Sunday, March 30, 2014

Art, Pain And The Eternal Struggle

Morning folks . . in fact, to coin a phrase from a friend of my Dad's, who was Welsh and not Irish 'Top o' the mornin' to you! Don't you just love it when the dawn beats you to rising . . my favourite time of year.
Anyway, enough of that, because we are about to talk about graft.
Hard Graft.
Damn Hard.
In fact, if you don't feel up to a bit of a solid workout, then you might as well give up now, because, and I'll say this only once:
"The Darkroom Boot Camp Makes Men."
Now any of you solid young fellows that don't feel much like working, well, you can leave now, and take your dollies with you, because what we are talking about today is Man-Stuff.
It soon sorts out the wheat from the chaff, and if you don't feel up to it, you jolly well know what you can do.

It is really rather easy to see why hardly anyone bothers to print with traditional darkroom materials these days.
To put it bluntly, making a 'proper' monochrome print (on silver gelatin paper, using an enlarger and a negative) is fucking hard.
There, I've said it.
I can't say I have ever seen it put like that before (not even in the original proof version of Mr. Ansel Adams' Meisterwerk 'The Print').
But it is true.
And how can I say it?
Well, I have spent a large period of my adult life spare time toiling away in darkrooms - approximately 30 years actually, and whilst I consider myself a good and able printer, I am not sure whether I have ever even crossed that borderline into the legendary realms of the 'fine' printer.
Others might disagree with me, however (and this is where the tao of self-belief comes in) they're wrong. You see, my problem is that I tend towards self-criticism and a lack of self-confidence in all of my creative endeavours, and this leads to the rather unhealthy situation of being too critical of my prints.
I can print. Sure I can print well.
But I am not 'fine' .
See what I mean? That damn lack of confidence. Hoist 'pon my own petard as it were.
If I were different I'd be saying:

"Yeah, 30 years Analog (how I bloody hate that word) - man I can print up a storm. 
Split Grade? Yehay, piece of easy shit. 
Toning . . send on the selenium. 
Archival processing? Man, my shit will last longer than that radiation leak from Fukashima 
l'm ALL ANALOG man."

Or words to that effect.
But the proof of the pudding and all that - the object, is sitting there in your hand staring you in the face and it's either the cat's pyjamas or a total mutt, because you see, there's no glossing over things with printing.
You are holding the truth in your hand, and it is either being held with an archival cotton museum glove or feverishly clutched in your nicotine-stained hand whilst you shake your other fist at the sky. There's no escaping the truth.

I spent a reasonable amount of time this morning scanning through tons of old prints for the first time in months and months, and maybe the break has done me good, because I was clearly able to see the rejects and the also-rans, the winners and the sure-fire pleasurable prints. 
You'll find some scans at the end of this blog and see if you agree.
The thing is though (that apart from the total hounds) at the end of each respective printing sessions I loved most of the prints I had made, because that is the nature of printing.
It can be a pleasurable activity. 
You are crafting something of the three-dimensional world into the critical and narrow realism of the two-dimensional print
And sometimes, just sometimes, that 3-D world is transformed into a 2-D image of such passion and beauty it takes your breath away.
But a lot of the time it isn't.
You can't escape the truth.
It is though, an object; and an object you've made.
It may not change lives in the way say a viewing of Edward Weston's contact prints does. But it is you.
And if you've made the negatives and processed them yourself as well, it is all you, and stands or falls on your skills and vision.
It is (or can be) the culmination of a very complex process, a juxtapositioning of skill, eye, taste, ability, luck and craft.
And it is fucking hard.   
There's that 'f' word again.
I'm not labouring the point either, because darkroom work is mostly a solo activity.
Nobody else is around to see the eye-strain, the smells of spilt chemicals, the blue air, the messed-up borders, scratched negatives, dust, fevered dodging and burning, test-stripping, counting, airless-sweating, more dust and bad skin/chemical reactions, until you emerge from your not-so-secret bunker clutching a couple of pieces of paper, blinking in the cold daylight and shouting "AT LAST!".
Oh no - if you're lucky someone will say, "Hey, they're nice."
And that's it.
And as if this slaving away in the red room wasn't enough, then there's the masochism of  penury:
Yeah, you know, that noun that equates to "the state of being very poor; extreme poverty".
Viz: "he couldn't face another year of penury"
Some synonyms are:
extreme/dire poverty

