Nature Photography

Short-eared Owl in flight - a classic record shot


I have often wondered why nature photography is not given due regard by art critics. It seems to be barely regarded as a medium worthy of consideration. In the introduction to his book “Wildlife Photographer”, Chris Gomersall writes …

“Traditionally, the critics have not been well disposed towards the genre of wildlife photography, frequently dismissing it as sentimentalist or nostalgia driven. The art establishment seems to be only interested in the metropolitan, and on the rare occasions it has turned its attention to the photography of animals it has been restricted to the zoo animals and domestic pets … ”

However, Gomersall also points out that as a nature photographer “we”re only just catching up with most other fields of photography in learning how to express ourselves” since previously, the centre of interest was subject matter and from where it came and the message behind the picture.

In his book “The Photographer’s Vision” Michael Freeman does give due consideration to wildlife as a “tighter genre” which he describes as demanding “specialised techniques, the knowledge of a zoologist, heavy logistics and a full time commitment”. Sub-genres of wildlife photography can be even more demanding especially in terms of equipment and as a result are not easily open to the outsider. Nature photography has improved greatly in terms of both technique and creativity yet retains “very specialised standards”. Freeman goes on to explain why the art establishment do not respond to nature photography …
“There is not much room for concept, and even less for the kind of interpretation that curators and critics love” yet continues by saying ” … a profound understanding of the subject and a sensitive eye for imagery definitely have their place”.

Technology has an increased importance in wildlife photography and has played an important part in the development of the genre in recent years as the advent of digital has made many subjects more accessible. Alongside this development, wildlife has become an increasingly important issue in everyday life owing to conservation being a political consideration.

A little more from Gomersall who writes that “sensitive consideration and application of light and colour can transform our photographs from the ordinary to the extraordinary; used sympathetically, it can evoke a mood or trigger an emotion that geometric design alone can’t convey”. In brief, its’ not just about making that record shot, something else needs to come into play.

Short-eared Owl in flight - more aesthetic than scientific record

All photographs copyright 2012 Amano Samarpan (www.amanosamarpan.com)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Photographer’s Vision by Michael Freeman

Wildlife Photographer by Chris Gomersall

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A visit to David Hockney’s “Bigger Picture” exhibition

VISITING THE DAVID HOCKNEY EXHIBITION “THE BIGGER PICTURE”

Queue for David Hockney in the Royal Academy forecourt; we had tickets!

After rising at 5.30 a.m. and driving to the station to catch a train to London that would get me there with an hour to spare, at about 09.30 a.m. I found myself in a stationery train in countryside somewhere between Swindon and Didcot Parkway. When the train eventually got going again, it was running over an hour late and I wondered if I might miss the OCA study day altogether so I contacted Gareth Dent, the CEO of the OCA, who gave me the contact number for the day which however, did not work. Fortunately, I eventually found the group shortly before they entered the Royal Academy and found myself in a small group, the leader of which was OCA tutor Tony Logan, a personal friend of Hockney’s from Yorkshire.

OCA staff - David Winning, Tony Hogan and Jane Horton

“An unusual but typical Yorkshireman!” I heard someone muttering about Hockney as we made our way through the crowd of people in the RA. “Not the kind of man who strikes one as aesthetic!”

I find myself smitten by the impression that this exhibition is more about Hockney than art and find it hard to discard the suggestion.

The first room we enter shows a group of trees (two of these have apparently been felled since they were painted by Hockney). There is one large painting for each if the seasons and these four paintings can be seen on each side of the oval room; the other four sides of the room are doorways and through these one can see further works by Hockney. Tony tells us that these paintings are examples of David Hockney reinventing landscape. He paints on an easel working directly on the panels that are then assembled as one very large painting. This is not an entirely new approach of Hockney’s, he was doing it in America when he made paintings of the Grand Canyon; one of these works contains 60 different panels!

Tony Hogan fills us in on the background to the work on show

We hear about Hockney’s life from David. His late mother was known as “the old dragon” while his assistant Jean-Pierre does just about everything except actually paint the pictures. The studio the size of a warehouse.

Hockney spends a lot of time just looking, hours just looking; for instance, two hours looking at a tree and discussing the way it looks. (I like this Zen approach yet wonder if it is really Zen or an imitation of it.) I wonder whether I might not adopt this approach more as a photographer! Certainly, there are times when I like to wander out and look rather than make photographs, to visit a place without a camera before photographing it. This approach rather depends on the subject perhaps as well as the amount of time one has.

