Monday, 29 November 2021

Futilist's Lament

I doubt many people will have realised that my recent "Tischbein" piece was in fact a warmed-up and re-hashed post from 2008. Well, let's be honest, I doubt many people will have read either piece, and very few indeed will have read both. Probably about as many as realise that "Tischbein" means "table leg": a damned strange surname by any measure.

Anyway, looking for that post caused me to revisit some of my other earliest efforts; I have to say I was both impressed and deflated. I was banging them out more or less daily then, to a pretty high standard. Well, what else are you going to do, confined to your office by a rainy lunch-hour, or in need of a break from proof-checking the efforts of trainee cataloguers or debugging Perl scripts? If nothing else, it was a great way of looking busy.

But I reluctantly came to the conclusion that, like the Big Bang, I had more or less emptied the contents of my brain in those first months, and that the subsequent thirteen years of posts have merely been star- and planet-forming phases, when the bits and pieces flying around have been crashing into each other, with results of varying interest and significance. The rest is entropy...  (Yes, I've been watching Brian "professor" Cox doing his latest boy-band act, Universe: We're All Gonna Die [1]).

As you may or may not also have noticed, I do try to be amusing in these posts, and occasionally reach for full-on humour. This is not as easy as it might seem, and my admiration for laugh-on-demand writers like Marina Hyde of the Guardian, or prolific cartoonists like Zach Weinersmith (author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and another very strange surname) is enormous. It must be both exhausting and terrifying to walk that high-wire so publicly, so often. I doff the chapeau idiotique to these master laughter-crafters! So, in a spirit of humble tribute, and to help fill the void before our planet is swallowed up by the sun, here is a little post from November 2008 that I found still nudged the amusometer needle just enough to be worth repeating.

Lighten Up, Erik
Jazz is screaming its sorrow in our faces and we don't give a damn about it.
Erik Satie, 1866-1925

Do you not hear that terrible screaming all around you, that men usually call silence? 
Georg Büchner, 1813-1837

Really? I'm like, whoah, lighten up, guys.

@ Erik: maybe if jazz backed off a touch and got out of our faces we might give a damn. Or recommend a therapist. What jazz are you listening to, anyway? A lot of people find Kind of Blue quite soothing. On the other hand, if we could just talk for a minute about Harrison Birtwistle... 

@Georg: Yes, I do, actually. My doctor tells me that they usually call it tinnitus, and there's nothing much to be done about it. It's nature's way of telling you that you have been to one too many VERY LOUD gigs.

I shouldn't be so flippant, I know, but there's a certain brand of doom-laden solemnity that has cast a pall over a lot of the artistic endeavour of the modern world. Someone (wish I could remember who) once referred to this as "heavy breathing", which is spot on: it's a rather humourless and creepy way of insisting on the significance of your work. "I have penetrated the veil of bourgeois hypocrisy to glimpse the Complete And Utter Futility of Life, and will now proceed to share my pain with you. No, please, don't put the phone down..."

It's a very adolescent, masculine worldview: Heavy Metal and its various hysterical variants are its crypt-kicking apotheosis. The word "screaming" is a bit of a signature: a voice turned up to 11, with nowhere further to go. And what better Heavy Metal album cover was ever painted than Edvard Munch's risible The Scream?

Talking of risible, you may have recognised the title of yesterday's post (Closing Time in the Gardens of the West). It comes from a famous passage by Cyril Connolly, written in the last issue of Horizon in 1950:

It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.

You've got to admit that's funny: Eeyore in a tweed jacket fiddling portentously with his pipe. Of course, at the other extreme there is the infuriating equanimity of John Cage:

The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.

I think I feel a scream coming on...

I admit I'm not averse to a bit of heavy-breathing, myself, either ...
(another of my recent six-page folding booklets)

1. It's actually pretty poor, unless you're into expensive special effects. As Lucy Mangan put it in her Guardian review: "Why they are so scared of putting his actual knowledge on show, I do not know. You have what is surely the rarest of beasts – a personable physicist unfazed by the idea of making his subject accessible on camera – and keep trying to use him as a poet? Why?" It's also hilarious, if you're a follower of the above-mentioned Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, as Cox is regularly filmed from a drone at a great height in some God-forsaken spot, just like Weinersmith's two girls endlessly wandering in a snowy landscape, pondering the Great Questions.

