Archive for February, 2012

Deaths and Injuries in Syria

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Probably everyone will have heard the sad news from Baba Amr, where a Syrian Army shell hit a centre being used by the media, killing Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, and wounding others including photographers Paul Conroy and William Daniels, and writer Edith Bouvier.

Ochlik recently was awarded 1st prize in the General News Stories section of World Press Photo for his pictures from Libya – you can see the set of 12 pictures on the WPP site. Daniels too has several fine stories from Libya on his web site.

It’s a reminder of the risks many photographers and journalists take every day to tell the world what is happening in places such as Libya and Syria. You can read more about them and the other around 900 journalists who have been killed over the last 20 years on the Committee to Protect Journalists site.

WPP Pietà

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

I’ve been reading quite a lot of criticism of the WPP winning image by Samuel Aranda on various pages around the web, and you can read an interesting summary of the controversy it has aroused from Jeremy Nicholl on his ‘The Russion Photos Blog’ in his Why The Critics Of The World Press Photo Muslim Pietà Are Wrong – By The People Who Know Best.

I’ve not always been too impressed by WPP winners, and I share many of the overall criticisms that various people have made over the years of the WPP and other similar awards. I’m not a fan of such competitions, which I think tend to trivialise work and concentrate on the spectacular and neglect work that is perhaps in the longer term more important in changing attitudes and exposing evil. Although I have a great admiration for those photographers who continue to expose the horrors of war – and think it is a necessary and useful work, unfortunately much of it is now only too familiar.

Samuel Aranda’s image spoke strongly to me when I first saw it and still does now. And its strength comes from the way it uses various stereotypes, and repositions them.  I don’t agree that the Pietà can be claimed as uniquely Christian imagery, although we know its representation in Western art. But I would expect similar images to emerge in any representational art tradition, because essentially it is about a human relationship, between mother and child, which is widespread across humanity and I think has a powerful evolutionary basis. Although taken up and used by Christians and made a part of Christian iconography, its roots I think lie deeper in our humanity.

The black burkha is in some respects a more potent and loaded symbol of our times, promoted by Western media in a demonisation of Muslims, a looming presence that relates back to sinister and shadowy nightmares and horror, as well as to more recent images, media hysteria and even some government bans. This is a picture that reminds us strongly of the person and the humanity underneath that black covering, her gestures amplified by the white gloves.

This is a picture that speaks at several levels about good and evil, and the framing and the shadows help to make it a powerful statement, as well as a complex one.

Nicholls ends his piece with the comments from four Yemenis, including the young man and his mother in the picture, both of whom are proud and happy to see it winning the contest. Like him I find it hard to disagree with their verdict.

Cleaning the City

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

One of the clearest indications that there is something very wrong with our society is the huge disparity in wealth and income, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the City of London, where people who work in the same offices may be on the minimum wage – around £6 an hour – or being paid millions in bonuses on top of huge salaries.

Those at the bottom of the pile, the cleaners, suffer from unsocial hours, part time jobs, poor working conditions and little or no job security. You can’t live in London on the minimum wage and many have several jobs to keep their families afloat.

The campaign to get a ‘London Living Wage’, a couple of pounds a week above the UK-wide minimum has had some success, largely through the vigorous actions of the cleaners and other low-paid workers themselves, organised through various groups, and I’ve photographed a number of their protests. Although they got some important support from some British trade unions, in some cases cleaners felt that they were neglected in the settlements the unions made with the bosses, their needs compromised by unions who also represented people on higher pay.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
16mm, 1/30 f5.0, ISO 2500, flash

Now many of the cleaners belong to a branch of the IWW, the International Workers of the World, a US based international union only formally recognised as a trade union by the UK in 2006, although small branches have existed here since shortly after its founding in 1905. The IWW is based on the kind of grassroots action that the cleaners have been taking, and is notable for its democratic structures making it run by and for the rank and file.

Alberto Durango has been in the lead in the cleaner’s fight for better wages and conditions, leading a number of successful campaigns to gain the London Living Wage. Last summer I met him outside Heron Tower where he was able to tell me that the protest planned for that evening had been called off because the contracting firm employing the cleaners there had agreed to their demands. Towards the end of the year, the cleaners were taken over by a new company who refused to accept those agreements reached earlier (despite our laws about the take-over of enterprises,) and soon found a reason to dismiss Durango who was standing up for his rights and those of his fellow workers.

