My long suffering wind-swept dogs
On the Road – a diary I’m sitting in an ‘Irish’ pub in Lyttleton which I am not sure was the best of ideas. The music is extremely loud and a group of inebriated patrons ( its 5 pm!) tried to commit conversation all over me. Not something I’m in the mood for right now! It’s not been a great photographic day as the mist has been pretty much everywhere, I did get a nice shot of sheep in he mist but it remains to be seen whether they will be visible what with their wool being the same colour as the mist!
I drove out to Lyttleton via Sumner which looked a bit of a dump. There is a gondola that gives what looks like a good view of the city but it was cloudy so I decided it wasn’t worth it. Lyttleton seems a bit alternative.The port is huge and disconsolate foreign crewmen are wandering the street speaking Spanish and consulting their mini iPads for some reason. Quite a bit of earthquake damage here. There are an alarming number of huge petrol tanks near the port but I am assuming they are earthquake proof!
The bays are quite pretty around here and with the sun might look passable.
I went into Christchurch city centre which I haven’t visited since the earthquake. I was really surprised by the amount of damage and vacant lots. The place is a complete and total dump.. Much more so than before. If they had any sense they would raze it all to the ground, relocate and start from scratch with some decent architecture and style. Everyone has had the clever idea of using shipping containers so it looks a bit of a mess. I passed the ‘cardboard cathedral’, which is literally that. A cathedral built out of tubes of cardboard. Words fail me on this one. Let’s just say its a step too far on the number 8 wire philosophy. I passed the ruined catholic cathedral and can’t understand why it has received scant attention. It looks like it was a classic building and just as meritorious a the Anglican Cathedral…which isn’t saying much as that was a passable English country church promoted beyond its ability.
I can’t fathom why I dislike this city so much. It has no soul even before the Earthquake. Perhaps charmless is the best way to describe it. Any city that believes that building a cathedral out of cardboard is a great idea has something a taste deficit. What I cant believe is that they missed the opportunity to hit up Lego to pay for a new one. Now that would be style!.
I was thinking of how attractive the old quarter of Oamaru is and that it’s such a pity there are so few nice architectural ensembles in New Zealand. You can carry a love affair with corrugated iron a bit too far in my opinion.
I think I’m probably suffering from the contrast of starting the day at dawn in the pristine beauty above Hamner and then descending to the plains where everything seems grubby in comparison. The dogs and I stood on an icy dirt road several hundred metres high and looked out over the majestic powder pink dawn lighting up the mountains and mist covered plains. Rufus looked at me and I looked at Rufus and said,
” Can you believe it Rufus? This is my job. This is what I do.”.
He looked pretty Impressed.
Lindisfarne Boats by David Byrne.
The winner of one of Britain’s most prestigious photographic competitions was stripped of his title a few weeks ago because of excessive use of Photoshop. David Byrne was the winner of the Landscape Photographer of The Year award and a £10,000 ($16000) prize but has now had his title and prize money taken away in a surprise move by the organisers of the competition which is supported by Epson, The Sunday Times Magazine and The National Theatre.
The dramatic reversal came about after other photographers pointed out that the image had been photoshoped to include clouds not in the original image. Other photographers pointed to the impossibility of the sun casting shadows in different directions.
Mr. Byrne defended his manipulation of the image by pointing out that altering images is hardly new. He was quoted by The Daily Mail as saying, ‘The purists out there were not happy. Messing about with pictures has been done for over 100 years. I treat my photography as art and I try to make the best looking picture.’
Those three sentences neatly define the battle lines which have been drawn over the digital manipulation of photographs.