[BTW, you probably won't have recognised the title of today's post, which borrows the title of a track on the first High Tide album, Sea Shanties, which I once played to the entire school in a darkened hall as part of a morning assembly a bunch of us sixth-formers had been inveigled into presenting, causing the headmaster to storm out. Heh... Apparently copies of that album in good condition fetch high prices today. It has a great cover by Paul Whitehead, otherwise responsible for some of  the silliest album artwork of the prog era.]

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Martin Parr CBE

 It has been announced by the Martin Parr Foundation that Martin Parr has been awarded the CBE for "services to photography". Well, congratulations, Martin! I suppose... I must admit, my reaction to this news is mirrored by that of photographer Paul Reas, one of the photographic and art-world notables quoted in the MPF newsletter #96, which I received this week:

"When I heard he had been awarded a CBE I had mixed emotions. I was thrilled that his contributions to photography had finally been acknowledged but wary that that source of recognition had all those uncomfortable imperialistic associations. Would he do a John Lennon and send his “gong” back, I wondered? Regardless, he is so deserving of the acknowledgment. I can think of nobody else who has so selflessly supported the work of people he believes in."

Well, exactly; apart from the word "thrilled", perhaps. In all honesty, that was not the emotion that the news induced in me: "mild curiosity swiftly followed by a reflex anti-establishment contrarianism", perhaps. But it's not as if anybody involved with photography at that level gives a fleck of flyshit what I think. Besides, what does a person have to do to earn the right to refuse a knighthood these days, or indeed a seat in the Lords (setting aside donors to the Tory party, obviously)?

Anyone thinking "so who is this Martin Parr?" has clearly arrived at the wrong website, but any non-Brits would be perfectly justified in wondering, so what exactly is a "CBE" anyway? I realised I wasn't sure, either – perhaps it is a knighthood? – so I looked it up. I'm not going to explain it, that's what Wikipedia is for: here's the link. So now you know. The "Empire" bit has been a source of controversy for some time, not least among those who got the rough end of the imperial stick; I like the idea of changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, although the Order of British Exceptionalism (or even Eccentricity) might be better.

But to return to Martin Parr. Martin is a very admirable man, whose photographic style and chosen subjects have exerted an enormous influence on a certain kind of documentary photography, and who has dedicated his considerable energies to advocating the work of others and photography in general. He is also much misunderstood, as people mistake his wry critique – highlighting those visual incongruities that can illuminate society's contradictions as well as people's pretensions and well-meaning idiocies – for a kind of cruelty. But Bruce Gilden is cruel; Martin Parr is more like a fearless, clear-sighted stand-up comedian. For what it's worth – and here we're back in fleck of flyshit territory –  I think his best work was done quite early on and that he has not yet developed a "late style" that is the equal of his groundbreaking work –  The Last Resort (1986), say, or Small World (1995) – and he does seem at times to have become the prisoner of his own signature stylistic moves. But, what moves! Few photographers have created and inhabited such a distinctive style, palette, and subject matter, used to such consistent effect [1]. You may not like it, but you know it when you see it.

In September 1992 I did a four-day residential workshop with Martin at Duckspool. Although I knew that his style of "street" documentary would never be mine I was an admirer of his work, and had already acquired copies of Bad Weather (1982), A Fair Day (1984), The Last Resort, and even One Day Trip (1989), his photographs of "booze cruise" channel ferry crossings, commissioned by the Mission photographique transmanche of the Centre régional de la photographie Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It was an interesting, though not transformative experience. I think it's fair to say that Martin is a very incisive speaker about his own work, and the work of others working a similar vein, but not a great teacher, in that he has (or had: he may have improved over three decades) little useful to say about other approaches to photography, or even about simply bad, derivative work, which is what mainly turns up at workshops.

