Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice

I recently picked up a copy of “Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice“, Edited by Sasha Wolf.

The introductory blurb on describes the books as follows:

PhotoWork is a collection of interviews by forty photographers about their approach to making photographs and, more importantly, a sustained body of work. Curator and lecturer Sasha Wolf was inspired to seek out and assemble responses to these questions after hearing from countless young photographers about how they often feel adrift in their own practice, wondering if they are doing it the “right” way. The responses, from both established and newly emerging photographers, reveal there is no single path. Their advice is wildly divergent, generous, and delightful: Justine Kurland discusses the importance of allowing a narrative to unravel; Doug DuBois reflects on the process of growing into one’s own work; Dawoud Bey evokes musicians such as Miles Davis as his inspiration for never wanting to become “my own oldies show.” The book is structured through a Proust-like questionnaire, in which individuals are each asked the same set of questions, creating a typology of responses that allows for an intriguing compare and contrast.

I initially found the first few interviews to be somewhat boring, but after reading more I started to develop an interest in the way these photographers think and work.

Now I’m not much of a photographer. I’m passionate about photography and take quite a lot of photographs, most of them not particularly good. I’ve never exhibited (and probably never will) and have only produced a few photobooks, largely for myself and my family. I hope to do more, but so far…Other that that my primary mechanism for sharing my photographs is social media.

So I decided that it might help me if I tried to answer the questions myself.

First camera

For many years I would have said that it was a Minolta Hi-matic 7sII given to me by my wife many years ago. Then one day, while cleaning out some drawers, I came across a photograph of my father with our dog. I’d completely forgotten about this photograph and it reminded me that I had once had another camera: A Kodak Brownie Vecta. My friend had a camera and a dark room and I had to have one too (a camera that is not a dark room). I was about 11 years old and my interest soon waned. I think I only used it once.

First Meaningful Photobook

The earliest memories I have are of books in the Time Life photography series. Also “The Camera” by Ansel Adams. Even though these have lots of pictures, I’m not sure that they would be considered as “photobooks”. Probably the first real photobook was “Atget” by John Szarkowski. I’m fascinated by Atget to this day.

First meaningful exhibition

I grew up in a working class family in the North of England. Visiting exhibitions was not something that my parents would have found useful or necessary. When I went to university I was too busy studying other things to consider looking for exhibitions and to be honest in those days I was more interested in music and literature than in photography. Later I moved from the UK to New York, got married and had a family. Only some time later, when my interest in photography grew did I think about going to exhibitions. I recall going to exhibitions of Strand, Steichen and Stieglitz at the Metropolitan Museum; Garry Winogrand also at the Met, and Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastião Salgado at the International Center of Photography.

Personal Fact

For many years I was obsessed with time, waking up every 15 minutes or so for a second or two to check the time. I still am to some extent although much less so since I retired.

What comes first for you: the idea or a project, or individual photographs that suggest a concept?

Usually the individual photograph. I wander around taking photographs that interest me. Usually this results in a collection of individual photographs. Occasionally, however, it might occur to me that I’ve already taken some similar photographs and this can cause me to start to look for yet more similar photographs thus leading to a project. Rarely I’m reading something that suggests to me an idea for a project.

What are the key elements that must be present for you when you are creating a body of work?(Social commentary, strong form, personal connection, photographic reference…)?

The photograph must have a subject, which I find interesting. After that probably can I make a good composition out of it: Light, form, line, shapes, texture, patterns etc. If the photograph has some kind of personal connection then so much the better. Very occasionally I might take a photograph because it reminds me of a photographer that I admire. Social commentary never enters into it.

Is the idea of a body of work important to you? How does it function in relation to making a great individual photograph?

For a long time the idea of a body of work was not important to me, but I’ve since changed my mind and find the idea of a number of related images, structured in a way that makes the whole greater than the original photographs to be appealing. I like to tell stories. Ideally, of course, I’d like them all the photographs to be great individual images, but I’m willing to include lesser images if they further the overall story.

Do you have what you might call a “photographic style”?

I wish I did, but unfortunately I don’t feel that I do at the moment. I can’t imagine that any one would look at any of my photographs and recognize that it was by Howard Dale. I don’t have that talent – maybe never will.

Where would you say your style falls on a continuum between completely intuitive and intellectually formulated?

Initially completely intuitive when I take the pictures. If I”m later organizing them, say for a photobook then the more intellectual side kicks in.

Assuming you now shoot in what you would consider your natural voice, have you ever wished your voice was different?

