Snowed in and called off we will have a week’s wait for member Gerry Painter’s evening. Something to look forward to. So this week, through the rattle of ice rain on the living room window, which rather underlines the soundness of the decision to call things off, we are going to talk about connecting with our images.
When looking for something to photograph, chance, as we have often reiterated in this blog, falls to the prepared. There is, however, a difference between what fine art photographer Cig Harvey calls “Target Practice” and telling a story, and a personal story, rather than the story of someone else. Now you don’t have to go to quite the same limits as she went to, only shooting in one room for a year, but taking responsibility for everything in the frame and avoiding the “Yeah buts’”. That is, doing it, rather along the lines we talked of in the last blog, because we are not all full time artists.
Photography is a channel to put our thoughts in. Cig Harvey again. This is a particular form of photography, the fine art angle, but don’t we do this consciously or subconsciously, anyway? This, at least in part, is improvement as a continuous process, because the stories never stop, we just switch them off at some point. We are all taking a little moment in history and slicing away at the baggage that surrounds it and showing a truth. Or maybe just taking drunken snaps on the camera phone during an after work drinks session. Maybe something in between, but for those of us who take our art even a little more seriously, there is the recognition of something achieved, with a little something to take forward to the next frame. Basically, “Yes, and …”
Fine art most of us would think beyond us, but we have all taken that sort of image at some time or other, even if by accident. Indeed the definition of what fine art might be in photography isn’t even settled definitively. It is, on one level, peoples’ bread and butter. But not all fine art photographers are fine art artists making a living. Most, I suspect, are on the amateur level – which doesn’t make them averse to making money from their photography, just means it’s not a regular source of income. Essentially “Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer”, which tells us next to nothing because it doesn’t include much and really doesn’t exclude anything apart from the implication that if you are not an “Artist” you cannot be a fine art photographer.
That Wikipedia definition does try and make such a deliniation, but even so the misses the potential irony (neigh sarcasm) behind Picasso’s statement that “I have discovered photography. Now I can kill myself. I have nothing else to learn”, but does give room to John Steinbeck’s comment on Robert Capa “… That the camera need not be a cold mechanical device. Like the pen, it is as good as the man who uses it. It can be the extension of mind and heart…” The whole “Is photography art?”debate is endless and, frankly, sterile. It will never be conclusively settled and is as much about fashion as it about metaphysical discussions of meaning and being. Maybe it’s all what the Journalist Fyfe Robertson labelled Phart, but I think that rather misses the point.
Exclusivity certainly plays a part in the discussion. Certainly it is not all of it. Vision, idea, technique, a body if work all have their place and frequently find their way into this blog and our Thursday evenings and hopefully seep into our practice. As illustrated last week this doesn’t have to be a long practice but mulling it over, working the idea into a concept, finding the materials it needs, getting everything together then executing the shot can be the fruit of days, weeks, months, years. Doesn’t make it any better or worse to look at, but the effect on the photographer as the centre of this whirl does make it something more than the recording of a play of light on a subject.
Above all it is an attitude, a desire and a great deal of persistence that makes an artist, regardless of medium. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, especially when practising, and it doesn’t have to be to please anyone else but ourselves, but I suppose most of us take photographs to show others. Over time though we develop our own photographic fingerprint, but standing in the same place Ansel Adams stood and point our camera at the same vista as Ansel Adams pointed his at at the same time of day as Ansel Adams did at the same time of year as Ansel Adams did does not mean we get the same picture that Ansel Adams got, much less make us Ansel Adams. All we do get is the same thing every other photographer got doing the same, at best a downscale Ansel Adams look a like picture. It is instructive to do what the masters of the medium did and do, but is of little value if we cannot make those images we make our own. Afterall access to the original completed file or negative means we can run copies faithful to the original ad infinitum.
Which is one of the arguments that some people propose to strip photography of the idea that it might be art. Art is an artefact, it is made, it is up to us to make up our own minds what we consider art or otherwise.
Robert Harvey BA (Hons) ARPS EFIAP treated us to Landscapes for all Seasons on the Feast of St Patrick. Starting with a straw poll as to which was the clubs favourite season for landscapes, apparently it is always Autumn, Robert took us through a wide variety of seasonal landscapes, features and how he captured them in a richly illustrated, wide ranging evening.
