Monday, 31 December 2018

Future of photography - A 2018 Rant

A Mobile Phone photo

Well, almost another year over and therefore a good opportunity for a rant about something that has been weighing heavily on me for the last month or so.

I am a member of a camera club, and we do the usual things, have great talks, do member trips and have internal competitions (and yes we do end up in the pub a bit as well). The camera club, like many other,  is associated with a federation, and every year members of the club can send images to the federation and the best ones are judged and presented in a book and shown in an exhibition. (I am not going to name the federation here, because I believe the issue is universal)

I tend to take part. Not because I feel my images are any more worthy than anyone else's, but just because I feel it is part and parcel of being a club member that you represent your club.

Just one problem.

I almost universally hate the resulting winning images. I even hate them even if my images have been included.

This is not because the images are poorly taken. They are all superb execution of there genre, brilliantly realized, probably taken with state of the art cameras and expertly photoshopped to an inch of their lives.

No, the problem is  pretty well every image is predictable, been taken a million times before and is dull,dull,dull. Reviewing the exhibition booklet is like listening to musac in an elevator. It leaves no mark on the memory, it is the equivalent of beige paint on a decorators pallette; specifically designed not to offend or excite.

They are so generic, I started inventing categories for them. See how many you are familiar with.(I use the term guy here, but I am not assuming these are only taken by blokes)

Travel portrait guy - the one who goes around India taking images of old women in street markets
Sport meet guy - 100 shots of hurdlers and high jumpers
HDR portrait guy - B&W images with heavy HDR of blokes next to steam trains
Steam Punk guy - Shots of goths or steam punks, or maybe 1940 re-enactments
Misty Landscape guy - Lots of pictures of misty Tuscany, the millenium bridge or some easily accessible area of the Lake district.

and of course how could we forget Bird on a Stick guy

Now let me state for the record, there is nothing wrong with taking these images in itself. The problem is it is basically the same image taken over and over again each year. The image got accepted last year, so we will do it again. Not only that, but other club members then starting copying it because it is seen as a short cut to success.  Eventually it becomes less art and more paint by numbers.

What is also damning, is not so much what is in the books, but what is not. No images using ICM or multiple exposure, nothing that  is anything other than hyper sharp perfection. Problem is perfection is death. Once achieved there is no point doing it again. It has been completed and it is time to move on.

So why is this happening? Is it that the judges filter out anything that is different or is it that people only put images that fit the perceived federation mind set? Probably a bit of both. Again I am as guilty of sometimes overthinking when entering competitions. Rather than sending an image that I like, I start trying to think what a judge would like. Unfortunately this means we end up in a sort of group think where people only show images the judge might like, and judges only see images that fit in with what other people will think they will like. Repeat.

This is not to say I am not guilty of the same.

I also have to have taken images, trying to copy others. You see an image which has done well in competition, and you think  I can do that and try to re-create it. However I always had a nagging guilt that what I was doing was not art. I think my road to Damascus moment came when I visited a small photo exhibition in Bakewell. One half of it was the usual chocolate box landscape images  which where as forgettable as they were pretty. The other half was a set of out of focus B&W woodland shots by some bloke called Doug Chinnery. Those images are still now strong in my memory.  Its not that I then went trying to re-create the work, but it made me realise that photography could be more then the taking of pretty images.

That's not to say you have to be a Chinnery, Andrew Gray, or a Valda Bailey to take memorable images, all it takes is for photographers to reject the common found view and use their skill and imagination to find a different angle. Even places where you feel have been photographed to death, someone will come along with new way of looking at it, or break a well founded rule. It just requires photographers to try that little harder and reject the average.

Why it matters

But does it matter? Well yes it does and  the reason is, is that photography is dying.

At this point you have the right to say "Whaaaaat". Surely there are more photographs being taken today than in any period in history? Today, worldwide, more images will be taken than were taken during the entire 19th century.

This is all true. However I don't think the people taking images with their smart phone and uploading it directly to Facebook consider class themselves as photographers. The kind of photography that is dying is the type with big heavy camera and lenses. The kind photography clubs specialize in.

