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- A Sense of Wonder
“... amazement at subject matter [is why I started to photograph].” Edward Weston A sense of wonder was certainly what motivated me to become a photographer but there are many kinds of wonder. Initially, for me, it was wonderment at process. Arthur C Clarke once wrote that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I certainly felt in the presence of magical forces whilst making my first black and white print. Standing in a darkroom, illuminated by the otherworldly glow of a red safe light, I watched with fascination and increasing excitement as the image bloomed on the surface of the blank sheet in the development tray. I feel a little sad for photographers who have only ever seen a print regurgitated, laboriously by an inkjet printer. All the magic that I felt is missing. A new wonder arose when I started using transparency film. But before I could get a chance to wonder at any individual transparency I had to contend with delayed gratification. There were none of the reassurances that digital photography now supplies; no histogram to confirm that I hadn’t made a huge exposure error nor thumbnail image to affirm or repudiate my compositional choices. At a minimum it would be hours before the freshly processed sheet was in my hand. Quite often it was weeks. As quickly as I could get it there, the transparency would be upon the lightbox and I would be using a loupe to examine every square centimetre in detail. If, when I made the image, everything had worked as it should then this was one of the most wonderful experiences in photography. The pristine beauty of a sheet of Velvia is incredible. An image produced with transmitted light has a vibrancy and depth that can never be matched by a print. For me, the transparency was the finished product; I needed no further verification or justification of my choices. There was no need to print it or publish it. I was done, my photographic desire satiated. I miss those moments. In thirty years as a photographer, the way I make images has changed dramatically. The quiet, deliberate ritual using a 5x4 view camera has gone, replaced by a faster, more reflective process with a digital mirrorless camera. Unlike a transparency, the digital image arrives incomplete. It is, in Ansel Adam’s terms, more akin to a negative; it represents a score which requires a performance to bring it to life. In Ansel’s era the performance took place in the darkroom; in the current era it’s more likely to be in Lightroom. Whatever the process, my feeling of astonishment when I behold a new, satisfying image has not dimmed. Even before I began photographing using transparency film I became fascinated with the difference between how I see and how the camera sees. This realm of wonder seems endless. Wonder at subject gradually overtook my wonder at process. However wondrous, process is only a foundation. It is, after all, the content of the images that we should pay the most attention to. Content and technique are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. But a fascination in the process or attendant technology alone will never lead to images that intrigue, surprise or make an audience’s heart beat faster. I often tell my students that no one ever wept simply because a photo was perfectly sharp or perfectly exposed. You might stand in front of one of your images and weep because it isn’t, but that’s quite a different story. Rather than perfect rendering, moving the viewer should be the highest ambition of every photographer. Perhaps we are led astray by the manufacturers’ constant enticements to acquire their latest offerings. Be it hardware or software, there is a tendency amongst some photographers to place too high a value on equipment or technique. The quality of these matter little if the resulting images lack emotion, depth or subtlety. One need only think of Robert Capa’s famous photographs from the D-Day landings to realise that quality in a photograph is about so much more than sharpness, resolution, accurate colour rendition or any one of a hundred other attributes that we are constantly being told are paramount. In one sense the photographic process failed Capa; working in low light he push-processed the film resulting in very grainy images. Most are also not sharp; it’s hard to stand perfectly still in pounding surf whilst bullets scream past your ears. In fact the few crisply focused frames seem lacking in energy and drama. Yet the images speak powerfully to us, both because and in spite of their technical failings. The chaos and fear of battle is expressed in the very grain of each snatched and blurry frame, in a way that would never be possible with perfectly exposed and sharp images. The all too few frames move us because we can imagine ourselves in the photographer’s shoes. What matters in these images is the perfect synergy of content and the visual language used to express it. I’m not for one moment suggesting that technique doesn’t matter, rather that it is of little importance if it doesn’t support the content of the photograph. One of the great joys that photography has brought me is that it has opened my eyes to the world around me in a way that I doubt would have happened otherwise. Landscape has provided the cloth from which I have tailored my images. I don’t think Weston meant wonder simply at the object photographed. The subject of a great photograph is rarely that which is baldly delineated by light on a photographic emulsion or a sensor plane. It matters little, however, what we photograph. What is important is that we should be at least as passionate, if not more passionate, about our subject than we are about the photographic process. We need to find wonder anew in even the smallest detail each time we make an image. If this balance isn’t achieved we are unlikely to produce images that speak of more than superficial aesthetic concerns. My aim is to make images with my subject not of my subject. The places where I make photographs fill me with wonder and inspire me to form an understanding of them, however imperfect. I try to express those complementary feelings through my images and hopefully enlighten and amaze the viewer. Just making a technically good, classically composed image isn’t enough. Photography has the ability to transcend its subject, to do so much more than just make aesthetically pleasing illustrations. Powerful images distil something of the wonder we find in the world and this is what keeps me amazed after thirty years of collecting light and time.