The IWW organised a protest against his dismissal outside Heron Tower at 5pm on a Friday night, in the rush hour as workers were leaving for home, and darkness was falling. Half of the pavement is actually owned by Heron Tower, and their security soon moved both protesters and photographers off from that onto the fairly narrow strip beside the road.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
10.5mm, IS01600, 1/60 f4.5

Bishopsgate is one of the busier streets in the city, with a fairly constant stream of buses, taxis and other traffic passing, and it wasn’t possible to step out into the road except when this was halted by a nearby traffic light, so most of the time I had to work from within a fairly crowded pavement area with a small supporting samba band as well as the cleaners and their banners.

Fortunately there was just enough light from inside Heron Tower, the street lighting and the windows of passing buses to work by available light with the 10.5 mm lens on the D300. Although I can generally handhold this at very slow speeds for static subjects, with protests there is generally movement, and anything less than 1/30 is likely to blur just those parts of the subject you want sharp. It is an f2.8 lens (actually as fast as anything I own in a Nikon fitting) and although you seldom if ever need to stop down for depth of field, and it performs well more or less wide open. I think all of the pictures I made with it at this event were between f2.8 and f4. The sky was rather darker than it looks in the picture, and got darker still while I was taking pictures.

© 2012, Peter Marshall

You can forget flash with the 10.5mm, except as a special effect, unless you have some kind of magic diffuser that will cover 180 degrees. Occasionally I’ve played with it to highlight a part of the picture. I had the flash on the D700, where the longer end of the 16-35mm was as extreme a telephoto as I had room to use. With the D700 I gave myself another stop, working at IS02500 to get a better balance between flash and ambient, mainly working on shutter priority at around 1/30th to try for just a little blur along with the sharp core from the flash.

© 2012, Peter Marshall

As always there were the ones that got away. I’d been photographing a couple of posters on one of the metal-clad pillars in the middle of the pavement supporting the building calling for Alberto’s replacement, with a security guard inside the glass-fronted atrium looking out at the protest. A minute later he came out and tore one of them off the pillar, but I saw him too late to get in a suitable position to photograph the moment. Others I missed when the D300 mirror stuck in the up position – it takes just a second or two to press the menu button, select to lock the mirror up, press the shutter release, turn the camera off and then back on, but remembering to do all that in the correct order in the heat of the moment can be tricky. I keep putting off the time and money to get it repaired, but will have to do it soon.

Perhaps it was some kind of compensation for this problem that I ended up taking far too many pictures – as you can see in IWW Cleaners Demand Reinstate Alberto  on My London Diary.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
16mm, 1/30 f5.6, ISO 2500, flash

A few days later I got some good news, though not about Heron Tower. Some of the cleaners at the protest had been sacked in another dispute in which Alberto and the IWW were engaged, and there was to be a protest outside their workplace the following week. A day before it was to take place I was pleased to read a message it had been cancelled after agreement had been reached with the management.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images


Original Prints?

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

In a recent post I linked to a video showing Richard Benson, and there is an awful lot more interesting material on the The Printed Picture site, produced in conjunction with a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art  and a book, The Printed Picture by Benson, the former Dean of Yale Art School and an acknowledged guru of photographic printing.

Perhaps there are some people who don’t recognise his name, but the photographic community owes a huge debt to him and his work over the years. If you look in the small print of almost any finely printed photographic book – one that really stands out for the quality of its reproduction – you will find his name somewhere in the small print. Picked almost randomly from my bookshelves – arranged vaguely alphabetically – I came first to Atget: Modern Times, the fourth volume of a fine series published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985, and there on the final printed leaf found among the various credits ‘Halftone negatives by Richard Benson’. He also gets a mention in the front of the book as ‘special consultant and supervisor’ for the series, responsible together with Tim McDonough from the museum ‘for the quality of production of these volumes.’ And there are many other books on which he has worked.

I’ve seen prints of many of the works in that series made by Atget himself, and if there is a fault in Benson’s handiwork it could be argued that the reproductions at least in some cases improve on the originals. The books give us something arguably better than the prints we couldn’t afford to buy.

In a video on his web site, Richard Benson looks at this rather curious situation using a Paul Strand print as an example.  Perhaps on the video it isn’t possible to see that his final version costing a few cents is superior to the original platinum, but I’d be prepared to take his word for it.

