PHOTOGRAPHER INTERVIEWS: Wei Wei

I’m re-publishing here the Featured Photographer interviews I did for the Open College of the Arts, on their former page The Freeman View. Wei Wei (和平) lx024 Wei Wei is a Chinese photographer based in Hangzhou, the city not far from Shanghai that is famous for West Lake and for growing tea. A graduate of Hangzhou Zhejiang Institute of Technology, Department of Art, she began work as a freelance photographer shooting both editorial and advertising, and has become well-known for her music photography, as one of China’s top artists covering rock stars and rock bands in the country’s exploding music scene. She combines this with a longterm personal project that she has been shooting for a few years on Tibetan Buddhism. Her career offers a fascinating insight into what it takes to be an independent professional photographer in a country where the economic opportunities are large, but where the state maintains control over many aspects of society. We met when I ran her story School of the Living Buddha on the iPad magazine Photographer’s i.

MF: How did you get started?

The restricted Larung Valley college town

The restricted Larung Valley college townMF: How did you get started?

WW: As I was growing up, Polaroid cameras were quite common, and travelling with my parents it was natural to have many taken. As a child, I always thought of the photographer each time as a magician. Then at school there was a singing contest, and the teacher gave me a Polaroid camera for me to shoot it, so I became a magician! I was fascinated by how it made me look at details an moments in a new, concentrated way. My first photography gained me unexpectedly high marks, and when our teacher asked us to choose what we wanted to do for our professions, I hesitated hardly a moment before saying photography. Not surprisingly, that’s what I chose for university. As a professional for a number of years now, I have numerous film and digital cameras, but my favorite is my childhood love, the Polaroid camera. The first camera I bought was a Polaroid SX-70, and it remains my most cherished. 03

MF: And your first job?

WW: When I graduated, a local maufacturer, Wahaha, asked the college to recommend a photography student, and the department recommended me. I think this was because I was very active shooting records of college activities, so became quite well known for that reason. I should explain that Hangzhou Wahaha Group (the name means ‘laughing child’) is both private and the largest beverage manufacturer in the whole of China. And it is largely controlled on a day to day basis by one man, the owner. A total of four candidates were competing for this post, but finally I got the job. I began by shooting children’s fashion showing Wahaha company activities. I think the reason for my success with this was that a took a simple approach that treated the children very innocently, and also because if immersed myself in every detail of preparation. For instance, the parents who accompany children to a shoot can have an influence on their mood, often causing stress, so things like that have to be anticipated and managed. But since then, I’ve photographed for Wahaha fro the last six years. And then editorially I began shooting for regional publications like Chengdu Business Daily, City Express, Young Times, Search City, and The City.

MF: Here in the West, photography has become more difficult over the last several years financially as a career, and whatever else we want to do creatively, it’s important to be able to make a living. In China, has the continued economic growth meant that photo assignments are plentiful?

WW: Yes, there are a lot of job opportunities, but it is still very competitive. As the economic conditions improve, so there are more and more photographers. Of course, it is a very popular career, but many people just see the glamorous side of it and fail to think what it takes to succeed. I’ve been fortunate, but actually there are fewer opportunties than you might think for large numbers of photographers just starting. As the market improves, there has become a clearer division of labour, just like in the West. Wedding photography is one example, and is a very big market in China because marriage is expected and is a big event in every family’s life, not just for the couple getting married. I don’t do this myself, but you see it everywhere, and competition among photographers within every speciality like this is very strong. Many who want to have a career in photography get stuck as assistants, or start undercutting on price, let alone having the opportunity to shoot their favorite things. WW0_0818

MF: But would you say there is plenty of work in China for photographers who are ambitious and prepared to work hard?

WW: I think in China, if you are willing to work hard, you have many opportunities. But your work needs to be sufficiently convincing, and you have to be very serious and dedicated. My clients are generally in fashion photography, in the music business, and humanistic documentary photography. After a few years, I have my own client relationships, of course.  The commercial clients make it possible for me to shoot my own favourite projects that I really enjoy.

MF: Do you keep your different types of shooting separate from each other?

