Saturday 28 January 2023

RWA Photography Exhibitions

 The old nationalised British Rail used to have a slogan in its advertising: Let the train take the strain. I wanted to travel to Bristol yesterday, just for the day, as the Royal West of England was having an "exhibitors only" preview day before the official opening of the Photography Season exhibitions today, so I thought, Why not?, and decided to take the train rather than drive yet again up the M4 motorway.

The rail route up from Southampton is one I'm very familiar with, as back in my working days I used to attend regular meetings as a consultant at the HQ of a library tech company in Bristol, and it is a very beautiful journey, passing via Salisbury to Bath and Bristol through the Avon Valley, which can be spectacularly scenic, especially early in the morning. However, the railways are no longer nationalised, and seem to be descending ever deeper into incompetence and chaos. Only two carriages were provided for a busy route, and people were standing in the aisles most of the way. Combine that overcrowding with post-Covid paranoia about coughs and colds and I was only too glad to get off, a mere ten minutes late.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the judges for this very first RWA photography "open" exhibition was Jem Southam, one of our outstanding British landscape photographers and, in parallel with the Open, there is a large show of the work collected in his book Four Winters at the RWA. A long time ago, in 1995, I did a residential workshop at Duckspool with Jem, and we've stayed sporadically in touch since, so I was pleased to meet him being shepherded out of the building for lunch with the gallery staff as I was coming in. He was kind enough to break off from his entourage, have a catch-up chat with me and to show me where my picture was hung, leading to the selfie you see here. Jem is tall and I am short, and my picture has been hung low, so a certain amount of undignified crouching was involved.

These exhibitions are well worth a visit if you're in the area (they're on until 1st May). The Open has about 150 exhibitors, selected from nearly 2,000 submissions – you can see all the pictures here (I'm No. 45 on page 4...) – and is a good cross-section of contemporary photographic approaches. I'm afraid it did confirm me in my prejudice about over-large prints, though: nearly all of the exhibited works that appealed to me were small or modestly-sized. I think an inherent weakness of photography as a medium is exposed when "blown up" too far: the photographic image lacks what we might call the fractal granularity of other picture-making methods. A painting or an etching have visual interest even with your nose within touching distance of the surface. This is only the case with photographs made well within the resolving capacity of their grain or pixels, where closer inspection (even, in the case of large-format images, with a magnifying glass) will reveal more detail. But if you get even reasonably close to a very large photograph you (or, perhaps I should say, I) become all too aware of the unsatisfying softness of the rendering, and the collapse of the crucial illusion that you are seeing a window onto reality, with nothing substantial to take its place (like brush strokes, say, or textures). Why make work that requires you to stand on the other side of the room to appreciate? That said, I was impressed by a very large series of images by Roger Clarke, "9 plastic security trays from lanes 3, 4 and 5 at Bristol Airport" which, if you've flown anywhere recently, will need no explanation.

Jem Southam's two rooms really require more time than I was able to give them. He has taken the idea of working in series in a single location to an extreme, which means there are more dimensions, links, and resonances to consider than are revealed by simply admiring the photographs, which are inevitably rather similar in their sombre dawn and dusk variations. It is clearly a major, mature work by a significant artist, but one that didn't immediately speak to me: I need to return a few times and give it the time it deserves. What did immediately appeal to me were the accompanying works of nature illustration by the likes of John Leigh-Pemberton and Charles Tunnicliffe, so familiar to Brits of my generation from the Shell Guides and Ladybird Books of our childhood years. I particularly enjoyed "August: Life in the Sky", painted by Pemberton for Shell: that impossible mix of species sharing the same evocative setting is so typical of the encyclopaedic super-abundance of 1950s and 60s nature illustration, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who can remember poring over such pictures with pure delight.

