Tag Archives: documentary

On the Enduring Value of Film – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 214

A Return to Film Confirms an Indelible Human Need for Connection with the Medium

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 214, April 2018

 

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

The maxim goes that the most expensive thing the average person buys, after a house, is a car. Well, in my case, that ‘next most expensive thing’ is a film scanner. We (at the Flow printing studio) decided last year to bite the bullet and respond to the growing demand for film scanning and dive headfirst into very expensive and very old technology. In B+W 211 I argued that, through the prism of the change from film to digital we are at a fascinating nexus between the beginning and the end of the beginning of photography – this argument sits roughly on the same timeline (but not exactly) as the shift from film to digital. But in the last couple of years we have seen a 200% increase in the number of rolls of film we are processing and, subsequently, the scans we are making. What is driving this technological reverse and what does it tell us about the medium?

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

Please allow me to belabour you with a couple of personal details which are essential in laying the groundwork for this month’s polemic. I have two occupations beyond writing; proprietor of a photographic printing studio (FLOW) and photographer. When I set up my first commercial darkroom in 2004 the world was film. Digital was insurgent but for most photographers who hadn’t yet invested in a ‘Leaf back’ the unthinking default was whichever film you favoured. For my own work I chose, with little thought or variation, Tri-X (which I rated at 200 and developed 3:1 20C 7.5 mins in Perceptol since you didn’t ask – a great scanning recipe incidentally) and for clients’ work I would develop film in D76 ‘deep tanks’ unless requested to do otherwise. Negative colour (C41) films like Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro (a personal favourite) were introduced in the early noughties to a booming professional photography market. And then came the ‘great switch’. Kodak released a digital SLR and virtually paid photographers to use it. The software was there and Apple made computers capable of easily coping with large file sizes in a way that non-computer type people could enjoy.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

By 2005 the great switch was underway and unstoppable. I invested in my first Canon 5D and, at the studio, we bought our first Epson inkjet printers which now carried pigment inks in ten colours. The creative energy was now digital. By 2008 we had stopped processing film and had all but closed the darkroom. Digital was here and it was fully backed by every major player in the market. For a company like ours that existed on commercial terms we had no option but to go with the Flow, so to speak. And, personally, I loved the new medium. Less messy, more dependable for assignments, more latitude than film – and for me – an untechnical photographer at best, a massive benefit in the loss of sleepless nights hoping that the photographs I had shot latently existed prior to development on some polyester rolls in a bag somewhere. Had I counted the rolls properly and had I argued hard enough to not have them X-rayed on my way back to London? Digital fixed all of these insecurities and led us into the endlessly mutable world of bit depth and pixels where anything was possible given access to processing power and skills.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

But we humans never make houses on shifting sand. Because that is what digital photography is – a permanently shifting base on which nothing can be built to last, nothing can be relied on to not have been changed. We humans are endlessly mutable ourselves – we are free to change our minds at will but it is in our nature to settle. To photography the digital era has represented a great unsettlement. What is the enduring value of anything if it changes from what it is today? Digital photographic technology, for all its wonderful benefits, is not a human medium. It is essential to humanity that we have the technology but it is an alien form that we humans can never truly own because we can never directly engage with the technology that makes the pictures and we can never call a digital photograph ‘finished’.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

And so, as I report from the ‘coalface’ of the photographic world where my business has watched the comings and goings of photographic technology I can now tell you that film is back. And in a big way. Shot mainly by younger photographers who have grown up in the Photograscene era (see B+W TP210) film is making a huge comeback. I would say that C41 processing of colour film (Kodak Portra 400 and 800 in particular) is where most of the resurgence can be found but we handle a lot of Tri-X, Plus-X, FP4 and HP5 as well. For these photographers who enjoy the quality of film there are many more reasons that they are eschewing digital. They love the restrictions, or immutability, of the analog medium. They love that you need to be careful with your exposure; how many and how shot. They love that they get a physical rendition of the light that they experienced at the time of exposure. They love that a sense of place comes as standard with an exposed negative, they love the grain that tells that story of the chemistry that has made their image. They love that an exposure can be wrong. And for this new understanding of photography we have digital to thank. For how could we have been forced to re-evaluate film if it weren’t for an attractive interloper encouraging us to look with new eyes on the long held object of our hearts’ desire.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

And so we bought a big Imacon scanner which monthly payments make me shudder. We can’t deny all that digital has bought us. Scanning film is, if you will, a very happy medium. But we invested in response to a new appreciation of photographic process. A new acknowledgment, consciously or not, of the essential, immutable human particle that is present in film and of which, digital is utterly devoid.

On the Argument for Providing Questions Not Answers – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 213

On the Responsibility of Photographers to Provide Questions not Answers

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 213, March 2018

Evidence – the word weighs heavily on photographers. A photograph, although known to be the least reliable of artefacts (as I’ve written in these pages before) carries the mythical weight of ‘evidence’ – evidence that something actually happened. A photograph is a myth disguised as a fact. Photographers of all varieties might be better off appraising the substantive weight of a photograph in a more reliable way – as that of the reliable questioner rather than the harbinger of unquestionable truth. The maximum evidential value of a photograph is found in the questions it raises but never in answers it importunes.