- From Peak to Shining Peak...
In the dim, though not so distant, past I used to make images using a 35mm film camera and I would feel content if around one image in six was good. Let’s not get the wrong idea here; I’m not referring to photographs that were wildly exciting or career changing or, heaven forbid, life changing. I’m not even referring to what Ansel Adams called epiphanies. Sadly, the vast majority of these images didn’t provide me with sudden revelations or insights. These “good” images simply met my general level of expectation; they were well exposed, reasonably sharp and passably well composed. The real beauties only came along rarely and I think Ansel’s estimate of a dozen such images a year is still pretty accurate. It’s tempting to think (especially in this digital age) that the only reason Ansel had so few “stonkers” was because producing each image was such a faff. Obviously making a photograph with a large format camera isn’t like using a modern DSLR; there’s no built in meter or autofocus for a start. And when using a 10x8 the process normally proceeds at a stately pace and in an almost ritualistic fashion. But I don’t think that there’s a strong correlation between high production rate and the creation of a large number of great images - though there is a good argument for regular practice benefiting the quality of our work. If it were a simple matter of numbers we would surely have seen a huge upsurge in amazing photography in the last ten years. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be the case, with websites drowning us in a deluge of mediocre imagery. In my early twenties I started making images regularly on a 5x4. This move coincided with my hit rate increasing significantly from the one in six I mentioned earlier to around six out of ten. For the mathematically challenged (and I had to get a calculator to work this out!) that’s an increase of over 43% from 16.66% to 60%. Of course, 68.7% of all statistics are made up… And this figure is hardly the result of rigorous analysis. But surely, I reasoned, such a big change must be significant. Might it even be a sign that - at the advanced age of 23 - I’d finally become a photographer? This conclusion is clearly of dubious worth - not least because I was acting as arbiter of my own success in a field that is notorious for not having any fixed criteria to use as benchmarks. Over the intervening decades I noticed what I took to be a worrying trend. My hit rate of good images has steadily and significantly fallen, to perhaps as low as 20%. For someone who only made a total of around 300 5x4 images in a good year, this drop was particularly distressing. Sixty good images seemed such a paltry number compared to one hundred and eighty. And now I’ve entered the digital age - not an easy transition for someone more in tune with a slower pace of life – and I still find myself making fewer images than most of my peers. The potential to make thousands of images in a day has, for me, been a disincentive to do so. That’s not just a sign of me being a contrarian. Partly it’s that I don’t actually see that many possibilities. Partly it’s that I believe it’s best to take my time. Indeed I have deliberately eschewed such speed advantages as auto focus. Instead, I use manual focus lenses on a tilt/shift adaptor. Obviously, there are times (such as shooting sports or wildlife) when continuous shooting increases your chance of success. But the landscape rarely changes fast enough to warrant making more than a handful of exposures an hour. What does change is our relationship to it. As we become more in tune with a place or an idea we see new possibilities. This evolution necessarily means that we rarely get the shot at our first attempt. But I digress… The encouraging news is that I feel my best images are still an improvement over my previous efforts. But the question remains, why have I become a less productive photographer? Might it simply be that over forty years I have, both in terms of art and craft, become pickier? That’s certainly a large part of the reason for the change. It’s natural that one becomes more critical of the finished images. But surely this critical faculty should also mean that one made fewer mistakes and more winners? If this were true, with enough practice, we should all get to a stage where every image is a winner. There are a few reasons why I feel this doesn’t happen. Firstly, as touched upon above, there’s the question of timing. I used to know a photographer who referred to days when you never seemed to be in quite the right place as being rich in fifteen minute weather. Walking across the landscape you might spy the possibility for a photograph some way off but by the time you get there the cloud has gone or the sun passed