Something of value.

During a thirty year career photographing the landscape and more than a decade ago adding wildlife to my repertoire, I’ve also been maintaining a bit of a sideline.

Dead seabirds (mostly common scoter), Freshwater East, Pembrokeshire. February 1996. I spent a couple of days in Pembrokeshire after the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground. Some of the photographs appeared on TV at the time.

While out in the landscape I’ve sometimes come across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes which tell us more about our relationship with the landscape than most of my (or anybody’s) actual “traditional” landscapes do. As an early example, in the early days of Fuji Velvia (the late 1980’s) , I remember taking a picture of a pile of bright blue plastic pipes close to a reservoir in the wilds of the Ceredigion uplands; it’s probably still in a filing cabinet somewhere. At first I called these images “human landscapes” although I don’t feel that that description now does them all justice. Many are informed by my environmental concerns in a broad sense and some actually say more about us than the landscape. Some ask more questions than give answers.

Near Bangor, Gwynedd. July 2019. An exception to the rule: having seen this phone mast from the driver’s seat of my van, I revisited it some months later and searched out the best spot to photograph it from.

Throughout my life in photography I’ve been a big fan of the brilliant Joe Cornish and his contemporaries as well as the almost unique world-view of the late Fay Godwin; both have their place in the world of outdoor photography. Fay Godwin, it seems to me, began her photographic career specialising in traditional black-and-white landscapes. But as her consciousness developed about the damage we are inflicting on nature, so her images became more closely aligned to her environmental concerns. She disliked the description of “landscape photographer” that people gave her, despite the fact that she worked mainly in the landscape; she preferred the term “documentary”. I understand exactly what she meant; it’s unfortunate that in the photographic world the term landscape means only one sort of landscape.

Near Trefenter, Ceredigion. March 2021

Going back to my own human landscapes, I’ve often been able to sneak them into my books and exhibitions while no-one was looking! I can imagine that many viewers’ reactions would be along the lines of “But Wales is such a beautiful country, why photograph that?” It has long been an ambition of mine to put them all together and exhibit them. Over the years it’s been known variously as my ” Black and White Project”, my “Retrospective of Sorts” and my “Homage to Fay Godwin”. As a prelude to this (I hope), at the end of last year, I put together a one-off photobook of more than fifty of them.

Pembroke castle and Oil Refinery, December 2009

How this eventually came about is worth a mention. I’d been putting it off for years. I had had some very dispiriting criticism of the project from a photographer in the Joe Cornish tradition who I had previously admired tremendously. I whittled the selection down to about a hundred, including plenty of new work but some already published in colour. I converted them all to black-and-white, and had some cheap test prints made, but still couldn’t put them together. Then while browsing on the internet one day I saw a promotion from an online company offering £100 off one of their top-of -the-range photobooks. I responded immediately and was sent a coupon valid for 30 days. This was the impetus I needed, and within a couple of weeks I had the finished product on my desk. Compiling it was the most fun in photography I had had for years! The quality of the book was excellent except for one thing; it had been designed online and the mid-grey front cover with white and black lettering looked fine on-screen. But in reality my name in black was almost invisible against the grey unless you saw it at a certain angle to the light. I pointed this out to the printers and they offered me a full credit for the cost, amounting to £118.23p, most of which I hadn’t paid in the first place!

Tywyn, Gwynedd. (June 2010). Taken while researching locations for Wales at Waters Edge

The content of the book, when I saw it, was really quite an eye-opener. I realised most of images had been seen almost out of the corner of my eye, while I was actually intent on taking other photographs. Mostly other landscapes, sometimes wildlife and surprisingly often while I was driving from A to B and just saw something. Many of them are at places where I stopped, took a picture and moved on. I know I will never be back there again. I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who sees a fantastic landscape from the driver’s seat of a car, stops, walks back and the finds the potentially world-beating image has completely disappeared. My snapshots are quite different to traditional landscapes, however, where the quality of the light is critical and a significant amount of pre-planning is usually required. In many cases individual images have limited value on their own but in the company of a few dozen others, the photographer’s vision becomes more clear.

