A very special publication

By , November 17, 2014 1:47 pm

It has been a bit of a publishing fest at Blue Filter. Along with notification of A Good School (now available to order online), I am also pleased to announce publication of WAKE.

WAKE is a highly personal body of my own work, which depicts the funeral, burial and celebration of one of my closest friends. Neil died quite unexpectedly in January of 2013 leaving his family and friends stunned and numb with disbelief. Some years previously Neil had asked whether I would be an executor on his will, and I had agreed, remarking loudly at the time that I thought it might give me something to do in my seventies.

Neil was probably my biggest fan, and I had no doubt at all that he would want me to photograph his funeral, and I knew that somwhere the resulting photographs would help me come to terms with his death. He owned the business next to mine, and we shared office space, and after a while I became aware of the truth of what people say about grief coming over you in waves. The more I thought about those waves the more the word “wake” came into my thinking. How apt it is.

Committing Neil's body to the ground.

Committing Neil’s body to the ground.

It is now nearly two years since his death, and I have revisited the photographs as we have finally reached the conclusion of our duties executing his will. I wanted to make something that was at once transient and permanent, so I conceived of a magazine format publication. Magazines are by their nature disposable. But occasionally we come across an issue which strikes a chord, and we keep it; treaure it even.

WAKE is strictly limited to 51 copies, one for each year of Neil’s life, and most of the edition has already gone. A few remain. If you would like to have a wave of his life wash over you, even though you may not have known him yourself, you can order a copy here.

A Good School – new book from Blue Filter

By , November 14, 2014 5:23 pm

I am pleased to announce the impending publication of a significant new book from Blue Filter.

A Good School – A History of Michael Hall by Joy Mansfield, Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen is published on Sunday November 23rd priced £20.00. More information about the book will go up in the next few days.

 

UPDATE: A Good School is now available to order from Blue Filter. Deliveries will go out from November 23rd. More information is avaliable in the books menu of Blue Filter.

A Good School - A History of Michael Hall, by Joy Mansfield, Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen.

A Good School – A History of Michael Hall, by Joy Mansfield, Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen.

A rush of blood to the head

By , September 8, 2014 2:03 pm

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Gwyneth Paltrow recently. Well, more accurately about that rather ridiculous phrase she coined when announcing her intended divorce from husband Chris Martin: conscious uncoupling.

Not that I am considering divorce, you understand; and I am reasonably confident that my wife isn’t considering it either, although you never know. It’s never a good idea to be complacent about these things, and perhaps that’s the point.

I have often said that if I hadn’t been born English, and could have made a choice, I would have chosen to be Scottish. I fell for the country, the people, the history and the culture the first time I went. But the reality is that my understanding of what it means to be Scottish is inevitably warped by virtue of my not being such. So what am I? The truth is that on the occasions I have ever been asked that (only when I am overseas) my reply has always been: British. I have to think about it to say “English”, but “British” comes naturally and without thought. Why is that?

Camden Grove, Chislehurst. Only the alarm bell boxes and the parkign restriction sign put this image in the 21st century. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

How do we perceive ourselves? Photo © Michael Cockerham

Am I unusual? Do my English peers regard themselves the same way? I think they may, and that the growing interest in English nationalism has been born not of instinct, but from the clamor of nationalism in other parts of the United Kingdom. But the mistake for the English has been to assume that the other parts of our union have seen themselves in the same way. Clearly they have not.

So what has this got to do with Mr & Mrs Martin? I don’t know whether they both wanted to split, and I don’t much care. But what that phrase tells us is that both of them decided that it was for the best if they went their separate ways, maintaining a cordial relationship for the sake of the children (interested parties affected by the split but with no say in the matter). The ‘uncoupling’ was a conscious decision on the part of both parties. The impending Scottish referendum is qualitatively different. If the Scots and those residing in Scotland who also have a say, chose to vote yes, it will for them be a case of conscious uncoupling. But the rest of us in the UK are in this marriage too, and any such uncoupling will be far from conscious.

I am starting to feel like the husband who sits at home keeping an eye on the kids thinking everything is rosy, only to have my wife come home to say she wants a divorce. “Why?” I ask plaintively. “I thought we were happy together?” “You took me for granted and I want something else from life,” is the reply that comes seemingly out of nowhere.

The standard response from the husbands in this kind of drama is to say, “Give me another chance, I can change.” I think we can all see that if the Scots do give the union another chance then we will have to change, and change profoundly. But making such pleas is desperate, pathetic and too late. So what should we (predominantly the English, because I think the Welsh and Irish would be quick – and right – to distance themselves from any culpability in this) do to persuade them to vote “no” on September 18?

