EP17 – Conversation with Paddy Summerfield

On July 8th I travelled to Oxford to meet Paddy Summerfield in the house he has lived in since he was 18 months old and, more particularly, the house that served as backdrop to his 2014 masterpiece ‘Mother and Father’ (published by Dewi Lewis). 

Paddy Summerville in his Garden, Oxford 2016

Paddy and his partner Patricia Baker-Cassidy live in a Edwardian villa in Oxford’s Summertown where they work together to bring a lifetime’s photography to the surface.

This year Dewi Lewis has published another collection of Paddy’s work, ‘The Oxford Pictures 1968-1978’ which are a languorous and sexually charged examination of loneliness and self discovery. Paddy has always shot on 35mm and the images in this book are exquisitely reproduced from scans and printed at the legendary EBS printers in Italy which were also the printers of my book, ‘Want More’ in 2015.

This conversation is easily the longest I have published but it is necessarily so because Paddy is engaging on the subject of photography and candid when he talks about life in general. He is a true photographer in that his life is defined by the images he makes. His energy and ambition to keep publishing his extensive work comes from a desire to represent his world and not, as is often the case, from the ego.

Please take time to listen to the piece; listen to it win tranches if necessary, as it really is worth the effort.

Alex Schneideman July 2016

All images © Alex Schneideman, 2016

 

Links

New York Times T Magazine

Photomonitor

CPM Conscientious Photography Magazine


Check this new episode of Photographica

EP16 – PhotoMuse 2

Listen in stereo as I take a second walk down a very sunny Portobello Road. This time I was thinking about:

  • Chimping and the new screenless Leica MD, affectation and self imposed perfectionism.
  • Harry Gruyaert.
  • Jolyon Fenwick and his pictures of WW1 battlefields, ‘ZERO HOUR’

and an amazing busker…

Don’t forget to get in touch with me at alex@flowphotographic.com or checkout flowphotographic.com to learn about our work printing photography at FLOW.

Thanks, 

Alex

Check this new episode of Photographica

On Context – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 190

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

context

ˈkɒntɛkst/
noun
the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

To give your work context is to give it meaning to the wider world. Without context our work may seem irrelevant. With context our images connect to the intricate dynamic of human experience enabling people to form a bond with it. The purpose of this piece is to focus on a consideration that we all know to be true, is not often discussed and can have a great impact on our photographic legacy.

In my last article I spoke of the creation of art as being the act of bringing attention to the abstract. This is a good way to start looking at the concept of context; in observing something and making an exposure you have effectively placed your subject in its own context – one that has meaning for you. This initial personal contextualisation gives the impetus required for the photographer to capture the image and give him or her the reason to commit to it. Let’s say this is called ‘primary context’. At this stage all sorts of nuances, details and fluctuations of meaning are either consciously or subconsciously known by its originator.

Now a selection of images is made perhaps for an exhibition, a book or entering into a competition. At this stage ‘secondary contextualisation’ is required. As your images transfer from the private world of their inception and selection to the public world of arbitrary engagement those qualities and ideas in your work will be lost unless you can elicit some control over how they are viewed.

The viewing public do not have the visual acuity, time or inclination to engage with your images as you would wish so you must help them by controlling the environment in which your work is seen. The key here is to concentrate the viewer’s gaze on your work without distraction. This needs to be done both practically and conceptually. A frame is a ‘practical’ conxtextualising tool. Here the border allows the elements of the image to live in their own world – a world defined and delineated as something different but the wooden surround. A secondary or ‘conceptual’ context can be described by imagining the power of a solo show at the Tate versus the display of some work in a village hall. The same pictures may be exhibited but to different effect by leveraging gravity by association.

These suggestions are all vital aspects of placing your work in the right ‘light’, perspective or context. This is a report from the front line of working with photographers over many years but it is not exhaustive. The craft of placing your work in the right context might come to you instinctively or not. It doesn’t matter – context is essential when it comes to generating the most effect from showing your work. Context is relevance. It can’t be put simpler than that. Ignore it at your peril.

Here are some observations made during my time printing for photographers all over the world. I’ve had a chance to examine success and failure at close hand and these notes reflect some of the lessons I’ve learned.

ONLINE
It is too easy to show your images to many people. Flickr, Facebook, Instagram and the like all make the exposition of your work almost automatic. But, unless your pictures are connected to an event or cause, these media are disastrous for preserving the gap between the metaphysic truth of your images and the prosaic mess of the world around them. Your work needs space – space to make its own case. It is much better to use these media to bring people to your own website.

