Standing ground, striding ahead

A photographic year in review, and a glance into the future

2017 has been a great year for me photographically, a year where I began to feel really comfortable with shooting large-format film, and increasingly happy enough to let go of my digital crutch.  I’ve made more images this year that I recognize as my best work than pretty much all the other years put together (in my flickr ‘Test of Time’ album, where I keep, and update, my favourite images, there are currently 60 from this year, and 56 from 2016, as opposed to 15 from 2015, and 8 from 2014, even though I’ve been uploading about 300 images to flickr a year).  In years past I’ve offered up a countdown of my favourite images of the year, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it this time since I have too many to pick, and the quality has definitely gone up several notches overall.

2017 has been an organic extension of decisions I took last year, especially in my move into more and more film photography and in my increasingly constant eagerness to use the experience of photography itself as something to enjoy, contemplate, and help to make work that I liked and felt might last for a bit longer than a glance or two on social media.

I bought my Linhof Technikardan last year, and subsequently also picked up a Hasselblad XPan which I thought might complement it nicely.  The former decision is arguably the best decision I’ve ever made in photography – perhaps closely followed by my purchase of the Nikon D800E and 85mm tilt-shift, without which I doubt I would have made the jump into film.  I seriously doubt I’ll be buying another expensive digital camera in the near future, though don’t think for a moment that GAS goes away in the world of film (see later)!  The XPan decision was a bit foolhardy (as was my decision to sell the camera quite quickly – if I’d hung onto it for another year or so I reckon the resale value would have sky-rocketted given Hasselblad’s investment in the new X-series digital kit).  I didn’t end up liking the rangefinder as much as I thought, and despite the larger negatives, Xpan image area isn’t 617 medium format.  I’d been spoiled by 5×4!

That’s why this year I ended up buying a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II to replace the XPan, but not to use as a camera alongside the 5×4, but to use in circumstances where the 5×4 couldn’t go.  My best work with the Mamiya has been handheld with 400-speed film, often wide-open with the wondrous 110mm f/2.8 lens.  Delta 400 and Portra 400 have been the go-to films for this; I have shot a bit of Delta 100 and Velvia 50 on it, tripod-mounted, but too often I’ve felt that these images haven’t worked or have had technical errors which I wouldn’t now have made with the 5×4, careful exposure calculations, and movements.  The exposure latitude with the 400-speed films means that I can get away with using an app on my phone for ball-park incident metering and still get great results, without having to carry the Sekonic and a tripod with me and still make errors.

This year I also ventured further afield more regularly than previously, with quite a few trips to North Wales in addition to a few trips up to Derbyshire and the couple of visits to Scotland.  It’s pretty sad that I’ve lost a bit of confidence with finding subjects and scenes I can connect with in Oxfordshire, but perhaps if I work some more with black and white I can turn that around (see below).

2017 marked another couple of decisions, closely related to one another, as it happens.  The first was my decision to go on the large-format photography workshop with Tim Parkin and Richard Childs in Glencoe – I’d never been on a photography workshop of any kind before and had zero idea of what to expect, but I needn’t have worried.  I’m not really into the cliquey-ness of landscape photography, esp., it seems, prompted by lots of Light&Land photography tours and competition entrants – I’m much more interested in ploughing my own furrow, especially given that I’m increasingly seeing overlaps between the art-history and theory of photography, my photographic practice, and my professional academic research in the humanities.

Thankfully the workshop wasn’t really cliquey at all, and not competitive either; time spent in the field allowed me to get on and do what I wanted with a light touch from the leaders once they had a sense that had a fairly good idea of what I was doing (!), and evenings were spent processing and chatting more generally.  What pleased me is that I was still able to take quite a lot of ‘me’ photographs: not traditional landscape vistas in the grand tradition (though there were some of these) but images of detail about a sense of place, or uncanny or abstract photographs the likes of which I’d like to explore more of in future.

The second decision was to bite the bullet and get into home-processing my film, via the purchase of a Jobo and some chemistry – thanks to encouragement from Tim and Richard in Glencoe.  A few things about this are worth recording, I think.  First, it’s not difficult, even doing E6, and not particularly time-consuming either so long as you get the water-bath temperature in the right ball-park to begin with.  Second, if you enjoy making photography a craft, a hands-on experience – which you surely do if you shoot 5×4 – then you will almost certainly enjoy processing the film, which extends this aspect further.  Finally, something I expected might be the case but wasn’t sure of until I tried it, was that home-developing b&w film really enhances the experience and point of working in monochrome with large format.  OK, so digitization of the sheets means that perfect zone-system metering accuracy isn’t technically required at all times so long as you have a reasonably balanced negative, but the enjoyment of crafting different results in camera for different creative ideas for output seems likely to be addictive, along with the myriad possibilities of developers and pairings with different films.  So far I’ve only worked with Delta 100, which isn’t perhaps very adventurous at all, but there’s a great deal to learn.

So where next?  Very difficult to say, expect that I’m likely to be quite pressed for time and opportunities next year, so I’ll have to make the most of them.  My resolutions for 2017 included shooting more 5×4, which I achieved in spades, and shooting more scenes in landscape orientation, which I’ve also improved upon.  Another of my resolutions was social-media related, in my eagerness to post more regularly to Ming Thein’s flickr site.  Very thankfully, in retrospect, I’ve very much weaned myself off this crutch – Ming is great at critiquing images, and his posts and discussions of style taught me a great deal about the graphic nature of compositions, but I’m not at all convinced that his work, or that of his contributors, is really very much in touch with the emotional aspect of photography – what I ended up seeing was a great deal of repetitions of graphically interesting but not particularly soulful plays on abstract street photography.  His increasing and overwhelming devotion to digital Hasselblad has now rung rather hollow for me.  Digital might be the answer, and the future, for many, but it’s not the only path one can take in striving to make interesting photographs.

One thing I am intrigued by is the extent to which shooting 8×10 black and white might be a further stage along the interesting path I am taking.  I don’t have the resources to fully invest in 8×10 but fortunately Intrepid are now rolling out production of their light-weight and cheap field camera; coupling this with one or two lenses and a couple of film holders might be interesting!  Before I do so, though, I’ll need to make sure that reviews of the camera mean that I wouldn’t be a beta tester, and I’ll also need to figure out the easiest and most effective way to process the larger film size, whether on the Jobo or separately, without a dark room.  There are various options, it seems.  Anyway, it’s nice to know that home-development has renewed my interest in B&W: this can only be a good thing, given that Fujifilm’s interest in remaining in this business seems pretty precarious. Interesting times!

Merry Christmas, and all best for 2018

One or two favourite images from the year below…

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