Wind, rain, fog, mud, snow, ice and sometimes sun

Earth: Version 1 [aka The Black Mountains], Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 1]

My photography practice is based outside in the landscape working in various on locations across England and since I started the MA it has been very wet, 2012 broke all kinds of weather records and 2013 is showing no signs of the constant deluges of rain abating. I could give up on my current project and choose another subject based indoors or better still work in another country, somewhere dry. I have decided to persist as the idea of the hard won image, the process and one’s relation to a subject is taking on another dimension as I stand sinking into in the mud and below sullen skies as another band of rain sweeps in. The land has been altered by man now we are experiencing to some degree an altered climate that maybe the result of man’s activities.

I have been made aware that in certain photographic circles it is considered crass to discuss the technical elements of photography, the kit and the method as it can undermine the idea of the genius of the ‘artist’ and the ‘conceptual’ under pinning of the work. So being naturally contrary I have decided to write about the technical elements of my work in this post as they have in my view more of a larger impact on the making of the work at this moment in the development of my practice than trying to be a visual poet, the poetic may happen later and it will certainly not be forced.

The perfect conditions for me to photograph the landscape is an overcast but light sky, the preferred light is delicate with subtle graduations of grey, the subject has enough illumination to allow the details in the shadows to be revealed. There must be no or little wind so I can use a long exposure of 1 to 4 seconds and closed down the aperture to f45 - f64 to achieve maximum depth of field [DOF] so everything is in focus. This has rarely been the case recently, it is becoming the case that I am not only hoping to chance upon the right subject to be photographed but also finding the right weather. Waiting for the right conditions to photograph a particular location is not an option on the MA as time is limited, it could be months before the right conditions come along or be chanced upon so I have had to adapted the way I work. When the light levels are low in winter or it is windy I use a faster film stock up to 400 ISO, the grain of the film is just on the right side of acceptable on large format film and I tolerate the grain as part of the aesthetic of the media. When there is a breeze I shoot at f16 - f22 using a faster shutter speed so the image is not blurred but I also employ tilt and rise on the view camera to compensate for the shallower DOF and this keeps the foreground to background of the image plane reasonably sharp. I care little for blurry foregrounds and backgrounds, I want everything in focus, exposed and raw, I leave the ‘bokeh’ effect to the street and portrait photographers with their fast f1.4 prime lenses where a shallow DOF can be used to create an interesting compositional and an emotive artifice.

The next technical element I have had to addressed is to replace my lightweight cheap and cheerful Shen Hao 4”x5” wooden field camera with a second hand Wista metal body technical camera, it is a bit heavier but it does not move in the wind, the camera movements lock off more securely and it does not mind getting a bit wet. I have been testing it and getting use to its operation over the past couple of months and some of the photographs in this post have been taken on it.

Watch Towers, Ben Dolman 2012 [fig 2]

I have also invested in a pair of wellington boots and a water proof focus cloth that doubles as a camera cover when the heavens open up, I am learning to work in and adapt to England’s current lousy climate. I have also been working outside when it is sunny which I have avoided in the past as the shadows and highlights tend to block out, all subtlety is lost and the image becomes harsh and contrasty, but I take my chances and respond to a subject in any given illumination and use the shadows as a composition structure or use them to conceal things from view as seen in Watch Towers [fig 2]. Being on location is as much about photographing the subject as well as to being there, to experience and be part of the habitat, to feel cold or hot, wet and forlorn, elated in a moment of stillness, reflective and adaptive to the ever changing environment and climate.

Fog, Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 3]

I continue to learn hard lessons working in the field of photography and one of these recent lessons was to be adaptive and to react to a given situation and to override or dump a preconception or intent. Working on location outside things cannot be controlled, a preconceived idea of how a subject is captured has to be abandoned sometimes, the carefully constructed concept and it’s planning and proposed execution thrown away to be replaced by an instinctual, impulsive and opportunistic approach to the subject. Last month I travelled to a location just outside Hull to photograph a chemical refinery that borders with an estuary and farmland, one of my ‘in-between spaces’ for my main MA project. I wanted to test out some technical ideas to see if I could develop a hyper realistic panoramic photograph using a 4”x5” field camera, to do this I need a still day and even light as I was shooting 10 large format photographs in sequence that would be stitched together afterwards to create a single image. After a two hour drive I arrived to find the conditions perfect but as I was getting the kit out of the car all of a sudden a wall of heavy fog drifted in from the Humber Estuary and within a couple of minutes visibility was reduced to 4-5 meters at best. I thought to myself that it would clear as quick as it arrived and proceeded to walk to the spot I was going to take the photographs. I remained in position for about an hour waiting for the fog to clear but it stubbornly remained cloaking my subject and everything else. So there I was standing for an hour wanting the fog to go way and then it dawned on me that the fog might now be the best subject, before I started my MA I would not have waited an hour I would have just photographed the fog, captured the moment, but now I was trying to predetermine what the photograph should be regardless of the actual situation I was in, how stupid one can become reading too many books of what photography should be. I had become fixated with what the image should be before I took the photograph when I should have just let the world come to my camera and photographed what it offered and reflect after the event  on those moments captured. I was becoming predetermined in my practice, academic in my approach to making, taken with a conceptual governance and denying what should have been a intuitive response to an interesting circumstance.

The other day I was reading the introduction to ‘Photography After Frank’ [aperture foundation] from a collections of essays by Philip Gefter and the quote below made me ponder.

