Some of the patchwork of the urban environment, made on walks around Sunderland, South Shields, and Newcastle upon Tyne.
Meanwhile back at the ranch I have spent several long but enjoyable days planning and making the artist’s book for my Burgers & B52s series.
This turned out to be my largest handmade book at 12” x 9”, and it contains forty-one 8” x 6” black and white images made during the Sunderland Airshow. It’s a fold and glue construction of 27 pages, with the silhouette of a B52 bomber sculpted into the surface of the front cover. The book is housed in a modified box, discarded from one of the toy machine guns that are ubiquitous at the Airshow.
I was keen that the first experience of the book be a little confusing, and related to the childhood experience of receiving a new toy. Removing the book from its box and then from the cotton bag inside, is part of this. But wrappings can be deceptive, and you don’t always find what you expect beneath all the layers.
Many of the pictures in the book highlight the contradictions of the Airshow weekend, such as the military recruitment stands ringing the families playing on the beach. The infamous shape of the B52 on the cover could also easily be dismissed, but for the fact that for decades this aircraft has violently projected American power across the world, and has carried out innumerable murderous “carpet bombing” missions, dropping tens of millions of tonnes of bombs and chemical weapons. This symbol serves as the first of many dichotomies, and leads directly into the main part of the work.
This is perhaps my most self-indulgent book as it was expensive and relatively time consuming to make, but this project is an important personal milestone in my own photographic journey.
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I am delighted to have written my second blog piece for Leica. Todays post is about the importance of developing your own photographic style and putting together cohesive bodies of work, areas I have battled with over the years.
Future Tense is a sequence of 31 pictures that I have made over the last few years. They can now be viewed here.
The pictures are presented in a hand made concertina style book, with surface sculpted cover, and a series of cut outs. Like my previous books, Future Tense took the best part of two days to construct and complete, and this is without the time spent selecting, preparing, printing, and sequencing. But it is good to see the images working as a set, in what feels like their natural home.
This is the companion to Present Tense that was featured here.
For more information on any of my books please contact me firstname.lastname@example.org
If you enjoyed this post or others on the Dark Matters blog, please help and “pay it forward” and send it to a friend. And don’t forget to visit me at http://www.rogercoulam.com
My latest hand made book is titled Tempest and is based upon my eight seasons storm chasing in America.
This is a body of work I have struggled with recently, mainly because many of the images are so “beautiful”, despite the fact that they illustrate some of the most violent forces on the planet. This contradiction is what I had in mind when selecting the pictures and words for this book, and it is a long way removed from a “best of” which would never have been made. In fact fifteen of the pictures have never been printed before, and many have are abstract in nature, so it all felt quite fresh.
And with that body of work out of my system, it feels like time to exercise the Leicas again, and get back out onto the streets. The Airshow is back in Sunderland later this month, so I hope to add a few more pictures to my “Burgers & B52s” gallery which can be viewed here.
So let’s hope for a couple of sunny days (which might just be all the summer we get this year), and much more of this…..
I am pleased to have finally got around to making my own hand made artists’ books.
Making books is one way of coming to terms with a body of work, and through the process of selection and sequencing, you may find new connections and narratives. It is so easy to simply collect pictures in a file on your computer or in a folder of negatives, and never see them in use.
The whole process of measuring, cutting, and gluing, is also a good way of losing yourself for a few hours, but it can be hard to not get sucked into the craft.
My first book “Present Tense” has 30 pages, and is made from pictures that appear at http://www.rogercoulam.com/galleries/28/. It is a simple concertina construction that is bound and covered in Canson paper.
My second effort is very different in both looks and subject matter, and is a variation on the concertina book. It is titled “15 weeks of summer” and comprises 15 pages in a cloth binding that can be turned individually or pulled out to show the entire sequence of 30 photographs. I made pictures of the leaves of Honesty (Lunaria Annua) every week for 8 months, so it is nice to see them in use.
I have already started planning my next two books, so watch this space.
If you enjoyed this post or others on the Dark Matters blog, please help by passing it on to someone that you feel might be interested. And don’t forget to visit me at http://www.rogercoulam.com
I recently attended a talk on colour management and image resolution by digital printer Jack Lowe, whose talks are always an education. http://jacklowestudio.co.uk/blog
He made me realise that some of the steps in my own workflow were “wrong”, and thankfully the room was dark as I scribbled down my notes. But looking around I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one whose methods were being challenged.
During the talk Jack made the observation that Fuji Velvia transparencies looked their best when held up to the light or viewed backlit on a light box, and that no print could ever do justice to that look. This comment stuck in my mind and I have spent a few days mulling it over.
I used to love opening up a delivery of 6x7xm colour transparencies and holding the sheets up to the light, full of anticipation. I still get the same thrill from black and white negatives, but those super-saturated pieces of Velvia shone like jewels, and to me that moment of revelation remains a unique part of the photographic experience. But I never had a print that could replicate the intensity, colour palette, or the brightness.
