Gallery: "photography"

A while ago I posted some thoughts about architectural photography, critiquing the approach which some practitioners take to achieve their own “style”. Image-makers, like architects, are sometimes caught in the trap of delivering what’s expected and the vogue for the past couple of decades has been photo-realistic CGI (computer-generated images).

Several folk from my year at architecture school went on to work for computer games companies, building virtual environments which players navigate through. Yet the way these imaginary spaces link together – despite their visual sophistication – lacks the imaginative or even metaphorical structure of even early multi-media such as Chris Marker’s “Immemory”.

Rather than writing full-blooded critiques on this blog, I try to briefly mention things which I find inspiring, then try to explore the things which in turn inspired *them*. One of those is Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker”. As time goes on, it seems more relevant than ever – Chris Marker acknowledged Tarkovsky as one of the greatest film directors – and dozens of computer games have picked up reference points from the film.

While its title it may sound like a Hitchcock thriller – with tension building up as the heroine is stalked by a maniac – Stalker in this context is like the highland guide who shepherds a group of hunters into the wilds in a John Buchan novel. Stalker is simultaneously truer and far more difficult than any film made in Hollywood, because it’s about ideas, which the visuals support rather than offering a spectacle.

Stalker has been labelled with all sorts of badges: science fiction, existential, art-house … but if you are interested in ideas, you should search out a copy. Stalker captures the atmosphere that hundreds of computer games tried to copy in the years following; it foreshadows the most terrible environmental disaster of our era – Chernobyl; I went into a bit more detail in my piece about Chernbyl in the magazine.

For years Andrei Tarkovsky was better known for his earlier film, Solaris, which is the prototype of the modern science-fiction film, and among film-makers is probably more influential than Stanley Kubrick’s “2001”. Having successfully transported us to a space station in Solaris, Tarkovsky sought an other-worldly environment for Stalker. While the steppe of Tadjikistan was considered early on, Stalker was eventually shot in an industrial wasteland in Estonia on the Baltic.

Stalker revolves around “the Zone”, a super-natural territory, but by the account of Tarkovsky himself doesn’t symbolise anything in particular. “The zone is a zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing.”

Tarkovsky battled against the Soviet apparatchiks to get his films made – and sadly it seems that creative people in today’s Russia will end up as dissidents again, given the horror unfolding in Ukraine and the tightening of Putin’s grip on the Russian state and its media.

Meantime to lighten the dark mood, I’ll mention Georgia Daskalakis’s book, Stalking Detroit, which looked at the non-places and terrains vague left in the city of Detroit at the start of the 21st century. The photos and text make the case that the ruins of Detroit form somewhere with the same atmosphere as Tarkovsky’s film, although the Zone is in visitors’ minds as much as on the ground.

I bought a copy of Stalking Detroit over the phone, in a fraught transaction with Triangle Bookshop in London. They’re no longer in business, but whoever picked up the phone when I called seemed incredulous that someone had called from Dundee, and was interested in buying an architecture book. Send it to where? But that would require packing and posting! Yes, but I’m happy to pay? There was a long disgruntled sigh at the other end of the line.

It looks like I was lucky. It’s yet another interesting short-run architecture book which Amazon’s algorithm has hiked up to $300, when it should be available second hand for a far more reasonable price.

Perhaps civilisation really does end at Watford Gap, and architecture books too.

By • Galleries: ghosts, photography

On photobooks and social media

The enforced sabbatical which Covid-19 gave us could have been an opportunity to think, write and develop ideas into prose which was carefully edited and polished. But by June, lockdown had become oppressive, with worries about work, the health of relatives and a growing unease about the future. It’s difficult to think creatively when you’re distracted by and worried about everyday life.

Rather than trying to speak about one of the many huge, pressing issues which will define the next decade, such as virus pandemics, climate change or equality in all its forms, this is the second half of my previous piece which introduced how photos (architectural or otherwise) reach the Explore page of Flickr or the front page of 500px. In that I discovered what I already knew: online feedback is an anomaly and no substitute for interaction in real life.

Firstly, for architects whose training included studio crits, the biggest issue is that online feedback is often anonymous and disengaged. People offer an opinion, “nice shot”, “well captured”, then move on. Secondly, just as I found, rankings and plaudits on photo sharing websites are affected by how much you comment on other pictures, write about your own pictures, and how often you post the content which those websites rely upon.

Used carefully, Flickr, 500px and the others are a great way to discover people whose work and ideas you wouldn't otherwise come across, but that’s tempered by the fact that there’s a self-inflicted pressure to adhere to a certain style of photo, drawing or painting which attracts praise. It’s easy to become a slave to the faves and likes. There’s also the issue of looking at images on a screen, as opposed to photographic prints or images in a book: not only the colours, but tonal values look very different rendered in ink or silver halide, rather than pixels.

