A need from deep within

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Readers of this blog will know by now that Sebastian Salgado is one of my inspirations and a few months ago, while browsing in a local bookstore, I picked up a book called From my Land to the Planet written by him in collaboration with Isabella Francq that covers his life and his photography. It is the quote on the front of the book, visible in the picture above, that really resonated with me and prompted me to buy it.

I suspect, that this quote will speak to many of the blog’s readers. What started for me with the desire to finally replace my old film point and shoot and  buy my first DSLR some nine years ago, has turned into something I could barely have foreseen then. Like Salgado, I too love holding my camera and looking for images, feeding an insatiable hunger to take more and more photographs. And like many of us, I now own far too many cameras, lenses and particularly camera bags.

We are always on the look out for more pictures. We wake up when it is still night to head out to capture first light. We are late for dinner, because there is more evening light to capture. There are days I come home when the light is about to fade and I have to race to get one of my cameras to record another amazing sunset from my balcony. It is not the view that continues to astonish me, but the never-ending variety of colours in the sunset skies and the million ways of capturing this city.

It is more than merely recording the moment. It is somehow trying to capture that moment in time in the way that I saw it, trying to convey what took my breath away. Sometimes I succeed, more often I fail, but I’m slowly getting better at it and it never stops me to try again or to take more pictures. It’s been quite a journey so far and there is still a long road ahead. I’m not even sure where that road is leading, but I’m happy to be on it.

The quote on the front of the book is from the final paragraph in the book, after he has described his journey into and through photography – how it nearly destroyed him and how it resurrected him. But it is only part of the final paragraph, which also reads:

“My photography is not a form of activism, it is not even a profession. It is my life. (…) My photography is all of this and I cannot claim that the decisions that make me choose to go here or there are rational. It is a need that comes from deep inside me.”

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I would argue that is not always the case. Sometimes we need words like this to express why we do what we do.

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Words and images

I love to read and so when it comes to learning more about photography, I will often turn to books for more information. Recently I had friends staying with me and they, avid photographers themselves, commented on my range of books on photography, some of which they hadn’t seen before. They ended up ordering a few of the titles themselves. So I thought this might be of interest to more people and that I would share a few of my favourite photography books here. Most of these books you can order from internet book stores like Amazon and Book Depository and a few you might even find in old-fashioned book stores.

For technical advice

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Ansel Adams – The Negative
The Master. Adams wrote a three part series – The Camera, The Negative, The Print – putting all his learning and discoveries in these books. The Negative goes in depth into various technical matters such as exposure, the zone system and darkroom processes. Although written for analog cameras, the concepts are still relevant, even in this digital age. It’s not a light read, so I don’t recommend it for beginning photographers who want to read up on exposure. There are other, more easily digestible books for that (see below). But at some point it is good to turn to the masters and I plan on getting the other parts of the series as well.

Galen Rowell – The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography
The other master of the outdoors. A series of essays in which the late Rowell writes on how to express vision, technique, journeys and communicating through photography. Again a book written when analog cameras were still around, but his knowledge doesn’t age. Rowell was a master of outdoor photography and this is a book I regularly dip into or consult. When I had booked a helicopter flight over Iguassu, this is the book I consulted to find answers to what type of lens and settings to use. I followed his advice to the letter and got great pictures. (And now you all know where the inspiration for my wordpress moniker comes from…)

Freeman Patterson – Photography and the Art of Seeing
Another classic for photographers. Patterson challenges you to look at your environment and to see beyond the obvious. He writes about observing, imagining a vision and learning to express that vision. It’s a quick read if you want that, but it’s worthwhile spending time on his exercises.

Syl Arena – The Speedliter’s Handbook
Arena is one of my new favourite authors. This man has a knack of breaking down difficult concepts. Although I had two flashes (one for the Fuji systems and one for the Canon), I wasn’t too sure how to use them and had mixed results even with automatic settings. Just a few chapters into this veritable bible on Canon speedlites, I’m much clearer on what I can do with my speedlite and even my Fuji flash has unveiled its mysteries to me. It’s a brick, but everything you ever wanted to know about Canon speedlites and using flash is in there.

