Monday, 13 October 2014

Mirror-Tessellation Photography by example

Mirrored photography (if you google it) refers to any image where a reflection is involved - either actual or imposed. In a small subset of these you will see examples where an image has been duplicated and the copy flipped on the horizontal or vertical to line-up with the original and so created a faux reflection.

The joy of mirrored photography lies in revealing surprising shapes, e.g. an oval created by a bridge arch reflected in a stream. "Look for reflections" is one of the many pieces of bite-sized advice offered to photographers in any work dealing with composition. It is a very old, and satisfying approach.

With the ease of digital processing the faux-reflection has enjoyed some popularity, and can therefore be quite a tired effect. Certainly it's instantly recognisable and so the end result has to be very strong to work.

So my approach here is to capitalise on the ability of reflected imagery to reveal new shapes - pushing this to an extreme so that at first sight the image is highly illustrative, rather than photographic, in feel. But I want to stay true to the photographic starting point, so the image is at first a geometric illustration which transforms on closer inspection to a more photographic feel.

The technique is deceptively simple but surprisingly flexible. A base image can be copied (and flipped) once to create a new image - if the starting point is already highly geometric this can be enough, as in these examples:

The new roof at King's Cross, duplicated once and flipped horizontally. The completion of the oval is very satisfying. Because the original shot contained an arc with both ends touching the same edge a single reflection was adequate to complete the image.

Peter Jones' department store. In itself a very striking geometric image, the reflection here emphasises the effect. The presence of people though retains the essential photographic nature of the image and there is a joy in discovering the Charlie Chaplin-esque person on the promontory near the centre bottom.

The escalator at Bounds Green underground station. The strong diagonals and quarter-circle of the tube made this a strong contender for the treatment. It was important in-camera to ensure the lower diagonal ran to the corners and that the tube arc reached its zenith as it met the right hand edge of the frame. If the arc had been cropped more to the left or the right the reflection would not have made a smooth semi-circle, and that would have instantly signalled the trick of the image.

By arranging strong diagonals stretching across the frame it is straightforward to compose 4x reflections:

A very straightforward initial shot of a section of ceiling gantry at a tube station.When arranging the tilling there is a choice between placing the far point or the near point at the centre. Here the far point is at the centre and the near point of the image is at the edges. This gives a 'tunnel' (or receding) effect.

These images are from the same shot of the ceiling of the cafe in the V&A Museum. This illustrates the effect of deciding to place the near point or the far point at the centre of the tilling, to provide a convex or else concave (tunnel) feeling.

This shot of the roof at Paddington not only had a long receding diagonal, but also a branching diagonal that teed-off too one edge. On tilling the image this branching diagonal creates an extra strong graphic element - the near oval that has been highlighted in yellow. Similar effects are apparent in the earlier examples also and it is these minor, opposing, diagonals that help to create the graphic effects that are so appealing in the tilling technique.

But more complex shapes can give rise to more interesting reflected arrangements, as with these shots of curved rail tracks. Note in the second example an asymmetrical crop has been applied. I wanted to emphasise the face-like effect, so by cropping asymmetrically on the vertical I have avoided repeating the 'mouth' shape at the bottom of the image.

Almost any inorganic structure can be bent to the approach.

This is a shot of a roof ceiling covered in used light bulbs. It's a very striking ceiling but there is no inherent cohesion in the arrangement so it was difficult to get a truly pleasing representation. The repetition of the tilling approach overcomes this problem and imposes a kind of order where none actually existed. This is a particularly strong example of how the technique creates entirely new images from the source.

I spotted this ceiling while out shopping and I was drawn to the large S shape and the diagonal string of lights. I knew the diagonal would give a cohesion to a tilled result, but without the tilling the composition is fussy, awkward and unbalanced.

This is a shot of a salt and pepper pot sat in front of a glass-encased large orange candle in an Indian restaurant. I liked the background colouration and the simplicity of the ceramics. I had to use a tight crop as the candle wasn't particularly large. In the single, original shot this gave what I felt to be an unbalanced result. The tiling surrounds the pots with the colour which is much more pleasing. The result is somewhat other-wordly, which is true for many of these images. 'Alien landscape', 'Like the TARDIS', 'Something from Alice in Wonderland' are a few of the descriptions various images have been given.

This is a very simple shot of one tunnel wall at Marble Arch tube station. I have used the 'far-field to centre' arrangement to create the tunnel effect. The saturation has been strongly boosted - a common approach for me in work like this as it suits the 'kaleidoscope' nature of the images.

But possibly surprisingly, highly organic starting points also work well. These examples show a wide-field view of tree tops (looking up) and a small-field close-up of grasses.

Some final 4x reflection examples:

2x and 4x reflections can clearly generate a wide range of illustrations from just about any source subject. But sometimes the resulting illustration can take on an even more striking geometry by further tilling the result (it is not necessary to flip as the images already have a symmetry).

