Archive for December, 2014

Photobooks of the Year

Friday, December 19th, 2014

I’m a great lover of photographic books. I’ve often said that for most photographs they are the place they work best. Or can work best – there are plenty of bad books as well as good books. But there are several things about photobooks that attract me.

First its the intimacy of the experience which I think is somehow so appropriate to our medium. Photographs are generally something to hold in you hands and look at – and you can do that in a book or with a box of prints in front of you. Its a much closer and more personal experience than viewing them on a gallery wall, and one that you can have without interruptions.

Important too that a book puts a photograph into the context of others. One of the things I often have said which has confused students is that “photography isn’t about making pictures.” We make pictures of course, but we – or at least I – don’t make them to make pictures. Photography for me is about telling stories, and the best place for a story is a presentation or a book. A gallery wall can sometimes do a half decent job, but often they leave me feeling something is missing.

But I do have a problem with books. I own far too many of them (and get told that frequently in-house.) Most of our rooms have walls lined with them – at least they are good insulation. It’s got to the stage where I have to smuggle new volumes in and find some place to hide them away, and that’s getting difficult as the gaps fill up.

So I’ve adopted a policy. I now only buy books by photographers I know – actually know personally. Of course I don’t quite keep to it, there are some I just have to buy. But most of what I buy now are by people I’ve actually met.  And one small tip to anyone in a similar position to myself – it’s easier to smuggle in books published years ago and bought secondhand; I don’t actually lie about it, but just let it be assumed that I’ve had them for years.

So you won’t find me writing a list of my top 10 photo books of the year as most people seem to be doing at the moment.  Instead I’ll refer you to the top 36 picked by Jim Casper and the editors of LensCulture, an interesting selection, though I’ve only bought one of them myself.  There is a preview for each on the books to give you a real idea of what you have missed.

The volume that I do have (and am still looking for a space large enough to keep it) is the big Winogrand book. I’m still not sure that I really like it, and certainly I prefer the books that Winogrand himself produced. I’m undecided too about the whole idea of posthumous editing and rather think that he might have been better served had all those undeveloped film and unprinted negatives had gone up in a fire.

And although I like the work of Robert Adams, I don’t feel I have to get yet another book of his work – and it seems from the Lensculture preview to be the same work that I already have in the dozen other of his books on my shelves.  I think too that I already have the best of Ralph Gibson and of Gene Smith. And thinking of Smiths, another book I didn’t buy this year was Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith, because I already own the splendid 1984 monograph on him. But I think it would go on my list were I to make one.  As too would the very different Shoreditch Wild Life by Dougie Wallace, a small enough volume for me to make space for.  And… No, I said I wasn’t going to write a list!

Better Portable Graphics

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

In what could be really good news for photographers, French programmer Fabrice Bellard has come up with a greatly improved new compression format for images which he has named BPG for (Better Portable Graphics.)

Making use of ‘a subset of the HEVC open video compression standard‘, it offers significant advantages over the JPEG format that has been the standard compressed graphics format for many years, in particular supporting up to 14 bits per channel and giving a greater dynamic range and better compression ratio. For equivalent quality it gives much lower file sizes, though for most of us it will be the ability to get much higher quality at around the same file sizes that will probably be of more interest.

Bellard has deliberately chose to support the same chroma formats as JPEG, to reduce losses in conversion from (and to) JPEG, and the format also supports an alpha channel and RGB, YCgCO and CMYK colour spaces. The format can also include EXIF, ICC profile and XMP.

Gizmag has a nice image gallery which compares the two formats, concluding “The BPG files seem to hold up vastly better, demonstrating a lot less color banding, blocking and step-ladder aliasing along edges, and producing pleasing images down to surprisingly small sizes.” You can also see some good examples at Imaging Resource.

The weakness of BPG which Gizmag points out is that it makes use of the HEVC open video compression standard, of which, as Bellard states, some “algorithms may be protected by patents in some countries“. The whole legal position over this and other MPEG-related technologies  is unclear.

Also muddying the water is Google’s WebP format which they have made freely available under a BSD licence. Although clearly from the on line comparative examples inferior to BPG in image quality, it’s hard to compete with Google. But perhaps on seeing the advantages Google will want to run with BPG – so long as any patent problems can be surmounted.