WEBSITES
Picture editors and curators have told my so many times that websites need to fulfill only two functions; clear visibility of images and ease of navigation. That’s it. A website does not need to be pretty – simply functional allowing the work to ‘speak’.

GROUP VERSUS SOLO SHOWS
When showing prints avoid group shows – they do nobody’s work any favours. Instead commit to your images and find a space where they can be shown on their own. Group exhibitions have the benefit of bringing more people in to view your work and they can be effective for people starting out but they are messy, prone to compromise and have the effect of degrading the power of your work especially when your work is adjacent to a weaker display. The aforementioned ‘village hall’ is a better environment to display your work than risking contamination by acquaintance with poor images.

PRESENTATION
Framing is over considered. You cannot reinvent photography with a stunning frame. Keep it simple and make all your pictures the same size so that the viewer can ‘tune out’ the ancillary details and concentrate on the actual images.

iPads are great for casually showing your work but we automatically devalue the work on show because screen images are so pervasive in our visual lives.

Hanging pictures is crucial to their impact. Poor hanging will reduce the power of your exhibition by a huge amount. Make sure that frames are neat and clean and hung so that they are dead straight. Failure to do this makes you look like an amateur (I mean this in the pejorative sense!). Neat hanging is more important than correct exposure for the purposes of connecting with viewers.

PORTFOLIOS
A set of prints in a clamshell portfolio box is endures as a good way to show your work. Allow wide borders (go up a paper size to incorporate this) and you get the double benefit of being able to handle prints (matte paper cleans up very well – direct message me and I’ll tell you how) and the separation from the environment that every good shot deserves.

CURATING A SELECTION
Loose a third. Some of my clients refer to the process of selection as ‘drowning your babies’ – a horrific term but one that sums up the process well. Your final selection should hurt. There will be loved pictures left behind because they weaken the ‘whole’.

Agree or disagree? Let me know at @schneideman331 or email me at alex@asprinting.net

On Sharpness – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 192

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

Sharpness is an intellectual and artistic ‘dead-end’. There is only one small part of our retina which is capable of hugely detailed vision. The fovea is 0.3mm across – the size of the tip of a fine pen. Indeed half of all nerve cells in the eye are directed at the fovea but radiating out from this central ‘pit’ is the macular which offers less distinct vision and then the retina which allows us to see in the dark and gives us a sense of what is around us but no acuity at all – our brains have to sort through this visual sloop to make sense of it. By contrast a camera is all fovea. There isn’t a gradual dissemination of acuity its just 100% sharp from edge to edge. I am going to argue here that our addiction to sharpness and resolution is a distraction from the most important aspect of seeing and that it is ‘sensation’ or the engagement of our subconscious mind with what we see rather than evenly spread high acutance vision which provides us with the best route to artistic expression.

What we ‘see’ is nothing more than a very clever portrayal of reality constructed by our brain from various stimuli. This visual construction, which relies on our conscious and subconscious minds, seems perfect to us but in reality, when tested, is nothing more than a very sophisticated story telling mechanism. Because the brain has surprisingly little information to go on the processes that make sense of the world visually rely on many parts of the brain invoking deep levels of thought and personality and which we access when creating or are faced with works of art. In other words it is the story telling part of our brain which helps us see, helps us think and helps us derive meaning from abstraction.

When we look at a photograph (on screen or print) what we see is a mechanical reproduction of a physical scenario reproduced according to the capabilities of mechanical means. This degree of ‘reproductive perfection’ did not exist before photography was born. The photograph depicts life but not in human terms. What we see when looking at a photograph is a machine’s eye view – never the vision of a human. In other words concepts of sharpness and dynamic range are machine concepts and not to be compared with our own aquatically evolved, hyper contextualized and multilayered sense of vision.

Since photography’s inception its uses as a medium of record and its adoption by the art world has driven camera makers to produce ever better optics and mechanics so that photographs are easier to make and imperfections increasingly excluded. If technical brilliance continues to dominate the direction the medium takes then our humanity will be subsumed within the increasingly perfectionist mechanism. It is true that there are certain fields of photography which benefit from an increase in technical capability; photojournalists can throw focus from front to back so that present and future generations will gain so much evidential detail from their images and, optically inversely, sports photography can benefit from advanced onboard computing that places a fast moving object in pin sharp focus removing the subject from the background so that we can feel the thrill of frozen action.