Hockney paints what he sees; hence, a grey road might be tinged with violet because that is the colour he sees. In a painting with a misty sky, he sees the road as grey as that is what one might when there is not the ultra-violet of the open sky present. He can see these things through looking while most of us cannot because we do not and presumably because neither do we have his imagination. Other painters might also see these colours but they don’t have the courage to paint this view of reality. As a photographer, I am likely to be encouraged to suppress such colouration by correcting it to a norm.

Hockney is very dedicated to his art which he has been doing for 60 years. He sometimes sleeps only for a couple of hours in the afternoon; he may rise at 5 a.m. and work through till 11 p.m. hence the prodigious amount of work he has produced over recent years. In fact, 50% of what he has done for this exhibition is not on show.

Learn techniques intuitively!
Let inspiration be your guide!

One does need to do the groundwork training that the OCA provides; one only can only break the rules when one has learnt them. Hockney himself emphasizes the need for basic skills.

Hockney paints in an original way. For instance, he paints in his skies last when this is something most people do at first. Hockney argues that the kind of sky will reflect the landscape and so is best done last.

There is much older work from Hockney on display. Some of his paintings from the late 1950’s looked so drab and dull to Hockney’s sister that she hid them from the view of others when delivering them to an art gallery.

Hockney won a Royal Academy gold medal at 18. Some of his earlier work was about challenging the conventions of art and advancing them but this was later forgotten, perhaps as Hockney became something of an icon himself. Such is the view of a considerable amount of people and as a photographer withoutany real understanding of artist’s methods, I can only listen and reflect!

somewhere between Swindon and Didcot Parkway

I pick up a compositional tip! A spot of red at the back of a painting draws the eye in. Feel sure this would work in photography yet often one does not have the chance to present this.The photo here shows the working of such a rule.

Hockney’s revelations about the use of the camera lucida and similar drawing aids has upset the art establishment. However, it is a brilliant and penetrating insight into the fact that the Old Masters were not as masterful as we perhaps like to think. It is quite easy to see where a camera lucida has been used in composing a painting since the perspective is much flatter. Cameras are useful to the painter but frustrating since they flatten everything.

viewing Hockney's paintings

We see a wall adorned with 36 paintings, all of mid-summer in East Yorkshire.

Thinking, looking and learning …

I am struck not just by the colour and detail of Hockney’s paintings but also by his use of contrast to hold these together.

Hockney says people need to look more, to see what is in front of them without passing it by unknowingly. Again I feel a Zen message here since in Zen one sees and accepts what is. However, is this really what Hockney is doing?

When Hockney started doing this work in Yorkshire, he agreed that he wanted to keep it quiet, not advertise the place but one thing has lead to another and already tourists have been seen in the vicinity, blocking roads with their cars. The lure of the lucre!

Some of the most interesting paintings are for me in the gallery dedicated to works made with the iPad and then blown up digitally. These have an appealing characteristic (might they not be considered closer to photographs than paintings!?) and yet I don’t find myself having enough time to really look at them owing to the crowds and the presence of the OCA group. Jane Horton gives us a demo on her iPad as does Tony Logan; they have both produced distinctive artwork with this device using a fairly simple APP that supports brushes and a colour wheel for choosing the exact tones one wants to use.

There is an amusing potentially embarrassing moment when a gallery guard challenges Tony for giving a guided tour; this is not allowed by the academy unless one has appropriate documentation which Tony does not have although the OCA have been given permission to enter. He replies that he is a friend of the artist and the guard, a young foreign sounding blonde woman, starts to shrink.

Jane Horton who is the main contact for the day, asks me what I think of the exhibition; I reply that Hockney interests me largely owing to his comments about photography and the way he has used the photographic image. The next room that supports no less than 18 large screens, joined together to make one large one, is in many ways the most interesting exhibit for here Hockney is experimenting with the photographic medium in a new and innovative way; he has actually spent time testing and experimenting with different setups to come up with his own. I wonder if Hockney has used a fixed focal length lens such as a standard 50mm which gives a reasonably normal perspective of the world; his friend Tony has no idea!

viewing the multi-screen video

Although the video display is fascinating and I watch it all the way through, I can not help feeling a bit cock-eyed at the end of it. It is wonderful to have our fixed view of the world challenged but whether one looks at one screen or the whole lot of them simultaneously, a rather jumbled view of the world emerges. In spite of the detail and strong colours that result from this method, I can not see myself wanting to watch a BBC nature documentary made in this way.

discussion after the show

After seeing the exhibition, the group of OCA students meet for discussion and this turns out to be quite lively; the word “bollocks!” is heard more than once as a polarized view of the exhibition emerges. While most of the students listen quietly to the disagreement, there is an obvious difference of view between Tony Logan, a friend and great admirer of Hockney, and David, the other OCA tutor for the day, who considers the exhibition to be a “crowd pleaser” and not the work of an accomplished artist, a view that leads to him being called dogmatic and yet a view I find strangely refreshing after all the media hype that has surrounded this exhibition, much of which has been about how wonderful David Hockney is rather than giving due consideration to his work. As a photographer with a limited knowledge of art and the skill involved in it’s techniques, I feel unable to comment but can not help but see the validity in David’s down to earth approach which considers Hockney not as icon but as draughtsman. One sees what one wants to see and David emphasizes the complexity and dedication behind much of the work.