behind a hill. Similarly, you might walk past something and then glance back a while later to see it bathed in glorious light. In landscape photography, and many other genres, opportunity and timing are key. Missing that decisive moment is maddening but also to some extent inevitable. Planning may reduce the chances of “failure” but can never completely eliminate it. Of course the way to get around this is to make lemonade (otherwise known as adapting to circumstances). Secondly, the process of distilling an image is actually a very complex one. I have written elsewhere of my belief that making a photograph involves solving a very complicated multi-dimensional and multi-faceted puzzle. To further complicate matters, there is no single correct answer to the puzzle. Some images may be felt to be better than others. But, because of the medium’s inherent subjectivity, what appeals to me most is not necessarily the image that an audience will find the most appealing. Of course, we’re also standing on the shifting sands of time and last year’s favourite image might fall from favour at any moment. Finally, and most importantly, I feel we need to fail in order to succeed. Whilst searching for a solution most people sketch with the camera. Each test image might be considered a partial failure but each teaches us something more about how to solve the problem at hand. I now picture image making as a journey across a landscape of the mind. In this analogy, winning images are particularly fine views from high peaks. From every summit we attain we can see other, distant and indistinct - but perhaps loftier - prominences. In order to reach them we must lose height and drop into a cloud-shrouded, swampy hinterland. The route to those new mountains lies hidden. The less successful images that we make belong to this region, where we’re unsure of the way ahead and may get mired in irrelevances. But, though the images we make on this portion of the journey are less satisfying, they are no less important. The crucial fact is that we can only reach the mountaintops by traversing this lower landscape. So, every image - no matter how humble - is a necessary step on the journey from one shining peak to another. It might even let you make the leap from true mountains to a shining peak of the mind.
- The Ghosts of Broken Dreams
As people returned home from the Second World War, and world economies recovered, it was boom time in the USA. Americans became a nation of travellers, and Route 66 was the chosen road for many. Restaurants and motels, gas stations and drive-in theatres were the backdrop for a road populated by thousands of fine motor vehicles. As traffic increased so small towns prospered. Maclean TX, for instance, once boasted dozens of motels and numerous gas stations. Visitors poured through every day, stopping to refuel, to buy food or to find a bed for the night. And with each stop they brought vitality. Now the heart of this small town is dead. The cinema and most of the shops are closed and boarded up. The only place to buy food is in the one remaining gas station. A constant stream of semis now bypass the town on Interstate 40. Hardly anyone pulls off the highway, except perhaps to visit the Devil's Rope Museum. Money flows past, along with the traffic. And no money means that the jobs have gone too; jobs in hospitality, jobs in gas stations, jobs in retail. The town's aspirations have desiccated in the southern sun. You need look no further for the roots of the discontent that brought Trump to power. The prosperity that small town America enjoyed from the Fifties through to the early Eighties has slowly faded. The world has moved on. It's not just I40 that bypasses these towns, the information superhighway does too. From 1926 through to the mid Seventies, Route 66 wasn't just another road: the ‘Mother Road’ epitomised the American Dream. The 2400 miles of ‘blacktop’ linking Chicago, Illinois with Los Angeles, California, was a national icon in the post war years. It was the inspiration for architects, for writers, for movies and, inevitably, for a television series. Most obviously it was an inspiration for popular music. Bobby Troup's anthem of the road became a chart success for many bands, including Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones. Well if you ever plan to motor west Just take my way that's the highway that's the best Get your kicks on Route 66 Well it winds from Chicago to L.A. More than 2000 miles all the way Get your kicks on Route 66 Well goes from St. Louie down to Missouri Oklahoma city looks oh so pretty You'll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico Flagstaff, Arizona don't forget Winona Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino Would you get hip to this kindly tip