When we pick up a camera and frame a shot we are becoming expert in one thing – the composition of that image at that time. Certain photographers like Antoine D’Agata and Antonin Kratochvil have sometimes eschewed deliberate composition but most photographers use the viewfinder both to include the elements that they see as necessary and to exclude all those that are not. This calculation in any composition will necessarily leave almost the entire world out of the image. What we, the viewers, will see of the photographer’s gaze at the moment of exposure is the sum total of everything that wasn’t excluded in the real-time editing process that goes into taking a picture.

The resulting photographic view from any single exposure cannot be relied on as an objective truth that will be received by everyone in the same way. We (and I include the photographer themselves in this) cannot possibly triangulate all the available data and come up with an objective truth. There are exceptions to this such as forensic photography where prosaic and reliably gathered data can perhaps provide evidence of an objective truth but, for most other purposes we have to rely on the view being presented to us as evidence that the photographer was witness to the events as depicted and that this depiction reliably communicates the most urgent and truthful aspect of the scene in question. This assumption relates as much to landscape photography as it does to images of conflict. In almost all cases the photographer is judge and jury on what constitutes the best image. We have only his or her say to go on. This means that every photograph is subjective and has no inalienable claim to objective truth.

In the last paragraph I’ve laid out why we should view any narrative depicted in a photograph with suspicion but I excluded images made for purely abstract, artistic reasons – images that attempt to communicate something that is, perhaps, unsayable in any other way. A photographer need not tell his viewer how life is lived. But a photographer can raise questions about existence that force the viewer to reflect on the conditions of their own existence. Alternatively, when it comes to aesthetics we might tire quickly of someone showing us a picture of something that they believe contains a complete explication of objective beauty. However we can become transfixed when we see the work of a photographer whose aesthetic approach is a private journey of comprehension on which we are invited to become fellow travellers. When we sense that the photographer is showing us a glimpse of their attempt to understand the world – the questions they are asking themselves – without showing us their conclusions, then we can join them on their own journey without being excluded by anything so crude as an attempt at a statement of fact.

To give you two example of very different photographers whose work has enduring power owing to the questions they raise rather than the conclusions they draw, please consider the work of Tony Ray-Jones and Saul Leiter. Ray-Jones’s seminal 1974 book, A Day Off, sets out in documentary form to show the British at leisure. It has become one of the great works of British documentary photography not because it defines the subject but because it raises the right questions. Ray-Jones was too sensitive to believe that his work could attempt to define the British at play. By allowing his pictures to trace, with the lightest of touches, the form of the people and the environment he sort to depict, he allows something grand to happen; the viewer must raise questions of their own relationship with the world. If you’re British then you will consider the images against your own experience of the people you know and the country you live in. If you are foreign to Anglo Saxon culture, when it is set so lyrically as it is in the pages of this great book, you will be forced to consider your own.

Saul Leiter raises questions of universality which do not seek to represent any particular culture or formal organisation. Through the use of colour and form Leiter queries what it means to live in a world which is abstract until we impose meaning on it. For Leiter there is no objective meaning to be found in his work. We understand that he is feeling his way, navigating the world image by image. It is futile for artists and documenters to co-opt photography to provide confirmation of their discovery of a certain truth. It is not possible to do more than capture the sense of a thing, to offer compositions to which it is impossible to append a full stop.

Notes on the Images

These images were shot in the Marlborough Sound which is the expanse of water connecting the North and South islands of New Zealand. There is no way of defining this place (or any other) so the best I can do is to break the whole into tiny pieces. I focus on some of them and hope that, in presenting them together, I can raise enough questions in the minds of the viewers that provoke an instinctive reaction and through this a connection with the place depicted.

 

Why photography cannot be judged along with other artforms- ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 212

Why photography cannot be judged along with other artforms
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 212, February 2018

What is a photograph? asked Roland Barthes in his seminal book Camera Obscura. An answer to this question is being attempted in every fine art photography MA course. However, the medium’s purpose and definition will not be found in the colleges and universities but in the relationship photography has with the people who use it most, i.e. you and me.

It is long since anyone questioned the right of photography to be considered a high art form. Through practioners such as Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Bill Viola and Cindy Sherman photography has secured its place as a medium of high art. But unlike other media, like painting and sculpture, photography resists categorisation as being the exclusive preserve of high art. This is photography’s great strength.

Photography is a huge genre but, unlike painting, it has many guises. These facets include; art, science, journalism, family snapshots, portraiture to name just a few. For our colleges to question the nature of photography and to try to guide students to find a new way to use it does not fundamentally alter the nature of photography because the medium is used across so many different cultural platforms. This is in direct contrast to the questioning by art colleges as to what the nature of painting is, for example.

Painting is a medium that is entirely artistic in the sense that it is only engaged with for the purposes of art. If one university is to examine the nature of painting and one of its students were to rise in status and visibility and paint according to a set of newly minted attitudes and techniques, then the very nature of what it means ‘to paint’ might be fundamentally altered. This new approach to the canvas wil,l in turn, filter down to the work of all painters in the same way that haute couture is the aesthetic elder sister to the more homely, pret a porter.

By contrast a college which implores its students to find new pathways in photography will have little bearing on the wider development of photographic process. This is not to say that photography is not a worthy medium for the highest level of artistic enquiry or that it shouldn’t occupy a place amongst the other great genre that spawn the greatest contemporary art. Photography is and always will be a means of artistic expression and should be studied and practised at the highest level as a means of interrogating the human condition.

