Genesis – Sebastiao Salgado

Back in July, I visited the Genesis photography exhibition by Sebastiao Salgado. 2013 seems to have been my year of favouring monotone images, possibly all starting from the Ansel Adams exhibition I went to see at the end of 2012 so going to see Genesis seemed to fit into my current preferences very well.

The exhibition showed a mixture of landscapes, nature and portraiture and is the culmination of 8 years of work photographing pristine environments. The exhibition was split into 5 sections Sanctuaries, Planet South, Africa, Amazonia and Pantanal, and Northern Spaces.

As mentioned, all the images are displayed in Black and White and it is quite quickly noticeable that they have almost all been produced with a very high contrast feel. Initially, this production style was impressively impactful and very striking, however, as I progressed the the huge number of images on display it lost its edge and even started to become a distraction and possibly a bit of an irritation.

I’m not sure if it was completely down to the production style but I also started to crave some colour. This feeling was at its strongest when viewing images of the people in remote regions such as workers from Africa draped in robes that my brain was telling me were full of colour. In contrast to this though, I found the majority of landscape and nature images really satisfying.

Of all the images on display, the image that really stuck in my mind was possibly one of the simplest on display. The image was titled “A leopard (Panthera pardus) in the Barab Riber Valley, Damaraland” taken in Namibia in 2005. It was presented in a landscape orientation with the leopard placed on the lower third drinking from a pool of water. Due to the pool being made of rocks in what appeared an almost perfect cicle, it appeared man made. The leopards reflection can be seen in the water but everything else is completely black.

The detail that I felt really makes the image is the creeping posture of the leopard and its stare being straight into the camera. This made it feel like there is a direct communication from the leopard to the photographer. However, I couldn’t decide if the message was some agreement to let each other get on with there business, a warning that this is the leopards territory or fear of what lay in the dark.

Reflecting back on the exhibition overall leaves me a little disappointed because it is the production of the images that has stuck with me, not the images themselves. Having seen other exhibitions all in black and white I felt that it wasn’t this choice that was the issue but the contrast. I feel that producing such a large body of work would have benefited from a larger variation.

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Constable Paintings

As part of my last assignment feedback, it was recommended that I built on my research for the module. I regularly look at other photographers work, on image sharing sites like Flickr and in magazines, but I’ve never really made much of an effort to appreciate other forms of images.

For this post, I decided I’d try looking at a couple of paintings to see if I could start to identify techniques that I have learned on this course so far and consider how the painting made me feel. As landscapes are a particular part of photography I’d like to develop, I decided I’d search for well known landscape painters. When the search brought up Constable, I thought it would be a great opportunity to look at images from a painter that I’ve heard the name of but really knew nothing about.

Stonehenge, 1835
Stonehenge, 1835

The painting depicts the circular temple of stonehenge, crumbling and in a remote landscape. The lighting of the ground is quite dark around the edges with the main sources of light striking the inner parts of the structure the most.

The sky has been painted in a dramatic form showing stormy clouds and also appearing to try and show movement. Again, the lighting is quite dark with only a minimal amount of white being used to show the clouds.

Finally, there appear to be two very subtle figures in the image. The most noticeable appears to be sat on one of the fallen pieces of stone, looking downwards, and the other is a tiny silhouette in the distance.

The muted colours and mostly subdued lighting of this image seem to be the key in creating, and possibly emphasising, it’s mystic atmosphere. Being such an ancient structure, there is a lot of speculation about its purpose. As well as the lighting and composition focusing attention to the centre, an interesting choice was made to add further emphasis with the movement in the clouds.

Within the picture, the aspect I find most intriguing is the inclusion of the two figures. Looking at the image in order to describe it, I focused on the structure itself, the surrounding landscape and the sky and I was very close to not seeing the figures at all. Having spotted the figures, it leaves me with unanswered questions that significantly increases my interest in the painting. The questions I have are:

  • Are the figures there simply to provide scale? Having visited Stonehenge, I’m aware of is size and scale but for someone that hasn’t seen it, there are no other reference points in the image.
  • Is the figure in the foreground sitting and contemplating? Visiting a structure like this is a very thought provoking experience.
  • Why is the figure in the background shown as a silhouette and featureless?

Study-of-Cumulus-Clouds
Study of Cumulus Clouds, 1822

As the title suggests, this is a painting of Cumulus Clouds. There are contrasting colour that transition on the diagonal with the clouds spreading across the image on the thirds just off the horizontal.

