Category Archives: Exhibitions

First exhibition print

This is my first print in an exhibition. I do not remember much of the details but it was in Coventry probably around 1976, could have been a Coventry Photographic Society annual show. I was out one Sunday morning on an old WW2 bomb site in the Hillfields area when these kids came along with their dog. A few quick shots and they continued on their way.

Camera was a Pentax Spotmatic F with 50mm F1.8 lens Not sure which film but probably Tri-X or FP4 developed in ID11 at 1:1

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The Human Document

Last week I discovered the Mead Gallery, at the University of Warwick, are showing an exhibition – “The Human Document, the photography of persuasion from 1930s America to present day”. As it includes around 100 prints from the FSA (Farm security Administration) I just had to see it. And what an absolute thrill it was. Having studied the FSA photography 37 years ago as an undergraduate I just could believe that I was finally standing in front of prints by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott and others. To see the prints and examine close up – as all photographers do – was overwhelming; the quality of the images is superb and you can see detail that is not possible in even the best reproduction.

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The biggest surprise is that Mead have not been shouting about this exhibition from the roof tops. The other surprise, or maybe not,  was that very few people were there, maybe 5 in the hour and a half it took get round. I would have thought there would be queues of college courses bringing students. Maybe they do not teach about the FSA now? Is documentary – photographing the real – not considered as art?  That was certainly one comment I heard in the gallery, “…can’t understand why the exhibition is here because it’s not art”.

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That is the second time the ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ thing has come up. For some documentary is not art because it deals with real life or is ‘too real’ for modern photography students. Has the conceptual overtaken photography so that documentary has become just too passé? I sincerely hope not because in these times of rapid political change we need photographers to document and question what is happening.

The modern photography included works by Paul Graham, Chris Killip and others. I thought that theses two fitted in the overall theme but the other photographers seemed out of place. They seemed to be trying to produce something more than a document and as such lost impact. I heard a visitor say that they looked staged, false, not authentic which was an interesting comment.

plates2What is evident is the enduring power of the FSA images, the stark fact that they are equally applicable today as they were 60 years ago. There have been similar photos from migrant camps in Calais and other places and I am sure there are images of poverty and desperation everywhere if you take the time to look. History repeats itself,

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Getting the best from your pixels

When I started using a digital camera it was obvious that however many pixels you have, and however much you spend on super lenses, good results are not guaranteed. Having lots of pixels does not automatically mean better pics, there is still some photographic technique involved.

I work on long term project which usually result from having something to say. In terms of project planning I work backwards from having an idea of how I want to prints to look and where they will be shown. For the Quarried project I decided I wanted large prints mounted without glass so that there was as little as possible between the audience and the print. That eventually turned out to be matt colour prints mounted on Diabond.

Knowing what I wanted narrowed down the decision required to achieve the end result. Basically I could use 5×4 colour negative film or a high end digital system. Using 5×4 would have given the resolution but would have resulted in a different project.  I opted for a Nikon D800 which, at 36MP was the highest resolution DLSR at the time.

Learning to use the new camera took a while but it soon became obvious that it needed to be on a good tripod with the camera in mirror-up mode and triggered by a remote shutter release. The reason for that is that the mirror cause vibrations in the camera which can significantly degrade the image quality especially when using longer lenses. 5514_a4

This image was taken across a valley approximately 500m from the camera. It works well at A0 (1200mm x 800mm.)

Having taken care of the photographic technique the next stage was printing test images. I did this by using 4, A2 prints fixed together with masking tape. Other issues were now obvious. If I edited the image on my home computer I had to change colour balance, brightness, contrast and saturation on the PC connected to the printer. My PC monitor was not calibrated. This is absolutely crucial if you want to send image files to commercial printers. But it seemed like a lot of additional expense until one of the tutors on the MA course asked how much I had spent on the lens and how much I had spent on my monitor. The ratio was 20:1. She then asked what I expected from a cheap monitor. She was absolutely right – thank you Karen.

The choice of monitor was relatively easy – EIZO the industry standard. I got the cheapest model but even that is amazing. I check the calibration every 1-2 weeks and it does not move much at all. I can now edit my files and use them on other printers without any problems. Recently I prepared a file for printing on fabric, it was 1350mm x 2000mm. I was told to use 8 bit, RGB1998 and it worked perfectly. (It is a type of printer used in fashion and textiles to print directly onto rolls of fabric.)

And of course the usual disclaimer – these are my opinions based on my own experiences. I am not being paid to endorse products.

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Residency – AA2A

3294_c1-sLast month I applied for a place on the Artists Access to Art Colleges scheme and have been accepted by Sheffield Hallam University. It means I have access to the facilities in the new Sheffield Institute of Arts for this academic year.

It is a wonderful opportunity to do some experimental work on alternative ways of printing and showing photographs. I hope this will lead to an exhibition maybe in late 2017 or 2018.

Today I made a print on fabric, 1350mm wide by 2020mm long,  of a miner I photographed in 2013. It took almost an hour to print. The print still has to be steamed to fix the dye to the fabric but from what I saw coming off the printer it looked good. More later.

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What we cannot see

I went to the People’s History Museum in Manchester yesterday to see a photographic exhibition – “Industrial society in image and word”. There were images from the beginnings of photography as well as many from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The exhibition included portraits of urban industrial workers together with urban landscapes. I have seen other exhibitions like this over the years and I always come away thinking about the lack of documentation of rural work. I know about the work of Emerson and others but it seems rural work is depicted in a more pictorial way and I am left with the feeling that it is seen as a the opposite of the worst of industrial squalor. This makes rural work less important and less visible.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork. © Colin Shaw

The depiction of rural work is bound up with the rural myth, the idea that all was perfect in the countryside as opposed to the poverty and deprivation of the city. This incomplete view of rural life persisted through the twentieth century with little documentary photography of the realities of rural work.

Perhaps the most notable project was that of James Ravilious, 1939-99, who photographed rural life in the west of England. I have no problem with what he did and it certainly showed what living in the countryside was like. Maybe it is the way that the work has been interpreted in later years that is the problem. It seems to have slipped into some mythicised view of the rural where everything is perfect. Any hint of hardship is overshadowed by the pictorial and I am left with the feeling that living in beautiful surroundings somehow compensates for the daily grind of near subsistence farming.

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Last milking on a Warwickshire farm before the M40 was built through the middle of the farm. © Colin Shaw.

The lack of knowledge and subsequent misunderstanding of what really happens in the countryside is still as strong today. The separation of the rural and the urban is made worse by the redefinition of the rural as a place of leisure rather than work. The fact that modern farms have become industrialised, by the necessity to compete in ‘the market’, means that a drive, or train ride, though the countryside shows little evidence of anybody doing any work. This leads to the mistaken assumption that the countryside is a deserted playground for urban visitors.

How can photography represent rural work in a different way? There will always be the feeling that however harsh country life is it is never as bad as life in the city. But people do still work in the countryside producing food and many other things essential for modern life. It is just that they are less visible and making them more visible would mean accepting a different view of the land.

See also the Farmwork project and M40 Warwickshire.

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Four prints shortlisted RPS Internationl Print Exhibition #159

A few weeks back I entered 4 prints from the Quarried exhibition in the Royal Photographic Society International Print Exhibition #159 and forgot all about it. Today I heard that all 4 have been shortlisted. Now they have to be printed and sent down to Bath for the final selection.

All prints will be at the Great Dome Art Fair

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