Taking the time to think.

By , November 26, 2009 11:59 am

Ask yourself, as you are looking through the viewfinder, “why do I want to take this photograph? What is it that is compelling me to create an image?” If you cannot answer the question, then don’t take the photograph.

Cranbrook from Hatters Cottage
Cranbrook from Hatters Cottage

A good illustration of this comes from a commission I had a couple of years ago. I was asked to produce some black and white images of the Kent town of Cranbrook in Southern England. I’ll skip the long part of the story and get straight to the part where I entered the third floor room of Hatters Cottage which I had been told had the best view of Cranbrook including the windmill; a view that had not changed in over two hundred years. On entering the room I looked to my right out of the window across the rooftops, and it took my breath away. For half an hour, in the fading evening light, I struggled to make an image that captured my emotional reaction, and I kept failing. So I stopped and thought about my own advice. And then it dawned on me: a large part of my reaction was based on the view from the room. If I was to create something memorable, the image had to include not only the view, but the room from which it was seen. Technically a bitch to capture, but the result was what I had felt. 

Now I’ve seen everything!

By , November 25, 2009 2:12 pm

The rivalry has been too serious for far too long! Great to see someone take the mick, and I particularly like the reference to the death of Polaroid:

Watching a master

By , November 24, 2009 10:46 am

I have recently started a new project with some students in East London – I will post substantively on that at some point in the future – but suffice to say that for our second session yesterday, I thought we would have some practical fun by taking pictures of each other. None of that digital stuff. Proper photography – large format. I had a box of Polariod Type 55 which I took with the camera, a bucket, some sodium sulphite and some enthusiasm. They did really well.

Anyway, got me thinking about that master of large format black and white, and have just come across this series of old BBC documentaries on him from about 25 years ago. So, why read when you can watch.

Enjoy.

MXV – R.I.P

By , November 21, 2009 5:15 pm

I started my career as a photographer in the early 1990s, and one of my happiest moments was the discovery of a small brick building, tucked into a corner of a residential road in the East Sussex town of Uckfield: MXV.

No idea what MXV stood for – I never bothered to ask. But it was a treasure trove of used photographic equipment. Some of it well worn, some of it frankly looked unused. It did not matter what you were after, the chances were that they had it, or had recently had it, or thought they might get it in soon, and when they did, they would let you know.

It was pretty good for selling stuff to. If you had something you wanted shot of, they’d give you a reasonable price (assuming they figured they could sell it on), and if you were happy to wait, the would sell it for you on a commission basis to earn you a better price.

I lost track of the number of times I went in there, or phoned, or checked their stock on the clunky but perfectly usable website. I sold things, and I bought things. The most recent thing I bought was a Mamiya 6 rangefinder (rare beyond belief now and at least double what I paid for it if you can find them). Probably my best buy from them was a Mamiya RZ Pro II 6×7 with a 110mmf2.8 lens, waist level finder, and a couple of film backs. I paid half what it would have been new, and it was so “mint” it still had a protective shipping sticker on it. Not a finger print anywhere. Apparently someone had been labouring under the impression that a professional camera would improve their photography, a notion which to my advantage they were clearly dissuaded of.

MXV was full of stuff like that – an invaluable source of the odd thing that a photographer might need. Sadly, within the last couple of weeks, they have ceased to be; a victim not only of the astonishing speed with which so many serious photographers ditched film to dive into the brave new digital world, but also of that other digital creation – eBay. Paul Beaumont tried to take MXV in the right direction by creating an online shop on eBay to help shift the gear, but in the end there can be little doubt that the seismic downward shift in the value of their stock must have made survival near on impossible. While odd items like the Mamiya 6 have gained in value according to their scarcity and desirability, the vast majority of second hand gear simply lost its market, and most first, second and third generation digital cameras have little residual value with short shelf lives and rapid advances in new generation equipment replacing it.

