4 From 7: no. 2

A village fair and some shots taken into cafes for this week's offering:

Like Buses

No posts for a while and then two in one day…

 

Just a short one to mention how honoured I am to have been listed in the list of Top 10 UK Street Photography Blogs. For me, it’s a real honour to be mentioned alongside the likes of Linda Wisdom (Linda Wisdom Photography) and Max Gor  (maxgor.com).

 

Do check them out and the other great UK photographers in the list. And pass them on…

 

Thanks,

Hugh.

London Light - Feb 2018

My blog thus far has tended to be philosophical ramblings about photography; musings on settings and gear; or the occasional “how to.” That probably begins to explain why blogging tends to happen fortnightly - fitting around the day job and collecting my thoughts gets in the way.

 

I have decided that perhaps the blog space is the place to try posting photos that I have been taking recently with a view to seeing how they look published, out there in the world, for all to see. Be prepared for more photos and and more posts - though just as many words.

 

Last Saturday I was in London with the camera, though not specially to take photos - this was a family outing. The trusty Fuji x100f is never far from my hands. The light was fantastic, even if the clear blue skies meant the air was shockingly cold, making holding a camera a challenge at times. I can’t do gloves. Gloves seem to introduce some kind of layer between camera and brain - as well as between hand and camera. I just can’t seem to function properly as a photographer in them.     

 

Here is a mix of colour and black and white images from the day - all shot around South Kensington and Brompton Road.

It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing.

 Jazz and Cocktails. London, Jan 2018.

Jazz and Cocktails. London, Jan 2018.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a stupid thing to want to do.” Elvis Costello says; at least he is just one of several musicians who this quote has been attributed to. The more attributes, the more pertinent - perhaps. So, if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, how about writing about photography? And what about about the connections between jazz and street photography? That is what is currently occupying one partially lit corner of my mind.

 

Many great photographers have shot evocative images of many great jazz musicians, it's true - deep blacks, crisp rim-shot whites, all filtered through a haze of filter-less Gitanes smoke. You can almost hear the flattened fifths of the tenor saxophone. The music and the stylised black and whites take us back to a bygone age when cigarette smoke was de rigeur and a kipper tie, pork pie hat and blacked out shades was the uniform of the new school of jazz. But that particular alley is not where we are heading.

 

Instead, I want to explore the connections between jazz and shooting on the street.

 

Music and photography both have their own distinct subcultures or genres, each demanding a different appreciation and I think there are similarities here. Take landscape photography. This requires a considered approach, taking time, preparation and precision to create the greatest images. In this it is a kin to classical music. The holiday snapshot; surely that’s pop music. Immediate, brash, unsophisticated for the most part, disposable yet relevant and life enhancing. Street photography must be jazz. 

 

Jazz relies on certain rules or forms. Structures are learned - scales, cycles, blue notes - forwards and backwards and around. Well known songs, standards, are revisited time and time again as new elements are unearthed and discovered or rediscovered by new bloods eager to make themselves heard. It requires a great deal of technical proficiency. These structures are echoed in street photography with its foundation in other genres of photography and of visual art - the rules of composition, the work of the greats on whose giant shoulders the photographer attempts to climb.

 

Perhaps the defining feature of jazz is its reliance upon improvisation. True, this is not confined to jazz. Classicists will tell you that the great composers created frameworks for improvisation. However, it is improvisation which defines jazz. This, to me, is where the arcs of jazz and street photography swing closest to one another.

 

The dictionary will tell you that improvisation can mean making do. Who would want to sit on an improvised chair, or tuck into an improvised meal? Improvisation in jazz is not about making do. Far from it; but it is about making, creating something afresh. It is about an artist at the peak of his/her powers, creating something on the spot whilst referencing the traditions that preceded them and demonstrating their technical prowess in response to a given situation. It means a high level of technical proficiency combined with a high level of creativity.

 

Isn’t this what the street photographer does? In creating a new image, they bring to bear the knowledge of every image they have ever been influenced by. They use their technical expertise coupled with the inside-out knowledge of their camera, each button and lever falling into place instinctively just as the keys of every piano or saxophone do in the hands of the most skilled jazz musician. And they do this instantaneously; responding to whatever happens along.

 

It is this ability to react quickly to whatever is going on around them which makes a great street photographer or  great jazz musician. It is part anticipation, part learned technique and part luck. The challenge is to rearrange the world into something beautiful from whatever ingredients you are handed at the time.

 

The moment of creation is one of stepping off into the void. For a jazz musician, it means being able to imagine the sounds before they have been made; for a photographer it is about envisaging the image before the shutter is pressed. Nether moment is repeatable in quite the same way. This is what puts the energy into the piece or the image. This is where the excitement lies.