At the moment BPG is not supported by browsers, but you can download source code, windows command line PNG or JPG to BPG encoder and BPG to PNG or PPM decoder, as well as javascript decoders for use on web sites which take pixel width and height from <img> tags to produce a canvas into which a BPG is decoded.  So in theory you could start using BPG on your web site today.

Of course this is all rather experimental stuff, and few will wish to take it up. But as the number of photographers now working with RAW images shows, many photographers are aware of the deficiencies of the jpeg format, useful as it has been over the past more than 20 years. With the increasing importance of video in cameras, the use of the H.264 video codec for both video and still images might make BPG a sensible alternative for camera manufacturers. JPEG arrived just in time to make images viable on the web, but it now seems time to move on – and BPG seems the best direction to take.

Umbrella Revolution

Monday, December 15th, 2014

No, I didn’t get to Hong Kong, but like so many protests around the world, it also came to London, with a little help from the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, who organised the protest at the Chinese Embassy on 10th October.

It was the last of four stories I covered that day (and I found time to do a few urban panoramas too – which you can see with the other stories on My London Diary) and in some respects the most interesting. But it was probably well after midnight by the time I had finished uploading the earlier stories and was working on the post processing of the final event. Which is perhaps why one of the pictures I uploaded was just a little strange:

As is probably obvious, this suffers from a rather nasty case of extreme distortion, though perhaps that makes the yellow and black umbrella stand out even more.Here’s the image that I intended to post:

D700, 16mm fisheye, ISO 800, 1/80 f5.6

It still looks a little distorted, and the verticals are converging, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I’d made the original picture from which both these were derived using the Nikon 16mm fisheye, chosen mainly because I was in a very crowded situation on the pavement in front of the Chinese embassy and unable to move any further back from the subject.  I’d wanted both the umbrella and the messages on the poster, with the ‘No Violence to Peaceful Protests in Hong Kong’ at the left- with another umbrella and, at the right  the word ‘Solidarity‘. The text on placards is very important when photographing protests (something I learnt rapidly from the first editor I took my pictures to), and something you always need to be aware of in all images, as legible text always alters the way that we see images.

I usually process the images from the 16mm using either the Fisheye-Hemi plugin, PtGui or occasionally Photoshop’s ‘Adaptive Wide Angle’ filter.  The first two are rather simpler to use and more or less automatically convert from fisheye to a cylindrical perspective, straightening the verticals and reducing the curvature of objects at the edges of the frame. Fisheye-Hemi has just 3 options, depending on the type of fisheye lens you have used (circular, full frame or partial), while PtGui gives greater flexibility.  Photoshop’s own filter enables you to straighten any of the lines curved by the lens, but to do a great deal of work usually involves losing a lot of the image, and I usually end up getting some very funny curves indeed and deleting the results.

Somehow I have used Fisheye-Hemi twice on the top image, not a good idea. While the edges oft he placards and the crane at right are more or less straight in the lower picture, they have become curved in the opposite sense to the original in the upper image in a kind of extreme pin-cushion distortion.

Another pair of images perhaps gives a clearer view of what Fisheye-hemi does:

D700, 16mm fisheye, ISO800, 1/60 f5

The protesters were crowded around the doorway of the Chinese embassy – much to the annoyance of the police, who like to keep protests to the opposite side of the road. I am very close to the speaker and the man at right who I could reach out and touch. In the upper images there is very clear curvature close to the edges, particularly  noticeable in the pillar of the doorway at the extreme right of the image, but also in the other building in the background and in the woman at the left of the frame.

Fisheye-Hemi has more or less straightened the verticals of the architecture and made that woman look fairly normal. You can also see that the centre points of all four sides show identical subject matter – at left the word ‘Solidarity’, at top centre the top of the pillar, at right a police officer’s ear and at bottom centre the lower edge of that red jumper (I’ve cropped the lower image very marginally to remove a little distraction, which is why there is very slight less of that officer’s face.)

There is also a little part of the image missing at the corners, something you need to be aware of when taking pictures, but it isn’t really a great deal. Because you keep those four edge centres the viewfinder image remains a pretty goo way to frame the image.

