Category Archives: Projects

Having a passion

You have ideas, thoughts about what to do, what to say but doubts creep in. Then out of the blue you read something, see something, hear something and everything slots into place. Today it was a passage in “The Wild Places” by Robert Macfarlane. His piece about the world of John Baker who tracked falcons and hawks in Essex for decades.

In the 1950s Baker was convinced they would die out because of agricultural pesticides and intensive farming. He was right of course. Baker was a man who some would say was obsessed by the plight of these birds. Obsession is a dirty word these days but we need people who are obsessed about ‘nature’ in all its forms. We need people with the passion to follow their vision, to do what they need to do without thinking of the rewards.

Often, I feel that we, as a society, as humans are on the edge of a precipice. Now is the time for the passions to surface, now is the time to follow gut feelings and do what you need to do. Follow that passion.

Thank you, Robert Macfarlane.

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Reflective journal

One thing I learned when doing a photography MA a few years back was just how useful a reflective journal can be. I tried to keep it going when the course ended but it was not easy. For some reason, I started a new journal on 1 April this year using a hard-back notebook which seemed a bit more substantial than the usual cheap pads I used previously.

I have made regular entries about processes I am trying or revisiting and it helps to get a better perspective on what works or fails. This morning just writing about something that was just not right helped to find a better option. And being critical about what I did a few weeks back has  raised questions about the process. I recommend giving it a try.

 

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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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