The colours of the image imply that it has been taken during one of the golden hours as the sun is either raising or setting.

Overrall, the painting feels to be calming, pleasant and minimalistic. When I first looked at the image, my first thought was “why?”. There seemed to be so little to the image that initially I thought it must have been painted as a practice piece. However, spending a bit longer looking at it, I wonder if the intention was to simply capture this time of day. It makes me start to think about being stood in a field and looking to the sky, watching the rapid change as the sun moves.

Conclusion

Having a brief look at these two images has been an interesting experience. Being able to look at paintings, pick out compositional technique and consider how things such as light and colour might be used intentionally by an artist to convey ideas or intentions shows that my appreciation of art, not just photography, is beginning to develop.

Phil Malpas – Finding the Picture

Phil Malpas

Last night, 11 Feb 2013, I attended a talk by a well renowned landscape photographer, Phil Malpas. I have to confess, that I’d not heard of Phil before the evenings talks, however, I think this is more from my own ignorance than anything else.

Phil talked on 5 different topics, starting from looking at why we take photographs and finishing with a posed question of “What comes next?” and it was all based around his his book “Finding the Picture: A Location Photography Materclass (Light & Land)”. For the full set of topics, you can see the contents of the book here.

Phil’s talk was a real insight for me and I feel it has been a tremendous help with the current module, Colour, that I’m studying on the OCA The Art of Photography (TOAP) course. I’ve been struggling to engage with this module and, although I could appreciate that it is helpful to study the impact of colour in an image, I didn’t feel that I was really gaining anything from it. Phil’s talk began to show me what I was missing.

From the outset, I was noticing the use of colour in the images Phil was showing, which is probably a result of studying the current module. It was easy to see the images using similar colours to convey feeling of warmth and cool and also the use of complementary colours in the images. However, it wasn’t until the talk got to the second to last section that the use of colour was addressed directly.

By studying the course material for the Colour module, I had read that complementary colours contrast with each other but I had not really made the association between using the contrast in colour to work with, or complement, contrasting light. Phil talked about how overcast days can be great for photography and explained that, although overcast days are going to reduce contrast in the suns light, it can give us more scope to work with contrast in colour. It seemed to imply a logical relationship that many people consider good Black and White images to have large contrast in light, so for colour images to be pleasing they can get away with less contrast in light due to the increased contrast created by colour. This implicit relationship wasn’t something that Phil seemed to talk about explicitly and is an area that I should give further attention to see if this relationship is something I can identify in images I like.

Although the discussion on Colour was particularly relevant to my current studies, the sections preceding and proceeding the simplification of images were also related to aspects of the TOAP course. Early on, when talking about how we find pictures, I thought a great piece of advice was to close your eyes and image the scene as you want it, thinking about how the light is falling and then when opening your eyes, consider are you capturing the scene you want.

Talking about “Where do our ideas come from?”, Phil discussed looking at other peoples images as a way to feed our imagination and grow our vision. He showed images that when he had captured them, he believed that they were copying images he had seen others create, but on reflection had found that this wasn’t the case. Phil also talked about not being put of capturing images just because other people had captured hundreds or thousands of the same subject because they will always have your personal take on them.

Having talked though the simplification of images, including the discussion on colour and contrast, Phil posed the question of “So, what next?”. He started out by talking about being able to properly use your camera and said that if you weren’t able to use the features of the camera you have, it’s just a matter of practice. At this point, it felt like the talk digressed slightly to look at a technical aspect of photography that I had started to think about after reading Light – Science & Magic. In the book, the authors talk about the linear relationship in ‘perfect’ digital sensor so that the sensor is equally sensitive to light levels from black up to white light.

Phil looked this same idea but explained it in a slightly different way. He discussed that if you have a 12 bit RAW image, it gives you 4096 different levels at which light can be captured. Using the idea that an increase in f-stop, or exposure value (EV), is twice the light when as the value increases then you can end up with the lighter areas of the image having a greater number capture these 4096 levels.

To try and explain this closer to Phils explanation. He detailed the binary steps for a 12 bit image:

64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096

Allocating light in increasing levels to these buckets would mean the first EV gets 64 levels at which to capture data and the seventh EV in the image gets 2048 levels at which to capture data.

The practical example Phil used to try and illustrate his point was to consider that the brightest part of an image may just be the lining of a cloud but we need to consider do we want to give 2048 of the sensors possible 4096 levels to capture detail in such a small area. To try and combat such a scenario, Phil went on to discuss the use of Filters when capturing images.