If painting were to disappear, or at least the techniques taught in schools, then the entire artform would cease to progress. Compare that with photographic development. If art schools stopped teaching photography what would happen? The answer to this is that photographic technology, technique and its whole absorption into the mainstream of cultural life would continue unabated. And not just continue, it would blossom and develop at the rate and speed that a human population hungry to record itself would push it.

Cultural phenomena that appear within the realms of science, technology and art cannot come from the colleges but from the gatekeepers to the new connected culture that is social media. The most important cultural tendency of recent years is unquestionably the ‘selfie’.

The selfie is what happens when humans and technology combine in a dynamic form (literally and metaphorically) of self expression – an expression impossible without ubiquitous access to photography. This cultural meme adopted by so many people with access to the technology and means of dissemination was not taught in schools yet it’s effect on society as a whole is huge. The art schools can only react to it and academics can only comment on it. The selfie is by no means the only cultural form of expression that has occurred completely independently of the art schools. Photojournalism came about as technology gave new ways of gathering evidence.

Photography wasn’t an ideal that was discussed in universities to which industry reacted – it was the opposite. Industry developed new technologies and we, ever questing, inspired humans, set those new machines to our purpose. Photography is a medium born out of necessity. Painting, sculpture and other plastic art forms are not. They may be born out of the necessary human compulsion to express itself but they are not connected to the human need to advance through technology. Many great photographers have attended art school but few greats have emerged from ‘fine art photography’ MA courses. Art is a state of being, a permanently evolving reaction to the world. Photography is a technology where art and humanity meet but photography will always be its own maser.

Have We Experienced the End of the Beginning of Photography?- ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 211

Have we experienced the end of the beginning of photography?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 211, January 2018

Assuming that the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and a few other notable thinkers and scientists aren’t right then human civilisation is set to last a bit longer. And, although, as Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes, we can be reasonably sure that we have a few more centuries to go, at least even if these Brexit infected times look like the End of Days has begun.

Boys Playing Football, Taroudant

Lets agree that what we call photography started in about 1830 give or take a few years. And now, in 2017, some 190 years later we are where we are photographically speaking. That is to say that we have moved from the realm of brown bottles containing poisonous substances to the bland world of flat, shiny bricks designed for chatting that also happen to have small lenses on them.

Poultry Seller, Taroudant

Evidence that human beings have shown signs of an innate drive to record the world around them since before we were human would make it safe to assume that, if we have a future then photography has a future too. If this is the case, and I surely I hope it is, then where can we place ourselves, right now, in the development of photography and how will we be written about by future historians? How will photography look and what will shape it as it develops? The answer to this last question is perhaps for another piece but let’s continue to examine the unique time in the development of photography that we inhabit.

I wonder, of all the people who take pictures today, what proportion of us has ever taken a picture on film. We are living in a unique time because there are so many of us around who grew up and, indeed, remember a time before digital. I can recall going to one of the first demonstrations of Photoshop in the early Nineties when it was still just a tool for manipulating film originated images (having been scanned on the ‘system’ as it was known).

Man, Taroudant

Lets make another assumption; when did the digital era start? For me it started in about 2004 so lets say for the sake of historical accuracy the digital era started in 2000. Thats only seventeen years ago – roughly 11% of the time that photography has existed. And how far and fast has the technology developed since then? This means that you and I live in a really special time in the development of photography. Future historians will call this an age of transition from one kind of science to another, from one way of thinking about photography to another.

View froim the Roof of the Palais Salaam, Taroudant 2011

Mohamad IV of Morocco, Taroudant

To make my argument work I have to make several more assumptions. A new one I’m going to posit is that the purely chemical based era of photography represents the beginning of the medium whereas the advent of digital technology heralded the inevitable mastering of photography by machines for the purpose for which machines were invented, i.e. rapid and wide dissemination and consumption. We can describe this transition in another way; the silver halide era of photography was about the recording of experience for almost exclusively personal consumption. As technology advanced, the medium was taken from the private and into the public domain as mechanisation made distribution more possible.

Rebuilding the Wall Around Taroudant

In this way a photograph has gone from being a private document to a public record. Put another way, photography has grown up just as a child does; first spending all its years in its own private world and then, as it becomes an adult, moving into the world at large.

Taroudant by Alex Schneideman

Another way that photography has recently come of age, linked inevitably to the arguments already outlined here, is the way that a photograph is consumed by the viewer. The earliest photographic impressions, fugitive as they were, would have been held as delicately and preciously in the regard of the viewer as a fledgling bird fallen from the nest.

Taroudant by Alex Schneideman

Rapidly, as images became first ‘fixable’ and then reproducible, the value that we placed in each reproduction diminished making the content of the image more valuable than the print itself (this is another essay for another issue!). As the inherent value of the photograph has changed so has the viewer and this change in relationship between consumer and medium accounts, in a substantial way, for the way photography has grown as an art form and a technology.

We who are alive today and active photographically have a unique part to play in the continuing development of the medium. Even our children are returning to film, hugely fortunate that the chemicals, techniques and expertise still readily exist for voyages of discovery into outdated yet mysterious photochemical reactions. The past is chemical and the future is digital. The only time that we will ever straddle the beginning and the end of the beginning of the medium is now.

What value does black and white photography have in a world of colour?- ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 210

What value does black and white photography have in a world of colour?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 210, Winter 2017

We are now in the third photographic century. What is the continued relevance of black and white photography in a colour filled world? Or, in other words, what is the argument for monochrome representations of a polychromatic world. I don’t want to teach you to suck eggs but it might be beneficial to this topic if we remind ourselves of the history that has led us out of the dark age of non-photography to where we are now; an age that may be described, by the sociologists of many millennia hence, as the beginning of the ‘Photograscene’ era – the era which will not exist without photography.

