On Being a Photographer

“Never Too Old to Learn” is the title of one of the assignments from the newspaper photography course I attended back in 1992.

I remember it particularly well because I ended up contriving a story in which a grandmother was learning to fly helicopters. Of course she wasn’t actually learning to fly helicopters, but since this was just an exercise in illustration it didn’t have to be a true story.

I found a suitably elderly model and a suitably cooperative helicopter pilot, put the two together and took some shots which worked pretty well. All lies, but it fulfilled the purpose of the assignment and the grandmother had a blast.

The reason I’m reminded of this particular college assignment now is because I’ve just bought a copy of “On Being A Photographer” by David Hurn and Bill Jay. Even as a photographer with 30+ years in his back pocket, I still expect to learn a great deal from reading this book.

The other college-days connection here is that David Hurn founded the School of Documentary Photography in Newport. I went to Stradbroke college in Sheffield because that was where budding newspaper photographers went if they wanted to get into the industry. Us Stradbrokers would scoff at the Newport photographers because they had a reputation for swanning about in desert boots while carrying Billingham bags and dreams of shooting for National Geographic.

We were “the real photographers” who would all go on to work for The Independent or Observer magazine, covering conflict and strife around the globe. In reality Newport was a very fine college (the very best for photo-documentary training) and we had as much chance of fulfilling our perceived destinies as those who went to Newport. In other words, not much chance at all.

Actually, most of us did at least make it on to local and regional papers and one or two of us worked with national titles. Even now, one or two of our cohort are still working (albeit occasionally) for international titles.

But Stradbroke for me was 28 years ago. So why have I gone back to the books? In particular one written by the founder of a course I disparaged at the time? Simple; I’ve grown up. I’ve changed and I continue to change. I’m always looking at new sources of inspiration and solid foundations for new knowledge. I slightly wish I’d been able to go to Newport, even better go to Newport AND Stradbroke; that would have been incredible, but it wasn’t possible.

On Being A Photographer has a particular focus on the kind of work I do in my personal projects now and in this regard it will prove invaluable. I know I’ll learn new, better approaches and I’ll have a clearer understanding of how a photo essay should be approached.

It might take me another 30 years, but I hope this book will put me on the path to being a better documentary photographer. I’ll have to let you know how it goes.

 

The Female Perspective

Once in a while I need to step back from talking about my own work on this blog and take a look around at some of the other incredible work which exists out there.

That’s what I’m doing this week, having just stumbled across a new website which gathers together all the female photojournalists, from the inception of the genre to the present day, and presents them in a single website. The site in question https://trailblazersoflight.com/ is pretty large in itself, but then links off to external sites and articles about each photographer.

You can click on the name of any photographer within the huge list of names to see more about them. Where there is no standalone website representing the photographer, you’ll be taken to an article about them (New York Times seems to feature regularly here). Otherwise, you’ll be taken directly to the photographer’s website.

What strikes me is the sheer quantity of highly respected photojournalists listed. It doesn’t surprise me that they are women, but there are so many at all, and that so few are names I have ever come across previously.

I’ve bookmarked the site so I can work my way through photographer-by-photographer to learn about those photojournalists I’ve never heard of before, as well as to remind myself of the incredible work of those with whom I’m more familiar. Seeing the work of top operators of the field is one of my main sources of inspiration.

Of course the site is extremely important if we’re ever going to highlight the work of women in a male-dominated field, but I think it’s worth setting aside the female-centric focus and just wallowing in the sheer breadth, depth and quality of the work. It’s a shame that many of these names have faded from discussions about photojournalism, where perhaps the more macho side of reportage has taken precedence, but this project is a start in redressing the balance.

Perhaps what is more tragic is that as newspapers and magazines continue to die on their feet, and as shooting true photojournalism becomes ever more dangerous, opportunities for photojournalists of any gender are increasingly difficult to find and fund. I very much hope that female photojournalists will find greater equality with their male counterparts as well as an industry vibrant enough to make the future bright for such talent to flourish and to be recognised.