See what I mean - appropriate don't you think, because photography in general, has never been a poor man's hobby.
And in fact I can think of no other hobby (apart from say diamond collecting) that requires such an ungodly amount of cash to keep it going.
Again, no wonder hardly anyone prints any more . .
Why's that Sheephouse? I hear you cry
Well, to put it bluntly, it is fucking expensive.
You know, you can spend the best part of £80-£90 on a box of 100 sheets of 10x8" fibre paper.
Add in say another £20 odd on enough chemicals to get 50 or so archivally processed prints out.
And subtract from that 50 prints (of which maybe 5 to 10 are acceptable if you are being honest and of those, maybe 3 or 4 are truly things you love) the rest of that paper (approximately £40-odds worth in today's prices) which gets put away in old paper boxes, never to be looked at again!
So looking at that box of 100 sheets, you've maybe got 8 in total that you love; maybe 20 that are acceptable, and 72 that don't cut the mustard.
You see what I mean, printing is not just hard, but economically it's fucking hard.
I'll stop using the 'f‘ word to put my point across now - apparently it tells you (the reader) that I am substantially lacking in vocabulary . . make of that what you will . . .
So why, when this is an obvious case of pouring money down the drain do the few hardy souls left doing it, actually do it?
Blind Faith?
Well blind faith is close to it actually, and the pleasure of making art - you might only be scratching your shitty stick against a corner of a cave in the furthest reaches of the Lascaux cave system, but at least it is your bit of cave . .  the compulsion to make beautiful things is as old as mankind.
The compulsion to make something that might just last longer than you, is even older.
In one of my favourite films (Moonstruck), a man asks a woman why men have affairs, to which she answers "Because they are afraid of death".
Whilst printing isn't quite like that, it is in a way.
Aside from the conscious deliberation to make something that is pleasing to the eye, I feel the underlying urge is to make something that will be your little piece of eternity. Something to which massed hordes might flock and worship, in much the same way that true vintage prints by the greats of traditional photography provide the same attraction. You stand and marvel at someone's vision and soul scooped from light and form and writ large with passion on a flat piece of sensitized paper.
It is magical.
Almost as magical as those hand prints in Lascaux, though maybe not as archival.

I had the good fortune to view the touring Ansel Adams exhibition in Edinburgh a few years back - it was really extraordinary. Not just for the images, but for the quality of the printing, which was absolutely superb. The images breathed an air of unqualified precision of concept and untouchable artisanal skills - they were really special, and whether their totem-like qualities were helped along by the subdued lighting and the fact they were under glass and proper artistic OBJECTS I knoweth not . . all I do know is that they made such a deep impression on my wife and I that we went back to see them again. They were in their own way a photographic Lourdes . . where the outcome could be life-changing.
I left determined to be a better printer . . but haven't succeeded.
But back to that compulsion

I also like to think of printing as being rather like climbing a hill.
You are always trying to reach that distant pinnacle.
You might well reach one impressive top or plateau, but you can always see more tempting ones to head off towards, and each one of those is your image's potential,
But look!
There, miles away!!
The most beautiful one!!!
Well that my friend, that could well be the best print you've ever made in your life . . .
But can you reach it?
It is going to be a hard slog, and incredibly daunting, and you might well fail.
Surely it would be easier to sit down here and take it all in
After all, you can admire those peaks from a distance. There's really no need to trouble yourself, because it probably isn't worth the effort to make it to those lofty snow-covered crags.
And besides, isn't it supposed to be fucking hard?
Well yes, it is, and a number of you will fall along the way and be content to rest your weary bones, after all, this craft stuff takes stamina, steely determination and downright grit.
But then this is your craftsmanship we're talking about. Are you just going to sit there and be content to munch your sandwiches and slurp your coffee on the great tartan blanket of also-ran printing, or are you going to pack it all away, hoist your backpack and get moving before the light goes . . remember, this is one life . . there's only so much light left to determine how immortal you'll be.
You have to keep moving, keep walking, keep taking in the sights and sounds and keep enjoying the journey, because despite the effort involved, remember it is (or can be) a pleasurable activity . .
So my friends, I'll remove my soapbox now and say:
Practice, practice and practice . .
Printing is like learning a musical instrument — you'll never improve if you don't practice.
And you never know, if you keep heading on to those distant peaks, maybe Ansel, or Edward or Wynn will be up there ahead of you on the trail, holding themselves back, just waiting for you with a nice refreshing draught of inspiration.

