Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Monday, 27 August 2012

Why I won't mourn the demise of Velvia: a counterblast.

The news of the demise of Fuji Velvia as a large format film has been greeted with dismay it seems across the photographic spectrum, but more so than anywhere in my own genre of landscape photography. Here it is widely regarded as the film of choice for its extra saturation, it's contrast range and it's ability to reproduce deep, yet believably rendered colours. Yet I shan't mourn it's demise. Not because I don't believe that it can produce beautiful results that are still way beyond anything achievable in digital, and certainly not because I have anything against film itself. My reasons are more complex.

Perhaps I should, at his point, admit that in my landscape photography I am primarily a digital and a black and white photographer. 'So why would I care?' I can here you chorus through the ether! Well the fact that my phone suggests 'velociraptor' when I type Velvia may just be an ironic software glitch born out of a limited vocabulary, or as I prefer to believe it does illustrate a sort of dinosaurism in landscape photography. Now I don't want to deny anyone their pleasure if this is your sort of thing, but I do believe the demise of Velvia might serve to freshen things up a bit, challenge convention and force a bit of a rethink amongst many of its users.

The use of LF Velvia amongst landscape photographers has become so all pervasive that apparently without irony, lower saturation and lower contrast landscape photography has become accepted as somehow more artistic. Well okay, but maybe we have a difference of opinion about the definition of 'art' here? Don't worry I'm not intending to travel that road, except to say that it is the human element of artistic expression that interests me more than the illustrative, what it looks like should probably be driven by what you are trying to say, rather than because you happen to like strong colours or prefer a particular palette.

I am still madly passionate about the landscape, as a place, as an attractive retreat and it's environmental protection from the demands of big business and overbearing landlords. So you know there's little I like more than being out there, and failing that looking at what other photographers produce. Now while I'll happily allow that there are as many diverse opinions and different stages of artistic, photographic and even spiritual development out there, there is however an awful lot of similarity in the work produced.

It seems landscape photography is condemned to be primarily an illustrative genre. Now I will freely admit its a stage in our progression we all have to go through, myself included. There's a great excitement in simply finding a pleasing picture of what is before us, some may even start to consider such things as composition, light and colour rendition. These are or can be important elements, but in themselves they are just building blocks, technical
considerations that go into the making of art. The next step is to learn how to express ourselves with these tools. We, as people, have far more potential, far more to express in our relationship to the land as conscious, thinking beings rather than an empty all seeing eye.

Okay, you're saying, fair enough, but what has all this got to do with large format colour film? Well if there's a prevailing zeitgeist out there that spreads right from LF film to digital, then those at the top of the landscape photography tree must take some responsibility. Until very recently the chosen format for virtually all colour landscape photographers of any degree of seriousness has been a large format camera very probably loaded with Velvia. That is a massive investment in time, learning and skill, and to some extent money. For the majority (but thankfully not exclusively) of these leaders in our community the illustrative is still their primary aim. There are good reasons for this, illustrative is what sells, (to an extent, but the falling prices of both stock and gallery images might have something to do with the market being saturated with these style of images); illustrative is easy to communicate, it appeals to our predominantly low brow popular photographic press; illustrative is easy to teach, and many make a substantial part of their income from teaching /speaking rather than doing.

This hegemony has in turn bred an orthodoxy of approach. We look to our betters to learn from, in the early days imitate them, and perhaps to explore the possibilities available. But the irony is that a large format camera, filled with Velvia (and all that investment that goes along with it) is really the pinnacle of illustrative expression. One has to wonder if it serves any other purpose, whether the tools come to predict the output? If the basis of its appeal is the reality of its expression, then give me less reality! We all do it, we find a way of doing things that we think is better and proclaim it to the world, but fail to notice that it might only be a better way of doing what we do, that others may find different routes, have differing expressions and motivations. The overwhelming prevalence of LF Velvia users in the positions of authority, in British landscape photography especially, proclaims itself as just such an acme, or highest point in achievement. When in fact alternative approaches to the art exist, but as they don't fit in with the orthodox view, they are dismissed as inferior. I'm not saying this as some sort of paranoid, conspiracy theory, I'm sure nobody set out to create such an environment, but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself? One thing is certain, as the price of colour film is on a seemingly never ending upward spiral, a more haphazard, playful, exploratory approach becomes increasingly inconceivable amongst LF film users. Maybe just that approach is needed to find those ideas that will fresh up the genre's thinking.