WW: Yes. I have my own studio in Hangzhou, because this is my home town, and I like it also. So my commercial work is mainly fashion photography of my commercial customers, basically in the studio in Hangzhou. But at the same time, I am also a rock photographer, so I need to follow rock bands and rock stars to performances, which involve multi-city tours. In addition to these two working arrangements, as long as there is enough free time I go to Ganzi County in Sichuan, to continue my project involving the Tibetan Kham peoples, shooting their lives and culture. This last is my favorite project, and I am referring to Tibetan culture as religion, which is Tibetan Buddhism. Several topics unrelated and with a great difference; commercial photography is generally done in my studio; at the same time, I’m a minority female photographer shooting rock, whether it is a small music festival or a large concert. IMG_7617v2Baisha villageBaisha villageBaisha village

MF: Tell me something about your rock photography

WW: Currently in China, rock music is on the rise. At first, we heard only foreign bands, but now there are many very good bands and performers. I also like rock personally, and it started when I went to see the concert of Xu Wei, my favorite musician, and I was shooting throughout the entire concert. From what I hear, it’s not at all easy now in the west simply to take photographs at concerts…

MF:…Right, but it used to be here like the way you describe, at least when I started photography…

WW: …OK, right, but we don’t yet have that much of a problem in China. Anyway, that’s how it began, and I’ve deliberately made it part of my work. What I love is that all the musicians are so passionate. By the end of any concert shoot, I always have severe dehydration, but that doesn’t affect my love of rock. With some of the less well-known rock bands, they can’t really afford to pay me a lot, but I’m willing to help them, and sometimes even shoot free. I was very lucky to have worked with top groups, and become friends with them, so it’s good to return the favours to up and coming bands. In a sense, I think I’ve been successful because, as a female photographer, I’m better at bringing some delicate sense and warmth to the shooting. There are only a handful of female rock photographers in China. There’s an increasing openness that music is bringing to our society, with more and more shows each year. I was just in Dali at the Labour Day holiday, shooting a big music festival held on Erhai Lake, with the country’s most famous rock star. I worked for the festival for seven days, and although the fee was not very high, I’m happy because I could combine my two greatest interests, photography and music. WW0_0154WW0_0396

MF: What first motivated you to go to Tibet and start recording Tibetan Buddhist culture?

WW: I would go to Tibet every year when I was a student in University, and live with the locals -  so different from my normal modern city life – but the most important thing is, I saw a form of sincerity there, and the reason for the way they deal with life and death and the people around them comes from unreserved religious beliefs. It shocked me, so I wanted to photograph them and their beliefs, and make a record of their lives. It’s important that the Tibetans keep their faith and culture, because it is a very valuable asset that we all can learn from.

MF: Buddhism is a popular topic for Western photographers also, to the point where there seems to be a lot of similar shooting in the same places like Thailand, and now Myanmar. Do you have a specific subject?

WW: At the beginning I had a magazine assignment in Tibet, and stayed there for some time. I was surprised and moved at the depth of Buddhism in Tibetan life, and their faith, and wanted to learn more and photograph more of it. For three consecutive years now, I’ve been following one of the youngest Rinpoches, a Living Buddha, as he established a Hope Primary School near Ganzi in western Sichuan for more than 80 children from poor families, and recording the progress. This is located not far from the Serthar Institute in the Larung Valley – very remote, and the world’s largest Buddhist Institute. The Rinpoche introduced me to this college in the high grasslands. Foreigners are completely banned from entering the college, where there are more than 30,000 monks and nuns, living in tens of thousands of simple wooden cabins gathered together. In fact, earlier this year I concluded a winter shooting. I wanted to enrich the shooting with photos of winter Tibetan life, which is very tough.

MF: Is there a worthwhile magazine market in China for stories like these Buddhist ones?

WW: Chinese magazines are interested in Tibet for content, but they are less willing to cover too many things about Buddhism, which you can appreciate. The Buddhism is more of a personal project, but I can still get published landscapes of Tibet and Tibetan festivals, such as horse racing.

MF: In general, is the magazine market for photography healthy in China? Here it isn’t, and it’s difficult to get interesting assignments.

WW: There are some very good magazines in China, and they are interested in stories on culture as well as the usual fashion and lifestyle subjects that you would expect. Generally though, magazines draw up their own plans in advance and set up a special shoot when they want an in-depth story on specific cultures. Of course, there are not many such opportunities, but I certainly do what I can.