As it happened, Duane Michals was receiving an Honorary Fellowship at the Royal Photographic Society during the workshop, so Martin arranged for us all to travel over to Bath to hear him speak, which surprised and pissed off a number of participants – "not what we've paid for!" – but I suspect I derived more memorable "takeaways" from that entertaining hour than the entire workshop. Mind you, I did have to leave a day early, having received an urgent SOS message from my workplace, so I missed out on the intensive group "critique" of my own portfolio. Which was probably just as well. I don't think Martin Parr CBE would have found much to connect with in what I had brought along. Although I do treasure the memory of Peter Goldfield's comment, having taken a preliminary peek, that Fay Godwin would really like my work, and that I should keep an eye out for the new direction her photography had taken. Now there's someone who never did receive her due recognition from the establishment, but that's another story.

1. Top Parr Tip: get close, look in a different direction to the camera, use a ring flash.

Friday, 19 November 2021

Tischbein Moments

The photograph of a teenage Paul McCartney in his family's back garden that I wrote about recently (taken, it turns out, by his younger brother, a.k.a. "Mike McGear") put me in mind of one of my favourite pictures. In fact, it stands framed on my bedside cabinet, alongside a couple of family photos, and a heap of books and assorted bedside stuff. That's how favourite it is. It's a watercolour sketch by Johann Tischbein of the young Goethe, looking down onto the street from a window of what is now known as the Casa di Goethe, in Rome.

Tischbein and Goethe were room-mates in that very chamber, on their excellent Italian adventure in 1786. Tischbein's other portrait of Goethe, "Goethe in an Idiotic Hat in the Campagna", is very famous, of course, but this one is far superior, to my mind. I love everything about it. I love the contrast of interior and exterior. I love the simple colour washes of Prussian blue and terra cotta. But mainly I love its informality, the unselfconscious crook of one leg playing with a slipper, the untucked shirt, and the way it captures the young genius craning out of the window to watch the sunlit street-life below, putting together in his head the legacy of his classical learning with the reality of Rome. It's the perfect holiday snap, although it must have taken rather longer to create than the fraction of a second it would take today, quickly framed on Tischbein's smartphone.

The focus is on that sunlit head and the hunched shoulders, but there's also an innocent, mildly homo-erotic quality that shines through so limpidly that's it's easy to miss. My daughter, aged six, spotted it straight away, though, and was outraged: "Daddy, that lady's showing her bottom!" But this is not a picture of desire, although it is a depiction of one of the oldest love stories: North meets South. It is a picture of loving admiration and friendship, and of the sheer happiness of being young, talented, and away from home, with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead.

True, Goethe was 37 in 1786, a recovering lawyer and senior civil servant, but when I first saw this picture in 1971 I was 17, and therefore so was Goethe, as far as I was concerned. At that age I wanted, more than anything, to be the figure in that picture: also to be young, talented, away from home, and with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead. During the summers of the early 1970s that I spent hitchhiking around Europe with a succession of friends I did have many such experiences, moments imbued with that heady concoction of freedom and possibility. However, like those thousands of potential Paul McCartneys who came to their senses, put the guitar to one side and got a proper job, it gradually became clear to me that there was more to being Goethe than leaning spellbound out of high windows. Lacking a trust fund, wealthy parents, or – crucially – the drive that forges genius out of talent, I, too, decided gainful employment leading eventually to a good pension was the better bet.

Nonetheless, I have continued to measure my life by its "Tischbein moments". I recall a later occasion on a tour through the Basque Country and Northern Spain, one of several I made with my girlfriend and various other couples in the years following the fall of Franco. I remember waking one September morning in Santiago de Compostela, in a gigantic creaking wooden bed built like a barge in an ancient hotel room without running water, that was instead equipped with a wooden washstand and ceramic bowls that had to be filled from a tap down the corridor. It was impossible not to feel that one had gone back fifty years, if not a century or two. Throwing open the shutters onto the morning life of that ancient city and centre of pilgrimage, I breathed it all in. The babble of voices, the clap of startled pigeons, the traffic, the freshly sluiced cobblestones, the geological complexity of the architecture, and – still asleep in the gigantic creaking wooden bed – the complicated woman with whom – as I came to realise in that moment, after five or so years of an on-again, off-again relationship – I was going to spend the rest of my life. I admit I had to stand there for a minute or two longer, composed in my Tischbein moment, to see just what I thought about that.