 

Perhaps most significantly, jazz also likes to throw away the rules. At its most free, it is simply a celebration of sound and reaction to an environment. Street photography, too, is at its most creative and innovative when it bends the rules, breaks the structures and surprises our expectations. A celebration, a riot of light.

 

As the great Charlie Parker said: “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”

 

Jazz has always doffed its pork-pie hat to tradition but forged bravely forwards into new territories and this, to me, is what street photography does best.

Resolutions: 2018

Having allowed myself the indulgence of reflecting in my last blog it only seems right to think about the challenge of resolutions for the new year that has just started. I’m not talking about any of that dry January, veganuary, or any other personal “anuary” stuff but purely about a photographic perspective. However, it is a subjective consideration of where I need to put in some hours and resolve to improve my work with the camera. Join in if you want to.

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It’s always good to begin a list with at least one thing you can tick off already so straight in at number one is “Enter more competitions.” Of course, the more bit is the easy bit here because even one competition entered would mark a massive percentage increase on last year’s zero competitions entered - but I am delighted to announce that I can already tick this particular resolutionary box. I succeeded in entering three candid street shots into the Sony World Photography Exhibition, sneaking in just hours before the deadline of 1.00 p.m. GMT on Thursday 4th January. 

This is one of my favourite events of the last few years, visiting the exhibition each April/May in Somerset House with a couple of good camera comrades. I’d definitely recommend it if you haven’t been before. How incredible (unbelievable) it would be to see an image of mine represented this year.

Of course, there will have to be other competitions entered to really feel that I have fully embraced the whole resolution thing.

 

Number Two - Slow Down. Something I’m not particularly good at - which is probably why I’m more Mister Street than Mister Landscape, Mister Macro or Mister Portrait. I habitually shoot at a fairly fast shutter speed (1/500th) as I ricochet through town centres. I don’t want to stop that completely but I am aware that there are times when taking a more considered approach will pay off. Heck - I could even bring the viewfinder to my eye from time to time, like a real photographer. I think this may also mean carrying two cameras and shooting slowly with a longer focal length. I have the beautiful Fujinon xf56mm f1.4 lens which is equivalent to an 85mm full frame lens and produces beautifully creamy bokeh. I’ve tried shooting fast and furious with it from the hip - gunslinger style - but I miss almost every time. If I could slow down and shoot from further away, taking my time to compose and get just the right shot, it would bring a new style to my work with compressed foreground and a magical fall off. 

 

Number Three - I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that I only know part of my camera. There’s so much more that I could utilise if I only knew how. I can get it to do the things I need fairly quickly but my needs are simple and mainly based around getting a quick result. However, I know that there are shortcuts and settings that would help if I took the time to get my head around them. I read other people talking about how they’ve customised their settings or watch You Tube clips of magic fingered photographers working their camera like it’s some kind of Rubik's cube. I could never do them either. An afternoon by the fire, working out my optimal settings, is probably all it needs  - there just always seem to be better things to do with an afternoon.  

 

Number Four - is a processing issue. It seems that most people think of my work as black and white. That’s fine. I love monochrome. But I do love colour too and some of my favourite photographers have a real strength in colour - Saul Leiter, Harry Gruyaert, Ernst Haas, Alex Webb, Fred Herzog. I know I like my flavours strong and perhaps that’s the problem. I find it all too easy to overdo colour processing. I think it’s finished and publish it; then I look at it and feel that I’ve overdone it again. More subtle in 2018, that’s the plan.

 

Number Five - keep on keeping on. By this I mean to continue taking the kind of shots I want to look at; photographing for me and not for anyone else. This way I will continue to develop my own style and voice. I know I’m good at getting close - often too close that I lose the setting - but maybe I should step back a bit to contextualise a shot and then not be afraid to crop in should I need to; perhaps take some of the clutter out of a shot and focus on the key elements of an image.

 

So, there are my photographic resolutions laid bare. What about you? What will you change?

2017 Reflections

According to Lightroom folders, I’ve taken about 20% more photos this year than in 2016. I already shoot too many. Of course, the number on file is nothing compared to the number taken - I delete a huge proportion of the number I take. And, I guess, like any street photographer, many of these will include the nearly shots - the ones that would’ve been classics if I hadn’t missed a head off or framed the action too far off the edge, or forgotten to switch the camera on/insert SD card/bring extra batteries. Ah the ones that got away.

 2017....

2017....

 

Crucially, have I improved? As Yoda puts it in the latest Star Wars movie “The greatest teacher failure is.” Perhaps this is the new hope - that we continue to learn from our mistakes. I have to believe I have and looking back at last year’s photographs I certainly feel that this year’s crop are more knowing, more intelligent. They have probably lost a certain innocence or naivety. That, in itself, may not be such a good thing. It isn’t good if my images have simply aligned themselves to others' perception of what makes a good shot. I hope that I have maintained an essence of me and even developed a more recognisable style. I still try to take the pictures that I want to see - rather than trying to conform to someone one else’s view of what works.