Of course, the self-styled Great Western Railway did its best to make an enjoyable day out a truly memorable one, but for all the wrong reasons. It was not entirely their fault, I concede. The train I boarded was scheduled to depart at 14:22, but did not move and remained stationary at the platform, due either to "intruders on the line", "emergency bridge repairs" – possibly both – or possibly some more embarrassing reason they weren't going to own up to. After various intercom messages that prompted mass evacuations ("Anybody wanting to go to Bath should leave the train NOW and go to platform 12!") we did eventually leave Bristol at 15:05, pretty much at half speed, with the train becoming more and more impossibly packed with passengers at each stop along the way, many annoyed at having to miss important rail connections further down the line. I eventually got back to Southampton at 17:30, more than an hour overdue. I suppose at least the "delay repay" scheme means I should get half of my fare back, eventually. But "let the train take the strain"? Hardly... I think even Tory-voting train users must be yearning for the old days of British Rail and more than ready to contemplate re-nationalisation by now.

Tuesday 24 January 2023

Old Digital Cameras

A number of people have picked up on a New York Times piece with the title "The Hottest Gen Z Gadget Is a 20-Year-Old Digital Camera", which remarks on the take up of "old" digital cameras by the young (I haven't read it myself, though, as it's behind a paywall). As it happens, before Christmas I sent on to my daughter (who is technically a "millennial", I think, not "Gen Z") a little Canon Ixus 70 we gave her waay back in 2007, and which I was clearing out of my cupboard of obsolete camera junk. I assured her she'd almost certainly get better photos out of her phone, but she was still keen to have it. It is a lovely thing, it's true, a classic bit of cool industrial design that puts nearly all subsequent "compact" cameras in the shade, if your chief goal is to create something elegant to keep in a handbag or the glove compartment of your Audi TT.

Despite advances in sensor size and resolution, older cameras can still have a certain something when it comes to picture quality. "Picture quality" is clearly a highly subjective business, despite the efforts of manufacturers and reviewers to reduce it to a series of quantifiable measures like resolution, "sharpness", lack of noise, etc. But the fact is that, whenever I gather together photos from my backfiles for a project, I am always surprised at the number that I have singled out as excellent photos which happen to have been made with "obsolete" cameras. This could mean several things, of course. Perhaps I was a better or more inquisitive photographer a decade or two ago; not impossible. Perhaps the limitations of those earlier digital cameras caused me to take more trouble over my photographs: by avoiding (or taking steps to ameliorate) situations like "too dark or "too bright", maybe I more consistently hit the mark. Or, most likely, maybe the software engineers had to pull out all the stops to get acceptable results from those early cameras with their smaller sensors and files, which gave the images character, an even more difficult quality to define and measure, but one you know when you see it.

For example, for many years I have used a 12 MP Fujifilm X20 as my "holiday" camera. In almost every way it is just right for the purpose. It is small (but not too small), robustly made out of metal, zooms from 28mm to 112mm (in 35mm terms) using a very satisfying twist mechanism around the lens that also turns the camera on, is "fast" (f/2 wide to f/2.8 tele), has a just-about-acceptable optical viewfinder, uses a proper lens cap rather than those fragile blade thingies that most compacts have, and – most important – takes decent photos under almost any conditions. These pictures have a film-like grain that is especially pleasing when converted to monochrome. As I say, they have character, rather than a sterile perfection.

Fuji X20, August 2016

Fuji X20, August 2016

Similarly, I find that photographs made with a 10MP Panasonic LX3 or even my venerable 5 MP Olympus 5050z still hold up very well. For years these were the cameras I used for my daily lunchtime perambulations around the Southampton University campus, after I had realised that these new-fangled digital cameras would give me results matching (or even sometimes exceeding) the medium-format film cameras I'd been lugging around, and best of all would slash my not inconsiderable weekly "dev & contact" costs to zero. Indeed, the most popular set of photos I have ever made in terms of exhibitions and sales (collected in my first real book, The Revenants) were made with that Olympus 5050z. I simply print them small, usually about 15cm square on a 21cm square sheet, and their imperfections vanish, overwhelmed by their pictorial interest.

