A Photographic Mind

An inadequate explanation of my passion for photography

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It’s not the photograph that has to be trusted, it’s the photographer.

Following my post the other day on manipulated photographs by Steve McCurry, some thoughts on Don McCullin’s problems with digital photography.

Digital Photos Can't Be Trusted, Says Renowned War Photographer

See:
http://www.petapixel.com/2015/11/28/digital-photos-cant-be-trusted-says-renowned-war-photographer/
http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/27/don-mccullin-war-photographer-digital-images?CMP=share_btn_fb

Another FFS moment on coming across comments from Don McCullin about the issues of digital cf film (zzzzz… sleep coming on). The problem is that people fetishize their own working version of whatever medium they are talking about, they forget the problems of previous versions of their craft and its alternatives, and believe that any particular instance of a “veracity problem” invalidates all other methods and uses of the medium.

Firstly, there is no right way to do photography, just as there is no right way to do painting or writing or talking. Different people have different approaches and different outcomes. In the same way that I am not engaged by many of the genres of literature, but other people are, I am not engaged with many types of and subject matter of photography. I don’t read romantic fiction, very little science fiction and no war, horror or crime fiction. That doesn’t mean that there is no science, horror, war, romance or crime in the novels that I read, just that those subjects are not the main thrust of the stories told there. I find art that is purely conceptual in terms of its examination of the navel of its own medium and the mental mechanics of it tedious and uninteresting. Some people, particularly those who are following an academic or curatorial career, find that those types of work can enhance their opportunities for developing their authority. A lot of it is the equivalent of angels on pinheads that the religious authorities used to agonise about.

Secondly, if we think about photography as a way of telling stories, true or otherwise, about the actual or an imaginary world, then we have to compare the photographic method to those methods that came before. We could do the same for writing and speaking, the other main means of communication that we have. Before photography there was painting and drawing as visual media, as well as the plastic forms of sculpture. Were these endlessly criticised for being distortions of the truth because of the subjective creator and the mechanisms of the medium that they are using? No, and they are all now fetishised as “fine art” and endlessly examined for their true meanings and metaphoric content. What of writing – do we challenge everything that is written because of the subjective leanings of the writer? And of course, everything I say is always true isn’t it, because I always have a perfect viewpoint for what I see and memorise. No, of course I don’t. If others are to be convinced of the veracity of what I say or write, they have to know something about me, my reputations for not allowing myself to distort what I have seen and my mechanisms for ensuring that I have not been deceived myself by my point of view, either physical or mental. That thereby I can say something that is usefully accurate in known ways, and potentially inaccurate in known ways, so that we can benefit from the communication.

Photography is no different. A great deal of the possible distortion is not in the darkroom or the computer software, it’s in the chosen or happenstance point of view, in the arrangement or not of the subject matter, the impact, in Heisenberg’s terms, of the viewer and her process on the thing viewed and recorded. Most photography up to the 1950’s was as much manipulated in the set up of the shot as in the darkroom. Even McCullin was guilty, though infrequently, of that. Classics where there is some question of this set up distortion of what we see in the final image are Lange’s Migrant Woman, Capa’s Dying Soldier and a lot of Bill Brandt’s social documentary work.

All makers and creators have their own working practices and also their own agendas, explicit and implicit. Knowing the people, their working practices and the mechanics of the medium well enables us to take those factors into account when assessing and using what they communicate. And thus we can take something of value from their communication rather than just pointing out that all media and communications are distorted by the means and the motive of the creator and presenter, and therefore of no value.

And so to the question of the response to the tsunami of imagery that digital photography allows, and whether that undermines all communication through photography. Well, that is no different to the tsunami of digital news headlines or points of view or blogs or writing of any kind. We have to develop practices that are reputation and filter based to help assess the likely challenges to the material from various possible distortions that it contains. We are already doing that. We restrict incoming content to known sources, whether personal contacts or organisations attempting to get our attention. We filter in varying ways. I take no notice of material from the Daily Mail – I expect it to be so distorted by a frame of reference that I do not credit it with validity, that I see no point in engaging with it at all. I do not “friend” people in facebook that I have not had some interaction with or some common contacts. The same on LinkedIn etc., etc.