Photography is awash with digital photographers who try to emulate the “Velvia look”; using ultra high contrast, “vivid” camera settings, Velvia plug-ins, and making blocks of colours that look like they’ve been painted with enamels! There may be several reasons for this saturation frenzy.
DSLR’s are now so common, that they have become the new “Christmas Jumper”, a must have present and stocking filler for many. Everyone is a “photographer” now. But pulling on a Christmas jumper was easy, just check the label and off you go, and it’s the same with DSLR’s, which have cheapened and dumbed-down photographic craft (although it can be argued that in some ways this is a positive thing). And it seems that many people don’t bother to find out how to work their new toys, and especially their processing software. Turning it up to eleven and aiming for loud, bold, and bright at any cost, often masks both a lack of knowledge and average pictures.
At the same time that DSLRs have become must have accessories, the understanding of what goes into making a good print also seems to be fading. The whole process of profiling and colour management can seem daunting to begin with, but it is essential; sadly though many people don’t have the integrity to make the effort, and assume that their printer (just like their camera) will do it all for them. Relying on oversaturation or gimmicks like HDR to try and rescue dull or flat pictures is just one response to this skill (or integrity) gap.
Also pictures are now often only viewed on a screen, and are rarely turned into objects to hold or to hang on a wall. Consequentially the vast majority of contemporary photography is destined to vanish into piles of obsolete hard drives that are incompatible with the technology of the day; mercifully consigned to a digital scrapheap. I digress from my soapbox slightly.
Another more important reason why I think it is tempting and easier not to print, is that “images” look at their very best on a computer monitor, and in many ways that is no different to the Velvia analogy. It strikes me that bright LCD screens are the new Velvia, and are the normal place to view photography (and their backlit burning intensity is certainly both compelling and unique). A screen is not only a portal through which many “live” large parts of their lives, but it is THE place for instant gratification; and what is more seductive and gratifying to a photographer than someone else saying how beautiful your pictures look. “Oooh, look at those colours”, (often followed by “Is that real?”). So, is there any wonder that any printed output is off the scale as we strive to match that “LCD look”?
Just as analogue printers struggled to replicate the beauty they saw in their transparencies, now digital printers face a similar problem, as their equipment can rarely replicate exactly what they see on the screen. Yes, we can profile and calibrate monitors and printers, use correct colour management, and make quality files on which to base to all of this, but can it ever be an exact copy of what you see on that glowing “Velvia” screen? After all, digital pictures are created by computers, so perhaps that is their natural home?
With a master printer and technician such as Jack Lowe, you are going to get the very best result that can be wrung from modern equipment, and the digital print can be a beautiful object. But how you see and experience that picture on paper will be very different to how you see it on your monitor. That is not wrong, it is just different.
Now where’s that old pile of 2002 dated Velvia?
Part of my Velvia stash as viewed on my Eizo ColorEdge CE210W Monitor
As I move between different types of photography and jobs, I tend to collect ideas along the way. There are several folders on my computer into which I drop small thumbnail pictures that I feel may one day become the start of new bodies of work. These selections are invaluable at times when I reach an impasse and don’t want to go out and make pictures, or I feel that I am lacking a direction.
I print them out and and stick them into notebooks, where they become sketches and concepts for projects yet to come; and combined with written notes, drawings, and lists, they are an invaluable aid to keeping me focused, and trying something new. It is so easy just to keep going out and repeating the same pictures you have made for years.
As I am now ending a long period of landscape work I am back to browsing, to the cycle of printing out and of consolidation. Over the last few months I have collected a new set of ideas and thumbnail sketches, some of which tie in with previous themes, and some of which are destined to sit around in my notebooks for years until they feel right.
Here’s a look at a few recent ones alongside three from 2010.
Woodland Study - Hareshaw Dene
Woodland Study - Cragside, Northumberland
Winter at Wallington, Northumberland
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Since November I have been working on a commissioned project, photographing the landscapes of Northumbria. This is my bread and butter commercial work, and is not often featured on this blog.
This commission has made me reconsider why I almost stopped outdoor work around three years ago. It has also reminded me that it is easy to take the lot we have for granted, and that my day job is a pretty good one. And at 7.30am on the beach at Bamburgh, I considered that the miles of deserted apricot coloured sands ahead of me were a pretty cool office, and that I was actualy getting paid to walk along it with my tripod slung over my shoulder! Although maybe it was just the euphoria of actually being paid for landscape work?
Apart from the joy of 4.30am alarm calls, I have been reminded that the part of the photographic process I really enjoy is the moment at which the elements and nature take dramatic control of whatever vista is in front of me. This is normally the point when a sunrise becomes dramatic, a shaft of sunlight bursts through a cloud, or a sequence of waves break perfectly.