Reflections have the disadvantage of creating centre-centric compositions when in traditional photography we're encouraged to avoid such due to the perceived lack of 'dynamism' in the compositional balance. This can be overcome to an extent by using asymmetrical cropping of the result, but with the right image an odd number of reflections can also be effective.

Here the original 4x reflection has been tilled 9 times (a total of 36 repetitions) to create a strong Noughts and Crosses pattern. The original image is based on a strong diagonal shot head-on to avoid any sense of concave/convex-ness in the tile. This image prints at around 5' high at 300dpi.

Some summary observations:
  • Look to bring strong elements (arcs, diagonals) to the very edge of the frame 
  • Take care in cropping arcs so that smooth circles or ellipses result when tilling 
  • Avoid making the result too much like an illustration by including strong photographic elements (people, signs etc.) 
  • Near-field to centre tilling creates convex effects 
  • Far-field to centre tilling creates concave (tunnel) effects 
  • Look out for, and use, minor opposing diagonals to help create new shapes 
  • Consider an asymmetrical crop of the result to gently disturb the repetition 
  • Tilling can impose order where none existed 
  • When a subject won’t offer a pleasing compositional balance, tilling can provide that 
  • The illustrative nature of the images means that stronger than usual saturation can work well 
  • A 4x reflection can be further tiled without the need to flip since the tile now has perfect symmetry. 
  • The centre-centric composition of a reflection-tile can be overcome by creating an odd number of tile repetitions. 
  • A larger number of repetitions can further enhance the pattern that a 4x tile creates

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Cameras Of My Life (a geekography)

You don't get to my age without losing things along the way. Either through loss, breakdown, damage or theft – nothing ever lasts forever, or so it seems. Recently I lost my main camera (a Nikon D2x). Most people's first response was 'oh well, the insurance will cover it' (if only). To an extent they're right, it's only a possession, a mass produced thing that can be replaced. That didn't stop me going into a blue funk, only lifted by the influx of some consultancy money that allowed me to get all excited about researching and buying my next daily companion. But a whole month without a camera, for the first time in over 30 years, got me reflecting on my personal history of the equipment I'd had, the money I'd spent, the decisions I'd made. So I decided to lay some of it out, on the off-chance that the story of my photographic development (excuse the pun) would be of some interest, or even some use.

Part 1: The Russian Years (1980-1985, aged 13-18)

For me photography started in an after-school club. I'm unsure now how I came to be involved but it was around the time my parents split up and a solitary, immersive, hobby was just the right thing for a disturbed and anti-social teen boy such as I was. Certainly none of the few 'friends' I had were in any way interested and the camera gave me reasons to go out on excursions on my own. I vaguely remember living with my mother at her sister's in south Yorkshire for a while. There were two much younger boys (one we would recognise as suffering from ADHD in these days) and one much older boy – so I was very much out of place. Fortunately at the time South Yorkshire buses were incredibly cheap and I could wonder off on my own for miles. Photography gave me an impetus, a reason to go a wandering. The act of 'doing photography' was an end in itself. I had no particular vision, no desire to shoot anything in particular. I was driven to simply find new things I hadn't seen before and commit them to film. I don't think I've ever really broken away from this. I've gone through phases or doing Macro, Street, Architecture, Still Life, Performance and all kinds of genres. People are forever asking me 'what kind of photography do you do?'. But for me photography has always been my life's companion, my reason for seeing. An activity that both immerses me in a place or a moment, and distances me from it at the same time. My camera is my pal, my reason for being in alien places surrounded by strangers and strangeness. Photography then was a means of capturing something I could never be a part of, and so somehow, making me a part of it after all.

At first just having money for film was a real challenge. 36 exposures bought from the school darkroom stores would typically need to last me a couple of weeks at least. The idea of owning a camera of my own was inconceivable, but I could get a loan of the school Zenits (they had an EM and an 11). I remember how the shutter speed dial was tiny and edged with sharp prongs to help the grip, but which would dig into your finger pads after prolonged use. My opportunity to shoot was highly restricted. Then one day my mother did the second thing in her life that gave the tiniest hint that she had a spark of humanity in her. Perhaps fuelled by the guilt of driving my father, brothers and sister from the house she came home with a present for me. A Russian Zorki 4 rangefinder camera costing the princely sum of £10.

I instantly loved it. The feel in the hand was like nothing else I had ever owned or known. Solid, real, dependable. Like a brick, an anchor tethering me to the world. It broke within 24hours. They have a vertical running cloth shutter and one of the cloth strips snapped – it was simply tired and at the end of its life. It's the only camera that has ever suffered a shutter failure on me, I've always been super paranoid about shutters ever since. I can't remember if this was before or after my mother murdered my dog, but the feeling was equally intense.