These are the same sorts of mechanism that we might have employed before the ages of writing, before printing, before the digital age. When all we had was verbal – gossip and sermons essentially, and used reputational and cross comparison mechanisms for assessing the value of what we heard. The same must apply as we build the reputation and channel credibilities of the sources of the communications that we attend to and find useful in our lives today, including digital photography.

(I originally wrote this back in November when the Guardian published their article, but didn’t post it until now).

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Written by Robert Ashby

May 11, 2016 at 7:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Spot the differences

There has been a little debate recently about Steve McCurry’s photographs (2,3).   Petapixel has an article about changes in some of Steve McCurry’s photographs on his website (1). Here is one of the before and after pairs:

Botched Steve McCurry Print Leads to Photoshop Scandal

How many differences can you see children? Well, there are 9 that I saw, aside from the significant changes of contrast and saturation.

2 people edited out
2 people edited to enhance composition
2 carts edited out
3 distracting background details edited out

So how do I feel about this Steve McCurry photograph that has been significantly edited to enhance its composition and engagement? What are the implications for me in responding to McCurry’s work and more generally in the continuing debates about altered photographic images?

There is no question that it is a stronger image with the changes. Also that the meanings and messages are not particularly compromised, and the questions of why there are two people riding (actually four) and one pushing, and why the hood is not in use despite the rain, remain unaltered. Edited, it’s a nicer, more engaging image. More marketable no doubt. The original has some mildly interesting documentary aspects. The amended image is less documentary and more visually appealing – less informative than decorative.

This is a general issue that some people have with Steve McCurry’s imagery, whether photoshopped or not. That they are very carefully composed, almost “staged”, for a particular version of the world. In individual cases it may not matter. No-one is demeaned or affected by the use of the revised image. It is not regarded as important evidence of anything. In terms of a view of the world that is represented by his body of work, or particular series, subsets, of his oevre, I am afraid that I distance myself from it. I have always had a mild suspicion of it.

Now, the petapixel article clearly states that McCurry regrets that the changes have been made to certain images, and that they have been altered “by his studio” without his personal intervention. But what this says very clearly to me is that there actually is a McCurry view of the world, which is targeted at his commercial customers and audiences, and that his staff were ensuring that his images met this objective stylistically. That they were recognisably “McCurry” images, that they were suitable for his audiences.

But do we need to enhance, simplify, saturate our world in order to experience it as interesting, beautiful, wonderful and worthy of our engagement? My question is less about the truth of an image to what was before the photographer when he pressed the shutter, than of what the processing says about how we see the world, as mediated by the commentators and media through which we get a great deal of our information about the world on a daily basis.

It’s not just about the likes of HDR and other techniques, which may also make an image more visually strong and appealing, but are not what the world is about. I hate HDR as crass and gauche, I enjoy the world as it is. I don’t need in-yer-face visual enhancement and strong compositional technique to engage with or enjoy an image, its subject, meanings and messages. I don’t even want less obvious, but more subtle interventions in the images. Some people do apparently. There is a market for that, but not one that I am part of. I have what a lot of people consider a large collection of photobooks, but there isn’t a McCurry book in there.

So I will continue to see Steve McCurry’s images as slightly suspect and be wary about the emotive and visual responses that I may have to them, being aware that they are “McCurry” images as much as what their subject is about, whether they have been heavily edited or not.

Original articles and sourcing/comment

1. Petapixel article
2. New York Times magazine article
3. Photoshelter blog article

Written by Robert Ashby

May 7, 2016 at 12:26 pm

In Evidence Exhibition at Format International Photography Festival 2015

I am delighted to be included in the Format Forum group exhibition “In Evidence” at the upcoming Derby Format International Photography Festival 12th March to 12th April 2015. Our group have a little kickstarter fundraising for our exhibition with some great rewards for donors. See: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1708997670/in-evidence

Please donate so you can get one of the great rewards and join us at the exhibition opening for a glass of wine.

Below – one of my images from the series “ex terra opes – evidence of civilisation”, in the show.

