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

Wet Plate Photography Workshop Preparation

We are now taking reservations for the first Collodion, WetPlate workshop in VillaRoquette.

Photography at Villa Roquette

Some of the Equipment for the Collodion Ambrotype WetPlate workshops at VillaRoquette

The dates are set for October 11th and 12th 2014.

Here is a pdf file with more information

John Brewer and Dr Kate Horsley are holding a weekend workshop on collodion, wet-plate, photography at VillaRoquette.

A prominent artist and lecturer, John Brewer is an expert in wet plate collodion and alternative photographic processes. In the last few years he has mentored hundreds of artists, photographers and hobbyists in wet plate collodion and a great range of students, including many well-known professional photographers, come from all over the world to attend his workshops. John has exhibited internationally and his work is held in private collections worldwide.

Educated at Oxford and Harvard, Dr Kate Horsley is a writer and university lecturer who specialises in gothic fiction and has just published her first novel. Kate’s wet plate collodion work has been exhibited nationally, collected privately and included in an international series. For the last two years she has taught wet plate photography with John in venues across the UK.

This two day residential course is designed for a group of six students, all of whom will be provided with John’s comprehensive thirty page wet plate collodion manual. To ensure close personal attention, John and Kate will have the support of Tony Tidswell, a professional photographer who is fluent in French.

Accommodation will be included and students are welcome to bring friends or partners not attending the course. They have the option of staying in the Villa Roquette for additional days, with full use of the equipment and services provided. A film darkroom area is available to guests for use after the workshop has finished and there is a range of photographic equipment available; students are welcome to bring their own large format camera if they wish.

The total price for the course, including two days’ tuition and accommodation, materials, use of equipment, meals and all services of Villa Roquette is £475. Students staying longer or bringing friends or family pay only the (very reasonable) standard supplementary charges.

Delivered in English, this course will cover John’s complete wet plate collodion syllabus, enriched by informal discussions over breakfast, lunch and the Saturday evening meal. Wonderful local food and wines are in unlimited supply for all. To add to this, the beautiful countryside, the Mediterranean, French farming villages and sunshine provide fantastic atmosphere as well as spectacular photographic subject-matter.

The course will be given in English and students are given a comprehensive 30 page manual of the chemistry and processes written by John Brewer. There are French speaking assistants working in the course and translations of data sheets and processes can be provided and printed at any time in most languages (thanks to Google Translation).

Students can bring their own large format camera and there is a range of adapters on loan so 19th century lenses can be fitted to some digital cameras (put a Petzval on your 4/3).

Full Plate Camera with 385mm Rodenstock Petzval portrait lens for Collodion workshop

Full Plate Camera with 385mm Rodenstock Petzval portrait lens for Collodion workshop

The scope of the course is similar to those offered by John in the UK, the the added bonus of breakfast and lunch discussions and the Saturday evening meal, where local food and the wonderful local wines are in unlimited supply for all (as well as stimulating conversation). Plus the beautiful countryside, the Mediterranean, French farming villages and sunshine