Great Coxwell Barn, Oxfordshire
13th April 2019, 1:20pm
Nikkor-SW 150mm f/8
Ilford FP4+ 8×10
camera bed tilted up and rear and front tilt forward applied for front rise effect.
Lower part of main left door frame metered at -3, N-2 development indicated.
Home-developed with Pyrocat HD 2:2:100/BTZS tubes, 8mins 30secs.
Scanned with Epson V850/Silverfast AiStudio8 (16bit, 1200ppi, film delicately taped to diy silicone mat), cropped in from right and toned gently in Photoshop.
No problems at all, with camera/lens/setup, exposure, or developer. Marvellous.
Reading the truly excellent essays in Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings just recently, I came across a quote by the modernist German poet Rainer Maria Rilke that struck a chord, and I thought I’d investigate it further. The fuller extent of the quotation, from his Letters to a Young Poet, runs as follows:
‘If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance. You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.’
Given that I’m a Classicist by profession, the end of the last sentence struck home with me especially. But the beauty of the quotation is that it fits with what I’ve been trying to get out of my photography as much as possible in recent years, and is the main reason why I’ve found the greatest pleasure in working with large-format film.
It also reminds me of the superb introduction to Fay Godwin’s Land written by John Fowles, which includes the following:
‘What interests me in a landscape is above all its natural history, its flowers, trees, birds, spiders, insects, creatures of all kinds, and a walk that does not both require and allow one to stop and examine at leisure every ten yards is no amusement for me.’
I find that it is in keeping with the spirit of both these quotations that I come to choose my (so far) favourite photograph, an image made on large-format film (in this case Provia 100F) in a local churchyard. It was made on my first visit to the church at Broughton Castle in North Oxfordshire, one evening in early summer, when a cloudless sky filled the shadows with the rich blues so beloved of colour slide film. The subject is the solid-oak side-door to the church, and I was immediately struck by the rich texture and the cobwebs, and the knot in the wood that looked like some kind of mythical creature hiding within. In the light of recent encounters with Rilke, I’ve re-titled the photograph ‘Evenings are Other’, after a couple of lines in a Rilke poem as follows:
‘Evenings are other: they are mild and mine,
tranquil, lit up by my long looking’
(Aber die Abende sind mild und mein,
von meinem Schauen sind sie still beschienen)
I took shots of the same scene on digital, and on inspecting them, though I liked the composition, I didn’t particularly think there was much to write home about. I set up a composition on large format using a medium-long focal length to isolate detail in the texture, and used Provia because of the long exposure time needed (about 1 minute, compared with the 8 minutes for the equivalent exposure I also made on Ilford Delta 100 B&W). When I got the film back from the lab, what astonished me wasn’t so much the blue-blacks, which came out as I had hoped, with the shaded wood reflecting the blue sky, but the contrast and sharpness provided especially by the cobwebs, which I feel make the image look quite spell-binding, and, in some aspects, recalling a galaxy, or the twinkling stars set in a post-impressionist night sky.
‘The little things that … can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring’: Rilke knew a thing or two, and not just about writing poetry.
Prompted by my own interest in land, landscape, photography, and more particularly by both fact that my own building at work has on show a series of works by Hamish Fulton, and by recent purchase of book showcasing Philip Hughes, with stimulating introduction by Kay Syrad.
This took me to:
Boetzkes, A. (2010) The Ethics of Earth Art (Minneapolis and London).
Hughes -> Long, Fulton, land artists:
Works that ‘reenact or thematize the phenomenological experience of space, opening a reconsideration of the earth itself not merely as a spatial envelope for the art object but as an active component of it, and more precisely, as an assembly of volatile forces that pose a dilemma to the self-enclosure of the modernist art object and equally to the self-determination of the spectator’s perceptual experience’ (26).
17 also important:
‘In contrast to landscape painting, which attempts to mask human presence or naturalize human dominance, earth art explores the point of contact between the body and the earth. The British artist Richard Long, for example, has spent his career executing long walks as a form of performance, documenting his excursions with photographs and short written descriptions of the areas. As part of the walk, Long marks the land with a trace of his presence.’
‘Long’s work is an example of how contemporary artists stage the inability to represent the earth as such. This is not to suggest that earth art does not use representational media. Rather, the artists disclose the failure of images and words to capture natural phenomena and the fullness of sensation when the body comes into contact with them. Instead of picturing nature, then, contemporary artists are constantly watching and waiting for a way to reveal the earth without thematizing it through preconceived notions of what nature is (or should be). In this way, the artwork is developed out of the friction between the artists’ attempts to make the earth visible and its resistance to signification. This tense encounter is the onset of a dialogue about how we perceive the earth and how it thwarts our perceptual expectations.’
‘The artwork is the threshold at which elementals exceed the limits of perception. In simultaneously making contact with natural phenomena and withholding the drive to unify them in the viewer’s field of vision, the artwork offers itself as a medium on which the earth manifests and asserts its irreducibility to human signification. In this way, the aesthetic strategies of earth art are coextensive with its ethical statement.’
