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Who will win the 2012 Deutsche Börse Prize?

The ‘contemporary’ photography prize known as the ‘Deutsche Börse’ continues to feel like a tardy after-belch of an event. These publications and exhibitions all happened over a year ago, and you can’t help but wish for a little more freshness. All four photographers on the shortlist fit the Big Photography Prize mould. The acid test for this is to imagine one of their images on the front of BJP and to ask yourself if you detect any incongruity. None here (in fact I’m sure all four have graced the covers of BJP, or else an aesthetic doppelgänger has). But who will come away with the prize? The (non-serious) definitive answer is here.

 

Pieter Hugo

© Pieter Hugo

Pieter Hugo, nominated for his publication Permanent Error
www.pieterhugo.com
Sorry, Mr Hugo. Your images make a fine set, and those bundles of miscellaneous reclaimed cables are divine sculpture, but you won’t triumph this year. The set contains too few variations to keep the viewers attention for a whole publication, and to be frank, they appear too similar in style and intent to your ‘Hyena’ series for the viewer to separate them.

 

 

John Stezaker

© John Stezaker

John Stezaker, nominated for his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery
www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/john-stezaker
Apologies, Mr Stezaker. You are the only shortlisted photographer to bring a genuine smile to the face (a very out of fashion response sought by serious photographers), but you will go home empty-handed this year. I just don’t feel it is collage’s time to shine, and your methods sit too uncomfortably in this environment, being too retro without the perceived requirement for a lo-fi bent.

 

Rinko Kawauchi

© Rinko Kawauchi

Rinko Kawauchi, nominated for her publication Illuminance
www.rinkokawauchi.com
Commiserations, Ms Kawauchi. Your fifteen year attempt to hoodwink your gullible audience will come to nought. You refer to ‘illuminance’ as if that is enough of a subject for a photo. We have been photographing nothing but light for as long as the medium has existed; our ‘subjects’ are merely convenient reflective surfaces. Your images may evoke something faint in some viewers, but that’s honestly not enough to triumph.

 

Christopher Williams

© Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, nominated for for his exhibition Kapitalistischer Realismus
www.artycok.tv/lang/kapitalistischer-realismus
Congratulations, Mr Williams! And chin up. Victory by default need not be a hollow one. Yes, your competitors may have made it easy for you, but you can only beat the opposition in front of you. As far as I can tell from the plethora (three) images on display in the Photographers’ Gallery, you can take a (technically) fine photo, and who doesn’t like a picture of darkroom equipment? I also much enjoyed the precise state of the finger at the button of the I-know-not-what machine. I think your photographs are the only ones here to strike the right balance between something to look at and something to think about, and you are therefore a worthy winner.

The real winner is announced on the 3rd September. For more information, see: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/deutsche-borse-photography-prize-2012

Postscript

Ok, so I was out by one. I said one guy would win, and another did. That’s out by one, right? Check out this excellent article in the Guardian regarding John Stezaker’s victory.

Boy, those Zeisses flare

In the wake of the sad passing of Neil Armstrong, whose name and feats will be remembered as long as any human being’s, there have been a real glut of interesting space-photo-related links doing the rounds. Of particular interest was this page of all 122 pictures taken during the Apollo 11 moon walk (Hasselblad 500 EL Apollo-11 edition, Zeiss 60mm lens, Kodak special thin-based and thin emulsion double-perforated 70 mm colour film). Have to say…damn those Zeiss lenses flare, right?

You’ll note that one of the photos you should recognise appears cropped. Check out Charles Apple’s excellent piece to read more on “arguably the most famous picture taken in the history of mankind”, and how the version you are use to seeing is manipulated to include more headroom! Easily done when the filler is pure black sky.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the recent Leica announcements

I’ve taken some time to absorb the specs, the prices, the intentions, and the implications of the recent Leica product announcements, and have distilled them into this pithy good/bad/ugly form. Enjoy, ignore, whatever.

Leica M9-P "Edition Hermès"

Leica M9-P “Edition Hermès” © Leica Camera

Leica M Monochrom

  • The Good – The sensor, the sensor, the sensor; a black-and-white sensor. This is great news. All that filter-induced loss of light and resolution, be gone. This promises serious resolution and high-ISO gains.
  • The Bad – A base ISO of 320 means that fast lens shooters will have to invest in some ND filters if they want to use lenses wide open in bright light. Just when you thought the IR filter debacle from the M8 was over…
  • The Ugly – The rear LCD. You remember the D80 from 2005? Well that is the standard of the LCD on this $8000 camera. 2.5 inches, and 230k dots. I cannot fathom an excuse for including this component on a camera costing this much money.

