Confessions of a Technologist

8x20 Large Format Camera

It is late summer half way through my MA in Photography at Nottingham Trent University and it seems like a good time to reflect what has been done and what might be done next. The MA is proving useful though perhaps not for the usual reasons, it has not made me a ‘better photographer’ as that has come from working with my colleague at work Alan Duncan and through looking at the work of other photographers, it has not given me a greater insight into my practice as this has been developing over the 30 years and it has not changed me as a person. What the MA has done so far is given me the time to define what photography practice and research I wish to pursue and this does not sit within the scope of the typical fine art, documentary or commercial photographic academic courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level in England. The route I wish to travel, well at least at the moment, is one of a technologist, a technical photographer that is routed in innovation, the experimental and the observational. A practice that seeks making at it’s centre, choosing an objective rigour over subjective artifice, to delight in visual intelligence and a progressive interdisciplinary curiosity seeking inspiration and insight outside the arts and  humanities by engaging with STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects and other disciplines such as history, geography and geology to name but a few.

I will keep on referencing fine art practice, it is where I came from and it has informed and benefited my photography practice from an understanding of compositional structures, the play of light, tone and colour, how a subject is framed and captured, to how narratives are created and played out but it will not necessarily play a central role. There is a whole area of fine art practice that I shall give a wide berth from the turgid and elitist critical theoretical dogmas to the absurd constructs that offer appropriation [call it stealing for f**k sake] as a valid line of enquiry rather than being inspired by and developing upon the work of others and finally the delusion that by concocting aesthetic conceits imbued with the scents of the sublime or what ever romantic nonsense is in vogue will cover up what is merely decorative and lacking any real substance that only becomes wallpaper for the haute bourgeoisie.

What helped me decide that certain aspects of fine art practice were not for me was the last group seminar of the year, it was to be on landscape photography but was changed to a joint session between the photography and fine art MA courses. I decided to go to the group seminar and it sadly confirmed my concerns about contemporary fine art discourse, well at least in higher education, out spilled the usual cliches and truisms that I became guilty of myself as when in the company of swearers one starts swearing oneself without realising it and start talking arty bollocks, I left halfway through the session, not for me though the other students and staff seem to be enjoying it. I like to think of fine art is a broad church but some in academia like to dominate what is should be and narrow its wonder under the deluge of critical theory, I am happy to engaged with it’s playful and experimental creative side, the range of artistic skills on offer, the visual questioning and its physicality.

On leaving the group seminar I decided to take a break from making and editing photographs, I have not had a break for over a year and the editing side was grinding to a halt, I could not see the wood for the trees. I needed time to step back and return afresh to see what was working and what was not, what could be developed upon and most importantly what should be deleted, destroyed, eliminated, torched. The break was not to be a holiday but to do something different and was still central to my photography practice and as a maker. I decided to build a couple of cameras, one would be used for the second year of my photography MA and the other when I have completed my course of study, a reward and something that I could start a new body of work with.

8x10 camera completed and ready to hit the road with

8x10 camera: The camera is a simple design that uses a fixed back system and limited camera movements which make it ideal for landscape photography

8x20 camera: First stage of construction, the camera will be completed after the MA course of study

8x20 camera: The camera is a modular design that shares the same components and design of the 8x10 camera

I see the making of cameras as no different or lesser to the actual act of taking the photograph, it is part of the process, a process that informs the type of photography I make. Making a camera as part of a photographic process is very similar to that of the darkroom, in the darkroom a photograph can take on a new life, a skilled printer can make a photograph sing, take it to another level as seen in the work of Irving Penn and Pablo Inirio The same can be said of alternative photographic processes employed by photographers from Sally Mann to Chris McCaw, a process, a technology, a technique that is part of the larger photographic practice and when a process is employed in an inventive and creative manner interesting work can emerge. There is a nice article in the British Journal of Photography about building your own camera Building your own camera does not have to be complicated like the cameras I build, it can be a simple camera obscura or a pin hole camera made from an empty drinks can, making your own camera allows you to design and customise your capture device that will yield unique photographs, it will also give you a better understanding how cameras and by extension photography works. The type of cameras I currently build have been around over the past two centuries, large format film cameras that use bellows and a ground glass for focusing. There is nothing new in their design or operation though I use the latest 3D modelling software to design them, what they offer me is an affordable access to large and ultra large format photography that in my humble view still outperform the current digital technologies and they have been an interesting introduction to developing my own photographic technology. Future research into camera design will look at using alternative processes and digital technologies to expand my methods of image capture, to explore other lens options and this may look at organic and other non glass materials to see how light is focused and captured, the field of photographic technologies and innovation is vast and expansive. Camera building and the research into other photographic and imaging processes is a rich stream of research and it is this research that will allow for future joint ventures with other subjects from engineering to chemistry, to site art and design within STEM activities and seek new partnerships in understanding, defining and developing new creative technologies. The holy grail for me is one day there is a large format colour emulsion or reactive film/paper that could make colour positive prints, at the moment there are black and white options but to have the option to use colour media in a 20x24 ultra large format camera or in a massive camera obscura would be something quite magical.

The two cameras I have be working on over the summer are a 8x10 and 8x20 large format camera, the goal was to simplify the camera design so that it suited the subject I wanted to capture removing unwarranted options that sometimes got in the way and added weight to the camera. Both large format film cameras only have two movements, one extends the bellows for focusing and the other affords vertical rise of the front lens board. For more technical details on the making and design of the cameras here is the link to a photography blog I co-write at Loughborough University with Alan Duncan.

