Newark Library is housed in a modern building largely made up of glass and surrounded by trees. The glass is tinted to stop excess heat and glare, but there are also blinds high up on the glass walls to help give shade from the heat in summer. I often do some shifts there, and I’d noticed that on sunny days the trees outside cast their shadows on these blinds, and I’d just as often felt the urge to photograph them.
I don’t take my camera to work as I don’t want to risk leaving it in the lockers, and I’d been meaning for some time to make a visit there specially to take some shots, but sod’s law had seen to it that my free time and the right weather hadn’t coincided. However it had to happen sooner or later, and this week I finally got the opportunity.
I also got some strange looks from people wondering what I was doing. As I’m sure lots of you know, this is an occupational hazard when you’re into photography, particularly the kind of photography where you’re using your own vision and awareness to see things that other people miss. I’ve got used to the embarrassment factor now, and mostly feel sad that people miss so many of these visual pleasures. I always did notice things that others didn’t, but photography took that ability and expanded it tenfold. This has been one of its greatest gifts to me, and I can’t imagine life without it now.
I couldn’t decide which of several shots to post, so I thought I’d include a couple of other favourites as well.
Last week I mentioned that I wanted to try a new technique, called ‘in the round’ where the photographer takes a series of pictures while moving 360 degrees round her subject and then combines them in post-processing to give an impressionist effect. You can see an example of how it’s supposed to look here!
The image above is the result of my having a very casual and not very serious go at it (it’s just a detail of the whole as it was the only part that I felt was at all successful; you can see the whole image at the end of the post). The result isn’t great and has lots wrong with it, but it’s good enough to let me see that it’s possible to produce something I’d actually be pleased with. I got a lot of things wrong and I learned a lot from that, so here’s the benefit of my experience.
First off, you need more than nine shots, which is all I used. Most photographers using this technique will use around 20-30 shots and I can see why. The more shots you have to layer, the more the central subject stands out and the extra bits that you don’t want to emphasise disappear.
The next thing is that it’s important to line each shot up, as you take it, in exactly the same way, or at least as close as you can get. When I saw each photo being layered over the previous one, I realised that my distance from the bandstand as I walked around it had obviously varied quite a bit, which increased or decreased the size of the bandstand in the frame and made it harder to align. You need to keep the position of the subject in the frame constant, as well – I think a tripod might be the thing here.
I’m also a hopeless case when it comes to getting things straight. I do try, because it would obviously be far better to get this right in-camera, but no matter how I try my verticals and horizontals are never straight and I have to straighten everything up afterwards – I’ve learned to add some space round the edge of the image to allow for this. Obviously it’s important to do the straightening before you start layering each image over the others.
I am still a bit confused about how best to carry out the layering process. The basic idea is that you start with the first image, then add each subsequent one as a Photoshop layer on top – think of piling several transparencies on top of one another. If you were to leave the opacity of each layer at 100%, all you’d see would be the top one, so the transparency of each layer has to be increased to let the layers underneath show through. The article I read suggested that the opacity of the first layer be set at 50%, then the next at 25%, then 12%, and so on. However, even with only nine layers, by halving the opacity each time the final ones were down to less than 1%. I’m not sure this can be right. I need to both experiment and do a bit more research on how best to do it.
It’s fun to have tried this, although I didn’t get much out of taking the photographs themselves. You end up with a batch of very ordinary images that aren’t very exciting to take and all the excitement comes purely from the post-processing. Fortunately I really enjoy this part too, so I’m intrigued enough to give this technique at least a few more tries.
If you want to see the entire image, rather than the cropped section, here it is below. You can see that the van has appeared three times and is quite obtrusive, and there are a lot more benches round the bandstand than exist in reality. Although I’ve seen this successfully done with quite busy backgrounds, I feel that the simpler the background, the better the result is likely to be.
The originator of the ‘in the round’ technique is Pep Ventosa, and you can see on his website how it looks when it’s done really well.
