The Song of a Shadow

A book which has influenced my thoughts recently is, “In Praise of Shadows” by Junichiro Tanizaki – there are many free downloads,here is one – is a very short, but I found it deep and enchanting.

Without shadows, we are blind, we could not see anything. I often wonder what the weight of a shadow is – or is it a negative weight as it is where fewer photons fall – but as a photon seems to have no mass than why should a shadow exist?

Whatever a shadow is, with them there can be no photography, so I am a borrower of shadows, a chaser of their beauty.

Collodion, wet-plate photography, suits me well as the shadows I borrow briefly in my cameras and put onto glass plates are more elusive than usual. I use a lot of light which I cannot see as it is ultra-violet. For nearly 50 years I have used the Zone System in all photography I have done, often cheating a lot when using roll film, but I try to use the principles set out by Ansel Adams in his Basic Photo Series of books. Applying this to collodion is a challenge as the lighting is more difficult to “see”, but the shadows are there as my friends and help me to gather the silver sunbeams in the right order.

Here is todays effort to get a plate of my son Jack, it may be one of the last of this particular camera/lens combination (a 360mm Rodenstock ‘Portrat’ Petzval on a 12″x10″ Watson?) I will be trying a 360mm Flor tomorrow. I found out he actually took a picture of me taking a picture of him with his ‘new’ Olympus OM1 – 16 seconds at f3.5 (me, not his).

Jack Tidswell taken by his father and taking his father

A Gentleness of Shadows

We are offering our accommodation and all the photographic facilities at Villa Roquette for workshops and photographic services – the next collodion wet-plate workshop is the end of January 2015, run by Jon Brewer, book before the new year for a special price.

Sing in the Light to make a Harmony of Darkness

The more I practise wet-plate (collodion) photography, the more I realise how much has been lost from our culture due to the “convenience” of digital technology.

I have been thinking hard to put into words the reasons I prefer the restrictions and errors, the dust spots and chemical mistakes I have to accept with traditional photography. Why do I avoid the simple manipulations I could use with photoshop to “enhance” an image, decline to scan an image and print with expensive and time consuming chemistry, when for a fraction of the cost and the time I could shoot, modify and print digitally, with high quality inks, to a very high standard – generally cleaner and sharper than is possible with a mechanical camera, on an emulsion of chemistry on plastic or glass (or tin) and printed onto paper (or glass etc) coated with more expensive and fickle chemistry. Or not even make a print – simply send a digital image through the Internet to be seen instantly on any computer screen.

Well, the truth is I do this – here is a tintype I took this week…

5x4 tintype - 18 seconds f4 (ish)

5×4 tintype – 18 seconds f4 (ish)

This was a quick portrait I did of another photographer, it is to be used for the publicity material for an upcoming exhibition If you are reading this then you are seeing a hand-held snap I took of the tintype which was on our dining-room table, lit by a convenient table lamp – I took it with a 4/3 digital camera, so I am happy to use this equipment, there is no other way I would have been able to simply show it on this page (or Facebook or anywhere else).

But you are not looking at the original – you can have no idea of what the original represents. OK, it looks much the same – but it isn’t.

It occurred to me that the difference is, to me, the same as going to a live concert compared to hearing the same sounds on a digital (or even vinyl) player. Live music will probably have crappy acoustics in the venue, musicians will make mistakes and it may be uncomfortable and will certainly be more expensive than listening at home – but which is preferable – for me I would much prefer to hear something I loved at a live performance than to hear it from any recording. Live music has “soul”.

Possibly the most famous, probably the most important and certainly the oldest poetry we know is Homers’ Odyssey and Iliad (or Iliad and Odyssey, whichever way round you prefer) – This was made to be performed live – but – importantly, it was sung, not narrated or quoted, it was sung. It says so at the beginning of the Iliad.

Thanks to the need for companies to continue to make big returns for their shareholders, we are caught in a vortex of consumer evolution which is accelerating the redundancy of “goods” (or should some of this be called “bads”) so the marketing departments can use their skills to create in us a “need” to upgrade our possessions. For sure, but using technological innovation, many things can be made easier to use to get a result. Any digital camera today is much much cheaper to make due to the use of electronics and plastics and it can record and enhance an image very simply and at minimal cost (of the image) – but by not giving the user the need to understand what the hell is happening, the image taken has no need of any form or structure.