The colour slaty-grey is mentioned and when David admits to liking it, a student who is clearly very much pro-Hockney think this underlines that David has a problem. I can not help but emphasise with David here for Black and White photography as it is usually referred to is more about the colour grey, a mixture of black and white, of which there are innumerable shades. Look at an English sky on many days of the year and one will be aware of the power in this colour.

David chats with a student

I find a childlike quality to Hockney’s work but the possibility that his painting reveals a kind of naievity is quickly dismissed by David; it is faux-naieve since Hockney himself is far from naieve. The lack of craftsmanship seen in the exhibition is a result of Hockney being in a hurry to finish his work in time; this is denied by Tony who says that Hockney worked for several years to create this exhibition and has much work for it that he is not showing.

The assembly of artists both students and tutors start to get carried away by the strength of the debate and battle cry “Bollocks!” is heard along with much laughter. Photographers don’t seem to get so worked up, adopt a more considered approach, while the artists … well, the burning of a bra or two would not have been out of place here and if was not for the cold weather garments might have been removed!

Picasso is quoted as saying that one needs to draw with the abandonment of a child, that he could draw like Rafael by the age of 12 and spent the rest of his life trying to draw like a child. These remarks presumably refer to what I saw as the childlike nature of the works which frankly is the only way I can understand them as art.

Hockney’s work though is a lot more complex than one might assume; he is also asking us to look again at the English landscape.

Art has no purpose and is of no use to anyone!? Some of those present seem to gleefully accept this and yet this exhibition of art has certainly provoked a lot of interest, brought people together and encouraged serious people to visit and perhaps see their lives in a better light. In a time of economic gloom, it may have helped some people to be a little more positive. Hockney is encouraging people to see.

As for the title, The Bigger Picture, does this refer to anything more than the huge size of the paintings exhibited? Might there not be a bigger message present? This insight may well depend on the individuals present who view it. For myself, I need to give it a bit more consideration and look closely at some of the works to see if they do resonate for me in the way art can do.

Zarina Bhimji

Another OCA day! However, I find myself wondering about the nature of this exhibition since it by someone who appears to be an artist rather than a photographer, someone who uses photography as one of a number of media. Although I more interested in "pure" photographers this does not put me off attending although I am not encouraged by the review that the OCA encourages us to read. Entitled, "History in Context", it is well written but there is the notion from it's very complexity that if one needs to understand photographic work at such a level then it is becoming elitist and the democratic nature of photography, a form of creative expression that can communicate with anyone who has eyes, is being undermined. This objection might be raised at the OCA discussion that usually takes place after the viewing of the exhibition; I can not see it being a very popular topic though as the role of photographer as artist tends to be an assumption these days, a position that has been fought for and won. However, I might be questioning the role of art which is a wider topic beyond the subject of today's visit.

Her website is worth a look … http://www.zarinabhimji.com/

There is also a Flickr group about her approach to landscape (she says she has been influenced by a number of landscape painters such as Constable and others).

I arrived half an hour early at the gallery and was met by OCA tutor Clive White and his wife, Daniella. It is really the presence of a tutor such as Clive that makes days such as this worthwhile for they are able to give feedback and comment. As we enjoyed the warm sunshine on an otherwise bitterly cold day, Clive told me of a project from his student days in which he photographed people and places in the Oxfordshire village in which he was born; he later went back and photographed the same by which time many of the original inhabitants had become marginalized by the arrival of a more middle class group of people who had turned the village into their idea of what an English village should be. This interested me because in the hamlet where I live, the village ceased to exist about 100 years ago and became a residential area in which there is little communication between neighbours who no longer have a sense of community after the village lost it’s public house and shops. Recently though, the sale of the old telephone box has encouraged people to come together and there are plans for a Jubilee celebration;a worthy subject for photography perhaps and one that starts with the Somerset Records Office which brings me back to Zarina Bhimji, a photographer who does a lot of research before committing with the camera.