Leica Summicron 50mm Asph

  • The Good – A real statement of intent and evidence of Leica’s excellence in optics. Technically unmatched as a standard lens?
  • The Bad – The hood is a built-in extender. Personally I’d want a vented chunk of a hood on this for protection of that front element. Plus, I don’t think it’s a good looking lens. The proportions are wrong, with that thin barrel tip.
  • The Ugly – The price: $7,195. For a moderate f2 50mm normal lens. That’s not $71.95, that’s $7,195.

Leica M9-P Hermes Edition

  • The Good – A special edition with a genuinely unique body, not just an engraving or recovering. Matching lenses. Sumptuous presentation.
  • The Bad – No hotshoe? For the sake of a smooth clean top plate the’ve sacrificed the ability to use flash or external viewfinders. Want to use a 21mm lens? Guess you better stick that viewfinder on with superglue, or something.
  • The Ugly – The price: $25,000 or $50,000, depending on the kit chosen. Once again, those orders of magnitude have been checked and verified.

Leica X2

  • The Good – Upgraded 16MP APS-C sensor. And  hurrah, some sort of viewfinder….
  • The Bad – …oh. It’s a rebadged panasonic VF-2 that takes one look at the pocket you used to keep you X1 in and says: “Nah, you don’t want to go in there”.
  • The Ugly –
    The rear LCD. See above. Ridiculous. All that work on a reworked flash, whereas that space should be used for a pop-up optical viewfinder. Fact.

Leica S-Adapter H

  • The Good – Intriguing – an adapter that allows the use of Hasselblad H lenses – including autofocus, no less – on a Leica S2 body.
  • The Bad – Doesn’t say much for Leica’s predicted ability to meet demand for their S lenses (and don’t get me started on the absence of a lens between 35mm and 70mm).
  • The Ugly – The price: $2,000. Think what that can buy you. Now think about a metal ring with some fancy contacts. Now think about that $2000 again.

Checkout DPReview’s Leica announcement news at: http://www.dpreview.com/news/tag/leica

Leica site: http://us.leica-camera.com/photography/new_products/

Leica S-photography site: http://s.leica-camera.com/

Don McCullin at The Tate

McCullin at The TateYou know the shot: American soldier, thousand-yard stare, gripping his rifle with both hands like it’s not just his weapon, but his last line of defence, his rosary beads, his only friend. That’s by Don McCullin, a war photographer, an archetypal war photographer. That’s how most would describe him, but McCullin doesn’t like the term, and after covering some of the toughest and most brutal conflicts on the planet he has spent the last decades trying to purge some of the horrors burnt into his retinas. His tool of choice? The same one that put them there in the first place – his camera. So that thousand-yard stare is not present here at the Tate, nor any other shot from Vietnam, or Northern Ireland, or Africa.

What we do have are photographs roughly split into the following sets:

Berlin 1961, around Checkpoint Charlie
“…I went straight to Friedrichstrasse where the tension between the Americans and the Russians and the East Germans were really… the build-up was enormous and there were tanks and armoured vehicles from both sides facing each other, it was very serious.”
That tension is obvious, but I think the strongest aspect to these images is the response of civilians to these soldiers – their curiosity, their defiance. There is one particularly great photograph, shot from an ankle-high perspective, showing a foreground solider’s boot and machine gun, a middle ground soldier’s gaze, and its subject in the background of a local woman striding away.

Checkpoint CharlieEast-end homeless
“What I tried to do was I tried to draw those people into my vision, I tried to make myself unimportant in the presence of such people and I tried to let their eyes meet my eyes.”
Eye contact is what makes the strongest of these images work. Some of the more typical street scene shots are perfectly fine, but it is the penetrating portraits, framed tight with a fairly long telephoto, that really stand out.

1980s industrial North England
“…these pictures show the cost of being a great powerful industrial nation but at the same time someone had to suffer and that was the English countryside.”
There is great compassion for the countryside shown in this set. By making use of human foreground subjects McCullin neatly draws attention to the scale of the industrialisation behind, and to the proximity to those who have to push their prams in the shadows of these chimneys and cooling towers.