I have anecdotal evidence for this  which is the fact that I believe median age of a camera club member is getting older. Generally people in the 16-30 year old range see that type of photography as old fashioned and not relevant. As a result camera clubs generally are finding it harder to keep going as membership drops

Not only that but technology is getting better, meaning the good photos are getting easier to take. Because it is not possible to mount large lenses on a phone, they phone manufacturers have been forced to compensate with computational photography. Can't get a wide aperture on your phone, and want great bokeh? No problem, we'll do it post processing. Even better you won't even have learn about bokeh, just press a button. This means it takes more effort to impress people. I mean if anyone can take the same picture it is no longer special.

 Not only that but the phone is starting to take decisions about what photo to take. Already it will take 100 portrait images and choose the best one for you, and manufacturers are working on AI to detect things like landscapes etc. I want a B&W HDR portrait? Tell the camera, point it at the subject and it will do the work.

This means that just taking a nice image is not enough anymore. A £200 phone can do that. No, you need to add something else. A computer is capable of copying something that has happened before, but it cannot make that intuitive leap that a person can.

Whats to be done?

If club photography is to survive (in fact photography in general) it needs to evolve and move away from the norms of the past.

For example my club recently introduced a mobile phone camera competition. For a long time I was pretty dismissive of mobile phones cameras, but now it is my favorite competition and I am pretty sure my next camera upgrade will in fact be my phone. Because of the phone limitations I find I have to be more expressive just because I cannot take the same photos as with my big camera. This in turn forces me out of the rut of just imitating everyone else.

Competition judges can help too.  According to our federation website, these are the criteria photos are judged on

50% What the message the picture communicates
30% The picture content
20% The technical aspects of the picture

In my experience however 70% of the mark is the technical aspects, either that or I am missing what message another bird on a stick is conveying. However as cameras software take more of the decisions, the technical skill element becomes less relevant.

However the big thing missing here a mark for innovation or the "X" factor.  If we don't reward innovation, even if it is not pulled off perfectly, we will be condemned to more identi-kit images, and the art of photography will remain stagnated and become even less relevant.

Photographers can help to. If you are entering a competition, don't base it on last years winner. Enter the image which pushes the boundaries of photography, even using a different technique, a new angle, or using different materials. One of the beauties of photography is that there is almost infinite variation  in the art form, and we would be foolish to restrain ourselves to a small niche.

I am not saying this is easy. It is easier to follow the herd, but sometimes going the opposite direction means you are forced to walk in less poo.

Happy New Year and have a great 2019

Saturday, 22 December 2018

North West by Alex Nail - A book review

Over the years I have been to most parts of England and Wales. However apart from business visits to Edinburgh I have rarely visited Scotland. In fact I have only been there twice on holiday. Once was a wonderful week spent on the shores of Loch Lomand. However, as beautiful as it is, that is tamed tourist friendly Scotland. For truly wild Scotland you need to head further North and I have only done that once, a long time ago when I and a couple of college pals spent a week under canvas at the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William.

During that time I experienced the utter misery of walking and camping in total driving Scottish rain to the point where your boots and waterproofs become so sodden that you feel you are walking in cold, damp newspaper.

I also still remember the stunning beauty of the landscape, the huge but ancient hills and the feeling of isolation, unique in this crowded isle.

Much to my chagrin and nagging regret, I have never been back since. So when I heard about a new book  by photographer Alex Nail, I knew I needed a copy.

So was it a worthy purchase? Read below for my review

The Review

In an age where photographers seem almost daily to head to Iceland, it is easy to forget that a similar wilderness exist in the UK without the need to fly. An obvious question is why this part of the world does not see the same number of UK photographers.

One of the answers is  provided by Google Maps. If I wanted to go to the same areas this book covers it would take me, from the midlands, about 10 hours driving.

That is a long way. To put it in context, if I time it right, I could get get virtually to Berlin in the same time, or the even French Alps. Although geographically they appears close, they feel a distant, almost a foreign country.

This feeling of non-Britishness is futher backed up by the location names. Assynt and Coigach, Beinn na h'Eaglaise, Loch Kishorn. All these names hint of a deeper older history, one as someone whose family as English as can be, feel little synergy.  In that ways North West Scotland can feel as alien and as foreign as Iceland or Greenland.

Then there is the logistics issue. Google maps show that, compared to the pampered luxury for someone used to the peak or lake district, towns are few and far between. This means to catch the sunrise there is no alternative other wild camp, perched on rocky escarpments, miles from the nearest cafe or mobile phone signal. You have to be dedicated to your art as well as versed in the craft of mountain hiking to take these images.