Not a very big tree this week, but it counts, I think. I liked the way the shadow of the picket fence leads you to the tree, and how the electrical cable on the right somehow works to balance the whole thing out.
Life feels very full at the moment – I haven’t been out much with my camera, and what pictures I have been taking all seem to be of water reflections (which I’m rather obsessed with right now). However, it looks like the busyness is beginning to slow down a little, so I’m hopeful that this week will see me with a little time to play.
And play is what I need right now. I have all sorts of things I’d like to try photographically, including a technique usually referred to as ‘in the round’. It involves taking a series of pictures while moving 360 degrees round the subject, then combining these afterwards to give a very painterly, impressionist effect. If you want to see some examples, or read a bit more about it, there’s a great article on Stephen D’Agostino’s site. I’m pretty sure it’s a lot harder than it looks, but if I have any success with it I’ll be putting the results on here.
I’d also like to do more with Intentional Camera Movement, experiment with pinhole, and spend some time with my Lensbaby, among other things. It won’t all happen, of course, but perhaps some of it will. Finally there’s some spring colour around, and that wonderful haze of green that appears just before the trees come fully into leaf. It’s all so much more inspiring than the grey days we’ve had for so long, and I’m longing to get out there.
The black line behind the tree shows where the weir is situated
Still on the quest for lovely places to walk in this area, we went to the RSPB nature reserve near Collingham. It’s certainly nicer than most of the walks I’ve tried so far, and part of it takes you alongside Cromwell Weir – the point at which the tidal part of the River Trent meets the non-tidal part.
Weirs are quite scary things, and this one is no exception. In fact, on the other side of the river next to the lock, there is a memorial to ten soldiers who died when their craft was swept over this weir during a night-time exercise. The sheer power of the water is frightening, and we watched some flotsam being rhythmically swept under and then bobbing up again, trapped in the circular motion of the water. In another area the water formed a small whirlpool, with the central portion being a foot or two lower than the rest of the water. Despite many attempts, I couldn’t get an image that clearly showed this, but you can get an impression of the violent churning of the water in the picture second from last, below.
Water has always fascinated me in all its various forms, but it’s the sheer power of something so innately formless that takes my breath away. It always amazes me how something that can be as soft and gentle as mist, can also turn into something overwhelmingly powerful when it gains volume and speed.
Although I’ve only once posted some of my ripple reflection pictures on the blog, I’ve been working on them for the last little while behind the scenes and now have quite a collection of them. This reflected tree, however, is a little different due to the inclusion of some colour and the hint of sun. It’s one of my favourites so far, and I’m hoping to be able to go on developing this theme as the trees come into leaf, although the lines formed by the bare branches are not going to be there. As always, though, there will be something else to take their place and I’m interested to see what that might be.
Another sunset. At this time of year we begin to get spectacular sunsets much of the time, and the sun goes down just behind the huge tree that grows a couple of gardens over. Later in the summer, with the earth’s rotation, the sunset moves clockwise past the tree and the skyline isn’t nearly so interesting there, so it’s good to make the most of it while it’s happening. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway!
I’ve photographed the amazing sunsets I see from my study window plenty of times before, but this is the first time I’ve tried some intentional camera movement. I had to delete most of the shots I took as they didn’t work at all, but this one, my last one, came together in the way I was hoping for. I found the trick was to jiggle the camera rather than move it in any particular direction. It was a bit of a rush job as the colours were fading fast and I had to grab my camera, find the key that opens the window, lean out, and shoot like mad in those few moments.
I’m pleased with the result, as I think it captures the feeling of the soft but fiery sky, and the quiet gentleness of dusk. I can see myself moving more and more towards this impressionistic style of photography as time goes on.
My contribution to the project – low tide, West Kirby, on the Wirral Peninsula
Ages ago – years ago, now – when I was just finishing studying with Open College of the Arts, some students on the Flickr forum got together and designed a collaborative project. It was called The Nearest Faraway Place, and each of us who wanted to take part had to supply a 6 x 4 print that interpreted the title any way we wanted.