Hence if you’re interested in how architecture is portrayed, instead of relying on likes, faves and comments, if you get the chance it’s worth searching out some of the classic photobooks which you can sit quietly with, look through repeatedly, studying how individual images work and how series of images are put together – and try to learn from them. Plus they might temporarily take you away from the worries of Covid-19 and transport you somewhere else, even for half an hour.

If you’re lucky you might experience what the American photographer Edward Weston called “the shock of recognition”. That’s the feeling when you realise that a photographer has look hard and seen a small part of the world afresh, and thanks to him or her, has enabled us to look and see something brand new. Arguably that's the power of a strong image, to bring us back to something approaching a childlike gaze, which finds wonder in the world then later on draws meaning from it.

In landscape photography for example, you might have come across so-called "vista" photographers, such as Colin Prior, Joe Cornish and Charlie Waite whose high impact and sometimes spectacular images often feature on calendars and postcards. But to my eye, those who photographed "intimate landscapes", in other words more subtle details of rocks, trees and water are more engaging – as with the work of Paul Wakefield and Fay Godwin. They make you look more closely, encouraging you to work out just what it is that the photographer decided was worth capturing and sharing.

Another purpose is to somehow combine reportage or documentary with creative expression or visual poetry, so that the photo has two messages or narratives. One is external and objective, describing what you can see on the surface; the other is internal and subjective, what the photographer was feeling or thinking when they made the shot. If the relationship between the two is successful that makes the image all the stronger and perhaps more likely to strike a chord.

The following photobooks don’t consist exclusively of architectural photos, but they all feature photos of architecture and how it fits into the wider environment. The styles are very different (from New Colour Documentary to pictorial to New Topographic), and I think there’s something to take from each one of them. Hopefully most are available from the larger libraries in cities and universities and colleges, once those reopen in the next few weeks. That’s as opposed to having to buy them from the $1.5tn American online megacorp which in recent years has begun to kill off bricks-and-mortar bookshops across the world.

Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes, “Remains of Elmet”
Eric de Maré, “Architectural Photography”
Paul Strand, “Tir A’Mhurain - The Outer Hebrides of Scotland”
John Davies, “The British Landscape”
Bill Brandt, “Shadow of Light”

Paul Graham, “A1: The Great North Road”
Stephen Shore, “Uncommon Places”
Ezra Stoller, “Modern Architecture: Photographs by Ezra Stoller
Robert Polidori, “Havana”
Edward Burtynsky, “Quarries”


By • Galleries: books, photography

For the past decade and a bit, I’ve dabbled in social media. Like most of us, I’m increasingly suspicious of it but at the same time it’s difficult to ignore. However, while “influencers” and commercial companies feel compelled to promote themselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, asking us to *like, comment and share*, individuals can make up their own minds.

So my Facebook account is totally locked down. Unless you know me in real life, you won’t be able to find my Facebook page. I don’t share much information on it, because Facebook is mostly a useful way to keep in touch with people, using the Messenger function like an email account. MySpace died about a decade ago, but I wasn’t any more active on that, and I recall deleting the account some time a few years ago.

I liked the idea of sharing personal artwork and photos much better, so I investigated a few websites. I’ve never really got along with Instagram, but I had a brief flirtation with Ipernity then I tried 500px for a while, before realising that it’s a popularity contest driven by uploading a certain type of image – dynamic wide angle shots with super-saturated colour or high contrast monochrome in the case of architectural photography; dramatic mountain sunrises or coastlines with silky smooth seas in the case of landscape photos. The Lee “Big Stopper” has a lot to answer for.

More successful is Flickr, where I’ve posted photos for around 14 years. I just use the free version, uploading photos occasionally to share with friends and acquaintances. I don’t have an online cloud storage account with thousands of images, nor a portfolio website, and the Flickr account is anonymous, in the sense that it’s not under my real name.

I’ve uploaded a couple of images every month, sometimes things that appeal only to me, sometimes experiments that went wrong, or shots that will jog my memory but mean nothing to anyone else, and occasionally images I think might appeal to other people. There’s no set pattern, although quite a few were shot on film because I like experimenting with analogue; whereas most of my images which magazines have published were shot on digital cameras.

Gradually, as I’ve followed some people whose photos I like and some have followed me in return, some of the Flickr images gained a few favourites and some comments. Usually just a few, although very occasionally one gets ten or even twenty “faves”. I’m quite blasé about that. I’m pleased that other people like the photo, although it wouldn’t bother me if no-one did. In that sense, the Flickr account is a personal journal and anything else is a curious bonus.

Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working from home and tried to post something to Flickr every other day, to keep my eye in. It’s interesting to look through your old photos, remind yourself of places you visited and people you met. Occasionally re-scanning a transparency or reprocessing a RAW file, then I’ll upload it, add a few tags and add it to a few Flickr groups. One or two people I know leave a comment, and perhaps next time I log in there’s a little pink star denoting that a few folk have “faved” it.

