Archive for July, 2011

Arbus: 40 Years Gone

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

James Pomerantz, who blogs as ‘A Photo Student‘ marked the 40th anniversary of the suicide of Diane Arbus a couple of days ago by publishing the obituary from the Village Voice at the time, written by A D Coleman, along with a link to 1972 Masters of Photography video in four parts with contributions from her daughter Doon Arbus, Lisette Model, Marvin Israel and John Szarkowski.

A D Coleman is of course still writing about photography, and always worth reading (though perhaps it helps that I usually agree with him.) Our medium hasn’t been blessed with too many who have actually written intelligently about it and he is one of the few who doesn’t seem to be too scared by images to actually look at them rather than hide behind obscuring theory.

I’ve several times mentioned his detailed postings on the still unfinished saga of the attempts to pass off some rather second-rate images of Yosemite as previously unknown work by Ansel Adams. His latest series of articles, I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s In 3D, is about how the image world is rapidly and inevitably moving “toward a 3D digital environment.”

For some years people – including museum curators – have been telling me the future was moving images. It’s a trend that I’ve deliberately resisted, still personally finding much greater satisfaction and a greater plasticity in still photography. With still photography you can work much more on the individual image, and then go on to putting images together in different ways, and it’s always seemed to me to give more scope for the individual artist. Making film (and the first cameras I seriously used when I was a student were TV, video and 8mm film cameras) was always a team effort.

Of course video has its uses, and often gives a clearer view of the story of what is happening at some of the events I cover, but it lacks the focus on significant instants that the still image gives.  The 3D digital environment clearly has its uses, but it takes imaging further away from the kind of personal response that for me is the power of the still image.

NHS At 63

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I don’t know who the woman in the red dress in this picture is, but I’ve photographed her on at least one other of the protests over the Con-Dem coalition governments proposals to privatise our National Health Service, carrying as she is here the red flags of ‘Unite – the Union’ in protest. To me she seemed to look an archetype of the revolutionary woman and could well have been a model for some Soviet Socialist Realist poster or painting, striding out into the future, and I rather liked having placed her in front of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (and the building at left of centre with the chimneys is Portcullis House, parliamentary offices. Behind her, carrying the University College Hospital Unison banner is one of the women who have led the protests in London, Janet Maiden.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

The woman in the red dress is there again at the left of this picture made with a 16-35mm, but the reason I’ve put it here is really to point out why I sometimes really like the 10.5mm full-frame fisheye, which I used to take the picture below:

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I think the fisheye with its closer viewpoint and steeper perspective turns what was otherwise a rather ordinary view into something rather more powerful. Of course it helps too that everyone at the front of the banner is looking in my direction, at least partly because I have rushed towards them with a camera. There is however sometimes a problem in that I do need to get very close, and tend to get in the way of other photographers who are taking a less wide view.

Here it wasn’t a great problem, as I was standing very much to one side of the banner, but I do try to avoid being a problem to colleagues when I use the 10.5mm for things like this by working fast and then moving back and using a more normal lens and viewpoint.  More often I’ll use it inside crowds and other situations where I’m less likely to get in the way.

The protest was taking place on the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service – and it seems likely to be in rather poor health by the time it reaches 64 as the parts which can easily provide a profit are handed out to private companies (parts of the bill were rushed through before the parliamentary recess under the cover of Murdochgate.) But there was not a great deal that could be photographed to show this birthday, until I saw that someone had brought with them two large silver inflated numerals.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

More pictures in NHS 63rd Birthday on My London Diary.

Photography is Over?

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

You can watch J M Coelburg of Conscientious on a YouTube clip suggesting that we admit that we might as well admit that photography is over and we could then “end all those debates, panel discussions and blog articles about whether photography is over or dead”. It was, he says, “good while it lasted.”