MF: In your commercial work in Hangzhou, what kind of clients do you have and what is a typical day’s assignment?

WW: I have two major commercial customers, both well-known large companies; in fact, in their respective fields, they are the best. One is Whaha, which I already mentioned, and the owner and I have maintained a very good cooperative friendship. There is also the cosmetics company Proya. I have a long-term relationship with both and have a couple of assignments a year for each. Usually with such clients the campaign will involve a well-known celebrity, for example, Lee Hom, a  pop star in Asia. We’ll discuss the style of shooting, and the fashion style also, which could be sporty or elegant, depending on the product. Generally the celebrities have their own make-up artist and costume designer, so I don’t need to worry about this. After shooting, we have a photo screening with the celebrity as well as the client, and if it all looks good to everyone, we make the selection for processing and post-production. The workload is quite big, but it’s well paid. If you buy Wahaha’s bottled mineral water, you’ll be able to see my photographs.

MF: What does this year’s schedule look like for you?

WW: Very busy. Apart from my studio work, this year I need to follow China’s most famous rock star, Xu Wei, shooting concerts in many cities, from May until January next year, every month at least one concert, which means for me 10 days that each month. In addition, in order to continue shooting my Tibetan Buddhist topic. 未标题-20

MF: What next?

WW: I am currently putting together a book on the Buddhism project, and it will be my first book,  so I’m being very careful in the selection. Of course I know there are a lot of photographic books about Buddhism, and a lot of photographers have good Buddhist imagery, but I have a different perspective. I also have that special access to the Institute in the Larung Valley. I’ve learned a little Tibetan, and I live in the homes of Tibetan people. This is my advantage. In these years of shooting, I came to understand more and more, and I became a Buddhist.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

UPDATE on the ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY FOUNDATION COURSE

The course notes for the first lesson are now available FREE! Just click below to download them:
https://s3.amazonaws.com/michael_freeman_foundation_course/Documents/Foundation+Course+Lesson+1+%28FREE%29.pdf

This will give you a taster for the actual eight-week course, which will start on the 6th of September. it actually does run over a specific tie, rather than people just beginning whenever they want, and there’s a good reason for this. There’s an assignment that I give at the end of each week, and as well as my giving a critique on this, I want to share everyone’s. We’ll all get more out of it if every participant gets to see everyone else’s—and can comment.

We haven’t yet set the dates for the second run of the course, but it will be shortly after the first ends, so probably in November.

My website for the course: http://bit.ly/1nCFWk7

COURSE BOOKS: THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S EYE & THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S EYE: GRAPHIC GUIDE

COURSE BOOKS: THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE & THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE: GRAPHIC GUID

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Online Photography Foundation Course

THE ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY FOUNDATION COURSE
Well, after a lot of work, we’re now launching one of the biggest projects for me this year—the Foundation Course, on Composition in Photography. It starts on the 6th of September and lasts eight weeks. I’ll be writing more about this over the next few weeks, but for now, why not take a look here:-

 

Orange pearls

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Barclays Bank Photo Workshop, Singapore

In the second week of June, I flew over to Singapore (just ten days after the previous trip, when I was shooting Singapore Colonial Style) to run a workshop for Barclays Bank. The background was that Barclays support a couple of charities—not-for-profit organisations—that offer guidance to young Singaporeans who are in some, various, ways disadvantaged. The idea was to to take a dozen of these young people, aged between 17 and 25, and teach them photography to a sufficient level to be able to produce next year’s Barclays calendar. An interesting, and ultimately highly rewarding challenge for me, and I really enjoyed the week. I probably learned more than they did, though about different things!. We made a short video, 12 minutes, about the workshop, and it’s here:-

barclays-sing

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Annual STARK Magazine competition

I’ll be a judge for the annual Stark Magazine photography competition, as usual. The standards are high and it’s a very worthwhile publication. See this link for the Call for Entries: http://www.starkawards.com/

1403271926433242-createcompeteexp

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Talk at Bournemouth Electric Camera Club

As usual when things get really busy, I have the bad habit of neglecting other duties, like writing this blog and doing the Facebook page. After two almost back-to-back shoots in Singapore, from where I just returned at the weekend, I can now get back to tidying up things back here in the UK. First announcement is that on Sunday 6th July, ay 2:00pm I’m giving a talk to Bournemouth Electric Camera Club. It’s open to non-members also, and here’s the Club’s poster, so if you’re in the area, I look forward to seeing you.

