Sunday, 24 May 2009

Getting a Grip

These two photographs are both from the same morning this week, on the short walk from the car park to my office. I was an hour later than usual so got the full benefit of the sparkling spring sunshine, which I normally have to watch wistfully from my wage-slave's cell window, wondering how bad it would look if I sneaked out for a wander round campus with a camera. I was feeling lucky, as I'd managed to find somewhere to park at 9 o'clock -- astonishing.

Of course, this is where a quality "pocket" camera like the Panasonic LX3 comes in handy. At least you're likely to have it with you when you turn the corner and walk into an unexpected photo opportunity with a parking ticket machine or a builder's scaffolding. These were both taken at 4:3 ratio and cropped square.

I put "pocket" in quotes above, because I have a bee in my bonnet about the way manufacturers always show these cameras turned off in their publicity shots. They look great like that, don't they? Just like proper cameras with proper lenses, but sleekly pocket-sized. Then you turn the thing on and ... meeep ... the lens is extruded like a mini Tower of Babel and the camera is no longer pocket-sized. In fact, it feels quite vulnerable to knocks and, worst of all, finger marks. Finger marks are a big problem on tiny lenses. Don't believe me? Look at the statue between the two trees in the top right of this photo:

What statue, you say? Exactly. That little local cloud of fog was the result of just one tiny greasy fingermark that wrecked any of that afternoon's images that couldn't be successfully cropped.* On 35mm SLR lenses or medium format this was never really a problem -- it can be very instructive to see how large a piece of a Post-It must be stuck onto a lens before it interferes with image quality. Not so with these tiny digital lenses: I strongly advise you to (a) check the lens before shooting, and (b) to carry a lens-cleaning pen at all times, and don't be afraid to use it.

One advantage in this respect the LX3 shares with my old favourite, the Olympus C5050, is that it can be "armoured" by the addition of a screw on metal extension tube (intended for supplementary lenses) which, if need be, can be further protected by the addition of a clear filter. The vulnerable little lens tower is thus encased in a sturdy metal safety cage. This is also ideal for gripping, acts as a lens hood, and -- despite the increase in size -- the camera becomes "pocketable" again, as you're not worried about damaging or marking the lens by shoving the thing into your pocket when turned on.

Get a grip!

* There's a very good post currently on Struan Grey's blog Twiglog, "Providence", which contains a phrase I have taken to heart and must act on:
"Arthus-Bertrand, for example, seems incapable of shaking off an invisible little camera club judge, and habitually places a dollop of human interest exactly where the rule-of-thirds would dictate."
Hmm, guilty as charged more often than I'd like to think (just look where that invisible statue has ended up...) Maybe I'll turn on the LX3's handy grid showing the intersection of thirds, so I can avoid them ...


Struan Gray said...

Contemporary art photography seems to think that Front and Center is the new Rule of Thirds. Given time, even the club judges will catch on, and then anything off centre will seem radical again.

Do you know Julian Thomas' work ( Your campus photos remind me strongly of some of his projects. You both have a similar layering of reflections and barriers, and you both emphasise a lack of open sightlines or clear views of anything. I'd be interested to know if it's a deliberate formal move on your part, or just a reflection of an unplanned environment.


Mike C. said...


No, I didn't know his work -- there's an awful lot of us "moderately interesting and unknown photographers" out there! You're right, some of that work is spookily similar to mine, formally, but he's making colour and "emotional" choices that I react quite strongly against, and for me that's where the interest lies.

I think the thing is that (most) photographers and visual "artists" are prone to rationalisation after the event -- "I did this because..." -- which gives a false impression of intention (and an embarrassment about a perceived lack of same). The rise of the Artist's Statement (whether as apologia pro vita sua or as plea for funding) may have a lot to do with this. The expectation that grown-up artists work in sequences can also sometimes lead to a spurious retrospective programmatic element that is superficial at best, and often actually damaging or limiting. I know whereof I speak!

Personally, I can honestly say that I have no aesthetic programme that I could put into words -- for me, creating these visual artefacts is a way of getting out of my wordy mind, and letting my eyes have their say. I'm not naive, in that I look at a lot of photography, and I know the history and know where the current action is, but I rarely care about what anyone says about the whys and wherefores of what they produce. For me, good work produced for bad reasons trumps bad work produced for good reasons every time! (Or for no reason at all -- some people just have "good eyes").

I find it difficult, for example, to photograph things that repel me. I can admire photography with a desire to raise social or political awareness, but I can't do it, and often feel uneasy about the motivations (and indeed sometimes mental health) of those that can. I'm also downright primitive about photographing people -- the "soul stealing" thing is very real to me. For example, I simply cannot believe that Sally Mann would offer up her own kids for our contemplation in that way!

What may make me a moderately interesting photographer is that I'm aware I'm an outlier/outsider in many ordinary ways (for example, I dislike flowers to the point of phobia) and this may give my take on the world an aesthetically interesting head start.

I suppose my point is that I haven't thought myself to wherever it is I am (more's the pity!) although my fondness for words may give that impression. So, no, not so much either "a formal move" or a "reflection of an umplanned environment" as "an unplanned reflection of a formal move" ...

Thanks as always for your valued comments, Struan.

Struan Gray said...

I agree that Thomas' photographs emit a very different psychology (with him, I get that feeling of someone standing a bit too close, just inside my comfort zone), which is interesting given the similarity in the formal aspects.

I think it's good to be suspicious of 'projects', and I am pretty cynical about grant-driven photography as a whole. In the sciences it is all too obvious how similar mechanisms drive all the interesting, exploratory work into the odd corners of the system, while the mainstream becomes a predictable churn of confirmative playing safe. For me, the empirical, botanising aspect of photography is one of its main attractions.

There is a point though where a collection of photos starts to show the themes and obsessions which have contributed to its making, even if subconsciously. I start to think explicitly about packaging and window dressing then, and to identify possible gaps in the coherence that I can fill to make the collection stronger. That said, whenever I head out with the intention to take a particular photograph I only ever produce boredom.

I am largely allergic to photographs of flowers too, but have been making an exception for weeds and for ecosystems like ancient pasture which include flowers as indicator species. I recently annoyed a couple who had come 1500 km to see our local pasqueflower display by including the invading juniper and blackthorn scrub in my photographs. It was close to nature-loving treason in their eyes, but the entire point of making a photograph in mine.

For me, it's a sign of maturity (or moderate talent :-) not to make everything a subject of a photograph. The visual and language-based parts of my psyche react to different things in different ways. My photography is a way of making a kind of sense of my life and the things that affect me personally, and I like retaining the freedom to choose which parts of me will absorb and analyse which experiences. I don't owe the world photographs of anything.