The book took a concertina form which made it easy for each person to add their bit onto the end of it, and it travelled round the world to one student at a time so that they could personally attach their contribution. Each person also saved the stamps from the parcel it arrived in and added them to the metal box in which the book travelled. The idea was that these would become part of a collage that made up the book’s cover.
I remember the day it came to me in the post. It was incredibly exciting to be holding something that had travelled so far, and had been put together by many people whom I knew online but had never actually met. There was something very special about holding the book and knowing that these people had also held it in their hands. This is how it looked when I got it:
The book made its way round a large chunk of the world – USA, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, Tanzania, Japan, Switzerland, Greece, Ireland, and more – eventually ending up in the UK. There were one or two hairy moments when it seemed to have got lost in the post – with one notably long and anxious wait when it was making its way from South Africa to the UK – but it always turned up eventually.
I think it took about two years in the end for everyone to get their chance to contribute, but a few months ago the book finally made it to the last person on the list. This person is Yiann, who had volunteered to tidy the book up, make a cover for it, and generally put it into its final physical form. On one of my increasingly rare visits to Flickr, I discovered that she’s now done just that and, even better, made a video of the finished thing. She’s done a brilliant job with it, as you can see in the video below:
I once planned to do a whole project on nature reflected in cars, although I never did get round to it and it’s joined my very long list of ideas for themed projects that have never actually happened. Something about juxtaposing a hard, mechanical, man-made thing like a car, and the organic shapes of the natural world really appeals to me.
They seem so at odds with one another, but I was struck at the time with the fact that I needed a car to get myself to the kind of wild, natural spaces that I love – cars and roads paradoxically both destroy our environment and enable us to experience it. And everywhere I went for a while, I saw nature and cars coming together in some way – piles of spring blossom fallen on windscreens, trees reflected in bonnets, tyre tracks in woodland access roads, leaves trapped under windscreen wipers, a bunch of flowers on the parcel shelf, a sapling growing out of an abandoned car. And cars run on fossil fuel, created over time by trees, plants and other organic matter.
I love my car for the freedom it offers me, and its ability to take me to wild places that I couldn’t access any other way, while at the same time I’m aware that the act of doing that is helping to destroy those very places.
I’ve always loved and been fascinated by colour. Ernst Haas famously said ‘colour is joy’, and it always has been for me. For that reason I was never very interested in black and white photography – while I could see its merits, I was so absorbed in seeking out colour that I had little time for it. Lately, however, I’ve been doing a lot of work in black and white, which hasn’t been a conscious decision but something that has simply emerged.
I could say – and have – that this is because winter doesn’t offer much in the way of colour, and so I’ve concentrated my energies on what’s there rather than bemoaning what isn’t. There is some truth to this, and it’s been a welcome change to find subject matter that fascinates me right through the winter months. It used to be that I rarely picked up my camera in those months, waiting for the colours of spring to reappear before I felt inspired again.
However, I think there’s a little more to it than that. In the past I’ve done training in various psychotherapies, including NLP. For anyone not familiar with this, it’s a way of changing how you think (and therefore feel) about something by altering the way you perceive it in your mind/memory. At a simple level, the memory of a distressing experience can be made less impactful by changing the picture of it in your mind from colour to black and white – black and white simply drains a lot of the emotion from it. And depressed people, who have effectively numbed their emotions so much they can’t feel much at all, usually dress in greys and browns and black – it would be very unusual to see a depressed person wearing colourful clothes. Colour and emotion go hand in hand with each other.
For the past few months I’ve been struggling with some old demons that have resurfaced – traumatic memories that I thought had been dealt with but obviously haven’t. I’ve felt low and very numb – the whole range of emotion just hasn’t been available to me as my psyche tries to protect me from those old and painful memories. Interestingly, this has coincided with my sudden turn to black and white. At times, I’ve even found myself actively disliking colour, finding it too brash and intrusive. I have felt uncomfortable with it without knowing why.