This is vital if women are to be inspired to take up this noble profession in decades to come, and I see sites such as Trailblazers of Light as an important force for such inspiration where other sources are struggling.

Drive-In Gallery

As Bowie never sang, “It’s a crash course for the ravers, it’s a dri-i-i-ive-in photo exhibition.”

So having crammed another Bowie reference into a blog post like pushing a banana through a keyhole, what I’m trying to explain here is that I’m massively thrilled to announce that tomorrow sees the launch of my first solo exhibition in an open-air space. To be precise, it’s a car park, making this the world’s first drive-in photo exhibition.

Now, don’t ruin it for me by googling this and finding one already exists, I did search and the closest I found was an underground car park ramp to some billionaire’s posh residence with walls lined with priceless paintings. That doesn’t count.

This all started a few months ago when I approached Mendip District Council (owners of the Saxonvale site) to see if there was any way I could continue documenting the site since they’d made it secure. The timing of my contact was perfect – someone in the council had seen What Happened Here and decided some of the photos would look great on the site hoardings, so we looked at various possibilities from a few different angles and came up with a plan.

Mendip council officers agreed to go ahead with the project and I re-scanned the chosen images since they were going to go big, and I mean VERY big.

Two days ago I visited the very excellent Compugraphic in Frome to see some of the prints coming off their large-format printer ready to be mounted on aluminium composite board; thirteen images in total, 1.5 x 1 metre in size with two of them 1 metre square format. In other words, really huge prints and certainly larger than I’d ever had anything printed before.

I’d been concerned that I couldn’t supply good enough files for such enlargement, but when I saw the prints I nearly cried! They look fantastic, and where I’d been thinking that viewing distance would make up for any loss in quality, I’ll be happy for visitors to walk right up to these. They’ll be able to dive right into the grain of the images.

The panels will be displayed on hoardings in the Merchants Barton car park in the town centre for at least the next few months, so if you do happen to be in the area I hope you’ll check it out. You can find out even more from Mendip’s press release here.

In the meantime, this may well be my final post of 2019 as Project Bunker is overrunning and I’m on a deadline to transfer my office into it by the end of December.

So I’ll take this opportunity to thank you, my clients, my friends, colleagues and suppliers for making 2019 a pretty good year, with an extra special thank you to Naomi and her colleagues at Mendip District Council for rounding it off so spectacularly for me.

Oh and with regards the continued access to the Saxonvale site, we’ll see. I’m doubtful at this stage, but you never know, it could be what keeps me busy in 2020.

Incredible Legacy

A while back I pledged to support the publication of John Downing’s book, LEGACY, through a Kickstarter campaign run by Bluecoat Press.

I’d previously supported Jim Mortram’s hard-hitting social documentary book Small Town Inertia in the same way and since John’s book required a ‘mere’ £8,000.00 to come to fruition, I thought it would be a great opportunity to see the photojournalism of a man who spent 50 years covering everything from Royalty to tragedy, the everyday to the extraordinary in a single book.

In the event the campaign smashed the target, raising a staggering £31,836.00, raised by 495 backers, which is testament to the level of respect and interest in his work.

My copy arrived today, and I was thrilled to realise I’d forgotten that my pledge level included a signed print of The Beatles taken at the press launch of Sgt Pepper in 1967. I think there will be a special place in my office for that print once it’s framed.

It’s almost pointless me saying much about John’s work; I’m genuinely not worthy to comment. You have to see the book to realise what a towering talent he has. His photos, regardless of what they show, always demonstrate an absolute command over his skills.

Whether the photos are of breathtaking, tragic or everyday subjects, there’s always an extra ingredient in his handling of the subject before him which just leaves you breathless. The sheer range of stories he has covered is astonishing enough, and far too many to list here.