All early emulsions were only able to record one of the primary colours. The first emulsions were made purely of silver halide which is only sensitive to blue and UV light (hence the astonishing white-blue eyes of portraits of the era) and insensitive to the other two primary colours; red and green. Then, in 1873, a German mineralogist called Hermann Vogel, discovered that by adding a dye to the emulsion he could extend the sensitivity to larger areas of the spectrum. So now film became ‘Orthochromatic’; sensitive to green and blue, but still red did not register. Red tones still registered as dark areas in an image.

An ‘all-seeing’ emulsion was the result of Vogel’s continued work adding dyes and altering emulsion base colour which resulted in the first panchromatic film; a film that could see red, green and blue. Through a process known as additive colour it became possible to render a full colour moving image by combining three black and white (panchromatic) images with different colour filters. Known as Kinemacolor or Prizma Color this process gained popularity in the UK and US and several colour movies were made this way in the early years of the 20th century. Unfortunately it was very expensive and there was some industrial squabbling between the inventors of the respective processes which critically slowed the early advance of colour film making.

However, the failure of the movie industry to adopt the new panchromatic film meant that this new monochrome emulsion, responsive to all areas of the spectrum was of massive benefit to photographers and still camera manufacturers such as Leica who adapted the 35mm wide film stock to the purposes of taking brilliant quality ‘panchromatic’ black and white images.

By 1935 Kodak Eastman had created the ‘Tripack’ film that became known as ‘Kodachrome’. And then in 1941 they introduced a way of making prints from the transparencies so now photographers had a way of reproducing and disseminating visions of the world in something like a natural colour spectrum. But what was added in the way of colour was deemed by many to ‘take something away’ from the power of a monochrome photographic image. This paradox pertains today and perhaps nowhere more than in the pages of this highly regarded publication, dedicated as it is to monochrome photography.

What is it that still draws people to a representation of the world without colour? As I write this I am on a train travelling from London to Crewkerne in Dorset. The view through the windows is gorgeous, with that peculiar (to southern England) mix of bright greens and purple blue that are the fields and sky on this early Autumn day. I’ve taken a picture out of the train window and I’m looking at it in colour and black and white in an attempt to understand the value of each. Here goes my explanation…

The colour version is informative in a literal sense. And, once I’ve removed myself from the scene, and I take a look at this picture in a few weeks when the weather turns bad, perhaps I’ll derive a pleasure from the combination of colour and tone as well as the bucolic scene it represents. Turning to the black and white version I am confronted with an interpretation of the scene. It records the terrain as faithfully as the colour version and it is clear that the sun is shining in a cloudless sky but here the meaning of the two images bifurcates. The reduction in optical data offered by the monochrome image requires greater engagement and subconscious insertion of ourselves into the image than the colour image requires. In the case of the latter our brains are tricked into thinking that all the information available is there which has a deadening effect on our imaginations rendering the image more a depiction rather than a human interpretation of a scene.

There is also an effect of simplification that is afforded by monochrome images that lends them better to the job of telling a story in one shot. A photograph’s essential elements can be manifested or hidden making the monochrome image a much more graphic pictorial representation of the world. In this way a black and white picture is more a myth than a fact; a quality to which we humans are perennially drawn. Colour photography (without post-enhancement) is necessary for photojournalism as colours are part of truth telling but ‘beautiful’ colour is often, as mentioned above, appreciated as a deviation from ‘the natural’. Digital raw files are so devoid of deviation that they need to be deviated through process to make them attractive to the human eye.

Lastly, a monochrome representation of a scene will always be a man-made interpretation. Nature is colour; man’s imagination can encompass black and white only through the complex combination of the neural system and psychology peculiar to human beings. Only we humans choose to reduce the values of nature to shades of grey to better represent the externalised manifestation of our innermost vision.

Black and white photography has long been a choice rather than a necessity. As we travel further and further away from the monochrome-only era some artists will always choose to tell their visual stories through monochrome images because of, and not despite, their deviation from nature.

On the Nature of Location – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 209

On the Nature of Location
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 209, December 2017

 

Location of Self photos by Alex Schneideman

If I were to take a walk down your street and take some pictures would the resulting images owe more to the physical nature your street or to me? Perhaps you might also walk with me and take some pictures simultaneously – would your photographs of the world you know so well be qualitatively different from mine? Or does the person behind the camera provide the viewer with the ‘real’ location – with the actual topology and events recorded merely playing a part in the creation of the image? In other words, should we consider that a photographer might become ‘a location’ in their own right through the medium of photography.

 

Thank you for bearing with me during that tortuous opening paragraph. In Geoff Dyer’s book, The Ongoing Moment (2005) in which he suggests a narrative for the history of photography, he considers that some photographers may be considered as ‘locations’ in their own right. Dyer argues that some photographers’ engagement with the world they inhabit is so complete and inextricably linked and borne out over time that no matter what (or where) they photograph their images accrue a certain immutable sense of the photographer regardless of the subject matter.