Lots more stuff of interest in this book, inc. on James Turrell. Had mind-expanding encounter with ‘Deer Shelter Skyspace’ at Yorkshire Sculpture Park a couple of years back. Image below taken by me during that encounter.
Chamonix 810V, Nikkor-SW 150mm f/8
By way of an explanation…
After/during a long pause (work-enforced) from my photography, I’ve made the decision to move up to 8×10 for B&W inc. for contact prints (e.g. toned cyanotypes; Van Dyke Brown; possibly Platinum/Palladium).
Will still use the trusty Linhof Technikardan S45 for colour slide on 5×4 but really want to give B&W contact printing a good go – a drive to put more of myself – and art – into the images I make: a drive to add personality and a sense of my own time, my own subjectivity, into the photographs I make.
Just about ready; only major outstanding item now before I can get cracking on making exposures is a BTZS dark cloth and a Lee wide-angle bellows hood, in the post. Many thanks to Tim Layton for allowing me to take the Nikkor SW150 off his good hands. Also have 300W and 450M so most things covered lens-wise.
The decision is prompted by the sense of a convergence in my creative mind between photography and my academic work, especially in terms of the interrelation between photography and the cultural histories of the novel and poetry, and ways of articulating a sense of connection-cum-remoteness from the ancient world.
I’m in the early stages of writing an academic paper on lyric time, photography, and literary modernism for an international conference on ancient Greek lyric poetry, and have things to say about Proust and Pindar; I’m also interested in contemporary conceptual landscape photography as a response to the environments and histories of Britain, and am currently getting absorbed by W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
The move to traditional printing and alternative processes is another way for me to explore the tension within me between old and new, both intellectually and personally; there’s a sentence in Proust about us being amphibious beings, with one part of our minds in the present and another submerged in the past, and it is this that I want to get in touch with more directly through immersing myself in the history of photography practically through the use of 19th-century techniques and the eschewing of modern technological interventions as far as possible – hence contact prints directly from 8×10 negatives. If successful, I hope to make prints on them on traditional 12×14 cotton paper and float-mount them in large frames with 16×20 mats, exposing the brush strokes as well as the images. I will probably re-shoot some of my favourite 5×4 black and white images, but also will be on the lookout for new subjects, ideas, and compositions. Because the work is about process as much as end result, as much about concept, formal texture and materiality as about content, the process is as much to do with the 360º experience of working this way than is about other ephemeral things that other photographers get easily absorbed in, such as perfect light and perfect locations. This doesn’t mean that content will not matter but the balance will hopefully be better.
I’m not planning to give up on 5×4 or colour film, but traditional 8×10 is likely to be a great deal of fun and an intriguing adventure.
Here’s a portion of a set of comments from somewhere on the largeformatphotography forum that also struck a chord:
The 8×10 contact is a canonical form with a deep history in photography.
Grievous error aside all 8×10 contacts are technically equivalent; mine, yours, Ed Weston’s, Ansel Adams’.
No upgrade is possible or necessary.
Enough possibilities for a lifetime of work.
No elaborate darkroom is required, no enlarger; just a safelighted work space, a lightbulb, and a few trays. [And NB with alt-pro you don’t even need safelight-conditions, so long as you can develop your negs properly; I’ll be using BTZS tubes.]
I can do everything from film exposure to mounting, matting, and framing. No need to buy expensive services from back-room people.
No competition. Why would I strive against 50 million hard working and talented digital shooters climbing over each other’s backs trying to get noticed?
Anything well photographed on 8×10 seems to acquire a nobility that invites attention.
Ultimate conceptual integrity. The 8×10 is seen, exposed, processed, finished, mounted, and displayed without changing its original size or its original vision.
There is no cropping. The photographer takes full responsibility for the content right to the edges and corners. The viewer knows they are not short-changed.
No digital technology is used or required. No files need reformating into new media. Everything is eye readable. The medium guarantees it.
Here’s a view of the bag setup that I hope to use for the new gear:
Tenba BYOB 10 holds filters and tripod head.
Thinktank Shapeshifter expandable backpack holds lenses (in Tenba wraps) in the interior neoprene compartments (inc. happy to say both 300W, and 150SW even on a Sinar board), a couple of Chamonix 8×10 dark slides in the laptop compartment, and other accessories in outside pockets.
Thinktank bag also doubles as my travelling backpack for digital if I am shooting macro overseas (which I haven’t now done for a number of years but never say never…)
A note on shooting still life with large format. This is something I haven’t done at all before, on any format, but somehow large format black and white seems to be its natural home – here I’ve been recently influenced very much by the beautiful work of John Blakemore for instance, and also by Paul Barden on flickr and the large format photography forum. While I don’t use an 8×10 for black and white as Paul does (though this is something I may seriously consider at some point) and nor do I use traditional darkroom print-making or alternative processes (still a digital half-breed in this respect!) the tonality and detail that you can achieve with large format is precisely what is required (I have taken the liberty of adding some digital selenium toning in photoshop).