My best advice is to buy a copy. Even if you have no interest in photography or photojournalism, buy it. You will learn something about history, about the human condition and you never know, you might learn something about yourself too.

Cairncross Review Review (Part the Second)

The silence is deafening and so is the noise.

The problem with the Cairncross Review is that it tackles issues which should trouble us all, and deeply, yet I’m seeing very little discussion of it not only amongst former journalist colleagues and photographers, but also the wider public.

Much of the problem seems to stem from a general lack of awareness that it was even being undertaken. When I look through the list of organisations and individuals who submitted responses to the call for evidence, all the usual suspects are there (Johnston Press, Facebook, Google, The Guardian, News UK), but not a lot from individuals with specific interests in the industry.

From the general public there were 588 responses, but the report doesn’t publish more than excerpts of these submissions. On the one hand, that’s a larger public response than I was expecting. On the other, it’s pretty abysmal given the importance of a thriving local press sector for our freedoms and democracy.

This relatively low response will be a result of factors such as ignorance of the existence of the review, apathy and perhaps most understandably, an exhaustion brought about by the constant white noise of Brexit debate.

And even I am sitting here wondering why I care so much for an industry which has now given me less than half of my professional life. I’m too busy with keeping my own business running (as well as trying to expand my documentary work, which is in itself a response to the collapse in local journalism) to invest in a future which will be entirely out of my hands.

For now I just need to summarise a few points from my reading of a selection of the responses, in no particular order:

  1. Facebook and Google consider themselves innocent in all this, indeed they claim to be putting masses of cash back into regional journalism and it’s the publishers which are failing to take advantage of the new opportunities open to them.
  2. The publishers consider themselves innocent in all this and their sales were fantastic and revenues strong until the nasty digital boys came and smashed up their game.
  3. Neither side can quite bring themselves to admit the truth, instead pushing positions which are self-serving and often delusional.
  4. Government ultimately has no answer to this. Whatever they do will be wrong and will end in tears, corruption and a slow death for local journalism (followed some time later, probably a Wednesday afternoon, by national journalism).

Whatever happens though, I will try to keep an eye on developments. I can’t help it, and I really do believe that if you care for democracy and a diversity of voices in the many media available to us, you should at least make an attempt to bone-up on the broad outlines of the Cairncross Review and the developments which arise from it.

From next week though, I need to get back to talking about my own work and personal projects before the crashing silence and deafening noise get too much.

Christmas came early!

My film foray continues, and with it new ideas about how I want to work and the personal projects I want to use it for.

For a few years now I’ve had a hankering for a camera which had no reliance on batteries. Unbelievably, in all my 30 years as a photographer, every camera I’ve ever owned has needed at least a couple of LR44 button cells to make the shutter work.

It was never a problem, but when looking at secondhand film cameras now (s/h being the only option since nobody makes a 35mm SLR or rangefinder film camera any more), we’re talking about cameras between 20 and 40 years old which all have electronics in them, and circuit boards being rather delicate, specialist parts, it’s less likely they’ll be repairable in years to come.

My very electronic Canon EOS 1N cameras are going well and I’m confident they’ll keep going for several years to come, but an all-mechanical camera, albeit an old one, is still more serviceable than one packed with fine ribbon circuit boards, motors and silicon chips.

Which is why when a Nikon F2 popped up in my Facebook Marketplace, I stopped in my tracks and took a good look.

The Nikon F2 is something of a legend, but I won’t bore you with the full history of this model right now. Suffice to say, it was ‘the’ camera of choice of photojournalists from the early 1970s to the 1980s (when the battery-reliant F3 came out) and finding one in good condition now is getting tricky; they’re actually becoming collectible (aka stupidly expensive). It takes a couple of button cells, but they only work the meter. The shutter is completely mechanical, so if the batteries die, I still have a working camera in my hands.

The particular one which popped up in my Facebook feed looked to be in fantastic condition and even better, it wasn’t a million miles away from me. So I dropped a tentative line to the seller about having a look at it, while assuming I’d never hear back.