Of course just being someone who can walk up hills and is willing to put up with living in a small tent in  a howling Scottish gale does not mean that you will end up with great photos. You also need to be someone who knows how one end of a camera from another and how best to realise their vision of the landscape onto the photographic medium.

It is clear that Alex Nail can do this. Oh boy, can he do this.


The book


The temptation would of been to give the book a glossy front cover, but instead  the book itself is wrapped in a beige hessian. It gives it a timeless, classy feel. It a book that could of been made anytime from today to the 1930s. It says there is no need to for a hard sell, the images inside will sell itself.

Inside it is divided into 4 areas, The Coulin hills, Torridon, Assynt and Coigach and the intriguingly titled "The great wilderness" which covers the area Loch Maree and Loch Brown.

In his introduction the author states the challenges and hardships of bringing the book to fruition. Not least, that the book was self published, meaning its success and failure would directly affect the authors pocket. I am always more likely to support books that have a direct connection to the author, which is was why, despite the temptations when I was sent two books by mistake, I felt beholden to return  the 2nd copy.

The author also expresses that he wanted to show a literal landscape, not a idealised or abstract one. In then world of digital manipulation, there is always the temptation to manipulate the viewer to show a landscape that does not really exist.  The only manipulation is time, compressing many years of work into a snapshot  impossible to realise with a few visits to the area.

The photos

So what about the images themselves?

Unlike many landscapes images you see on twitbook nowadays, the images do not grab you by the eye balls and slap your brain into submission. Instead they are more subtle, one that takes a while of quiet study to bring out their full effect. This is a book which is best seen in natural daylight, which allows the subtlety of the highland colours to be fully realised. I'm pretty sure that the saturation dial was barely touched in the making of these prints. As a consequence  these are images you can look at again and again and each time see new detail and points of interest.

Saying that there are standout images, such as the one of "Garbh Eilean and Slioch" which would grace any wall.

From a photographic point of view, it was interesting how Alex broke with normal photographic rules. When I was last in Scotland I had a old film SLR, but never achieved much with it. I took many images of the highlands, but once developed they all felt flat, and and to my disappointment did not reflect the image I saw at the time . Later I learned tricks like putting foreground objects into the shot or getting colleagues to pose to provide scale and context.  Alex however generally eschews these tricks. You will not see hikers posing on crag tops, and foreground items, when seen,  are there only because they existed, not to make a photographic point.

This should of resulted in flat uninteresting landscapes, but it doesn't. That is because Alex is a master in using the light and shadows to provide the scale, relief and contour. Its a great lesson for any aspiring landscape photographer, but one which requires patience and many failures to apply successfully.

The other star is the weather. Whether its the snow fields or the incoming squalls blowing up the glen, they provide an animation of the image. Yes there are a few sunsets and sunrises too., but rather than dramatize the sky, they colorise the landscape. In fact the sky rarely makes an appearance and if it does it is greyed out or undramatic. Instead it is the Scottish landscape that takes center stage.

The other thing you will see little of  is any  sign of human intervention in the landscape. If this was England the hills would of been criss-crossed with stone walls and dotted with sheep. However apart from a solitary shot of red deer, there is nothing man-made or animal, contributing to the idea of a British isolated wilderness. (Of course the irony here is that the landscape as we see it now is artificial, caused by man made intervention over a millennium by the de-forestation of the area). It was only when  writing this review that I saw 2 small white cottages dwarfed by the hills surrounding Loch Maree

 Many of the shots spread over two pages, creating the kind vistas you get if you climb these hills and after getting your breath back standing and breathing in the landscape.

None of the shots feel out of place, but feel carefully selected to say a narrative and express the authors love of this landscape.


If you are a photographer, someone who enjoys landscapes, or just someone who savour's beautiful things, this book is well worth being on your bookshelf. It will a book that will reward you the more times you study it, bringing out new images each time you turn the pages.

The only downside is that it will instill in you a strong desire to head to the North West Scotland to try to to see the images in the flesh, so to speak.

The best thing I can say about this book is that I almost  convinced me that getting to the North West of Scotland would be worth  10 hours driving and the facing Scottish weather once again....