However, even at that age I was quite a pragmatic person. That coupled with my most thunderous Paddington stare made the man at the Beast Market junk shop give me a refund. Miraculously I found a 4K model in the pukka second hand camera stall (Arcade Cameras) in Huddersfield's Queen's Gate market. The 'upgrade' (from the 4 to 4K) should have cost an extra £5. Somehow though the owner agreed to knock £5 off the £15 asking price and I was back in business. I never told the 4K about his dead sibling.

Of course, despite the love I poured into my new constant companion, my photography wasn't very good.

I had but the one lens (a Jupiter-8 f/2 50mm standard optic) and no light meter. I knew nothing about composition, and could only rarely afford to take a shot. Plus, the town I lived in was excessively grey, what with all of its Yorkshire stone, iron works and grey rainy skies.

I would have to guess at the exposure setting using the sunny-16 rule:

On a sunny day set aperture to f/16  and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO film speed for a subject in direct sunlight.

Which in Huddersfield really meant using the rainy-8 rule – you get the point.

This typically led to excessively thin negatives, and that I think is why for many years I was way better at darkroom work than at camera work. But that was fine, I liked the darkroom. The predictability of the process suited my tenacious nature and I could spend hours sweating in the dark over the most difficult of negatives. It was a damn sight better than failing to kick a football about in the sunshine that's for sure.

Over time I expanded my kit, always when a bargain cropped up – typically at Beckton's pawn shop or on one memorable occasion at the fire damage sale in Arcade Camera's sister shop where one generous man's misery was my great delight. I ended up with a 1959 Jupiter-11 (135mm f/4), a 1949 Jupiter-12 (35mm f/2.8), a Euromaster light meter and a multi-turret additional viewfinder. All in the most shocking of conditions. But none that ever really let me down.

Part 2: Getting Serious with Olympus (1985-1999, aged 18-32)

So growing up for me was defined by struggle. Yeah, I know, it was the eighties and we all struggled – what with Thatcher and Bananrama. But nonetheless I was struggling with a lack of funds, poor but loved equipment, lack of experience, and lack of focus to develop a meaningful experience. As I said, photography was. And continued to be, a companion activity – not yet a pursuit in and of itself. I never had a conscious direction. I guess I lacked any belief that anything would ever lead anywhere. I'd done okay in my O-levels, and picked up a deep skill in computer programming (for a time writing code for the local university who had no-one that could successfully interface their RML 380Zs to their experimental equipment). I'd gone through A-levels doing the easy stuff, Maths, Physics and Computer Science (failing wilfully at General Studies). So in 1985 I found myself doing the obvious thing. Studying Computer Science at Teesside University and spending my first student grant on a new camera.

Although the Zorki was a much loved child's companion it was as crippled and dysfunctional as its owner. Like a slightly dumb friend, it was holding me back. At this time there were, to my mind, five big players in the field: Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Minolta. Minolta were an unknown quantity to me. My brother (older and so richer) was already using Canon so naturally I hated those. Nikon were well out of my price range. Pentax I'd held and really liked (an ME super) but Olympus had distinguished themselves by building the smallest SLR cameras on the market, and I really fancied one of those. Their top models (OM3 and OM4) were often seen in the hands of professionals in all the photography-porn press I could lay my hands on, and what's more they made a model with SPOT METERING (The OM2sp) – remember the struggles I had with metering growing up, that was truly my post-adolescent dream machine. So when I found second hand OM10s retailing at the £100 mark, and I had more money than I'd ever seen in the bank, I thought it was the system to buy into.

Looking back now I can see that my choice was heavily influenced by the Zorki. The diminutive nature of a rangefinder carried through on my choice of SLR and the lack of metering led me to a system that was, at the time, leading edge (this was before such things as 3D Matrix Metering, which frankly blew me away when I first read about it). So here, there's a very real, tangible, expression of how our environment conditions our response to the world. We jog (or meander) through life believing our actions to be wholly independent and rational, but in hindsight I can see that the conspiracy of experience directed me in my decision to enter in to the OM System.

I can't now remember what happened to the Zorki. I guess something traumatic that I've blanked from my mind. I vaguely recollect having to take the Jupiter-11 apart after it developed a case of rigour mortis… but since those lenses had never cost me more than a few pounds each it was a bearable loss. Once I moved to Olympus I was spending anything between £30 and £60 on a lens.

Even without spot metering like its big brother, the OM10 was a massive step forward. I loved the Off The Film metering, which meant the camera could adjust if the lighting changed during the exposure. In many ways Olympus were ahead of their time throughout the 80s. But I was concentrating on university and early working life during our relationship, so the camera remained pretty much a companion to my life rather than a force in my life. Most of my work then was in stage photography with the occasional expedition to give it its head. Out of work I was doing a lot of AmDram (I was later to run a theatre company and study for a masters in Playwriting) – the ever presence of the camera once again gave me a bridge, a way into a very cliquey (and somewhat unpleasant) world. This surviving shot shows the very talented 'M' in make-up for a production of Pirandello's Six Characters In Search Of An Author (an awful play). Three years later and he was dead. At the time in that circle all the concern was for another young man going off the rails, selling class A drugs at school etc… There was no hint of the turmoil in this young man's head that would drive him to suicide before he turned 20. I started to understand the power of documentary photography, and how simply revealing the strange held within the ordinary was a valid, and important, pursuit. Not a realisation that brought me any closer to the world, or brought me any peace – nor one that won me any accolades or competitions.