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The Format festival is in Derby 13th March to 12th April. Full Information about the Forum group show here:

http://www.formatfestival.com/events/st-peters-churchyard-evidence

Full information about the festival here:

http://www.formatfestival.com/

Written by Robert Ashby

February 21, 2015 at 10:14 pm

Recent Acquisitions (or A Photographic Mind’s 2014 photobook list)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some of the books that I have acquired in 2014; not that have been first published in 2014; not just by photographers under 30 years old or their first publications or massive sellers or sold out before they were published or that I have a box of in the back room that is appreciating in value nicely or that I have for sale. This cannot be a list of the greats or the best or anything like that, because, like most of us, I don’t have the budget to buy everything that is hyped and hoped, or have every photobook sent to me like I’m the British Library, or even have the time to look at them all online. Just what I’ve come across and found interesting, inspiring or intriguing, and had the budget and the inclination at the time to get for myself.

And the list is (in no particular order, with no winner or loser, not a top ten or a bottom thirteen):

“Understanding Stanley”, Rosie Barnes, Lampshade Books, 2014

“Hidden Islam”, Nicolo Degiorgis, rorhof, 2014

“Oasis Hotel”, Nicolo Degiorgis, rorhof, 2014

“Volunteer”, Paul Seawright, Artists Photo Books, 2013

“Ocean Beach”, Douglas Ljungkvist, Kehrer, 2013

“The Line”, Palindromo Mezanos, Universidad de Cadiz, 2013

“Interrogations”, Donald Weber, Schilt Publishing, 2011

“New Topographics”, Britt Salvesen and Alison Nordstrom, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, George Eastman House and Steidl, 2009 (reprinted)

“Post Structure”, Josef Schultz, 2013

“Something Like a Nest”, Dave Sewell, 2014

“Crystal Love Starlight”, Mayumi Hosokuna, Typhoon Books, 2014

“Replacing Arcadia”, Jim Cooke, Centro de Arte de Salamanca, 2002

“It scared the shit out of me so I am leaving”, Calin Kruse, Dienecht Publishing, 2014

“The Sundays of Life”, Bela Doka, 2010

And one that I’ve bought though Kickstarter, but haven’t got yet and am very much looking forward to getting:

“Last Stop”, George Georgiou, 2014

And finally a book that was proposed and launched online, but hasn’t printed, and needs to be out there:

“Isreal”, Zed Nelson (http://www.zednelson.com/?Israel:text)

Now what is the point of this list? To show how I am both up with the in-crowd, the photoglitterati, but have a mind of my own? To tell you about some photobooks that have given me interest and/or an emotional response? Or to get your attention to present what I think is of value, as opposed to being just popular and at the cutting edge of contemporary photography’s curator/guru crowd world?

No, it’s just a way for me to re-kickstart my blog and get myself writing. To have a chance to sound off about all the endless list making, competition winning, celebrity focussed memes and tropes that are out there, and have increasingly made photobooks a game for the photorati, deep pocketed or gatekeepers in the structure of authority that is the photography world nowadays.

I hope that you will find something of interest here that you hadn’t considered before. They should all be findable on the usual book dealer websites or search engines for the self-published ones.

Happy Holidays with your chosen books!

©2014 Robert Ashby
http://www.aphotographicmind.net

Written by Robert Ashby

December 21, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Mitra Tabrizian – “Home/Land” at Loughborough University Arts

Mitra Tabrizian Home/Land project, Belton Road, Loughborough.

At the moment there are two billboard installations in Loughborough of work commissioned from Mitra Tabrizian by Radar, the Loughborough University contemporary arts programme, as part of their Home/Land project. Work has been commissioned from four artists to create site specific pieces with personal responses to the “interpretation and understanding of place, identity and landscape”. This is in the context of “an international network of academics researching ways in which photographies (sic), in the widest sense, play an important role in the articulation of gender, identity, place and citizenship” (The Lens of Empowerment: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Women’s Photography). You can get more information at:
http://www.arts.lboro.ac.uk/radar/radar__whats_on/introduction/
(though this link may well not last beyond this month).