Sunday, 9 December 2018

3 Art Galleries and a library (Part 4) - Birmingham Museum and the library

So the 4th and final part of my journey round Birmingham (The first 3 parts can be found here)

Birmingham Art Gallery

In the last blog post, I was tired and soaked through after walking around Birmingham for the best part of 5 hours. I needed to go somewhere to dry out and get a warm drink.

I decided therefore to head to Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum (BAG).

Industrial Hall, Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum

The Birmingham art gallery is situated just outside Birmingham town hall, a faux Roman/Greek edifice that looks like someone has decided to create low budget Greek myth screen-set in the middle of Birmingham.

Birmingham has gone through a great deal of change over the last 10 years, however the BAG has remained a constant. While other museums, such as the science museum have been relocated and large parts of central Birmingham have been redeveloped, BAG is pretty well as I remember it when my mother used to drag me around it.

My mother started her art degree as a mature student, and this sometimes required that me and my brother would accompany her to the art gallery (under duress) for research. Taking two young boys around an gallery is not a task that I would wish on anyone. However something must of clicked, because I still like art galleries today, and I do seem to have inherited a lot of information on the pre-raphaelite brotherhood(PRB) paintings, of which BAG has one of the worlds finest collections. This just goes to show, just because your kids don't appear to be listening,  there is still a chance that something is still going in.

Saying that, I never inherited my mothers love of pre-Raphaelite paintings. I found their simplistic morality more and more jarring as my moral compass got more refined over the years. To me they are the photographic equivalent of chocolate box pictures. Pretty, but in the end an artistic dead end and it is not surprising that the movement was relatively short lived and failed to inspire much outside the PRB clique.

The other main memory of BAG was that it was my first ever TV appearance. The event was on a local TV news affair program called West Midlands today and was due to us being around when they wanted to do a piece on BAG's new exhibit where visitors were encouraged to (shock, horror) actually handle some exhibits. They wanted some expert opinion from some 11 year old's and in those days I was obviously photogenic enough to be selected. Not only that, but I got to speak on camera, and this is where I first found my ability to spout pseudo intellectual garbage, a skill I still find  useful today when asked to comment on one of my photos. The result was 15 minute of fame at school (We lived in simpler times). I also got my photo in the local paper, the Evening Mail looking at a Barn Owl. It was a good day.

Main Ahll, Birmingham Art Gallery

The inside of the BAG has not changed much since then.The entrance halls and galleries are much the same. I always try to pick up ideas about light and composition from paintings, and Birmingham has a good range, although their modern stuff could perhaps do with a revamp. One of the things that irritates me though with art galleries is that they rarely treat photography as art and few if any have any photographic exhibitions, Birmingham is not being an exception here. Even the V&A in London, which is supposed to be the main historical photographic archive, has only a very small photographic gallery. More room is given to stain glass windows.

The one exhibition I had wanted to see was the Staffordshire hoard  . This was one of the largest Anglo-Saxon gold collections ever found and discovered not far from when I used to live. In fact unbeknownst to me, I probably cycled past its resting place  many times. In many ways the hoard is more a Anglo-saxon gold working demonstrator that actual items, consisting of small gold pieces, many from bits of larger items such as sword pommels. However the design and manufacturing skill is superb and showed what we know think as the dark ages, was more sophisticated than we give it credit for

After a walk along the rather good Birmingham history exhibition, and now fully dried out, I retired to find some tea. One thing you can say about the BAG is that it has the finest tea room in Birmingham, and I made full use of its facilities

Still you can only drag a cup of tea out for so long. Dry and refreshed, I still had 2 hours to kill, so I had to decide what to do next. The original plan was to go to Gas Street basin and photo the canals during sunset. One look at the weather outside however showed the chances of seeing any sun was slim to none, therefore I needed a plan B.

So it was off to the library.

The library

When I wore a younger mans clothes, the library was situated just outside the BAG. That library has now been demolished and the site now an area of intensive redevelopment which unfortunately dwarfs the neo-classical buildings. The new library has only moved a few hundred yards between BAG and Gas Street Basin, which itself has become a hub of new development.

The library of my era  was a build in what they termed a brutalist style. That is architecture speak for a big ugly fecker, beloved only by architect academics and historians.  It looked like someone had piled 4 giant concrete slabs on top of each other and then left them to decay. Whatever some may say, naked concrete is a harsh and ugly material and should be hidden from view if possible. Apart from a few purists I don't think many in Birmingham were sorry to see it go. Saying that, the inside was  excellent area for study being open, full of light.