Because photography was an adjunct to my life, I may never have got round to upgrading the camera again except for circumstance that gifted me the camera I had so desired at age 18 and thought 'perhaps one day…'. A so-called-friend came into money and asked my buying advice, on the strength of which he got himself an OM2sp with which to tour Europe and turn out mediocre recollections of a mediocre, and squalid life. On his return he gifted the camera to me, in lieu of a lot of money, help and support I had given him over the years – if you can imagine finding your future wife in a brothel you may understand how I felt accepting this camera into my life. It was however, an OM2SP!

I think I gave the OM10 away to encourage a budding interest in photography elsewhere, again I find it hard to recall what happened.

I'd drifted through school and university simply doing what I happened to be good at, and finally into a high paid contracting job. That's as far as my life's vision had ever stretched. My father had always done his best to encourage his off-shoots to attain an education and once I'd done that I was devoid of direction. This is the period where I ran a theatre company for a while, took up performance poetry, did a higher degree in playwriting, took a TEFL course and was the chair for the local Music and Arts Collective. Condensed so, it appears a colourful and varied life.

But it was a chaotic period that also saw me blow the rent on a sure-thing fell-at-the-first-fence horse race, leading to my one and only moon-light flit. I remember recovering 50p pieces from a gas meter to pay for drinks with the local Arts Council drama officer, who you may have thought would understand the poverty writers live in. At times I would have to dodge angry crowds of local drug addicts since the interface of worlds always brings with it a certain friction (fortunately, heralding from an anonymous Irish ancestry I had the protection of a tight-knit and caring family). In short not a time where serious photography got much of a look in. If the Zorki had been my pal, the OM2sp was my neglected pen-pal.

I suppose it's inevitable that through a period of such poor focus, my photography would languish.

For all of the activity and immense expenditure of energy, I was basically burning years. Fortunately instead of leading to ruin I simply woke up one day (about 4 years later) thinking that it was time to get a proper job and earn some money for a change. So I took a job in a start-up company, operated by my ex-boss of 4 years prior who'd had the honour of sacking me back then. I was just too good at what I did though and he knew my skills would make a difference.

So within two years I found I was a world leading expert in computer controlled manufacturing processes – echoing right back to my first in roads in to computing when I was 13. Again, the unplanned accident of experience was shaping my life. This led to a prolonged assignment in SE Asia. And of course, the OM2sp went with me. This was absolutely a new chapter for me, and I was glad to have a serious workhorse of a camera with me.

Just as I had in South Yorkshire, I went a roaming in this distant and strange land with just my camera as companion – seeking out new things with the sole purpose of capturing them on film. I took many photographs. The camera, the environment, the personal internal focus transfigured my photography. All of a sudden it seemed, my work was actually quite good.

The last shot I took on the OM2sp was of a beheading. I knew it was about to happen, and I struggled through the decision to shoot it or not. In the last moment, as the blade swung down I decided that I would. I truly did not want to become a part of such animal cruelty and I knew the act of photographing a thing binds you to that thing. Every shot taken changes you, to a greater or lesser degree, and I allowed this goat's staged death to change me. I took the shot. But then, I lost the camera. In fact I lost an entire car. I absentmindedly left my car keys on the counter in a shopping mall as I travelled home. By the time I realised, they had gone. The remote locking device had allowed the thief to help themselves to my car, my camera, and my life changing shot of a goat's beheading. I think, to an extent I was relieved.

I could hardly stay in Malayasia without a camera, so I went out shopping. It was 1996 and Nikon had just released the F5. I was sorely tempted. The assignment certainly paid enough that I could buy one, but it was a serious investment to consider. Putting the decision off, a few days later I found myself wondering in the markets of Kuala Lumper when I spotted in the dusty corner of a shop window the Olympus insignia. Looking closer I saw a little used OM4TI. The latest marque of the pro-grade camera I'd first seen in 1985 and never even imagined I would own. It was about a tenth the price of the (new) Nikon F5. Just as the loss of the OM2sp felt as though it could have been ordained (haha, of course it couldn't have been) stumbling across the OM4TI – Olympus at its finest – seemed particularly serendipitous.

The final thing that swung it for me was the realisation that this camera had a shutter made out of titanium, surely putting to rest any lingering paranoia regards the possibility of shutter failure.