And go take that California trip Get your kicks on Route 66 During the Great Depression '66 was an escape route from the collapsed economies of the eastern industrial cities to California's "Promised Land". It was also the route Okies took to flee their debts and the Dustbowl. As such it featured as a backdrop to the photographs of Dorothea Lange and as the stage for John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. The fictional Joads and thousands of real life Okies were certain that Route 66 was the road to economic salvation. What they found in California didn't live up to the billing. Large landowners oversaw a corrupt labour market and used local deputies as muscle to enforce their wishes. The great folk song writer Woody Guthrie immortalised the reality in his ballad Do Re Mi: Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin' home every day Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the California line 'Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin' out of that old dust bowl They think they're goin' to a sugar bowl but here's what they find Now the police at the port of entry say "You're number fourteen thousand for today" Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi folks you ain't got the do re mi Why you better go back to beautiful Texas Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see But believe it or not you won't find it so hot If you ain't got the do re mi Post World War II '66 became a superhighway that sleek cars - Buicks, Dodges and Cadillacs, adorned with jet-age fins - took toward a bright new future. To millions it was a symbol of the spirit that made America great. Just climb in your Studebaker, your De Soto or your Packard, put the pedal to the metal and somewhere toward the setting sun the Highway would inevitably lead you to your fortune. The individual was capable of anything. With imagination, resourcefulness and above all enterprise you would succeed. No ifs, no buts. You might even be able to eat a 72 ounce steak in Amarillo. Success there would prove there was such a thing as a free meal. If anything was possible for the individual then why not for architecture? Just outside Amarillo, ten Cadillacs stand semi erect; their trunks point toward the sky whilst their hoods are submerged in a farmers field, like divers reentering the ocean. In the desert on the eastern edge of California, one man has built a forest from discarded bottles... The wide open spaces that surrounded the highway provided plenty of room for architectural eccentricities: room for a 66 foot tall neon Coke bottle, room for the Leaning Tower of Britten TX, room for fifteen metre high plastic dinosaurs in Holbrook AZ and room for a chain of concrete wigwam motels. Unlike the chrome adornments on 1950's American cars, by the 1990's the Dream had sadly lost it shine. Its relics now lie rusted and broken along the Route, slowly decaying in the dry air. In some cases whole towns teeter on the edge of extinction. It's rare in most of Britain to come across so many abandoned structures. In a crowded country like ours every parcel of land has value. But there are places in the western States where people just walked out of a house they owned, leaving the keys behind. Whoever lent for the mortgage wrote it off, no one redeveloped these properties. I'm always moved by these vestiges of a life abandoned. In Seligman AZ I came across a wooden house on the edge of town. A red Christmas stocking, faded by the desert sun, was hanging from a nail to the left of the door. Peering through the dust-grimed windows I could just make out a couch, table and chairs in the living room. Above it all, Christmas decorations were pinned to the walls and ceiling. What disaster befell this family? What made them leave their home in such haste, without even the time or inclination to pack away the decorations? Was it economic or did a family member become gravely ill? In the USA these two disasters can become one. The myth of endless possibilities for the individual is still widely used in the USA to excuse inequalities: "Look the other way, that injustice is a small matter because you live in a land where anyone can become President." Unfortunately "anyone" only encompasses those who have millions of dollars at their disposal. Not everyone has just up and left. Witnesses to the upheavals of the past seventy five years can still be found. One day in July 1945, when Archie Lewis was nine years old, he and his father were travelling across the south of New Mexico. They were going to collect a car. Not far from Socorro they came upon a military roadblock and were detained overnight. They had unwittingly stumbled upon the perimeter of the test site for the first atomic bomb, Thin Man. In the early hours of July 