Dyer offers the work of James Nachtwey as an example of a photographer who’s work bends location to his imagery. For those acquainted with Nachtwey’s work then you will know that he may be considered Capa’s rightful heir. Nachtwey has travelled the globe (and continues to do so) for over thirty years. His pictures of war, depravation and disenfranchisement have illustrated the dark side of humanity. But in every image there is the sense of the man himself. A man who has made himself a conduit for all that is terrifying and humane. In Nachtwey’s work is an ‘everyman’ view of the world – should ‘everyman’ have the courage and creative drive of James Nachtwey. Nachtwey is the photographer of all that is left behind; from the bloody handprints left on a living room wall in Pec, (August 1999) to the faces of Albanian Kosovan women and children fleeing war in a truck (Kosovo August, 1999). The hand prints and faces tell the same story and it is this living history that has become the ‘location’ of Nachtwey’s work. Even ghosts need their story to be told and many have chosen Nachtwey as their bard.

But not every photographer will inhabit the world as Nachtwey. Yet perhaps it is the ‘holy grail’ of photography – to achieve the unalloyed ‘voice’ that speaks of the world that we individually inhabit and record. A world that, in other words, is less dependant on physical location than the fact it is recorded by the individual photographer. Although physical location can’t be denied in a photograph it can be seen as of lesser importance if you consider that the same scene could be photographed by two photographers and the resulting images would almost certainly be different. Different aspects of the same scene may be examined simultaneously and to what would we adduce the difference in resulting images? Any variation in vision would come directly from the particular psychology of each photographer and from what each determined as being most salutary or captivating. A reading of the photographic process, in this case, finds that the photographer becomes primary to the location and the location provides a canvas on to which the photographer must project their own sensitivities and proclivities.

What hasn’t been touched on yet is the question of prolificacy. We cannot claim to exist photographically in a notional ‘location’ without making many, many images. A photographer who occasionally and with little conviction presses the shutter on his iPhone is much less likely to create a world for others to inhabit through scarce imagery. There is no body of evidence or road map for the way this photographer inhabits the world. And so the body of work created by photographers who make images with a consistent effort of will and attention will develop a location that only that photographer may inhabit.

FOOTNOTE

As Dyer says, towards the end of The Ongoing Moment, “Nachtwey’s photographs are a kind of destiny for the medium as a whole, a place where photography has always had the potential to end up.” Those last three words are interesting – “to end up”. They imply that, in some way, all of photography has culminated in the work of one man. At the time of writing this book perhaps it could have been said that Nachtwey’s work was the apotheosis of photography but twelve years have passed since then and, of course, new photographers with new visions have appeared. It is high time that Dyer’s brilliant book was updated. Much has happened in the interim and new themes have emerged in photography that deserve Dyer’s particular consideration.

Who are the gatekeepers of the Truth? – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 208

Who are the gatekeepers of the Truth?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 208, November 2017

There is always a version of the truth that is nothing more than a story. Why burden photographers with the sole responsibility for veracity?

You know the adage, the one about lies and cameras and the negative correlation between the two. Its stuck because its true. A camera can’t tell lies anymore than a banana or a bottle of Campari can but, then again, I have never sought the truth from a banana or a Campari (soda with a slice of orange and a few lumps of ice, although… come to think of it…). The growth of critical thought around photography led to the enshrining of one of its great strengths in the public consciousness – that because a camera is a mechanical light recorder with no brain of its own it cannot possibly tell an untruth or record anything other than the pristine truth.

In an act of magical cultural development some of the glimmer of irreducible truth transferred itself from the capabilities of the camera to the eventual prints that were made from its compulsive ‘blinks’. Even today, we ascribe to the photograph the quality of ‘fact’. A photograph is an artefact which, at its irreducible base, is a statement that something took place and was recorded the way it is shown here today by virtue of it being ‘a photograph’. Today we are used to questioning the veracity of images – first ‘the System’, then Photoshop and now countless apps – have eroded to the point of zero the reliability of the ‘fact’ of a photograph but for the purposes of this article we are not concerned with the wholesale ‘Shopping’ of images rather the image itself as defined by the frame or its eventual crop.

I have written before about Nick Ut’s famous Napalm Girl (1972) photograph shot in the midst of the Vietnam war.. A young girl runs down a road away from the most hideous experience imaginable. She has been napalmed by a US airforce attack and her nakedness adds to the horror of the scene. For me the anguish on the face of the boy on the left the picture is as affecting but we have all come to the know this picture as Napalm Girl. For a long time after the picture was first printed in newspapers the soldier/journalist seen casually reloading his camera on the right of the frame was cropped out, perhaps because it reduced the anti-US/anti-war power of the image. The role of the (seemingly) oblivious ‘man on the right’ confused the story and took the emotional power away from the heavy drama the rest of the image depicts.

Many people questioned the veracity of this image. Not because of any questions arising from the crop but from a disbelief of the scene it portrayed and a suspicion that it was merely anti-Vietnam war propaganda. President Nixon questioned the truth of the image but it wasn’t until Nick Ut (corroborated by ITN) described the circumstances in which the image was made that the truth of the image was ‘established’. This image is an excellent example of how one picture can represent various ‘truths’ because it shows how, depending on the sensibilities of the viewer, belief in an image regardless of its provenance, is subjective.

We are all well aware of the skill of a film editor who cuts together a documentary and how subjective that process can be. We take it for granted that the truth as revealed to us in a TV ‘doc’ needs to be appreciated through the filtered awareness of how programs are made and the experience of living in a media world saturated by partisan ownership and the powerful demands of the market or politics. But for some reason the simple still photograph carries an air of truth that is not accorded to other media. There is a myth about the photographer that is not granted to other documenters or artists. This myth goes right to the heart of how photography has been popularised by illuminating talents – brave talents like Robert Capa.

