Month: May 2016

31 May

Constraining yourself as the sun sets

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Before I end my enforced couple of weeks on the sofa and escape the mind melting experience that is daytime TV…thank the lord for the Giro and the French Open is all I can say…I thought I’d share a quick ramble about a mini-project that has been birthed, undertaken and wrapped up all within the space of the last week.

Sitting on your sofa, knowing that you can’t drive and can’t lift your camera and tripod let alone carry a camera bag can be a touch frustrating…well for me anyway.  After the first week of imprinting the shape of my backside onto the poor cushion beneath me, and once I’d finished combing the archives for something new to process or something old to reprocess, watched a pile of films and documentaries, caught up on some magazines I’d been holding back, re-read some photography books, decided upon all my LPOTY entries, and then deciding not to bother entering, burnt through a pile of cash doing irresponsible volumes of printing, sorted and ordered my OS Explorer collection and spent far, far too much time rambling on Twitter…I was undeniably frustrated and bored.  I needed to take some photos and exercise the muscle memory with camera in hand, I just felt the need to actually create something again…but what?  I was restricted. couldn’t drive, couldn’t lift anything, couldn’t go far, so what could I do?  The answer was literally staring me in the face…my back garden…time to break out the macro lens and dive Bellamylike into the undergwowf.

I went out for a stroll up the garden with the customary mug of tea to see what opportunities were in the offing only yards from my back door.  Plenty of flowers were in full bloom, shrubs and perennials were growing rapidly, insects were everywhere buzzing from flower to flower and stem to stem, the pond was full of water boatmen, pond skaters and newts, but I’m no Mark Horton, I’ll leave the incredible capture of all things buzzy, crawly & globby to him. Instead it was the ferns that initially caught my eye.  Their unfurling fronds chasing one another up out of the border…graceful, architectural and most fortuitously at just the right height for someone currently having trouble bending down very far.

I retreated back to the house, broke out the notebook and started planning…

First and foremost, I told myself this was an ideal opportunity to accept the constraints that had been placed on me….there was bog all I could do about it, so embrace it.  We all need some constraints now and again, they can help us really think about what we’re producing, and give us a bounding box within which we can explore freely, giving us some focus and freeing us from worrying about everything that lies beyond that boundary for a while. It can be hugely rewarding and refreshing.  Now I’m the first to admit that self imposing those constraints is not always easy, and the temptation to ignore them…’just for this one shot’…can be overwhelming, but this time I had no choice. *

So it was time to grasp the opportunity, work with it and set the boundaries of the project. OK, so what would that mean for me?  Well I decided I wanted to produce a series, and by that I mean a collection of images organised around a common theme, with a common look/feel/style that means they all hang together as a whole.  Did there need to be a unifying message behind the images?  In this case not necessarily, this was simply a challenge, no deeper meaning than that.  It wasn’t going to be my magnum opus, the beginning of a defining series that would take months or years to complete, this was simply something to keep me going until I could drive again. That meant I had a few days at best to complete it, so I set myself the task of 10 images that met the brief.

I broke out the Canon for the first time in months because of the simply gorgeous 100mm f2.8 L macro lens I could slap on the front of it for this project, and using that single lens was an added constraint that would help to unify any images I produced.  By the time I charged a battery for the camera and headed outside it was around 9.00pm and was getting dark, but on the plus side it was also still and calm, which given that I was shooting handheld as I couldn’t manoeuvre a tripod around was going to be a bonus. Even so, when I started shooting it soon became clear that DoF was going to be an issue, as even with the ISO cranked up I was inevitably shooting close to wide open just to get an acceptably unfuzzy shot. Still, I persevered for a while and considered it a warm up for some more time the following day.

