I recently spent a week touring central southern England in my camper van and one of the locations I visited was Stonehenge in Wiltshire. I had only seen the stones once before; I believe I may have been to a free festival there in my youth but that might be my imagination! I do recall that I had been expecting the stones to be larger than they in fact are. I gather this is a common misconception, and may be due to the ability of photographers to compress the perspective of the scene using telephoto lenses.
Entry to the visitor centre and monument costs a staggering £21.50: it is a real cash-cow for English Heritage. However it is possible to get close-ish without paying by using the remains of the A344 which passed the stones on the northern side. Although the road has now been grassed over it appears that a right of way on foot has been retained. A wire fence is all that separates the viewer from the grassland surrounding the stones.
Until the closure of the A344, the stones were within the fork of that road and the A303 to the south. For many years there have been plans to divert the A303 away from the site and recently a £1.7 billion plan was approved for it to pass underground in a two-mile long tunnel. That would seem to a layman like myself to be an expensive but reasonable solution. However the Stonehenge monument is only part of a much larger historical landscape of world-class importance. Archaeologists believe that a tunnel would need to be about 5 miles long to avoid damage to the outer sections of the site. A protest camp has already been set up and a judicial review is under way to decide on the matter, but I can’t help feeling we have not heard the last of this one!
Viewing the stones even from a respectable distance I did feel that they gave off far more of a presence than I had felt all those years ago.
After about twenty-four hours around the Stonehenge I hit the road again. I’ll write about the rest of my trip shortly.
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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.
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.
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.
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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I first picked up a camera as a schoolboy. My father gave me his old rangefinder after he bought himself his first Praktica. He had introduced me to trainspotting a few years earlier and 1968 saw the dying days of steam power on main-line railways in Britain. I spent as much time as I could that summer travelling around northern England to see and photograph the last steam engines still in operation. On the last day of steam – 15th August if I remember correctly – I officially gave up trainspotting and put my Locoshed book away for the last time. With the photographic vision and skills I now have how I wish that I could travel back in time to those days when grimy and unloved steam engines could still be found.
I have since then retained a broad interest in railways, and Wales has an abundance of preserved narrow-gauge lines. In fact, Porthmadog is the hub of quite a narrow-guage steam network with the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland lines terminating there. Last week I decided I was man enough to do some railway photography again: man enough because I needed to overcome my concerns about being seen as a train nerd. So one evening recently I wandered in to the Boston Lodge works/engine shed of the Ffestiniog Railway as one of the last engines of the day was being “put to bed”. I gingerly approached the railwaymen to enquire about getting access the following morning, and was told that I would need to speak to the Works Supervisor who would be on duty from 7 a.m. I was there at half-past seven, only to find no-one in the office but railwaymen (and women) preparing several engines for the day’s duties. I couldn’t help noticing several people polishing the engines furiously – something that you would never have seen on British Rail in the 1960’s.
Once I did find someone to report in to I was surprised at how relaxed the regime was for visitors – “Oh just sign in, and mind where you’re putting your feet” I was told. Very refreshingly there was no “elf’n safety” paranoia here. I cautiously began exploring the sheds and sidings. If you’re interested in steam engines you will know this already but the first job in the morning is to light the fire. Once this is done the engine is driven gently out into the open for the fire to take hold and steam pressure to build up, and for more polishing to be done. Everyone had a tin of Brasso to hand, and there was a cupboard full of the stuff inside the shed. Mugs of tea were also well in evidence. In the midst of a downpour, a swallow chased a butterfly in the grime and smoke of the engine shed.
I was casually looking into the cab of one of the engines when the fireman leapt in through the opposite door. Although dressed in grimy dark blue overalls, like most of the men, this was clearly a woman. I asked what the attraction was for her in firing a steam engine – “it’s just something completely different to what I normally do” she said. And what was that? “Oh, I’m a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children”. She paused for a few seconds. ” Although, come to think of it, compared to some of the volunteers we get here, there isn’t actually that much difference.” Train nerds, you see. I saw her later, at lunchtime, having worked all morning, on her second round trip of the day. Her teeth gleamed white from a face caked in sweat and coal dust. “One of the best fireman on the railway”, said the driver.