 

This year I have even discovered the joys of printing. For as long as I’ve been taking photos seriously they have existed only on a computer screen or a mobile device. My first exhibition at the tail end of the year necessitated finding out about printing and seeing the first fifteen black and white images printed was such a proud moment, eager to unwrap them at my desk and showing any poor soul who happened to be passing. Thanks to the Printspace for doing such a great job. The exhibition was a far greater success than I could ever have dreamt and I loved giving my talk - who knew I’d love talking so much? (Ahem!) Following the exhibition, some of the prints now hang in my home and in my office and I do still enjoy seeing them, adding to the sense that I am shooting the shots I would like to see. Long may that last.

 

A year ago my website was only a few months old. A year on, blogging hasn’t exactly been frantic but it has been fairly regular and consistent - enough to see the site in the top 50 street photography websites online - though I wonder how many there are… I’ve bashed away on Instagram and Twitter and seen my following increase, now approaching the 1,100 mark on instagram (not huge but not nothing). More importantly, as a result of plugging away on these I secured an interview and feature with Digital Photographer (Issue 195) and a feature on www.streetphotography.com. Both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

 

Honestly, if you’d told me at the beginning of 2017 that by the end I’d have achieved half of the things above I would have struggled to believe it. I’ve been very lucky and very well supported. You know who you are... thank you.

 

Artistically, my photographs are better. I know they are because I am more fussy about quality control and what I will allow through. I have improved my editing workflow and become better - more subtle but still with some way to go especially with colour. I have honed a style that uses sub framing a lot and is better for it. I have improved my techniques with night shots and my street work is now more about capturing well composed moments and not simply catching a passer by on the way to the supermarket.

 

So, if could go back a year, what advice would I give myself?

  1. Believe in what you’re doing especially the black and white - and be true to your vision of what is right.
  2. Keep pushing the social media on a regular basis. Blog too whenever you can.
  3. Don’t underestimate the value of just sitting and looking at pictures - online, in a book or a gallery. If that doesn’t sit comfortably with your Protestant work ethic, then think of it as high class training for the eyes.

Published and not damned

Photographically, things have built to something of a head in the last weeks of 2017 for me. Having finished an exhibition which proved to be more successful than I could ever imagine, I find myself featured in the December 2017 edition (195) of Digital Photographer - available across the planet, they tell me. And online at www.dphotographer.co.uk

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For some one who only ever saw their photography on a screen until a few weeks ago, it’s a bit of a head spin. Now I see my images aligned professionally with text and formatting ... and everything. And they look all right! Actually, to coin the old joke about the chap who was run over by a steam train - I’m chuffed to bits. 

So, if you’re near a newsagent and not snowed under five feet of white stuff then wend your merry way down to the High Street and check out my eight page feature. 

Unfinished Symphonies

I never thought knowing when to stop would be so difficult.

I know that for many photographers the actual decisive moment of pressing the shutter is the moment they live for. They carry their fresh new image, hermetically sealed and protected, back to their darkroom, Lightroom or whatever their chosen editing suite is and enjoy the moment of revelation when the image they have brought home with them will be revealed for all to see. They believe that time spent on processing is time that could be better spent pounding the street, seeking out new vistas for that elusive sunrise or framing up new poses for their latest model.

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Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy that. But (whisper it) I also enjoy processing my images. Most of my images are grabbed in 1/500 of a second but I can often spend far longer adjusting exposure, contrast, clarity, dodging and burning in the warmth and comfort of my own home. And I can drink coffee while I do!

Then there’s the moment when processing is complete and I can convert the image into a JPEG ready for posting online - frozen forever in its finished state like some prehistoric creature beneath the ice of the Arctic never to change again.

For the first time since I’ve been taking photography seriously I recently had a dozen large black and white images printed (thank you The Printspace - top job). There was a bit of preparation that needed doing to ensure that they reached the printers in the way that was best for them but these were basically the finished JPEG’s that I had tweaked, honed and so proudly posted online to a good reception.

However, one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the feeling that I had finished. There was to be no more tweaking, no more considering, no more trying different presets - this was what they were going to look like. Forever!

Two days later they arrived, securely wrapped and shielded in their cardboard armour. Unwrapping them eagerly, I was blown away. Not only did they actually look finished, they looked great - somehow, exactly how I had envisioned them (well dur....). How could I have created such large and professional looking prints? Yet, deep inside, there was that niggle that no matter how much I wanted to, there was no longer anything I could do to interfere for better or for worse. It was not unlike raising children to adulthood and sending them off into the world to make their own way. The images are out there now.

Not only that, they are installed in their own exhibition space - don’t even start me on what it was like leaving them wrapped and in the hands of the curator!

But, still, I must learn from this; learn to finish more and free them to be bold and confident just as they are.