I notice that YouTube lists the clip under the category ‘Entertainment’ and it has what I assume is a deliberately deadpan delivery. But looking at some current shows and some of the sites and books that Coelburg mentions on his blog I sometimes get the feeling that if not over, photography has certainly got itself pretty lost. But fortunately if you look in the right places there is still plenty of good stuff, and not just in the history books.

£7348 +VAT!

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

I first read a review of the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH in 2009, and I’m not sure why the BJP has chosen to publish a review by Edmond Terakopian now. Obviously he liked it very much, and a Leica lens at that kind of money is bound to be a fine performer.  But it did come out in 2008, and is currently there is a waiting list for it even if you do have a spare small fortune.

I often idly wonder about going back to using rangefinders and am now looking hopefully at the latest breeed of mirrorless cameras, particularly the Panasonic G3. Certainly the strain on my shoulder and back would be considerably less with either a Leica based digital system or a micro 4/3 camera.

A lens like the Noctilux would help to compensate for the poorer performance of the Leicas at high ISO. But what a cost, and the Noctilux too is a relatively large and heavy lens by rangefinder standards – around 75 mm long, taking 60mm filters and weighing around 650g. Cosina’s 50mm f1.1 Nokton is a little slower, but quite a lot shorter and lighter, and over £6000 cheaper.  Leica’s own Summilux 50 f1.4 isn’t a great deal slower and very much smaller and, at least in Leica terms, affordable at less than 1/3 the price of the Noctilux, while Zeiss have a 50mm f1.5 that costs around half of that.

Several of my friends are using Panasonic G series cameras, and although I’ve not been entirely impressed with the image quality of the earlier modes, but from the reviews the G3 seems to be a considerable improvement on the earlier models.

But for the moment, for the next few days I’m trying out a combination of  cameras that I actually own, the Fuji X100 and the Leica M8. The 35mm f1.4 Summilux makes a good ‘standard’ lens on the M8, even though thevintage lens I own isn’t recommended for use with it.  What I really use as a standard is the 35mm equivalent on the Fuji X100, while for something a little wider I have both 15mm and 21 mm Voigtlander lenses on the M8, giving roughly 21 and 18mm equivalent, while the Leica 90 f2.8 gives me a moderate telephoto.

I’m not sure that the combination will do all I want; in particular I’ve got quite addicted to using very wide lenses. It might be better to move to the Leica M9 and with the the wide angle Tri-Elmar giving me 16, 18 and 21mm, and add to that some new fast glass. But weight would be a disadvantage and cost makes it an unlikely option unless I win a lottery.

But a couple of G3 bodies, the kit lens, a wideangles zoom and a telephoto wouln’t eigh a great deal and would cost less than a typical Leica lens, let alone  the Noctilux.

Pride Portrait

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

One of the advantages of being around in the couple of hours before the Pride parade actually starts is that you have time to talk to people and take their pictures. One of the drivers of the various buses that take part in the parade looked rather interesting sitting in the driving seat, and I took a picture of him looking at me out of the driver’s window.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

It wasn’t bad, but I thought it was a shame that it didn’t really show his left arm which was rather more interesting than his right. Also, in front of him but out of view were some flowers decorating the front of the bus at the bottom of the windscreen.

So I asked him to lean forwards and tried to photograph through the windscreen. Unfortunately almost all I could see was reflections, with him almost invisible. If I were writing a how-to book, this would be the point where I showed the difference a polarising filter would make, but I haven’t carried one of these since lenses changed to plate-sized filters and prices became astronomical.   The lens I now mainly use  – the Nikon 16-35 f4 – takes 77mm filters and the largest polariser I own is a 49mm. Since I moved from Olympus M film cameras to Nikon digital I don’t think I’ve ever owned two lenses with the same filter size either; back then almost everything in the bag was 49mm.