I’m not sure that I have a “natural voice” at the moment. If so I don’t recognize what it is. This being the case I’ve never wished that my voice was different. However, if I did someday develop my “natural voice” I can’t imagine that I would wish it to be different. I am what I am and have no wish to be anything else.

How do you know when a body of work is finished?

Sometimes it’s obvious e.g. you a dealing with a finite number of pictures and you’ve taken as many as you can. I once took a series of pictures at a nearby air museum. I took all that I wanted to take and don’t imagine that I’d want to go back and take more. Sometimes a body of work never seems to end. There is always more to add. Sometimes I just run out of steam and call an end to the process.

Have you ever had a body of work that was created in the editing process?

Almost every time. Once I’ve started on a project I end of with a lot of images. Deciding what to include and what to leave out is to me possibly the most difficult part of a project. I have a general idea of what story I’m trying to tell so organizing the images so that they support this story is very important.

Do you associate your work with a particular genre of photography? If yes, how would you define that genre?

One of my weaknesses is that I have not yet managed to focus on a single genre. I bounce around from one to another. I do, however, have some idea of genres that don’t interest me all that much: commercial photography; portrait photography; wedding photography. You might see a thread here: I’m not comfortable with people and avoid genres that require a lot of contact with people. I admire street photographers, but tend to shy away from it because of the people issue. I suppose I’m some sort of documentary photographer (not social documentary however. I’m not trying to change the world). I have two main interests: photography and history. I’m happiest when I can combine the two.

Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published to shoot more and add to it?

I have not so far exhibited or published (other than the odd self-produced photo book. However, with the photobooks that I have done I have often wanted to add more photographs.

Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published and reedit it?

I haven’t but I can well imagine that I might.

Do you create with presentation in mind,be that a gallery show or a book?

Not really. At this point I time I mostly think in terms of photobooks and social media postings and I can usually make my photographs fit. I suppose that if I had an upcoming exhibition or a photobook to be published I might. But since none of these has so far occurred I don’t know for sure.

Struggling with Manual Focus Lenses

Since I started collecting old cameras I’ve accumulated quite a few vintage lenses in a variety of mounts (Nikon F, Minolta MD, Leica LTM, Leica M, Contact/Yashica C/Y, Exacta, M42 and more). A while back I decided to get a Sony Nex 5n, in large part because I’d read that it adapted well to vintage lenses so I got the appropriate adapters and for a while used them quite a lot and was pleased with the results. Then I picked up a Sony A77II, which didn’t adapt so well and my interest in manual focus waned to a point where I haven’t used the manual focus lenses for ages.

Then I started to collect older digital cameras, many of which (Sony A6000, Olympus OM-D E-M10, Fujifilm X-E1) also adapt well to older lenses. Of course the adapters I’d collected for the Nex 5n work fine on the A6000. I also picked up a few adapters that would work with micro four thirds cameras. I only recently got the Fuji and I’m not sure whether or not I’ll try to use manual focus lenses with it. We’ll see.

I decided to try manual focus lenses again – this time initially on my Sony A6000. Specifically I decided to try a Canon 50mm f1.4 and a
Voigtländer 35mm f2.5, both in Leica Thread Mount (LTM).

The results were awful! I couldn’t seem to get the focus right! I tried using focus peaking without much improvement. I tried focus magnification with similar results.

But I persisted until I discovered that using a combination of the two seemed to produce the best results. Focus magnification allowed me to ensure that what I was focusing on was indeed in focus, while focus peaking gave me a sense of the depth of field i.e. what I could expect to be in focus in front of and behind where I was focusing.

I should probably have thought of that before. It now seems so obvious.

Taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M10 and Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7

It’s 120 not 120mm – I don’t care

Well maybe I do care a little. It’s always good to get these things right and I’ve enjoyed the various posts outlining the history of the designations of Kodak Films. I’ve always referred to the format in question as ‘120’ and until reading these posts I hadn’t noticed that anyone referred to it as ‘120mm’ (I’m not disputing that some do, just that I’d never noticed).

However, there seems to be some sort of campaign at the moment to ensure that the heinous crime of referring to ‘120’ film as ‘120 mm’ is eradicated.

I read quite a few film photography blogs and it seems that I can’t look at one nowadays without seeing a post on this subject. Just a few examples:

I’m very grateful to all of these guys. Their blogs are great and I’ve learned a lot from all of them.

But enough is enough. Some of the posts refer to this as a crusade. If you want to wage a crusade do it for something meaningful e.g. Climate Change, Ending World Hunger, Reducing Child Mortality etc.

Social media – some thoughts

I recently had a lengthy conversation with my friend, Ken regarding social media. This made me think a bit about my own involvement.