16th Archie and his father witnessed the very first atomic explosion. He was literally at Ground Zero for the atomic age. A few miles away the man in charge of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, watched the first atomic mushroom cloud rise into the dawn light and said "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds". But what started as a terrifying weapon of mass destruction also became a beacon of hope in the post war years. Despite the Cold War gloom, nuclear power was held out as a harbinger of a brighter future. Harnessing the atom held the promise of limitless, almost free power. (As it turned out a promise that was never fulfilled). Turning the nuclear threat into a possible nuclear salvation was just one expression of an almost unbridled optimism: post Depression, post World War optimism; optimism about the US economy; optimism about science; optimism about an inevitably brighter future. What an incredible era Archie has witnessed. He saw European fascism and Japanese imperialism vanquished by the Allies. During his lifetime America, newly emerged in the 1940's from isolationism, has taken a commanding position on the world stage, both economically and militarily. He was carried along as America fast forwarded into a succession of new ages; the age of the automobile, the atomic age, the jet age, the space age and the internet age. Nothing has stood still. Archie grew up along with, and alongside, the Mother Road. He witnessed the boom in travellers and profited from it by running a vehicle recovery and repair company. These were decades of hopefulness. Everything was bigger and better and faster and cheaper than what had gone before. The exuberance of motor car design in this period epitomised the spirit of post war America. Faith in the future was made solid in every bright chrome trim and every jet inspired fin. Archie began collecting vehicles at nine years old. Some were paid for, some were taken in lieu of towing fees, some were given to him for free. In over seventy years he has gathered over seven hundred cars and trucks on his lot outside Albuquerque. It's a veritable encyclopaedia of American automotive art. You can chart how the motor industry has evolved from Model T to AMC Pacer and beyond. When I last saw him, in 2015, he was doing what he does most days, sitting in his barber's chair at Lewis' Toy and Motor Museum with his faithful dog Levi* at his feet. Now in his eighties, he holds court with whoever comes to see his vehicles. The stories he tells are fascinating. There's very little he doesn't know about the history of the marques represented in his lot. It's evident that his enthusiasm for motor vehicles is undiminished. Some might call him a dinosaur. I prefer to think of him as an incredible living link to the past and someone in whom America's post war spark of optimism still burns. In 1956 the Interstate Highway Act signalled the beginning of the end for Historic Route 66. Gradually, Interstate 40 replaced '66 between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. The divided highway bypassed small towns. Cars became more comfortable and capable of longer drives between refuelling. People no longer felt the need to pull off and stretch their legs. A quick stop at a gas station on I40 and a takeaway burger with a 72ounce Coke would keep you going for a few more hours. Or even better, why not hop on a plane and hire a car at your destination. Sadly, the last seventy years have shown many of the mid century hopes that symbolised the American Dream to be a mirage. A scant few have been fully realised, many more have been hijacked. Main St. America has consistently lost out to the rising power of the corporations. The working man had more disposable income in the post war years and he used it to purchase consumer goods, from washing machines to refrigerators to cars. So, ironically, the wealth that once routinely circulated through these places helped build those corporations power. Some people might be puzzled as to why I, a landscape photographer, find the eccentricities and decay of Route 66 so fascinating. For me the buildings, cars and to some extent the people along the Route represents a lost innocence. Many of the things I have photographed along the Route don't "make sense" to us today. And that is their charm. The faded remnants of those earlier dreams, like a love lost, are potently poignant. This is where I go to search for the ghosts of broken dreams. * Sadly Levi passed away in August last year. Between 2012 and 2015 I made three journeys along part of Route 66, from Oklahoma City to the California border. This article and the gallery below contain some of my favourite images from those journeys. I hope to be able to lead another tour here in 2022.