But the ever increasing power of technology can be a hindrance to substance. As a professional printer of photography I often find myself talking about such arcane subjects as DPI, colour gamut and Dmax for example. Whilst these and many other technical considerations are all relevant subjects to the technical aspect of ‘best practice’ in photography they can easily distract us from more important discussions about the nature of an image and its relevance to the story a photographer is trying to tell. It is of little importance that a camera is noise-free at 6400 iso if the shots in question are derivative and offer us nothing new, nothing to excite or overwhelm us. Furthermore, in my experience, the more accomplished the photographer the less critical they are of the technical aspect of their work preferring, instead, to concentrate on a print’s ability to convey their ideas as powerfully as possible. Technical excellence is a given and mastery of the medium a must – this is no peon to the shambolic or unskilled – but beyond a certain point we need to take technical excellence for granted and spend our energy on shooting, editing and selecting the best shots.

Much of this obsession with sharpness can be traced back to the legendary ‘Group f64’. Formed in 1931 in San Francisco these photographers including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham set themselves against Alfred Steiglitz’s antiquated New York school of ‘pictorialism’ and dedicated themselves to ‘the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image’. They reveled in new optics, films and techniques and in doing so set a very high bar for technical competence. However our collective way of seeing has moved on from those deliberately sharp images. Though still revered the f64 ‘dogma’ belongs in the past. We have mastered the technical aspect of photography. Technological advances have decoupled our cameras from the restraints of the medium. It is no longer fettered to the earth by chains and we need pay no heed to earthly considerations such as light intensity and focus. Lets recognize the greatness of our forefathers but we must move on leaving their obsession with clarity and focus behind.

As Henri Cartier Bresson said so magnificently, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. Perhaps we can adapt HCB’s famous sentence by saying that sharpness is a small part of the whole story – we shouldn’t allow it or its lack to become a distraction from the innate human truth of representation by photographic means. Sharpness is a commodity easily sold and easily achieved but which rarely adds substance on its own. For photographs to live in all parts of our minds they must reflect what is relevant to their viewers. It will always be hard to warm to cold, mechanical perfection. Photographers must reflect real life for what it is; occasionally sharp but more often a mess of blurs, half-truths and fallibilities.

Alex Schneideman, May 2016, London

My thanks to Mr Nabeel Malik MBBS FRCOphth FRCSEd (Ophth)
Consultant Ophthalmologist
Chelsea & Westminster Hospital

PICTURE NOTES
The photographs shown here work despite their lack of focus or sharpness. Despite these ‘defects’ they are still photographs, doing the work of a photograph by bringing our attention to a new experience.

On Cameras – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 191

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

The development of camera and lens technology has allowed for such things as telephoto and wide lenses, increased light sensitivity and faster shutter speeds. These have all meant we can take pictures where we couldn’t before and so the camera has attained almost a sense of its own ‘personhood’. This quality accorded to cameras is wrong and unthinking. A camera must be subservient to its user-master.

To fix an image through means of the entrapment of light alone needs a lens to act as transceiver linked in a particular way to a mechanism which converts the eternal into the ephemeral. Think of the continuous stream of light that pours through a lens and then imagine the opening and closing of the shutter as it grabs a moment of that light. In this way a camera is a space/time slicing machine. Now cameras have new features such as being able to shoot movies and post-focus cameras (such as Lytro) that allow us to throw focus and depth of field about without recourse to the laws of physics (so it seems) but the essential function of a camera remains the same – to render the infinite finite.

Camera design closely follows leading edge technology. Today’s camera phone is the distant descendant of the development of 18th century lens making technology which led to the invention and wide use of the ‘camera obscura’. Portable film plate cameras followed and then the conversion of 35mm movie film to stills cameras by Oskar Barnack leads us to present day high achieving techno-wonders such as the Sony A series.

We take pictures to freeze time and show we were here (see B+W 189) and that hasn’t changed since Niepce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot first fixed an image on a portable substrate. Imagine what is was like to record ‘real life’ for the first time! Lartigue pushed the boundaries of what was possible with camera technology in the early 20th century and the gains we have made since then haven’t changed the essential facts of the medium as laid down by Niepce et al.

 

What matters in a camera is how it enables us to act as conduit between the chaos of the real world extracting, either on purpose or by happenstance, those artefacts that we wish to save for ourselves and others. The camera that allows you to do that is the one you should use. Araki says that the best camera is the one he has with him, McCullin says that a camera is like a toothbrush – it does the job. Ernst Haas says “Leica schmeika”. No photographer should ever attribute his or her success to the instrument they use but, correctly, many have credited their apparatus as having contributed along the way.