And look, some three decades later in 2008, here is our daughter, then just turned 14, obligingly posing for me as the young Goethe, leaning out of a window in Montaigne's tower in the Dordogne:

In his library at the very top of the tower, Montaigne painted each roof-beam with a quotation from Biblical or classical sources, mainly stern, stoic warnings about not getting above yourself, intellectually, and putting up with life's hardships [1]. Of these, this one seems most appropriate:
(For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself)
Galatians, 6:3
Which is undeniably true. But, of course, sometimes that man is right, and turns out to be Goethe, Paul McCartney, or even, despite his own misgivings, Michel de Montaigne. And I think the young can be forgiven for basking in the sunshine of those moments when the possibilities of a larger life still lie tantalisingly open before them, and the austere nostrums of age have not yet closed them down.

1. A full catalogue of them can be found here.

Monday, 15 November 2021

You've Got to Know When to Fold Them

Even for those of us whose ambition dial is stuck somewhere around 6 (I'm not sure where the top of the scale is, possibly 10, possibly 100) it's always worth trying to think of ways of getting your work in front of people. Getting a picture into an actual exhibition is probably the most prestigious but also the least cost-effective way. By the time you've factored in the price of framing and transport, an exhibited picture that fails to sell or attract significant attention is not so much a "loss leader", in the marketing jargon, as a loss loser. Even more prestigious, of course, is to be given a solo exhibition, but that, when all the associated costs are factored in, could easily represent a dent in your bank balance of several thousand pounds. If the gallery will foot those costs then fine, but otherwise it truly ain't worth it, unless the sale of just one work will cover the lot.

So I like to think of cheap but effective ways of getting my stuff out there (other than on the internet), ideally something that looks a bit classy, but costs pence to produce. The sort of thing you can pop in an envelope and post to people, safe in the knowledge that if they choose to bin it the loss is theirs – ignorant fools! – not yours. Which is what I had in mind when I bought a box of A2 paper pre-cut (by Marrutt) into strips 30cm and 12cm wide. A thin card of 230gsm is perfect for folding into "concertina" booklets of around four to six postcard sized pages. These could either be separate images, or – as in the two examples here – a panoramic image spread over several panels. If the chosen paper stock is suitably rigid, then the outer pages will function as a cover; if not, it's not exactly a daunting task to fashion something out of a thicker paper or card. [1]

In a rare glimpse into the workings of the Atelier Idiotic Hat in Southampton, here is an example of what one looks like in its folded state, standing on top of a printed 30cm x 59.4cm sheet awaiting trimming and folding:

 Of course, if one wanted to go completely nuts, three such folders could be put onto a single A2 sheet, and printed as, say, a small batch of posters by Vistaprint at around £3.50, but I like to keep things in-house as far as possible, not least because I like to be able to tweak the design (I keep changing my mind about the colour and content of that last panel in the "pike" folder, for example). Besides, I simply don't have that many people I could send the things to...

1. Actually, I have come up with a damned cunning method of manufacturing top-quality covers for booklets, which I won't reveal yet. It's genius! Although, like my "packaging" idea, no doubt everyone with an ounce of imagination is doing it, too...

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Supernova Snap

It won't have escaped your attention that Sir Paul has a book out. It's a bit pricey, even for a moderately well-heeled book addict like me, and a bit on the big side, even for a double album, but it's bound to be a monster hit, perhaps even a Christmas Number One. But what really grabbed my attention was the photograph on the cover of the first volume. I think that is one of the most evocative photographs I have ever seen. I think I'd pay the £50 for a decent print of it, never mind the lyrical ruminations inside.

