Sunday, 27 May 2012


Convalescence is a frustrating, limbo period full of thwarted aspirations and inability to complete even simple tasks. It is a time of contradictory physical and emotional reactions. Physically you feel that you should be able to more than you can. Small tasks are much harder and take much longer than you expect, others just have to join the ever growing list of postponed jobs. Emotionally, you feel you should be grateful for getting past the worst, but actually you feel frustrated about the slow rate of progress, and at the same feel guilty that you know that there are those who have to cope with much more intractable problems.

I’ve spent the last week recovering from a biopsy which has taken a sample of muscle tissue from my right thigh. When this was first proposed I thought that it would only entail a fairly thick needle puncturing my muscle. I expected a bit of bruising and stiffness for a couple of days, but nothing really to get in my way.  What actually was required was a 60mm incision at the top of my leg, which has left me fairly well immobilised for the past week. Yes, this was small beer, non-traumatic, elective surgery and I’m not complaining. But the disjuncture between my wishes and my capabilities is still frustrating.

Fortunately I’m past the worst of it now, and I’m determined to go out and start enjoying the summer weather as soon as I can. And maybe do some of those delayed tasks…

taking the biscuit? not really...

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Coffee Tables and Prayer Books

If you have a love of photography then it is inevitable that you will have a love of photobooks. I’m not an avid collector by any means but over the last few months I thought that it was time that should corral all my books into one place. So I set off to that Nordic temple of wood, IKEA, and bought myself a new bookshelf to house my collection from the last three decades. I divested all the other bookshelves in the house of their photographic volumes and opened long sealed packing boxes to be reacquainted with half remembered books. By the time I had finished I had filled the new shelves to bursting point, had a pile of books looking for a home and still had nowhere to put all my art books, self-made photo books and technique books. Another trip, another meal of meatballs and cranberry sauce, and now I am sorted. 

Off to buy a book case - IKEA Southampton © Graham Dew 2012
Off to buy a book case - IKEA Southampton

If I were a collector of Penguin paperbacks or first edition hardback novels, then I could have laid out my shelves evenly but my collection of photobooks has almost every size imaginable. Despite my dedicated bookshelves, I still have some books that are so large that they have to lie on their rear face and still overhang the shelf. The biggest of these is Chronologies by Richard Misrach. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to meet John Blakemore at a workshop and, he suggested that I might like to look at Richard Misrach’s The Sky Book. I nearly ordered a copy from Amazon, but I prevaricated and by the time I had made my mind up to buy the book it had gone out of print and prices were already out of sight for me. So when Chronologies was published a couple of years later I jumped at the chance to purchase this ‘greatest hits’ volume. I failed to take notice of the book dimensions when ordering and was staggered by the size and weight of the lump delivered to the door. At 39 x 31.4 x 3.4 cm and 3.7 kg it is a seriously oversized tome. 

Chronologies by Richard Misrach © Graham Dew 2012
Chronologies by Richard Misrach
The size is just the first hurdle with book. To read the book you have to find a table and chair, and then turn the book so the spine is on the top. Chronologies is printed portrait format but the images are laid out in landscape. This means that the table has to be deep; the book has to be flat to stop the early pages from flipping back on you. All of which means you have to stand up to look at the pictures. In fact the whole book id poorly designed. The book title ‘Chronologies’ gives a disguised warning – all the images are presented in chronological order, not in any relational order, so the book lacks any structure. Projects or groupings stop and restart at various parts of the book. And finally, each photo is printed with a quarter inch margin on the page, so the book has no rhythm either. The quality of the printing is undeniably excellent, but you get the feeling that you are flicking though a pile of bound-together proof prints.

Wider than a coffee table© Graham Dew 2012
Wider than a coffee table

Misrach is a brilliant photographer and his pictures are well worth spending time with. But this book is so unsatisfying physically that it rarely comes of its inadequate shelf. Perhaps I should return to IKEA, buy a set of table legs and convert the book into a coffee table.

So, if big is bad, then is small beautiful? Again, you can go too far. The smallest book in my collection is Influences by Brian Griffin. This is a beautiful object, measuring a diminutive 14.5 x 11 x 1.5 cm. From its hand tooled calfskin cover, gilt edged pages and velvet lined slip case, it feels more like a prayer book than a photography portfolio. Griffin’s portraits are graphically strong. They need to be, as each image is tiny - no larger than 6 x 6 cm. And therein lies the rub; the pictures are really too small, and too few, to warrant more than a few minutes with this book.