D700, 16mm fisheye, ISO 2500, 1/160 f5

Here’s another image taken a few minutes later when people were applauding.  I’m pretty sure my shoulders were touching those of the guy whose hands appear at the left of the image.

D700, 16-35mm at 22mm ISO 2500 1/160 f5

Here’s another picture of a different speaker taken from more or less the same position but with a different lens. It’s an ultra-wide view, with the 16-35mm at 22mm, which gives a good idea of how close I really was to the speakers – and I couldn’t move back because of the crowd.

D800E, Nikon 18-105mm DX, 62mm (93mm equiv) ISO 1000, 1/60 f7.1

Later I moved a little to the side and was able to work with a longer lens. I could even work from a distance where I could use a more normal ‘portrait’ focal length, in this case 93mm equivalent using the 18 – 105mm.  By this time the light was getting low and I was needing flash to brighten up the ambient.

More pictures from the event at Solidarity with the Umbrella Revolution.

Darkness and Rain

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

October I seemed to spend a long time struggling to make pictures in darkness and rain, particularly at several of what turned out to be a weekly fixture covering the Poor Doors protests outside the hugely expensive One Commercial Street flats in Whitechapel High St at Aldgate, just on the edge of the City of London.

It wasn’t really quite dark when I took this- and other pictures in Poor Doors Musical Protest

One solution (of sorts) to darkness is to use flash, and I’ve kind of got used to that, even if things go infuriatingly wrong at times. But using flash in rain is a problem, as all the raindrops glow in the flash, particularly those closer to the camera (as the light falls off with the square of the distance.) My flash units aren’t waterproof either, and using them in wet conditions without some kind of protection can lead to expensive repairs – and even the possibility of getting 400 volts when you least expect it.

A week later it was darker and raining rather more – Class War Poor Doors Week 12

Flash is often infuriating in any case, and there are some very good web sites about using it which suggest various creative set-ups, none of which are particularly appropriate to the kind of work that I do. For that you need quick and dirty flash, but there are a few things to bear in mind which can improve matters. I suspect I’ve mentioned all this before, but here goes with my 10 flash tips.

  1. Use high ISO to avoid blackness around the close bits your flash can light up. Mostly at night with flash I work at ISO1600 or ISO3200.
  2. If your flash has a diffuser built in, use it for wide-angles unless you want ‘creative’ vignetting. For longer lenses you can use it for close subjects. The little built-in white plastic bounce reflector helps too – but only at fairly short range, when you can then angle the flash head up at 45 degrees.
  3. Work with your camera in manual mode and your flash in auto TTL mode (assuming you can – it works with my SB800s)
  4.  Usually a shutter speed of 1/30 or 1/60 will do fine. Mostly I also work with my rather slow lenses more or less wide open too. Aim to get an exposure without flash that is perhaps 2-4 stops under.
  5. Try to underexpose with the flash too, but only by around 1 stop. If you give correct exposure you will get pictures that don’t look as if they were taken at night. If I’m working without flash I generally need to underexpose by 1-2 stops
  6. Most night scenes – at least in cities – will contain lots of light sources which seriously muck up your camera’s metering. Best work in manual and check the results, adjust as needed, then leave alone until you move into a differently lit area.
  7. When possible make use of the uneven light spread your flash will give by angling the flash head away from the closer parts of the subject.
  8. Sometimes it pays to use your left hand as a flag to shade parts of the subject.
  9. Work in RAW, as you are going to need considerable post-processing for best results.
  10. Never let people see your flash pictures until you’ve sorted them out in post-processing!

We did have one dry week, but then it rained again – another Wet night at Poor Doors

Nikon also have some kind of random fault generator, that will result in the occasional image being hopelessly over-exposed. It might help to make sure flash and hotshoe contacts are clean and that you have pushed the flash right on and locked it in position.  But you will still get the odd random white-out (or at least I do) and the occasional random non-flash image with burnt out highlights. Its just to keep you on your toes.

Of course there are some faults for which only the photographer is to blame. Like taking a second picture before the flash has had time to recycle, which I manage frequently. Or forgetting that any exposure compensation for flash set on the camera adds on to that set on an external flash unit…

And while flash actually built into the camera may sometimes be a good idea, it’s largely a marketing point. Of the five lenses that I normally use on the Nikons it actually only works sensibly with one of them (and the one I uses least)  the 20mm f2.8; with all the other lenses except the fisheye get a large shadow in the lower part of the frame from the lens. For the 16mm fisheye it’s also generally useless as it only illuminates a central oval in the frame.