Years ago, as a fairly young photographer, I watched Lewis Baltz looking through the proof prints for ‘Park City’ (you may have more luck than me in seeing this work on the California Museum of Photography site, where only some of the pictures display for me), which he had just received while giving a workshop in the UK, and he was comparing them to some of his original prints. I made the mistake (as I often did when young) of saying what was obvious to me, that the images in the book – by the Acme Printing Company – were even better than the artist’s own fine silver prints. Looking in particular at the treatment of the highlights, I’m sure Ansel would have agreed with me. But it certainly wasn’t tactful and wasn’t well-received. It probably didn’t help that I’d already pointed out the tonal effects of the particular spectral sensitivity of the film he was using.

Unfortunately although I admired the book I didn’t buy it when it came out a few months later, as I couldn’t afford it, though it would have been a decent investment, and I think it is perhaps the most interesting of his works. Even at what then seemed a high price for a book, each of the images would have only cost around 50p each. I suppose I could have afforded the massive $600 reprint collection of Baltz’s works from Steidl last year, but replacing a lens and other necessary photographic expenditure seemed more urgent. Although I have a stack of Robert Adams‘s books the only Baltz books I own are Nevada (with his illegible signature) and Maryland.

We work in a medium that allows production of prints both as relatively low cost artisanal works in the darkroom or inkjet printer or their mass production for pennies. Although of course we need to find ways to support practice in the medium and reward those who excel in it, I’ve never felt happy with imposing such artificial restrictions as ‘limited editions’ or ideas about ‘vintage’ prints.

What we make as photographers is essentially not an object to be valued for its intrinsic properties but as the expression of an idea, an intellectual property. It makes the proposals for changing the UK Copyright laws, currently the subject of consultation, vitally important, and the proposed changes would be disastrous for photographers – and in the longer term for our culture. Many of us will belong to unions and other bodies that will be making our views on the proposals felt, but you can also download the consultation form and make your own views known before the closing date of 21 March 2012.

NHS Protests Continue

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Pressure is mounting on the UK Government to abandon its ‘reform’ of the National Health Service, which many see as privatisation, and it has become something of a scandal with the revelations of the extent of involvement of a discredited US healthcare company in its planning.

As someone who grew up with our Welfare State, I was with the protesters both physically and in spirit as they held a mock trial of  Andrew Lansley, the minister responsible opposite parliament as the debate continued inside over the Health and Social Care Bill. The trial wasn’t really very visual, though at least in street theatre if no longer in courts judges do come with very splendid wigs.

© 2012, Peter Marshall

I’d tried to photograph a group of pensioners in the protest, but hadn’t been very happy with the results, but standing to one side while a colleague went in close and made a portrait of one of them gave me the time to think more about it. After he had finished I moved in and made a few exposures, including one that I was pleased with.

© 2012, Peter Marshall

Probably the most news-worthy aspect of the was perhaps rather less interesting, with Diane Abbott MP, Shadow Minister for Public Health coming to support her constituents who had organised the protest. I didn’t manage to find any way more than a workaday image showing her holding the banner with parliament in the  background.

© 2012, Peter Marshall

I was on my way to another protest and had stopped to talk with the three people at Brian Haw’s Parliament Square Peace Campaign, still keeping up a 24/7 vigil there – now for 10 years 8 months – despite the police removing Barbara Tucker’s tent, other personal possession and anything else that could give her comfort or shelter in mid-January when I saw the NHS protest was continuing and dashed across the rather busy road to photograph a small group now touring around Parliament Square.

There were six of them, equipped with placards ‘Save Our NHS’, ”No US Style Healthcare Here’, the four letters ‘S’, ‘T’, ‘O’ and ‘P’ (which they sometimes got in correct order) and a bedpan with its own placard ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With The Health Bill Except It’s Full of S**t’.

© 2012, Peter Marshall

I didn’t have long to work, as they only stopped on the crossings while the green man was showing and were being urged to move along by a couple of police.

© 2012, Peter Marshall

This was perhaps the best frame, as not only are all the placards more or less readable, but I liked the woman with the bedpan and placard apparently doing a little dance on one foot in front of Big Ben.

More at Stop NHS Privatisation – Kill Lansley’s Bill.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images


New York Prints

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Where I in New York rather than old England, I would be making my way to the  Howard Greenberg Gallery, which currently has several shows worth a visit.

New York in Colour has quite a few interesting images, but it perhaps somewhat of a ragbag show of gallery inventory.  The odd web design probably means many visitors never get to see the 42 images on show, as the link from the thumbnail only works close to its top edge. In the main it is the earlier work that has most interest for me, and perhaps the only interesting image from this century is one of Abelardo Morell’s Camera Obscura images.