Although the camera basics are fairly well established, let’s call this the science, for taking landscapes, as ever the art has more to it than just pointing and shooting (for which f11 and focus two steps – 5 feet – in front of your 18-50mm kit lens set at 18mm. Gets everything in focus from 2’6″ (0.75m) up to infinity; works from 6 feet (well 5′ 9″) with a 24mm lens on a full frame. See the 30 July 15 blog post for an explanation of hyperfocal distance) of knowing your subject, knowing the conventions, knowing the sort of things that only practice really ever teaches. The art of knowing lies in critical observation and informed practice, often known as reflective practice, and Robert has 25 years photographic experience as well as a background as a natural scientist to draw on.
That doesn’t mean the rest of us should pack up and go home, but it does contain a general principle we can all adhere to. When we take the camera out we do so with a purpose. That isn’t to say we should squeeze all the fun out of it, that we can only take the camera out of the bag to conduct our photography with serious academic intent. We need to recognise that any photograph is the sum of the decisions the photographer has made about his/her relative position to a subject in a given environment. More of this in a minute.
Landscape photographs do have their own conventions and competitions have their own conventions and rules. Certainly the do no harm principle we talked about in the last post on natural photography, is an ethical place to start. Though as with nature photographs this idea can be both selectively and subjectively applied. But it does go deeper than that to the core idea of what a photograph actually is for, what it represents. We’ve touched on this recently with David Jones’ evening and the notions of authenticity. It is a question of what we are claiming to represent. If it is within a genre where the integrity of the image as a documentary record is sacrosanct, say photojournalism, then it is pretty straight forward. If it is more representative then it matters less. If it’s Snapchat then an altogether different, informal set of rules apply.
That may be the underlying code that dictates the what, the why, the where, the then of what gets captured but the how is, as we have touched on above, a process guided by the decisions we make. So, we’ve set the camera to manual or aperture priority and we have raised to the camera to the eye because something has captured our attention. Broad vista? Enter the rule of thirds. Most cameras, including compacts, have an optional thirds grid you can put on live view or through the (E)VF. Even if yours hasn’t it’s not too difficult to imagine one over the scene. The trick is then to align a feature on one of the lines, or at the junctions of the lines. If it’s patterns that have caught your eye then it will be a question of cropping in as tight as you can so the detail is very clear and a lot of the context available in a wider view will not be available.
You can still use the rule of thirds in a detail crop, indeed it can be very advantageous to the overall effect as there is less relative information to go by (not a bad thing). In the broader landscape you are looking to put the sky one third or two thirds of the way down in the picture. In the detail shot it will be the main feature (focus point). In both cases you really need to make the point of focus obvious using natural or man-made features, lead lines and so on. The broad tendency is for detail shots to be more abstract, the key to both is to be as close to the subject, as cropped in, as is possible and necessary to give the image punch. If you can’t frame it change position, shapes and features make the photograph, there absence just makes for an empty space that just happens to have something in it.
In essence that is it, seems simple, doesn’t it? Well it is and it isn’t. It is because that is what you do with the Bakelite lump you attach the expensive glass to. Three useful things to add: learn to use the histogram if your camera has one (or use your eyes, they tell you the same thing but the histogram measures the fall of light on the sensor and makes it obvious about spikes on the extreme left -shadows- and right – highlights); Expose for the sky/highlights (details in shadow are easier to recover in post production than highlights); Shoot in RAW (linked to the previous point). That doesn’t mean that JPEG is evil or wrong but where there is a high dynamic range in your image RAW will leave you with more information to manipulate. JPEG makes certain decisions about what data is used as a baseline and preserves/eliminates it on that basis. What is left is less data to manipulate.
It isn’t quite so simple because you cannot compensate for a lack of knowledge about where to be and when on a consistent basis just with luck. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Photography. Club members Kev Speirs and Rich Price gave us a good grounding in this a couple of years back based on their 2013 trip to Iceland – which is where they are as I write this having returned to further their experience, Iceland, that is, not 2013, no not the frozen food chain either). The performance booster we are looking for is a planned serendipity. We’ve been here before so I shan’t dwell. Robert is an environmental scientist as well as a photographer and photography for him is more than a hobby, it is a business in more than one sense.
So, our thanks to Robert Harvey for a an interesting and well rounded evening.
N E X T M E E T I N G.
Judging ROC Round 3.