There are three women sitting at the table next to me. However, if I were to photograph them I’d be shooting into the light. They are what David Hurn, the famous Magnum photographer and educationalist, would call good examples of their type: fashionable, attractive middle class students; even the mother, Ugg boots and all. My interest is further peeked by the Minolta SLR resting by the condiments. The owner of the Minolta is a textile student in Brighton and the camera is her way of organizing her ideas.
Further down the restaurant two men sit and talk with the waitress. I take a photograph as one of the men sits with his hands locked as if pleading with the waitress. Now, I realize there is no reason for the man to be pleading with the young girl (unless he is full of nefarious intent and has a wicked twinkle in his eye). The photograph becomes an amusement, it tells a lie but the droll quality is sufficient to satisfy my humour.
Nearer, there is a middle-aged couple sitting, as many couples do, with the husband staring directly ahead whilst the wife talks. Three shutter-clicks later and I have enough of a spread to have at least one picture that gives the impression of a hen-pecked husband and a nagging wife.
The man with the pleading hands approaches me and it turns out he, and his companion, are from one of the local photo clubs. I have wisely forgotten which. They’re on a photo expedition to Gateshead’s waterfront.
“What you been photographing?” he asks. This, I note, is an opening gambits in an effort to discern the genre of photography I indulge in. I tell him I’ve just finished a portrait session and I like Street. “Ah! That’s what we do!” I’ve passed some sort of initiation and they’ll feel comfortable talking to me.
“We had some bloke come to the club a couple of weeks ago and he spent the whole time talking about manipulation. Spends all his time at a computer. That’s not real photography!” There are further demonstrations of their abhorrence at the move towards “…. All that manipulated stuff!”
And then came Rikki O’Neill to Durham PS with his lecture “One Step Beyond”.
Now, Rikki is an interesting man with definite views and his own way of working and like his work or loath it you have to respect his dedication to his craft. Those images that we saw on the projector, were they photography or art? I know that when I asked Roger Coulam if he felt he was an artist he flatly denied that. He was/is/and ever shall be (for the moment at least) a photographer and his work is photographic. Rikki O’Neill, though, is a fish of a different colour and comes from an artistic background. His work, whatever it looks like, comes out of a tradition of book illustrations and you can trace his work back to Edward Lear, Arthur Rackham and others from that great age of illustrators.
We are very fortunate at the Durham PS. We have a strong and vibrant assembly who are not shy in stating their beliefs and, regardless of what the current fashion is (or because of it), they will do their “own thing.” Perhaps that’s because we have such a large and committed membership and there is no dominant leader dictating which way we should go… we are all aware that some clubs and societies have followed that particular path.
This eclectic mix of guests with their various approaches and the like is a tribute to the wisdom of Our Paul (otherwise known as our Hon. Programme Secretary). He’s a canny bloke with a knack of accommodating the widest possible variety of approaches and beliefs. For the Nature Photographers (I nearly wrote naturalists but I have a feeling that means something very different) he provides nature photographers and for the landscapists there are landscape photographers. Mention a genre and he’ll source a speaker. Over the past month or so Paul has brought us three very different photographers: Roger Coulam with his dead puffins; Ian Beesley and his photo-realistic social documentary images and Rikki O’Neill with his nightmarish Grimm’s fairy tale characters.
Knowing that I’m a devotee of monochrome you may wonder if I weep nightly over the loss of my beloved F2 and those distinctive cans of Kodak Tri-X (banned by my dear wife for causing too many obnoxious stinks in the downstairs loo)? Those cans of film used to take up shelf space in the fridge, which is another reason my wife is happy as their demise freed up room for chocolate! As a consequence of my photographic inclinations I’ve been asked how I feel about all this modern stuff? Do I have any thoughts on the current mélange of genres and styles? Might I class this competition of photographic directions as a battle for the soul of photography? If we adopt too many of the manipulation techniques will we be betraying the integrity of what photography is all about? Might the ghost of Fox Talbot haunt our dreams?
Well, by now most of you know I’m more of a photo-realist. I favour documentary photography and my heroes are of that ilk. You don’t have much manipulation with a Cartier-Bresson or a Doisneau, neither a Capa nor an Eve Arnold. Even when I’ve produced the occasional color image in the past there have been a few raised eyebrows. The recent digital night at County Hall saw me showing some of the photographs from The Portraits From The North East Project and I was questioned then about the paucity of colour images. Some have even noted when inspecting my cameras that I have them set up for monochrome. It just works for me, though I know there are “arty” connotations to using B & W.
We all use the viewfinder as a window in which we create an image and in so doing satisfy that very human urge within us to make something. I’ve heard Alan Stott talk about Fox Talbot being a poor draughtsman and a frustrated artist, hence his drive to make images with a camera. This urge to be the artist would go some way to explaining the title of his first publication: The Pencil of Nature. Whatever our initial attraction to photography there will be that basic human need to create. Talking to many of the Durham PS members we share a propensity towards visual thinking, one that relies upon our use of mind-images within the thought process, and photography is an obvious and natural extension of that mind-set.
However, I doubt whether every photograph we take/make/whatever satisfies our original idea. Our mental blue-print is one thing, whilst the reality of the print may be quite another. Is there enough contrast? Is the image sharp enough? Will it look better in HDR? What about turning it into a mono image or should I just desaturate it? It’s a constant internal monolog about a series of choices. Several people have commented upon my portrait of Sir Thomas Allen, the famous baritone and Chancellor of Durham University. The setting for the photo-shoot was the office of the Master of Trevelyan College. Light flooded in from the windows and lit up Sir Thomas’s left side. Behind him was a coat stand with the Master’s gown and bonnet hanging there. Beyond that was a full bookcase. The digital file was Raw and in colour, none of which produced a satisfactory image nor rendered Sir Thomas as he was when talking and interacting with me. Therefore, work was needed and my final print was heavily adjusted… and in mono.
This is as far from the original as I felt able to go. Working in my own clumsy and limited way, it was produced without the aid of layers, merely extreme contrast and dodging… old timers like myself might remember the grades of paper we had at our disposal. Back in the day, we had a choice from Grade 0 to Grade 5… So, is this print more in line with an Ilford Grade 5 paper. It certainly wouldn’t have been printed on Grade 2, which I was always told should be the starting point as G2 was the balanced grade. Personally, I like contrast and favoured Grade 3 for most of my prints.
So, I’ve come clean and admitted that I manipulate my images. And, yes, there are times when I go well beyond old darkroom practices and use an imported filter/layer… what I believe is called a “plug in”. Basically, I’m just a lazy sort of a guy… though my excuse is I haven’t a clue as to how to use layers or even make my own filter so, to achieve the results I want, I use a commercially produced package. I know it’s cheating but I’m after a specific result. How could I have achieved these images without help?
Drax Power Station from the train window….
Or this one?