A camera for me is a thing a beauty that is also functional and of precision, a thing that wants to take me out into the world and to look and observe, a camera helps me understand the world. With the 8x10 camera I will be working in colour and black & white negative film, sometimes using both options on the same subject to see how they interpret and render it photographically from the naturalism of colour to the graphic of black and white. I would have like to use the 8x20 camera on my final part of my photography MA course but that would require quite a lot more work and finance that I can ill afford at the moment. The idea behind the 8x20 camera is to create a relativity portable ultra large format camera that can be taken into the field on foot, the camera will allow me to do large panoramic black and white photographs using Ilford’s special cut film that can either be made into contact prints or scanned into a digital workflow that would yield great detail and resolution that would suit the observational photography I am currently drawn to. The other option with a 8x20 camera is you can load two sheets of 8x10 film into the dark slide which will create diptychs that I am currently very interested in compositionally and as a visual narrative devise, it would also give me the option to use 8x10 colour film stock.

Making the cameras was a welcome break from photography and now a month or so later I have regain my thirst for the taking photographs. I have done some new work over the summer, not much as I prefer the winter months to photograph in. I have continued my work developing the River Trent project that will continue throughout the rest of the photography MA and I will expand the subject to include more of the surrounding land and its relationship to the river. What led me to document the River Trent was photographs I had done of River Soar and the Soar Valley, I did not originally set out to photograph the River Soar as a subject but over two years working in the area where I live it kept on cropping in my work, something that started out in the background but gradually came into the foreground.

Below I have attached a series of photographs of the River Trent done a different times of the year, a year when spring did not happen and the transition from winter to summer was swift. I find the idea of returning to the same location at different times of the year and documenting the changes in the land be they natural or human interventions as something of interest.

The River Trent: Gunthorpe Early Summer

The River Trent: Gunthorpe Mid Summer

The River Trent: Gunness Late Spring

The River Trent: Gunness Early Summer

The River Trent: Bilsthorpe Late Spring

The River Trent: Bilsthorpe Late Spring - 2 weeks later

Below are a series of photographs of some of the power stations that line the River Trent, the midlands very own Megawatt Valley.

The Trent: Willington Power Station - Decommissioned

The Trent: Staythorpe Power Station - Yellow River

The Trent: Staythorpe Power Station

The Trent: Burton Power Station

The passage of water through the land evokes strong emotions, sometimes it is tranquil and others times it is something to be feared when it floods breaking it’s banks. Over the years rivers have shaped the land cutting ravines through mountains and hills to meandering across the flood plains snaking through the land bisecting a country. Humans have aways been drawn to rivers, it provides us with water to drink from, to irrigate the fields and water the crops. Rivers allowed us safe early passage through the land, to travel down its course and trade goods that in turn led to the growth towns sited along river banks. The river provided the power for the start of the industrial revolution that used water wheels to power the textile mills, the river was something to be exploited and abused, somewhere we could dump our waste and use with abandon. In post war years rivers and other waterways have been largely abandoned by industry and trade as they moved their activities to rail and road. We still use rivers to power our industry but the energy is transmitted across power lines that transverse the countryside from coal and gas fired power stations that hug the river banks using the water to create stream to drive the turbines. In modern times our rivers have been cleaned up, wildlife is running to the banks as fish swim through the waters drawing a new industry to our waterways, leisure. In our cities and towns the old industrial areas have been converted into cultural centres and river front homes, in the countryside the banks are mowed to allow people to stroll along side the river watching pleasure craft skim across the water. Our relationship with a river may seem harmonious today but every now and again the river turns wild flooding the land and in turn we seek to tame it with flood defences and embankments, we straighten it, deepen it, we reshape it. Rivers have longed figured throughout photography as subject and inspiration which can be in a series of photographic essays on Landscape Stories ‘the river flows’ showcasing work by Jem Southam, Jef Rich and Alec Soth's Mississippi to name a few.

The Trent: Gunness - Triangle Building

The Trent: A6097

Besides continuing the work on rivers I will continue my work at Sutton Bridge, a place where another river defines and shapes the surrounding land, the River Nene. There is a particular location that has caught my eye looking over the River Nene at the opposite bank where there is a thin line of trees and beyond a new wind farm. The vista has been totally shaped by man, it is very linear and ordered defined by layers of activity, the river, the river bank, the pathway, the road, the trees, the fields, the wind farm, the horizon and finally the sky giving a rich strata of form, texture and colour. The intention is to make multiply visits to the same location to document the changes of the land through the seasons.

Sutton Bridge wind farm: Winter 2013

Sutton Bridge wind farm: Summer 2013 - Diptych

I will be looking for a third project as due to the nature of my work there will be downtime on the other projects as I wait for subtle changes to occur in the landscape and the right weather conditions. I am not sure what this third project should be, it might be another location or passage through the land like the minor project I did along the A46 in the first year of my MA or something totally different to landscape photography to stop me from becoming fatigued and bored working on a similar subject and to push me out of my comfort zone.

The first year of the photography MA has been a time of exploration and experimentation, the second year will continue in the same manor but with the addition to start pulling the stories together and defining the flow of images that best express and depict my observations of the land, its history, its present and perhaps its future and our relationship to it. I look forward to the coming winter armed with my newly built 8x10 camera and next summer it will be a time of intense editing and printing as I enter the final throws of my studies.