Influences by Brian Griffin © Graham Dew 2012
Influences by Brian Griffin

Small and beautifully formed © Graham Dew 2012
Small and beautifully formed

So what is the ideal size of photobook? For me, this is largely determined by where I wish to use the book, and that is determined by when I get some free time. So that means on the train and in bed. In those places, even A4 is too large. A5 is fine, but octavo (9” X 6”) is probably optimal, which happens to be the standard size of a hardback novel. I have very few photobooks that are near this size. I have one book that is very close to this size. Deus ex Machina is an anthology of just about all of Ralph Gibson’s projects up to about 2000. Printed as ‘block’ style book that the publisher Taschen has a penchant, it has an amazing 768 pages. Unfortunately it is a paperback and being so thick it feels like a heavy miniature accordion in your hands – you can never look at the pages laid flat.
Thick and Chunky - Deus Ex Machina by Ralph Gibson © Graham Dew 2012
Thick and Chunky - Deus Ex Machina by Ralph Gibson

Of all the books I own, the 2008 Steidl hardback edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans is pretty much perfect (21.6 x 18.8 x 2 cm). It sits nicely in the hand, the pages lie flat and the paper and printing are beautiful. It is a superb example of the craft of photobooks and it just happens to be one of the greatest books in the history of the art.
Perfection - The Americans by Robert Frank
Perfection - The Americans by Robert Frank

Recommended Reading: On a similar theme, Mike Chisholm wrote a great article on oversized books over at Idiotic Hat.

Nil by Mouth

Or rather, nil by keyboard...

I've been laid low by a minor operation over the last few days. I do have a number of articles almost ready for posting, but failed to get them completed before going under the knife. Normal service will resume shortly...

Summer evenings here again... copyright Graham Dew
Summer evenings here again...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Bluebell Season

Bluebells, near Corhampton, 2010 © Graham Dew
Bluebells, near Corhampton, 2010

There is a very brief season when certain woodlands in southern England acquire a lustrous bluey-purple carpet of beautiful bluebells. The season is usually quite short, starting around Mayday and over by Whitsun. These delicate plants need the warmth and light of spring to encourage them to come out, but the display comes to a fairly sharp end when the trees above come into leaf and starve the bluebells of light. Well, in this rather peculiar dry then wet, warm then cold spring, the bluebells were largely gone when we went up to Micheldever Woods this weekend for an evening stroll. There were a few to be seen and those that were around looked in fairly good condition, but there just wasn’t the density or extent that we have seen in many previous visits over the years.

The image above was taken a couple of years ago in another local wood to the east of Winchester. The typical bluebell shot is one of a swathe of blue taken in open woodland with tall, bare vertical trunks reaching up to a bright green canopy, often shot with a telephoto lens to compress the flowers and increase the density of colour, often shot in wide format. Whilst the mass of blue in a wood is very attractive, I find the subtle variations in hue in the petals, from light blue to purple, as well as the delicate shape of the plants, visually more interesting. So to make this picture I went in very close - a bluebell flower is only about 10mm long. One of the problems of shooting in woodland on a sunny day are the bright spots of sunlight that can blow out the highlights in the background, which makes for a messy and distracting, uncontrolled image. Because of this I went out shooting early in the morning, and as a result the bluebells were in shade. I had been hoping to find a shaft of light that would light a few specimens, but I could not find any. So this image was lit by a little pop of fill-in off-camera flash, through a small softbox to give a delicate illumination. I tried different positions of the light and liked this version best with the light coming from below. It gave good definition to the bluebells and seemed to make them glow in a fairy-like manner.

This picture was taken last year on my Panasonic LX3 camera, and is a good example of how high-end compacts have a unique set of attributes that make them a very useful tool in the photographers toolkit. The first important aspect of the picture is the proximity of the lens, which from memory was about 50mm. This, coupled with a wide angle of coverage, makes the subject appear very large, whilst allowing a large view of the background to be captured. It is a completely different perspective from the dedicated macro lenses of larger cameras, and to my mind, a more natural and attractive look. It is the difference of holding something close, or using a magnifying glass. The small sensor and short focal length enable this, and I know of no other way to get such an image in larger formats; m4/3, DX, FX and beyond. It was the primary reason that I bought the camera in the first place.