First of all he seems to suggest that anyone who objects to manipulating images is a ‘purist’. It seems clear that ‘purist’ is not a compliment in this context. What this veiled insult fails to acknowledge is that many photographers do not object to using Photoshop to enhance photographs but they do object to its use in altering photographs. The problem comes in defining when enhancement crosses a boundary into alteration. Removing power lines from a landscape is one thing. Changing the colour of the sky from grey to orange quite another. It isn’t as if there is any shortage of sunsets around to photograph and the joy of landscape photography is capturing the elusive, not manufacturing it with software. It’s no crime to create a sunset sky, it’s just rather sad that someone would need to do it when there is so much natural colour to photograph. How many times have you looked at a super saturated landscape photograph and known instinctively that it’s false? Yet these photographs constantly win awards in club and national competitions. Anyone who has studied the way sunlight paints the landscape from different angles knows how to capture the best colour without needing Photoshop. That’s what being out in the field teaches you. You learn how to use the light to maximum effect.
The second defence that Mr. Byrne advances is that photographers have been ‘messing about’ with photographs for a long time. His choice of words is both unfortunate and revealing. Photographers should respect their subject matter. You do not have to go very far to capture truly beautiful natural photographs and the idea that it’s ok to ‘mess about’ with the captured image is a depressing comment on the craft of photography. This attitude announces clearly that the photographer has no qualms about creating a vision of what they wish they had captured, but failed.
Finally Mr. Byrne tells us that he treats his photography as ‘art’ and tries to make ‘the best looking picture’. Here is the real problem with the software tools that allow us to create our own photographs. Photography has always been a craft. Ansel Adams had no need to add clouds or alter tree shapes because his images were honest and beautiful. There is nothing wrong with painting new images with Photoshop, just don’t call it photography. It is something entirely different when a photographer wants to be an artist. An artist creates images from their imagination and that is a wonderful thing. Just leave photography to record what the camera sees not what the photographer wishes it had seen.
What is extraordinary is that Mr. Byrne should have won such a prestigious title as Landscape Photographer of the Year. Luckily, his alterations were brought to the attention of the judges who had been unable to detect them for themselves. So much for the wisdom of distinguished judges. Had it not been for the ‘purists’ his accolade would have reinforced the idea that we can alter images in the name of ‘art’ and still claim they are photographs. If something good can come out of this sorry debacle it is the lesson that landscape does not need our interference. The true joy of landscape photography lies in capturing its pristine beauty. Painting it in the crude lipstick of Photoshop is both unnecessary and an admission that we cannot leave it to speak for itself through our lenses.
The proliferation of photo sharing sites has resulted in some extraordinary statistics. According to Flickr, the average number of photos uploaded each day is 4.5 million. In 2011, 560 million were uploaded to Flickr and the site has around 6 billion images. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Instagram has outstripped Flickr in terms of the number of photos uploaded daily. They claim 60 photos a second which means that about 5.2 million photos are uploaded each and every day. This raises the obvious question of how one make sense of this avalanche of images? There is simply too much out there to see even the smallest fraction of it. There are some excellent sites which curate photographs and deliver them in digestible numbers. (One of my favorites is www.photobotos.com which limits itself to one photo per day and it’s usually one worth looking at.) The fact remains, though, that millions of photos are being delivered to the web every hour. What are we to make of this extraordinary outpouring of images?
Photography has become the new universal art form. In the old days film cameras gave somewhat hit and miss results. Who has not heard Uncle Fred laugh about how many heads he chopped off? Now we can reshoot till we get it right. The camera does all the work of calculating exposure and aperture. The picture engine will instantly white balance to whatever conditions we are shooting in. We have a multitude of software programs available to correct any color cast or add any special effect we can imagine. We don’t even need sunsets skies any more. We can add that filter later. What’s even more impressive is that we can do all this on our mobile devices at a ridiculously low cost. The shops are filled with thousands of camera models to chose from and web sites are stuffed full of reviews of the latest gizmos.
I do not subscribe to the argument that this avalanche of images is a bad thing because it is mostly composed of eminently forgettable photos. It is true that many of the photos leave room for improvement but that is exactly the point. What is happening is that a whole community of practice is helping members to improve. The bad stuff disappears without trace. The good images, and there is some astounding material out there, rises to the top and gets noticed. Paradoxically, the exposure given by the web makes it very difficult to get noticed. But this difficulty ensures that the bar is constantly being raised. Everyone is learning from everyone else. This has to be a good thing. Now all we need is, perhaps, a little more selectivity on the part of those people uploading millions of photos a day!