I looked through those first images on the laptop and had managed to grab one image I was happy with. I liked the comparative simplicity of it, the shapes and forms within the frame and the heavily restricted pallet, restricted to GREEN that is.  So I decided to let that image, see below, set the style for the series. It also helped steer its theme and purpose, so instead of capturing fuzzy UCM macro flower images…badly…I instead wanted to explore more simplistic graphical compositions, using light and form within a predominantly dark and monochromatic frame.  It also meant I could embrace a shallow depth of field instead of being hindered by it, so wide open it was going to be.


Over the next couple of days I went back out, at the same time of the evening to ensure the same quality of light and slowly began to build a set of images. I ended up settling on only 3 or 4 plants in the garden, revisiting them daily and being grateful that overnight they had grown and changed to afford me a few more compositional options. I quickly passed my 10 image target, but kept going as I found myself enjoying this precious 20 minutes or so every evening trying to find new forms and shapes through the viewfinder…I was just playing again, and it felt good.

A few of the images from the series are included below, but the full series can be seen here.

AsTheSunSetsColour-3 AsTheSunSetsColour-4 AsTheSunSetsColour-9 AsTheSunSetsColour-11

So what did I get out of this?  Apart from enjoying the pure exploration of light, form, shape and space with only myself to please, surprisingly more than I initially thought I would.  Working with constraints is not, well, constraining…it’s freeing.  It gives you permission to focus, to ignore other distractions and be a bit more creative with your subject matter at hand. I definitely took images I wouldn’t necessarily have taken normally, learning quite a bit in the process, and not just about my own inability to handhold at slow shutter speeds!  It’s a reminder to look at your own back yard, quite literally in my case, and not just stampede across the country looking for glamorous locations.  I enjoyed working to a brief, even if it was one I’d set myself, and having the challenge of creating enough images in such a short space of time made sure I kept focus for those twenty minutes each evening.  It was also nice to know that like all good projects should, it had an end, once I’d met the ‘done’ criteria…it was done and dusted.

In short, I think I’ll be setting myself more short run mini projects like this to stay fresh and challenge myself.  I won’t just stick to the comfort zone either, I’ll try different genres and styles too, and I fully expect that hardly any of them will see the light of day as this one has, but that’s fine by me as long as they stretch my photography, keep me developing and give me an occasional creative recharge.

As I’ll soon be able to drive again, but still won’t be able to carry anything heavy, maybe the next series will be taken from lay-bys…who knows? Time to make a cup of tea and break out that notebook again…

*I couldn’t help myself though, and despite the initial brief I set myself stipulating colour, I just had to process some as B&W because I know they’d just work.  So as a result I now have two versions of the series. Some images are common to both, but some only work in one treatment, so here’s the black and white version too.


22 May

How many chimps does it take to fill a bookcase?

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Sitting on the arm of the sofa, doors to the bookcase flung wide open, scanning the bound and jacketed tomes that fill the shelves, trying to decide which book I was in the mood for spending some long overdue time with, I became aware that i was subconsciously skipping entire sections of my collection in my quest for something to accompany my freshly made steaming hot mug of tea, but why?

When I talk about my bookshelves here, I’m referring solely to the collection of photography related books I’ve accumulated over the years that reside in this particular…now stuffed to the gunnels…bookcase.  I have other sorts of books obviously; autobiographies, fiction, textbooks, veggie cookbooks (I know…shock!), Haynes manuals, etc that don’t live here, and neither does my ever increasing map collection, that’s right ‘increasing’…listen up you millenials…google maps doesn’t count, you simply can’t lose yourself for several hours in google maps imagining views, crags, woodland and underestimating gradients…but I digress, that’s another middle aged ranty blog post [places pipe down, repositions slippers by the Aga, tuts and takes off a shoddy pair of rose tinted spectacles].  Anyway, back to the bookcase…The books on these shelves span some 20 years or so of accumulating, and are largely organised by author/photographer’s name. They’re not arranged alphabetically, or using the dewey decimal system, but in loosely associated clumps I’d guess.  David Ward lives next to Joe Cornish, Dav Thomas lives next to David Baker, Josef Koudelka lives next to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Greg Whitton has his own special mahogany plinth with a hand knitted green, beanie-hat styled protective dust cover.