The main attraction at Boston Lodge was, of course, the presence of the engines. The railway staff must have been accustomed to railway photographers, though, because they seemed quite unselfconscious subjects themselves. It probably helped to have a chat: one driver – in real life an English teacher at a school in Switzerland – was back at the Ffestiniog for his thirty-second year, while another man told me proudly that it was his fourty-ninth year as a fireman. One pointed out an osprey hovering over the Glaslyn river as it hunted for fish to take back to its family a few miles away. I found I was often able to include them and in fact, some human interest really seemed to lift the images. The results were far from traditional “steam engine at 45 degrees”and one could say were more social documentary in nature. I have a feeling there is more to be done on the Ffestiniog.
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Saturday the 18th saw the opening of a new exhibition at MOMA Machynlleth of the late Fay Godwin’s black-and-white landscape photographs. It includes a selection of original prints from the National Library of Wales’s collection linked to “The Drover’s Roads of Wales”. This was a bit of a classic from the 1980’s and one of Fay’s first forays into the world of books, and one which helped to make her name. There can be little argument that she was at that time a landscape photographer but she later came to deny this, and claim instead that she was a documentary photographer. But in my opinion this was a moot point. She worked for most of her career in the landscape and that’s good enough for me. What set her apart from most others in the same field was her knowledge of the issues around the landscape and the way she incorporated them into her photographs. While many landscape images, then and now, are stunningly beautiful they actually say very little about their subject matter. It could be said that Fay Godwin’s images, on the contrary, were landscapes with content.
Alongside these prints was another group chosen by invited photographers (including such names as Paul Hill, John Davies and John Blakemore), and others, who were inspired by Fay’s work or who had other connections with her. These were printed by Peter Cattrell, Fay’s own printer and they look absolutely sparkling. Each was asked to select one of Fay’s images and write an extended caption for it and I’m glad to say that I was one of those invited. My choice, and the caption I wrote for it is below. The image appeared on the rear cover of the third of Fay’s “landscape trilogy” – The Edge of the Land (published in 1995). With its rather enigmatic composition I assumed it was from relatively late in her career, butI have recently learned that it dated from the early 1970’s and was included in her retrospective Landmarks as a “snapshot”.
Fay Godwin’s work has been a visual soundtrack for most of my photographic life. I roamed wild landscapes with my camera from the 1980’s onwards and sometimes came across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes. The photographs I took of them became my “human landscapes”. It was certainly reassuring to know that Fay Godwin had already ploughed the same furrow that I was following. Whether mine work as well in colour as hers did in black-and-white, I don’t know: perhaps not. Fay Godwin’s photographic journey in the landscape began by making images to illustrate guidebooks (e.g. “The Drovers Roads of Wales”) and ended with very personal statements about her own place within it. “Ramsgate, Kent” appeared in the “Edge of the Land”, the last of her landscape book trilogy. Its meaning was probably clearer to her than it is to the viewer. But I like the way that each individual element in the picture has absolutely its own place in the image; rather like chess pieces on a board. And I have an interest in verbal messages displayed in the countryside. They tell us a lot about what we are like as a species.
Alongside these two strands is a separate exhibition at The Penrallt Gallery and Bookshop, a few doors up the road from MOMA. Invited photographers were asked to choose one image of their own which they felt was particularly inspired by Fay Godwin’s work. My own choice is at the top of this post and I wonder if anyone can see the parallels between it and “Ramsgate, Kent” reproduced above? While in many ways there is no similarity at all for me it is the chess board analogy I mentioned in the extended caption that applies in both examples.
