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What did your Christmas presents do for you?

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What did your Christmas presents do for you?

The chaos and remnants of Christmas have now been long forgotten, the only reminder is the new pair of socks you encounter during the haze of an early morning rush from the shower. However, there are normally a few more interesting contents to Santa’s sack. Normally these take the form of a book, or if you are lucky, two! This year all my childish dreams and letters to Lapland were answered, when three were amongst the excitement of Christmas day. Initially lost under old wrapping paper, they have now been revisited on several occasions. Books seem to be getting bigger, you would think with the growth in internet shopping, size and postage would become a major consideration. But large format, both camera and publication have become the norm and may even be seen as the “fashion”, as have large exhibition prints shown in white space galleries. I wonder if this approach has been taken by some practitioners to exclude those without the resources to compete, after all just taking a photograph on a 5x4 view camera can cost a fiver and that’s before you consider making a print. Has the now revival of film become to be seen as the “new medium”, especially by those who are young enough to have been educated through the digital medium?

A project I had been following for some time is Carl de Keyzer’s “Moments before the Flood” and the now published book is no small volume. If I’m really honest, I was always jealous of him. While most of us battle between work, life and taking a few snaps, he had access to two researchers and the support of Orange and Magnum, not forgetting the loan of the latest digital offering from Hasselblad to complete the project. An initial selection from his home Belgian coast were published in “Water” (2008) and personally were slightly disappointing. Some were processed using HDR techniques, something more likely to be found in a camera club salon, rather than from a member of Magnum. However, the more recent images began to become more interesting. He admits that working with a hand-held camera had freed him to explore more intuitively. My personal jealously of his project really comes out of the levels of support he had from the researchers finding locations for him and sponsors providing the finance, while he is tucked up in his cosy hotel bed, I awake with a stiff neck, from a night sleeping in the back of my car. I have always argued that to fully explore an area you must continually return to its central locations, to build familiarity and provide an insightful view. De Keyer’s mammoth volume can be seen as a fast moving tour of Europe’s coast. Originally he had plans to visit Iceland but if he did there is no evidence in the book or his website. The sequence of images does actually start in UK waters, before heading over the channel to France and down around Spain into the Mediterranean Sea. These are bright crisp images and individually provide some thought, but it is the large number of them and the journey that build the viewers understanding of the work. The vibrancy of this work may be a little strong for personal taste and although not all have been given the HDR treatment, many have had their shadows tones lifted, while others include shades of green that can be slightly over powering. Much of the work does include a human content, living and enjoying life on the edge of land, which De Keyzer believes will be disappearing. Many show humor and our interactions with one another. In many cases the figures are seen to stare out to sea, wondering how long before they will not be able to stand on their chosen view point. The horizon will not change but De Keyer is challenging us to consider how our lives will be affected. The other visual thread that runs through the book, is the remains of our futile efforts to build on the coast. Slowly these former feats of civil engineering are being eaten away, the sea continues to be fed as its appetite will never be satisfied. My jealously of De Keyer became more focused, as I realized that as a customer of Orange, I was paying for him to drive around Europe taking the pictures that I won’t too. I felt like the kid from the local school seeing all the university places and top jobs going to the privately educated privileged classes.

While De Keyer spent 4 years, driving over one hundred and twenty thousand kilometers, Jem Southam stayed within a two hours drive of his home and spent six months concentrating on one small stretch of the River Exe, in Devon. His most recent publication, “The River – Winter”, features 40 colour images, taken during the winter 2010 to 2011. The contrast in approach is obvious, as are the images. This is not the first time Southam has concentrated his view on a small area. His previous publication “The Red River” (1989) followed the river’s course, from source to sea and used its passage through the landscape to look at the history of the land. From the creation, shown in the book of Genesis, through to post industrial leisure, he explores the myths and our perceptions of how we have shaped our environment. Although Southam has remained true to his chosen medium of using a larger format camera, “The Red River” is still his best work.

His new publication is exceptionally well printed, but then the images are little more than contact prints. If you thought running a 5x4 was expensive try 10x8, luckily for Southam he actually takes few pictures each year. The pictures are totally devoid of any human content and only one “Dyke on the Floodplane”, indicates any intervention by ourselves. He paints a view of the landscape where the human race has left. Not a post apocalypse one but as if we’d all gone on an extended holiday and allowed the landscape to be left unattended, allowing it too slowly grow back into itself. Like a former stately home garden, that has fallen on hard times, which has laid its grounds man off and closed the gate. Gardens always look untidy during the winter months, as the plants “sleep” through the worst of the weather, the bright colours of summer depart, leaving a limited palette of browns and greens. A reflected blue can be seen in some of the work, filtering through leafless branches, kissing the surface of a smooth reflective river, rendered almost mirror like because of the extended exposure such low light work requires. As Autumn turns to Winter a covering of snow smoothes and tidies the scene, a clean white carpet, yet to be trodden on or dis-coloured by our presence. With arrival of spring, light returns and awakes nature from its hibernation, growth and colour returns to the landscape.

Southam is the master of his craft and his ability to record these subtle colours and tones is to have our total respect. He is careful with his framing but more so in his choice of time of day, when the desired quality of light exists and how this is recorded on such a large negative is a vital aspect of his work. He is in control but allows the camera to do the work. The story of the river and its seasons are told quietly, the viewer drawn into the scene, registering each of the recorded fine details.

If Southam’s work is empty of the human race, then in John Kippin’s work it plays a central role. Working in the NE of England during the late 1980’s, along with the likes of Chris Killip and Ian Macdonald, there was only really one issue, that of the collapse of the traditional heavy industries of coal mining, steel making and ship building. While all worked using a large format camera, it was Killip who showed this world in colour. Alongside the likes of Parr, Reas and Graham, he was part of those who lead the move towards the “new documentaries”. However, Kippin worked in a more measured way both in the capture and presentation of his work. Originally exhibited in 1989, “Futureland” has now been reprinted with the addition of some new work and once again shown at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle. I was fortunate enough to see it at the Photographers Gallery in 1995, exhibited under the title of “Nostalgia for the Future” and still have the catalogue. Seeing the work for a second time, but on this occasion at its original venue in the NE, I tried to remember what the work meant to me when originally seen and how I see it now. I was interesting to see how the work had developed and continued to address the issues that had initially motivated Kippin.

Two pieces, “American Coal” and “Harbour View” show how this past industrial centre has changed. The previous warehouses have gone, to be replaced by domestic housing, without gardens but with water side views. While massive stocks of coal remain underground, modern economics make it viable to ship coal across the Atlantic. While former skilled workers are forced to sit back and watch, unable to influence much of their own lives, as the modern world of interlinked business and politics decide who is worthy of work. Another of the recent pieces “Buried” shows the seepage of coal dust, being washed across the beach, disturbed only by a series of footprints. This scene can be found at various locations along the NE coast and during a recent visit to Saltburn (to photograph the eroding coast) I became engaged in conversation with a local man collecting the coal. His understanding of the local weather and tides dictated when it was best to harvest this fuel, he thought that a day’s work would provide enough to last a month, heating his home for free. I even took a photograph with the same viewpoint as Kippin’s. The aspect that sets Kippin’s work apart from the others is his use of text, printed onto the image. Originally this was screen-printed directly onto the final print. However, now with the advent of digital printing and Photoshop the depth of colour is far easier to control. This does not distract from the artist’s confidence in its use and how it adds to the meaning and understanding of the nature of the work. On the more recent work, the text is quite subtle and can almost be missed. It stops the viewer, we asks questions and consider the message of the artist.

Kippin is one of the most interesting photographers of the last 30 years and his work continues to look at the subject of industrial change. His use of text and triptychs sets his work apart from other artists. Many will make text an integral part of their work but his has provided us with a better understanding of the subject through its use.

The resurgence of the use of large format cameras is now well established, even 120 roll format seems to be holding its own. Yes, we have seen the end of smaller formats but the future for larger sizes seems to be holding up. Along with a quality scanner and wide body printer, the production of large prints, with or without text, as previously mentioned is now becoming the norm in many venues.

There is something seductive about images from large format and even a small print displays a quality unachievable with smaller formats. To this ends I experimented with stitching several images together, a technique that is fine to pursue with a stationary subject matter, but unlikely to succeed when working in the wider field. When bored we all find ourselves drifting around the internet, there is a lot of good work out there, where I find myself being often drawn to, is the images of large format workers. From this I move towards online retailers. How much would it cost me to “up size”, I’ve never considered myself interested in the latest fashion, but perhaps next Christmas the wrapping paper could contain something different than socks.

To be continued …