In the end I come back to how I have always seen myself: British. The reason I do not see myself as being English is because somewhere in my ancestry I have absorbed a part of what it means to be Scottish too. I am proud of what the Scots and Scotland have achieved over the last three hundred years because I see it as our achievement too, and I hope that the Scots have taken a similar reflected pride in the accomplishments of the Welsh, the Irish and the English. We are, all of us, better for the things we bring out in each other, and it seems to me that gaining independence would give a short-lived sense of nationalist pride for those north of the border, and there may even be some practical benefits, but how long would they last?

So it is an emotional plea then. To my many friends in God’s country, I love you, and it don’t want you to leave. You make me what I am, and deep down I think you feel the same way.

Don’t go: you complete me.

So what did I do?

By , May 5, 2014 5:24 pm

I cannot believe that six months have passed since my last post. I don’t think I have stopped, so time really does seem to have flown. For the moment, though, I shall make this brief. I note that my last post was about the launch of the Nikon Df. I got a chance to play, and while it is nice, I really could not get comfortable with it. So what did I do? I bought the D4, which feels almost exactly like my D3 did, but with a few tweaks here and there. In the end it’s not the camera, or the glass, it’s how the person behind it sees the world. That’s what matters.

art deco, eltham palace, 1920s, beauty

An image made a couple of days ago.
Nikon D4 50mm f1.4 AFS

Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2014

Style and substance – the outcome

By , November 6, 2013 2:13 pm

After all the teasing, we have the outcome, but is there an answer to my earlier question?

The fourth video in Nikon’s teaser series was set in that wonderful city of Edinburgh, and it reminded me of this photo which I took while I was there to deliver a speech just under a year ago. I was, as I recall, pacing the bitterly cold streets trying to arrange my thoughts in some coherent order, and looking for inspiration when I came across this scene.

Edinburgh at dusk, seeking inspiration.

Edinburgh at dusk. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

I rather like the quiet contemplative nature of this image, which was very much at odds with what you do not see, namely Princes Street with pre-Christmas bustle. It was taking this image that started to give order to my thoughts, and the speech I gave the following day was a great success as a result. Perhaps then, when you view the fourth of the Nikon videos, the reason why I should think of this one image will become clearer. But it also raises some questions, now we know what the tease was all about.

With great fanfare, Nikon have launched the Df. A full-frame DSLR with retro styling, and more than a nod to the idea of beating obsolescence. I will not embark on a detailed review of what this machine can and cannot do, as there are more than enough equipment fans doing that already. What I am more interested in is whether the marketing is just hype, or whether (as the title of these posts suggests) there might be some substance to go with the style.

To be fair to Nikon, they have created a camera which is backwards compatible with all but three (I believe this is correct) of the lenses that have been created for the venerable F mount. Suddenly lenses which may have had no value in the modern age will have an attraction for the very real and different qualities which they can bring to image making. That is not just style, it hugely expands the range of tools available to photographers. It is something which no other camera manufacturer could do, with the exception of Leica. Canon and Minolta and all the others abandoned their lens mounts around the time that autofocus was invented in the late 1980s. Nikon, however, took the view that cameras were not as important to photographers as lenses, and the Df is a natural extension of that philosophy. It is a philosophy for which they should rightly be praised.

Nikon Df

Nikon Df

One of the other intriguing things about the pre-launch tease was the suggestion implicit in the six videos (the fifth and sixth are at the bottom of this post) that “pure” photographers are British and love Scotland – which is of course true! The “pure” photographer is a refined person who likes to be at one with his or her thoughts, and the image making comes as a deep-seated emotional or visceral reaction to the circumstances in which he or she finds themselves. It is undeniably poetic nonsense. But like all such things, it rings with an element of truth, and that resonance is what makes the marketing so successful. The world is overrun with people who want to be “photographers” not because they are interested in the world around them, but because they like the idea of the way it makes them look – serious, comtemplative and erudite; at one with the real issues of the world. It is a kind of mock-bohemian ideal, a 21st century equivalent to the 60s beat generation. Photography in the digital age offers a fast track entry to creativity with none of the apparent hurdles of training, skill or talent. The reality is of course at odds with this, and we find ourselves drowning in a sea of visual sewage, to paraphrase Grayson Perry in this year’s BBC Reith Lectures.