Among the earlier work are some good images by a number of photographers, including Danny Lyon, Micha Bar’am, Evelyn Hofer, Helen Levitt and Erwin Blumenfeld (and a few rather weak works by some others) but I was particularly pleased to be introduced to the work of Marvin Newman, who has an enviable biography, having studied for his BA with Walter Rosenblum who suggested he take classes with John Ebstel at the Photo League, and later studing with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Chicago Institute of Design where he was one of the first students to gain an MS in photography in 1952. The best place to see more of his work is probably at the Bruce Silverstein gallery.

Those who manage to find the 24 images for An Italian Perpective will also find some images worth looking at. I’ve always found the work of Luigi Ghirri (1943-92) extremely uneven, but there are a few intriguing images among those shown here even if it is hard to imagine why he felt others worth taking or printing. I’m always pleased to see work by Gabriele Basilico, and there isn’t too much else. And although there is a picture by Massimo Vitali, his work always looks much better small on the web than it does large on the gallery wall, where I find it curiously devitalising.

But most interesting of all for me is the third show, like the others ending 17 March 2012, on the work of the Photo League, including pictures by some of the well known names as well as a couple I’ve hardly heard of before.  But of course the place to go to see more of their work is the Jewish Museum, where the show
The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 continues until 25 March 2012, and has a fine web site, which I could and probably will spend hours looking through. I wrote several pieces about the Photo League in my earlier on-line life, as well as on a number of the photographers involved, and ten years ago there really was very little information about them on the web.

One oddity which emerges in the New York in Colour show is in the description of the prints. Greenberg appears to have invented the “Chromogenic inkjet print“, a curious hybrid of two very different and competing methods.

Chromogenic refers to silver halide based processes in which the development of a silver image is accompanied by the production of coloured dyes from the oxidised developer molecules by reaction with dye couplers. Normally we call such prints ‘C types’. Nowadays most C types are made from digital images – something that is sometimes called a ‘digital chromogenic print’ – and you can see and hear on his web site what Richard Benson thinks about that.

Benson points out that digital chromogenic prints have all the disadvantages of darkroom C-types – fairly poor colour reproduction and rapid deterioration, whereas good inkjet prints can give much better colour and last longer than the photographers who make them. But he stresses more that while digital chromogenic prints require hugely expensive lab equipment, good inkjet prints can be made on cheap printers, enabling photographers to do their own printing.

I don’t particularly buy that. The important part of printing, the magic laying on of hands that we used to do in the darkroom that made some people better printers than others has now moved away from the actual physical printmaking stage to the preparation of the file on the computer. And if I then send my file off to the lab, I’ve already done the creative part of the process.

But of course ‘chromogenic inkjet print‘ is just nonsense. Either it is chromogenic – a C-type – or it is an inkjet. Certainly not both. Just another indication that many guys in galleries don’t have a great deal of knowledge or understanding of our medium. Their expertise and knowledge is all about making money.

Candles at the Embassy

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

I suppose it’s the time of year, but I seem to have been spending rather a lot of my time taking pictures in the dark recently.  Although I work mainly in the centre of a major city, I find it surprising how stygian some parts of it can be.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
One of few pictures without flash: ISO3200 1/4s f4, hiding a spotlight behind the banner

The lighting along the west side of Grosvenor Square seems to rely mainly on the many windows along the rather formidable frontage of the US Embassy, and for some reason (surely not energy-saving from a country that seems rampantly denying climate change) most of those in the centre of the building were off.  It made me think that here was a building hiding its face in shame, as well it might over its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.  There was lighting away from the centre of the building, and a little on the head of the eagle lowering on its roof, though the wings and flag rather faded into the darkness. A little burning and dodging was needed to bring them out in the picture above.

Photographically the situation was made worse as penetrating the general gloom were a few powerful spotlights. They didn’t seem to give a great deal of light anywhere, but could and did produce some nasty flare that ruined some of my pictures, as well as completely fooling the exposure system in my Nikons.  I generally use the matrix metering, which I thought was supposed to be able to cope with such things as backlit scenes and small light sources in the image, but experience shows it to be pretty hopeless, though it does work well with more normal situations.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
The heads and hoods only became visible with flash

Of course we now have cameras that give excellent results at ISOs that just a few years ago were almost totally unusable, so I was quite happy using the D700 at ISO 3200.  But there just wasn’t enough light even so to get decent pictures at shutter speeds suitable for hand-holding or photographing people who were not posing for pictures.