Polarisers always worked better in the text books than in reality, where somehow it was always the wrong kind of reflections or the wrong kind of light you needed to control. But I didn’t have one anyway to try.  Here’s the picture I managed, not perfect but much improved by a simple trick.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I must have looked a rather odd sight taking this image, camera to my eye in my right hand, and in my left holding my camera bag up above my head to get an area of shadow on the windscreen so that I could see the driver clearly. It did require quite a bit of work in Lightroom afterwards to get a picture more or less as I would have liked – perhaps stopping down or more careful focu would have made the foreground flowers just a little sharper.

I said thanks and was walking away when I had another idea of how to do it, and went back, got on the bus and told the driver what I wanted.  I could get rid of reflections by working from inside the bus, using the 10.5mm semi-fisheye held close to the flowers to take the picture. The only small problem was that the camera had to be right up on the glass and I both had to guess what I was getting – and check after shooting – and keep myself out of the image, which covers 180 degrees corner to corner.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I rather like the result, though it really needed some extra lighting. I had to underexpose the driver quite a bit to keep detail I could burn in on Lightroom in the street outside. Like most of the pictures here, I worked on this fairly quickly and it could be improved with a little more work in Photoshop.  One minor worry is the patch of green light close to his left wrist. It really was there, but it annoys me. Would it be ethical to remove it?

More pictures on My London Diary from this year’s Pride Parade.

Stand Your Ground

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

On the 21 June, as a part of the 2011 London Street Photography Festival, six photographers, each accompanied by a videographer was sent to film in different areas of the City of London.

As it says on YouTube:

Some used tripods, some went hand held, one set up a 5 x 4.

All were instructed to keep to public land and photograph the area as they would on a normal day. The event aimed to test the policing of public and private space by private security firms and their reaction to photographers.

All six photographers were stopped on at least one occasion. Three encounters led to police action.

You can see what happened in some detail in the film ‘Stand Your Ground‘.

© 1992, Peter Marshall
I had no problems taking pictures like this in 1992

It had a particular interest to me for several reasons, not least because I know the photographers concerned and the places they were photographing in. They were all places where I’ve photographed over the years, mainly without problems, though I’ve come up against some of the same attitudes that these six people met.  Mainly I’ve had problems when I’ve been in places we might think were public – walkways and estates that are open to the public but are actually privately owned. Years ago, so long as you didn’t hang around too long, you were unlikely to be noticed taking a few pictures, but now our every move is covered by surveillance cameras.  There is a certain irony in the fact that because we are continually being pictured we can no longer take pictures.

© 2004, Peter Marshall
But a security guy is just walking away after telling me I can’t take pictures here in 2004.
I’d stood my ground an told him to go and check the law with his manager, and surprisingly he walked away to do so – I think he was new at the job!

What is positive about the film is the behaviour of the City of London police when called out by the security guards when the photographers refused to stop taking pictures. There is perhaps just a little unnecessary questioning of the photographers but generally the policemen in the film are quite clear on the law and on the right of the public to take photographs in public places, and make the position clear to security.

I have a feeling that there are still many police forces around the country where there would be a different response, so the City force deserve some credit. But clearly photographers apparently still need to make an effort to educate the security firms and their employees at all levels.

A couple of years ago I suggested that we – perhaps through the ‘Photographer Not A Terrorist‘ organisation which has organised previous flashmobs – should organise a mass photoshoot in the city. I wasn’t thinking of half a dozen photographers, but perhaps hundreds (or even thousands) all coming into the city at the same time on the same day and making the point that we have a right to photograph in public places.

Personally I’d like to go further and try to establish a right to photograph in all places freely open to the public at those times when the public are allowed to access them freely, which would return our right to take pictures in the estates like Broadgate and places like Trafalgar Square. With increasing areas of public space no longer being truly public we need to fight to retain our rights. But perhaps we should go one step at a time and start by asserting those rights we already have by law but which others try to deny in practice.

