  format lens, but certainly at the longer end seems to cover the double size FX frame with decent corner to corner sharpness, certainly good for portraits. At the wider end it does vignette slightly (and I had to saw a little off the lens hood which vignetted even more than the lens) and at 55mm I have to crop the frame by a couple of millimetres, but it still gives a reasonably sized file. Its big advantage so far as I’m concerned is its weight – a ridiculously featherweight 335 g.

There is a little more about the event and a few more pictures in my account on Demotix, more to follow on My London Diary

Papageorge on Foto 8

Friday, November 20th, 2009

A very thick copy of Foto 8 magazine came through my door the other day, but I haven’t had time to read it properly yet. But it does include a number of interesting features, including two by photographers I’ve previously written about,  Michael Grieve and Edmund Clark. You can take a look at this twice a year publication online, but really you need to see the real thing – and the best way is to take out a subscription – and there is a special 50% offer on new and gift 2 Year Subscriptions until 16 December. It’s probably the best magazine in the world covering photojournalism.

Foto 8 also has a lot of content on-line in its blog, including an interesting interview in which Tod Papageorge talks to Mark Durden, in particular about Garry Winogrand and Susan Sontag. Here’s a quote:

It’s always been puzzling to me that capacious minds like Sontag’s … look at a photograph and see not a picture, but the literal world held in their palm. With that, they’re revealing themselves to be no more sophisticated than the proverbial tribesman who believes that a photograph made of him steals a piece of his soul.

You can see more of Papageorge’s photography at the Pace/McGill Gallery.

Papageorge has always impressed me more as a writer than as a photographer, and in particular for his 1981 book ‘Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence‘.  The book is long out of print, but the text – without the pictures it refers to – is available on the web as the first of a series, The Missing Criticism on Eric Etheridge‘s ‘Mostly Photos‘ blog.

The second article in this series, also by Papageorge, is his 2002 essay ‘What We Bought‘ on the work published under that title by Robert Adams in 1995. Unfortunately by that date I’d stopped buying every new book by Adams, as this first edition now sells for around £400 (but I do have first editions of  the even more expensive  ‘Denver‘ and ‘The New West‘, though like most of my books my copies are well-thumbed.) But newer editions of these books are available – and you can buy ‘What We Bought’ in and edition published by Yale University Press (Papageorge became Director of Graduate Study in Photography at the Yale School of Art in 1979)  for £30 or less.

Paris 1984

Friday, November 20th, 2009

In 1984 we took the Hoverspeed hovercraft and express coach to go for a couple of weeks  – part work, part holiday – in Paris with Linda and our two boys, then 5 and 8. We were staying in a luxury self-catering apartment at the bottom of the hill in Montmartre. The luxury was a bonus, as we had paid a very basic price through the booking agency but had struck lucky – the normal room price was several times what we had paid.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

I was working on a more serious project (more in a later post) in black and white, but as well as having a family holiday I also found time to take some colour. By then I was shooting colour on Fuji film, and the colour quality was a distinct improvement (and they forced Kodak, who for a long while had been squatting on their Kodachrome laurels, to considerably notch up their game also.)

© 2009 Peter Marshall

By this time I’d also upgraded my cameras, and was now working with two Olympus OM bodies; I’d replaced the Russian Zenit with an OM1 in early 1974 shortly after they were introduced, added a OM2 a few years later, followed by an OM4 at about the time of this trip. (My Russian rangefinder had also been replaced over the years by a secondhand Leica M2, which had seen 20 years of rather active service before coming into my possession.)

© 2009 Peter Marshall

These colour images were probably taken with an Olympus OM4. By this time I’d got over a brief early affair with zoom lenses and was back to using primes, in particular a 35mm shift, 28mm, 50mm and 105mm (and at times also 200mm and 20mm.) All except the 105mm Tamron where Olympus lenses.

The OM4 was for me the more or less perfect SLR. Small, light, reliable and with the best metering system ever, particularly for those of us who had learnt to work with the zone system. If it wasn’t for the need to use digital I’d still be working with my pair of OM4 bodies now (and I kept the OM2 – at some point traded up to an OM2n – for backup.)

This morning I climbed the ladder to the loft again and searched through various boxes looking for the transparencies I felt must be there somewhere. Eventually I found a few boxes, though I think there may well be one or two more there.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

Despite a major setback, the black and white work I took on this trip eventually formed a show, and a number of the prints from it are still hanging on my own walls – and that’s something for another few pages of web site. The colour slides just came back from processing, were probably projected a few times and then all but a few went back into their boxes and were put in storage – until now.

I’ve put forty-five on them on the web now on my ‘new’ Paris site; for the moment the site is basically thrown together very simply in a very simple way, and I’ll add some more content and sort it out a bit later.

Paris Colour 1

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

I didn’t take many colour pictures on my early trips to Paris. The one film that I exposed in 1966 was also exposed to the less than pure water of the lake at Versailles for an hour or so and then allowed to dry (or not) in the camera. Since the film processing was included in the cost I sent them away to be developed. They came out, but with a certain amount of staining and unevenness and an overall brown cast.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

In 1973 I took rather more colour and with less dramatic faults, but not a great deal more interest. Linda was keen to have some visual material to use with language teaching, so I was taking pictures of everyday objects like post boxes, of shops, of postman delivering letters and so on for this purpose, as well as more conventional tourist images.
© 2009 Peter Marshall

I think most of the cololur was probably taken with the Olympus SP, with its fixed slightly wide-angle lens whenever we went anywhere I though would be of interest photographically. We did go to Versailles again, but this time I kept hold of my camerasm taking rather too many pictures both inside and outside the chateau.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

© 2009 Peter Marshall

© 2009 Peter Marshall

© 2009 Peter Marshall

© 2009 Peter Marshall

We came back to Paris a couple of times in the next few years, but I didn’t take many pictures as we were just passing through.  In 1974 we were on our way to Provence and went around the city by train, and in 1975 we were on our bikes.  Again we didn’t stay long in Paris, simply making our way from the Gare du Nord to the Gare Montparnasse in the early morning rush hour to catch a train on to Angers from where we cycled up the Loire valley. It was a few years before I returned to photograph Paris again.