So I found myself in a strange, exotic and visually rich land with my only companion the finest camera I had never dared dream to own. Apart from the inconvenience of work (!) I not only had a sprawling canvas of photographic opportunity laid out before me, but I had no impediment nor distraction from making the most of it. Giving me the impetus to seek out the best possible shots I could, the OM4TI took me, almost, to the top of the world.

Wandering the streets of Mumbai one Saturday afternoon after a monsoon fall of rain and with a satchel full of money (I was paid by the satchelful in those days) I was stopped by a trader insistent that he had a lens I must buy. I was somewhat dubious that he had anything that would even fit an OM4TI, let alone that I would feel impelled to buy. But he produced (from god knows where) a legendary Zuiko 55mm F/1.2 optic. Shooting exclusively with available light I have always favoured fast lenses. Later in life I stuck with Nikon manual focus lenses for years after the introduction of AF largely because AF lenses are typically a whole stop darker. So this was a true gem. The price was, of course, almost nothing. I paid him more than he was asking and continued my globetrotting feeling like the richest man in the world.

Not only did the OM4TI take me to the top of the world and furnish me with one of the finest lenses I'd ever had my hands on, it was even the camera I shared my life with when first I met my future wife.

Even though it was just a product, easily replaced, it certainly has a place close to my heart. It even had the good grace to die at an appropriate time, quietly in its sleep.

Part 3: Stepping Up To Pro Grade Kit (1999-2006, aged 32-39)

Once I returned home the OM4TI exposure system failed, so I was left with a husk of a camera. But it had done a damn fine job and by now my photographic skills, both technical and compositional, had progressed such that it really made no sense to continue with anything other than the finest optics available. As good as Olympus were, they did not keep pace with innovation (or market share) through the 90s and for top quality glass a move to Nikon (or I suppose Canon) was necessary. I made an insurance claim against the OM4TI and entered into a lengthy battle with The Loss Adjuster, who wanted to saddle me with a Nikon F100. I simply didn't trust this model. Having travelled the world I wanted something undeniably robust, that wasn't going to let me down in the middle of a desert thousands of miles from home (I didn't yet know such wayfaring was largely behind me).

We duelled for days and eventually settled on the mechanical FM3a with Nikon's 50mm f/1.2 and handheld spotmeter. Although not purchased by me, this was the first camera I owned from new (so no shutter failure anxiety). This was a real work horse of a camera, and the first to bring me 'success' in terms of having my work published (shortlisted, travel photographer of the year award 2008, overall winner BBC Staff Photography Competition 2006).

Every SLR I've owned since has brought me that kind of success, so the FM3a marks the dawning of a new chapter in my photographic journey. A highly robust, no frills, minimum features camera that's all about delivering results. No longer a buddy in a big and frightening world, but rather my lieutenant in the war I am raging against the worst excesses of so-called humanity. And still, shaped from my childhood, I was favouring mechanical devices over the emerging all electronic and disposable world.

By this time my day job had descended back into the mundane. I mean, it was alright, I was doing good work – contributing to international standards, problem solving problems much bigger corporations couldn't get their heads around, orchestrating the best efforts of others; but there was little further to challenge me. At the same time my soon to be wife had moved to London and we spent years on a 'long distance' relationship. So once again, I quit what I was doing to seek brave new adventures (this time on amicable terms) and set off for a life in London. Taking the FM3a with me.

On my very first weekend there, the secret Sultan's Elephant came visiting (quite how you keep a 20 foot hydraulic elephant secret is beyond me). Me and my first Nikon were there to capture it. I had also seriously upgraded my darkroom by then, with a Leica V4 enlarger and a good stock of toners. This split-toned print pretty much represents the top of my bent regards darkroom skills.

Once I moved to Nikon I found my average spend on optics was around 10x what I had been spending with Olympus (and around 100x what I had been spending with the Zorki), a typical lens costing ~£600, but the consequential quality is palpable.

By this time (2006) the world had firmly shifted to digital – just as I was attaining some level of basic capability with film and was finally equipped with top grade camera and darkroom equipment. I refused to fully embrace digital for another 4 years. In the interim I took full advantage of the world's penchant for discarding the perfectly good in preference for 'the next big thing'.

In 2004 I decided I was allowed to have 2 cameras. Photography was an important enough part of my life to justify such extravagance. I'd come a long way from the days of not even hoping I could own a single camera and lens – but I do believe my results justified the stance. Even though I knew really I was just pandering to the geek in me. I realized the digital 'revolution' everyone else was on meant that people we're junking perfectly fine film cameras. So I took a look on eBay and discovered the Nikon F4 available for under £250.

I was also seriously researching my skills. Around this time my older brother would routinely buy me books of Ansell Adams photographs for Christmas etc  and I studied his 3 volume work inside out. I understand the Zone System attracts its fanaticism both in defence and attack of it – and nothing irritates me more than the blind stubborn stances that people take on this issue. Certainly Adams taught me a lot, since I read him with an enquiring mind not as a slavish adopter. He did however have the same family name as my soon to be wife, so I knew he could not be all bad.