I’m indebted to http://thenextweb.com/for the statistics used in this article. You can see more detail at http://thenextweb.com/socialmedia/2012/01/19/instagram-could-hit-1bn-photos-by-april-twice-as-fast-as-flickr-managed/
A winding road leading to the Cardrona ski field, New Zealand
Time and time again I keep returning to the question of metaphor in photography. I doubt that any photographer sets out to create images that have complex metaphors unless they are deliberately shooting material for image banks. You know the kind of stuff – a man in a business suit standing on the top of a mountain with a back pack. Otherwise the metaphors are unintentional. It takes time for them to be discovered. I think the essence of a good metaphorical photo is that it should not be deliberate. There has to be an opportunity for the viewer to make their own sense of the image. When I took the photograph accompanying this post I was standing freezing, half way up a mountain. I was waiting for a vehicle to add some human dimension to the photo. As it was not ski season there was hardly any traffic. Eventually a small mini van appeared and I took the shot. I hadn’t seen the photo as a metaphor in any sense. Yet, when I have showed it to people they have commented on the symbolism of the road. It made me think of the distance between that freezing cold day and the way in which people interact with photos. As a photographer we create something but then lose ownership of it in some senses. It becomes the property of the viewer to interpret as they wish. This loss of control places us in a curious position as artists. Are we providing visual idea for others to shape as they want? How much do we direct the viewer where we want them to go in interpreting our photo. This then raises the question of whether this is a proper function of photography. Have we any business being anything other than reflectors of the scene presented to us? Food for thought. I intend to explore this one a bit more soon!
Every photographer struggles with the ‘so what?’ syndrome. When we make a photograph we wonder how the viewer can engage with it. With human subjects this is often a lot easier than with landscape. Documentary and war photographers can show us the joy and misery of the human condition. How can we not engage when we see tangible emotion in the photograph? Street photography can be a sort of social history and anthropology rolled into one. Landscape photography has, at first sight, no emotion or social context to offer. It is divorced from so much of the everyday urban life that so many people lead. Often these photographs are no more that a pretty picture with which we have no interaction.
For the landscape photo to have meaning for us it needs to have a congruence with some interior landscape of our own. In this respect it is not unlike abstract painting. We can look at many abstract canvases before suddenly seeing something which speaks to something already imagined or real in our mind. The context is often intensely personal, unique to the viewer. The artist’s statement may well illuminate their thought process. However, if a painting needs this sort of cumbersome explanation then it probably isn’t going to speak to the audience except in a limited didactic way.
The best landscape photography mines a seam in our conscious and unconscious. That is why heavily photoshopped idealised versions of landscape often leave us cold. They are telling a story that isn’t really true. We recognise the artifice of the orange sky and the blurred water. These photographs are beautiful but they are mute. For a photograph to speak to us there needs to be a certain ambiguity and, sometimes, a certain roughness.
We need to be invited to explore he photograph, not simply observe it. Like an abstract painting it should throw us back to our internal life. Photographs can be metaphors but they are ultimately metaphors created in the mind of the viewer not metaphors constructed by the photographer.
When you play the party game of asking people what possessions they would rescue from their burning house, one of the most frequent answers is the photograph album. When the chips are down, it’s interesting that we would probably leave the valuable jewellery in favour of the photographs. With the growth of digital photography and social networking the need for physical photographs has diminished but the impulse to save our recorded memories is still a powerful force. This need to preserve tells us much about the power of photography. It is as if we want to distil our most precious moments into images.