Pride 2011

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

I was in two minds over whether to photograph the Pride Parade in London this year. But in the end I did, and ended up with rather similar pictures to those I took last year, and the year before that… But there were just a few that were different, and perhaps this was my favourite:

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I find something very satisfying about this circular group of three young women, close together with the differences in their body language (and bodies) and gesture but somehow fused into a single entity, and having a good time waiting for the parade to start.

I first photographed Pride in 1993, and looking back at the contact sheets I find they are titled ‘Gay Rights’, and it was then still very much a political event as well as a personal one for those taking part.  Now it is very much a festival and a parade, and a celebration of what the gay community has achieved and has a very different feel, and though there are still reminders of battles that still have to be fought they are rather marginalised.

It is still an interesting event, but I hope my pictures – taken as a whole – still reflect something of the agenda and not just the carnival.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

Pride is one of the few events I cover where I bother to get accreditation; although it happens in public space it is fairly heavily stewarded, and difficult to work in parts without a press pass.  In parts the stewards make it difficult to work even with one, and the press, myself included, got pretty fed up with the lack of access to the celebrities at the front of the parade, where stewards most of the time kept us well away and stood between them and us. I managed to grab the image of Peter Tatchell and Ken Livingstone, but  was soon pushed away.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I was perhaps less upset than most other photographers, partly because I was happy with that picture, but mainly because I had little interest in the rest of the group at the front, not having the slightest idea of who any of them were. For me that’s just one of the advantages of never watching TV!

I kept on walking in front of the march to Piccadilly Circus, then stopped to cover the parade more seriously. I chose to stop there because it would give some at least of my images a recognisable background, and the curve of Regent Street where it comes in to there is also elegant if apparently always marred by scaffolding.  The parade moves in fits and starts through this area,  usually giving plenty of time to take photographs, and the streets there are wide enough to give plenty of light.

There was also a useful area by the street side around the closed Underground  entrances where I could stand and work without getting in the way of any of the spectators who had been waiting behind the barriers to see and photograph the event. I know how annoying it can be when a  photographer comes and stands in front of you at some critical moment, and although we have a job to do it’s nice to be able to do it inconveniencing the public as little as possible.  Of course some of those crowds watching are also interesting to photograph, and I particularly liked one gay dog watching.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

Probably it would be more interesting not to photograph the parade but to concentrate on the other events around Pride, particularly in Soho a little later in the day. As it was I felt too tired to continue working after around five hours of the preparations for the parade and the parade itself.  I suspect next year’s London WorldPride Parade on Saturday 7th July 2012 might be a good time to think about something different.

More pictures from this year at Pride Parade on My London Diary.

Swansong for My D300?

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I took this picture at lunchtime yesterday. I wouldn’t normally go out to take pretty pictures of swans, but yesterday I spent the morning travelling up the River Thames alongside the swan uppers, something I’ve done most years since I left full-time 9-5 work to become a freelance a dozen or so years ago.

Although I live just five minutes walk from a part of the river they go along, for 25 years or so I was always busy earning a living a few miles away when they came through. Sometimes the following week there would be a picture in the local paper of the boats in one of the local locks, but more often or not just a brief note or nothing at all.

The first time I actually went to watch them at work was something of a revelation. I’d assumed it was simply a week of rowing up the river in fancy dress and making the most of the many riverside hostelries, but what I found was rather different, highly skilled men (as yet there are no women uppers) working together in an activity that now has some genuine environmental worth.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

It is a delight to watch them at work, their expertise in handling the boats to surround a pair of swans with their young, the brief struggle as they grab the birds out of the water, the careful way they handle and examine them before returning them to the river, where seconds later the family is swimming again as if nothing has happened and the men are getting back into the boats to continue their journey upriver.

We hadn’t seen a great deal of action yesterday, and there does appear to have been a considerable decline in mating pairs on our stretch of the river in recent years, and this year in particular several of them had no cygnets. Somewhere swans must be doing rather better, as at Staines and particularly Windsor, where tourists flock to feed them there are large herds of unattached swans.