Soon other students start to arrive such as Stephanie from Bath as well as David Beveridge from Somerset. Keith Greenough is a student from London who I met on a workshop last year with Alex Webb, the Magnum photographer. There is talk of the art of making photo-books and the possibility of it being included in the OCA curriculum. Gareth Dent, the CEO of the OCA arrives, and now the day starts to assume some definite form as students are checked in. There are 21 in all and as the day progresses I recognise more faces!

COPIES OF THE EXHIBITION CATALOGUE

We group at the entrance to the gallery and as I make a shot of the bookstore, a member of staff tells me that no photography at all is allowed in the gallery. I obey but make photos of our group in the cafeteria later on as some record of the day is required. What exactly is the reason for the banning of photography? I might have asked but accepted the fact that the gallery is a private space while the images showing in it are copyrighted. Unfortunate though, as it makes study of such work harder and prevents the use of images in this blog except via links which often expire.

At the entrance to the exhibition were some words by Zarina Bhimji about the intent behind her work …
“My work is not about the actual facts but about the echo they create …”
and elsewhere …
“My work is not an idea of fact or scraps of evidence to support the assertion of history. The process is something about traces as symptoms of strange structural links between history, memory and fantasy.”

I realize that my interest in this exhibition is partly informed by colonialism which as a frequent visitor to India is something I have been obliged to consider; the book by E.M.Forster “A Passage to India” which I am presently reading throws much light on this subject but through a different medium. The first group of photos we see are from the film Yellow Patch and were made in India of places her family inhabited before leaving for East Africa.

Bhimji’s work also asks one to consider colonialism as it existed in East Africa and although Indians were involved here, it had a different character if only because of African nationalism and Idi Amin who threw all Asians out of Uganda. Although Bhimji’s work is not directly autobiographical, she was forced to leave East Africa as an 11 year old child in 1974. Her images are documentary in approach, made possible by her own in-depth research into her subject, and yet her presentation is not factual relying more on the viewer’s imagination which is guided by the content of her photographs.

One of the first photographs we look at together is called “Frightened by goats”; there is no sign of any goats in the image and after awhile, it becomes apparent that the scene is of a graveyard, a graveyard for Indians, a fact that only becomes truly apparent in the film from which they are taken. One might reflect on the fact that these graves are no longer tended by the descendants of those who made them for these people emigrated.
The first two photographs one sees one entering the exhibition are black and white images, possibly infrared, of the beach; there is a deliberate intention to get away from the generic travel photograph of the beach as there is of travel photography as a whole in this exhibition. Bhimji revisits places not as a tourist but as a family researcher and artist.

OCA STAFF IN DISCUSSION

Another colour image that catches the eye, is of a group of guns lined up against a wall; this image is entitled “Illegal sleep” another reminder of the intuitive use of caption that challenge one’s understanding of the image rather than complementing it.

I can’t help though, noticing the somewhat tacky approach of the photographer in regards to both exposure and composition; presumably this is an intended part of the effect rather than negligence since professionally executed images of the scenes depicted here might appear rather insensitive and out of harmony with the atmosphere of decay that forms much of the pictorial content. There is a photograph of boats in the twilight called “Breathless Love” where one feels that some kind of post-processing might have been employed to counter the tyranny of the photograph yet this might have easily destroyed the mood that the image invokes.

The exhibition does not contain only images since there is material that reminds one of the considerable research Bhimji conducts for the making of her photographs. Hence we see colour polaroids (apparently used as a storyboard) and xeroxes of illustrations she has collected while there are three shirt tops with maps printed on them encased in a glass covered frame.

While much of her work appears to be self-initiated, she works with different organisations and was commissioned to do a series of images around Harewood House, the original owners of which were involved in the slave trade. Colonisation is a theme if not the theme behind Bhimji’s work and here she touches on the more savage aspects of it. There is a beautiful photograph of a finely designed chair on which sunlight falls while there are also mirrors on which text has been engraved, text that relates to the use of people from the colonies as servants if not slaves.

In another room is an installation called “She loved to breathe – pure silence” that relates to the scandalous “virginity testing” of Asian immigrants by the 1970’s by British Customs before it was declared illegal. Red and yellow powder (chilli and turmeric) is strewn over the floor above which are suspended back to back photographs in plexiglass as well as a pair of latex gloves that were used in the practice of “virginity testing”. The installation is apparently owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum yet the used of coloured spice on the floor will obviously vary from exhibition to exhibition. Much of Bhimji’s work is emotionally charged and while that might be art, I can not help but reflect on the whole “virginity testing” matter; although this was done by the British authorities, there must have been considerable influence from the Asian community to make this happen since virginity is prized by some religious communities and not much by British communities. There is a political message behind this exhibition which makes me feel a little uncomfortable not entirely because I am as a British white male and hence in the firing line but also because there are two sides to everything and the purity of race is something that matters more to many Asians than it does British people.