So as I carefully dusted down the copy of Mountainscape sat atop the almighty beanie plinth, I realised I was sitting there looking at my own photographic journey, or was I?  Did the books on those shelves represent influences over those years, subject matter interests, dead ends, fleeting fads and fancies? Or was it just a collection of random books full of imagery.  I began to mentally reorder the shelves in terms of the approximate order they were purchased, looking for a pattern, and surprisingly…well to me anyway…I could clearly recall seeing some of those books for the first time and tie them in to my own photography at that point.

I quickly drew up a timeline in my notebook and started annotating with the photographers names from my shelves, Waite…Prior…Cornish…Ward…Kenna…Southam…Kenny…Sugimoto and all points in between.  As I looked at that roughly drafted timeline I held a copy of Iain Sarjeant’s ‘The Pool’ in my hands, one of the last books I’d purchased to complete my ‘Triplekite Collection’ even though it was one of the earliest titles released. I’ll be honest it hadn’t appealed to me for a long time, although I now consider it to be a little jewel upon my shelves, and I don’t think I could or would have appreciated when it was first published, I simply wasn’t ready photographically, I was on a different part of the journey, of my journey.

I started to group large parts of that timeline around the phases of my own photographic experience and a picture slowly started to emerge. I’ll spare you the inevitable powerpoint slide that followed, I do hate myself sometimes, but you just can’t take the corporate out of the boy I’m afraid…be grateful I’ve spared you all the post-its and brown paper. I also considered using Adobe Slate for this blog, to allow you to scroll with me through the timeline and annotations…but when I realised I was actually taking that seriously for a split second I jabbed at my own four day old hernia repair to induce a moment of clarity…thankfully that worked and you’ve been spared.*

And so it all began, landscape-wise, with Charlie Waite and ‘The Making of Landscape Photographs’. This was the mid 90s, and the point I decided I wanted to dig my camera out of it’s box and take it for a walk for the first time since being a geology student a few years earlier.

This moment signalled the beginning of the Big Vista & Honeypot Years, and lasted for quite a long time while I continued to ramble through the Lake District a few times a year and take ‘pictures’ along the way. Colin Prior quickly joined the fray quite soon after Charlie and eventually so did Ansel Adams and Joe Cornish.  Prior to this, the sum of my photography library amounted to a few general ‘How to take better pictures’ type books and some nameless bargain basement volumes of quintessentially pretty scenery bought from various garden centres around the Lakes.  This period will now forever be defined as BC, or Before Charlie.  Much like the Pre-Cambrian geological period it is a dark, dim and sketchy time, lacking in detail and visible progress but it contained the seeds for what lay beyond it.

The end of the Big Vista Years and with it my interest in the honeypots of the Lakes was heralded by a personal frustration with people looking at my photos and responding immediately with a location name, ‘Ooh that’s Skiddaw!’ or ‘Blea Tarn…nice!’ and the next chapter was signposted by some bloke called Ward whose images kept popping up in books I’d bought primarily because they featured the work of Joe Cornish.

From here on in, during The Simplicity & Intimacy years , the accumulation of bookery stepped up a notch, alongside my own desire to ‘grow’ as a photographer…and to do all of this ‘properly’. Sigh, the things you’d slap yourself for actually saying out loud in hindsight. In fact I hereby apologise to anyone who ever had to endure any form of photographic snobbery and pomposity from me…ever…I didn’t know I was a git at the time I swear! And if I do it again…please point it out!

Various strands then began to crystallise, an obsession with all things black and white stemming from Ansel Adams originally, but carried forward initially by Michael Kenna, then Paul Gallagher, Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Paul Strand, John Sexton and Bill Brandt.

An already burgeoning obsession with trees and woodland wasn’t helped with Triplekite’s first offering from Dav Thomas, and was fed more recently by John Irvine and David Baker through the delightful Landscape Editions books from Kozu Books. Here I have to highlight the fact that my woodland collection has two unforgivable and glaring omissions…it has no book in it by either Colin Bell or Russ Barnes…shame on you both for not publishing one, pull your fingers out please gents, there are gaps in my shelves waiting!