I always thought that, as the SB800 manual says the flash diffuser is needed to provide proper illumination for 14mm and 17mm lenses, this meant that there was no way the flash would give a wide enough coverage with the 16mm fisheye. So I’d never tried it before these occasions. To my surprise it actually works quite well, and is slightly better still if you also use the bounce card. Used out of doors, recycling times will be around the maximum – and NiMH rechargeable batteries the only sensible choice. When I remember, adding the optional 5th battery really helps, bringing the recharge time down to under 3 seconds, almost as fast as the best external power supplies.

Having fitted an external flash into the hot-shoe, it becomes possible to only slightly raise the built-in flash. Just a little, so it is difficult to notice, but it is still enough to mess up flash exposures completely. So much so that I keep it permanently taped down, only for emergency use.

Uncorrected Fisheye and flash

But flash and rain is still a problem. As an alternative to flash I have a couple of cheap LED light sources, the more powerful with 9 rows of 16 LEDs, a total of 144 LEDs. It makes quite a good torch for looking underneath furniture, but as a light source for taking pictures it is far too weedy. There are more expensive units around, but I’ve yet to try them, though I have at times ‘borrowed’ the light from the larger units wielded by professional videographers.

But in the end I’ve often found myself trying to work just with available light, and wishing that I had lenses for the Nikons like some of those I used to use, particularly the 35mm f1.4 Summilux. Neither the 16-35mm f4 nor the 18-105mm f3.5-f5.6 is much of a lens in low light, and most of the time I find myself using the 16mm f2.8 fisheye, or, if I’ve remembered to put it in my camera bag, the 20mm f2.8. I’ve had most success with the 16mm (not least because I’ve almost always got it with me) but I’d still like a really fast wide lens for use on dirty nights. The only real choice I can see is the Nikon 20mm f1.8G AF-S but its a little on the expensive side.


Friday, December 12th, 2014

I’ll freely admit to never having heard before of Peter Lik, whose photograph “Phantom” has just sold for a world record $6.5 million. And when I went to his  web site to (as it says) ‘DISCOVER THE BEAUTY OF “PHANTOM” FOR YOURSELF‘, I have to say I was not overly impressed.

In the press release about the sale it states:

“Phantom” sold to a private collector for an unprecedented $6.5 million.  The purchase also included Lik’s masterworks “Illusion” for $2.4 million and “Eternal Moods” for $1.1 million.

“Phantom” and “Eternal Moods” are black and white representations of Lik’s iconic images “Ghost” and “Eternal Beauty.”  Lik is known for his artistic approach to landscape photography and capturing Mother Nature’s vibrant colors.  His use of black and white imagery is a rare and compelling departure from his normal style.

Looking at his site I was very much reminded of those many on-line shops I’ve browsed, perhaps in search of a new jacket or t-shirt, though there are t-shirt companies like Philosophy Football that I find rather more artistically interesting.

Of course Lik is a more than competent photographer (and has the certificates on-line to prove it), but frankly I think that anyone who pays more than two figures for one of his prints is lacking in judgement, and it is hard to disagree with anything that Jonathan Jones says in his Guardian article  “The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel“. Where the frames are worth more than the image.

It’s interesting that Lik’s on-line biography (which fails to mention a single other photographer whose work might have inspired or influenced him) includes the following:

Peter’s images can be viewed in luxurious hotels, prominent estates, leading corporate offices and in all of his galleries around the United States.

So perhaps those ‘hackneyed posters’ were really clichéd Lik originals. And if you can read that ‘biography’ without reaching for a sick bag you have a stronger stomach than me.

In black and white, “Phantom” is perhaps slightly less tacky than “Ghost” which is the colour version, but Jones is spot on the ball when he comments ‘Today, this deliberate use of an outmoded style can only be nostalgic and affected, an “arty” special effect. We’ve all got that option in our photography software.’ Though I suspect Lik’s conversion to black and white, presumably with ‘PhaseOne‘ was a little more sophisticated than Instagram, it does I think emphasize a failure in his vision.