Probably the only place left now of its like in the UK is Mr Cad, run by the inimitable Alex Falk. To be fair, Mr Cad always was in a different league, and whereas MXV was really about cameras, Mr Cad has always been about photography: cameras, darkroom equipment, studio lighting. You name it, Mr Cad is the Mecca of traditional photography. If your heart is in film, then Mr Cad will probably be your spiritual home. Whether you are a small scale hobbiest, or you want to kit out an industrial darkroom, Alex Falk has forgotten more about the paraphernalia of photography than the most dedicated of students is ever likely to know. When I needed a second hand specialist darkroom water heating unit (designed to keep mains water running at a temperature stable to within 3 tenths of a degree) Mr Cad had it. Actually they had about half a dozen. You get my point. But while Mr Cad may survive, it was the Tesco to MXV’s boutique.

MXV – R.I.P

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want…

By , November 19, 2009 1:43 pm

… And no, it is not a Spice Girls reunion, what I would really like is a decent compact camera.

I know, there are loads on the market, but none of them ticks my boxes. Perhaps I should explain first that I am not an equipment freak. On the contrary, I dislike cameras as a rule, as they tend to get in the way of a perfectly good photograph, none more so than compacts.

Every other week there will be a review in one of the trade magazines of the latest offering touted as being something for the working pro to slip in his or her pocket, the most recent being the Panasonic GF1 reviewed in the British Journal of Photography. And when those reviews come out I read them with interest, simply because I hope something will come along that comes close to my ideal. But it never does, and sorry Panasonic, the GF1 didn’t do it for me either.

This has got me thinking. Maybe the problem is with me. Maybe my demands and expectations are unreasonable. Maybe I should just accept what I am offered and get on with it. But the more I pondered it, the more I have come to the conclusion that actually what I want is so simple that it is just being overlooked by the manufacturers’ R&D people.

So, I have hit on a solution: an open letter to all the R&D people explaining what I want. Now I am a realist. On its own this will be about as effective as trying to warm the Gulf Stream with an immersion heater. But if enough of my colleagues support the request, you never know… stranger things have happened. So here goes:

Dear Camera Manufacturer R&D Department,

I am looking for a digital compact camera, and none of the current offerings meets my requirements. Would it be possible to create something with the following specs (my rationale is given in brackets after each one)?

Yours faithfully,

Michael Cockerham

  • A high quality fixed lens, equivalent to about 35mm focal length on a 35mm full frame camera, with a maximum aperture of f2 or greater. (I do not need a zoom as I have legs which have always served me well for getting closer to or further away from the subject. Besides, while the quality of zooms on SLRs is unquestionably very high, I have yet to be convinced that the same can be said of compact camera zooms, so I would rather that the effort be put into some decent glass on a fixed focal length. Also, having only one focal length tends to focus my mind more creatively and improve the quality of my imagery anyway.)
  • A simple dial on the top plate to select one of four modes: M(anual), A(perture priority), S(hutter priority), P(rogram). (I am a photographer – not an equipment junky – so I do not need hundreds of incomprehensible modes with pictograms that make no sense to me. I actually understand that 1/125 at f8 at ISO 400 is exactly the same exposure as 1/30 at f11 at ISO 200 – which reminds me, put a collar on the mode dial to enable selection of the ISO equivalency, like the kind that used to exist on film cameras 30 years ago.)
  • A shutter release button, which is firm and requires some pressure to trigger. (Nothing to say about that really, just don’t want a hair trigger! But it is worth mentioning that I also do not want any discernable shutter lag.)
  • A reasonable grip for largish hands, with a thumb dial to control the shutter speed, and a finger dial to control the aperture. (I like to be in control, and frankly having to push various combinations of buttons to change the two fundamental controls of any camera is not – contrary to what the Facebook generation might have you believe – instinctive.)
  • A view finder. (Let me repeat that for emphasis and in caps, and underlined, and emboldened and in a different colour and italicised: A VIEWFINDER. A camera is supposed to be an extension of my eye – or even my mind’s eye – it is not supposed to be an extension of my arms when used at full extension! How the hell can I be discreet and in tune with my subject if I am moving around looking like a high tech version of the night of the living dead?)
  • Two file options: RAW and top quality jpeg. (If it was up to me, it would just be RAW, but I am prepared to concede that some people do like to use the JPEG format straight out of the camera. What I do not need is options to change the number of pixels used, or the compression, or any of those options that are supposed to mimic film types but never work. Like I said, I am a photographer and I can do all of that stuff myself on a computer very quickly and to a higher standard after I have downloaded the pictures, so why clutter up the camera with a whole load of options I am just never, ever going to use?).
  • An 8 megapixel sensor of a sufficient size that the images can be used commercially if necessary. (I have been saying for years that it is not all about pixel counts, and now you manufacturers are starting to admit it. So 8 megapixels are more than enough. In fact, I will happily settle for fewer pixels if it means that you can deliver me something that offers really usable images at upto at least ISO1000).
  • A simple reliable exposure meter to power the auto modes – something as reliable as the meter in my old Nikon F3 would be nice. (I don’t really want a load of meter modes, that’s not what this camera is supposed to be about, and as soon as you introduce more than one you need another button or dial to control them. Call me old fashioned, but manual and a light meter works well for me. Do it long enough and you don’t even need the light meter anyway, you just know).
  • A small LCD display on the top plate that tells me the shutter speed and aperture selected, how many frames I have taken and have left, and a readout of the remaining battery power. (I don’t need to know anything else, because you haven’t cluttered the camera up with a whole load of gizmos aimed at, well, someone that is not a photographer. While we are on the subject of batteries, something with a bit of life to it would be nice).
  • It actually needs to be compact but well built. (Given all the stuff I have requested that you leave out, that should not pose a huge problem – excuse the pun).