Why? For a start, I love the way it captures the entire context of McCartney's youth. Anyone brought up in Britain in the 1940s and 50s will recognise all the markers: the net curtain, the modest back garden, the pegged washing hung on the clothes-line with its prop, the oak paling fence, the neighbour's greenhouse and runner beans, the deckchair... I also love the way the photographer has focussed on "our kid" Paul, taking the picture covertly from inside the house and has – presumably due to the angle of view imposed by a fixed lens – artfully framed him off-centre among what otherwise might have been seen as the annoying and distracting clutter of domestic shapes and tones. I imagine a certain amount of cropping has been done for the book cover – perhaps the original is "landscape" oriented? – but it's still wonderful.

Above all, of course, it is endowed with the retrospective magic that this is a family snap of the McCartneys' boy Paul (smart lad, that one, but head in the clouds) before he was Paul freakin' McCartney. It's an image of McCartney tentatively becoming McCartney, poised at a time when he might equally well have come to his senses, put the guitar to one side, qualified as a teacher, and spent his life as "Mr. McCartney", the fondly remembered and much fancied English teacher at a Liverpool secondary modern. Which is the story of the thousands of us who picked up a guitar in our teens, but settled for Real Life over fantasy, isn't it? This photo – like some image from the Hubble telescope – captures the moment before an ordinary star, one among zillions, went supernova.

It's so evocative, it's almost as if a photographer had been sent back in time to sneak a picture of Paul's origin story, it is so packed with apparent foreknowledge of "what happened next". But that is the result of the intersection of several kinds of sorcery. First, there is the magic of photography itself: this is not a sketch, or a memory, or a re-enactment, but an actual recording of the actual light reflected from that actual scene during a split second of one sunny day in the 1950s. Miraculous!

Second, it is also clearly – despite any sophisticated theoretical misgivings about knowing the "intentions" behind a photograph – a deliberate act of familial affection: there is nothing accidental or indifferent behind the making of this picture. It was not composed in the way one might include some random kid with a guitar in a "street" photograph; everything about it says, "I love this boy, and I want to record him doing this thing that he loves to do".

Third, of course, there is the vivifying magic we ourselves bring to the image, knowing what we know about this boy's future, and what he will bring to the lives of millions. However, I think it would still be a great photo even if it wasn't Paul McCartney sitting there, strumming what looks to me like a C chord (I, too, am – was – a left-handed guitar player), as it's a perfect image of one version of the world as it was emerging in Britain in those pre-Beatles years.

When I was a small boy in the late 1950s and we were still living in a house with a back garden, we had a next-door neighbour whose teenage son was learning the guitar; I've forgotten his name, so let's call him Paul. Paul would sit out in the back garden just like that, strumming the chords he'd learned from (almost certainly) Bert Weedon's Play in a Day. It seems that in every street in every town, in those crucial few years post-skiffle but pre-Beatles, some youngster was bent over a cheap guitar, oblivious to the sound of the washing flapping in the breeze, or the groans of the neighbours. A ground-level, home-made, revolutionary musical brew was fermenting.

Although for every Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton there are a hundred fondly remembered and much fancied teachers at secondary moderns, grammars, and eventually comprehensives around the country, now mostly retired, who used to play a bit. Some may still keep the flame alive at weekend semi-pro gigs, but most will have come to their senses long ago, even if they do still occasionally reach for the guitar and travel back in their innermost soul to a place and time that matches in almost every respect the space in that wonderful photograph.

By the way, if you fancy a taster of the book's content, the BBC Sounds podcast "Inside the Songs" is worth a listen. I mean, who'd ever have guessed that "Got To Get You Into My Life" from Revolver is McCartney's "ode to pot"? Or that, in his telling, it was Lennon, not McCartney, who broke up the band? Fascinating stuff, but ancient history now, and I'd still rather have a print of the photo. Maybe I should drop Sir Paul a fan-mail and ask for a signed copy. I expect he'd be grateful; he surely can't be getting that many now, can he?

