An Evening with Stephen Byard: an appreciation by John Cogan
Durham Photographic Society 24th January 2013
Before trying to enter the interior world of Stephen Byard I’d like to take a moment to thank Paul for arranging such a variety of speakers to meet our various proclivities. Paul’s experience and knowledge couple with the input from various Society members has provided us with a wealth of talent and a variety of differing approaches to our arcane obsession. Last week we listened to Will Cheung with his out-on-the-street photography and this week we have Stephen Byard with his artistic approach to landscape and nature.
Enthusiastic and encyclopaedic, Stephen entranced us with his erudite analysis of constructive photography. For those of us, and here I include myself, who are more familiar with documentary and street photograph, visualising the complex and multilayered end result before you even raise the camera to your eye takes a little leap of faith and the ability to catch your lower jaw before it hits the floor. Having more stitches than a manic Hong Kong tailor working to a deadline, combining three or four images until you have the realisation of your dream must be a genre entire to itself.
70% of his presentation (which is a reflection of his canon) was landscape. Introducing us to the effects of the tilt-shift lens with its wedge of focus has to be at the top of some Christmas lists for next year. This would appear to have the virtue of providing focus on demand, as it were. With Stephen’s workflow (there, I’ve learned another jargon word) he can now emphasise what he wants emphasising within his frame; and all this at the planning stage. With this at his/her command the author’s dream/intention can be taken a stage further with a swinging of the camera on the tripod to the point where, as in the case of the power pylon and the field of oil seed rape (canola if you prefer), three images can be stitched in such a way that the top of the frame is a near-vertical shot from between the legs of the pylon… Inception-like (the recent film) it provides a receding square of girders; very Vertigo à la Hitchcock… but dear Alfred paid several tens of thousands of pounds to have the famous tower staircase constructed for James Stewart.
Technically, Stephen uses a 45mm lens mostly, though for some shots he chose a 50mm f1.2 aperture at f8, on a slow speed. We can only assume that his ISO was low to provide him with the detail… or was it? For some of his work he uses a 90mm lens especially for the cat shots. In some cases he feels it necessary to make multiple images of the same scene so that they can be over-laid later (on the computer) to create the image that Stephen has planned. The importing of aspects of a different image has been used sometimes to create the right end result.
Several times Stephen referred to his work as an attempt to pursue an artistic path. Secure in his technical abilities, Stephen feels free to develop what he feels will lead to a greater depth in his work. The artistic imperative is there, the need to create something that is beyond mere representation. His camera is a combination of canvas and painter’s palette. He calls his work the current stage on his journey, where he’s AT now! His work is “Realistic but not real!” and all his choices are based upon artistic decisions. The photographer is the artist and whatever leads the eye should construct the image.
Asked about a particular split image Stephen introduced us all to a technical word that covers the art of cloning and carefully dodging and burning etcetera: FIDDLE! Have a fiddle and see what works out! I just love these technical words and concepts: the sweet spot; a flat image; a big stopper; a shouting picture; burned out highlights and now fiddle!
But, the 35mm format is limiting when it comes to Stephen pursuing his dream further, so he feels his future needs lie in film. Obtaining a field camera with its inbuilt tilt shift lens facility and the potential for a larger negative will, hopefully, provide the means for Stephen to follow that journey he started on back in the day!
For the grouse and other wild life images Stephen uses a 400mm lens and manual focusing. The bokeh is intense in that the foreground (the subject) leaps out of the frame. Even here Stephen will create his realistic image accepting that it will not be real: the nuthatch with the imported tree trunk.
There were several gems of advice dropped in, in a similar way to Will Cheung: do landscapes need to be in focus?; not every picture needs to shout at you; take a picture when you see it, it might not be there again; if you go somewhere once you haven’t really seen the place so return time and again; there are always pictures to make if you just look; find a way to take the observer into the heart of a landscape; be patient and don’t let any aspect of a scene that you don’t like prevent you from taking the picture, it can always be rectified later.
John Cogan ARPS