McCullin LandscapesThe Landscapes
“…the landscape became a kind of process of healing so that I could forget about wars and revolutions of dying children”
Can you tell if a landscape was photographed by a man who has seen war? This last set of images makes a strong case this is so. The tonality of these prints I find both unusual and hard to decipher. Contrast is not low, but there is no grasping to reach the extremes of the tonal scale. The greys are a heavy lead-silver-graphite mix. McCullin’s lens seems to linger on the earth and under the foliage as if searching for signs of a battle. Do these photographs primarily proclaim: ‘look at this landscape, untouched by human blood’? Or perhaps we the viewers subconsciously overlay these fields with the corpses and spent ammunition we expect from a war photographer, and their absence becomes the subject of the photograph?

You can take the photographer out of the war, but you cannot take the war out of the photographer.

My only minor gripe with the show is the image order runs right-to-left (chronologically at least), and I’ve always preferred to tackle a gallery left-to-right. Also, one sequence of three East End photos with obvious visual links (implying being taken maybe five, maybe 60 minutes apart) would better have been served by the strongest frame alone. But ultimately, it is a wonderful single (large) room of photographs, presented in an exemplary format, with a range of subjects and high quality throughout.

The show is on at Tate Britain until 4th Marth.

The quotes were taken from this TateShots video, McCullin speaking of the show.

Some books worth checking out:

Ireland Trip Notes

Photography was a distant third in the reasons for me being in Ireland for nine nights. Or, to be clearer, it wasn’t a reason at all for being in Ireland, but I managed to retrofit it as one. Which I suppose makes it more of an excuse than a reason, or maybe just an incidental side note, or the most welcome of distractions.

Nice Day for Walking The Dog - The Kerry Coast

Nice Day for Walking The Dog - The Kerry Coast (Fujifilm X100)

I packed pretty heavily, by my standards. The Mamiya 6 with 50mm and 75mm lenses for the serious stuff, the Fujifilm X100 for the wedding I was attending, and the E-P2 to host the wonderful Olympus 45mm f1.8 that is growing on me (and in reputation, as a minor modern classic). The Panasonic 14mm f2.5 came too, as it only weighs about as much as a lenscap. At the last minute, I packed my tiny Vanguard Nivelo tripod, which is a rare occurrence indeed, and padded the Domke out with a good deal of TMAX 400 film and spare batteries.

I ended up only shooting a few rolls on the Mamiya. Those long and dramatic walks along the west coast didn’t materialise, and I was left only with a few brief roadside stops in gale-whipped tourist trap laybies, therefore restricting my viewpoints to the oft- and over-photographed. Not that I could complain about the landscape West Ireland offers. It may be a mental thing, knowing that there is nothing but Atlantic until North America, but it feels very convincingly like the end of the world. I’m looking forward to seeing the negs. I think there are a few frames that will work nicely, although the exposure challenges were not slight – sunlight breaking through clouds in the sky, shadowy walls and folliage in the foreground.

Traditional Kinsale Pub Band

Traditional Kinsale Pub Band in Full Flow (Fujifilm X100)

The X100 proved, unsurprisingly, the most used and most useful tool. For the wedding it was fine, capturing some nice moments (although the poor continuous shooting mode caught me out more than once in the church). For the small pub in Kinsale with the eight-piece traditional band playing, it was perfect. I had taken a handful of timid shots from distance of the players before taking my table to enjoy the music and a few pints of the black stuff. Half an hour later in the gents, mid business at the urinal, I heard someone behind me say: “Ah, just the man I’m looking for.” Skipping the uncomfortable seconds that followed, it turned out to be the Banjo player, who’d spotted me taking photos and wondered if he could use them on his website! After that, I felt a bit more freedom to get closer, and took some more shots throughout their performance. Sadly, the gentlemen was unable to remember the details of his online presence, and just scribbled his name on a Post-it note, from which I have as yet been unable to find him online. I will continue the search, however, as he seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of seeing the shots, and as he observed: “You see, it’s pretty difficult to take photos of myself playing.”

Where Are The Aesthetic Choices in a Digital Age?

I remember having strong feelings about the Olympus “Art Filters” when they were first introduced to their DSLRs. They seemed like a cheap gimmick, a non-reversible and overdone effects filter producing ugly jpegs –  a very unserious form of photography. I now believe Olympus should have been applauded for at least attempting to address a problem of the digital age – the negation of the need to make an aesthetic choice before the shutter is pressed.

Shooting raw is all well and good, but aiming for the most neutral and post-processable rendition possible has a negative effect on seeking and finding creative shots. If we constantly aim for a norm, how can we expect to create the extraordinary?