As Jones says “Someone has been very foolish with their money, mistaking the picturesque for high art“. It harks back an argument that was current in photography around a hundred years ago, and for most of us looking back was fairly convincingly brought to an end by the final  editions of Camera Work, begun at  devoted to the work of Paul Strand. Edward Weston struggled with the issues in his own work in the 1920s, (and wrote about them) as did others in that period, but the debate was essentially over. And of course since then we have had further movements away from the pictorial and “arty”, for example in the later work of Strand, as well as with Walker Evans, Robert Frank and more. We’ve moved too from Ansel Adams (who perhaps seldom entirely escaped the picturesque ) to Robert.

Where Jones misses the point is to condemn ‘fine art photography’ because of the foolishness of some US billionaire and the avarice of the art market. Of course this is not ‘the most valuable “fine art photograph” in history’, and an idiot or a business paying huge money for it or other pictures (whether painted or photographed) doesn’t make it anything more than the most expensive.

In a house spat, yesterday The Guardian published a riposte by Sean O’HaganPhotography is art and always will be’, which also says many things it is hard to disagree with, despite the silliness of its title. Most photography plainly isn’t art and never will be. And while not quite all the names given by O’Hagan to support his argument have a high rating in my personal Pantheon and we disagree about the dividing line between artists and photographers,  he is clearly right about the irrelevance of the debate which Jones brings up and right too in his agreement over the worth of that Lik image: “It’s global capitalism – obscenely rich people with more money than sense.”

What matters in the end is not whether anything is art or photography – or in the end whether people chose to work within the photographic tradition or a wider artistic one, but vision and the ability to communicate that vision. As O’Hagan says, work that “makes you look at the world differently“.

October 2014

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

October 2014 I think probably set several records for ‘My London Diary. At a month and 11 days it’s probably the most I’ve been late in updating a month after it has ended, and the reason for that, at least in part is the record number of sets of photographs – almost reaching 50.  Not all of protests, but it is the increasing storm of protest that is making me so busy, and seems unlikely to slacken for a while, as increasingly anger over the effects of government policies rises. Not that it is just the current government – the problems related to housing and the increasing gulf between rich and poor, the failure to subject the police to proper governance etc reflect the failures and priorities of previous governments – at least back to Thatcher – and an increasing dysfunction of democracy itself.

The protests also reflect increasing tensions around the world – Kobane, Hong Kong, Iran, Palestine  – and major global issues including climate change.  I’m pleased that I’ve also found a little time – often in the gaps between a couple of protests on the same day – to continue occasionally with some of my other photographic interests.

October 2014

Wet night at Poor Doors
Biofuel picket Green Investment Bank Birthday

Kobane – Unite against Isis Drawing
Fair Fares Petition
Democracy Camp Saturday

EDL Visit Democracy Camp
Acid Attacks on Women in Iran

United Friends & Families March
Democracy Camp a Week Old

Cleaners protest at Bloomberg
Palestine – another HP protest
Musical Poor Doors

Democracy Camp – Poet Arrested
Canary Wharf & Westminster Tube
End UK shame over Shaker Aamer
DPAC High Court Vigil for ILF
Candlelit vigil for Justice for Ricky Reel
Democracy Camp Fenced Out
Staines march for flood victim Zane
Poor Doors Saturday Night Special
Procession of the Blessed Sacrament
Britain Needs A Pay Rise
Democracy Camp takes the Square
Democracy Camp starts with rally
Spoof shock U-turn by Boris on Housing
Ban on Family visits to Palestinian Prisoners
Art Not Oil Rembrandt Against Shell

Bermondsey Thames Panoramas
CPOs for Southwark Councillors
Class War Poor Doors Week 12
London Transport Museum Arms Protest
Thorpe Walk
Support the Defenders of Kobane
#NoTTIP – Hands off our democracy
#NoTTIP – Banner Drop
Global Frackdown at HSBC

Solidarity with the Umbrella Revolution
Palestine protest at Hewlett Packard
City Panoramas
Free Ghoncheh Ghavami – SOAS action
Solidarity for Care UK Strikers
Deptford to Greenwich
Poor Doors Musical Protest
Unstone Grange & Chesterfield
Hull and Hornsea
Hull at Night

Class War Poor Doors Week 10

Altogether I think there are over 1900 of my pictures on-line from October. Now to get to work on November

Fuji in Hull

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

A recently built footbridge across the River Hull

I’d been thinking for a while that while I liked the Fuji X-T1, and in particular the viewfinder, the lenses that I had for it, the 18-50 zoom, the 14mm and the Samyang 8mm fisheye, were all rather large. Not a problem when you are going out to work seriously, but they make it a little bulky when you want a camera to take along when taking pictures isn’t your main intention.