Olympus C5050z, ca.2004-5

Olympus C5050z, ca. 2004-5

Olympus C5050z, ca. 2004-5

So if old cameras can only make small prints that's fine by me: I've never seen the appeal of a photograph printed any larger than about  A3 (12" x 16"), anyway, and even less so ones printed at the size of a garage door. I think photographs are best regarded as an intimate, hand-held medium, not as a gallery-scale billboard experience. In fact, if I'm honest, I think photographs are best seen reproduced as well as possible in a book. I can't imagine owning more than one or two of Pentti Sammallahti's sublime photographs (which are actually very small [1]), and certainly couldn't contemplate owning a few hundred, but paging through his superb "best of" book Here Far Away is one of my favourite ways of restoring my faith in photography.

Of course, whether this interest in older digital cameras is anything more than a passing hipsterish thing, like the baffling craze for using film, remains to be seen. But a fad, caught at its height, is definitely a good time to offload old kit. I was amazed, for example, when I was clearing out that photo-junk cupboard, to make £200 on a commission sale of my old Olympus Mju II (Stylus Epic in the USA), a film camera. Why anyone would think it was worth the £250 they must have paid for it beats me. It served me well back in the last century – most of our first decade of family snaps were taken with it, as it fits so easily into the pocket of a pair of jeans – but it uses 35mm film, FFS! I mean, old digital cameras, yes, but film compacts? Haven't you got a decent phone? Trust me, you'll get much better pictures, and save yourself a ton of money on processing. But there's no point in talking sense to someone in the grip of a must-have fad.

We're all subject to irrational impulses from time to time, of course: this is one reason why photo-junk cupboards exist in the first place. A few years ago I started to collect the different coloured variants of the tiny Olympus Mju-mini Digital ("Stylus Verve" in the USA) when they were plentiful and dirt-cheap on eBay. As much as anything I just loved the way they look: nothing quite so sleekly quirky has been made before or since. I'm not sure why not; as well being extremely cute, it's a very practical design for a truly pocketable camera. But I've never actually used any of the examples I now have – black, red, white, and silver – partly because they use the old XD Picture memory cards, which is a pain, but also because, like that Canon Ixus, the main attraction is the novelty of the design, not their capacity as picture-making machines.

Rummaging deeper into the cupboard, I find I'm often surprised by some of the stuff in there: when and why on earth did I ever think I needed a set of macro extension tubes and a ring flash? Whatever, I'm pretty sure I have no need for them now, and I should really sell them on. But then, you never know when some old impulse might return... I suppose they might yet come in handy? Safest to put them back in the cupboard, just for now.

Panasonic LX3, March 2010

Panasonic LX3, May 2010

Panasonic LX3, January 2023
(that's right: I took it out for a test-drive)

1. No, really: some of his best-known panoramic images are printed on a sheet just 15cm x 23.5 cm in size. If you've ever contemplated buying one from the Photographers' Gallery in London (I have, quite often, but have never followed through: much as I'd like to own one, I'm too mean to part with that much money) here's a "heads up": his prices will go up by 25% from February 1st.

Friday 20 January 2023

Traffic Cones of Japan

While we're on the subject of self-published books, I thought I'd mention my most recent acquisition. Now, I'm not supposed to be buying any more photo-books at the moment, but when I saw the title of this one, I knew I had to check it out. Traffic Cones of Japan by Max Cameron does sound like a runner-up in the "Oddest Title of the Year" awards, but is exactly the sort of quirky, obsessive use of photography's superpower of documentary fidelity and an artist's ability to notice and connect [1] that combine so well with the book-form's own superpower of simultaneous serial and random-access presentation. Curiously, this sort of project seems to suit the culture and environment of the Far East : see Michael Wolf's ongoing series of thematic photographs of Hong Kong and Tokyo.

As soon as I saw a review (in PetaPixel, I think) I ordered a copy from Good Press (an interesting link, that, for any self-publishers out there). To my mind it's perfect: small, well-priced, unpretentious, obsessive, humorous, and the photographs are uniformly excellent. If you can find one (Good Press are already sold out), why not buy a copy and earn yourself some book-making karma-points by supporting a worthwhile project?

Traffic cones of Southampton
(Danger: traffic cones!)

1. Sorry, Max Cameron, I resist the use of the job-description "creative", ubiquitous as it has become...

Sunday 15 January 2023

How Blurb Works: A Reminder

A well-stocked bookshop

This is essentially a revised repost of an item I published in 2016. I was quite harsh about Blurb's shipping costs in the posts about my latest book Dream Theatre (and rightly so), so why do I continue to use them? The fact is that the service they provide is nonetheless very good, and I've been a loyal customer for many years. It may be worth explaining again why this is the case.

Each time I launch a new Blurb book into the world, it strikes to me that most people – even the genial and well-informed folk that are the readers of this blog – seem not to understand what makes an on-demand self-publishing service different from other publishing services, or why it is such a brilliant idea. As I have an interest in keeping Blurb in business, I thought now might be a good time to say a few words about the on-demand model, and how you, too, could be a self-publisher.

The basic Blurb model is this:
  • You sign up for an account. This costs nothing. You get a personal "bookshop" where your publicly-available books will be displayed for sale, plus various administrative tools.
  • You download some free book-making software onto your computer. I much preferred the older BookSmart software to the newer BookWright software, which is by comparison quite weak on certain important book-making functionality [1]. However, BookWright is now the only sensible  option, as it is regularly maintained and updated. Alternatively, you can also use their online book-creation tool for really simple stuff, or at the other extreme you could design your own complete PDF file in something like Adobe InDesign and upload it.
  • You choose a size for your book, and either use a ready-made "look", or assemble your own from page-templates which enable you to choose combinations and placement of text and image, plus useful features like page numbering.
  • You complete however many pages you want. Images need to be 300 dpi JPEGs or PNGs. Text can be typed in directly, cut and pasted, or uploaded from a text file. The book will sit on your own computer to be tinkered with for as long as you like. You can learn a lot just playing around with sequencing and layout, without ever actually making a book.
  • When it's complete and free of errors (and you need to be sure about that, as any later revisions you decide to make will have to be uploaded as a new book) you upload the book to Blurb. This can take quite a while for an image-intensive book of 50 or more pages, depending on your broadband speed.
  • Once there, it's private to start with. To keep it there, you have to buy one copy, at basic production cost. Now, this is the point at which most people who have never tried self-publication before balk. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty pounds? For one copy?? But, friends, that is not a rip-off, that is a bargain. Even bearing in mind the often extortionate cost of shipping. Why? Listen:
Once it's uploaded you can invite people to buy it, as I recently did with Dream Theatre, and also open it for sale as an item listed in your personal Bookshop, available in the formats you choose (hardcover with dustjacket, image-wrapped hardcover, softcover, PDF), on the paper quality you want, and at the prices you decide. There are various tailored publicity tools available, free of charge, for insertion into social media, your blog or webpage, wherever.

But here's the important thing: you yourself need never buy another copy. Repeat: you need never buy another copy.

Every copy that a customer buys is made on demand, and the whole transaction is handled by Blurb. It costs you nothing, requires no attention, and definitely does not involve trips to the Post Office. If you have added some profit for yourself onto the basic production cost, Blurb will pass this on to you, provided it exceeds a certain accumulated monthly total, currently £12.50. If it doesn't, it's rolled over into the next month.