A brief period of introspection herein and after referred to as The Angst, as eluded to in other blogs resulted in searching for the constraints and freedom of all things project and/or series.  This has generally allowed me to indulge several photographic obsessions at once through the Kozu Books for example, through the narrative and storytelling of Jem Southam, via Matt Botwood and his ‘Travels in a Strange Land: Dark Spaces’ work, and as mentioned earlier Iain Sergeant’s ‘The Pool’. As a point of order I also feel obliged to call Matt Botwood out for his shocking and continued efforts to accrue more and more images for his Ephemeral Pools series when he should in fact actually be putting them in a book for me to enjoy, some people are so selfish I tell you.

However, in amongst the some would say, less traditional, landscape photography books added to my collection over the last few years, one book in particular can not be allowed to go unmentioned. ‘The Landscape’ by Paul Wakefield landed like an 800lb bomb on my lap, singlehandedly demonstrating how contemporary landscape images have been taken for the last 30 years…by him…and it continues to blow me away every time I open its massive pages on my kitchen table. If you don’t own it yet…buy it…and treasure it.

So, all being told, does that mean these particular photographers and their bodies of work set the tone for images I produced in each of those phases? Partly, yes, but not necessarily or entirely. They clearly resonated with me at the time I purchased them because I loved the work and wanted to be able to produce photos just like it, particularly in the earlier years, but in some cases they resonated because they were so incredibly different to what I was shooting at a time when I was internally dissatisfied with the images I was producing (more so than usual anyway) and they opened a new door for me creatively.

Lately I simply enjoy looking at books across all genres and points in the last century from Josef Koudelka, Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz and Hiroshi Sugimoto to name but a few, letting them feed my subconscious, and I’ll be honest, giving myself a long overdue education in the roots of this craft we all love…in this sense I am admittedly, horribly, embarrassingly and pitifully uneducated.

So what’s the point of this evening’s ramblings then, I guess I’d better try to pull something out of the ether for those of you who have stuck with me this far…bless…have you nothing better to do with your busy lives than read my self-indulgent drivel?

Well I guess firstly I just wanted to get the point over that this is all ultimately a journey, and whilst my own journey has had several phases, BC, The Big Vista & Honeypot Years, The Simplicity & Intimacy, and The Angst, I’m now at a place I’m calling The Beginning (I promise to birch myself thoroughly for overuse of arty bollocks).  The path I’ve followed has at times been narrow and one-dimensional, but more than ever it now feels like it is broad and varied and that there are in fact many paths to follow, with many possibilities to explore.  For various reasons I’ve stopped looking to shortcut the journey in search of getting somewhere quickly, I’m now enjoying the journey for what it is, just that, a journey, an opportunity to explore and learn, a chance to take a path less followed or to really get to know the one you’re already on a bit better than you do right now. I’m always learning, and I always want to learn…that’s the fun bit.

Lastly this is a plea to everyone to buy books now and again. In a time when we are surrounded by online imagery 24/7, the experience of looking at beautifully printed images in a book, with a cup of tea, or a fine single malt can not be surpassed.  You will slow down and look, properly, and learn, and be moved, or maybe none of the above….but you won’t have just flicked right after a nanosecond of attention for an image that someone has lovingly crafted and nurtured.  The staggering efforts that David Breen & Dav Thomas of Triplekite or Greg Stewart of Kozu Books, or those over at Another Place Press go to in order to bring us the work of photographers we want to see should not be underestimated.  They, and many others like them are supporting our community and can only do so if we keep buying their dead trees. So please, buy more books, from the self publishers, the small publishers and if needs be the big boys, but buy more books…..fill your own bookshelves, get your next fix of inspiration, chimp some more images…

*[OK…you’ve endured this far…here’s the powerpoint slide…]