Today I went to the talk by Mitra Tabrizian about her piece (she also spoke about other work she has done over the past few years), and in preparing myself for this I visited the installations in Loughborough and made my own record of them (see one installation above). Now before commenting further I must declare an interest, which was perhaps what prompted my to give up my lunchtime. I am currently working on a project on the industrial heritage in the landscape of the area of Leicestershire where Loughborough lies. So I wanted to see someone else’s response to the place and the issues.

In the past I have not been a fan of constructed images in photography, most of which I find to be fictions that are uninteresting. I do not believe that all photography is a fiction, or that it is all distorted by the photographer’s selections and choices. However, I do seem to engage with and enjoy installations of photography in public spaces, particularly by the use of billboards, not least because it provides an antidote to the endless banality of advertising.

Each image is the scene of a former factory, one a men’s clothing manufacturer, the other a crane builder, each with an attendant figure, small in the former industrial landscape. The people in the images did not work at the particular companies, but I found that I really would have liked them to be former workers at the particular places, which would, I think, have produced a more visceral reaction to the sense of abandonment and isolation that Tabrizian says that she seeks to convey. The two people in the installation images were workers at other factories that have also gone; one a local man who is now documenting the history of his factory, the other an immigrant of Indian origin from Zimbabwe (so with a background of previous migration and dislocation). There are more images that have been made, particularly in Leicester, some without workers and some with young unemployed people. I think that these worked less well than the ones with the older former factory workers.

There is a palpable sense of the abandonment and isolation that all workers must feel when the place that they have dedicated years of their lives to closes down and is wiped from the face of the earth, as these places surely will be. The workers are lost, without a compass, in the sort of place where they had some use, importance and value. Their contribution to the production and economic success of the local community is therefore ignored and the evidence of it is being eradicated. That is the way that capitalism works. However, I am not so sure that there is any more of this sense of abandonment and loss in the images because the worker was a migrant, rather than an indigenous resident.

To me the installation above works well in presenting the issue in the context of the relentless capitalist agenda alongside an industrial estate, whereas the one below contextualises the concerns in a location where the displaced workers might be living now – the old Victorian terraced housing areas of a type now dominated by the immigrant communities in Loughborough and Leicester.

Mitra Tabrizian, Home/Land project, Ratcliffe Road, Loughborough.

Tabrizian claims that the work asks questions without providing answers and creates a sense of ambiguity. I am not so sure. As a commentary on the capitalist process and its effect on people the piece is unambiguous. The implied answer has to be a combination of restrictions on the way that corporations use people and their lives dedicated to the good of the corporate owners and managers, the ways that we recognise and remember the contribution by workers to economic success, and the improvement of processes for transitioning people into new opportunities for themselves and the community. For, as US Senator Elizabeth Warren has said so clearly “You didn’t build that on your own”, referring to the essential community and government support for all economic enterprise, there is surely a responsibility to pay back and support the people that the entrepreneurial enterprise uses and who have contributed their lives to its success.

2012-11-19

Written by Robert Ashby

November 20, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Passion for Photography

Photographe, 2008 (c) Robert Ashby

Welcome to my new blog, “A Photographic Mind”.

Why start a blog on photography when there are already hundreds, thousands of other blogs already?   Well I suppose that everyone starts a blog when they think that they have something to say that other people might be interested in.   I recently gave a talk about my photography book collection that was well received (it’s not the first time that I have done it), and I thought that I might start to share and explain my passion for photography.   And I have found that I really like writing, particularly about photography.

Photography is one of my passions, and has been for a long time.   I am not a professional photographer, though there was a time when I earned a fair part of my income from working in the photography industry – directing a photography festival (see LINKS).    I try to attend as many exhibitions and festivals as I can, at the same time spending more of my time now on my own photographic projects, rather than putting other peoples’ work on walls and websites.

I will write about the books that I add to my collection, the books already in my collection, photographic work that I find online and the various photography exhibitions, festivals and events that I get to.   This is intended to be a personal response to these things, rather than an academic, intellectual or independently critical approach.

I hope that you find it interesting, give me comment and feedback, and that we can explore the wonderful world of photography together.

 

All content of this blog is copyright © Robert Ashby, 2011.   No reproduction is allowed without written permission.

Written by Robert Ashby

July 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized