Wherever You Go There You Are

I doubt that I am unusual in having an almost continual running conversation with myself.  One of the topics of conversation with myself when I travel is is to manage expectations for the photographs that I’ll create.  ‘You take you with you wherever you go’, I told myself.

Playing with that phrase over the weekend I came to ‘Wherever you go there you are’, which felt too familiar for me not to have seen it somewhere else.  A quick search came up with the most likely place that I’d seen it before – the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s book of the same name that deals with mindfulness.  Other sources were fun though, particularly Buckaroo Banzai, a cult film from the ’80’s.

The chapter in Kabat-Zinn’s book that is titled ‘Wherever you go there you are’ the problem that I was coaching myself through is described perfectly.  Namely this – we have a tendancy to flee from things, if it’s not good here it will be better there.  The problem of course is that many of the things that we’re running from have an uderlying root cause and that is us.

Not being happy with the photographs you’re taking at home doesn’t mean that the photographs you make when you travel to an exotic location will be too much different.  They will inevitably have your signature all over them, they will be you, that it if you’re doing anything right at all.  For me this means that I won’t suddenly channel Michael Kenna or Michael Levin when I travel to Hokkaido.  I may go to the same places and see the same things but the photographs will be different, either dramatically or subtly.

In fact you should be striving to take ‘you’ photographs, those photographs that are a unique expression of how you see the world, and being doing that whether you’re at home or not.  I, perhaps we, need to get comfortable with that, own it and milk it for all it’s worth. 

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Friday Inspiration: Bill Brandt

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My intersection with Bill Brandt came by way of Michael Kenna. In a number of places I’d read that Michael Kenna was deeply influenced by Bill Brandt and yet when I looked up his work, much of what I found was nudes. Being very English and uncomfortable with all that nakedness, I left it at that. More recently I steeled myself for another look and found, in addition to the nudes, an eclectic collection of photographs from portraits to a look at society life to miners of the North of England to landscapes. It seems to me that Brandt’s later photographs became darker and more extreme in contrast, something that I assume he pushed in the darkroom. A good example of this is shown below:

Halifax Snicket

For fun click here to see Michael Kenna’s rendition of this image.

Many of Brandt’s images can be found on his website under the licensing section. Well worth a look. Also worth a look if you’re in or around New York is the exhibition of Brandt’s work at the MOMA ‘Shadow and Light’ that runs until August 12.

To hear Brandt talk about his work check out this 1983 BBC interview:

Taking a Mulligan

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Everyone deserves the opportunity to have another go, to reinterpret and reimagine their work. The more that I understand lightroom and photoshop the more possibilities there seem to be. In an interview with Michael Kenna I recently read he said that one of photography’s greatest strengths is that it is (or at least was) tied to reality. That tie is clearly broken for those that wish it to be. While I’ve yet to push reality hard, I have started to play a little. The image at the top of the page is a reworking of the image that I posted a few weeks ago based on the feedback that i received here and to fix a few things that bugged me which I didn’t know how to fix at the time. So a mulligan, a do over, let me know your thoughts.

Friday Inspiration: Rolf Horn

Rolf Horn‘s work caught my eye when I was recently poking around on the Soulcatcher Studio website.  I had been looking at the Paul Caponigro images that they have displayed there and decided to spend a few moments looking at the work of some of the other artists that they represent.

Rolf’s square black and white images, often long exposures, are reminiscent of the work of the other photographers that I enjoy – especially Michael Levin, David Fokos and of course Michael Kenna.  I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised, although I was, to find that Rolf had worked as Michael Kenna’s assistant for a while.

Like Kenna, Rolf uses medium format cameras (Hassleblad) and film for his work, producing silver gelatin prints.  He is very much committed to this mode of photography, in fact if his comments regarding digital photography in this Black & White article when taken at face value are quite inflammatory – ‘thems fightin’ words’ as we would say where I grew up.  In addition the Black & White magazine feature, Rolf’s photography has been featured in a number of other magazines.  A full listing can be found here.