I’d almost given up hope of taking more pictures of the uppers at work to add to my extensive collection when I saw the Swan Warden’s boat (a no-nonsense dinghy with an outboard) several hundred yards ahead had pulled over to stop near a couple of swans just a hundred yards or so short of the Swan Hotel where the uppers were to stop for lunch. It was on the other side of the river, but close to Staines Bridge, so I cycled madly (and a little badly) and managed to arrive on the towpath just in time.

The male bird had swum away, possibly frightened by the arrival of the launch carrying the journalists which had for once got ahead of the rowers or the small crowd who had gathered to watch, but the uppers were able to surround the female and her six cygnets and with their usual skill bring them to land. You can see a few of my pictures on Demotix, and more in due course on My London Diary.

But finally, after the cygnets had been ringed and the details recorded, the birds were carefully returned to the river, swimming out to meet their father. Last to be put in the water was the female swan, who immediately swam out to her mate, and I took a sequence of pictures of their reunion – of which the image above is one.

Although the swans were happy, I was not, because the picture above isn’t quite as I took it, as I did a quick and not quite complete exposure gradient correction in Lightroom. Below is the next frame from that sequence, totally uncorrected and as you can see the exposure differs greatly at the right side of the frame, taken with a Sigma 28-300 on the D300. By the time I arrived home twenty minutes later, the fault was even worse, with half the frame completely blacked out.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I’ve actually had this fault before, a month or so back, but on just a few frames, and the camera had then returned to normal working. I had another event to photograph later on in the day, but I left the D300 at home and worked just with the D700, suffering from not always having the lens I wanted on the camera, and missing opportunities when changing lenses. I really have got used to working with two camera bodies.

This morning I picked up the D300 again and took a couple of test frames, and it was working perfectly. Looking at the EXIF exposure data there appears to be a link between this fault and fast shutter speeds. I hadn’t actually meant to take these pictures at 1/2000, but I had the camera on manual and this happened to be the setting when I saw this reunion take place, and the overall exposure was roughly correct. I hadn’t deliberately set such a fast speed, which I think was simply a case of idle fingers on the camera dial.

I’ve now tested this, and can reproduce the effect. The camera works fine up to around 1/1250, and at 1/1600 I can see some slight darkening on one side. At 1/2500 slightly over half the frame is dark and faster than this most or all. So at least I have some idea of what is happening, and know how to avoid it. It also means that when I take it – as I will need to one day – for the inevitably expensive repair I’ll be able to say exactly what the fault is, which considerably improves the chances of getting it repaired.  But perhaps Nikon will come out with something shortly (if they have recovered from the earthquake) which will mean that rather than repiar the D300 I will want to replace it.

Slut Means Speak Up

Monday, July 18th, 2011

July has finally dawned for My London Diary. It’s taken a while longer than usual for several reasons, not least the work I’ve been doing for an exhibition in September, something rather different for me, on the gardens of St John’s Wood. More about this later, but although I’ve only been photographing one afternoon a week for it, I’m working with digitally stitched panoramas and an hour of taking pictures can generate a day of work on the computer.

July’s first protest that I covered was outside the offices of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions and followed on from last month’s ‘slutwalk‘.   This first of a planned programme of ‘Slut Means Speak Up‘ events was calling for changes in the law and changes in police attitudes to rape survivors and sex workers. Women Against Rape, one of the groups supporting the protest, state that over 30 women who have “reported rape have been disbelieved and imprisoned in the last 12 months. Asylum seekers who report rape and other torture are often deported. Sex workers who come forward risk prosecution.”

© 2011, Peter Marshall

This was in part a very emotional event, with a number of people telling stories of their own traumatic experiences and mothers and fathers of victims talking about the difficulties in getting justice.  At times I found it difficult to take pictures, and had to remind myself that my own problems were insignificant and that these people were making a great effort to get their stories told and it was my job to do what I could to tell them. Taking photographs – though needing sensitivity – wasn’t an intrusion.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

Obviously the text of posters and placards is particularly important in protests such as this, and I think you can see this in the pictures on Prosecute Rapists Not Rape Survivors.