Nikon’s launch of the Df yesterday was accompanied by suggestions that it was a future classic. Many have suggested that this is wishful thinking, but the truth is that only time will tell. My interest in this camera comes about only because I was about to buy the D4, and it stands to reason that I would want to see if this camera could meet my needs as a working photographer. On the face of it the answer is yes, but looking deeper I have some reservations which will only be resolved once I have had the chance to try it for myself. Each of the reservations is a little thing taken on its own, but collectively I think they undermine Nikon’s attempt to create the “future classic” for “pure photography”.

Firstly, it stands to reason that Nikon would assume serious photographers attracted to the Df would frequently already be Nikon users – hence the desire to make it backwards compatible with the entire lens lineup since 1959. That suggests such people would already be using cameras like the D4, D800, D3, D2 etc. All of these cameras use only, or offer the choice to use, compact flash cards. The Df, however, is SD card only, and while the other cameras mentioned have dual slots, the Df appears only to have one. The dual slot is not just about capacity, it is also about backup. With film photographers when they were processing, but in the digital era it is not unknown for memory cards to fail, or for cameras to suddenly format data for no apparent reason. The dual slot gave workign photographers the chance to work without fear about the security of the images, so by offering only one slot with the Df, Nikon has undermined the attempt to give photographers that relaxed and carefree walk through the highlands which the marketing promises.

Secondly, my cameras get used heavily, and while the D4 has a shutter mechanism tested for 300,000 cycles, the Df is only tested to half that number. True, it is only half the price of the D4, so one could buy two, but it necessarily leads one to wonder how well built the Df actually is. The marketing material says that it has the weather-sealing of the D800, but frankly if I want to be out in Scottish weather, I think I would rather have a Nikonos. OK, I am taking the mick, but the D4 would have no problems with inclement conditions – I would be a bit more circumspect with the D800.

Thirdly, even in the days before autofocus, one of my favourite cameras was the Minolta X700 with its motordrive, which allowed for an extra shutter release with the camera in portrait orientation. All of Nikon’s pro-spec DSLRs have either had such a release built in, or available as part of an optional battery pack. Not so with the Df. Admittedly one of the draws of the Df is that it is very light for what it is, the portability being its great selling point compared to much heavier bodies, but that is at odds with its purist ideals – if the purist of purists Ansel Adams could climb the mountains of Yosemite with a 10×8 Deardorff I think we can cope with a couple of extra ounces  – one might argue that a purist’s camera would cater for all approaches. Indeed, the mechanical marvel that was the FM2 had the option of a motordrive, so it does seem an odd ommission not even to have the possibility of this being introduced later for the Df. Just in case you are wondering, I have seen nothing written about this anywhere, but a simple view of the bottom plate of the camera shows that there is no lug-hole to allow registration with a pin one would normally expect on an accessory batter pack.

Finally, there is the styling itself which I think is a distraction. Don’t get me wrong, I love dials over buttons, but it seems to me that all of the things Nikon wanted to achieve with the Df could have been done without the retrostyling for its own sake and that includes the dials. In the final analysis, pure photography is actually about what you are taking a picture of, and not what you are taking it with.

The outcome then is that it is almost all style without substance. Aside from the facility to use any Nikon lens made, nothing about the Df is revolutionary in any way. Is it any good? Like any other camera it really depends on who is behind it and their relationship with what is in front of it. I will reserve judgement until I have had a chance to play. It may well be that I get one, but it will be because of whether it will cope with what I throw at it, not because of what it looks like.

Style and substance 3?

By , October 29, 2013 11:24 am

And another…

Nikon have clearly engaged a new marketing strategist for their latest (impending) release. As the third in the series of teaser films goes public the internet (well, that part of it that has nothing better to do than speculate about things that haven’t happened yet) is awash with rumour, claim and counterclaim about what the new offering will or will not do.

Everyone is claiming as fact that it will be called the Nikon DF, and it is being said that this stands for “digital fusion” (so, not a reference to Nikon’s single greatest achievement, the F mount then?). But the most interesting chatter revolves around the fact that it will, apparently, be a retro-styled camera. The reason this is interesting is because so much weight is being placed on its importance, but I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation as to why this matters.

I am all for cameras which make it easier to concentrate on the moment and not get bogged down in buttons and menus, so if the proposed retro-styling will deliver that, then good. But in my experience there is more than a grain of truth to the adage that form should follow function, and style for it’s own sake is pointless and expensive in what is for me a working tool. Perhaps the most persuasive argument against making cameras pretty can be taken from my early experience with the Fuji X100 – a lovely little camera that was also given retro styling. In my experience that styling became a hindrance because I want to be invisible with my camera, but in the case of the X100 I have often had to fend off potential subjects who were attracted to me not because of what I was doing, but because of how pretty the camera was.