We see the film made by Bhimji called “Out of the Blue” (2002) which uses imagery, much of it of architectural interiors as well as exteriors, that along with sound give a feeling of the intense suffering that must have gone on around this event. There is an atmosphere of fear and although the film ends on a positive note, that of a airfield runway and the enveloping blue sky, one is left with a haunting feeling of an experience that has not been resolved. A period of intense suffering has ended but its’ enduring negative affect still lingers.

STUDENT DISCUSSION : VALID PART OF AN OCA STUDY DAY

We break for a drink and a bite to eat before reassembling to see “Yellow Patch” another of Bhimji’s films; she is a photographer who has moved into film making but does not use the cinema as a way to entertain the masses rather as a medium to convey the evidence of a forced migration in a metaphorical way. Although informed by evidence, we are not presented with facts merely the detritus of a piece of history that has largely been ignored or simply forgotten except by those who endured it. There are wider themes than the mere suffering of individuals and the words colonialism, migration, Britain and Africa in their more sinister aspects come to mind.

Overall, I find Bhimji’s work slightly oppressive; I am ready to see and understand the suffering she wishes to record and relate yet I also want to see beyond that because this seems to me to be a function of art.

Clive White, the OCA photographic tutor accompanying us, provides some kind of explanation of questions that have come up for me and obviously other students during the day. For instance, the tackiness of some of the presentation (I find the exhibition catalogue to have been poorly printed and hence fails to convey Bhimji’s concern with light and composition) highlights a divide between truly professional photography where subjects are accurately portrayed and a more artistic approach in which accuracy is considered irrelevant since the end result is art and answers only to itself and the photographers intention.
Clive also talks about how colour theory can be misleading to photographic students who try to exactly stick to the suggestions given; in real life, the photographer cannot choose the colours he is confronted with and has to make do with what is there. My own understanding of colour theory is that it makes one more aware of colour in a photograph and that is important, conforming to certain art based conventions is not.

Further student debate revolves around the role personal vision might play in photography. Many of us start photographing because we like to take photographs but will we ever learn to make photographs? It is possible to make a personal statement through the medium of photography and this is what Bhimji is doing and something we all have the potential to do even if we have to photograph consumer goods to make a living.

I did buy the exhibition catalogue as there seemed to be a lot more that I might learn and understand about the exhibition; it also helped to correct misunderstandings that had arisen during the visit. For instance, the second film we saw Yellow Patch was shot in Gujarat, India (not East Africa) in a place that I happened to have visited. Kutch is an area good for wildlife yet one is also aware of the culture with ruined palaces and forts not being uncommon. Interesting to learn that there was an exodus from this part of India to E.Africa.

reflections on photographic implications from a twentieth century literary critic

Sometimes, one’s interest in photography is ignited by an unexpected source.

I recently purchased a copy of E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India and decided to read an original introduction to this novel by Peter Burra that was first published in 1934. The writer uses the male gender in his description but this need not hinder an appreciation of what he has to say which still seems relevant today.

He starts by writing about the creative impulse … “Perhaps it is chance, more than any particular devotion, that determines a man in his choice of medium.” I find this true of my decision to pursue an interest in photography; often, I think I should be playing music or writing as these seem for sensitive forms of expression. However, photography is a form of expression that is possible in my way of life in a way that music or writing may not be.

Burra continues by writing that “The distinctions between the functions of one art and another is not clear; they have a tendency to overlap … which prevents definition” This is very true of today’s photographic discourse in which critics look for ways to define photography and the qualities of the photograph.

Burra writes that people “have set themselves to define the difference between the real life which we live and the life which the arts present to us.” He continues ” … the artist is faced with the problems of confining his impressions of that life into a space which is infinitely smaller than itself and with one of the dimensions removed.” its’ about putting chaos into order!

Art tends to present life as a tidy affair which in reality it is not. The more life-like art is, the more nonsensical it appears to be.

However, it what Burra writes about Forester’s wish that the novel could express something more than just a story that interested me since I often feel limited by the photographic medium only leaving one with a recorded image which is perhaps all the viewer sees; one wants to say much more than “this is what happened” as usually the choice of subject is a response to something else that one wants to convey. For instance, an image of an old man might mean old age to the viewer when one actually wants to point out the wisdom or compassion that are inherent in his look.

When Burra was writing, there was very little if any appreciation of photography as an art, and yet his words today echo the medium’s concerns.