So for those occasions, I was still picking up the Fuji X100, a nice but sometimes frustrating fixed lens camera, with a 35mm equivalent lens. One of the frustrations with using it is that it sometimes just won’t take a picture – and the only way I’ve found to persuade it to function is to turn it off and then back on, wasting a few seconds, usually long enough for people to move or lighting to change and pictures to vanish. But my real problem is that so often its view is not quite wide enough. You can get a supplementary lens that fits on the front and makes it wider, but that seems a rather clunky solution which rather negates the concept.

For some years the main camera I used and carried almost all the time was a Leica M2 with 35mm f1.4 Summilux,. and 35mm became my ‘standard’ focal length. But after around ten years I put it to one side and standardised instead on a Minolta CLE – a more compact camera with an exposure meter – and the Minolta 28mm f2.8 which became my carry everywhere camera. I found the wider lens much more generally useful, and if absolutely necessary you could crop the image a little to give the effect of a 35mm or even a 50mm.

The Ferens Art Gallery – where I had a show in 1983 – you can see many of the pictures in ‘Still Occupied

So I wanted a small lens, and one with approximately the angle of view of a 28mm on a film camera. Taken together these two requirements made the 18mm f2 an obvious choice. But two things put me off. Firstly there are quite a few reviews that knock the performance of this lens, and secondly that I didn’t want to pay the roughly £400 that my usual dealers were then asking.

I left it for a while, then thought about it again when Fuji started a cashback scheme. There is a rather better scheme now – and for around a month longer, but unfortunately it doesn’t include the 18mm.  I turned to Ebay and found that there was a fairly steady stream of secondhand 18mm Fuji lenses coming up for sale – mainly as owners were replacing them with the 10-24 zoom.  That’s a lens I’d rather like too – and will doubtless buy in time – but  that in my mind serves a quite different purpose – and another relatively large and bulky lens, if half the size and weight of its Nikon near equivalent I currently use.

Spring Bank

I bid in a few auctions, gradually increasing the maximum bid I was prepared to pay, kicking myself for missing a real bargain in the first I took part in which went for £165, and eventually getting the lens I wanted for a little under £200 including postage. It arrived just a couple of days before I was leaving for a couple of days in Hull, where I was going to attend a wedding, followed by a brief visit to Derbyshire on the way home.

I thought it likely I would be asked to take some candid pictures at the reception, and knew I would also have some time there to take pictures, but I wanted to travel reasonably light. So I put the 18mm on the X-T1, packed the other three lenses in my shoulder bag and set off for Hull.

The Deep and the River Humber

In Hull and Derbyshire I took over a thousand pictures over 4 days, though I’ve not kept all of them, including several hundred at the wedding reception, mainly in relatively dim room lighting, and the technical quality of the results from the X-T1 and 18mm surprised me. I took quite a few night images as well, all hand-held, at shutter speeds down to 1/10 s (and one at 1/5.) Of course where possible I leaned on rails or against posts to help keep the camera steady, but often there was nothing to use for support. Not every image was sharp, and I generally took several so as to pick the sharpest.

The Deep is on the point where the River Hull flows into the River Humber

You can see more of the pictures I took in Hull with the 18mm, mainly at night, in Hull at Night and some during the daytime – as well as a few from Hornsea in Hull and Hornsea. And still with the 18mm, Unstone Grange & Chesterfield. 

Although I carried around the three other lenses in my bag throughout my trip, somehow I never felt a need to use anything but that 18mm.