Near LLanwchllyn, Gwynedd. September 2008. This could be described in terms of the media, or the message, or both. Not everyone gets both………

The good luck didn’t stop at the refund for the cost of printing the book, either. The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has quite a large collection of my colour work already. Just after Christmas I was strolling along the sea-front in Aberystwyth when I met its curator of photography, Will Troughton. After a bit of a general chat he asked me if I was working on anything at the moment. My usual response these days to that question is “well, er, no …….. not really…….” but fortunately I remembered to mention the retrospective/Godwin/b&w project. He expressed an interest and I arranged to meet him, book in hand. A couple of days after seeing it he phoned to say that he had “found some money” and would like to buy a selection of prints. The importance of the sale is not so much in the cash, but rather the recognition that I still produce photographic work of some value.

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Tea and Brasso (Part two)

Boston Lodge b&w No 1.

My first attempts at photography in 1968 (see Part One) were in black and white, naturally enough. Colour photography was a bit of specialist pastime in those days and the materials were of rather poor quality. I had the use of the school darkroom and experienced the excitement of watching my prints slowly becoming visible in a tray of developer. I have always felt that b&w was a suitable medium for railway photography in the last days of steam. There was nothing glamourous at all in the subject matter and arguably very little that colour could add. The school darkroom was demolished very soon after I started using it, however, and thus ended my first stab at photography.

Boston Lodge b&w No 2.

My father continued togive me his old cameras as he upgraded to something more up-to-date. So I also became a Praktica user. By the early 1970’s, colour materials must have become easier to get hold of, and develop-and-print packages more affordable, because I never went into a darkroom again. It was colour negative all the way for me.  The film went to Boots, or, more likely, Max Spielmann for p&p. At that time  I was just messing around with cameras really, just having fun. I can remember a game I played with another student where we pursued each other around Nottingham city centre, each one trying to take photographs of the other without being seen.   Although I gradually took my photography more seriously it never occurred to me to use anything but colour. My philosophy was simple : we live in a colour world, so why photograph it in b&w? Most serious photographers, on the other hand, would have been using monochrome. One exception was Ernst Haas, whose crowning achievement (first published in 1971) was the Creation, produced entirely in colour.

Boston Lodge b&w No 3.

But, to coin a phrase, I digress. Most of the photographers that have inspired me (Ernst Haas, Paul Wakefield, Joe Cornish, Chris Gomersall, and others) have worked entirely in colour,  while one in particular only did so in her later years. I refer to Fay Godwin, who I have already mentioned in this blog a number of times – here, for example.  Her best known and most influential work was done in monochrome in the 1970’s and 80’s. I began to wonder if its particular power could have resulted from the use of monochrome. Perhaps the messages she was trying to convey came over more clearly without a sheen of colour to distract the mind/eye? So I began to think about doing b&w conversions of my own originals. Just for starters, I decided to convert some images from my recent visit to the Ffestiniog Railway at Boston Lodge. As I mentioned above I have always felt that b&w was ideal for steam railway photography.  Only those aged 60 or more will personally remember the last days of steam and the photographs from the era, which were inevitably monochrome. It could be that there is an element of nostalgia involved but I suspect it is more than that.

Boston Lodge b&w No4

Last weekend I was up in north Wales and frustrated yet again by some dismal (but very typical) August weather.  On a still and humid Sunday morning there were patches of mid-level cloud wrapping themselves around hilltops and mountain-sides. The landscape photographer might take some spectacular images if the sun broke through a broken layer of high level cloud. The latter looked thinner at the coast so I headed down to the Cob at Porthmadog; the view to Snowdon from its southern end is an iconic one.  Long distance visibility from there was limited, unfortunately, but just a few meters away in the other direction lay Boston Lodge, and it looked stunning! As the railwaymen prepared the engines for the new day’s work I had another short session photographing them “contre-jour” before the sun disappeared completely.

 

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