The snarlin' hounds:

It's a print Jim, but not as we know it. Totally lacking in any impact whatsoever.

Ghastly. Bad Grade Choice and the spectre of the film masking blade on the enlarger causing underexposure on the left of the print.

The photograph has real atmosphere, but the print is as flat as anything.

Even when you think you have a good print, things conspire against you. The black top right edge is a manufacturing fault!

The Cat's Pyjamas:

This is a little series called 'City Of Discovery' all made in Dundee. They're 35mm negatives made with my old Nikon F2 and the 35mm f2 pre-Ai Nikkor.
The pale edges you see next to the blackness of the rebate are adjacency effects from film development.
Paper size is 10x8" and they're nice as physical objects.

This is called 'The Pilgrim's Way' and it was taken on St Cuthbert's footpath, which follows the route of Dere Street in the Scottish Borders. I was so taken by the quality of light and the ethereal feeling I had whilst walking this ancient track that I had to make a photograph. It's probably boring to you, but to me it has feeling. The camera was my Rolleflex T with the 6.45cm mask inserted. The quality of the negative is very fine.

I adore this photograph and print.
The photograph was made on my Rollei T using Trix-X on an incredibly bright day. What you are seeing is shadow and reflection and the dehydrated remnants of water on a window in one of the hot-houses at St Andrews Botanical Garden . . one of the finest little botanical gardens in Scotland - visit it and buy some plants.
Paper was 10x8" Ilford Galerie and I would happily display this print anywhere and not look sheep(house)ish.

Believe it or not these two images were made on the same film and on the same day - they flowed together and all was right with the world.
However, even in my hour of triumph you'll maybe notice in the first print that spectre of the masking blade encroaching on the right side of the image. Still, it'll do for the moment . . should anyone ask me to exhibit these I would of course reprint.
Both are printed on untoned 8x10" Ilford Galerie.

Archival Storage. Silverprint Archival box and crystal clear polyester sleeves.

Donkey derby stables - that's about 500 sheets of fibre 8x10.

The print as a real object

Two more.

This one didn't scan well, so this is all you get.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

La Pasión!

Morning folks - it has been quite a while hasn't it. What have you been up to? Hopefully making the most of the terrible weather to make some images rather than huddling down in your caves and muttering.
Well, today's post made me jump from my bed at 4.45AM, so something must have fired me up . . .
And you know what, it has . . . and the more I think about it the more my blood boils and the more agitated I become.
What might this be?
The price of commodities?
The terrible injustices of Syria?
Bruce Forsyth?
Nope . . none of them.
I'll tell you in a minute - honest, I will.

Regular readers will well know that I have extolled the virtues of a book called simply "Darkroom", published oodles ago by Ralph Gibson's long-defunct Lustrum Press. Well, contained within it's pages is an article by one of my favourite photographers, Mr. Wynn Bullock.
You've heard of him, right?
If not, and before we go any further I shall direct you in the direction of his website, curated and owned by his family:

His photographs are fluid and cool; incredibly rich in detail and tone; thought-provoking and evocative. But above all else, they contain a secret ingredient - Passion.
It flows out of his images like water down a Glen. It is, as they say in some parts, as plain as the nose on your face.
I am not going to go into a lengthy diatribe about his technical prowess or compositional skills, instead I am going to point you in the direction of a statement of his, written as plainly as, er . . . the nose on your face . .
Here goes:

"In the popular magazines I see photographs by some of the best technicians in the world, but these are usually the worst pictures I've ever seen because they have little sense of tone or balance. Tone, balance and other visual senses are all part of 'eye' training. If one has a keen sense of what is needed in a picture, one has to know how to get it. But if you know a lot of technique, and don't have a sense of direction, the technique is useless. Picture sense only comes from the development of one's own faculties. Except to a limited degree it can't be learned from books or teachers. nature, from whence all things come, cannot be packaged in neat little academic boxes to be opened as needed."

Common sense and an impassioned plea from a man who made photographs better than any of us could ever hope to take.
It's a statement that has distilled in my mind for quite a number of years, and it has forced me to leap from my bed, brew a bucket of tea and get typing . . so it must mean something!