I wonder – and I don’t feel able to answer this in any definitive way – whether a photographer’s attraction towards colour or black and white is related to their emotional range? Many avid black and white photographers seem actively antagonistic towards colour. I’ve never really understood this – if you prefer to shoot in black and white, then that’s absolutely fine and there doesn’t seem to me to be any need to denigrate those who choose colour instead. Those photographers who do have an aggressiveness about them that seems out of proportion to the matter in hand and smacks of defensiveness. Take, for example, this quote from Walker Evans:
Color tends to corrupt photography and absolute color corrupts it absolutely. Consider the way color film usually renders blue sky, green foliage, lipstick red, and the kiddies’ playsuit. These are four simple words which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.
Or this one, from Roland Barthes:
For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).
Of course there are lots of perfectly good reasons to choose black and white over colour. If your image has one disconcertingly intense area of colour in it that would dominate the shot, then black and white will deal with that. If there’s very little colour in the image and it adds nothing to it anyway, then black and white will be a better choice. If the main interest of the shot lies in lines, shapes or tones, then black and white will show these up better and direct attention towards them. Removing colour can also make a shot more timeless – think of those crudely coloured fifties photos that can be dated immediately just by the colours.
And it’s also true that black and white can be used to make the image more dramatic – where a colour shot would look unnatural and crude if you were to increase contrast more than a little, a black and white shot can take it, and more. To make it more dramatic is to bring emotion into the shot, which of course goes against what I’ve said above. I’ve also come across this quote, which argues that black and white portraits actually reveal more emotion:
Removing color from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s emotional state. Black and white portraiture lets the audience see the subject’s face and read his or her eyes without distraction. – PhotographyVox
Not sure if I agree or not on that one.
I’ve done a little bit of digging around online, and can’t find anything much about this. My go-to place for this kind of thing is the online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, by John Suler, which is full of fascinating stuff but he doesn’t specifically discuss colour and black and white anywhere that I can see. However, under the topic of Selective Colour he has this to say (‘selective colour’ is the practice of keeping one small part of an image coloured with the rest in black and white):
Why does the color stand out? Well, because it’s color. That seems obvious. But behind the obvious we find some interesting ideas. We live in a world of color. It feels more intuitively real in an image than the somewhat intellectualized and abstract quality of monochrome photos. Recognizing colors played an important role in the evolutionary survival of our species; we naturally rivet to it because we use color to identify what something is. We also associate colors with emotion, and emotions are the forces that connect humans to each other, so we can’t help but connect to the colorful element in an otherwise black and white image. – Selective Color, John Suler
It’s interesting that he links colour to emotions and emotions to a feeling of connectedness – emotionally numb people usually have a feeling of disconnection and isolation from the world and other people.
My conclusion is that, for the majority, the black and white/colour decision is one that’s made according to how effective it makes the image. Those folk happily switch from one format to the other accordingly. And there are some people who simply like black and white a lot, for no particular reason. But these people don’t usually make a big deal of it, and based on my own experience I do wonder whether the more emphatic black and white photographers are somehow threatened by colour because of its emotional component, and to shoot in black and white reflects their practice of keeping emotions at one remove. I might be widely off the the mark here, but I think it’s an interesting question. I’m not for a moment suggesting that all dogmatically black and white photographers are suffering from depression – more that they may be more uncomfortable than most with emotions. Depression is only one of many ways of numbing emotions, and I’ve concentrated on it here partly because there’s a great deal of literature linking it with lack of colour, and partly because I think it may be a component in my own turn away from it. But is this particular to me, or can it be more generally applied? What do you think?
The Colour Thief – a children’s book about a father’s depression. From the back cover: ‘My Dad’s life was full of colour. But one day Dad was full up with sadness, all the way to the top. He said that all the colours had gone.’
Interestingly, where a tiny hint of colour has crept into my own photography, it tends to be blue, as in the two shots below – another colour associated with low mood.