Photography as a physical activity
Photography as a physical activity and a return to using film.
I have come to consider myself as a lazy photographer. I just can’t be bothered with lots of the technical complexities that seem to be associated with photographic practice. Certainly I have never been inspired to carry a large format camera around; it just seems too much like hard work. Photography is a very simple activity, made complicated by some people’s approach. What it should revolve around, is where you stand and when you release the shutter. Kodak’s advertising “You press the shutter and we’ll do the rest” was certainly the case when shooting on Kodachrome, we all waited with great anticipation for those little yellow boxes to fall through the letter box.
But for many their preoccupation would be continually changing film and developer combination, hours spent in the darkroom with different paper combinations, as well as split grade printing. I did try lith-printing once and even produced a successful print but it all seemed too much of a hassle to be an enjoyable experience. I have found the move to digital capture and processing even less inspiring. My final departure from film photography came a little over two years ago when I sold my last film camera and bought a digital replacement, which would work with existing lenses. However, since then I have felt quite empty about my attempts to be a photographer, it has made me feel even lazier. There should have been some fight and struggle to produce the work. Easy photography is poor photography. Rewards have to be earned.
There is some satisfaction to photographing early in the morning. There is the initial struggle to leave a warm bed, to arrive at a remote location before the sun has risen. Then the day opens, as a stage play with the curtains opening to reveal the opening scene, as the sun rises, no one is sure what will be shown. I have found myself continually returning to the same location, the view doesn’t change but the recorded image is always different. Perhaps this is why photography can become so obsessive. However, even after this effort, once home and the data downloaded, within a few clicks I have a very high quality print in my hands. It is all too easy. Even while capturing the data it is all too easy to “Chimp” and get distracted on the task in hand. The magic has been lost. The lack of physical challenge found in much contemporary practice, which involves highly constructed scenes, using props and models to create a planned scene. There may be much effort put into the organisation of such work and I don’t under estimate the challenges it provides. But it can be seen as a sedentary process, which reflects our current working lives. Previously work was primarily a physical act but now far too many of us are tied to a desk, transported back home with minimum effort but this life style is leaving us tired and un-healthy, shallow and empty.
There are those photographer’s whose work is created directly through physical activity, Hamish Fulton’s walks and Greg Lucas’ feats on a rock face are amongst the well-known but there are others where physical activity is less obvious. I have always been an enthusiastic about the work of Mick Williamson, who uses a half frame camera, shooting in excess of a roll per day. I have this vision of him developing his exposed films at the weekend, in a large day light tank that holds five rolls, one tank in each hand. The whole process would have even the most enthusiastic gym user go weak at the very thought. Mick should by now have arms the size of a prize boxer. Having met him I can assure this is not the case but all that activity must help keep him healthy. An artist must have experiences as a reference point to work from and clearly for Fulton, his art results only from walks in the landscape, he is able, because of physical activity of the walk, to give a more informed understanding which he can share with us. As Eugene Smith showed in his work “Minimarta”, an insight can only truly be gained by living within the community he was illustrating. The same can apply to Konttinen’s work “Byker” and Paul Hill’s work “White Peak Dark Peak”. I have for a long time believed in the informed view a resident can have on their own community or landscape because they understand it more, through living in it.
In his book “On Being a Photographer”, David Hurn suggests one of the most important purchases is a good pair of shoes, implying rightly, that a photographer should expect to spend much of their time either standing or walking. He also stresses the importance of being interested in your chosen subject matter, not the subject of photography in itself. I do wonder how far Ansel Adams walked with his large format camera to make his work and the early landscape photographers such as Brady and Emerson didn’t have life easy. The challenge of moving their equipment and the difficulty in handling and processing their images should not be underestimated. Here there was a physical as well as intellectual challenge, now life is made easy, everyone can be a photographer and perhaps that is a good thing. There are two other photographers who have always interested me and have kept using film. Both Trent Parke and Roger Palmer have consistently used black and white film, producing traditional silver based prints. A search on Google will soon bring you to a video of an interview with Trent Parke and his discussion about the physical nature of film development. He uses very long development times and uses this process to think about what he is trying to create and the discipline involved in the production of the work. His use of light is quite remarkable, while Palmer’s work is concerned about location and change in landscape. It would all be too easy for him to use a larger format camera but like Parke they both made the decision to use a handheld 35mm camera. Roger Palmer’s work was recently part of a four person exhibition at the Milton Keynes gallery. Although some of the images are quite small, the key ones were large and like Parke’s, had texture to them. Something which is lacking in the perfect world of digital capture, the resulting pictures are just too good, which leaves the viewer uncertain if they are real. Their plastic texture and “correct” colours create a false image. It is of course possible to use a digital technique to make your images look like they were shot on Tri-x, but I would argue why not just use Tri-x in the first place. I didn’t feel I had the patience to sit behind the computer to achieve this end result and my previous experience of digital manipulation is that the results look identical and lack the serendipity of using film. Getting the initial capture right, makes the rest of the process easy.
I was also interested in the parallels between Roger Palmer’s work and that of Thomas Joshua Cooper. Initial comparisons are simple, both work in the landscape using black and white film, producing large scale silver based prints. However, there are other similarities in their approach. Both look at locations around the world that are linked and it is these connects that make their work interesting. But while Palmer may use his 35mm hand camera, creating many images, Cooper will only make one exposure, on his historically old view camera, at each location. His confidence in his technique must be considerable.
After seeing Palmer’s work in Milton Keynes and obtaining a copy of his most recent book “Circulation” I was feeling inspired and in need of a New Year’s resolution, decided to return to using film. A quick search on ebay, soon revealed there is a lot of choice, finally settling on an Olympus XA compact camera, which was small enough for my pocket but also gave me some control. Most importantly it took a picture when I pressed the shutter release and didn’t “beep” every time it tried to control the image for me.
For some years now I have lived near Blackpool, it is a town that we will all have opinions and images of. For many it will bring back memories of childhood holidays, while for others the growth of “Stag n Hen” parties will be their only experience of the resort. Having spent my early years camping in Wales and not wanting to follow in the footsteps of many other late night photographers, who do nothing but reinforce the town’s stereotypes, I had started to feel the need to look at the town for myself. It is windswept landscape particularly out of the holiday season, which is when I found myself wandering along its foreshore. However, it still seemed dominated by the famous artificial lights, as well as deserted attractions and a substantial constructed seafront, which protects it from the relentless action of the tide. Using a hand held film camera would mean that the task of photographing would not become over burdensome but did provide a return to the inherit pleasure of the simplicity I believe photography has, by just creating pictures. Hopefully the images will also lack the refined “texture less” polish created by digital capture. As to the initial results, it has only convinced me that I have a long way to go. But I will endeavour to follow David Hurn’s advice, to remain focused through simple physical activity by concentrating on the subject matter before me and not the technology in my hand.