Sure, Blurb are making money, and you almost certainly are not. But your book is out there and easily available, and you have not paid a ton of money up front to a printer for copies of a book you will never be able to distribute or sell, and which will sit unsold in boxes under your bed and in your closet and in your loft and in your shed forever like a bad dream. Have you ever seen a "small" run of 1000 copies of a hardback book? I have (thankfully not one of mine), and you should be very afraid... [2] Worse, if you hope to go down the classic self-publication route more than once, the only certainty is that you're going to need a bigger house. Plus a willingness to write off hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, all for the sake of a vanity project.

So the really big plus of on-demand publishers like Blurb, I think, is that the relatively low cost of entry (and the zero cost of failing to sell many or even any copies) means that producing new books regularly is not just feasible, it's addictive. And, if you're serious about your writing, or your photography, or your recipes, or whatever it is you do, there is no better creative discipline than imagining, editing, and sequencing a book. Plus you will have a permanent, compact, and convenient record of your work, which is far more likely to survive the coming decades than boxes of prints or ephemeral image files. Best of all, it's the sort of fun, self-motivating challenge that can shift your life and your work into a higher gear.

But you should never assume you might sell more than, say, 20 copies. Dream on! I'm happy if I manage to recover just half of the cost of the copies I buy for myself or to give away. Sadly, although the stats will tell you how many copies of a book have been sold in the last 45 days (none, usually), Blurb does not disclose the name, email, or location of anyone who does buy a copy of your book, so gratitude from you as its author to your tiny group of fans has to be taken for granted. But then, Lee Child doesn't send a thank-you note to everyone who buys his books, so why should you?

Tools for shameless self-promotion...

1. Things like being able to choose the position of page numbers, or add a running header to pages, etc., all of which have become more tricky in the new software, which seems much less oriented to fundamental book-making concepts, bizarrely.
2. Back in 2003 I did have 300 copies of a 24-page A5 landscape pamphlet printed to accompany an exhibition, The Colour of the Water, that ran at a popular local beauty spot from March 2003 to November 2004. It was the first publication of my imprint Shepherd's Crown, and 300 seemed a modest enough quantity. Luckily for me the National Trust had funded the printing, as it sold poorly, even reduced from £3.50 to £1 each, even during an exhibition that ran for twenty months!  I still have a box of the bloody things... Want one? Email me. Or why not take a look at the much more elaborate Blurb book Downward Skies?

Wednesday 11 January 2023

Dream Theatre, Act 2

 I decided to make the cheaper version of Dream Theatre using the "magazine" format, as I've done in the past for other publications, such as Let's Get Lost, or Stand. You should be able to check it out using this link:

The price is right, but the only problem, as always with Blurb, is that the shipping cost is disproportionate. At least, it is if you import an item made in the USA or even in Europe into the UK. Your shipping may be significantly cheaper, of course, if you do actually live in the US or Europe (which, come to think of it, most of my regular readers do). I decided to take this up with Blurb, so "reached out", as they like to say. I wrote:

Blurb shipping charges can be far too high. I recently uploaded a magazine, and wanted to order a single proof copy. Base cost of magazine: just over £8. Shipping cost: over £18...  This is insane. 
I realise this is probably because magazines are still made in the USA. But others (e.g. Zno) can ship US to UK for a reasonable price, and I'm sure you could, too, if you looked into it.

They replied:

Our shipping and handling fees include the actual cost of shipping a parcel from our print facility to your doorstep as well as the materials and manpower needed to package your book. This means the price you see for shipping and handling isn't just for the postage alone but includes other costs associated with shipping the order to you.
We do conduct regular research to ensure that the shipping and handling fees we charge are competitive while offering reliable methods and multiple shipping options for every budget.
That said, we appreciate the feedback and I will pass it on to our operations team so they can consider it in their next shipping-cost review.
If you have any additional questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to me.

To which I replied:

"Our shipping and handling fees include the actual cost of shipping a parcel from our print facility to your doorstep as well as the materials and manpower needed to package your book."

And other people's don't? I'd be surprised...