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Extreme Locations & Iconic Conditions

Red Kite over Llandrindod Wells old parish church

You may recall that back in 2016 I contributed some articles to a British online magazine concerned with landscape photography, On Landscape. These were essentially revised versions of some blog posts, most notably this one, Bye, Bye, Landscape Photography, Dear, in which I set out certain misgivings about the whole enterprise of landscape photography. If you've not read it before, I recommend it: I think it's one of my better pieces, and it sets the scene for what I am about to write.

Early in 2021, On Landscape announced its participation in a new photographic competition, to be called The Natural Landscape Photography Awards. Tim Parkin, who is, together with his wife Charlotte, the motivating editorial force behind On Landscape, explained the thinking behind the launch of yet another photography competition in this editorial in which the key idea seemed to be to reward unmanipulated and unsensational photographs of the real landscape, but which also contained these laudable reflections on the judging process:

We have also given considerable thought to the process of judging itself, which can be prone to various problems. It is inevitable that when zipping through so many images, a ‘WOW!’ photo with vibrant colours or a photo from an unusual angle will stand out. This is why so many photographs from iconic locations in extreme conditions, unusual aerial perspectives, astro images, and inventive composites do disproportionately well in competitions. We hope to eliminate these judging problems by doing the following:

  • Creating separate categories for astrophotography and aerial images, subjects which often catch judges eyes and possibly distract from other genres.
  • Creating a separate category for intimate landscapes - a genre that is often overlooked when seen against a stream of epic views.
  • Preparing and briefing judges on what to expect and developing a process to help selection.
  • Having a scoring system that guides the judges into assessing composition, light and subject and not just the instant visual impact of an image.
  • Letting judges promote their favourite selections in an open discussion in the final rounds.

We believe that all these steps will help give each image a strong chance, whether it be a spectacular aurora over a glacier or a softly lit willow tree.

I was impressed, but was also bothered by the word "natural", so I took the trouble to enquire further. I asked, "I'm assuming anything remotely urban or suburban ('edgelands', etc.) is excluded? But how about agricultural landscapes (which is what most of the UK is)? I'm a little concerned that this is going to be just another 'spectacular wilderness' competition..." To which the reassuring reply was: We've been having some extensive talks about this and we want to include pretty much anything that people consider landscape apart from urban/architecture etc.. We'll come up with a bunch of guidance around it but I think in most cases it will match most of what our judges consider to be landscape so we're not going ultra wild, back country Yukon only!!"

Which sounded good to me, so against my usual instincts with regard to competitions I decided to enter some photographs, not with any expectation of winning, but in the spirit of support for what seemed a worthwhile enterprise [1]. I looked forward to seeing some unusual and creative takes on what landscape photography could be like, if only its practitioners would stay away from those "iconic locations in extreme conditions" and dial down the colour saturation and the clichés from eleven. Personally, I would have considered a "no sunsets, no dawn mists" rule, too, but then I am an extremist.

So I have to say I was quite disappointed to see the eventual results, as declared this week. Take a look for yourself, they're here. Well... There are many lovely and striking pictures there, of course, but – to my eyes, at least – this is yet another array of calendar-ready eye-candy which would do equally well in any landscape photography competition, however defined, however judged. Indeed, as far as I can tell all of the 16 main winners and runners-up are actually professional landscape photographers, of whom nine are from the United States, all working in the wildernesses and national parks of the western states. OK, not the Yukon, but still... Of the rest, the only two Brits had submitted work made in the mountains of South Africa and Switzerland, which is also disappointing; perhaps our own landscape just isn't "natural" enough, after all. Oh, and fifteen of the sixteen are men, for what that's worth.