That’s it. I actually do not want or need anything else. I know that you will find it impossible to stop yourself putting other gizmos in, and there are some proper photographers around that might want a couple of other things, so I will offer you a list of optional extras that you can include if you absolutely must (along with my reasons for not wanting them):

  • A screen for reviewing the images. (I know it is nice to check that you got your picture, but I made a living from using film for over ten years, and I knew then that I had the picture even though I didn’t see it until I processed the film. Not being able to see the picture instantly will remove the distraction and make me concentrate on my subject – you know, I actually think it might make me a better photographer. But there is another reason: it is more technology to pack in, more to pay for, more to go wrong, and I would rather you spent the money on the image processing engine, the lens, the sensor and the build quality. I also think that having to wait to get to a computer to see the pictures will bring back just a little of the magic that I miss from being bent double over a tray full of chemistry. Furthermore, call me a cynic, but you put a screen on and I guarantee you will try to introduce a whole bunch of menus and options that I don’t want (see above), not to mention a live view facility which will stop me buying it on principle).
  • A flash. (Not really a fan of on-camera flash, especially not on compacts, but I know that they can sometimes be helpful. A hotshoe with a small bolt on flash might be a better option though).

That’s it. Now to see what other photographers think.

Lament

By , November 18, 2009 11:28 am

Ask any photographer what the most important thing they can have is, and they will answer, “access”. Access is everything. Without it there is no story; there are no pictures. The best will employ guile and a cheeky smile and honest intentions to brazen it out and get what they want. Whether it is Grace Robertson putting on a white coat and posing as a doctor to get into a hospital and get her pictures, or Joel Meyerowitz employing the vaudeville schtick of his father to “accidentally” sit in the lap of a police captain at Ground Zero after 9/11 and gain their favour, the ends are often deemed to justify the means.

The fact is, we live in an overly controlled and regulated world, and the authorities and PR people like to believe that they know what photographers need. Sorry guys – you don’t. If you are not a photographer, you will never know where we want to stand, how important the direction of the light is, what it is that we wish to convey with our images. We know you mean well, but by and large you get it wrong and rub all photographers up the wrong way.

Nowhere is this more true than with the rich and famous. In the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, even the 70s, the rich and famous knew that their very existence depended on a symbiosis with the media. And media moguls knew that sales of magazines were (and still are) hugely influenced by who appeared on their pages. As a result, there was a golden age of access, when photographers were often accorded long, uncontrolled periods with their subjects, enabling the public to have a deeper understanding of who these familiar faces really were: what they thought and felt. Some of the most memorable images of the stars of those eras are a direct result of that easy relationship. Somewhere, though, it faded to dust.