The new library is a totally different building consisting of modern glass panels with a relief of interlocking rings. Although only 5 years old, it has, along with the Selfridge store, become a greatly photographed building

I had walked past it many times, and even take a photos, but never really got anything out of it. However I realised I had never actually been inside it, so this seemed a perfect opportunity to put that rights.

According to Wikipedia, Birmingham library is the largest public library in the United Kingdom, the largest public cultural space in Europe, and the largest regional library in Europe. This may be so, but in some ways it was a brave move to spend so much money on a building whose entire primary function has in recent years suffered due to a sea change in technology. Increasingly libraries are under threat. Across the UK, libraries are being closed or transferred from local authority control to one where they are volunteer run. In many ways it is a sign that we are moving back to a almost Victorian ideal, where services can only be run through local philanthropy (coming to a health service near you soon). There is a strong possibility that this will be the last purpose built library constructed ,certainly at this scale, which is a great pity since I still firmly believe libraries have an important function.

Some of the issues that have affected libraries in recent years can be blamed on austerity, local council cuts and sheer government sheer bloody mindedness. However technology is also partly to blame. When I used the old library, it was basically the only place to find reference information. Nowadays pretty well all the information can be obtained on a mobile phone, tablet etc. It is the same with books. With a kindle I can now carry the contents of a small library on a small hand held device. Some books are never even produced in a physical form and can only be obtained in electronic format. Why do you need a building if all your content can be stored on the cloud.

So in the 21st century what are libraries good for? Well, if a library are to remain relevant they have to be more than places where physical books were stored. Instead they have to be community hubs and areas where they offer services such as internet access to those who would otherwise be denied this increasingly critical resource.

In this respect Birmingham library still has an important function. If to highlight the point, while I was there, I think I only saw about 5 people actually reading a physical book. Most were there to take advantage of a warm space with free wi-fi and a somewhere to plug their laptop in or charge their phone.

OK enough of that, what about the library photographically.

The library consists of 4 levels, of mainly open space. There did not seem to any restrictions on using cameras, but as in all these situations discretion is advised. The interior consists of open plan floors with a wide central opening in which are pierced by shallowly angled escalators. As such they make good targets for practicing architectural photography, with a number of interesting shapes and angles being formed.

Birmingham Library Internals

However the real gem of the library for photographers is the so called 'secret garden'. This area (which is well sign posted and therefore not actually secret)  is a veranda on the 3rd floor that provides a great view of the Birmingham skyline. At the time, some of that skyline was being rebuilt, however it is a great place of nigh shots of the city.

Birmingham from the secret garden

.....and at night

After taking a few shots, I decided to settle down and searched out something to read. Fortunately the library had a goodf photographic section  and I spent a happy hour perusing a number of books on Ansel Adams until it was time to go.

International Conference Center

Bash Street Basin

Bash Street Basin

Bash Street Basin


Finally I ended up in Gas Street Basin. If any area defines Birmingham renewel it is this area. Once a pollution infested relic of a industrial bygone age, it is now an area teeming with wine bars and restaurants and surrounded with iconic buildings such as the international convention centre. However despite the changes, it is still a canal boat marina and crossroads and you will often see boats transiting through the low tunnels.

On a good day, it is a fantastic place to get photographs and well worth the mile or so walk from the centre  However today was not going to be one of those days, so I decided to finish up and head to the station and go home.

So after a day spent in my so called home town, how do I feel about Birmingham after day re-evaluating it.

I must admit I like the feel of the new Birmingham. No longer the Cinderella of cities, more known for industrial grit and grime than art and culture, Brum has managed to transform itself since I was a child. The investment in the center has produced a vibrant city, the counter culture in Digbeth is promising development and hopefully Hockley will continue to re-define itself.

That is not to say that Birmingham is a perfect metropolis. Under the new chrome and glass veneer, it is easy to find examples of the 1970's architectural failings, but in some ways this only adds to the range of photographic opportunities.

Yes, it has almost got to the point when rather than hiding my identity, I can say it load and proud.

 I am Tony and I am a Brummie. 

The iconic Rotunda ala Warhol