MF Poster 1 001+1

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Start of the tea season on Longjing Mountain

Longjing Tea Mountain

China’s most famous tea, fresh picked in the Spring on the hills above West Lake

Just an hour these days on the high-speed train southwest from Shanghai, Hangzhou has for at least a thousand years been one of China’s cultural centres, with a rich history of poetry, painting and philosophy. The city, capital of the province of Zhejiang, is famous for two things in particular: the tranquil and atmospheric West Lake, and the Spring-fresh, spear-bladed Longjing tea. The two are intimately connected, for the most notable variety of this famous green tea is grown in the hills bordering the west of the lake and called, not surprisingly, Xi Hu (West Lake) Longjing. It’s four characteristic virtues are the jade colour of the leaves, the yellow-green or lime-green colour in the cup, a warm, toasty aroma with notes of chestnut or hazelnut, and a fresh vegetal flavour with a slight malty or savoury aftertaste. The name, meaning Dragon Well, comes from an old well deep in the hills. Stirring the water is supposed to cause denser underground water below to briefly rise and  swirl just visibly in sinuous curves.

Green tea, most of which comes from China and which makes up three-quarters of the nation’s production, is all about freshness and timing. Longjing is tea that is freshly picked, immediately processed, and drunk as soon as possible after that. Here in the hills west of the lake, the most highly regarded picking is in early April, just before the Qingming Festival, also known as Pure Brightness Festival, which marks the beginning of Spring, around the 5th of April. Timing is critical, as is the weather. The local pickers’ saying is “three days before, it’s treasure, three days after it’s trash”. This is followed two weeks later by another important picking before the ‘Grain Rains’. After this comes Spring Tea (Gu Yu) before May the 6th, and Late Spring Tea (Li Xia) before May the 21st.

This is hand-picked tea with an important pedigree (important enough to be the tea served to President Nixon and Zhou En Lai on the famous 1972 state visit), and is graded and classified down to the smallest detail. And priced accordingly, so buyers take great care in sourcing, paying great attention to the plucking standards. The top three standards are bud only, bud and one leaf, and bud and two leaves. The proportion of these defines the top three grades, and there are many below these. Indeed, much Longjing tea on the market is grown outside this special area. Zhejiang Longjing means just that—grown elsewhere in the province—and less reputably there are ‘Longjing’ teas from other provinces entirely. A measure of the importance of Longjing tea and its city is that both the National Tea Museum and the Tea Research Institute are here.

Tea-picking,

Longjing gained its reputation early, written about in the 8th century by Lu Yu in his famous book The Classic of Tea. In the Song Dynasty, one of Hangzhou’s governors was the poet and statesman Su Shi (1037-1101), who also took the name Su Dongpo. He celebrated this tea in his poem White Cloud Tea (the name Longjing came later), writing “The tea sprouts are fresh at the foot of White Cloud Mountain. It is always lush during the Spring Grain Rains.” Its reputation was finally sealed when Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty was served it on a visit. Reputedly, he was so taken with the elegant movement of the tea-picking girls that he joined in, tucking the plucked leaves in his sleeve. He was suddenly recalled to Beijing where his mother had fallen ill, forgot about the leaves in his sleeve, but the Queen Mother smelt the fragrance and asked. He found the leaves, now flattened, had tea prepared, and his mother recovered. After that, he named the 18 tea trees in front of Hugong Temple ‘Royal Tea’.

This story is also held to explain the flatness of the dried leaves, which is achieved skillfully during the processing. This always has to be done on the same day as picking, however late, and involves pan-frying in a wok, which halts the oxidation and removes water from the leaf cells that would speed fermentation. Great care goes into shaping the leaves, which are flattened and blade-like, with tapering ends.

