We English – Simon Roberts

By , October 28, 2009 2:25 am

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Roberts – We English.

Being away from home for any length of time usually results in a longing for the familiar, but for Simon Roberts his marathon trip round Russia in 2005 (resulting in the critically acclaimed Motherland) raised questions rather than longings. As he explored what it means to be Russian and the relationships Russians have with their landscape, he found himself increasingly considering what his relationship was with his own country and nationality.

Roberts is about as middle English as it is possible to be. Brought up in the the Surrey commuter belt, the son of a Cumbrian woman and a London man, his childhood was one that would be recognisable to most middle class Middle Englanders growing up in the 70s and 80s. His recollections of childhood holidays in the Lake District and at the seaside informed much of his appreciation of the English landscape, inevitably leading to his questioning how much this shaped his own sense of nationality. Indeed, what does it mean to be English, as distinct from Welsh, Scottish, or the more general British?

Cover of We English by Simon Roberts

Cover of We English by Simon Roberts

Facing the sight of Russians at play in the Siberian landscape he began to examine the nature of the relationship we English have with our homeland, and before he had finished shooting Motherland his sights were set on the next project. Thus two years later, with Russia well behind him he persuaded wife Sarah and daughter Jemima to join him in a camper van on a ten month journey around England to observe the English in their environment, and possibly find out who he was in the process.

One of the curious things about this body of work is that it is intrinsically more distant than Motherland; how is it that an English photographer could feel more intimate with foreigners in a foreign land than with his own countrymen at home? An obvious consideration is that we are all drawn inexorably to the exotic, it holds greater fascination for us and paradoxically our very closeness to “home” can make photographic intimacy that much harder to achieve. Indeed, Simon has drawn attention to the fact that virtually nothing has been produced on England in the last ten years by British photographers; cheap flights and myriad conflicts having proven a stronger draw for his contemporaries as they set out to make their mark as photographers elsewhere. The strength of We English comes from his determination not to battle that awkward closeness, choosing instead to embrace the distance and make it an intrinsic part of the work. He employed the questions he had regarding his own national identity to give a level of objectivity to his work that is arresting. It is perhaps worth noting that Simon is a human geography graduate, and although the artistic approach of We English is very different to Motherland, it seems clear when taken together with the breadth of his earlier more photojournalistic output where his interests and natural inclinations lie.

In his research Roberts considered the rich history of visual documentary that exists about England, both photographically through the likes of Tony Ray Jones, Bill Brandt and Martin Parr, and in the work of painters like Turner and Constable; he also took inspiration from further afield, and the influence of the Flemish masters Bruegel and Avercamp is hard to ignore. To his credit he used this research not so much to provide inspiration for his own objectives, but to gain a deeper understanding of the narratives that different artists have employed. The danger – of which he was all too aware – of setting out on this kind of project is that the work you produce can become either a pastiche or a derivative of what has already gone before.

Roberts was determined that his work should stand on its own merits even if it inevitably alludes to the work of those in whose paths he has walked. Frequently referred to as “this green and pleasant land”, a photographic examination of England as landscape alone could easily degenerate to chocolate box sentimentality, but We English is not simply about landscape, it is about the place of the English within it. While he chose to stay away from individuals, people are a vital part of the pictures Roberts has made, but the personality portrayed is of the English as a whole, a portrait that is at times touching, curious and barmy. But it is neither critical nor saccharine, only observational.

Much of the imagery is about borders and margins; those places where one thing ends and another begins, and how these delineations make statements not only about the landscape and its uses, but also about the people we are. Sometimes the resulting photographs are inherently beautiful, but more often the beauty lies deeper, in a quiet understanding that while we are each to our own in pursuit of happiness, collectively we are English.