Now the rich and famous want to control every aspect of how they appear in and to the public. Photoshoots are almost always stage managed by PR people – usually with ridiculous demands. My own worst experience was at a studio shoot being told by a PR manager to a Hollywood star that I had 60 seconds to get the photograph – and she was serious. I got what I needed and the picture was published – but it could have been so much better without the intimidation. The point is, it is rare these days to see images of these people that have more than just a veneer of authenticity, and recently I came across some work which has exactly that.

Lorraine Goddard has produced a charming, but compelling body of work depicting household names doing things that make them happy: Christian Slater watching Star Trek; Lord Lloyd Webber swimming in his pool; Vivienne Westwood embracing her husband. All this is done with the aim of raising awareness of, and money for, mental health charities. There is little suggestion that any of these celebrities suffers or has suffered from mental illness, but the effect is stark: it makes you look at these people again and ask, “I wonder if…?” If it can happen to them, it can happen to me. There is such a stigma attached to mental illness, and there should not be, and that is the point that Goddard wants to convey.

She has called the project, Out of Context. An apt title in more ways than one, as I would be lying if I claimed that these were remarkable photographs. Of themselves, they are not. But the fact that she got them, and their effect as a body of work, does, in this day and age, make them significant and worthy of discussion.

So the inevitable question: how did she get the access? Answer: that other favoured method of photographers, and the only one these days which really counts: she knew them. Perhaps not all of them, but she was married to Adam Ant and her experience of his manic depression gave her the impetus to begin the project. She was also (ironically) a PR person for Vivienne Westwood for a year.

No doubt these two facts opened many doors at the time that have only later become tremendously important in helping her realise her project. Of course there has to be more to it than this. Knowing people may open doors, but to keep them open and gain access to new ones relies on being open, honest, loving and trustworthy. Lamentably it was the closeting of these traits that ended that golden age, and made so many view photographers as a whole with a suspicion bordering on contempt. Goddard, clearly, has substance.

Apart from a splash screen of some of the images as tear-sheets from the Sunday Times Magazine, there is nothing more of the work on her website, a pity as I would like to see more. Both the cause and the images are worthy of greater reflection.

Family

By , November 17, 2009 1:21 pm

BOOK REVIEW: Family

If all the photographs ever taken were sorted into subject categories, it is probable that the biggest single pile would be that which covered the family.

Ever since Kodak suggested to the general public that “you push the button, we do the rest”, camera owners the world over have seen the importance of immortalising family events.  Christmas; the family holiday; children and their birthday parties; visiting relatives.  These are the photographs that are most treasured.  Intimate, personal, and largely unseen. They are the items most people would claim to miss the most if their homes were burned to the ground.

Indeed, historians have for some time recognised the collective importance of such images, giving a visual narrative to history and changing social moirés.

One area of family photography has however remained largely unexplored, and that is how professional photographers photograph their own families.  How do people who spend their lives taking great photographs relate to their wives, husbands, children, parents and siblings?  Are they aloof?  Are they intimate?  Do they apply the exacting standards of their professional work to the chance shots of the children at play?  Family, a new book from Phaidon sets out to examine this curious relationship.

Subtitled Photographers Photograph Their Families, this is not a commissioned piece, and it is not restricted to current or even recent photographers.  Rather it is a genuine attempt to curate into one body some of the private and intensely personal photographs of 56 photographers from around the world, and throughout the history.

Having recently become a father, I may be more receptive to its charms than others, but Family comes across as a rather wonderful book, to which the word gentle is well suited.  It not only allows a greater insight into the characters of some well known photographers, but compels the reader to re-examine their own approach to portraying their family and friends.

Family, edited by Sophie Spencer-Wood with preface by Henri Peretz, Phaidon 2005. £24.95.   ISBN 0-7148-4402-0   www.phaidon.com

This review was originally written for the Photographic Journal

Quiet passing

By , November 13, 2009 1:41 pm
Name the ten most significant photographers ever. Go on. Actually, get a pen and paper and write them down… I’ll wait. In fact, post a comment below with your pick before you read any further.

It’s a safe bet that most of the names will be repeated endlessly, and those will be the ones tomorrow’s photographers aspire to match for their legacy if not their style. But there is one that seems to me at least, curiously absent from so many lists: Irving Penn.