Far from it, the seller called me almost immediately and we got chatting. Long story short, we met an hour later and I bought the camera (with 50mm lens). An early Christmas present to myself then, albeit one with some serious intent.

Even though it’s had little use since it was bought in 1973, the camera will need a service. The slower shutter speeds are a little dodgy and it’ll do it no harm to have the original lubricants cleaned off and replaced along with any decayed foam seals (though the film door and mirror box foams look incredibly good).

The camera is already booked in to be serviced by the one person in the UK who specialises exclusively in servicing and repairing Nikon F2s, Sover Wong. Sadly his waiting list is over a year, but he’s assured me I should be fine to use the camera while I await my slot.

The downside of it being a Nikon is that I can’t use any of my Canon lenses on it, but that would have been the same if I’d bought Canon’s last mechanical camera because Canon changed their lens mount system for the EOS autofocus cameras, so my EOS lenses don’t fit older Canons. Complicated, ain’t it?!

Thankfully, I’m only interested in using a very limited set of lenses with the Nikon and I can build these up over time.

In the meantime, I’ve put a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-X through this amazing machine and I’m happy to say it seems to be working just fine. Even the meter is accurate, which isn’t bad for a 45-year-old camera. Yes, it’s only 7 years younger than me, but it looks prettier and less wrinkly.

In time I’ll be using it for personal projects and personal work where the scream of my Canon’s built-in motor-drives are perhaps less appropriate. Keep watching for updates!

What Happened Here

I’ve settled on this as the title for my Saxonvale series because it sums up the nature of the project; a semi matter-of-fact record, with touches of humour, drama and sadness. The title hints at the disappointment that land which should have been developed decades ago was left to ruin, but perhaps I should be thankful it wasn’t or the project would never have existed.

Things are definitely winding down in terms of new pictures and the site has now been almost completely boarded out. I’m seeking a final few closing images to round out the project, but I really have to get the next stage (a book) moving.

What has struck me is the incredible timing with which I came to start the project. Early on I wasn’t sure I had a project, but once it became obvious it was happening I knew I had enough expired film to get me through about a year of shooting it. Sixteen months later and I’m down to one last roll of the original batch of film (I did find a second source, just in case it overran) and the site has been bought, boarded and awaits demolition and reconstruction.

Unless Saxonvale is about to enter another extended period of neglect, I think my timing has been incredibly serendipitous.

So while I’ll try not to bang on about it too much on my Instagram account (@takeagander) or here, do watch this space and I hope to bring occasional updates regarding the progress towards a book. When the time comes, I hope you’ll be able to support it!

A Welcome Review

A new review into the future of UK press journalism was announced today and although I fear it may be too late, it’s welcome to finally see the issue being tackled at government level.

The independent review into the future of high-quality journalism in the UK, chaired by Dame Frances Cairncross, has issued a call for evidence from organisations and individuals and will look at the causes of the startling decline hitting the industry.

The review will look at issues such as the decline in advertising revenue, the effect of social media, the consequences for the press from a national to a local level and what might be done to ensure a vibrant press for the future.

I happen to believe, and have said for many years, that what has happened to the press (in particular the regional and local newspapers) over the last two decades has become a threat to open justice and democracy, with court proceedings and local government council meetings being seen as too expensive to cover.

The subject is huge and the solutions not entirely clear. Of course I would love to see a return to high-quality local and regional journalism, with good quality news photography being part of that mix.

I may sound like a broken record when I talk about photography again, but it’s incredible that in an age where images (and especially high quality pictures) are the bedrock of the popularity of some of the biggest social media platforms, local news outlets have forsaken the model of using creative, informative (but paid-for) photography in favour of boring, badly executed free content.