Had people been holding candles at chest level, there might have been enough light on their faces to give some pictures, but the candles were on the ground, and a group with well-illuminated knees doesn’t usually appeal. So for most of the pictures  I took I had to use flash.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
Lots of candles, but I still needed flash

It was an obvious decision, if one that goes against all the precepts of the available light school, those many articles I read over the years telling me how photographers destroy the atmosphere if they use flash.  And certainly you can, and many people have done and continue to do so, but I hope to do better. Too often I still see pictures with people caught like rabbits in the car headlights (Bill Brandt did it rather nicely in 1945 for Picture Post) which are seldom successful.

I set a high ISO – perhaps 3200 – and work with the camera on S – shutter preference auto – setting a speed which will probably produce a reasonably sharp result depending on the focal length and the amount of subject movement etc. Often a little blurring from gestures or people moving will add the the image. Typically this might be around 1/20 or 1/30s.  The exposure compensation is set to underexpose this by anything from 2/3 to around 2 stops, chimping until it looks around right. The flash is on its full auto flash fill setting, (TTL BL FP) and also set to something like -2/3 to -2 stops, again with a bit of fiddling if I have time. Probably I’m doing it all wrong, but it seems to work, so long as I don’t forget it will overexpose at closer than a couple of feet from the subject and I need to stop things down more.

The Nikon SB-800 flash I use does seem to be a little temperamental. Or perhaps it is the camera, once the two electronic systems are wedded together it’s hard to know which to blame. Every so often I seem to get a frame or a few frames that are hopelessly over-exposed. And recently when I’ve got the flash attached and on the camera it’s taken to emitting the occasional random flash when I’m not taking pictures. I sense an expensive repair coming on.

Text about the event and more pictures – almost all using flash – in London Guantánamo Campaign Candlelit Vigil on My London Diary.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images


Cruel & Unusual

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Regular readers will know that I’ve often mentioned Pete Brook’s Prison Photography blog on these pages, as well as his posts on ‘Wired’s ‘Raw File‘ blog. He’s someone who has often raised interesting issues, both photographic and political, and the forthcoming show Cruel and Unusual at Noorderlicht which he is curating together with Hester Keijser which runs from Feb 18 to April 1, 2012 looks to continue in that vein.

I’ve just been looking through an preview copy of the catalogue, which has just gone to the printers. Designed as a newspaper, 4000 copies are being printed in newsprint, and it will be available free at the gallery, and with a small handling & shipping charge through the Noorderlicht webshop shortly. Worth getting in fast when it goes on line as copies should go quickly.

And here I should declare a small interest, as one page of the publication is given over to (free and by invitation only) adverts for photography blogs, and its an honour for >Re:PHOTO to be listed there with many that I admire.

Thanks to Peggy Sue Amison, Artistic director at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Co. Cork for posting a link on Facebook to a couple of good and well-illustrated preview features on Elizabeth Avedon’s blog (and I think the answer to the question you may be asking is yes) CRUEL AND UNUSUAL: Prison Photography Exhibition Part I  and Part 2.

[Observant readers will notice that this post only went on line after my second post on the show, Cruel & Unusual 2.  It was written two days earlier but somehow I clicked ‘Save’ rather than ‘Publish’! as I hurried out to take some pictures.]

Cruel & Unusual 2

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

There is now a link to the Cruel and Unusual newspaper on the Noorderlicht Photogallery Exhibition page.  Here are some pictures of it sent to whet my – and I hope your – appetite:

Image from H Keijser

Image from H Keijser

Image from H Keijser

The show is at Noorderlicht in Groningen from Feb 18 – April 1, 2012 and is open Wednesdays to Sundays 12-6pm and is free. Don’t miss clicking on the more photos link on the exhibition page or use the links below to see work by Araminta de Clermont, Amy Elkins, Christiane Feser, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Jane Lindsay, Deborah Luster, Nathalie Mohadjer, Yana Payusova, Lizzie Sadin and Lori Waselchuk.

Paper copies of the newsletter will be available from 18 Feb.

[A posting error meant that this post was published before Cruel & Unusual  written a couple of days earlier]

World Press Photo

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda‘s picture from Yemen showing a woman holding a wounded relative in her arms inside a mosque used as a field hospital by demonstrators against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh looks to be a worthy winner of the 2012 World Press Photo.

And a quick glance at the other images on the front page of the site – which includes some familiar names and images along with many new to me – suggests that this might be a better year than some for the contest. But it will certainly take some time to have a real look through all the work.