- I suppose I'll have to make an image...
It’s hard to know when the inspiration for an image will strike us, the one thing that we can be certain of is that we should always obey its call. We never know if it will be the only opportunity we get. The photograph at the bottom of this page was made when I was leading a workshop with Joe Cornish in November '13. For the preceding days I’d felt a long way from inspired – not because Cornwall isn’t inspiring but because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. To be fair, this is often the case for the first few days of a workshop. During this period, my mind is on the clients and what they need. My photography is rightly on the back burner. The workshop started on Sunday night and I think it was Wednesday when we chose to visit Porthleven. It was my first time in this small fishing village. On the surface it all seems very quaint and charming, all Cornish pasties, cream teas and ice cream. But Porthleven is also famous for something much more spectacular; huge waves breaking over the outer harbour wall and the three story Institute. Here’s an image of mountainous seas by friend and local photographer Carla Regler. It was slightly breezy, but nothing to write home about, as the group wandered around the inner harbour. We came upon some massive wooden beams that were used to close off the entrance between the inner and outer harbours. Their ends were clad in rusty steel, to my eyes a beautiful blend of warm tones ranging from purplish through to bright orange. Dave Mead, one of the participants, heard me mutter, “Oh bugger, I suppose I’ll have to make an image…” as I began to slip my rucksack off. I’d been struck by inspiration, with an almost literal force. I felt a compulsion to make an image. Now began the process of finding my composition. I treat composition as a puzzle. It has many different facets – how best to compress three dimensions into two, how to accommodate time, how to balance tone and colour – which all need to be resolved in a successful image. I spent around twenty minutes just looking at the ends of the beams and trying to work out what drew me to them and how I might depict them in an image. Ansel Adams famously said that composition is, “knowing where to stand.” This position is the one where all the facets of the puzzle are addressed and seem to reach some kind of solution. There can never be a single ideal solution to this puzzle. Every attempt is a compromise. Eventually I felt that I had found a reasonable answer to the puzzle presented by these beams and set my camera upon the tripod. Of course, the problem we try to solve is always personal. By choosing our subject and our composition we actually invent both the puzzle and solution. And the answer we find one day may not please us upon another. This lack of absolute answers is both a joy and the source of anxiety. If we wish to be truly creative, we will forever walk on uncertain terrain without a map. We cannot know beyond any doubt that the way we have chosen to make an image is the right one, the best or the most powerful. These are all meaningless terms as every viewer will have a different interpretation. We can only trust our instincts and make what seems right to us at the moment – listen to the voice that says, “Oh bugger, I suppose I’ll have to make an image…” Ten minutes later we may have changed our minds. I’m not talking about seeing something new but of having seen something anew. That is actually what happened here. The image below is the second that I made that morning, having quickly rejected my first composition in favour of this version. Time is the hidden element in all photographs, and it has many facets. As I set up my camera again a group of workers from the council arrived to lift the beams and drop them into place between the arms of the inner harbour. They were very tolerant of the time it was taking me to make my image and stood and watched as I exposed the 5×4. I felt the pressure of their time being wasted but I’m very grateful that they allowed me to continue. Although I wasn’t to know it at the time, this was my only opportunity to make this image. Just a few weeks afterwards immense seas pounded on the beams and smashed them to pieces, forever destroying any possibility of a re-shoot. So this image is not only a reflection of my aesthetic state on that day, it’s also – in its own small way – an historic document, a portrait of objects that have been lost forever.
- A new website... At last!
It's only about half a decade overdue but I have finally got around to creating a new home for my galleries and info on my photo tours & workshops. I hope you really enjoy what you find. Please do give me feedback on anything that you think needs improving. I look forward to hearing from you soon!