The F4 is a legendary camera, at the very apex of Nikon's film bodies (the F5 and F6 being compromised evolutions) and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I picked one up cheaply and I sold it on less cheaply. It's not a camera I lived with for very long, so is perhaps a little out of place here, but it played an important role in my experience and influenced future buying decisions. Once I embraced digital, I fully understood the benefits of a camera like this and knew that the D<n> models would be important.

Having moved to London and allowed the BBC to take advantage of my skills I found I'd joined what was then a pretty old school corporation. Surprisingly a few months after joining I found there was an annual 'performance related bonus' scheme, which gifted me in excess of £1k on top of my wage. If I'd known this was going to happen perhaps I would have tried harder. This was a rare influx of excess, unaccounted for, money and my ever supportive wife didn't bat an eyelid when I said "I'd kinda like to buy a camera".

And at this point I kind of went full circle, buying a 1938 Leica IIIb. A German rangefinder camera that my original Zorki had been modelled on. The Zorki though was seriously more convenient in many respects. This camera loads from the bottom, not the back (awkward) and the film leader needs trimming quite precisely if you're to avoid the entire roll splitting in two and ending up coiled in a mess behind the lens (which happened to me). The shutter speeds are set on two dials, fast speeds on the top plate dial, and slower speeds on the front dial. You have to remember to manually reset the frame counter on each loading, or risk shooting beyond the end of the film, snapping the film off the cartridge with no option but to unload the camera in the darkroom (awkward). In essence, you come to understand that the intervening 70 years of camera development is more a matter or essential practicalities than simple enhancements. But rather than taking such advances for granted I had personal experience that allowed me to understand the working mechanics of modern cameras, and their design limits.

The quality of the lenses is unquestionable, and in modern technology, unattainable. The top quality Nikon lenses I was starting to use gave stunning resolution and clarity – but the character of the 1950s Leica lenses I bought (35mm Summaron f/3.5, 50mm Summicron f/2) was irresistible. And although it was entirely awkward to set the camera up, once on the street it was simply the most discrete piece of kit possible. This camera led me into street photography by its nature and its history. Although I had started treating cameras as though I was their master rather than they were my pal – with the Leica it was almost as though the camera was treating me as ITS pal. We stayed together for 3 or 4 years then parted company amicably. I sold it on as I was becoming more immersed in the advantages of digital (and as digital was growing up somewhat) since we were spending less and less time together. But it is a period in my photography I won't forget, and even now I suspect there'll be a time when I dabble with a pre-war Leica once again. Or maybe I'll get truly serious and pick up an M3 at some point… It's good to know they're out there.

Part 4: Turning Digital (2006-to date, aged 39-47)

The story here on out is much simpler. Somewhere along the way I had lost a father but gained a wife. So I maintained a stabilising influence in my life, there was someone there for whom it was worth living. For a long time photography as my companion was all about recording the worse of what I saw, kids who were soon to be dead, pigs snuffling in the trash on the streets of Mumbai, Goats sacrificed for tourists in Nepal. But somewhere a subtle change settled in and I came to realise that the best of my work was about making the ugly, or the mundane, beautiful. We're well aware of the grand lie that is the beauty industry, and we can see clearly the hideous nature of furs and cosmetics. But understanding the beauty that is evident in the everyday is much harder, and I do not claim to understand it, but I do believe that now my camera and I can render it. I once read that boys don't grow up until they lose their father, and for a while it seemed true for me. But as I reflect now on the course I have travelled with my photography and my cameras I see this shift in my work as being coincident with the voluntary commitment I gave to my now wife. My father gave me an outsider's life, a distrust of and rage against the world. My wife tempers that, with joy and a damned good reason to try and make it a better place.

Also, having moved to London she didn't' mind one bit that I wanted to buy a new camera, my first digital body – a grey import Nikon D200. It would take all my existing Nikon lenses, some dating from the 1970s, so although I was moving with the times, I was certainly taking one step at a time. I did trial an AF zoom (35-70mm AFD) but I hated its clumsy noisy slow operation and stuck mostly with my manual focus 105mm Macro and 24mm f/2.

The D200 went with me to over 500 gigs and recorded an archive of in excess of 3000 London performances before succumbing to a drunken evening's dousing in absinthe, from which it never recovered. But it had done a job that no other camera has, and although that archive is little consumed whilst oft abused (yes, people do keep stealing my work although I'll refrain from naming the bastards here) it sits there ready to delight generations to come. The performance photography though was something akin to a succubus, taking far too much time and energy distracting me from being more dedicated to creating images for their own sake, which is something I now longed more and more for.


So with the demise of the D200 I had to re-equipment myself, and on a much tighter budget. But as you'll realise, I've never been interested in spending megabucks on the latest hot thing. Cameras have never been commodity for me. Each and every one has come at a price that it had to justify, they have always had to earn their place.