This fresh tea needs to be drunk as soon as possible after picking, which explains why green teas as a whole are much less known in the West. There is no better way to enjoy the full fresh intensity of Longjing than sitting by the lake shore in the first week of April, under the peach blossoms, or on one of the small boats. A local recommendation is to use clear glass tea-ware, so that you can watch the leaves unfurl. If you bought the top quality, you’ll see what’s called ‘flagged spear’ as the bud floats like a flag and the single leaf hangs suspended like a spear. With bud-and-two-leaves this is called ‘sparrow’s tongue’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lenswork

My idea for this series (I think it will make a series; let’s see how the first few go) is to dig deep into the real meaning of camera lenses. Does that sound strange? A lens is just a lens, after all, an optical design and a piece of engineering. As an arrangement of glass I’m not sure that it’s very interesting at all to most people, but the surprise comes when you look at what kind of images it can make. Imaginatively produced images of all kinds give a great deal of pleasure, and what comes first to most people’s minds when confronted with the history of art is visual art. Flat visual art. Paintings, and later photographs. Different lenses contribute to this by helping to create different visual experiences. There’s sharpness, blur, magnification and panorama, which you might expect, but there are also less expected contributions, like involvement, distancing, disorientation, clarity. I’ve always been fascinated by what lenses can do for visual sensation, more than just the cold angles and fields of view.

1356.02 Spotlit typewriter-

This is the kind of foreground-background juxtaposition, all sharp, that the Super Wide excels at

So, I’m attempting a marriage between the technical and the creative. Yes, there is a real gap, and finding the balance between these left-brain and right-brain processes has never been straightforward in photography. It’s as easy to get lost in the boys’ toys of optical engineering as it is to get vague, wistful and meaningless about imaginary qualities of presence, crispness and bokeh (a term that adds nothing at all to what was already known about the structure of defocused imagery).

Sometimes we choose lenses to do a job we have in mind, but sometimes lenses… I was almost going to write that they choose us, but it does happen that lenses can inspire imagery and deliver surprises. Bill Brandt (1904-1983) wrote about his famous series of distorted nudes, “Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” That’s one kind of spirit in what I call lenswork, the deeper image-making relationship between photographer and optics. It’s also highly relevant to the first lens I’m going to introduce, the Hasselblad Super Wide’s 38mm Biogon, because when it appeared Brandt snapped it up to continue his nudes series outside the studio.

Bridalveil Fall

Bridal Veil Fall, Yosemite, 2011. The old-fashioned uncoated lens gives a smoothness absent from contemporary lenses

Let’s see if I can get this balance right. It’s not often that I buy a new lens, but when I do it’s quite exciting to anticipate what new kinds of image I’ll be able to make with it. I felt that from my very first camera, and I still do today. This may not suit everyone, because it means being willing to accept both the optical engineering (which can’t avoid a bit of history) and the art-crit, aesthetic side. But here we go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HASSELBLAD SUPER WIDE

Everyone has their own definition of the classics in any field, so I’m not going to agonise over whether mine will fit with any others. The Hasselblad Super Wide, launched in 1954, is definitely on my list of the classic lenses. And on the list of cameras. In fact, it was lens as camera, because it was so special that there was no other way to use it than house it in its own body. Which, incidentally, went completely against the main point of the new Swedish Hasselblad system launched in 1948, which was a modular camera with interchangeable lenses and film backs. Nevertheless, this was an important new addition for the Swedish manufacturer, because it would be the widest medium-format lens/camera ever. And indeed, it was this Super Wide and the new 1000F for interchangeable lenses that Viktor Hasselblad took to the 1954 Photokina, where the system first got serious attention, and it took off.

20341_13_HasselbladSWC

A 1960s Hasselblad Super Wide

5337_23_HasselblasSWC

On location on the Isle of Skye

The Zeiss designer Ludwig Bertele had created the Biogon design in 1934 for aerial mapping, using 10 elements that were almost symmetrical, which meant that the front and back group were pretty much identical. It was heavy on glass, but fairly wide, fast, sharp throughout and, importantly for its original purpose, distortion free. That’s what you get with a symmetrical design, so there’s no need for correction profiles, which of course didn’t even exist when this lens was created. Bertele had had other successes under his belt, including the Ernostar super-fast ƒ2 lens from 1923, which had achieved fame at the hands of photographer Erich Salomon, who used it on a single-shot Ermanox for his candid images of European statesmen in the halls of power.