If you're one of the majority that think the extent of landscape's remit is simply to find pleasing shapes and nice colours, then you're probably going to disagree with me. I, on the other hand, would contend that this is a blindly technocratic, backwards and limiting approach, that has learned nothing from art in the 20th century. This taught us that art is really to be found as much in ideas, the inner expression must at least equal the outer. Now I'm not claiming that we should throw away all convention, but at least find some individuality of expression, some new ways of seeing pretty shapes and colours that doesn't rely on a rigid simple formulae of foreground, middle ground and sky. Landscape photography has long been stuck in a comparative rut, it is in need of catching up with more modern ways of thinking. Perhaps the demise of Velvia will spurn new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing? Perhaps, in the long term, the demise of Velvia will be a good thing?

Friday, 24 August 2012

Songs of Travel: an explanation

I race through your head in my dizzy dissolve. 
Edwin Morgan.

Photography has a strange effect on our perceptions. I came to landscape photography through a love of walking in the countryside, I loved the feeling of passing through a place - the feeling of timelessness that walking inspires. Yes I stopped and looked at the views as we all do, but hiking is different, the views are delightful, but they are only part of the context of a journey, especially in the poor light of memory.  And yet, in my photography, even though I wanted to share the sights I found, they became a series of detached elements, lacking the interconnection of traveling, lacking if you will the context of the journey. At best they feel like vignettes. 

In the landscape we are occupying the space between two worlds, our own inner landscape and the outer landscape that surrounds us. And it is this space between that I want to examine in my images. Susan Sontag wrote that a photograph "is not only an image ... an interpretation of the real, it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask". Suggesting to my mind (amongst many things) is that there is something beyond, there are possibilities beyond the simply literal.

It's one of the strange paradoxes of landscape photography that although we see a picture of the landscape it's not landscape as we experience it. As John Berger wrote "The violence is expressed in that strangeness. It records an instant sight about which this stranger has shouted: Look!" In landscape the camera can become "an estranged god".

We don't sit still seeing compositions all around, unless you're an experienced landscape photographer anyway! We are alive to the senses of movement, the wind, the cold, the damp and our eyes rarely sit still, our attention is flung from one thing to the next almost imperceptibly. Add to that the mists of memory of the journey, the pulling sensation of traveling forward, the almost meditative sense of detachment - and you will begin to understand what I wanted to explore. As TS Eliot said "Footfalls echo in the memory". It is the echoes that excite me.

For some time now I'd been puzzling in my mind over how to represent a journey in a photographic terms, not just through snapshots of particular beauty spots or even the path itself, but the spirit of the journey, the feeling of moving, of time passing as we travel through a landscape. If you have seen my previous blog you will have seen some of my early attempts.  In one of those strangely fortuitous coincidences that can at times light the creative spark, I had also been considering a return to film from digital work and was, at that time, thinking about what is special about film.

Of course I knew that film could capture time and movement through a double exposure. But it had been twenty years or more since I'd made use of film and being somewhat unsure of exactly how I would realize the idea, I decided the cheapest route would be to experiment digitally before returning to capture the desired effect on negative, if and when I found something workable. So with notebook and camera in hand I headed to the Wenallt, beech woods near my home, with the idea of conducting a 'scientific' experiment. Noting the distance traveled between each exposure and the number of exposures in each frame. I wanted to explore the possibilities, to gain an understanding through practice of what is possible visually and what fails.

My intentions started well. I wandered the woods for half an hour trying to find a suitable subject and as I was just starting to think this was an unpromising forest, I meandered off the path and spied, far off in the distance, a singularly bent tree seemingly framed by its more ordinary, straight cousins. I started slowly, just moving a few inches, taking a frame and gradually widening the distance until I was taking one frame for each of the longest strides I could manage. It was after repeating this perhaps a dozen strides that I realized the notebook was somewhat redundant, but more, that I had happened upon an idea.

Those photographs came together to form 61 Light, 61 strides through the trees and the subsequent series of shorter parts of that journey. In isolation they are not perhaps unique or special, but together I hope they form an insight into the journey, a slow reveal, adding depth with each addition. I began to grasp that it was the subtle differences between the images, which intrigued me, rather than the single images in isolation. It was like a compound eye view of time and travel and memory. Each image made up of many images and yet of almost the same view, bar ten paces or so, the journey providing the transition of time and place, and the metaphor of memory. 


That transition is most easily appreciated when viewed as a slideshow, please do have a look. 
The huge irony here of course is that having conceived of the idea as a way of returning to film, I have happened upon an idea that I strongly suspect can only be achieved digitally because of the sheer numbers of images involved. Far too many for double exposures I imagine, not to mention far too expensive if I use single exposures!

The title, incidentally, comes from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, it's not a direct inspiration (I don't much care for it if I'm honest) but Stevenson’s Songs of Travel shares a plodding, ambulatory metre. It tries to capture a sense of movement in the structure of the poetry. There are obvious similarities with the idea I'm trying to convey within the structure of my images.