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland Coast
I have also realised that nature does the hard bit, and the act of making the picture is a thoughtless one, merely a way of grabbing that moment; yes the picture may be considered, but it is still just a record of what I saw, and this throws up a host of questions. So how is it possible to then claim that the photo tells the viewer something about a place? Does for example, a “beautiful” colour photograph tell you anything more about a place than a simple cheap snapshot of the same location? Can it? In my mind this does not devalue the perfectly composed and printed image, but perhaps its dubious claims to “show” (or more pretentiously to “teach”) should be challenged?
Yes, the photographer has made the picture in a certain light, from a certain angle, and at a particular time, and those choices make the picture “easier” on the eye, more “beautiful”, but again surely it is merely a record? I once heard someone claim that their pictures showed the “spirit” of a place, but that was just a vain attempt to try and add weight to pretty landscape pictures, by claiming something that does not exist.
To me the thrill is in being there, feeling the bite of the wind on your face, being engulfed in the sound of the breaking waves and the seabirds. The euphoria we all feel when being in the natural environment or seeing something of natural beauty (maybe a sunset or a wild animal at close quarters) rarely translates into our pictures. How often have we been disappointed by holiday photos that don’t do justice to our memories; and how often have we said or heard things like “well it looked much better than that” or “I wish I had a better picture of it.” Once we are not physically experiencing the environment and that pleasure is removed, we look at things differently.
Perhaps I find it hard to engage with my landscape pictures because I know what it felt like to be there when the photograph was made, and then have had to deal with the change in emotions when I am faced with a two dimensional representation of that experience. I rarely enjoy my pictures after I have made them, unless they have intriguing subject matter, and editing a days shot can feel disappointing, as the pictures on my screen are never quite what I remembered.
The River Breamish in the Ingram Valley
When people view a picture of a landscape I have heard them say that they have “never seen it” looking like that, but that’s perhaps just because they haven’t seen it at 5am, or in the dramatic fleeting light than can exist at that time. Worse is that they may not have seen it through the high saturation/contrast filters that we routinely apply, and they never see it burned and dodged, with unsightly features cropped or even cloned out, fully sanitised and packed for consumption.
Perhaps the landscape is just a fictional notion, always viewed in the past tense, through rose tinted glasses that remind us of a collective history. It has to be clean and neat, it has to be non-threatening and calm, as anything else is dangerous and harmful, outside of our control. My weather pictures used to get “it’s lovely to see, but I wouldn’t want to have been there”, or “ooh it looks so cold….brrrr”. One only has to look at how anything “wild” is quickly removed from our towns and cities to see how important controlling and regulating nature and landscape has become. Our lives are all about limits and controls, often state sanctioned, so maybe the rose tinted ideal is required to remind us that something better did once exist, albeit fleeting.
Maybe I just have a problem with the way that colour dominates certain pictures, and how often pictures are considered of value just because of a certain colour. Take away the dominant colour in many images and little remains of any interest. Saying that, black and white images are often seen as passé or nostalgic, but at least that may remove the “pretty picture” tag that I struggle with. After all what makes a strong image should be the content, even though at times colour may be part of that.
To illustrate my point try blocking out the bright red at the bottom of this picture with your hand. Thankfully the strength of the ladies contemptuous stare is as bold as the colour.
Prague, Czech Republic - Canon EOS1N - Kodak EBX
As I was writing this post I came across a very relevant piece by David Parker http://www.davidparkerphotographer.com/ relating to beauty in art, which highlights some of my own personal struggles with pretty pictures.
“Beauty has been described recently by the English sculptor Grayson Perry as ‘the elephant in the room that many artists find difficult to ignore’. Beauty requires no commentary for its appreciation and no validation by a priesthood of academics…”
Parker goes on to say that “many artists remain deeply suspicious of beauty and ignore it altogether, and for fear of being misunderstood are eager to have the subtext of their ‘difficult’ work explicated rather than risk it being judged only at face value”.
So maybe I am just suspicious of the beauty within my landscape work, and soured by encounters with curators and “experts” who have described my landscape portfolio as “of no value”, “not relevant to anything related to art ”, and that old chestnut “not critically engaged”.
But bills have to be paid, even though every time I go out the door to work these questions go with me, and that proverbial elephant keeps nagging at me…..that is until the elements take over.
Happy New Year.
The last pretty picture of 2011 - I promise. Druridge Bay, Northumberland.
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For many years Teesdale has been one of my favourite parts of England, and at the end of September I was lucky enough to visit what I consider to be a “proper” country show, one without all the commercial baggage that accompanies so many nowadays.
The Langdon Beck Sheep Show, which at one point vanished from the agricultural calendar for over 100 years, is held in a small field outside the Langdon Beck Hotel.
The level of passion demonstrated by everyone participating was clear to see, and this was not dampened by an early autumn drizzle. Competition for prizes in the many classes was serious, and there were a lot of sheep, and even more pride on show in the judging area. There was also a real sense of community surrounding the whole event, and it was a pleasure to be able to make some pictures in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.