The photographs that spur you on

This post is a more developed version of a question I asked on Twitter about black and white photography (although it pertains to any photographic work, colour included). Which of your images inspire you and make you want to make more?

The question is simple enough, but it does bear a little qualification. I have a handful of images that to my mind represent what the medium of photography can do. They are not necessarily ‘great’ pieces in a wider sense, but they do ignite my photographic imagination. They normally have a least one outstanding technical quality; perhaps they are also subconsciously tied to pleasant memories and therefore quite personal. The point is that they are markers in my mind for what I can achieve in other situations, and they spur me on.

Do you have such images (I wager you do, of course)? Just to be clear, I am writing about photos that you have taken. If anyone would like to share within these pages, send me a high resolution version of your most evocative one and I’ll construct a little gallery post.*

* Send a high resolution version of your image, along with a title, your name, and any technical details you feel are relevant to: By submitting your image you grant me free use of it on my website and related social media, and demand no payment. You confirm that you have complied with any legal restrictions bearing on its making, and have secured all necessary model permissions. The photographer retains copyright of their image.

The art historian under the dark cloth

The other day I came across my copy of T.J. Clark’s book Farewell to An Idea. It is a splendid work of art history, one that positively crackles with the most detailed and painstaking descriptions of Modernist artworks. As I flipped through the book, I remembered in particular the passages on Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Looking back, I had read and re-read these passages, almost as one might enjoy a novel.

Clark is an intellectual heavyweight in the old manner. He set up a masters degree in the 1970s called the Social History of Art, dedicated to a Marxist approach to art history. I studied on that programme in the late 1990s, under the tuition of Jasper Johns expert Fred Orton, amongst others. While Clark’s book is hardly light reading, it does repay the hard work it demands of the reader.

Now, I write that Clark’s descriptions stand out, but it isn’t just that these are careful and rigorous, which they are. There’s something more. They are object lessons in how to read a work of art. Clark makes every effort to convey the richness of the works he grapples with; it becomes a time consuming process of looking and looking again, a process that demands equal care with writing. The writing is not an afterthought, a means to an end in the descriptive enterprise, but a poetical analogue of the condition of paying close attention. This is perfectly in line with Clark and his ilk, who believe that canonical works of art repay that kind of close treatment. Unlike so many art historians though, Clark has learnt the figurative and rhetorical potential of his prose, and I can’t help feeling that his search for the ‘right’ phrase (a mirage of course) is a figure for our search for meaning in the painted and other material forms.

As is the tradition in so many of these blog posts, I make a recommendation to the photographer. Spend some time with Clark (or a Clark equivalent) and see how he describes the artwork. Think about how such a careful approach might be applied to a photograph - a canonical one, of course, but perhaps yours or a friends, too. Photography is so often a descriptive business. I’ve written on these pages before that there is much to learn from carefully looking at the work of others, and an analysis of composition, tone, mood, and so forth is the nuts and bolts work to be done.

This not only helps us to appreciate the finished image, but sharpens our skills of looking and in turn informs our visualisation. Indeed, as I continue to grapple with learning large format photography, I’m struck by how that format offers up a picture to be read right at the start. Under the dark cloth one has time to survey the flickering camera obscura image as if it were the final print. The Clark pacing to and fro in front of Pollock’s paintings in MOMA would be a wonderful mental guide to critical and rigorous decision making at the time of exposure. I can envisage him asking us to trace a line here, shift a little there, re-think depth of field, interpret a tonal shift. You would be right in thinking that this is not unlike the procedures recommended to us by experts like Ansel Adams, but the point here is that our resources stretch much further than the discipline of photography alone. And there are riches out there indeed. 

Not your (photographic) day

If you are a photographer of even modest experience you will recognise this day. You have the opportunity (your family are otherwise engaged, work presents you with a window, you find yourself travelling and have time in your schedule). You have made all the decisions you need to in terms of equipment and media. Your bag is packed. It's your most familiar MO you will be using. You are on home ground. You are hungry. You are in the aesthetic mode, ready to capture the most glorious gifts that the gods of photography have in store.

You set out, you shoot. You shoot some more. At first: nothing. You have seen this before! You persevere. Still nothing. You have some experience, you know this sometimes happens. You remind yourself that it is important to go through the motions sometimes, to suspend your pressing desire to realise a convincing image. You keep going. You get tired. You get a little annoyed and frustrated.

And then it dawns on you: today is not your day. No amount of shooting, no amount of wanting, will make it happen. It's just not meant to be.

When this happens, what do you do? Do you just park the disappointment and move on? Do you have an interesting strategy, a little self-psychology? Is it time to break out the camera catalogue for bit? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The print as taskmaster

Regular readers will know of my regard for printing and the pleasure it potentially brings. Seeing an image move from screen to fine paper can be nothing short of a revelation. New tones, colour relationships and detail are revealed, and there is a strong sense of a veil being pulled from in front of the picture. It does, however, have a ‘negative’ side too: it has the power to show up the flaws. The print makes you work harder: you have to be more critical of your image and must be willing to solve all the issues before it sits right.

I was reminded of this just the other day when I made a print of my fern picture (see this post here). If you read the post about this image, you will know that I am an apprentice large format photographer, and was wrestling with a one second exposure in windy conditions at f16. All seemed to be well in the end, that is, until I printed it.

The problem is there are some significant - and visually unattractive - shifts in depth of field. The chosen aperture of f16 is simply inadequate to give the kind of generous clarity I had visualised. Thinking about it, it’s hardly any wonder: I was looking down a fairly steep slope and there was no way I was going to bring the film, lens and tree planes into alignment, even given the tilt options of the field camera. Trees aren’t very considerate too, and tend not to grow straight upwards!

There were good reasons for not wanting to go longer than one second at the moment of exposure, so this limited my aperture choice. I didn’t have any faster film with me at the time, although even HP5+ (a sensible alternative) probably wouldn’t have solved the issue. I chalk this up to part of my learning experience with large format: 35mm photographers are blessed with few problems when it comes to securing adequate depth of field. Indeed, it’s something of a historical irony that in these days of ultra-fast lenses and small formats, photographers often strive for less depth of field, when photographers of the past sought more. To move ‘up’ the formats is to encounter these self-same problems. Adequate depth of field is now on my picture-making radar (as an experienced LF photographer would doubtless have counselled me).

The print may be a hard taskmaster, but it’s a teacher too. All the parts of the process are connected. What a wonderful medium this is.