Since starting my mind has been ablaze with ideas - the notebook finds its true use - only lacking the time and energy to pursue them. This remains a creative, rather than scientific experiment, so who knows where it will take us? And now the weather has closed in on my only free day this week. I can only imagine what I could be creating, what journeys I could be undertaking. But it does mean I can finally put my thoughts in writing.

You can see new additions to this project on my Flickr page.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Songs of Travel: A new project in the making

Songs of Travel is a new project in the making, it was conceived as a project specifically for film photography, rather than digital, something that would utilise films' serendipitous nature in double exposures. The idea is to celebrate the joys of walking aimlessly along our myriad footpaths, the title comes from a Robert Louis Stephenson poem that was adapted musically by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Unlike my Skirrid Hill project it isn't directly influenced by the words or the music (if I'm honest I dislike both) but I have taken the idea of an almost plodding rhythmic romanticism that infused the text and musical sequence, it is after all a eulogy to an almost mystical experience rather than a translation into pictures.

I haven't used film for nigh on 20 years and before the day I'd made the images below I hadn't been out for any landscape photography for three whole months, I just knew I'd be a bit rusty, so like a coward I just took the digital and experimented, as a way of piecing together my somewhat fragmented ideas and expectation. I'm starting to get a clearer idea of what I want now, so may be ready to actually commit some images to emulsion. But the freedom of playing around in digital  has helped frame the finished look more in a way that I think will alter my approach in the use of film.

What I found in the digital edit was a combination of black and white and colour (digital layers rather than double exposure) had a dramatic effect. The ghostlike black and white seemed entirely in keeping with the metaphorical past, the sensory retreat of a long walk and yet the colours, even if subdued stand out like flashes in a dream or memory. Footpaths, like all long journeys are remembered piecemeal, certain aspects come to predominate while others shrink into the background. It is this memory like effect that I'm seeking to replicate, something transient, where one image in the mind sparks or leads strangely into another. It's something that is honestly quite difficult to put into words which I suppose is where the images come to find a purpose.

So instead of a traditional film double exposure I am considering a mixed media approach (sorry!) of digitally combining a black and white film image with a colour film image. This allows greater control over which image to combine with which and the relative density of the layers. I guess I'm still too driven by my digital workflow to see any other way. Although I'll admit it lacks the serendipity of a direct film double exposure, you'll have to allow me my 'breaking in' period with film.

John Berger quote

"The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images." John Berger Ways of Remembering.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Why Tree Line should come to a natural conclusion

It is cold, for the past few hours I have been completely absorbed in photographing one remarkable tree. I hadn't noticed the growing chill of evening. Throwing on my coat, I turn to retrace my steps, wading through knee high bracken, clouds touching the hills, the valleys a fading blue. I am alone on the hillside and in a contemplative mood, in a land of sheepsong and thickening light. As I head over the protecting hill that shelter these last few high trees from exposure I begin to realise that in the two year gap since my last visit to the tree line something has changed within me, I suspect it's a profound realisation about my motivations as an artist, but not really fully formed until days later when I sit down to write and examine my thoughts more closely and the consider work I'd produced that evening.

Before I'd even stepped out that day I'd been thinking back almost two years to what my motivations were in undertaking the Tree Line project and why it needs to find a natural conclusion. Some of you may realise that Tree Line sprang directly from the Memories, Dreams and Reflections project which was an artistic response to the death of my mother. MDR was all about grieving, it was revisiting the haunts of mine and my mother's childhood. It was an exploration of memory and time - intentional camera movement indicating the blurring of these strange functions of our consciousness, the passing of an epoch and the importance of place in our development and perceptions of self.

Tree Line was about emerging out of that shadow, coming both emotionally and metaphorically from the dark into the light, it was direct in both time and in geography. MDR was predominantly set in the foot hills of Abergavenny and Tree Line on the higher slopes of Sugar Loaf mountain. It's not quite that geographically clear cut if I'm honest, in fact many of the images in TL were taken within view of the tree which makes up the final image in MDR; the last tree, alone on the slopes, looking out from on high over Abergavenny and where I scattered my mothers' ashes. 

Incidentally, I don't believe in an afterlife, heaven, hell or all those trappings of traditional religion, but it was even now a peculiar experience seeing that tree. I felt an acute confusion. How should respond? Do I wave? Say hello? Go through some sort of confessional? That's not for me, practicing my creativity would be the one thing that would have made my mother proud and happy, so that is what I do, not just for her, but also for myself. I find it completely satisfying to be immersed in the "zone" creating images, forgetting time and place and not noticing the growing cold of dusk.