In his account of the 2nd World War, Slightly of of Focus (the most exciting and entertaining photographic account I’ve read) Capa describes his war. Needless to say it is riveting – just the opening chapters about how he managed to arrive at the theatre of conflict from New York are worth the cover price. Capa lived to take pictures and by the age of 25 was already being described as the greatest war photographer in the world. But that doesn’t mean he was always telling the truth. Capa has been criticised for his image of a ‘Falling Soldier (Spanish Civil War, 1938) – it can’t have been photographed in the way that the 22 year old Capa described – but that photograph is famous not because of its truthfulness but because it was understood to encapsulate a moment of truth. The picture is still Capa’s most famous despite its ragged history.

It is part of the human condition to discern between fact and fiction. At the very least we must accept that truth is a subjective concept. As Gary Winogrand said, ‘There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described…’. Photography is a storytelling medium which intersects occasionally with the truth. How and when this happens is up to us each to decide.

NOTE Whilst researching this article I came across the Time website which still features the cropped version… And to add to the mystery I also discovered that it may not have been the US who dropped the napalm that day that burned the little girl. It is authoritatively claimed that it was the South Vietnamese Airforce who napalmed their own villages in support of their ground forces. In other words, this time the Americans had nothing to do with it. Truth, especially when it comes to a single image, is a slippery beast…

Thinking Photography: On Focal Length – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 206

Thinking Photography – On Focal Length
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 206, September 2017

Each prime focal length carries with it a unique metaphysical world view that the viewer absorbs subconsciously. For the purposes of this article I hope you will allow me the conceit of reducing the wide variety of primes to just four; 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm being as they are very commonly used and have been since the inception of 35mm film. By the way please take it that in all cases I am basing this on a full frame sensor.

The angle of view in any particular photograph may not be consciously remarked upon by the view but, at some level, it is taken into account as the mind appraises an image. From the wide splayed distortion to the compacting effect of telephoto the field of view is an important element in the story of each still image.

In order to illustrate this text (alongside my own examples) I have listed a couple of Google search terms; a photographer and an artist. The photographer is self explanatory and many will be familiar with my selections but I thought I’d add an artist who’s work seems to embody one field of view or another. Whilst this is fanciful at best I think it is illustrative of the hidden, or perhaps explicit, intention of a photographer or artist adopting a certain ‘optic’ in their work.

28MM

Gary Winogrand was the king of the 28mm lens. I have, until recently, struggled with this focal length, being much more comfortable with the 35mm or 50mm view point. Everything seems so far away at 28mm and, as a relatively tall photographer, at 6ft I am often looking down on my subject which blows out the perspective lines, indeed 50’s or 35’s are much easier from this perspective. But the truth is the 28mm field of view (FOV) is a gem – its strength is that it describes relationships between things in a way that no other FOV can. For landscape use it is a teller of big stories but where it becomes really interesting is when working close because it can be used to include so many various elements and capture the unseen links between the animate and inanimate – in other words it is the true story telling lens. Take a look at Winogrand’s work and you will see how he manages to establish connections between elements that are seemingly independent. The 28mm makes us confront the reality that everything on Earth is connected.

An artist who’s work resembles a 28mm lens – LS LOWRY “Going To The Match”

Photographer who exemplified a 28mm – Gary Winogrand

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35MM

Why is the 35mm lens the favourite of so many photographers? I believe it is because it allows for a sense of intimacy between the photographer and his or her subject. It isn’t just because it is the ‘Goldilocks’ FOV (not too near nor too far) but it allows for something like the natural view of the human eye. The real FOV of the eye is equivalent to something like 22mm but that doesn’t take in to account the mind’s role in vision which through attention can narrow our FOV to a pin head so a reasonable estimation would be that, as we are casually observing the world our FOV would lie somewhere between 28mm and 40mm. A 35mm lens allows for that odd effect of being close to a subject but retaining it in our normal purview at the same time. The effect of this lens is ‘touchable’, i.e. we feel we are in touch with the subject in a human sense, and whilst it may not be the best lens for portraiture (for some) it is the most ‘human’ of focal lengths and this may explain its popularity amongst documentary photographers.

An artist who’s work resembles a 35mm lens – William Hogarth – ‘’Beer Street and Gin Lane’’

Photographer who exemplified a 35mm – Bruce Davidson

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50MM

The ‘Standard Lens’ is how we came to know the 50mm. It was/is the lens bundled with a body and when I got my first Nikon FG20 it seemed natural that it should come with a 50mm although

I’m not sure why. Cartier Bresson claimed only to use the 50mm (this has been questioned) because of its natural properties. It is said of the 50mm that is it is not too wide and not to close and that makes it the contender for best all round lens. I think of the 50mm as having a ‘graphic’ quality. It flattens slightly (because of its mild telephoto effect) and it can be used to render an image into shapes and tones. If you think of many of Cartier Bresson’s images they are characterised by a marriage of subject matter and structure. The 50mm is ideal for this and implies a certain imposition of composition on the part of the photographer – a well composed 50mm shot is not often accidental – a presence of mind and intention often reveal themselves in the resulting images.