Ken is a very casual user of Facebook. My wife, on the other hand, is a very active user of Facebook and Instagram. She has created and administers a Facebook group on blue and white china and is a very active participant in groups related to her passions: roses, gardening etc. She documents her daily activities on her main Facebook page.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m an instagram user but have never posted anything. Between 2010 and 2015 I was a fairly active Flickr user but haven’t posted anything in years. I occasionally post to Facebook (mostly pictures). I’m also a member of a number of photography related Facebook groups. I enjoy reading the posts in these groups and very much appreciate the wealth of information and knowledge I’ve gained through them, but I only rarely post to them.

My wife seems to spend a lot of time on social media. She reads and comments on posts. She replies to every comment she receives etc. Until recently I couldn’t understand why this required so much of her time. I’ve had cause to change my views, however.

It seems to me that the way she does things is the way that social media should operate. If you’re going to be part of a community you need to give as well as take.

I’m in the midst of a small experiment. Instead of merely “lurking” I’m trying to contribute more content and I’m trying to reply more to other peoples’ post and to reply to comments I receive.

It’s still early days, but one thing I have learned so far is that to do this well requires a significant investment in time. I wonder if I can keep this up.

The frustrations of being an “artist”

I recently came across an interesting post from Andrew Molitor on his blog: Photos and Stuff. It’s titled: I am a snob.

He provides a few examples to illustrate the problem he’s addressing:

Along the way I figured out enough about Ansel Adams style landscape photography to know that I could probably, by applying myself diligently for a year or two, get good enough to churn out black and white landscapes of a certain caliber more or less at will. Perhaps not Adams, but anyways Picker and a whole lot of other acolytes. Pick up a copy of LENSWORK and you’ll see a lot of this stuff. This is not because I am special, it is because I am a normally competent human being. Almost anyone can learn this. There are 1000s, maybe 10s of 1000s of people out there banging out this material on a regular basis.

Basically, though, I am lazy. I don’t want to do all that hiking, and I don’t want to arrange my life such that I would be able to do all that hiking. It takes more than normal abilities with the camera, it takes a commitment and a lifestyle that I found unappealing.

The same story can be applied to, say, photographs of models. Again, I learned enough along the way to see that if I applied myself for a year or two I could get Quite Good at it and then I could churn out Fashion Styled photographs, or Figure Studies, or whatever. Again, the skills necessary to grind out the pictures are a minor part of it, it’s the business of rearranging my life to make room for a lot of hired models and lights and enormous octoboxes that I found uninteresting.

Ditto macro photography. I never did make a serious attempt at wildlife photography, but by now I see the pattern. I could buy the gear, devote some time to learning some skills, and then I could rearrange my life, and lo, I could churn out endless Birds In Flight or whatever.

And goes on to say something important:

The question arises naturally: if I am so damned serious about photography, why am I so unwilling to rearrange my life a bit in order to do it better, to produce better photographs?

It is, essentially, because I perceive the kinds of pictures I could have made down any of those paths as not worth the trouble. They would have been fine pictures, but they would have been just like a lot of other pictures put out there by a lot of other normally competent people who applied themselves rather more diligently that I am willing to apply myself.

I have exactly the same problem. Through study, practice and decent gear I can become reasonably proficient in most genres of photography. But unfortunately, from my studies of great photographers I know that I’m not likely to reach their exalted levels.

So what to do if you know that the chances are that your pictures are not often likely meet your aspirations. As one of the comments to his post says: “Sounds like the perfect recipe for frustration …”. Indeed it is, but the alternative would be to stop entirely and I can’t do that. So I’ll just keep plugging away and hope that I’m able to produce pictures, which show improvement over time even if they aren’t masterpieces.

Mr. Molitor puts it much better then I can (in one of the comments):

Well, there are two parts to my response here.

1. This is the system, the philosophy, I use to judge other people’s work. It is, essentially, the belief that some work is better than other work, together with the idea that there is some very very good work indeed.

So, that part impinges on my picture-taking not at all!

2. It does affect my aspirations for my own work as well, of course. If we take as my personal Mt. Everest something like “to make something as good as Minamata” well that’s pretty demoralizing on the face of it.

Still, I am having a good time doing a lot of practice climbing and summiting smaller peaks and so on. If I continue to work my way up, making better work, well, I may never end up at the top of Everest, but I will still be pleased with myself.

Having a very high goal maybe just means never running out of things to do?

So why the quiche at the top of this post? He uses the example of a quiche in his post, but I’ve already quoted too much so you’ll just have to read it.

Taken with a Sony RX-100 M3.