On the odd occasion I find myself in Germany or Austria I make a point of picking up the local papers and am astonished at the difference. Beautifully-produced broadsheets on high-quality paper with professional photography appear to be doing just fine and they’re packed with classified ads too! This may be because the internet is English, or perhaps it’s a cultural pride thing. Perhaps this review will look at Europe for ideas.

Of course the internet has had a massive impact on journalism in this country, but the foundations of this decline were put firmly in place by the short-sighted and often greedy management teams which bought up smaller publishers like they were on a supermarket trolley-dash, then asset-stripped stripped them to make their money back. I won’t bang on, it’s a subject I’ve tackled before and I won’t bore you with it again today.

Hopefully, as readers of my blog (isn’t blogging part of the problem?), you’ll be keen to put your own views to the committee via their call for evidence. I certainly shall because I think it’s high time this issue was tackled seriously and not just treated as a victim of “progress”.

For more information, take a look at the announcement page, but it’s all summarised on the call for evidence page too.

 

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Just when I thought my Saxonvale project might come to an end it seems it’s not over yet.

My original plan was to shoot the project until either my original stock of expired film ran out, or when the site got cleared or developed. Well the site got partially cleared and I’m down to the last few rolls of film, so it would have made sense to bring the project to a close.

However, the site is still accessible and the story is still developing as a couple of “tenants” have moved onto an area which has yet to be cleared and secured, and so rather than reaching a conclusion, the story has simply evolved.

Because of this I took the decision that I wasn’t prepared to let my film supply run out just yet. I put out a plea on a Facebook group for photographers and one in particular, a notable veteran of documentary photography David Hoffman, came forward with a very generous offer to help. This morning an intriguing mixed box of film arrived which should keep me going for quite some time yet!

There’s a freezer drawer at home which was starting to look rather empty, well it’s about to get indigestion.

Inspired By Inertia

Having no scheduled shoots this morning I decided to process the two films I shot yesterday evening for my Saxonvale project (it’s a long term project which I’ve been posting on Instagram as @takeagander).

So there I was, up to my elbows in my dark bag, wrestling (circa 30-year-old East German black and white) ORWO 120 films onto processing reels when I heard a knock at the front door. I knew exactly who and what it was, but couldn’t risk fogging my film to go and answer the door.

Thankfully our post lady didn’t just push a “we tried to deliver” card through the door, instead she found a safe place to stow the package and told me on the card where it was.

I was also grateful that the films loaded remarkably easily (very old 120 film tends to resist being unfurled), so as soon as they were safely in the developing tank I retrieved the package.

It was a book I’d been looking forward to receiving for some months, J.A (Jim) Mortram’s Small Town Inertia.

The book is a searingly poignant collection of black and white images and testimonies detailing the daily struggles of people in the small Norfolk town where Jim lives.

Unapologetically political, very anti-Tory, anti-globalisation and definitely anti-austerity, Jim’s book documents his subjects in a way which brings home in the starkest possible terms the effects of unemployment, mental and physical illness and addiction under successive governments which have sought to sideline these issues in favour of a market economy unfettered by the constraints of conscience.

It is to some extent due to my awareness of Jim’s work that I have sought to spend more of my time on documentary and working in traditional film. The Faces of Routes project, though shot digitally, would almost certainly not have happened if I hadn’t had my social conscience re-awakened by seeing images from the Small Town Inertia project a year or two ago.

Of course my work is very different to Jim’s and nowhere near as comprehensive (or, of course, as good). Jim has been deeply involved in the lives of his subjects, often helping them with bureaucratic paperwork or just daily tasks, and this shows in the photos.

However, even though my projects tend to be more random, less overtly political and involve being less embedded with my subjects, I will continue to be inspired by the work of J.A Mortram and others like him.

To which end, I’d better get this morning’s negatives scanned and added to my own personal project. It’s all very well to be moved and inspired, but if I’m to genuinely honour the work of others, there is no better way than to keep on pursuing my own.

If you would like your own copy of Small Town Inertia you can buy it here. Visit Jim Mortram’s website here.