This ‘accreditation’ is important because it describes the nature of the relationship between a photographer and their camera. The camera is an adjunct to the eye and the eye is an adjunct to the mind. In this way the hand and the rest of the photographer’s body acts in service to the camera/eye/mind paradigm. Indeed the centre of the creative act is the union of this tripart constellation. The moment of release is the moment of catharsis as the tension built up around this union of physics and metaphysics, perception and sensation, has to find some kind of resolution. To use a camera well we need to be clear about the nature of our relationship with it yet at the same time it is preferable that we are not conscious of it. We need to know the camera so well we can ‘unknow’ it – that is to say to take it for granted as we do our hands or our feet.

Protons may stream into the glass but attention flows outward and we are nothing in the universe if we are not attentive to it. The nature of our existence in the cosmos is predicated on our attention to it and not the other way round. The act of creation is an outward bound, ‘active’, impulse not, as some may see it, a passive act of allowing existence to come in. The act of photography is the act of synthesis in which the nature of human attention passes into the world through the lens. What is important to understand is that the world does not come into the lens rather the photographer flows out into the world through the medium of his camera. Where a camera is concerned light comes in but, in the case of human attention, it is humanity that flows out.

Equipment doesn’t have life unless we give it. In this way we are masters of the mechanical. Any perversion of this relationship comes at the cost of originality and feeds the banal and derivative. There is no standard test of truth that can be applied to photography or any art form but there is a discernible ‘truth’ in the way we engage with the world through our cameras. No matter how much technology, no matter how much money is spent, whether film is used or not, there is one mutable dynamic at the heart of the creative process; the nature of the relationship between human and camera – a relationship which allows the photographer to blur the lines between the physics of the external and the secrets of the internal and that is made possible by only one thing; you.

Why Photograph At All? – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 189

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

We are all born creative because we are pinned by gravity to the surface of a spinning ball that hangs in space. We have to make sense of this in order to survive and grow. This makes the creative ‘spark’ a necessity not an option.

This spark first found its way into our distant ancestors over 200,000 years ago as they attempted to survive in their environment. Story telling became essential as a way of transferring information. Stories are their/our way of making sense of our condition by bringing abstract attention to the enormity of existence. This process of abstraction and representation is what we now call ‘art’.

Ever since one of our distant ancestors picked up a pebble that bore some resemblance to a human face we have been attempting to bring attention to objects and concepts that describe our experience. Photography is one of the tools we have developed to perform the magic of making something out of nothing or, if you prefer, the bringing of attention for attention’s sake to a point where none existed before.

The drive to describe our experience is as much a facet of humanity as having an opposable thumb and forefinger. We photograph because we must create because we are human. Some of us paint, some write, some construct, some photograph. That we humans choose to do this at all is central to how we place ourselves in the universe. Art is the bringing of attention to something however art is not defined by that process. Art, whether it is photographic or otherwise, is the way we tell ourselves the story of our existence.

Let’s return to that image of a spinning ball. It is a fact that each of us is ephemeral – ‘we are such things as dreams are made of’ as Shakespeare said. But we all have a part to play in the unfolding story of humanity. Space and all its weird quarks, protons and ‘Schroedinger’s Catness’ is in all of us. We are uniquely sensitive beings. Our ‘human’ consciousness is exposed to all this cosmic weirdness and we need to make sense of it – to make order out of chaos – person by person, story by story. Because our experience is unique we each have a unique story to tell – the story of our own short life on Earth. This is, I believe, why I feel such a burning desire to take pictures. I think you take pictures for the same reason – you need to tell your unique story.

I have illustrated this article with three photographs which I think show why I am a photographer. You may hate them or love them – that is not the purpose in printing them here. What I intend is to show three pictures which no one else could ever have taken because these photographs represent my own experience and interaction with the world.

So we come to the crux of the first lesson. Too many photographers rely on the assured style of their various photographic heroes (I am guilty of this sometimes) – it’s almost as if they see the world through imaginary eyes. The point is that one can never be the next Cartier Bresson. He did that already. You are unique – be the first ‘you’ to photograph and show the world how you engage with it. Do this by shooting according to instinct – photograph those things you feel most drawn to and eschew the ‘clever’ and overly wrought. Stick to this principle and you will undoubtedly tell your own story. So from this day on strive to tell future generations (who’s lot it will be to make sense of this spinning ball) your own invaluable story, what is was that – insert your name here – saw, thought and felt.

Lesson 1’s ‘take home’ is – be true to yourself and let your instinct guide your camera.

Next week – Why your camera matters but not in the way you thought it did.