More Vases

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Outside One Commercial St, Aldgate, London. Wed 1 Oct 2014

I’m very aware at the moment that my life is out of sync, with just too many things happening for me to keep up or get on with so many things that I want to do. Its some months since I’ve found the time to scan any more of my old work from the 1980s, and on My London Diary I’m still working with putting stories from the end of October on line.

Here on >Re:PHOTO I‘m event further behind in commenting on my work, only today moving to the start of October, though there are still quite a few September stories I’ve not commented on. Those I post about here are either those that raise some kind of photographic issue, either personal or wider, or sometimes those I particularly like the pictures that I took. Like everyone else, I have good days and bad days, but plenty of so-so days too, days when the pictures I turn in are hopefully professional enough, but where I’ve failed to come up with any interesting idea or just haven’t had any luck. The bad days are often the easiest to write about, when I can share my really stupid mistakes with you guys.

There is seldom any real connection between what is happening and whether I have a good or a bad day, and I’ve often taken some of my better pictures at events which I might have arrived at and thought I was wasting my time. Photography is mainly in the mind, and if too much is happening I tend to jump in and snap, snap, snap, reacting with little thought, anxious not to miss anything. (You can see it on my contact sheets from the days of film, though digital does increase the actual number of images for various reasons.) When seeing pictures is harder, you need to think more.

One Commercial Street has its main frontage on Whitechapel High Street

One particular series that has contributed to my recent overload has of course been ‘Poor Doors’, with its regular weekly protests (and an odd extra too.) Since they started in July I think I’ve photographed at 19 of the 21 Class War protests there – and a couple by them elsewhere that I might otherwise not have gone to.

Part of the reason for going to so many is that I think they are raising an important issue and have helped to force it into general consciousness; the separate doors for rich and poor are an index of the increasing social segregation we are seeing as the gap between rich and poor in our society increases. I’ve long opined that the true driving forces of society are cultural rather than economic – important though economic forces are, they arise from culture. with a culture that legitimises the exploitation of labour producing wealth and poverty. Its perhaps this that made me become a photographer rather than a politician.

And October started with another ‘Poor Doors’ protest – the 10th for those who were counting, and my eighth weekly visit to take photographs at these similar protests, making it hard to try and photograph in a different way. Inevitably some things are pretty much the same every week, though there are also changes. So this week, after an incident involving protesters entering the building and a vase getting broken, there were now police in position half an hour before the protesters arrived and stood by the rich door with their banner. There were of course the usual struggles over the doors, though only when the police had moved a few yards away for some reason.

As the ‘Lucy Parsons’ banner and even more the ‘Class War Womens Death Brigade’ banner suggest, Class War’s rhetoric should not be taken literally. They raise serious issues, but in a way that is meant to provoke, and though the humour like the banners may be black they do not incite violence or suicide bombing. When they head for Mayfair next week their most dangerous weapons will be their thoughts and voices.

Breaking the vase the previous week had cost Ian Bone £70, but not his sense of humour, and Class War arrived with two replacement vases, by the look of them from a Pound Shop, and offered them to the staff inside the building – who ignored the offer.  Later, when the building manager was closing the door having let a resident in or out, Jane Nicoll thrust a vase in his face and, startled, he grabbed it in a reflex action.

I wasn’t in the right place and wasn’t quite quick enough to catch the moment  – though I managed one frame a second or so later as the he still holds it in front of his face and Jane is exultant. By this time the light was low, I was working at ISO3200 with the 16-35mm wide open at f4, and the focus is on the door frame, perhaps around 4 ft away.  Jane is considerably closer than the near limit of focus, and the building manager slightly beyond the far limit of depth of field. To get them both sharp would probably have required f16 – and a truly astronomical ISO. I was pleased to have got what I did.

Later I was able to take a picture of it where it had been places, still complete with its Class War label on the Concierge disk occupying the same place that the broken vase had taken. But police had rushed back to surround the door and I wasn’t able to get close to the window, so had to work through it – with all sorts of reflections.  Handheld at 1/20s f5.6 ISO1500 with the 18-105mm at 157mm equiv, a fairly ridiculous exposure. I’m not sure if I had the lens stabilisation turned on or not. On the web site I’ve used a different image, taken at around the same focal length but with a lens without IS, the 70-300mm at f4.5, 1/40s which is rather cleaner looking – as you can see in Class War Poor Doors Week 10.