So, *are* magazines made in the USA? Is it really too much trouble to have them produced in Europe? I've been a Blurb customer for many years now, and I know from feedback that the shipping cost is why so many potential sales fall through.

To which they replied:

At the moment, our magazines are produced in print shops in the USA and Europe. We always try to use a print shop closest to the final destination. I looked into this and your order will be printed in our European print shop. 

Hmm. Let me see... From the UK, Royal Mail charge £3.25 to send a large letter weighing less than 750g by Standard International mail to the Netherlands. VistaPrint (also based Somewhere in Europe) charge £3.75 for Economy Shipping, and Zno charge $9 to ship from the USA. In other words, someone at Blurb thinks it costs something like an additional £15 ($18 or €17) for someone to pick up one printed 40-page magazine, put it in a cardboard mailer, print out and attach an address label, and put it in the post to the United Kingdom. Blimey! I suspect they need to stop employing lawyers on legal hourly rates in the post-room, and should also check they're not being ripped off by their stationery suppliers. Or maybe they should simply stop trying to gouge customers by massively overcharging for shipping?

Anyway, I have to say that I actually prefer this slightly revised version, and (provided the shipping isn't prohibitive) I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to buy a hard copy. A downloadable PDF version is also available at the bargain price of £5.99 (and no shipping charge!).

Friday 6 January 2023

Dream Theatre

Charmouth Beach, 28th December 2022

We had a rather quiet break over Christmas and New Year. As has been our custom in recent years, we hired a place down in Dorset for a family get-together, but all of us either arrived with or shortly went down with a horrible flu-ey cold and cough that has persisted for weeks but is, surprisingly, not the result of the obvious candidate virus: it's been a case of "I can't believe it's not Covid". On top of that the weather was mainly awful – gloomy skies, strong winds, and driving rain – so, unless you want to hear about how I forgot to remove certain components of our Christmas dinner from the side oven of an unfamiliar stove, or how gratifyingly well-stocked the Nisa convenience store in Charmouth is, there's not a lot of general interest to report back on.

I didn't even get many decent photographs. By contrast, last year I had a couple of excellent walks that yielded some unusually spectacular landscape images. I used one of them, "Pickaxe Cross, 23rd December 2021", as this year's Christmas / New Year card. In fact, that same photo has now been selected for the Royal West of England Academy's new open photography exhibition. Which is great, except for the fact that it was what I regarded as the "safest" choice of the three I submitted; the other two were more typical of my work and, in my opinion, more interesting uses of photography as a medium. Among the judges were Jem Southam and Susan Derges, both photographers I have admired for many years, and I can't pretend I wasn't disappointed that they went for this striking but conventional landscape photograph.

Pickaxe Cross, 23rd December 2021

I've been amusing myself over the past month or two by fiddling about with a new book of digital collages, which I think I have now pretty much completed – or at any rate it has now reached the point of diminishing returns – and so I have put it up on my Blurb page. For now it's semi-private, visible by "invitation only" via the following link:

Some of these pictures will be familiar from previous incarnations that I've shown in these blog posts, but I think it works as a sequenced whole, a sort of fitful meditation on the subject of dreams, dreaming, and dreamers. I'm not expecting anyone to buy it in this 30cm square hardback version, and will be making a much cheaper version in the 18cm square paperback size, once I'm sure I've got it right. Feel free to comment, and even to buy a copy of the super-cheap PDF version, if you want to have a proper look at the pictures [1].

Charmouth, Christmas Day 2022

Lyme Regis, Boxing Day 2022

1. If you do, for the best viewing experience you need to set your PDF reader (typically Adobe Acrobat) so that you can see a two-page view with a separate cover page. This ensures the correct pages face each other. In Acrobat the settings are: 
Under the menu "View" choose "Page Display", then choose both of "Two Page View" and "Show Cover Page in Two Page View". You may also want to select "Show Gaps Between Pages".