The other key element used in the picture is the flash. Whilst just about every camera above compact size will have a hotshoe to connect a flash, only a handful of compacts have this feature, and it enables the use of off-camera flash. In addition, the LX3 has the advantage of a leaf shutter. All DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have focal plane shutters that have a maximum sync speed of 1/250, and usually quite a bit lower. This makes it very hard to balance the flash light to the ambient, unless one has a lot of flash power. The LX3 will effectively sync at all speeds, allowing a high shutter speed to choke off the ambient light as needed. With the LX3, I can use a high shutter speed, a largish aperture and be able to light the subject with a small flashgun through a diffuser. The ambient (background) exposure in this image was f8 at 1/10, ISO100, so I wasn't taking advantage of the high sync speed, but it's a handy capability to have when you do need it. The other benefit of the leaf shutter is lack of vibration. This makes the camera silent when taking pictures but also allows lower shutter speeds to be used without blurring. Coupled with the in-lens image stabilisation it is quite possible to get shake-free images at 1/10s as in this image.

So, a picture that relied on some of the more unique aspects of a high end compact camera that continues to earn its place in my camera bag.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Sometimes You Have To Make It In Monochrome

Droxford Field, 2008 © Graham Dew

Droxford Field, 2008

It was interesting to see that Leica have introduced their black and white-only M Monochrom camera last week. Apart from a few specialist cameras back at the dawn of digital, no-one’s produced a monochrome camera for a very long time. By discarding the Bayer filter and colour from the image making process, Leica are promising improved resolution and dynamic range over more conventional cameras. We’ll see. I’m not convinced; modern cameras and software are now so good that I don’t think the advantages will be anything other than theoretical, and owners of the new cameras will have to start using coloured filters over their lenses once again if they wish to manipulate contrast. But that’s not really the point. Leica is playing on its heritage. For many decades the archetypal photojournalist, street shooter and life-as-lived photographer, would shoot Tri-X in their Leica rangefinder. Monochrome and Leica do seem to go together.

It’s a long time since I put black and white film in a camera, and since using digital cameras I’ve always shot my images in colour. In the old days of black and white silver film base photography, one would try to pre-visualise the image in monochrome, and would shoot accordingly. This often meant looking for strong composition and dramatic contrast. If the contrast wasn’t there at the point of exposure then as long as the feature was there, one could bring this up in the darkroom, or as we do now, in post-processing. We learned how to manipulate the image, and we all learned how to look at this sort of manipulation. In monochrome you can push the tonality much harder than you can in colour and still create an acceptable result. Viewers will often call supersaturated colours garish and unreal, but pitch black skies and chalk white fields are acceptable in monochrome. Tonal manipulations in colour portraits will have people saying that image is ‘Photoshopped’, but a similar approach in black and white will usually be met with approval. Putting aside nostalgia & retro styling, some images just work better in monochrome, just like some music is best played as a solo piece and others benefit from using the full orchestra. Knowing when to make the final image in monochrome is the important thing.

These days I commute to work by train (where I write this blog), but when I do take the car I often travel along the country lanes. Although I often see things I’d like to photograph, stopping is impossible on these narrow lanes. However, just above Droxford there is a muddy pull-in area that I sometimes stop at. One February morning the light was particularly wonderful, and I had a strong urge to pull over and see if I could make a picture or two. Ploughed fields are always a magnet for me; I love their well-groomed appearance, their graphic nature. Caught early in the morning or late in the day the low sun accentuates these features. In the picture above there is no single focal point for the image. Instead, the subject of the picture is the interplay of curves between the clouds and the ploughed field, together forming a reflected ‘S’. However, the tonalities of these two elements were quite different, with soft white clouds in pale blue sky, and the sharper, more defined brown soil and dark shadows. Just boosting the contrast in the colour image ends up in ugly colouration. So the trick here was to remove the colour altogether, and to apply quite strong contrast and darkening to the sky. The result was a pleasing image that worked in black and white, but could not be achieved in colour. Sometimes you have to make it monochrome.*

*Apologies to U2; my daughter groaned when she saw the title of this post!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Worth a Look: Colin Summers

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers

Last Sunday I had the good fortune to catch up with Arena colleague Colin Summers. It had been over a year since I had last seen Colin at an Arena meeting; he had spent most of the past year with the rebel army recording the fight which would eventually end in the overthrow of Gaddafi’s troops in western Libya. The pictures that he showed us were stunning, emotionally charged images that encapsulated many small fragments of the fierce battle for Tripoli.