The closing section of the talk was associated back to the opening by looking at the reasons why we take photographs as photographers and to enjoy photography for the reasons we like to do it.

All together, the presentation was incredibly enjoyable and informative. I’ve come away with lots to think about and I think I’ll be looking to get a copy of one of Phils earlier books Capturing Colour in order to help me with my studies.

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea

On the 14th December, I went to visit an exhibition of the work by Ansel Adams. This wasn’t just the first time I had ever been to visit an photography exhibition, but the first art exhibition I had ever been to as well.

Before making the visit, I had previously heard of Adams, which is unsurprising as he is regularly referred to in lists of most the most famous photographers (1 & 2). However, I’d not researched him in anyway so my knowledge was limited to two preconcieved ideas:

  1. Adams was an American photographer who focused on producing Black and White landscape images.
  2. Adams is often used as an example of how post production isn’t something new with the advent of digital photography and he was reputed to be a master in the dark room.

These basic preconceived ideas on what Adams’ photography was about really appealed to me as I find Black and White images fascinating and if there was just one type of photography I could focus on in my life time, it would be landscapes.

The exhibition was held in Greenwich, London, at the National Maritime Museum and was titled Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea. The photographs were organised into the following sections:

  • Beginnings
  • Sea and Surf
  • Coast
  • Monumental
  • Rivers
  • Waterfalls
  • Rapids
  • Surface and Texture
  • Snow and Ice
  • Geysers
  • Clouds and Reflection

Starting at Beginnings, I was in for quite a shock. I was expecting all the images to be really large prints but I was faced with quite small, out of focus, images printed onto textured paper. I was unknowingly getting my first experience of pictorialism. The information around the images was describing Adams career starting in the early 1900’s and that, at the time, photographers could only be considered artists if the images they produced resembled drawings or paintings. I’m glad to say, that following the First World War, peoples opinions began to change, the cameras abilities began to be accepted and a new movement was started, with Adams taking a leading role, known as Photographic Modernism. I’m glad that this movement took place because I didn’t enjoy the pictorialist style.

Moving on to the other sections, the pictures started to resemble the kind of images I had imagined but we still weren’t up to the really large prints. The Sea and Surf section, showed an example of how Adams liked to freeze motion in water such that he wouldn’t be able to predict how the images were going to look. This is a concept I can currently only image. Having only taken an interest in photography in the digital era, I have yet to really experience analogue photography using film and having to wait days or weeks to see the types of images that you had captured. Looking at the series of images, I tried to image Adams trying to capture the different stages of water flow and although I liked the idea, I didn’t find the sequence of images as captivating as the idea.

Getting to the Monumental section was the when we really start to see the huge images Adams put together. The exhibition provided some technical details that I would previously not have considered. Having to go through the development process, Adams would be having to project his negatives from an enlarger onto the photographic paper in his darkroom but the paper and equipment to project these sizes of image in one go wasn’t available. Adams was having to build the images in pieces and finally assemble them into the finished product. Later in the exhibition, a video talked about how Adams would spend weeks in the dark room trying to perfect a print in a way that he wanted. Not being able to see the image as a whole must have taken an incredible amount of processing skill as even looking at the images reasonably close, you still don’t notice the joins in the paper unless you look for them.

Looking at all the images in the exhibition, I tried to concentrate on how my eyes would look through the images and how I would discover the different sections. Adams seems to place the lighter parts of the images in really interesting positions, using lines and triangles, so that it felt like you were being drawn into the landscape. Often, these light areas seemed to be split between the top and bottom of the image, roughly on the thirds, which would introduce tension to the image and have my eyes bouncing up and down discovering more each time.

Finally, in the video, it mentioned how Cartier Bresson, another famous photographer from the same period as Adams, had criticised Adams for focusing on landscapes and not capturing the major and important events that were happening at the time. I found this criticism quite an interesting thought and I think it shows how photographs and photography can be used to capture and document many different aspects of our lives.

Having visited the exhibition, I’ve been inspired and influenced to try putting some of the things I saw in Adams’ images into my own images and post production:

Walton Sea 1

Walton Long Exposure

Walton Sea 2

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1. http://www.professionalphotographer.co.uk/magazine/photographic-inspiration/100-most-influential-photographers-of-all-time
2. http://www.digitalphotographer.com.ph/forum/showthread.php?15358-List-of-Famous-Landscape-Photographers