20341_08_HasselbladSWC+lens

The position of the 8-element, almost-symmetrical lens. Film plane in green

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The name sounds a bit odd today, when ‘bio’ is used to inject a feeling of organic (bionic, biotechnology, bio-foodstuffs and so on). In the thirties it simply gave a sense of dynamic and new, while ‘gon’ came from the Greek for angle, and was a Zeiss term for their wide-angle lenses. But while this symmetrical design was new, the angle was pretty modest, just 35mm in its first use in a Contax rangefinder camera in 1936. It was not until until 1951 that Bertele designed a 21mm version, also for 35mm cameras. It had a 90º angle of view—something very fresh and graphic. This, and the edge-to-edge sharpness and absence of distortion, made it a sensation in the camera world.

At the same time, there was a new Swedish camera manufacturer, Hasselblad, making medium-format cameras, and it wanted a piece of this action. Magazines, and particularly the commercial clients who advertised in them, were still suspicious of the tiny 35mm film negative, and most felt that you could get a good quality enlargement up to the size of a page only with a larger negative. They had a point, especially when it came to colour. Printing technology was still manual, and scanners had yet to be invented. The owner, Victor Hasselblad, wanted a wide-angle lens to round out the system, and the Biogon was new, exciting, and perfect for the purpose. But it needed re-designing for the larger scale, and that job went to another great lens designer, Hans Sauer, who translated it for 6×6 cm rollfilm. Because the symmetrical design meant that the rear element of the lens needed to be very, very close to the film, it could not fit into the standard Hasselblad body. This, like any other SLR, needed enough space in front of the film for a mirror angled at 45º, which projected the view from the lens up to the ground-glass screen. That mirror also needed the space to flip up when it came time to shoot.

Amazon

Afternoon tropical storm over the Amazon River, Brazil. The extreme position of the far river bank shows the absolute lack of distortion – totally straight

The result in 1954 was that the new Biogon 38mm ƒ4.5, trimmed down a bit from 10 glass elements to 8, was given its own permanent body—the Super Wide C. Given that the Hasselblad was a system camera, with not just interchangeable lenses but also interchangeable film backs, this sounds like a bit of an aberration, but photographers took it another way. This was something special—a compact, rugged little number that did just one job incredibly well. It was so well made, with special Hasselblad touches like the mechanical linking of the aperture and shutter speed rings on the chromed lens barrel, and the red depth-of-field indicators that moved by gears in little windows on the lens barrel. Famously, when you set the aperture to ƒ22 and the focus to 1.2 metres (all manual on this camera), everything from 65 centimetres to infinity is in focus.

20342_87

A 1969 Hasselblad catalogue

Who could resist? This was a medium-format camera with the equivalent of a 21mm lens on a 35mm model. And wide-angles were on the cusp of hitting the big time. That’s not to say they were totally unknown, but they were not considered a part of ‘normal’ image-making. The kind of lens used by Bill Brandt to make some of his famous ‘distorted nudes’ series in the 1950s, a Kodak Protar 85mm for a whole-plate camera came from around 1900, but it was relegated to specialist use. And Brandt’s experimental nudes in the forties were very much avant-garde.

Mainstream use of extreme wide angle depended on two very different processes coinciding. One was technical, the other social. Zeiss more than any other manufacturer had taken care of the technical issues by the fifties, but the other ingredient was the explosion of fashion and social liberation that happened in the 1960s. This was post-austerity and a new world of consumerism. And sensation. Magazines like Vogue, Look, Town and the new Sunday Colour Supplements were the delivery system, and they all explored. Art directors and photographers explored with sharp typography, dynamic cropping, and angles. Not the least being wide angles. Imagery needed to be different, and between the compression of telephotos and in-your-face distortion of extreme wide angle, the new lenses did their bit. No surprise, then, that Bill Brandt bought the Hasselblad Super Wide and made the best known of his nudes with this new lens, not the old Kodak.

That was why I bought mine. Not because of any of the technical stuff, which I wasn’t really aware of at the time, being callow and a know-it-all. I bought it because I wanted to be different. Extreme wide-angle at 90º meant stretched angles in the image, distortions (often hard to manage), sharpness throughout, and endless possibilities for juxtaposing foregrounds and backgrounds. Funnily enough, 60 years later the same camera is still being made, with very few changes. And Hasselblad will still service and repair any of their models, no matter how old. Mine dates to the early sixties, and they just gave it a full service. Admittedly at three times the price I paid for it, but that’s inflation for you.