But today a strange thing happened. When I logged in to upload a photo, I noticed that the Notifications bell was pink. When I clicked on it, the message said “Ansel Adams, David Bailey and 45 others have faved your photo” (Names have been changed to protect the innocent). In the space of a day, this photo has achieved what none of the others have: it’s been picked for “Explore”, which is Flickr’s front page gallery, and the faves have rolled in.

As I type this, more than 100 people have favourited the photo, if “to favourite” is a verb. I felt slightly chuffed for a minute, enjoyed a little dopamine hit, although I realise that I’ve fallen into the trap which Flickr set for me when I joined. Social media runs on a lifeblood of likes, shares, views, favourites, and comments, and today I may have accidentally figured out one aspect of the Flickr algorithm.

Reaching Flickr’s Explore page for the first time in 14 years is probably a reward for me engaging much more with Flickr than I have done before. Due to Covid-19, I log in every other day rather than every other week, and at the moment I’m posting many more photos than usual. Instagram, Ipernity, 500px and other photo or image sharing websites work in much the same way, with you providing the “media”, and other users providing the “social” aspect. The more you interact, the more feedback they provide.

Of course, before long you’ve become a “content provider”, under pressure to post your images, to share them across several social media platforms so that your army of “followers” can see. That nagging pressure to keep up, and the corollary that if you don’t post something, anything, people will forget about you. Before long you’re uploading YouTube videos with clickbait titles, and formulaic photos accompanied by literary quotes or pseudo-philosophical titles designed to make yourself look smarter than the average bear.

I’m sure of one thing, though. While I like the composition and colours in the photo, it certainly didn’t reach Explore thanks to being an artistic masterwork. As photos go, it’s OK, but definitely no more than an average bear.

ps. Please be sure to like, comment and share this article on your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… ;-)

By • Galleries: covid-19, photography

I’ve written about architectural photography before – and unusually, a few folk made the effort to comment, although presumably many others went “meh”. Having spoken briefly about technique, this time I’d like to consider the aesthetic attitude and specifically, how photography and architecture are moving in opposite directions in terms of accessibility to the medium.

Soon, there will be fewer folk training to become architects. In other parts of Britain, the universities charge fees. You have to work for at least two years after leaving university before you can sit your Part III exam, which means architecture is effectively an eight year course (3 + 1 + 2 + 2).

Many people take an interest in buildings; thanks to the rise of TV programmes like *Half the Dream Home for Double the Money*, but fewer of them really understand buildings. Back in the day, anyone could have a go at knocking together timber kits, but no private individual could ever erect unitised curtain walling. The techniques we use to put buildings together are becoming less and less accessible to the lay person.
By contrast, back in the same day many of us had a “point and click” compact camera, some enthusiasts had a 35mm SLR, but only the serious-minded few had roll-film cameras capable of taking the quality of photo which is required for publication. Fewer still would see their shots reproduced in the “mass media”. The advent of the web changed that, irrevocably.

Today, everyone is a photographer. The combination of camera phones with decent quality optics, such as the iPhone, and photo sharing websites such as Tumblr and Flickr, allows us all to propagate our work. Photography is becoming easier, if you accept the premise that automatic metering, focussing, and even aperture control will improve the quality of the average photo – but architecture is becoming more exclusive, and understanding its technicalities more involved.

Despite the democratisation of image-making, there is still a discernible gap between how the enthusiast and the professional work. The previous print edition of Urban Realm features a set of photos I took in a deactivated power station. They were shot using a digital back, then processed using Capture One software. This is a powerful combination, which you’d only use if you needed to publish the results. Processing hundreds of digital shots against a deadline can become gruelling and unpleasant, although taking them was neither of those things.

The next print edition of Urban Realm will features a set of photos I took somewhere derelict. By contrast, they were shot on transparency film using a 35mm camera. Taking the shots is the creative part, and as such it’s enjoyable whereas I suppose processing transparency films was hard work, before machines did it for you. Nowadays, I just send them off to the lab in a postage-paid jiffy bag.

Partly as a result of that simple workflow, I still use film for my personal projects. It’s entirely characteristic of the arse-for-elbow way things are, that I became interested again in film at the point when it began to disappear. At some point along the road, maybe 2005, I decided it would be apt to make photos of derelict buildings using a technology which was similarly coming to the end of its life.

Comme d’habitude, I knew that things would become difficult as film stocks and processing labs reduced in number, so naturally I wanted to try it, and to master E6 film’s unforgiving latitude. I started using Agfachrome RSX around 2005, and quickly discovered that Agfa had stopped making it in December 2004. The best film you could find was RSX II with a “use by” date of 2007 or 2008, although if it’s stored somewhere cool, the film should still be OK to use several years later.

