Travels with my large format camera, and sometimes a digital one. This is me rationalising my thoughts by putting them into words, about why I choose to lug a big and heavy camera around the landscape only to shoot nothing at all or take up to 2 hours exposing one single negative of Black and White film. Honestly, I do wonder why I do it myself, digital is a lot easier.It is also my journey of discovery about how images work, why we are drawn to some and not to others, and my attempts at producing my own *worthwhile* images rather than a discussion of the technical intricacies of how cameras work.If you find this page enjoy it and take away with you as much or little as you desire. It is not an attempt to define photography for a generation but for myself only.
Ceann Tragh Diction 15th September 2018
All my time in the remoter Scottish Isles I’ve been chasing this one shot, one photograph that’s in my imagination. It got there from the film “Whisky Galore” and has remained ever since. The edge of the machair at the edge of the Atlantic on the edge of the season, grasses grow to seed bleached in the long days of summer sun, the border to beaches pounded fine by winter storm. The odd small and delicate flower as somehow a last testament to fine against the promise of change in a landscape of constant motion. Of course the photograph in my mind was in B&W, just like the film.
The trouble is I was never able to find it, and I looked.
Ceann Tragh, Islay
We were in Islay and had parked the camper in a particularly nice spot at Kintra Farm campsite and something caught my attention not more than 20 feet from the van. I liked the way the tufts of grass blown by the wind were curving in the opposite direction to the shoreline, the constant breeze softening their shape. There was something about the consistency of direction of the ever-present wind from the Atlantic suggested by the opposing curves. They seemed to be in harmony with the place rather than opposition to each other. So out came the Linhof and Sandra solved a few Sudoku while I puzzled.
There was something in Alexander Mackendrick’s film that caught and expressed his feeling of being there. That was what I was seeing. It was so well expressed in the film that it was actually what I feel when I stand in the machair looking over the beach myself. I was chasing someone else’s photograph, an expression of Alexander Mackendrick’s when he stood on a similar spot, something placed in my imagination by someone else.
It was not when I stopped looking that I found this photograph, or that I took my mind off it for a second. What I did was to stop remembering what had been conjured by someone else’s skill and started looking at the actual landscape. It is no surprise that a landscape is itself the inspiration and not the work of others who it’s inspired. But it does conjure in me the same feelings of the landscape as Whisky Galore did.
A friend on a photo forum reminded me of something by way of a quote:
We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides -- pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
“We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one…”
I wonder why something I see in other photographs took me so long to realize about my own. How can I understand something so clearly and yet fail to recognize the same mistake when it comes to an image that’s been almost a quest for me.
It happens often, so clearly do we see and understand how other people’s vision is clouded that it fails to even occur to us that we are looking through the exact same clouds because we never question the assumption that our vision is clear, even when we see clearly that vision isn’t.
A contradiction, or in the Scottish tongue a kin-tra-diction.
Composition - Do you see what I see? September 12th 2018
What exactly is composition, where does it come from and why do we prefer some images over others?
Composition is the arrangement of the elements of a photograph into an order that communicates more clearly whatever the photographer wishes to say. Or is it? Does it actually exist in an image at all?
I’m not really sure that’s true, and I’m not sure that there are any absolutes in composition. In fact it seems to be almost a circular reasoning…
The Last Post, Jura
All through history we’ve imposed an order on our surroundings to allow us to understand and navigate it more easily, a logical construct or a narrative of absolutes that clearly defines the space and our position in relation to it. For example the Earth was flat, it was the centre of the universe, there has always been a reason as to how and why it came into being. But all of these have been shown to be examples of where the logical order of narrative of absolutes has proved to be incomplete or incorrect because we haven’t looked or understood what we see correctly. Driven by our need to have a complete and logical understanding, to have a place for everything so it can be labelled as understood.
But could the same thing be happening to our images? Well the curious answer is yes.
Let’s jump to the Himba tribe and demonstrate that what you actually see is not absolute but is both learnt and heavily influenced by the system of logic you use to categorise and create an understandable order to your surroundings, language. In the west we think we have a complete understanding of colour, and that what we see is correct. Our understanding is backed by science and a language that reflects that and is able to describe it. We universally categorise colour by hue. The Himba are a remote tribe and removed from this, their language for colour is quite different. Not backed by science but is altogether based on perception of colour. They recognise light and dark colour, the sky is black and the water white, with vivid and earth colours. They have no words for green or blue.
So show them a circle of similar green swatches arranged like a clock but with one swatch of blue, and they have extraordinary difficulty in selecting the odd colour out. They simply have not learnt to differentiate between green and blue and so have great difficulty in seeing the difference. It is graphic proof that even seeing colour is something we learn and what we see is greatly influenced by the framework we impose in order to gain an understanding.
Now you think that we still see correctly and are not subject to the same? Take a series of similar greens and again arrange them in a clock face and us westerners generally have a hard time in selecting the odd one out, the Himba though point directly to it. There are certain aspects of colour that our language doesn’t categorise well and similarly we have not learnt to see and differentiate colour in that way.
This raises an interesting question, is our appreciation of composition affected because of the language we impose to allow us understanding is creating far too rigid rules that we simply fail to see beyond, just like the Himba can’t see a blue amongst greens?
Ceann Tragh, Islay
It’s not such an odd question as it sounds. If we impose an order to allow us to make sense of a picture, then it only makes sense to us if it follows an order we understand. It’s a very real pitfall for us photographers in that once we learn a few rules we apply that understanding to make sense of every picture we see. We teach ourselves to see the order we wish to impose, an order that allows us the illusion that we understand photography, and in doing so lose the ability to see beyond it because an order we don’t understand can appear invisible simply because we don’t learn to see it. I was having a conversation with a friend and a rough overview was that I was not seeing things clearly. But what is clearly other than the imposition of somebody else’s framework that allows them the illusion of understanding? It went much like this; “the pieces are this shape and fit together this way.”
“I’m not so sure they fit together, some of the joins look a little fuzzy to me. Let’s take it apart and discuss the shapes a little more, see if the edges become clearer and then see if they still fit together that way or another.”
“No, they have to be this shape or they don’t fit together.”
This is where it becomes circular, composition is the order we impose to allow us to make sense of a space. It comes from our experience and memory, of how we’ve learnt to make sense of the space we occupy in this world. In many ways it is neither correct nor logical but simply a connection we make between the definitions of words and often only satisfies our desire to understand, to have an answer. The order we create is an illusion to satisfy our need for things to be ordered and understood. There are universal truths such as why we’ve learnt to associate sensual with curves and jagged with angular, both again derived from connections we make through experience and the words we use to label.
So composition is needed to satisfy our desire for something to be ordered, to apply an understanding and make sense of the space. Then an understanding that that order is based on our desire, memory and experience of making sense of the space we occupy in this world can allow us to see why the rules of composition exist, where they originated from, and will ultimately allow us to see beyond them.
The Last Post in Jura was shot with the Linhof and a standard 150mm lens. It is quite different from the image I shot with my D600 and it’s standard 55mm lens at the same spot. I liked the idea that it defined the edge of the wilderness, barely hanging on, fragile and decaying. Not that it communicated that nature was wild and unforgiving but the opposite, that it signified a boundary to something different, the wild beauty of a Scottish Isle just one precarious step away.
Ceann Tragh, Islay I find to be far more clinical, shot with the D600 and the 55mm it’s more defined by line and light/dark composition. Any beauty resides in the order that’s there rather than the promise of what’s beyond.
- No Comments