Category Archives: Landscape

Why is landscape photography only about winning competitions?

Landscape photography has become big business with many of the competition winners running courses and location based workshops and generally cashing in on their status. It is a small world with only the best known ‘celebs’ getting the attention and the audiences they desire. ‘Doing landscapes’ has been taken over by the need to win, become a celeb and make money.

In previous posts I have asked what contemporary landscape photography is a about. [What is landscape photography?  The wild, wilderness’ and pristine natural landscape  Man altered landscape] 

It has become very formulaic and it seems that people with cameras, I hesitate to call them photographers, have stopped looking at landscape as it is and see only potential competitions winners. They will not engage with their surroundings, see ‘nature’, feel it or connect with it because to them it is just a two-dimensional motif that is acceptable to the judges of competitions.

Popular and club photography is predicated on competitions and winning. Points are applauded, challenges to the accepted norms of what makes a point winning pic are denigrated. The pressure is to conform, to make images like everybody else or be a seen as a failure. Individual creativity is constrained within tightly prescribed rules. I wonder what the enjoyment is in constantly striving to play the game, to please judges, to be accepted and to win?

It is time we engaged fully with our landscape where we live and not run off to one of the ‘honey spots’ so accurately described in magazines. It is time to accept that landscape is not always pristine and natural, that it is made by humans, is sometimes dirty and ugly and that we own the landscape we make. Then we might produce images that say something about landscape rather than conform to a very narrow definition of what landscape photography should be.

The new landscape photography might even have room for the people who live and/or work in/on the land. Most of all photographers might start to enjoy a new kind of image making which is more relaxed, more creative, less competitive and more about their own ideas and feelings.  I live in hope but cannot see the money in such a venture!

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No need to travel round the world to find subjects

One thing about photography I cannot understand is the need to fly half-way around the world to make pics. For many landscape photographers, there is an all-encompassing need to get the best shot to win the next prize and for that you need to travel to certain ‘approved’ destinations. Top of the list are Iceland, Greenland and the Arctic.

The photographs are often accompanied by lyrical titles and comments about the magnificence of the landscape. What is not mentioned are the dire effects of climate change on the very areas being photographed. Of no concern is the contribution to greenhouse gases made by long haul flights. There appears to be no connection made between travel and the effects on the very landscape being photographed.

I have long argued that good photographers find subjects close to them eliminating the need for long distance travel. Stephen Shore summed this up perfectly when he said:

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what interests me.”

As photographers, we should have some awareness of the effects of our actions. To jet across the world to take pics because we want to shows no respect for the landscape or subjects being photographed. All our actions have an impact on the world in which we live and long haul flights contribute to climate change and ultimately the destruction of the very subject we want capture.

If you need convincing that climate change is happening now and ice is melting at an ever-increasing rate which will have profound effects on sea levels, see “Glacier Exit” https://vimeo.com/198306286 and the work of the Extreme Ice Survey http://extremeicesurvey.org

James Balog Birthday Canyon – Extreme Ice Survey

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What kind of photographer are you?

For many years I have been interested in both landscape photography and portraiture. The portraits I take are often of people who work on the land and sometimes in it. I do not see this as a difficulty or contradiction because I have come to believe that we are of the land. It is where we come from, what sustains us and is where we return after death. It cannot be anything else because this is the planet on which we live, there is no other source of life.

The only problem with all this is being a photographer. Some photographers I have met cannot cope with the combination of landscapes and portraits; evidently you have to specialise in one OR the other. There seems to be a set of rules somewhere which says you are either/or but not both. If you do landscapes you need a certain type of equipment e.g.  an 18mm – 24mm f2.8 zoom is a must have. When I admitted to one landscape enthusiast that I did not have one he questioned my sanity, competence and commitment. And for portraits I am told I need an 85mm f1.4 portrait lens for ‘natural’ perspective and the best bokeh. Nobody has told me what catastrophe would occur if I used an 85mm for landscapes or a 24mm for portraits. I have done both. I admit that you have to take care when using anything over a 35mm lens for close up portraits but the sky did not come crashing down.

This was either a 35mm or 28mm lens quite close up. There is distortion to the head but I would rather have got the pic than have fiddled around changing lenses, moving position and reframing and lost it.

What I am saying is do not let yourself be labelled as a particular kind of photographer and do not be pushed onto the ‘right equipment’ treadmill. Photography is about making photographs with what you have and not about endless striving for the ‘right’ gear. Do not feel pressured to conform, do your own thing. Most of all I am saying that the rigid distinction between landscape and people is artificial much like the unwritten rules of the best lens for the job.

A landscape with a 200mm lens.

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“Click” and the polar bear gets it!

It was good to watch “Artic Live” on the TV over the last three nights because it was very informative about climate change and the way it is destroying Artic habitats. Surprising really because the BBC seems to have been somewhat muted recently. I did wonder about the impact of transporting film crews around the Artic but it was worth it just for the strength of the message.

It is a pity that many photographers want to visit the far North with Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic and the Faroe Islands becoming popular locations for photo tours. I cannot understand the attraction. Is it about scoring points in competitions? Or is there something macho about going to these places?  If so, then I suggest Grayson Perry’s latest book “The Descent of Man” will give some insight into why men do such stuff.

Saksun - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saksun

Saksun – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saksun

The latest place that on the photographers travel agenda is Saksun in the Faroes which, according a new book from National Geographic, is one of the “17 of the World’s Most Wild and Beautiful Places.” That surely must sound the death knell for anywhere on the list as hordes of tourists bristling with cameras will now descend on them.

Landscape photography has become big business over the last few years fuelled by endless competitions like Landscape Photographer of the Year with its £10,000 first prize. There are books and magazines full of hints, tips, lists of places go and adverts from people running tours to every wild and beautiful place on the planet. It has become big money.

I have heard photographers say that they are not tourists but ‘travellers’. What is the difference I ask because the end result is the same?  As we experience more of the effects of climate change there can be no justification for such travel?

Then there is the question of the need to travel half-way round the world to take pics when we live on such a diverse and beautiful island. I think this says it all for me, it is a quote from Stephen Shore that I have on my wall:

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what I am interested in”.

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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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Trial of B&W pigment prints

Feedback from the Great Dome Art Fair included a number of requests for smaller sized prints of the B&W series “Fractured Landscapes”. Making smaller silver based prints takes as much time as the larger prints and uses almost the same amount of materials.

Trying to keep costs down is becoming crucial as the price and film and paper continues to rise sharply. There has to be another way to make good quality prints with the same archival qualities as correctly processed gelatin silver prints.

I have always said that if I make images on film then I will use conventional wet printing. I stick by that but I have decided if there is another way that produces high quality archival prints then it is worth investigating as an alternative.

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This is a photograph of a trial print – it looks a million times better in reality!

Looking at the longevity of prints using pigment inks on cotton rag paper Wilhelm Imaging Research say that they will last around 100 years which is reassuring.

Having completed trials on Hahnemühle 100% cotton, smooth fine art paper I am impressed by the image quality and the neutral blacks. The aim now to produce a series designed for 250mm square frames. They will be available in September 2016.

 

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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.

M40-027-e1s

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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