So, getting back into the point in hand, why do I feel Tree Line should come to a natural end? Most simply my motivations aren't the same today as they were 2 years ago. To put it bluntly I'm over it! (At least as far as we ever can be.) I'm no longer searching for the light, fighting through a strange world of ghostly forms. I returned this week and realised I had attained the light so to speak, it was the beauty of the tree in all its strange forms that entranced me, I found myself looking for a more balanced composition, like a "proper" visual artist, more of an abstract concept, more remote from the emotional force the was the green fuse for the projects' inception. In many ways it's a successful conclusion, I am back in the world of beauty, back to appreciating things for what they are, especially in nature and landscape, I have fought off the darkness.

Before you all jump to the conclusion that I'm rejecting a conceptual approach, that I'm going to go out and take saturated sunsets (the horror!) I can reassure you that I'm most certainly not! I do however feel my future work will have matured, the ideas will be less forced, more motivated by the art instinct. I have changed, I have grown artistically, my understanding of the world has developed, but one thing I now realise is that my art may in fact be beyond explanation, even to myself and it is that mystery that will provide a further motivation to create in the future, there's plenty to explore here. As I enter middle age I may just become more abstract in thought and deed.

It is good to remember, to examine the lie of the land, to realise that life contains good times and bad, for if nothing else they help contextualise where we are now. As I leave the tree line for good, knowing that my artistic and emotional aims have been realised I shall hold within myself the thought that I have come to know intimately two beautiful trees for two very different reasons. One from darkness and another from light. And yet as I conclude tears run down my face, art you see has meaning.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The five laws of discussing landscape photography.

I have spent years participating in discussions about landscape photography, landscape photographers are some of the brightest people in the photography firmament, and that's what makes it so enjoyable. But, despite this, it never ceases to amaze me how much time and effort some photographers will put into telling others how to take photographs. Therefore I thought I would propose the following five laws for discussing landscape photography so that we may treat each other with respect, but above that learn from each other even if they don't do as you do.
  • All approaches and techniques and cameras are valid.
  • We should welcome diversity of approach as it stimulates creativity in all of us.
  • We will always have some photographers that value veracity uppermost and others that value interpretation uppermost. It is a debate we carry around in all of us and is one of the great defining elements of photography that separates it from other art forms. So lets celebrate it!
  • The most important thing is your vision. Cameras are a means to an end in representing that, nothing more.
  • Make up your own mind, but don’t reject what is ‘other’. Study it and learn from it as if it was your own. 

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Why golden hour photography isn't enough

I was going to write a separate piece here, but my thoughts were hijacked by a discussion in Flickr's Art of Landscape group

So here is my response to the question of orange and purple landscapes.

What do we all want out of photography? Whoever we are budding amateur, professional landscape photographer, artist? It is quite simply a form of self-satisfaction. Now that is inevitably a different thing for different people and different times or stages of their development. But in some people that may eventually turn into a desire to produce something that is (at least in relative terms) unique to themselves. For that to happen requires a degree of introspection to examine what about the landscape is important to them. 

Every photographer should be turned on by light; “photography” is after all Greek for writing with light. But, speaking from personal experience, this can lead to a limited response to the landscape. Just try a personal brain storming session about what the landscape really means to you, also remember that meanings haven’t always been static, I find it useful to think back to childhood responses. Throw some keywords onto the page. Here are some examples -

Exposed, intimate, polluted, clean, hot, cold, windy, still, fear, contentment, lost, dark, bright, joy, freedom, escape, ethereal, delicate, huge, private, enclosed, open. 

I could go on and on, but this is about you not me. 

Now just ask yourself if the Golden Hour alone is the right way to express many of those thoughts, ideas or emotions? I would argue that it’s unsuitable for many of them. It is a question of depth; art requires more than surface beauty, as we are both intellectual and emotional beings, satisfying only half our brains is a frustrating experience. The first step to getting deeper is to get away from the beach and sunsets. Landscape is about so much more than that. 

In the world of artistic expression technique becomes subordinate to ideas, it is something that can and should be harnessed to address the concept or theme. That doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out the rulebook, but giving consideration to how technique can be melded to purpose. The problem for me with many golden hour image-makers is that there is no room for manoeuvre; technique becomes a fixed method, a method that can only produce a certain type of image. 

Art isn’t so much nebulous, as an answer without a question. To paraphrase Douglas Adams “if that is the answer what is the question?” You’ll have to find your own answers to your own questions. To think in purely visual terms probably wont answer many questions, for that you’ll need to think more like a poet and then turn those thoughts into imagery.