The Penrallt Gallery/Bookshop was opened a few years ago by Geoff Young and Diane Bailey, both of whom, in previous lives, taught photography. They have an excellent selection of books, particularly on the arts, photography and the environment – just my sort of place, as you can imagine! It is just one of those places which is very difficult to leave without having bought something. They also show the work of upcoming photographers and hold a regular series of talks and readings with photographers and authors, plus various writing workshops. The Fay Godwin exhibition at MOMA and the spinoff at Penrallt were organised and curated by Geoff and Diane and a brilliant job they have done of it. It deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to get in a small town in mid-Wales.
On March 11th and linked to the exhibitions is a conference on Fay Godwin’s photography (with guest speakers) and including a preview of a new film about her life : “Don’t Fence Me In”. I’m really looking forward to it. For details click on the link below ;
I can’t have been the only photographer to have recently received junk email offering…..”Always have amazing skies!”. It goes on –
“With the killer App for Sky Replacement and our new Skies and Clouds Collections”
“With […………..] sky replacement is no longer like Rocket Science”
“Add Skies III and our amazing new Drag and Drop Cloud Formations and the skies the limit on creativity!”
“Two New Bundles to SAVE on so you’ll never have Dull Skies Again”
It goes on and on in this vein. I find it terribly depressing. The graphic designer could thus, for example, adapt a poor quality landscape image by adding a sky downloaded from a software package. No photographic skills required whatsoever! Likewise the amateur (or professional) landscape photographer wanting short-cuts to dramatic photographs. It has until recently been difficult to incorporate stunning skies into landscape images without stunning skies being present in reality. Doing so in the days of colour film would have involved a very high level of printing skills indeed and it is probably fairly safe to say that it had rarely been done successfully. In the brave new world of digital photography much of the work involved has been already been done by the software designer.
But this kind of approach does more than make life easier for those wanting short cuts to great landscape images. It devalues photography in its most basic sense. By its very nature a photograph has documentary qualities. I don’t mean to confuse “landscape photography” with “documentary photography” here. But a photograph – any photograph – is an interpretation of a slice of reality. It is rooted in what the photographer saw through his/her viewfinder. So a landscape photograph automatically has documentary values. The very best have both aesthetic and documentary qualities in shed loads. If the photographer has added a spectacular sky – even one of their own – that link between reality and image has been lost.
Many photographers argue that all photographs are “fake” to some extent and that therefore anything goes. In my opinion this just does not hold water. I agree that the photographer makes selections and interpretations at all stages of the process. They might use film or digital, a jpeg straight out of the camera or process a RAW file to their own satisfaction. They might use a 10stop ND filter on their DSLR, a smartphone or a pinhole camera, colour or black-and-white. By making these choices the photographer interprets their surroundings in different ways. But there is a quantum leap between that and getting a sky from elsewhere – their own library or a software program – to combine with their own image to produce a result.
If it were possible (and necessary) the photographer would physically move a minor irritant (rubbish, for example) from the foreground of a landscape image before pressing the shutter. But if not I don’t really see a problem in cloning it out at the processing stage. I’m not that much of a purist. But it is at this point we enter a very grey area indeed. Where does one draw the line between “processing” and “manipulation” – the acceptable and the unacceptable? Personally I’m happy to clone out anything which on another day might not have been there: a walker in a red cagoule, or white van in the distance, for example. Others draw the line elsewhere. But there is a line. It may well be that advertising photography is artificial through and through, and maybe we should expect that. If there was a line of telegraph poles running through a landscape, though, I badly need and want to know about it. Every picture tells a story and a manipulated one can tell quite a different story. It could be the difference between a real wilderness and an inhabited landscape in this example.
On the other hand I have no philosophical problem with improving my images at the processing stage where necessary. The more I use Lightroom the more I learn what it is capable of. I was recently introduced to the adjustment brush by my correspondent David Clegg and how useful is that? How could I have managed without it, more like! During the latter stages of my Bird/land project I was able to use the adjustment brush (rather than the radial filter) to select the bird before making minor changes to its exposure or contrast, for example. So much more effective! See the purple heron image above.
More on Bird/land very shortly, by the way……..
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