All the milestones of our lives are preserved. The ceremonies of birth and birthdays, marriages and anniversaries, holidays and new houses are all recorded because they matter. They are a timeline of our lives that we can reflect on and share with others. At the core of the photograph is the desire that the moment should not die. We want our joy and our celebration to live beyond the moment. We want to carry that experience with us into the future.
For the tragedies and the sorrow we have no photographs. Those times are stored in a special part of our minds and replayed in the darkness of the night. They cannot be shared with others because they are internal. We have a miserably poor vocabulary of grief.
For many years I never took photographs of overcast landscape because I believed that there was no beauty in a land with muted colours and a leaden sky. I would wait for the land to be alive with colour and vibrance before I would record it. Now I accept whatever light is available. The lack of colour makes you look for other things to make the photograph worth taking. It could be a symmetry of hills or a tree standing out from a forest of thousands.
Grief and depression have the power to wash away the luminance and chrominance of our lives. There is no magic way to restore them at will. We have to be patient. But while waiting we can search for the shapes and patterns that are still there in the greyness. They will lead us back to colour eventually.
Depression is a very isolating illness. You look the same to everyone around you but they cannot see the suffocating, enveloping cloud. They see you flailing around to escape but that is all. That is why depression is so difficult for both the sufferer and those around them. Nothing is apparently wrong. Nothing that couldn’t be solved with a good dose of positive mental attitude. With an illness that has understandable symptoms there is usually a route map for both sufferer and loved ones to manage the progress. With depression there is often nothing more than a shifting desert of quicksand that can envelop everyone with frightening speed.
In my case, depression often revealed itself as irrational sudden anger at the most trivial of things. It was as if a switch was thrown in my brain that catapulted me from calm and rational to an unbalanced state that had me clinging to the edge of a cliff with my fingernails. There was always a moment when falling seemed almost attractive. I could disappear into my own irrational world where nobody could reach me. Hauling myself back to safety seemed a task far beyond my strength. It was easier to let go and rediscover that misty cold world where at least I was able to comfort myself.
For those on the other side there was also a terrible feeling of isolation. They could only watch helpless as I fell into an abyss from which they knew they could not rescue me. There was no magic pill they could offer. Their helping hands disappeared in the mist.
Eventually I would slowly walk back up the path to the top of the cliff and find the sunlight again. Every time I photograph the magic of sunlight on the land I remind myself how precious it is and how quickly it can disappear. It makes those moments of beauty that much more intense.
The web seems to be full of guides and software to make HDR photographs. The essential problem is that a camera has such a limited dynamic range compared to the human eye. We can see into shadows in a bright room whereas the camera cannot. The result is, sometimes, unsatisfactory. If you are a real estate photographer I can see the use of HDR tools. Often, however, nature is better left alone. In the photograph to the left, the exposure has defined the sea but left the land in total darkness. This photograph would probably be rejected from most club competitions yet, to me, it has a mystery that I want to leave alone. It is possible to lighten the shadow areas in photoshp but the obvious question is – why? It looks dramatic and the hard color block of the land contrasts with the beaten silver of the sea. (Those are mussel beds in The Marlborough Sounds by the way)
For every dawn photograph there seems to be at least 1000 sunset photographs. I have nothing against taking sunsets but I generally find that I can add nothing original to any of the photographs I have seen before. There is a sort of sameness to sunsets but dawns, on the other hand, are often surprising. The quality of dawn light is ineffable. It has a delicacy and subtlety which disappears quickly. It comes in low and bright like a spotlight and throws unexpected things into relief. Dawn light always excites me, sunset light rarely so.
I know I should use filters but I dislike them for no rational reason other than they are fiddly and muck around with exposure! I do have a 95mm circular polarizer for the GX680 but I don’t use it that often. Plenty of photographers swear by ND graduated filters but none of the photos on this site have been taken with ND’s. I adjust the balance of light later on the computer and there are not many shots that have an impossibly wide dynamic range. I reserve a special hatred for those x10 ND filters that make water look like white silk. For goodness sake.. take up painting if you want to rearrange the way nature looks in real life.