“The photograph has grown not only in size but stature. Long considered an art world bastard, it is now a fully acknowledged and respected sibling on museum walls, at auction houses, among collectors, and, even, in the marketplace”.

These words made me stop and think, was I trying to make my photographic practice respectable, acceptable to my academic peers, to give it stature by assuming the ‘art’ world tenants of what is deemed a ‘serious’ visual artefact. Had I jettisoned the intuitive, the instinctual as I stood dumbfounded in the fog for an hour rather than celebrate and embrace its presence. Perhaps being the bastard in the art world is not a bad position to be in.

In a controlled environment of the studio one can foster and make work that is predetermined and create a visualisation or installation of a concept but outside the studio nice tidy ideas and constructs can quickly fall to the wayside, one is at mercy to unforeseeable events and interventions. This could seem as maddening as I initially found outside Hull in the fog with my preconceived idea of what and how I wanted to photograph, but rather than fight the situation I decided embraced and responded to it though I wish I did have to stand there in the cold for a hour before going what should have been bleeding obvious. The resulting photographs might not fit with a working ‘theme’ or ‘project’ but so what, photography was born in the moment, moments that could be disparate and not relate to one another, moments that cannot be unified into a nice tidy collection or theme.

Fog, Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 4]

Garden, Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 5]

Working with a new view camera I had not marked where the infinity point was on the camera movements so trying to focus the fog on the viewing glass of the camera was near impossible. I switched to my trusty Mamiya 7 Rangefinder and started to explore how to photograph fog, the land and the light. I have not developed all the film I shot but the images quickly scanned so far have yielded interesting results and inadvertently led me to reflect on my current work.  I had been looking for an in-between space and I had happened upon a non-space, enveloped by fog and my senses were deprived of knows, without references and having no bearing of place, the space I now found myself in afforded an insular experience that was also liberating, it was a paradoxical moment. By the time I had finished photographing the fog it started to clear as fast as it appeared and I could embark on photographing the scene I had originally set out to do, so after a confusing start the day ended up highly productive. The lesson of the day is sometimes when one starts to become too aware and controlling of their practice they cannot see the wood for the trees, I have learnt never to become too fixated on the outcome and never try to overtly predefine the subject, what is suitable or not.

Working with a new camera in sometimes challenging conditions can led to mistakes, I call them happy mistakes and they can yield some interesting results as seen in the photograph Pylons, Trees and Golf [fig 6]. I think the results are from over exposure, a malfunction resulting from me either not closing the shutter properly before removing the dark slide or mis-loading the film in the film holder, must make notes of what I do in the field next time, even the errors. As the film was incorrectly exposed the scanner has over compensated when processing it trying to find resolution and substance in the negative and resulting images dare I say it has a rather painterly rendition that I find quite alluring.

I mainly use film rather than digital photography, I nothing against digital photography but I do like process of film and how it renders and captures the world. The taking of the photograph is only a small part of the overall image making process for me as I also like to develop my own colour film and then take it into the digital darkroom for refinement. The whole process is slow like using a large format camera, it allows time to reflect and make judgements, to discover things that on the first viewing can be missed.

Pylons, Trees and Golf: Dark Slide Malfunction, Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 6]

I have continued my experiments with panoramic photography working with my existing clumsy setup which consists of a 17x6 cm viewer and film panoramic back that fits onto a conventional 4”x5” large format camera. I have revisited past locations to see if the different compositional format offered by a 17 by 6 format changes the way the subject is viewed and interpreted. In my 4x5 and 8x10 format landscape photographs the sky is very predominate but in the panoramic photographs the lack of the vertical captures little of the sky and its presence becomes less dominate in the composition, it seems more neutral and neutered. I am not sure of the landscapes I have done in the 17x6 format work compositionally at the moment, the horizon sits perhaps too neatly in the image frame equally bisecting the picture plane, perhaps by shifting the horizon either towards the top or bottom of the composition a more interesting dynamic pictorial structure could be devised. The problem I have at the moment is the viewing glass is rubbish and sometimes I have to hazard a guess of what is in the camera frame, not very satisfactory but this could be fixed by replacing the existing viewing glass with a fresnel or Boss screen. All said the very matter-of-factness of the flatness and linearity of the panoramic photographs have something about them, time to ponder where this can be taken.

Where the space is more confined or less defined as in Flood [fig 8] and Barrier [fig 10] the photographs seem to work better for me at point of the tests. The confinement of an expansive format like panoramic seems to create a interesting tension, a subtle one, and the idea where you would normally use a format usually associated with the expansive, the vast and used it for a close up, the intimate, is appealing.

Earth: Version 2 [aka The Black Mountains], Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 7]

Flood, Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 8]

Farm, Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 9]

Barrier, Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 10]

Another element of my work I have been looking at is the framing of the photograph, both in the camera and in the digital darkroom. In this post there are two versions of Earth [fig1 and 7] which I photographed last month. I happened upon a mound of earth on a field in the Fens, the darkness of the soil had a starkness set against the softness grey of the sky and the grass of the field. All versions can stand on there own merit, they offer different view points of the subject. In [fig 1 and 7] the framing is in the camera and in [fig 11] the framing was done in Lightroom with the cropping tool. Three views of the same subject and through framing how I view the work and interpret it can change, these compositional changes are subtle but enough to alter how the photograph conveys the subject.

Earth: Version 3 [aka The Black Mountains], Ben Dolman 2013 [fig 11]