J30 Protest & Street Photography

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

© 2011, Peter Marshall

A myth seems to have arisen that somehow street photography died out in the UK, after a somewhat desultory start in the 1970s with the work of photographers including Tony Ray-Jones and John Benton-Harris, and was then somehow rediscovered in the early 21st century by new young and dynamic photographers.

This is of course completely untrue. Street photography is exemplified by the work of those photographers and the largely American photographers, mainly from New York and in the1940s very much associated with the Photo League and other New York pioneers such as  Leon Levinstein (1910–1988) and later reaching its heights in the 1950s with Robert Frank (b1924) and later with Garry Winogrand (1928 – 1984) and others, strongly influenced a whole generation of photographers in the UK in the 1960s and particularly the 1970s through the magazine Creative Camera.

Many of them continued to work in later years in a similar vein; although Ray-Jones died young, Benton-Harris is still working and many other, younger British photographers also picked up their influences. Where photography here in the UK in the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up was very much exemplified in the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (often cited as one of those who developed the genre of street photography though I suspect he preferred the earlier description of himself as a surrealist – but took Capa’s advice not to get himself labelled as the little surrealist photographer but instead to call himself a photojournalist) but by the 70s Frank and Winogrand had very much taken over the mantle.

Most of those photographers continued working. But like Cartier-Bresson they called themselves photojournalists, or some preferred to be known as documentary photographers. But if you want to see much of the best of UK street photography in the 1980s and 1990s you do not have to look far and there is plenty in the coverage of disputes such as the miner’s strike, the poll tax and other major social and political events of the era. It’s a whole strand of photography, a swathe of street photographers that remain largely ignored by our museums and art establishment.  Despite many fine pictures being taken in London, its an area of work that is completely absent from the Museum of London show, London Street Photography 1860-2010, and perhaps also severely under-represented in its collection.  But if you truly want to see ‘Street Photography Now‘ in the UK you are rather more likely to find it in newspapers, magazines and on the web on sites such as Demotix than in shows about street photography.

Not that these are not worth going to see, but I think they reflect a misunderstanding of the source of much of the imagery they contain.  Perhaps one that in part we can blame H C-B for. I can’t for the moment remember which great American photographer first introduced me to the idea of ‘waiters’, dividing Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre into those images stolen on the run and those which were more design-oriented, where the great master saw a location – perhaps a pattern of white washed houses of a Mediterranean village and sat or stood there for minutes or even hours, waiting for a person to put themselves in a key place in the design.  For me it is only the grab shots which are truly street and not the waiters.

Design is of course important in photography, but its more formal aspects come from a different source, in particular in my own case from the work of the Bauhaus, both direct in books such as Johannes Itten’s Design and form and The Art of Color, two of the most important texts for photographers ever published, and in the more photographic form of Andreas Feininger‘s many text books on photography one of which I bought when starting photography and which have formed the basis of almost every ‘how to’ photography book since. 

© 2011, Peter Marshall

So although I may not often call myself a ‘street photographer’ now (or even a ‘post-street photographer’), street and the attitudes central to it still inform much of what I do, whether it’s photographing the ‘Right to Work Hound’ attempting to Hound the Con-Dems from office

© 2011, Peter Marshall

or most (not quite all) of the pictures that I take at protests such as the J30 march against cuts and to protect pensions (including on this occasion my own fairly small one from 30 years of teaching.) These are pictures that are candid and spontaneous, that concentrate on ‘ordinary people’ rather than celebrities, which seems to me as good as definition of street photography as any and rather better than most.

Although that hound is becoming something of a celebrity.  You can now see rather more of my pictures from the event than on Demotix on My London Diary in 20,000 March for Pensions & Against Cuts, and decide for yourself if they are street.