Alexandre Buisse – Remote Exposure
For all of us outdoorsy types, this is a fun book filled with tips on hiking and climbing photography. A lot of common sense advice and some inspirational photos. Probably not for everyone, but for those of us who try to combine photography with the remote outdoors and are looking for tips on how to make our load lighter, this is a nice book to dip into.

David Gibson – The Street Photographer’s Manual
While most of the previous books are about landscape / nature  photography, the fact is that I’m living in a (very) large city at the moment. I’ve been trying to study some books on street photography in an effort to make the most of photography opportunities here. It’s not easy, but Gibson’s book is an interesting expose on different styles in street photography, tips on how to make the most of opportunities.

Syl Arena – Lighting for Digital Photography
This is the book for those who need to understand light and exposure fundamentals in photography. A great book for beginners, Arena explains concepts easily and well. If you read this book you will be well versed on all these concepts. I bought it on Kindle, but also available in hard copy.

David DuChemin – Within the Frame
This was the third photography book I bought, but the most important and most useful one out of those. DuChemin covers similar fundamentals on exposure as Arena, but also adds in how zoom lenses work differently from wide-angle lenses and how to use them to optimal effect. A great book for beginners and an inspirational book.

David DuChemin – The Visual Toolbox
This comes filled with not only theory and explanation, but exercises too for those disciplined enough. It’s a “curriculum for learning not just how to use a camera – but how to make stronger photographs”. Need I say more?

Art Wolfe – The New Art of Photographing Nature
An easy read that dives into composition, perspective, lighting, colour and much more. Often giving various pictures of the same subject it explains why some shots work better than others.

For inspiration

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Sebastião Salgado – Gênesis
The contemporary master. For me there are few people who get close to Salgado and it’s not because I’m currently living in Brazil that I feel this way. His monochrome pictures are so good you don’t even want to see them in colour. His sharpness, his composition, it’s all there. And his ethics. If you’ve never heard of him, check him out. Gênesis is his latest work, but he has been a prolific photographer for many decades, mostly on social justice issues (Workers, Migrations, Africa). Wim Wenders’ recent documentary on Salgado – Salt of the Earth (Salgado means salty in English) – is a great movie about the photographer and the man. I’ve got ten more months to try and meet him in person…

Magnum Contacts
A lot of famous photographs are featured in this book and the stories of how they got chosen for publication. What works so well in this book is that you get to see the contact sheet and the final selection by the photographer. You can follow the process of why they selected one exposure over the other. A book to return to time after time for inspiration.

Steve McCurry – South Southeast
Beautiful photographs taken in South Asia and South East Asia, including ‘that’ famous image of the Afghan refugee girl in Pakistan. McCurry’s use of colour jumps out at you (such a difference from Salgado).

Vivian Maier – A street photographer
There has been a lot of publicity around Vivian Maier in the last few years and rightfully so. Some magical photos in this book to get inspired by. After seeing the documentary about her, I’m not sure that I like her methods all that much, but I can’t deny the power of her photographs.

Galen Rowell – Poles Apart
A very interesting book which features in one section juxtaposed photos taken in the Arctic and the Antarctic. Some combinations work better than others, but they are always interesting. Inspirational viewing for anyone who plans to travel to either of these regions.

Helen Ennis – Frank Hurley’s Antarctica
A compilation of Hurley’s photographs to accompany an exhibition of his work that showed a few years ago in Canberra. I think his work is incredible, particularly when you consider the conditions he was working in and the equipment he was using. Powerful images.

I would love to hear what other people’s favourite and inspirational books are!

Inspiration: Martin Chambi

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I always like to look at the work of other photographers for inspiration and ideas on how to apply technique. One benefit of living in this massive city is that there is usually a couple of exhibitions around that are worth visiting. The exhibition “Face Andina: Fotografias de Martin Chambi” at the Instituto Moreira Salles had been on my list since Christmas, but I only got around to visiting it yesterday, just in time before it closes on 22 February.