Large Sleeve (Sunny Harnett), New York, 1951

Large Sleeve (Sunny Harnett), New York, 1951

Born in 1917 in Plainfield New Jersey, Irving Penn had an ordinary state education before embarking on a course under Alexey Brodovitch‘s tuition at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art.

Brodovitch, himself a photographer of the Bauhaus school, was to prove one of the most influential people in 20th Century photography primarily because of his art direction of Harper’s Bazaar from 1938 to 1958, but his student list from his time at the school is a veritable who’s who of late 20th Century photography. Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lisette Model, Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold to name a few. But whereas Avedon et al were intent on Brodovitch’s photography class, Penn was looking to pursue a career in what we might now think of as commercial art.

After graduating he took a couple of jobs in art direction on magazines, but dissatisfied he quit and used what little money he had to spend a year painting in Mexico. If he was hoping to find himself it worked, but not perhaps as he expected. Penn’s conclusion was that he would never amount to anything more than a very average painter, so he went back to New York and got a job as assistant art director to Alexander Liberman on Vogue magazine. It was to prove the most important decision of his professional life.

In essence Penn’s remit under Liberman was to suggest photographic covers for Vogue, but fortunately for Penn the staff photographers at Vogue were singularly unimpressed with his suggestions. Under less daring art direction, Penn might have found himself out on his ear, and the history of photography might have been very different indeed. But Liberman liked Penn’s ideas and convinced Irving to pick up a camera and shoot the concepts himself: Penn the photographer was born. It was Vogue’s first colour cover and Penn’s first professional photograph.

Vogue, October 1, 1943.

Vogue, October 1, 1943 - Vogue's first colour cover.

While he was known principally as a fashion and portrait photographer, he produced stunning work in still life, ethnographic, and nude photography. He was remarkable not just for the sophistication, beauty, and layered commentary inherent within his photographs, but also because the work itself was not derivative: it was unique, original imagery. If, like me, you have been enthralled by some of the post Vietnam work of Don McCullin, then explore Penn, because he did it first; while his nude studies reflected the abstractions of Bill Brandt working on the other side of the Atlantic.

His portraiture was powerful, captivating and revealing, employing an aesthetic that appeared to imprison the sitter, resulting in some of the most iconic portrayals of an entire generation of artists and thinkers like Capote and Miles Davis. Along with Avedon he swept a broom through the stuffy fashion photography that had gone before, preferring simple backgrounds to the fussy locations that to his mind distracted from the fashion itself. His work brought a whole new palate of nuanced thinking to fashion photography, and inspired – perhaps often unwittingly – a new generation of fashion photographers. It also brought him love.

There is a tendency for photographers (male ones at least) to fall for their models, and Penn did not buck that trend in marrying Lisa Fonssagrives, who appears as model in a great many of the photographs he took. Where he did veer from typical behaviour was in remaining married and devoted to her until her death at the age of 80 in 1992. Lisa was more than a muse to Penn. She is widely regarded as the first supermodel, earning nearly four times what her contemporaries were getting, with her own career lasting to the age of 40 – ten years longer than everyone else. Hers is the face on a myriad of iconic fashion images created by such luminaries as Hoynigen, Horst, Blumenfeld and others. But for all her protestations that she was just a “good clothes hanger”, there was a special magic that existed between them and it sparkled in the work Irving created. Alexander Liberman said on her death that they represented “an extraordinary relationship between a photographer and a model.” Adding that “she was the inspiration and subject of some of Penn’s greatest photographs.”

Truman Capote

Truman Capote, New York, 1965.

Penn excelled at his craft because he was interested in things. That sounds trite, but it cannot be overstated. The capacity to treat all things and all people as endlessly interesting is the bedrock of good engaged photography. And whether Penn was photographing frocks, or the indigenous peoples of the Andes, or disgarded cigarette butts, or products, he treated them all with the same level of reverence, curiosity and precision. The designer Issey Miyake exclaimed that Irving Penn “shows me what I do.”

His technical brilliance was reflected in his printing as well, and he is credited with a rebirth of interest in the practice of Platinum printing. The process is arduous and painstaking, but results in some of the most permanent prints possible, and Penn developed a method that produced the richest of detail and luminosity. Having found the best, he could never settle for anything less and spent the best part of three decades printing his exisiting and new work using the method. As a direct result, ask any museum to list their preferred type of black and white print, and the answer will come back “platinum or palladium”.

penn_sleep

Summer Sleep, New York, 1949.