Now, I concede that I may have completely failed to understand the intentions underlying this competition, in which case everything I have to say is off the mark, but it seems to me that the excellent idea of attempting to counterbalance the "WOW!" photos must have wobbled somewhat, despite a very elaborate judging process [2]. That the winner of the Grand Landscape category had photographed Yosemite's El Capitan, no less – of all the iconic landscape locations on the face of the earth! – or that the Intimate & Abstract category was won by – nooo! – autumn-tinted aspens in the Sierra Nevada should, I think, have given the competition organisers some pause for thought. In fact, pretty much all the winning and commended pictures are nicely-turned variations on well-established "landscape" tropes made in precisely the sort of iconic locations and extreme conditions (extreme locations and iconic conditions?) I had imagined would be frowned upon. So I'd be surprised if, like me, you didn't get that strong feeling of déjà vu that always seems to accompany landscape competition results (in this case, ahemincluding the Photograph of the Year). Although, to be fair, not everybody regards ruddy sunsets, misty dawns, or frosty nights in remote and inhospitable spots where nobody lives as "extremities". Indeed, for the professional those are landscape photography, because those are what sell landscape photographs.

But as Tim Parkin (almost) put it in his original editorial, "how can a portrayal of a real scene compete with the deluge of extraordinary perfected moments?" Which is a good question. How on earth does anyone compete with, say, a picture of a double lightning strike on the Matterhorn at night (which happens to be the winner of the Nightscape category)? Answer: you can't, unless the judges can be persuaded to set WOW! aside, just this once, and let the modestly beautiful and subtly true have their moment instead.

For precisely that reason, the idea of a competition that would apply a judging handicap to the most attention-grabbing work in order for the quieter work to be seen – as in really seen – seemed very interesting to me, although a lot depends on your definition of and affection for WOW! work, of course [3]. I'm sure everyone involved in the Natural Landscape Photography Awards would argue that they worked very hard to do their absolute best to see justice done, and that they are satisfied with the outcome and the integrity of the process, and I'm sure that's all true. But: although I can never quite put my finger on what it is that I find indigestible about so many "stunning" photographs like these, I think it has something to do with the desire and pursuit of the exquisite. They remind me not so much of any landscape I have ever walked through as they do the images of carefully made-up and styled models in a fashion magazine, or product shots for luxury goods like watches and jewellery. Whatever anyone may argue to the contrary, too many of these photographs don't feel like entirely honest portrayals of real landscapes.

In the end, the very concept of a "winner" in image-making of any kind is not just flawed, it is a category error: photo-competition winners have not won, in the objective sense that a horse or athlete wins a race by running faster and crossing the finishing line first, but have been pulled from a crowd of contenders by the judges in a series of acts of informed subjectivity (a.k.a. "prejudice", a.k.a. "taste"), with a stiffening of backbone supplied by the eternal "camera club" criteria by which all such beauty parades have been and probably always will be judged [4]. If you must have a photo-competition, there is no other way. How else would you decide, let's say, between two excellent photos of mountain peaks struck by lightning at night, in the admittedly unlikely event you were confronted by that choice? Somehow, one has to be found to be more compellingly "perfect" than the other, and, as the judges at Crufts Dog Show know, perfection has rules.

Inevitably, however, I predict that in whatever competitions happen to come along in the near future the judges may well find that there will be several highly-accomplished photographs of mountain peaks struck by lightning at night to choose between; or, far more likely, dozens of photos of mini-landscapes composed out of the elements lying at one's feet. Suddenly everybody's doing it! Why? Because an unfortunate side-effect of all competitions is that the virtues perceived and admired by the judges in their chosen winners tend to be noted and imitated by the thousands of aspirants seeking the validation of a competition win, or in pursuit of more social media "likes". Hey, look, I can do that, too!

In this way, this year's novelty quickly becomes next year's tired cliché. Photography in general, and landscape photography in particular, is very susceptible to inundation by such "me too" imitations of and twists on previous work, whether inspired by competition winners or simple copycattery, and this inevitably puts a squeeze on subtlety, originality, and indeed honesty. Why is this? Well, if you did read my post Bye, Bye, Landscape Photography, Dear, you may have agreed with me that

Landscape photography, despite the way it attracts the word "romantic" to itself, is classical at heart, in the sense that it is largely about the imitation of established models and masters, and thus has a tendency to produce "school of" works. Like 19th century academic painting, it is polished, highly-wrought, rather rule-bound, and with a strong tendency to idealize.