MVI_2828@00-06-15_MFYosemite

The Super Wide has a holding method all of its own

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

10 Classic Books of Photography

 

There are several kinds of photographic books, including the ones I write. This list of 10, however, is of books primarily OF photographs. More than that, the idea in each is original, and was conceived for the first time. Nowadays there are lots of compilations, many of them fine and worthy, but they come along way after the event. Each book here was doing something different for the first time. And all of them were influential. I have some of them on my bookshelf, often bought at the time they were published. Unfortunately, not all, and with the first 1969 edition of Kamaitachi selling for over £5,000—when you can find a copy—that’s not likely ever to be on the shelf. Ah well. In date order:-

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Walker Evans and James Agee, 1941

Evans and Age spent several weeks in Alabama in 1936 with the sharecropping families that are the subject of this book about the Great Depression. A heartfelt combination of images and words, in an attempt to forge a new kind of visual-literary experience.

Untitled-1………………………………………………………………………………………..

The Americans, by Robert Frank, 1959

Of course, everyone knows this book, so it wasn’t a struggle to put it on the list. It changed American photojournalism, very few people liked it at first, and it also changed the way (some) Americans saw their country. There’s a new edition, edited by Frank, published by Steidl.

Untitled-2………………………………………………………………………………………..

David Bailey’s Box of Pin-ups, by David Bailey, 1964

You could argue that it is not really a book because it really is a clamshell box containing 36 loose sheets of half-tone images. All right, an unbound book, then. More to the point, Bailey and his portrait and fashion imagery personified London’s Swinging Sixties, from the Rolling Stones to the criminal Kray Brothers. Now more expensive even than first editions of Kamaitachi, though it originally sold for 3 guineas.

Untitled-3………………………………………………………………………………………..

Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe and Tatsumi Hijikata, 1969

Horribly expensive now, but a work of art in its own right. A limited edition of 1,000 copies published in 1969. A strange theme, set in a farming village in the north of Japan, where dancer Hijikata enacts performances in the landscape related to the legend of a weasel-like demon. Yes, not your ordinary Beautiful Yosemite book.

Untitled-4………………………………………………………………………………………..

Mirrors Messages Manifestations, by Minor White, 1969

The first monograph by the original spiritual photographer, friend of edward weston and Ansel Adams, who saw emotion and mystery in photographic abstraction. We’re in the land of Equivalence here, as defined by Alfred Stieglitz in 1925. As White wrote, “I had a feeling about something and here is my metaphor for that feeling.” Transcendental stuff.

Untitled-5………………………………………………………………………………………..

The Creation, by Ernst Haas, 1971

As Haas tells it, on his return from one long assignment, his assistant had assembled a selection of slides in the projector, and ran them to a soundtrack by Haydn, saying, “Do you realize what you have photographed? You have photographed the creation of the world.” Haas, never shy, went with the idea. Looking for a theme to take you beyond fire hydrants? Here you go.

Untitled-6………………………………………………………………………………………..

Worlds in a Small Room, by Irving Penn, 1974

Penn, better known for his still-life and fashion work, usually for Vogue, built for himself what he called an “ambulant studio” that he took around the world for portraiture, so committed was he to the “sweetness and constancy to light that falls into a studio from the north sky.” What, you’ve seen this done already? Avedon’s In the American West and countless others? Penn did it first, starting in 1948 in Peru.

Untitled-7………………………………………………………………………………………..

William Eggleston’s Guide, by William Eggleston, 1976

Either the man who made colour photography and casual choice of subject artistically acceptable, or master of the banal, Eggleston focused on a kind of Americana with a Southern edge. In any case, his work was highly influential, and a key weapon in MoMA’s John Sarkowski’s campaign to take over the world of photography in the 1970s. This is his seminal book.

Untitled-8………………………………………………………………………………………..

Cape Light, by Joel Meyerowitz, 1978

Meyerowitz began as a New York street photographer, then in the early 1970s switched to colour (the New Color, as it became known) and to an 8×10-inch view camera. Cape Light, in which he explored the nuances of Magic Hour around Cape Cod, became one of the best-selling photography books of all time (which explains why alone of the books on this list it remains inexpensive).

Untitled-9………………………………………………………………………………………..