So with the D3 firmly at the helm of Nikon's pro range for the last 4 years I realised that a D2x second hand would represent excellent value. I put in weeks of work to study price versus shutter actuations (the D2x was designed for around 250,000 shutter releases) to make sure I got a body that wasn't going to fail me. For the first time since the F4 I once again felt that ergonomically sculptured body in my hands and it is probably best not to say over much about just how carressable it was. It was pretty beaten up, with most of the body rubbers missing and cracks in the display screen, but it did an excellent job and put up with many knocks I subjected it to.

At first the D2x picked up where the D200 left off, adding to my live performance archive, but then my wife came up with a brilliant idea. But more on that shortly…

For all the benefits of the D2x, it was a bulky beast and there were many days when I would elect to leave it at home. This didn't sit well. Not a day had passed in over 30 years when I had not owned a camera, and having such a camera sat at home felt like an utter waste. About this time (2012) we had successfully won a bullying in the workplace case. One of the hardest times of our lives, I really felt that we had fought and slayed dragons. The win brought with it a modest recompense which not only took us to Greece for a much needed holiday but which also bought me my tenth camera.

Uncharacteristically I went for something truly leading edge, a Nikon 1 V1. D'Oh. It looked and handled like the Zorki and Leica – a very capable and discrete bit of kit. With it I briefly returned to street photography and it went with me every single day for well over a year. I was very happy with it for quite some time. But Nikon screwed up really. They just didn't make it to the professional build quality I needed, although they did price it handsomely. A little out of warranty and one of the lenses broke down. An internet search convinces me it was a basic design flaw (a flexible cable in the collapsible lens snagged and snapped).

I still have the V1, with its longer lens, sat right now on my desk. Given how I came by it, and in fact some of the results it has delivered, I love it very much. It will continue to serve me on the days that carrying something more robust is too big an ask. But despite its diminutive allure, it just isn't the right kit for me. At least I am re-adjusted to my conditioning and I won't again fall into the trap of buying the latest hot thing (and boy, does that camera run hot!)

So I returned to the trusty, but bulky D2x in order to execute on my wife's excellent idea. Photographing the London performance scene had become a drag, and had never been appreciated as much as it ought to have been. But I needed a significant project, a grand opus if you like. The idea was to photograph every tube station on the London underground system, all 267 of them. But to make one (just one) excellent 'artistic' (as opposed to documentary) image of each. This would take at least a year, and so would encompass a sense of time and season. It would also be an archival record of substance of one aspect of the city in time. Furthermore it would capitalise on the approach my photography has currently arrived at. For me, right now, its all about what Ansell Adams would call 'image management' – control of the geometry of the optics.

The D2x has carried me about a quarter of the way through this project so far. I'm surprised, or in fact delighted, to discover that the images have a real effect on people living in London. Every one I post online attracts attention, comment. The underground stations weave themselves into the daily lives of folk and evoke responses and personal recollections. This is an archive, unlike the performance archive, that connects with people and allows me to explore the very heart of my approach to photography, to make the mundane, the everyday, visually exciting and stimulating.

The D2x has passed on, I don't want to go into the details, it's still too painful – but rest assured camera number 11 has been chosen wisely and is starting its friendship with me in the most positive of terms.

In Conclusion

This has been a strange article for me. Mostly I write about technicalities but recollecting the cameras of my life has led me to consider my relationship with the world and the things that have shaped my photographer's vision. Something that I was less aware of when I started on this path. I don't know if these biographical musings will be of use, or even interest, to others. But here it is. It turns out that for me cameras are not just mass produced commodities. They are a vital part of my life, and my way of seeing the world. They, and the images they have captured, have helped shape my life. There is a magic to photography. As a teaser, I will leave you with one shot from camera number 11, which arrived about a month ago…

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Learning to trace in 25 days


Tracing of Christine and Ant
In December my wife suddenly turns to me and says 'do you want to abstain from alcohol in January and raise money for Mind?' I looked at her with my best Paddington stare as I processed the question. Of course, I could do such a thing, easily. In fact I was so certain that I could, the whole venture seemed, somewhat pointless - just a lot of trouble really. But it was apparent that it wouldn't cut the mustard to proclaim 'of course I could, there's no point in even considering it'. I knew I'd have to, if only to prove I'm not a dependent. So I said with a sigh "Oh, alright then".

Thus it was, I came to have a little more time on my hands. So throughout January 2014 I found my self spending a lot of time doodling on my iPhone with an App called Adobe Ideas. This app allows you to load a photograph as a base to draw against, which can later be removed. A tracing app in fact. I found myself learning to draw round things. I'm not actually very good at drawing as perhaps my very first sketch (shown here) will testify.