That's a large part it. Plus an inclination, not exclusively male, to substitute enhanced technical perfection for those unjudgeable, elusive, but essential qualities, emotion and "soul". Nonetheless, I hope you can also agree with me that these are tendencies that can still be successfully resisted, ignored, avoided, or worked around. There's plenty of great landscape work out there that does just that; in fact, there are some I like very much among the quieter "commended" entries in the Natural Landscape Photography Awards. But, please, don't listen to me, if winning prizes is what you really want. Stick with WOW!

Looking west from Bryn y Maen, Powys

1. Only the very naive resent paying a fee to enter pictures into a competition or open exhibition call. How else do they think these things get funded?
2. Described here. I must say, it is slightly crushing (a) not to have made it past the pre-judgement rounds, and (b) to be made aware of this, definitively! Award certificate? What award certificate?? A certain lack of empathy is being shown towards us abject losers here, I can't help but feel ;)
3. Very interesting, that is, as I had interpreted it. If all that was really meant was "Down with dishonest digital manipulation!" then that seems to me a "straw man" not worth attacking, given that many competitions routinely exclude such work in the rules of entry. I can't imagine which respectable national or international landscape photography competitions the organisers of NLPA had in mind. Any suggestions?
4. See Tim Parkin's bullet point No. 4: "Having a scoring system that guides the judges into assessing composition, light and subject and not just the instant visual impact of an image".

Monday, 1 November 2021

A Wide Game

If you still hold, however tentatively, to the rather old-fashioned belief that a print is the necessary final product of the photographic process, and if, like me, you do most of your printing at home on an inkjet printer, you'll probably share my interest in the varieties of paper available: the surfaces, the weights, the sizes, and so on. Since investing in an Epson A3+ printer last year (the P400, see Now Available in Orange) I've played it safe as far as the ink is concerned and use Epson inks exclusively, but I'm open to experiment where papers are concerned. If I discover that, say, Ilford make a paper in the Japanese "washi torinoko" style, as I did recently, then I'll order a pack in a small size just to see what it can do, especially if it comes in a useful box or, if they really know how to get my attention, in a cute tin.

The trouble with most papers competing for attention at the top end of the market is that they are far too expensive for day-to-day use, which makes it difficult, if not impossible to really get to know their properties. They are also often far too thick for the delicate digestive system of a desktop printer, and will eventually give it unfortunate dyspeptic symptoms. Besides, a paper that costs several pounds for a single sheet and is approaching the texture and thickness of a beermat strikes me as a complete waste of money, if its intended destiny is to be mounted and framed behind glass on someone's wall. So my preference has long been for Epson's own Archival Matte and Premium Semigloss papers, which are a good compromise of weight, surface, and price: a sheet of A3 Archival Matte costs about 60p and at just 189 g/m² is robust enough without feeling that it needs to be sawn up rather than cut with a knife.

Recently it occurred to me that an A3+ printer, intended to handle a maximum paper size of 32.9cm x 48.3cm (really a US size, 13" x 19") would be able to handle A2 paper, if I were to cut it down to size, width-wise, from 42cm to make a sheet 32.9cm x 59.4cm. That extra 11cm in length could make quite a difference, when printing long, narrow images. Indeed, Epson used to make a "panoramic" size, now discontinued, which was simply a sheet of A2 cut in half, length-wise, to 21cm x 59.4cm. Which then prompted the thought: why waste the offcut, when a sheet of A2 could be divided into two useful sheets, one 30cm x 59.4cm, and the other 12cm x 59.4cm?

But why would anyone want the latter size, I hear you ask? Well, because it's the perfect size for a small concertina-style booklet, with a spare stub left over at the end to glue it into a cover. As a result, I've been having a fun week, seeing what can and cannot be fitted into the available space. Who knows, maybe even a "special edition" of Christmas cards could be a possibility this year for a lucky few?