The image provided by a digital camera is a convenience and usually a compromise and will come from the programmed enhancements of the computers in the camera, not from the skills and training of the user.

In skilled and artistic hands the digital camera can be used as a tool to make images – David Hockney created with Polaroids, fax machines and now uses an iPad to paint with, he explores and embraces all tools which “enable” him. For me, he is a wonderful artist. So I am not saying that digital technology is in itself bad, but I am saying that a great deal has been lost by replacing the disciplines of traditional photographic procedures and processes with the simplicity of automatic “smart” cameras is a loss. It is a loss of perception and has enabled a tidal-wave of unconsidered images to engulf us.

I want to “sing” my pictures – to do this I have to learn my craft – I also want to make good images, to do this I have to learn to be a poet, a good poet.

Seeing the Light, Feeling the Darkness

My friend Barbara Heide is a photographer. She is a good photographer and shares her work through Internet sites, she has also made some books of her photographs about places and people she knows well.

Barbara is also one of a group of us who meet regularly to discuss things like poetry, images, philosophy and cricket (in truth we never discuss cricket, but it sounds less pretentious than the other stuff). We call it “The Odyssey” (allusions to Tennysons’ Ulysses), Carole calls it “The Nutters Club”

But, I have a problem. Barbara loves showing her work on the computer and, as she uses a digital camera she does a lot of exposures, so there are often up to 100 images to consider.

I believe it is very hard, even for a great photographer, to make one or two good images, images worth showing and sharing, in a month of work. Recently I was in Paris at the Cartier-Bresson exhibition. One of the greatest photographers ever with a creative career of over 60 years. But, the exhibition was too big – over 500 images far far far too many – and, in my opinion, many (most) were irrelevant and not worth putting on the wall for the exhibition. I am sure these were important if you want to study the life of the man, but I want to see and feel the images and, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn about the other stuff. It was the same at other exhibitions I saw this year, Brassai, Capa etc. It’s the same for all artists, luckily painting takes more time than pushing a shutter button, so usually an exhibition of paintings is less overloaded.

But with digital photography, I am often presented with scores and scores of snapshots all taken in a short time-frame. Many are simply the same shot from differing perspectives and perceptions, others are a multitude of landscapes, street scenes etc – each one perhaps has merit, but the visual overload of “yet another interesting door/window/wall/tree/field/hill/cloud, etc etc – completely defeats the purpose of sharing images. I am not saying they are all bad photographs or bad photography, they would be useful for the photographer to improve their perception – but please please please show me a few of the ones which tell me something – tell me a story – make me think as well as exciting me by the form and light I see and which was perceived by the photographer.

My other rant about digital photographs is that I know most, if not all, are electronically “enhanced” by both the cameras on-board computer and by other software by the photographer – so I know what I am seeing is something created and designed to be seen on a light emitting computer screen from a distance of 50 to 90 cm – not by reflected light on a wall from over a meter away – perhaps it is this that takes the “soul” away from digital work.

OK – all the technical stuff is (mostly) irrelevant if the image tells me something – if there is a story, if it creates in me a feeling – look at Capas’ “the falling soldier” often called the greatest photograph of the 20th century. Technically if is not good, but this is irrelevant, it is a very important and an extremely strong image and invokes deep feelings.

A photographer should (in my not so humble opinion) strive to show me something which makes me “see” and “feel” what they saw and felt at that moment of time – and then – only share with me the one single image which is relevant to that purpose. Less is more?

It was my son Jack’s birthday yesterday and he asked for a film camera. I gave him a simple Olympus OM1 outfit and one roll of film (Fomapan 100)- but – I only put enough film in the cassette for 10 exposures and suggested he looked for and took a picture of just one subject to share with me. He seems very keen to learn and I hope to carefully teach him to expose and develop to Zone System principles, so the sooner I can get him onto sheet film, the better (or collodion, but that is a different story). One image a month – a good goal.

Here is a picture from Barbaras’ “image poem” last week which did say something to me…

Collodion photography at Villa Roquette

Hands used for collodion photography – stains of silver nitrate

The purpose of this blog is to share our life at Villa Roquette and to tell you about our vacation accommodation there and the Photographic Workshops we are starting from Next January