Martin Chambi (1881-1973) was a pioneering indigenous Peruvian photographer, who tried to photograph his own people in a different way then just as an exotic species. He was one of the first to photograph Machu Picchu and also became known as a photojournalist, who worked not only for newspapers Cusco, but was also published in National Geographic.

I had first read about Martin Chambi in the book ‘Andes’ by Michael Jacobs, which triggered my interest in seeing the exhibition, which consists of 88 photographs, the majority portraits and group photos, as well as a series of images taking at various Inca sites in the mountains, including the very iconic photograph featured above, one of my favourites. His photos provide a chance to peek into Peruvian society of the early 20th century. One of the images that made me smile was one of the ladies basketball team, lined up from tall to (quite) short, in their long skirts, with special hats and shoes with a small heel. A world apart from basketball players nowadays!

As I looked at the various portraits, I mused at how interesting it is that portraits are often defined, or at least were back then, by how we think we need to pose rather then how we would like to pose. The very stilted poses of some ‘pillars’ of society contrasted starkly  with the defying look of a young society lady who clearly felt like the bees’ knees in her shoot. And the portrait of a worker had a very submissive look to it, of someone who barely felt worthy of a photograph.

Chambi used mainly natural light, with some impressive results. I really liked one of his portraits of an older man where the only light was like a halo around one part of his head, providing barely sufficient illumination to show the rest of his face. Very atmospheric.

Often we seek out the exotic or extraordinary to make photographs. I feel that Chambi often tried to photograph the ordinary in a, for us, extraordinary environment, in a way that transcended the usual imagery associated with it. If any exhibition of his work ever comes to Australia, I highly recommend a visit, but a browse on google will also bring up many of his wonderful photographs.

Analog Days

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For many years I’ve been trying to track down my father’s old Voigtlander Vitoret and had almost given up on finding it, presuming it lost forever in the sands of time. But in October last year, during a brief visit to my parents, we struck gold when Dad in one of his more lucid moments disappeared upstairs and returned triumphantly with an old shoebox filled with old cameras, of which the Voigtlander was by far the most interesting one.

As a child I remember my father recording every family holiday on slides using the camera. This involved much fiddling with a light meter (one that remains lost) and tentative turning of dials, which used to exasperate my mother, brother and me, as we all didn’t want to stand still that long for the obligatory happy family shot and just wanted him to get on with it. I feel a bit more sympathetic for what he had to do with that camera having recently handled it and am amazed he actually got reasonable photos out of it. Probably better ones than he is managing now with a digital camera!

Back in the days of my first steps into photography, my father let me use an old Agfa Clack, which was a boxy and bulky thing to carry around; the Voigtlander being so much sleeker in comparison. I’m sure the memory of the Voigtlander played a signicant part in my decision to buy the Fuji X100, which has that old look and feel, but is packed full of new technology.

After taking the Voigtlander home, I gave it a good clean, found a PDF scan of the manual on the Internet (not that there is much to figure out, it really is a very simple camera) and put some black and white film into it. I have so far been on one outing with it and am planning another one this weekend with the aim of filling up the film with images, so I can get it developed. Handling an old fashioned camera like this, makes you aware of how much we have grown used to new technology and how much we rely on it. Having no light meter I have to rely on my manual settings experience for deciding on which settings to use, with fairly limited options available, particularly in terms of shutter speed. And of course, no way of seeing how the photos have turned out until I get it developed. It is going to be a real surprise when the film comes back and I’m not sure whether it will be a good one, but certainly an interesting one!

One thing is certain, feeling the old camera in my hands and shooting with it, makes me really appreciate new technology. I will not deny my nostalgia for my father’s old camera, and it will probably find a place of pride on a bookshelf, but I prefer my new cameras and all they offer to me.

I’m sure there must be others in the CPS who occasionally shoot with film or an old camera. I would love to hear more about your experiences.