The more you contemplate We English the clearer it becomes that Roberts’ real artistic allusion is rather clever. He could have pursued the immediacy and reportage style of Kate Schermerhorn and her brilliant work America’s Idea of a Good Time, but instead chose the more considered approach of large format photography to reflect on the leisure activities that define who the English are within the landscape, rather than who they are forced to be. To put it another way, most of us work to live, and the work we do is often happenstance. But our leisure time, chosen by us as individuals and being so precious, compels us unwittingly to make a personal rather than forced connection with the landscape we inhabit. To that end the work he has produced has more in common with L S Lowry than some of the artists Roberts has been compared to. But whereas Lowry was intrigued by the social revolution that was industrialisation, Roberts’ “matchstick men” are drawn to whatever green they can find in the name of unwinding. It is here that the fine detail of the large format comes into its own, each image a tableaux depicting numerous events and encounters: each part significant, each image greater than the sum of these parts. A whole play, a whole commentary within an instant. And yet these works are less the decisive moment of Cartier-Bresson fame, and more the essence of a people and place inextricably linked. What Roberts shows us is that England is only what it is by virtue of the people that we are.

Mad Maldon Mud Race, River Blackwater, Maldon, Essex, 30th December 2007

Mad Maldon Mud Race, River Blackwater, Maldon, Essex, 30th December 2007

There is another thing that makes We English different, and that is the word “we”. Roberts wanted his work to be a collaboration, and while it inevitably reflects his view of things – nothing artistic can ever be truely objective – he knew from the outset that if his journey was to produce anything of substance it would need to draw on the knowledge, whims, and character of the English themselves. Through his blog and brilliant use of The Times, the BBC and many local newspapers, Simon encouraged people to tell him about their England, and the events that shape their lives. As a result We English is a collaboration; a genuine reflection of the English at the start of the 21st century.

We English has all the hallmarks of a great body of work by a photographer of considerable depth. It shuns the flashy “in-yer-face” tactics so commonplace in favour of quiet thought and subtle observation. It is work that repays the reader through frequent reexamination: full of humour, but more subtle than Erwitt; full of commentary, but less judgemental than Parr; full of beauty, but without cliché.

The book is large format and elegantly produced (although my copy sadly has a production fault across my favourite image – it must be someone else’s favourite too!), with exquistely detailed bordered images set for the most part one to a double page spread, with an insightful introduction by Stephen Daniels. But if you really want to get the most from this body of work you need to view the prints at exhibition (the first major exhibition of We English in the UK will be at the National Media Museum in Bradford from March 12th to September 5th 2010) and just as importantly spend a lot of time absorbing the wealth of detail and background information on the We English website.

For all his innate Englishness, Roberts chose to view the English in their landscape from the perspective of an outsider in large part because he was, and remains, uncertain of what it means to be English himself. In short a road trip at home is about discovery of oneself as much as it is about discovery of place. His continuing journey of self-discovery will undoubtedly be welcomed by many, and deservedly so.

We English – Simon Roberts, Chris Boot Publishing, 56 colour photographs, 112pp, Hardback, £40.00, ISBN 978-1905712144. www.chrisboot.com

If only it was fiction!

By , October 9, 2009 2:04 pm

A link to the above was emailed to me by my friend James Lipman – a very good car photographer.

This movie is hysterical, but oh so true!!!!!!!!!!

The Big Day

By , October 8, 2009 2:03 pm

A wonderful, if cautionary, tale was posted today on the BBC News Magazine pages about the hazards of inept wedding photographers, and it is well worth a read for aspiring photographers and prospective couples alike.

Ever since the digital revolution there has been this misconception that everything is easier (and quicker and cheaper) than it used to be in the days of film. This article seems a good point to set a few things straight.

Let’s start with the “easier” part. In the old days – by which I mean pre-digital – most people accepted their limitations as photographers. It was not uncommon for people to have photos from their summer holiday on one roll of film sandwiched between Christmas pictures at the start and end of the roll. Even the more snap happy did not kid themselves over their talent or lack thereof, because when they picked their photos up from the processor they usually found they had a couple of good(ish) photos, with thirty odd that went straight in the bin. Thus it was that “real” photographers were seen to be performing some kind of alchemy, producing excellent work from one end of the film to the other in seemingly impossible conditions. By and large wedding practitioners were shooting on Hasselblads or Rolleiflexes (my preferred medium format kit) – cameras that the average Joe never saw let alone knew what to do with. As a result, when people got married, they expected to use professionals to get the pictures. Don’t get me wrong, there were some really dreadful photographers around, but the proportion was rather lower than I expect it is now.