An artist who’s work resembles the view of a 50mm lens – Vincent Van Gogh – ‘The Siesta – 1889-90’

Photographer who exemplified a 50mm – Henri Cartier Bresson

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90MM

A 90mm lens is expressive and flattering and, where the 50mm implies some imposition of structure the 90mm is all about composition. The 90mm lens is like a compositional paint brush – it is all about intention, heightened awareness and concentration. It is the least naturally improvisational of the lenses in discussion. In addition the narrowness of view compels the photographer and the viewer to eschew a larger part of the surrounding ‘world’ and therefore it is an ‘editing’ tool. Once you are in the realm of the 90mm telephoto you are shining a spotlight rather that floodlighting your subject and its surrounding environment.

An artist who’s work resembles a 90mm lens – Piet Mondrian ‘L’Arbre Gris, Huile Sur Toile,’

Photographer who exemplified a telephoto lens (amongst others) – Don McCullin

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As with any ‘thought piece’ the intention is just that – to provide some kind of perspective on a subject rather than to be definitive. You will no doubt want to take issue with the examples I’ve given. As the scope of words and the way a poet forges them together forms a poem, it is my contention that the field of view of a lens provides a conscious foundation for a kind of visual poetry on to which a photographer ‘paints’ his subject.

On Senior Creativity – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 205

On Senior Creativity
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 205, August 2017

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night in the grip of a shocking yet simple thought? For me I am often haunted by the horrific futility and brutality of US federal executions (these nocturnal ‘awakenings’ have led me to become a regular contributor to the work of Reprieve who campaign against capital punishment). But another frequent ‘night-shock’ comes from the thought of getting older and what will happen to my creative drive and my output as a photographer and printer. A curious mental effect renders these nocturnal disturbances so bleak during the dark hours but, as the sun rises, so often do the solutions to these fears.

However, this latter ‘night shock’ is often on my mind during waking hours – why is age related to a diminution in ambition, creativity and risk taking? Is this what awaits me? I am 47 so, not necessarily that old – yet still old enough to contemplate my creative future. Is there some unwritten contract with the cosmos that age shall make us ‘settle’ for mediocrity? Dillon Thomas wrote about the need to engage with mortality head on – this surely is the only way to deal with it. We have a pervasive culture that speaks of gentle seniority, jovial acceptance of life’s brevity and the ‘creative zenith’ of looking after grandchildren. This image of old age can be deadening. The time when a person benefits from the accretion of wealth, the abundance of time and the wisdom that comes from a life lived, is the time when these advantages should be exploited over the conditions faced by the younger generation who are deskbound, wage slaves and often physically and mentally engaged in the raising of the next generation.

A place where many senior photographers choose to congregate are camera clubs. I am not an expert or even very knowledgable about the work of these organisations but I have heard from many readers that they feel stifled by the attitudes and ‘group think’ of the creative conditions that pervade these valuable institutions. So much of the work that is shown and shared in these clubs is valued in how closely it emulates the work of other photographers, how technically accomplished it is and how it fits within the established aesthetic of one club or other. Any photographic institution should be dedicated to the furthering of photography not the entrenchment of time worn technical and artistic values.

Photographers have a job to do. Having a camera and taking pictures is not enough. Everyone with a camera should use it to interrogate the conditions of their life because life is uniquely lived and universally experienced and precious. Why be satisfied with a picture that pleases other people when you could produce an image that pleases you? When we think about our photographic (or artistic) heroes we can easily take the genesis of their work for granted – assuming that the qualities that we love about it were generated by some god-given talent unachievable by the likes of you and me. But that is simply wrong – the work is always the result of (usually) two things; risk and selection. And perhaps you could add a third – huge quantities of exposures.

Lets break these three attributes down. Risk is the nature of the relationship you have with the conditions in which you make your work. It is not about physical endangerment rather a mental state. For example, if you feel very comfortable taking pictures of people on the street but wouldn’t have a clue about shooting something static and posed then that is a good reason to engage with the thing that makes you feel awkward and unconfident because this is where good work happens. Take a look at Don McCullin’s recent images of the remnants of the Roman Empire (Southern Frontiers). They have a freshness to them that would never be achieved by a photographer who had spent his life shooting rural landscapes.

And now ‘selection’ – this is, for practical reasons a bit harder to nail down but it is essential to persevere. Curating your own images is always hard but it is here that the gems are unearthed and untethered from their duller counterparts. Being one’s own greatest supporter and harshest critic is essential in the drive to make (and show) better work. If the picture is duff chuck it – do not make excuses for it. Reduce the number of images that make the final cut. As fledgling photographers in New York, Joel Meyerowitz and Tony Ray Jones would meet in Meyerowitz’s apartment to go through their latest attempts. They would criticise each others work meticulously and through this process of critical selection they took essential steps towards becoming serious photographers.

And lastly the question of quantity or volume. Matt Stuart (who is a Magnum nominee) shoots hundreds of thousands of photographs a year. Gary Winogrand died leaving 300,000 unedited images. The ICP in New York houses some 20,000 of Winogrand’s fine and work prints, 100,000 negatives and 30,500 colour slides of his work. This shows that greatness is achieved by determination.