Another thing here is that – while I’ve only lately come to think about this – the meditative aspect of using a large format camera – the care required to set up the composition on the ground glass and the metering – may become a natural extension of the meditative process of collecting and arraying the composition of the objects before you have even set up the camera. This aspect is something that I haven’t been able to think about until recently because the very idea of creating a scene to photograph had always seemed to me to be hostile to the idea of authenticity required to be a ‘proper’ or serious landscape photographer. I’ve no idea really why I thought this before because it’s obvious nonsense, and reveals a basic failure to appreciate that the photographic image can never itself be authentic, even though it can ‘animate’ the viewer (cf. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida).
If the viewer also happens to be the creator of the photograph, the final image can also serve as a reminder of the process that led up to the creation of the image with the camera, and this can be empowering and enriching in a huge variety of ways; I envisage a whole range of possible projects here, including the process of collecting a range of artefacts or natural objects to photograph to remind me of or to celebrate encounters or places, even in the absence of opportunities to photograph landscapes or scenic details in the usual way. This is important because if the photograph doesn’t mean anything to me then I’m very unlikely to bother to make it in the first place. This in itself would prevent any resulting images from becoming emotionless, precisely because of their artifice.
This process actually presents a more direct way for me to engage art-historically with traditions of photography, again in ways that I hadn’t quite appreciated until recently. The idea of collecting objects to photograph also has the potential to produce typologies of objects, which obviously slot into the history of 20th century photography via the well-known work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, founders of the influential ‘Düsseldorf School’, whose work is displayed accessibly in Tate Modern, London. On the other hand, the ironic or emotionally distanced work of the New Topographics school that the Bechers influenced is not in keeping with what I think I’d like for this image-making possibility, since the whole point for me will be to engender some kind of emotional response or connection rather than having the rationale driven by implicit critique of embedded aesthetic practice. Here I’d be more with Andreas Gursky (another influenced by the Bechers) – ‘the pure joy of seeing’ (see https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/hayward-gallery-art/andreas-gursky) – though his own images are of course far from straightforward in their interpretability or emotional claims on viewers.
In fact, the very idea of using a large-format camera to create black and white images of found objects collected over time is intended as an attempt – though not at all reactionary – to suggest alternative approaches to image-making than are more widely considered in today’s image-saturated culture, even as I am using those same channels of distribution (this blog; twitter; flickr; instagram) to circulate the results.
The idea of emotional connection is still problematic, and photography perhaps more than any art form is inherently aware of this. Its rhetoric of attraction, truth, and immediacy also carries with it the technology of difference, distance, framing, and artifice; there’s a problematic sense that, however much photographers and artists might want to separate out style and technique, with photography the two dissolve into one another in the nature of the medium.
Thanks to John Blakemore, I’m reminded of the relation between still life painting and religion, specifically via the concept of the vanitas. I am not remotely religious, and find – momentarily – problematic the idea that still lives are considered as a momento mori rather than a momento vivere, as it were. It is the case, of course, that the history of still lives is the history of the portrayal of loss, decay, mortality and death, rather than life: the pointlessness of earthly goods. One can hope to claim that the artistic process of producing work that preserves these scenes is somehow redemptive (yes, religious word!), but by the same token those images of mortality, and their very act of photographic preservation, bear ever onward their message of loss and absence. The photographed decay of nature reminds us of the world of nature in general, just as it might remind the photographer (me) of the specific encounters which brought the photograph into existence in the first place; those universalizing, as well as particularizing, reminders of nature can be uplifting especially if the photograph is a success and deemed beautiful or pleasing. But they do so only as the decaying objects remind us that they are always with us: reminding us of their realities in spite of the artificiality of the setup and of the photographic medium used to project it. Made secular, these images bear the tension between momento mori and momento vivere, encouragements to go on, to explore, to look to the future, while reminiscing wistfully or mournfully over, or contemplating sadly, the essence of past experience never fully to be recovered.
Below is the final image shot on 5×4 with Ilford Delta 100, followed by two compositional sketches shot on iphone. The dark image is fascinating and is the first setup I tried – though this was soon abandoned when I calculated an exposure time of over 5 hours taking into account reciprocity failure (I think: it was too dark for my Sekonic, so I was making calculations via a lightmeter app on my phone)) – the location was the dark garage of my parents’ with only a small distant window for natural light, after which I moved to a greenhouse. The flat light on the final image is a result of the changed lighting, but one day I will try what I’d call ‘the full Edward Weston’ and go for a really long exposure on large-format film. I also perhaps prefer the perpendicular shooting angles of the phone shots, though I didn’t risk this with the large format setup given potential problems with shadows and the tripod.
A little series of four images all exposed during a couple of hours on a late winter Saturday morning. (more…)
A quick guide to how I processed an image today, originally shot on Ektar 100. (more…)
Here’s a quick step-by-step of how I go about digitizing and processing my 5×4 Delta 100 negatives once I have developed the sheets. This works for me! (more…)
Here I’m finally beginning to distil from my work my own sense of style; my choice of these three images brings together for me what I feel represents what I now strive to achieve with my photography. (more…)
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