These early sketches are without question really very badly executed. This is pretty poor considering they're only tracings. I really am that bad at drawing. But they do have a certain charm and humour to them, so I persevered - secretly enjoying the enterprise even though it was kind of childish in its execution. I posted them up on my Facebook 'wall' and they attracted a steady stream of 'likes' - enough to spur me on (you should know, I never need very much encouragement to act childishly). By the fifth sketch I got 13 likes and 11 comments with people actually asking to be my next victim.

So I thought, perhaps there is some 'artistic merit' in exercising this simple mechanical skill. The thought sat uncomfortably with me - in the same way as I'm not too keen on taking photographs of graffiti. It seems like all you're doing is ripping off someone else's creative vision - unless you somehow bring something new to the story.

Joy & Donations

So the next thing I did was to post a status update offering to provide a sketch for anyone who felt like being visually insulted. That posting brought 24 willing victims forward with requests like:

Go on then. I'll be your next guinea pig (victim)
I do Ant. Need a laugh x
Do your worst mate.
but you gotta find a really bad picture of me..
fuck yes.
My ego craves it.
memememememe!! I wanna HATE the results!!
oh yeah! She says nervously...
Make me hate myself.

I did as many of these as I possibly could, but there were so many of them coming at me so thick and so fast that I felt I was back in India surrounded by beggars smothering me in respect and honour. I had to close the offer, but still the requests kept coming. It got really quite intense. On the 7th of January alone I did 9 sketches (well tracings) of folk. And you know, they were actually improving.

On the 10th, 1/3rd of the way through the month I reminded everyone I was going dry and raising money for Mind. I repeated my offer to sketch folk, but this time in return for a donation. I raised well over £20 for Mind by doing not-totally-crap sketches of people. That's a good thing.

So while struggling philosophically with the idea there may (or may not) be any artistic merit in drawing round things dozens of people were queuing up for a turn, sharing good-willed banter and donating money to a worthy charity. That sealed it really, I was definitely learning something of worth and value here.

Juxtapositions and Transitionals

But as the skill improved the raw charm of the early pieces was certainly diminished, so I started to think about how I could make this mechanical skill of tracing a valid expressive form going forward. I think there's a few key approaches that mean a tracing can be considered a valid new work, despite being inherently based on some pre-existing work. I.e.:

- by derivation; once the tracing is complete it can be adapted by adding entirely imaged components. In fact this is exactly what I did in my very first attempt ("Hello Humans"), by adding the body to the character on the right.

- by juxtaposing tracings of different things that cannot, or do not, occur together; the components of the resulting image are 'mere mechanical copies' of some other work but the overall piece is unquestionably a new message, story, artwork. The image of a spaceman (from a photo in the Science Museum) and post box (from a snap taking on route to work) is a striking example.

- by origination, creating the base image to be traced, specifically for the tracing not as a completed work in its own right, the tracing becomes the prima facie artwork. In the 'tube commute' example here the originating photograph was of poor quality and in itself intrinsically uninteresting. The tracing lends a quality of abstraction that helps cohere the composition. In essence, an image that works as a tracing but which does not work as a photograph.

- by control of detail; the conscious decisions of exactly which lines to put into the tracing and which to leave out. As the tracings become more and more detailed these decisions represent the 'zen' of the process and the tracer knows internally whether the result validly represents a genuinely new take on the artwork, or not.

So the process of tracing involves conscious compositional and narrative decisions, pure joy and unquestionable communication - all facets of successful artistic endeavour. Thus I was happy this childish skill is worth all of the effort it takes to execute and does represent a valid artistic endeavour. That's when I became obsessive in the execution.

Art & Obsession

I have long thought that good art involves deep obsession. For a time an artwork has to consume you with intense concentration to the exclusion of other concerns - be that an hour or a year. If the work fails to achieve that in the artist during execution, then what hope does it really have to engage anyone else? Certainly this belief is borne out in my later tracing works.

All these works have been produced by finger-tracing on a tiny iPhone screen. The concentration is somewhat excessive (note to reader, the iPad version of the app certainly makes life a lot easier).

To really exercise the mechanical skill, whilst working through the foregoing philosophical questions, I started working with highly complex multi-figure scenes, famous classical art works and finely detailed insects. All of this culminated in a sketch comprising 43 individual scenes:

Having produced this 'opus' in around 8 hours I sat back and considered the work of the past 25 days which amounted to just over 50 sketches - the full series cn be viewed here:

I firmly believe that I've learnt both a new skill and a new (to me) form of artistic expression in a little under a month. Proof perhaps that you can teach an old dog new tricks. For the last word on the 'validity' question, look-out for issue 9 of The Black Light Engine Room; not only is it a great poetry anthology magazine but this issue's covers are examples of my sketching. Which is nice.

Oh, and Dennis Just Dennis (Poet) is using one in his upcoming book. which is also nice. Very nice.

Oh, and with my team of fellow abstainers (Christine, Calm Carl and Sarah-Jane) we raised well over £600 for Mind. A good dry January.