Then came the revolution. The average Joe could see what he was shooting instantly, and as he scrolls through the images he has on the back of his camera anyone would think he had talent. The problem is, that while we wince at the cost of throwing away prints from negatives, deleting files has no effect on us. Most people changing from film to digital have got no better – their hit rate is much the same, deleting thirty something pictures for every couple they keep. The simple fact is, whether someone is shooting on film or a chip, they still have to understand the effects of shutter speed and aperture, sensitivity and light, focus and composition, lens choice and – most importantly of all – subject. A good photographer will take good photos even with dreadful equipment. A bad photographer will produce crap no matter how expensive their kit. And that is not all. One of the ironies of “easier” digital is that it is actually less forgiving of mistakes than film was. With film (negative, less the pedants point to the unforgiving nature of transparency) your exposure could be off by a stop and a half in either direction and you could still get an acceptable print. With digital, overexposure is a real problem to recover from, and shadows can block up pretty quickly too, although to be fair the dynamic range of the latest generation of digital SLRs is much better than it was. How much of a problem is this for the unsuspecting “wedding photographer”? Well, imagine photographing the wedding of a very pale skinned man from Dundee in a black morning coat to a deep black skinned woman in a white dress on a bright sunny (I’m talking 500th at f8) day. You have to get detail in everything – it’s no good telling the bride and groom that it was too sunny, they want to see their faces and the detail in what they are wearing. If you are not bang on with the exposure you might as well forget it.

Then comes the “quicker” bit. In the old days (sorry, I sound like Uncle Albert in Only Fools!) at the end of a wedding you could drop the film in to your chosen professional lab (important to qualify “professional” – the people working in them are highly skilled technicians rather than school leavers who have been told which buttons to press). The best ones would stagger the process with other photographers’ work, that way if something went wrong chances were that you would lose a few shots rather than loads. A couple of days later you picked up the negs and the proofs, marked them up, filed the negs, and waited for the happy couple to get back from the honeymoon. Now we have “post-production”.

The average punter tends to be a bit bemused by this, after all they take pictures and just look at them on their computer. The explanation, sadly, is not straight forward.

Unprocessed image

Unprocessed image

In essence consumer cameras process the image files to make them instantly pleasing to look at, while professional spec cameras do not, the reason being that the cameras are designed to give the user as much leeway as possible to produce the right results for the right output. For instance, a picture that has been optimised for a computer, and is only ever going to be looked at on a computer, looks dreadful if it is printed, and a file that is great for a big print, is way too big for use online. The adjustments that need to be made for each type of use are not the same, so there cannot be a one size fits all approach to processing the pictures in camera. The majority of good photographers shoot RAW files rather than JPEGs. That is, the camera saves all of the raw data from the image that falls on the sensor. These files tend to be flat, lifeless and soft, and bear little relationship to the view that the photographer sought to capture. In a very real sense the move to a RAW work flow has taken professional photography back to the days of negatives, where (to paraphrase the great Ansel Adams) the original file is akin to a musical score, and the final JPEG is the performance. Unlike the film days, though, the post-production can’t just be handed over to a lab – well it can, but wedding customers are unlikely to want to bear the cost. As a result it falls on the photographer to do it him or herself, and this can easily be another day on top of the wedding: the one day’s work of old just became two for no additional money.