My experience (for what it’s worth…) is that ISO 50 or 100 Agfachrome is still fine at say 10 years after its expiry date, although it sometimes has a slight tinge of pink or red. Fuji Velvia 50 tends to have a purple bias as it ages. Slow film seems to stand up better and when I’ve bought expired film which people say has been frozen or kept in a fridge, it’s usually like new. On the other hand, I’ve also shot a few rolls of very expired slide film from the 90’s, at least 20 or 25 years old, and it seems to become very grainy, the colours shift unpredictably and contrast goes. Fine if you like that effect, but it does tend to look like a cheap Instagram filter.

More recently (I wrote this at the start of 2013), Kodak has stopped making acetate base, the stuff which “film” physically consists of, and onto which light-sensitive chemicals are coated. Fuji is killing off its emulsions one by one – Velvia 50, Astia and Provia 400 were recently chopped. Nonetheless, film isn’t dead: after Agfa’s factory in Leverkeusen shut and was subsequently demolished, Fotoimpex in Berlin built a small film-coating plant using pieces of equipment from the former Agfa research dept. Similarly, some film is still manufactured by the remaining part of Agfa, at Mortsel in Belgium, and repackaged as Rollei.

Film is undergoing a "craft" revival at the moment, aided by the Lomo movement. However, it's never going to be mainstream again, and that's the problem. Agfa were geared up for the mass market, while smaller manufacturers like Efke or Rollei never expected to be more than niche players. The archipelago of factories which Agfa relied on made economy difficult to achieve, so Agfachrome RSX II in 50 and 100 ISO will never return in their former guise, sadly.

However, it became a touchstone for me, because RSX II renders colours in an authentic way. Not overly vivid, nor warm or cool: the greys are neutral, because its sensitivity isn't biased in any direction - yet other colours have a richness. The film is also lower in contrast than other makes, which improves the rendering of detail in shadow areas and the retention of highlight details, and its inherent crystallinity provides a nice balance between grain and acutance.

The dynamic range of films varies from five or six stops for Fuji Velvia 50 slide film, to ten or eleven stops for Kodak Ektar negative film. Agfachrome is somewhere in the middle. Likewise each emulsion has a unique toe and shoulder signature, in other words it deals with shadow and highlight tones in its own fashion.

In more subjective terms, Agfachrome has a more European aesthetic than other films. Kodak’s film stocks are warm and Disney-like, and the colours of most of Fuji’s products are super-saturated, and high in contrast. The result is that some shots I take with Agfachrome capture similar tones to Vermeer’s paintings, with earthy tones and rich shadows which hint at detail. Fresh Agfachrome film’s “curves”, how it renders a range of tones from the lightest to the darkest, show smooth gradations rather than clipping. Perhaps Agfa shares Vermeer’s Low Countries sensibility?

In the same way that traditional artists favour a particular palette, Ernst Haas favoured Agfachrome - he was one of the “Magnum” photographers who first mastered fine art colour photography, and the contemporary of Saul Leiter who I quoted in the previous article. Robert Farber made some wonderful images using Agfachrome 1000 as an aesthetic tool, where the grain of the high speed film drew an almost pointillist image. Late in her career, Fay Godwin moved away from the monochromatic landscapes which made her name, and I believe she used Agfa RSX to portray nature morte arrangements of frozen and flooded foliage.

The choice of film stock helps to define an approach and capture an atmosphere, although RAW converters like Capture One can also do that. However, more important than the particulars of any brand of film, is the fundamental difference between film and digital which few think about, an aesthetic sensibility which is lost with all the talk about digital sharpness, noise and resolution versus hipster notions of authenticity and reversion to the analogue.

Once you select which chrome film to use, you decide how to view the world. It’s all down to taste in the end - transparency film, with its non-linear characteristics has different properties to digital, such as a gentler roll-off, meaning it blows out highlights in a less marked way. Its narrow latitude means you have to nail the metering, because there is no recovery if you over-expose, yet early morning light can glow with a pink or golden halo emerging around a point source of light.

Some day, in the next few years, it will likely be very difficult to buy fresh colour transparency film. It’s more difficult to make, and to process, than colour print film. As a result, it’s getting more and more expensive. Monochrome film is simpler than either type of colour film – a silver-rich emulsion which you can even develop in a coffee solution – so it’s likely to stick around for good. Meantime, enjoy colour reversal photography while you can – especially the moment when your slides come back from lab, and you hold them up to the window, or switch on the light-box, and see them glow like jewels.

However, film is not better than digital. It's just different.

A story about photography, but with no images? Are you mad? If you want to see how Agfachrome RSXII-50 renders light and colour, please take a look at my “Cement” post.

By • Galleries: memory palace, photography