We, as digital photographers, are endlessly told to expose to the right but to protect the highlights at all costs. But deep blacks and pure whites can be used both for the creation of strong graphical shapes and the hiding of superfluous or distracting pictorial details. We are encouraged to get our white balance spot on and to seek realistic colour renditions. But warm or cool colour casts can dramatically alter a photograph’s mood, and the over-saturated primary colours often produced by slide films were eye-catching and somehow made colour photographs more ‘about colour’. We are gifted with a wide range of noiseless ISO settings and image stabilisation systems to keep our photos as sharp and clean as possible. But sometimes motion blur, and even camera shake, can add a dynamism to an image, and a degree of noise/grain can give a feeling of rough texture that works better in certain situations than clean sharp edges and smooth surfaces.

Two counter arguments to my complaint would commonly be:

  • “Shoot in jpeg mode, and apply effects as you wish”. Maybe, but having at your disposal a raw mode is too tempting, and then the mind will be liable to think: “I have a backup option here. Maybe this won’t work in the aesthetic mode I’m shooting, maybe I’m underexposing…raw will save me.”
  • “I have infinite options in post-processing, I can create an aesthetic then”. Maybe, but an infinite choice can be paralysing, and by deciding on an aesthetic post shooting, you won’t be making the most of visualising that aesthetic when shooting.

I found myself thinking about this following an email from my uncle detailing his preferred method of shooting with this new Fuji X10:

I think my favourite setup is with the camera at ISO 2500 in Velvia mode at low resolution and extra noise reduction. Then you soften the rather over-contrasty colour pallette and get some nice looking splodgy ‘grain’. It’s just a shame that in JPEG this artificial ‘grain’ follows edges. If it could be coaxed into a truly random splattering then this setup could be said to be almost Fuji Pro800 in rendition. I have a 40.5mm filter which I hope to get on my metal lathe to re-cut the thread pitch and give me a way of then stacking standard filters on top, then I might get a strong ND filter to keep the ISO high (oh- I can’t believe I am trying to add noise for my satisfaction).

How wonderful is that? ISO 2500/Velvia/low-res/splodge by choice? In the good ol film days, photographers felt free to be creative with their particular aesthetic resulting from their choice of materials and tools. In the digital world, some single high-end camera is praised as the ideal (high resolution, low noise) and all others are expected to strive to match that same neutral and soulless look. And for everything else – to borrow a phrase – there’s Photoshop.

With film, the aesthetic choice need be made once every 36 shots (or roughly 12 for medium format, or one for sheet film), and the cost of changing aesthetics was very small. Once the choice is made, the mind and eye can kick in to that mode, and the photographer can narrow his all too wide search for a photograph that works. In the digital realm, anything is possible, but it requires a whole heap of self discipline to apply unnecessary constraints to match that specific aesthetic mindset that film can afford.

Ok, That’s Quite Enough of That

That was a bit of an experiment. I tried an import of my recently started tumblr “Cronbi Camera Style” into this here blog. There’s a good reason that Tumblr does what Tumblr does and WordPress does what WordPress does. The right tool for the job, etc. Anyway, at least it provided a little filler in between ‘real’ posts. I’m working on a brief post on the Don McCullin show at the Tate. Shiould have been up ten days ago. Excuses – I have a few, but then again, too few to mention.

So check out Cronbi Camera Style, and I’ll keep it separate from this blog in the future. And I will try not to spend time posting silly photos of cameras when a real post has been sitting unfinished for over a week.

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Cronbi Camera Style – Nikon D80

Nikon D80 + AF Nikkor 24mm f2.8. The DSLRs from a generation and a half ago seem so honest, simple,

Cronbi Camera Style – Konica Hexar RF

Konica Hexar RF + 50mm f2 Hexanon I should point out that this is an usual time, I am trying hard to

Cronbi Camera Style – Contax TVS, Leica Minilux

Contax TVS, Leica Minilux Mmmm…compact…luxury…35mm. What do these two cameras hav

Cronbi Camera Style – Nikon FG

Farwell to: Leica Elmarit 180mm f2.8 Here modelled on the Nikon FG, I’ve also just sold this L

Cronbi Camera Style – Nikon F3

Farwell to: Carl Zeiss ZF.2 50mm f1.4 Here modelled on the workhorse/warhorse Nikon F3, I

Cronbi Camera Style – Bronica RF645

Farewell to: Bronica RF645 + 65mm f4 Zenanon I put this up for sale tonight having received it back

Cronbi Camera Style – Contax 139 Quartz

Contax 139 Quartz, with the Carl Zeiss Planar 1.7/50mm. This is how it all started, 10 years ago. Se