So much art made by young people is not worth the paper it is printed on because there is no wisdom – only attitude. People with a few years under their belts know the difference between a pose struck and the real thing. But why is this innate sensibility not often reflected in the creative output of our world-wise cohort? Everyone has a unique view. To own a camera, to possess the time to take pictures and to possess the wisdom gained over years of living means that we owe it to our younger selves to try to do something better than ‘good enough’. Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

NOTE ON ACCOMPANYING PHOTOGRAPHS

This article is illustrated by photographs I made of the photographer, Paddy Summerfield and his partner Patricia Baker-Cassidy in July 2015. Paddy has lived in the same house since early childhood and his book, Mother and Father (Dewi Lewis, 2014) is a classic work of documentary photography. The book is a “chronicle of loss and abiding love” and is a searingly honest and brave study of his own parents as they grew older and declined.

On the Selfie – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 207

On the Selfie
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 207, October 2017

Most of us feel that the ‘selfie’ is a telling artefact of our massive self regard, exemplifying the obsession that the universe revolves around our inalienable individuality. But we might be wrong to assume this. Perhaps there is a more constructive, progressive explanation for the greatest cultural mania of recent years.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

We should get the bad stuff out of the way quickly – there is no denying that an increase in self awareness of the body, especially amongst the young, is producing some toxic results. The ‘naked torso’ shot has (previously insouciant) men obsessively working out and sharing pictures of their ‘six packs’, not just to their friends, but to anyone in the world who cares to look. I should note that I, too, have a six pack – it’s cooling nicely in the fridge. I must remind myself to send a picture of it to my friends.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

The obsession with objectification of the face and body is reportedly having a negative effect on women and, increasingly, men. The availability of selfie apps which can be used to ‘shop’ yourself into an idealised ‘you’ is corrosive. That self worth can be measured in the resulting ‘likes’ of an Instagram post is indisputably pathological. It seems the selfie can be deluding and diverting from a genuine sense of worth – a ‘worth’ that is normally built on the societal positives of care and interaction and which have provided generations with a bedrock sense of the world and an idea that they are unconditionally part of it.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

But that said we can’t load the selfie with pure opprobrium. Edward Weston once made some portraits of Tina Modotti, ‘Tina discovered in Edward’s portraits a new scaffolding of her identity. … she fell in love with what she saw of herself in [Weston’s] eyes as much as with the human being before her’. Her reaction to this image of herself is, perhaps, not unique among sitters for portraits who enjoy the image made of them, but what Modotti saw in the image was a construction that she was able to see herself reflected in. This is not the reflection of Narcissus. This is the positively affirming psychological effect of seeing oneself through the apparently objective eyes of another (perhaps a god-like view) that seems to confirm that we are who we think we are.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

So the contemporary selfie could be an attempt to appropriate the point of view of the ‘perfect viewer’, or perhaps better put as ‘the one who understands all’. This yearning for a third party view of ourselves is not derived from a sense of obsessive self regard or vanity rather it stems from a need to make sense of ourselves in a world where ‘self’ is found in many different aspects of our personas. Where does our ‘self’ live? I have heard psychologists argue that even our notebooks should be considered part of our ‘extended self’. In this way almost everything we do, own, eat, enjoy, hate etc must be considered a part of our self and therefore ought to be taken as evidence of what makes up our greater ‘selves’.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

I live and work, metaphorically and actually, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. On the day of the fire I photographed the media and the public gazing at this horrific disaster as it happened. A couple of days later I walked with people paying their respects and coming to terms with the unfathomable awfulness of what had occurred. If you live in the area there is no hiding from the ghastly horror of the hulking, burned out tower that looms over everyone like a monument from Hell to the forgotten and marginalised. And then amongst the mourners (because that is what we were) I started to see people having selfies taken with Grenfell as a backdrop. At first my instinctual ‘sneer’ reflex was triggered. How could they be so callous? I was outraged (and outrage always carries with it a feeling of superiority). A short time passed between the scenes I describe here and the time when I got down to writing this article. In that time my ‘outrage’ at the Grenfell ‘selfi-ists’ had mellowed to a new comprehension of what was going on.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

We are so attuned to the image as a way of relating the world. By placing ourselves in the image that frames the object of our interest (or at least that to which we wish to be associated – however grisly) the shooting of selfies is a way of describing to others our experience of life. This is no more offensive than someone writing a letter in which they describe in detail their experiences; good or bad. Either missive; selfie or letter, is full of implied associations and attitudes that the creator hopes will be seen to reflect well on them by a third party onlooker – again, this idea of the ‘perfectly observed self’.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

For some years I have been compiling ‘evidence’ for a book I wanted to call ‘Turning our Backs on Culture’. The title reflects the way people always stand with their backs to the thing of interest whilst taking a selfie so that they can be seen in the same frame and therefore bathe in the reflected glory of the view/painting/gig etc. In recent months I have been forced to face up to the fact that my original thesis – that people are narcissistic and can only relate to an experience if they can see themselves in it – has been entirely trashed as being snobbish and lacking in understanding of the cultural phenomenon of our time. My work continues on the same theme but with the broader remit of recording how we consume culture, how we interact with it and why we are so drawn to it. My view is now more anthropological rather than political.

The selfie is the cultural phenomenon of our times. To many the selfie is an expression of our inward looking, self centred, narcissistic tendency which, in turn, speaks of our inability to relate to the world without placing ourselves centre frame. But to some, perhaps, there is a new understanding that places the selfie in the same canon as all forms of artistic expression; a tendency that dates back to the early stages of civilisation, that is, a very human desire to make sense of the scale of the world by using our own physical form to measure it and show it to others. Nothing more, nothing less.

Next month I’ll be thinking about truth in photography – we are told the camera never lies but what about all that is left out of the frame? The camera may not deceive but it rarely tells the whole story.