post processed image

post processed image

Just to be clear, post-production in this context does not mean “photoshopping” – that is, to add and subtract bits from the picture – rather it is about balancing the colours, getting the contrast right and fine tuning the exposure – exactly the kinds of things that labs did with film. Once the basic post-production and editing (taking out the images where people are blinking etc) is done, the files can be converted to JPEGS to create proofs, either physical, or (more commonly these days) online. But the work does not stop there. Each file needs to have a distinct file name (no good having the generic file name DSC_1025 on 17 different shoots, you’ll never find what you are looking for again!), and the original RAWS need to be backed up several times, preferably in different geographical locations. Why? Well, in short, hard drives fail; not so much a matter of if but when. Furthermore, computers are likely targets for thieves, so having things in different locations is a fail safe against losing all your work. With negatives the only real risk was from fire or water damage; to the best of my knowledge they never had the habit of suddenly not working – unless of course they were not properly fixed, but that’s why you didn’t get them processed at the chemist.

That brings us to “cheaper”. The simple fact is that the saving on film is minuscule, especially set against the expense of the equipment required. A pro-spec film camera would have set you back about £1500, and they tended to last for five to ten years provided they were maintained. It is worth noting that Nikon only ever released 6 professional camera bodies, and look at the dates of their going to market, and then compare this to the release dates of their digital bodies:

FILM BODIES                                                    DIGITAL BODIES

  • Nikon F     1959                                              Nikon D1     June 1999
  • Nikon F2   1971                                              Nikon D1x  February 2001
  • Nikon F3   1980                                              Nikon D2x  September 2004
  • Nikon F4   1988                                              Nikon D3x  December 2008
  • Nikon F5    1996
  • Nikon F6    2004

In essence they were releasing a new camera to market at the rate one a decade (compared with four digital bodies in under ten years), and the last one, the F6 (still available) came as a complete shock since no one thought Nikon would bother releasing a new design well after the digital revolution. With digital bodies though, the pace of change has been breathtaking, with pro-spec bodies costing around £3500 and needing updating every couple of years. Over a ten year period film cameras would have cost £3000, while digital bodies will set you back about £14000. Before you say that you can buy a DSLR for £300, remember that if you are doing this for a living you will likely be shooting over a hundred thousand frames a year; the cheap bodies just can’t cope, and your wedding customers won’t be pleased if your kit stops functioning because you were too cheap to get the right stuff – that reminds me, you do need to have at least two cameras, just in case one packs up on a shoot… don’t say it won’t happen: it will. Then there are the lenses, the flashguns, the spare flashguns, the memory cards, the batteries and chargers, the tripods, the bags (believe me, they aren’t cheap). Once you have shot all your images, you need to be able to process them on a computer, and the first time you try to deal with a 30Mb to 50Mb file on an insufficiently powered machine you’ll be beating a track to the shops to spend a fortune on something more powerful that can cope with processing four or five hundred such files at a a time. And remember my warning on storage and back up? Much more expensive than filing negs.

So that’s the cost of the equipment dealt with. Then there is professional insurance (which I bet the subject of the BBC story wishes he had) at about a thousand pounds a year, and don’t forget to factor in the time for all the meetings with the customer before and after the wedding, and the time required to do the layouts and revisions for their storybook. All told you can be looking at five days in total on one couple. With the cost of the book production at about £350, the depreciation of the equipment plus other overheads, a photographer charging £1500 for a wedding might be getting about £120 a day – not quite as extortionate as the headline rate would have you believe, and even that assumes they are shooting 52 weddings a year and most are not.

The reality is that traditionally wedding photographers made their living from print sales. The pictures would be so good (hopefully) that relatives and friends of the couple would order a few prints each. The widespread use of compact cameras knocked that in the 1990s, so the best photographers had to up their game and get pictures that were so much better than everyone else’s that they still had good sales. The crap photographers just made demands that no one else was allowed to use cameras at the weddings they were working on. I have heard of this so many times, and it still makes me shake my head with disbelief. The question you have to ask is: how much confidence have such photographers got in their own ability if they can’t stand the competition from people who have no idea what they are doing? Personally I have no problem with guests taking pictures at weddings I work on, in fact I often give them tips on how to take better pictures.