I just hope this does not apply to the DF or whatever it ends up being called.

Style and substance 2?

By , October 28, 2013 1:47 pm

Nikon are milking this for all its worth. Epsiode 2 in their teaser campaign has just been released.

Style and substance?

By , October 24, 2013 2:47 pm

For those of you who prefer Nikon cameras (note to self, need to talk about pictures on this blog not cameras, otherwise no one will believe me when I say cameras do not really interest me), and who have a long enough memory and experience that they used film-based SLRs, the following teaser from Nikon seems to suggest a possible new direction for Nikon and its stable of digital cameras.

The question is, to what will it make a difference: how your pictures look, or how you look?

Now that’s service

By , October 18, 2013 10:06 pm

Those of you who have the patience to follow my posts will know that I use the X100 from Fuji, amongst other things. While not perfect, it was and is to my mind the first digital compact to be of practical use to the serious photographer.

Today Fuji demonstrated unequivocally that their support of customers is sincere and long lasting. Why? Well given that the X100 was superseded by the X100S quite some months ago, they could be forgiven for turning their attention away from what is in effect a discontinued model. But they did not. Today they launched a firmware upgrade from version 1.30 to version 2.0. It is an upgrade which is significant not only because it massively improves the performance of the camera, but also because I cannot think of another occasion when a manufacturer has chosen to support an end of life model when there is no clear short term material benefit for them to do so.

Fuji X100

Fuji X100 – which started the ball rolling.

Fuji X-E2

Fuji X-E2

I am not the only one to have said this. But I am the only one to point out that Fuji went out on a limb and took what seemed at the time to be a considerable risk in launching the X100 in the first place. It was a camera which answered all my requests, despite people telling me at the time that no one would make a camera like it. Its success spawned a whole series of X cameras which are highly sought after and seem obvious in retrospect. As a result I think that this firmware update is in keeping with the ethos of a company which appears to be saying “we are serious about supporting photography and photographers”. It is the kind of action which will win them a lot of good will and loyalty, and if they continue to launch cameras like this, and the XE2 also launched today, they will swiftly cement a place as one of the serious photographers’ manufacturers of choice. These are proper tools made for photographers, not simply pieces of short-life consumer electronics.

Thank you Fuji, but to be honest, in the words of Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, you had me at hello.

No ordinary field

By , May 2, 2013 10:53 am

The great joy of being a photographer is the access to things and places you might not otherwise see. An associated pleasure comes from talking to people and listening to the little gems of information that they might pass on. I have to confess that I am not very good at listening – it is a skill I am constantly trying to improve, ever mindful of the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in equal measure!

Anyway, for the past few months I have been engaged in a commission, a side-effect of which is that I have discovered some fascinating things (largely as a result of chance conversations with people I have happened across) about the area in which my studio is based, including some places which I have passed on many occasions without a second glance. Which leads me nicely to this image here.

Sir Hiram Maxim and powered flight bexley

No ordinary field.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

We all know from our schooling that the first powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle took place at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December of 1903. Thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright and their Flyer, aviation as we know it was born. Now consider this unremarkable cricket pitch at Baldwyn’s Park just outside Bexley in Greater London.

On July 31st, 1894, Hiram Maxim with a crew of three, piloted an aircraft of his own invention down a 1,800 foot test track sited where this cricket pitch now basks in the spring sun. The aircraft weighted about 8,000 lbs and was powered by two 360 horse power steam engines (yes, steam engines!). About half way down the track it took off and flew for a distance of about 100 feet before crashing back down to the ground again. It was only meant to be a test, and didn’t fly very high –  some two or three feet up. But despite its instability it proved that very heavy machines could indeed get off the ground and stay up. All that was needed was to understand and develop the means of controlling such craft.

Sadly Maxim did not really pursue his flying invention (although he did invent many other notable things, and is worthy of further investigation). Amercian born he became a naturalised British Subject in 1900, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901. It is telling that he was asked towards the end of his life in 1916 about the lack of monument to his work at Baldwyns Park. His response was that the authorities had “demonstrated their appreciation by building the largest, finest and best-equipped lunatic asylum in the world there!”.

So the next time you’re boarding an aircraft somewhere in the world, think about this bit of green in South East London where a little bit of history was made nearly ten years before the Wright Brothers.

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