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers

I first came across Colin’s images in 2007 in an issue of Ag magazine. Colin had gone to Banda Aceh to witness the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. These monochrome pictures were, at the same time, both beautiful & horrific. Poignant images of bloated bodies floating in flood pools, personal belongings washed up inland, survivors anxiously searching for news of loved ones. What made these images special were the way in which he dealt with human frailties set against overwhelming natural forces. Shortly after the Ag publication Colin was invited to show his pictures to Arena. We had no hesitation inviting him to join the group, and since then we have seen him rapidly grow to become a ‘conflict’ photographer par excellence.

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers

I must admit, before I met him I wondered if there was a touch of ‘disaster tourism’ about his work. However, when one looks at the impressive body of images he has built, and meet Colin in person, you soon find that this most gentle of men wants to tell the story of those less fortunate, more desperate than ourselves. His quiet, unassuming nature helps him to make friends easily and gain access to other’s lives. But a story can only be told if there is an audience. Because the tsunami images were self-funded, Colin found that there was no ready outlet for his picture essay, and the pictures were simply too late to get exposure in newspaper and magazines. But one thing leads to another and since Banda Aceh Colin has taken commissioned assignments for NGOs and charities, such as covering AIDS/HIV in India.

One can only wonder at the anxiety that his family must have felt whilst Colin was away in Libya, so it was a great relief to find that had survived the campaign unscathed. As his images showed, he was never far from death and injury, and the deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros underlined the fact that journalists do not have any special protection in conflicts. For his protection, remaining level headed and not taking undue risks were his main protection, with a helmet and body armour his back-up.

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers

In a conflict like the Libyan uprising, one can only get meaningful access to events when ‘embedded’ with one side or the other. One cannot be an interested bystander. In the case of Libya, this meant being with the rebels, who relied on external support for munitions and food supplies. Colin worked alongside the same group in the rebel army, earning their trust, and spending every hour with them, photographing, eating & sleeping. One can only wonder at the privations he went through, sometimes sleeping in caves in the mountains. Certainly no returning to a 4 star hotel at the end of the day.

This closeness of living is what gives his pictures immediacy and impact. You can see the dust and concrete flying around, the rounds of bullets jerking violently as they are drawn into the machine gun. You see the sweat and blood on the skin, eyes wide open with fear or rage. Photographs can’t hope to show the dynamic action of battle, but in the hands of a skilled artist, the still image can give context and layers of information and meaning. This is what Colin does so well. 

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers

Colin started the conflict self-funded, and later managed to be a freelancer for AFP, which meant that he had a ready outlet for his images. The conduit for his pictures was the mobile satellite uplink, essential for any journalist or photographer needing to file their stories. He was able to wire a dozen or so of his best pictures each evening, which were then distributed via the agency to the world’s newspapers. His pictures have been widely published, netting him a couple of front page covers.

You might be interested to know what gear Colin takes with him. He told us that his rucksack is full with satellite uplink and battery chargers. And one Nikon D3, a 35mm lens and a 24-70 zoom. That’s it; no spare camera body, no arsenal of expensive large aperture telephotos. Just a simple one camera two lens setup that is reliable and predictable. The short lens means that the only way to capture the action is be up close, and being close makes the images ring with presence. F/8 and be there indeed…

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers

Some of the Libya pictures are just sublime, such as this Rembrandt like scene of three weary combatants resting during a lull in the hostilities.

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers
Or this breathtaking image of a woman in supplication, giving praise for the removal of Gaddafi whilst the menfolk plunder his ransacked home.

© Colin Summers
© Colin Summers

It is the human element, the struggle of real people, which interests Colin and energises his photography. One question a colleague asked him was "would you put down your camera to help someone who was injured or dying?" “Oh yes, of course” was his reply. As if we needed to ask...

For more of Colin Summer's pictures please visit his website.

Worth A Listen: On a similar theme, you might like to catch up with an interesting programme on BBC Radio4, Life and Death on the Frontline, in which veteran reporter John Simpson examines the pressures and constraints on journalists in modern conflicts.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

And Still It Rains

Rain at Micheldever 2012 © Graham Dew 2012
Rain at Micheldever 2012

It is still raining here in Hampshire. But that's not an excuse for not taking pictures...