The real threat to print sales has not been guests with cameras, but rather the editors of bridal magazines recommending that couples ask (or demand) that photographers “give them a DVD with all the pictures on”. Why? They never recommended that photographers give the couple the negatives, but for some reason they think the democratising effect of the PC makes handing over your work perfectly legitimate. The day I had a the editor of a bridal magazine ask me to supply one of my images for the cover of her magazine (she cold called me) while informing me that she would not be paying me and I had to take out a four month advertising contract with them was the day they lost all my respect. Personally I would like to string the lot of them up, and if you think I am being petulant consider what the publishers’ response would be if prospective brides asked to be given copies of the magazine (rather than paying for them) using the argument, “well you have already written it and printed it, so what use is it to you now?” Rightly the response would be that it is copyright material, and if people want it they have to pay for it. So it should go for wedding photos. Any photographer who values their work should offer to supply a disc for a rate commensurate with the average sales that they would expect to get for a given wedding; if that is a thousand pounds, then the price of a disc should be in that region. If your photographer offers you the disc for nothing what does that tell you about how much they value their work?

The thing is, many photographers might consider the effect on sales of giving a disc (and I am not even talking about copyright, that’s a whole other issue), but very few seem to think about the effect on their credibility. Consider this:

You spend a fortune on equipment; you strive to produce the best photos you can; you toil over colour and density correcting all the files, and making sure the unsharp masking is just right; you hand over a disc of perfect files in a recognised colour space; the couple put them in their computer; the monitor is not calibrated and profiled, so they fiddle to make them look right; they print them on cheap paper with cheap inks with no colour management or profile, but plenty of banding and colour casts; they then show these to everyone they know as examples of YOUR work. What does that do for your reputation? One of those friends was thinking about getting in touch with you to shoot their wedding… not anymore they’re not!

Bruce and Claire - Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Bruce and Claire - Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

One correspondent to the BBC article – Caroline from Winchester – said: “Your mates know how to take your best picture.” I disagree. Your mates know what is you and what isn’t, but they do not necessarily know how to take a good picture of you. Virtually every wedding I do there will be someone who puts on a mock display of not wanting their photo taken: “I look terrible in photographs,” they say. If Caroline was right no one would ever say that. Eventually I get them to give me two seconds of their time, and the response is always the same: “that’s reeeally nice!” Why are they surprised? If you only ever had your hair cut by your mates (assuming they are not all hair dressers) you would soon come to the conclusion that it was impossible for your hair to be cut nicely. Likewise since most people’s experience of having their photograph taken is by their mates, they labour under the misapprehension that they are not photogenic.

Ultimately a good wedding photographer needs to be at the top of their game. There is a huge amount to do in a very short space of time, and unlike virtually every other area of photography, there are no second chances. There are many top flight photographers working in different genres that don’t do weddings. Some claim that it is beneath them, others – possibly more honestly – don’t want the responsibility.

Photography is only a small part of what is involved. Most of it is being able to get a large group of people to do what you want and enjoy it – part drill sergeant, part stand-up comic. You have to be patient, but firm. You have to know when to take control and when to let people enjoy their day. I have a rule of thumb: while I might want to take the best photographs I can, it has to take second place to the couple having the best possible wedding day. A few years ago I was shooting a wedding when my camera informed me that it had formatted everything I had shot up to that point. It has the greatest laxative effect of anything I have ever known! But this is where professionalism and experience come to the fore. My options were either to have a fit, start swearing madly and tell the couple they would have to repeat everything; or hide my terror, take stock of where I was, figure out what I could re-shoot without alerting anyone that anything was amiss, and try to carry on as normal. The first option ensures that no one ever hires you again, the second ensures that the couple continue to have a dream wedding and if worse comes to worse you deal with the consequences on another day. As it happens by about two o’clock the following morning I had become something of an expert in forensic data retrieval, and all was recovered – the couple had no idea anything was ever amiss.

So the answer to the BBC’s question, how hard is it to photograph a wedding? Harder than simply pressing a button might make you think.

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