The temptation at this point is to write Penn off as yesterday’s man. But the truth is that while his career may have started in 1943, he was still creating exceptional photographs for Condé Nast and others right up until his death last month on October 7 at the age of 92. A print of his photograph of a naked Kate Moss sold at auction for nearly a hundred thousand dollars, while another of his prints (Cuzco Children) broke the half million dollar mark last year.

Why, then, is his name not one that trips off people’s tongues when creating the pointless lists I mentioned at the start? It is simply because Penn never shouted about what he did. He led a touchingly domesticated life. A private man who avoided publicity not through affectation, but because it was not important to him. He was a quiet, kind perfectionist, and thanks to that perfectionism his work will be singing his prasies for many, many years to come. Whether you know it or not, if you are a photographer, Penn left his mark on you.

Irving Penn. Photographer. 1917 -2009.

Still looking good naked

By , November 4, 2009 2:33 pm

Having watched the show last night I thought some people might be interested to see again the wedding photos that the production team used. I think they used five in total but they had options on a further two. So for the benefit of all the Gok fans that think Kelly is amazing, here she is on her wedding day:

The moment Kelly and Toby said "I do".

The moment Kelly and Toby said "I do".

Kelly shows off the full dress she chose - not Gok's Amanda Wakely number!

Kelly shows off the full dress she chose - not Gok's Amanda Wakely number!

Kelly shows her figure to its best.

Kelly shows her figure to its best.

Kelly was able to wear a wedding dress she would never have dreamed of before she was Goked!

Kelly was able to wear a wedding dress she would never have dreamed of before she was Goked!

Full of joy as Kelly and Toby cut their wedding cake.

Full of joy as Kelly and Toby cut their wedding cake.

Kelly has an intimate moment with husband Toby

Kelly has an intimate moment with husband Toby

A wonderful wedding full of confident smiles.

A wonderful wedding full of confident smiles.

Don’t forget, there is still time to put in a bid on the original Gok dress! See my previous post for details of other links. I forgot to add that Kelly has her own site too.

Television exposure

By , November 3, 2009 12:33 pm

You’ll have to excuse the dreadful pun in the title for this news item – all will become clear.

Popular Channel 4 show hosted by Gok Wan

Popular Channel 4 show hosted by Gok Wan

Last year I was commissioned to photograph the wedding of Kelly and Toby – nothing unusual in that. But it was brought to my attention that the bride to be, Kelly, had recently recovered from breast cancer, and following a mastectomy had had her confidence shot to pieces and her life – and wedding – put on hold.

Then along came the inimitable Gok Wan, and the television show How To Look Good Naked. Kelly says that participation in the show changed her life, gave her back her self esteem and confidence, and enabled her to get married.

Despite Channel 4’s offer to film her wedding, Kelly wanted to keep it a personal family and friends affair, and she and her betrothed employed me to do the official photography.

The Gok Wan addicts among you will know that the series is on again, and tonight they are airing a “revisit” show of Kelly that will see where her life has gone since Gok swept his broom through her wardrobe. In particular he is going to rib her for not wearing the wedding dress he bought her as part of the original show, and several of my photographs showing how she actually looked on her wedding day will be aired (apparently I will get a credit at the end of the programme).

Kelly Short on her wedding day.

Kelly Short on her wedding day.

Anyway, Kelly has become something of an ambassador for a leading breast cancer charity and is keen to raise awareness and support in equal measure. The dress she was given by Gok is to be auctioned off on eBay immediately after the show airs and you can find it at: eBay Gok’s Dress. Alternatively, if you are interested in making a simple donation you can visit Kelly’s special donations site.

For my own part, I took the decision that the programme credit and a link from the How To Look Good Naked website to my official site is reward enough, and I am donating the reproduction fees from the use of the images to a breast cancer charity.

Don’t forget to watch!!! Channel 4, 8pm, November 3rd, 2009

EDIT: If you missed the show you can watch it online and find out more here.

Panorama theme by Themocracy