Capa Myth Rumbles On

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

This morning A D Coleman published Episode 18 of his series Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day, a series that with the help of others, particularly J. Ross Baughman, has explored what really happened to Robert Capa and the pictures that he took on Omaha Beach during the first day of the D-Day landings in 1944.

There is now no room for doubt that Capa only made 11 exposures on Omaha Beach on June 6 and the question has now moved on to who fabricated the myth of the darkroom accident and why, and the continuing defence of untenable positions by various of those involved – even now they grudgingly admit there were – or at least may have been – only 11 images.

Of course nothing in this whole saga diminishes Capa as a photographer, and we have always known that he was a great storyteller, and while photographs remain fixed, stories surrounding them always have a habit of growing with the telling, and the legend always affects and can sometimes come to overshadow the actual image.

What distinguishes this story is the speed at which it was elaborated (if inconsistently as Coleman demonstrates) and the mythic status it has gained in the history of photography. And those of us who have taught and written about the history of photography feel a certain betrayal at having been duped and a little shame at having passed it on to our students and readers. (Though in mitigation I think I usually put down the actual appearance of the ‘surviving’ images to factors other than darkroom damage while repeating what was the accepted lie of the loss of other pictures from the beach.)

As a journalist and a photographer, I have a strong conviction that truth matters, although of course recognising the subjectivity of my own viewpoint. What has emerged in Coleman’s investigations seems clear evidence of a deliberate construction of falsehood, of lies that don’t affect the actual photographs but have contributed to their status as icons. And lies that materially affected the careers of some of those involved, probably getting Capa the offer of a permanent job with LIFE, and, as Coleman also pointed out in Episode 17:

Were it not for the myth of the melted emulsions (and its potency as a visual image), Morris would be even more obscure as a relevant cultural reference point today than his boss at LIFE, Wilson Hicks, then the chief picture editor at that magazine, or Tom Hopkinson, editor of the British magazine Picture Post — names you rarely hear today outside of courses in the history of photojournalism.  As it stands (or has stood until now), the dramatic emulsion-melt fable functions as the key moment in Morris’s professional life.

There are lies that matter – and lies that don’t. All of us regularly tell plenty of the second type, and most of Capa’s ornamentations in his writing are harmless and amusing – as they were meant to be. This was something different, something deliberately intended to mislead and which succeeded in doing so with such a powerful effect on our perceptions of the history of photography. Even though we now know as a lie, there is no way we can cancel the distortion it has caused.


Days of Night – Nights of Day

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

Verve Photo, a web site created by photographer and photo editor Geoffrey Hiller “to feature photographs and interviews by the finest contemporary image makers today” – what he calls “The New Breed of Documentary Photographers” often features photographers of interest, though I can’t always see anything very new about some of them. Though that isn’t necessarily to the bad, although in artier circles it’s been fashionable to talk about the death of traditional documentary for at least thirty years, many of those of us actually at the coalface feel there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.

The latest photographer to appear on Verve as I write is Elena Chernyshova, born in the USSR in 1981 and a self-taught photographer who in 2011 received a grant from the Lagardère Foundation (best known for its Hachette Livre the foundation awards grants to young professionals in various media) that enabled her to work in the Siberian city of Norilsk, 400 kilometres north of the Arctic circle, “the 7th most polluted city in the world.  The average temperature is -10C, reaching lows of -55C in winter, when for two months the city is plunged into polar night.” It’s hard to understand why people would want to live there, but in Soviet times they had no choice, being sent there as “prisoners of the Gulag.”  You can see more of the resulting images in ‘Days of Night – Nights of Day’ on her web site.

It’s a series of beautiful photographs of what seems an impossible life, and for me that opposition is an interesting, sometimes exciting one, though the images left me wanting to know more about the stories behind them.

For just a slightly less inhospitable environment, you might want to look at her series ‘In the Land of Scotts‘ (there are a few places on the site where this talented photographer’s English (or Scots) spelling perhaps needs a little help), though though seriously all of her work in the Documentary, Assignments and Series sections of her site os worth exploring. Clicking on ‘Corporate‘ returns the message ‘Not Found – Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here‘ which amused me too, though perhaps not by intention.