Rolf’s website is well worth exploring, there a large number of his completed bodies of work to dig into.  What I find interesting is that some of the portfolios date back to the early 1990’s and so as you look through it’s interesting to track Rolf’s aesthetic evolution.  His most recent work has a quiet energy that I particularly enjoy and I have to say it – his snow monkey picture (below) is one of my favorites to date.

New Book: Bruce Percy – The Art of Adventure

I was very excited to find my copy of Bruce Percy‘s new book hanging from my mail box when I got home on Wednesday. Bruce’s book is a collection of 40 of his images that cover both his landscape and portraiture work, one image per page with an accompanying page of text. I suspect that the title is a nod to Galen Rowell and Bruce acknowledge’s in his introduction that the format is a nod to Ansel Adam’s book ‘Examples: The making of 40 images‘. The foreword is written by Michael Kenna another of Bruce’s influences.

I’ve been a big fan of Bruce’s photography for quite a while, although I associate him more with landscape photography than portrait work so the mix in the book is curious choice for me. I find the photographs of Scotland particularly intriguing – perhaps the familiarity of being of being at home allows Bruce to push beyond the obvious pretty landscape and try for something that is less of a record of the scene and more a record of what he felt. If there are any images where he is channelling Michael Kenna it is these, but that’s not to say that these are Kennaesque copies. Rather, they use the recognition and inspiration from Kenna’s work that the camera need not faithfully record the scene but can effectively capture your response to the scene. It’s a great book, one that I’m going to enjoy going through in much more detail.

You can find ‘Art of Adventure’ for sale here. Well worth adding to your collection.

Contemplative Photography: Book Comment

The deeper that I delve into photography the more I realize how hard I find it to create a successful photograph using just a rules based, intellectual approach. The successful images come when I apply the technical understanding to capture the scene that really stopped me in my tracks. Being able to be stopped in my tracks happens when I slow down and quiet the chatter. This kind of slowing down and taking time to quiet the chatter is something that I’ve come to naturally but is something that I have heard both Michael Kenna and Paul Caponigro refer to. Michael Kenna has called this communing with the land, while Paul Caponigro refers to his stance of silence and to having to shut up when the subject calls to him.

Some call this contemplative photography. It was this phrase that caught my eye when I was browsing amazon.com and that led me to The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Kerr and Michael Wood. The focus here is on seeing clearly or as Cartier-Bresson puts it ‘putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis’. Kerr and Wood break down contemplative photography into 3 distinct phases: The Flash of Perception – the recognition of something special that is likened to ‘being awoken form sleep by a loud noise’: this is then followed by Visual Discernment, maintaining the contemplative mind after the flash of perception and then finally, Forming the Equivalent, taking the picture that is equivalent to your perception. Each of these stages is explored in detail with their own chapters that include assignments to help you practice and example photographs to provide inspiration. The example photographs aren’t exemplars or templates to be repeated since we all will respond to our environment in different ways and as a result make very different photographs.

I must admit that I enjoyed reading and working through the book. I also find the connection made between photography and Buddhism interesting too. Kerr and Wood argue that both contemplative photography and Buddhism are concerned with clear seeing. They argue that clear seeing is the ultimate antidote for confusion and ignorance, freedom from which is a key tenet of Buddhism.

The book is not all sunshine and roses – I can’t help but take issue with the notion that the use of telephoto lenses and filters adds an unnecessary artifice resulting in plasticky photographs. Does this mean that we should only be using ‘normal lenses’ that mimic the human eye? Hardly. One of the reasons that I’ve been disappointed with my results in the past is that I haven’t been able to simplify the scene to a point that makes me feel satisfied when I see the image on the computer days later. Similarly using a filter to ensure that I don’t blow the sky out, to compress the dynamic range of the photograph is increasingly important to my being able to capture a successful image. I would argue that you should use whatever tool or tools it takes to be able to render the image that you felt and that the key is to reach a level of fluency with those tools such that the technical doesn’t get in the way as you move to making the image that stopped you in your tracks. A minor quibble with a book that I have enjoyed working through over the course of the last few months.