OK you're saying - he's off on one again; well I suppose I am, but what has got my goat?
Well folks, remember when you were at school and there was always some sort of exclusive elite who were never touched by anything, were always good at sports and always had girls hanging off them?
Remember how they were drawn together like flies 'round sherbet?
Well, it happens in photographic circles too.
There they are. Look, over there . . a bunch of mostly middle-aged men.
It looks like some sort of an exclusive club, full of chummy mates who are parading around with some of the most expensive photographic gear in the world!
Look, they're smirking at you and I, us plain-Jane boring and ordinary 'photographers' with our dogs and donkey-carts of old and knackered Rolleis and Wistas and Mamiya Press cameras and Koni-Omegas.
Look . . . they're pointing! They're tittering!

Well, whilst not quite like that, I can't help feeling that at its heart, it really is, and I really don't know why, because as far as I can see there's nothing being produced that wouldn't be perfectly at home on a 1970's chocolate box.
I truly feel that I am going to get a lot of flack for this, but I am on one now, so I'll keep going.
Let's get one of them over and see what they have to say.

Yes, you over there.
That's right, the one in the specially-designed-for-photographers Olive Green Paramo jacket.
Yes you . . . Landscape Photographer . . come 'ere!

Now don't get me wrong - I have absolutely nothing against Landscape Photographers, because you see, at heart, I am one of them.
Right back to my earliest photographic stumblings, carefully tutored by Mr. Joseph McKenzie, I took baby-steps, toted a Mamiya C330S on a tripod and photographed the landscape.
I made images, lovingly, of the riverbank where I used to live. I processed them carefully, I printed them large and archivally on Ilford Galerie. I spotted the prints and mounted them beautifully
Remember, this was back in the 1980's when such activities were niche to say the least (well at least in Britain they were . . .and Scotland? . . . . don't get me started).
My degree show consisted of a hell of a lot of landscapes and to a man they interested nobody.
But it was in my heart. I got, as Mr. James Brown has been known to sing, The Feeling.
I would stand outside Jessops window gazing longingly at Zenza Bronicas, thinking to myself, if only I had one I could become the photographer I want to be. I was as desperate to get my hands on a Hasselblad as anything. I wanted to wander long miles and photograph the wonder and beauty of nature. But I didn't. I ended up drifting into music retail and it is only now, thinking about it and having the leisure time to practice it, that my feelings about Landscape Photography are re-surfacing again, like an itch that never quite got scratched.
But in that intervening 30-odd years a lot has changed - nowadays all I see pretty much are landscape photographs . .
They're everywhere, they're legion. People are interested.
They've got their own printed magazines like Outdoor Photography. There are numerous online magazines. There's articles everywhere about how to take a great landscape photograph. There are competitions, like Landscape Photographer Of The Year. There are oodles of workshops and seminars and trips here, there and everywhere.
And it goes on.
It's never been more popular.
And yet?

And, here I raise my head above the parapet and see who's shooting . . it has truly never been more shite.
OK, that's me damned, never to be accepted into that club by my peers.
Honestly 95.999% of modern Landscape Photography is truly terrible.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, it is dull.
Dull beyond the dullest of fat-laden bowls of dirty washing-up water.
But why should that be given there are so many people practicing it?
Well (and here I get radical again) it has its roots in a couple of things, but the most damning of them has to be complete visual laziness and . . . here comes the big one . . absolutely no feeling for the landscape whatsoever.
What a revelation. After all aren't those smug looking guys and gals standing over there going out and capturing the light for us?
Aren't they working the light?
Look he's got a complete set of Lee Filters, so he must be a landscape photographer!
She's got a Linhof Technorama, she must be a Landscape Photographer!
They've got a Phase One Digital Back mounted on an Ebony and are using Schneider Fine Art Lenses, surely they're Landscape Photographers!
Surely? They're certainly buying equipment like they are, because, remember, only the best equipment will help you make the Ultimate Landscape Photograph..
It gets worse - there are people who have the GPS co-ordinates of Ansel Adams tripod holes and go and photograph the same scenes with the same gear! The same thing happens with Joe Cornish - his followers are legion and obsessive. Bill Schwab? Michael Kenna? Yep they've all got their scene-groupies. Photographers who will slavishly follow their leaders without having a clue as to why the original photographer made their image in the first place.
You have to feel it, because Landscape is all about reacting to two things.
You think I am going to say light don't you.
'Working the Light' . . I would dearly love to meet whoever came up with that and give them a good thump.
It's shite.
You react to the place, and then you react to what that place is making you feel and how you think you can capture that feeling - if light comes into play all well and good, but it is perfectly acceptable to make a fantastic landscape photograph without mist inversions or dramatic clouds.
Landscape is all about feeling and atmosphere.
You're like an Edwardian Curator, heading off to distant lands and bringing back all sorts of exotica, except you are bringing back images, and those images are your images, your reaction to the land and how it made you feel.
And I am sorry to say, but if they look like Joes' or Michaels' or Charlies' then they are bogus.
Here's some great examples - all random and all off the net AND all from landscape photographers . . Spot the difference - it's Glen Etive and Buachaille Etive Mor:

They're decent images, but there's simply no originality or feeling.
There are four separate photographers involved here (one of them incredibly well-known) who should know better. Maybe they've not seen each others images, but then this is a connected world . . . . 
I've often wondered how it would be if Photographer A, met Photographer B whilst Photographer C and a busload of acolytes were trooping towards the same spot at the same time. 
It's pre-dawn and they're only going to get one shot at 'working the light'
Would there be a Battle Royale? Ebonys at dawn? Spot meters converted into laser-lances and men in darkcloth capes doing Kung Fu moves . . .
You can sort of imagine it can't you!
I think the original photo I ever saw made of this scene from this spot was by Colin Prior back in the late '80's and then Charlie Waite, but here it is cropping up with supreme regularity all over the shop. 
Surely, surely one person has said, I know, I'll do it, but differently. 
But no . . at least not that I have ever seen. 
Sadly, I almost think it is too late.
I look at them. I see technique, but you know what, I see little passion. They're as clinical as a rectal examination.
Compare them with possibly one of my favourite photographs from the largely unlauded these days, but hugely influential British photographer Fay Godwin:

Fay Godwin – Markerstone On The Old London To Harlech Road, 1976

To my mind a photograph so utterly packed with feeling that I think it would be hard to better it - it is laced with visual harmony, feeling and balance - sorry it is such a terrible scan though.
And seeing as I mentioned Wynn earlier on, here's a favourite by him too:

Wynn Bullock - Erosion, 1959

Again, the eagle-eyed amongst you might notice there is a total absence of dramatic skies or smokey water. It's art. 
It's passion.
It's skill and an innate reaction to the land and a careful balancing of tone and spatial relationships.
In other words, it is all HIS OWN. 
His vision and his feelings. 
A purity which is rare. 
No bullshit, no bells and whistles, just honest Passion and The Feeling.
You can read a wonderful account of the making of this photographer here:

I'll remove my soapbox now and leave you to it . . I really could have whined on for hours, but then it would get dull, but just do me a favour will you. If you go out and try to take some Landscape Photographs, please please please, before you do anything, just take your time. 
Sit a bit and listen quietly. 
Have a think. 
Try and feel the atmosphere of the place.
And then, maybe, try and make an image that is all yours.

This wouldn't be FB if I wasn't writing about my own photography too, so here goes.
I still dont think I am anywhere near being the Landscape Photographer I want to be, but I am trying hard and listening to my feelings. The below were made on 5x4 film (FP4+) and developed in HC 110 Dilution H.
The gear was incredibly lowly . . an ancient and battered Sinar F, an old 150mm Symmar-S and and even older 90mm Angulon. The tripod is about a 1960's Linhof Twin Shank, and the head an ancient and rock solid Gitzo Series 5, which genuinly did come from the British Museum. The dark cloth was two tee shirts, and my loupe a linen tester. It was lugged in an old Deuter 25 ltr rucksack!
The cost of my tripod, which can easily manage an 11" x 14" camera, was approximately half the cost of a rooty-toot Paramo Landscape Photographers Dark Cloth . . in other words around £50
If you have the feeling my friends you don't need a massive amount of expensive gear and you really don't need to join an exclusive club to make images that satisfy you.


The Haunted Bridge

The above aren't great, but I think I have captured a feeling, and that is what matters (to me).
As for the soapbox, I know it all reads like sour grapes . . it isn't, I just suppose I just expect more in such a visually 'sophisticated' world. 
Anyway, enuff zee nuff, over and out for now. Take care