Requiem, by Horst Faas and Tim Page, 1987

The premise is obvious once you think about it—images of the Vietnam war by the photographers who died in it, on both sides—but it continues to haunt. Very powerful, so well put together, so beautifully produced. The only multi-photographer compilation in my list.

Untitled-10

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Magic Bullet for Soft Focus?

A couple of years ago Adobe ran a video titled Photoshop Image Deblurring Sneak that got 1 million views. It was one of those seemingly magic software moments that you would hardly have thought possible. A blurred photograph restored to the way it should have been. Well worth looking at here:-

video

Well, it is possible, and while the work at Adobe is really impressive, the process is not at all new. It’s called deconvolution, and if you get it right (but there’s the issue, as we’ll see in a minute), you can bring back to life and meaning those occasional pictures that you messed up. In particular, it can restore motion blur, where the image got streaked because either you or the subject moved and the shutter speed wasn’t up to scratch. It can also help if you focused at the wrong distance (that Aaaargh! moment).

Dare I admit it, I’ve been using one piece of software for several years that can do both of these, and it’s called Focus Magic.  Looks on the surface like magic, but underneath it’s real math. But then all image processing is about the math. Actually, a fair bit of nonsense gets written about blur restoration, so I think it’s worth setting it straight, without going too deep into the math (not least because I’m very much no mathematician). To some people it seems that something external is going on and that because you can’t see the detail it’s been somehow lost and can’t be recovered. Others think that out of focus blur and motion blur are different creatures. No, they can both be deconvolved, and it really is restoration.

Here goes. You can think of these kinds of blur as two signals that have got mixed up. One signal is from the scene in front of the camera and ought to be sharp. The other signal is the one from the lens that spreads each point around. This spreading around is called convolution. It smears sharp points. One really good example is in astrophotography (which really benefits from this kind of software). Imagine a star field. The stars are points, and the small ones in a photograph take up one pixel. The blurring because of the bad focus spreads these points into little circles. What’s needed is a way of reversing the spread.

And you can. Because this convolution can be described in equations, it’s possible to reverse engineer the image by undoing it. This is deconvolution. Otherwise known as unstitching a messed-up image.

Limitations? You bet. To work well, deconvolution software really wants to know exactly, mathematically, how the image got blurred (ie convolved) in the first place, but in reality with your blurred photograph it has to work ‘blind’. You experiment with the blur radius and the amount, and fiddle around a lot. And with the currently available software, the maximum blur it can handle, whether soft focus or motion blur, is 20 pixels. So, what it can’t do is the central conceit in the Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman movie No Way Out, in which an extremely slow computer (well, it was 1987, after all) spends much of the film bringing Kevin Costner’s face from total blur to recognisable. Also, it needs a lot of computing power. And it tends to introduce artifacts like halos and noise, if you’re not careful.

NoWayOut

Oh, sorry, did I give the plot away? A bit ridiculous as a plot device. But when it comes to the difference in a photograph between a bit too soft and pin sharp, this is the way to go. Here are two examples.

In this shot of a young Nurbakshi Muslim girl in Ladakh, by a friend, Carolina Reid who was recently on assignment there, the focus was on the suspended drops of water, perfectly fine. But we wondered if it would help if the girls’ face, several inches behind, were a tad sharper. I think yes. The blur radius was 12 pixels.

20130625_IMG_comparisonbig

20130625_IMG_6833mfedit© Carolina Reid

Here’s a shot of mine, one of the out-takes, from a shoot in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s a squid boat, and I’m standing on another, so there was quite a bit of up and down. I was trying to keep the ISO down by seeing what the slowest shutter speed was that I could hand-hold. This was too slow, so there’s motion blur. Not only that, but I was using a fast manual lens (Zeiss 85mm ƒ1.4), and there was a bit of drift between the two boats. This shot was also slightly out of focus. I ran Focus Magic over it twice. Once for the soft focus, another time for the motion blur. I was impressed by the results.

Fishing boatThere’s actually a bit more to it than that, because quite often the soft-focus area is in just a part of the image, so Focus Magic and similar software work best (for me) selectively. And also often, what you may need is tightly localised. Get the eyes sharp in a photograph of a person, and perceptually viewers will accept any amount of softness everywhere else — intentional or otherwise.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment