Reflections …sometimes the devil is waiting behind the fence



I often wonder why so many of us are drawn to photography.

I never cease to be fascinated by the reasons, by the motivations, and by all the myriad-and-one reasons why we take up photography. Over the years when I ask people why they have do it, some have answered confidently, while others have dithered and become tongue-tied. There is no question in my mind that occasionally the reasons I asked those questions were as much for my own benefit, to explain it to myself, as it was to hear what you had to say. I apologise to all of you who thought I was genuinely interested in hearing your particular reason for being in photography, when what I really wanted to hear was an answer to my own question. Such are the ways of ego.

For all of that, I am increasingly fascinated by the reasons given me for being involved in photography. More and more I am intrigued by the answers given me, and what they have to tell me both about the personality and aspirations of the speaker, but also about the human paradigm. Yesterday, I sat and talked with somebody I know who has been in photography for quite some time. I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask. Why do you photograph? I asked. I know I have blogged on this question time and time again, but I make no apology. I am simply entranced by this question. People spend vast fortunes on this mysterious pastime called photography for reasons which are equally mysterious. Well, at least to me. Their wallets make sure that their retailer of choice can enjoy a better quality of wine with their meals. I’m sure that part of the joy of photography is acquisitive, but I am increasingly coming to the idea that it has to do with curiosity and a fascination with what is just beyond quotidian vision.

I know this because I do it myself. There are times when I believe I have finally found the One True Path, the whole reason for my being in photography. Like a certain Spanish knight, I keep looking for the ultimate windmill. Usually, after a short period of time, I get over that particular delusion. Then I photograph whatever comes to mind, whatever presents itself to me in the moment where I am. Having made the picture, I then proceed to try and understand it. There is no question in my mind that, since all my photographs are postcards I send myself (as indeed, they are to all of you), there is a message there. A message I wish to understand. A message I have written to myself. But sometimes you have to let go. Sometimes you have give way to the moment and allow it to tell you what it will. From time to time, I have a need to do this myself. And I have favourite method of doing so. It works like this.

Part of the joy of photography lies (for me at least) in simply being present to the moment. To do this, I usually reach for my Think Tank Speed Racer, drop in a spare lens or two, a card wallet, my mobile, and a little money. I then put on my favourite walking shoes, and start walking and looking. It doesn’t really matter what time of the day I do it, as long as the light is interesting. In New Zealand in winter any time of the day is fine, but in summer I prefer that it be either early or late in the day, since the shadows are more prominent and therefore the modelling in any potential scene is more beneficial. This is one of the joys of the photograph as document. Anything is possible, and anything can present itself to you. You just have to be sufficiently open to allow it to happen and to observe. So, not expecting anything (and this attitude is important!), I walk until something reveals itself to me. Sometimes I go armed with an attitude, a line of enquiry or indeed a wanting to insert another piece into the jigsaw of a particular body of work, but often I will just do it because I can. In moments like that, surprisingly things can happen.

My favourite modus operandi is to insert a relatively large memory card (so I don’t have to change it very often), ensure the batteries are fully charged, and clip on my 24-70 lens. Incidentally, from time to time I get asked what focal length, if I could only use one, I would have on my camera. Over the years, having got to know a whole variety of focal lengths, I have come to the conclusion that if I could only have one focal length, it would be 35 mm (on full frame). It is a little wide of normal (whatever normal is), but this is still close enough to it to avoid giving a sense of exaggerated perspective. Like all focal lengths however, it requires respect and it requires getting to know its idiosyncrasies. 35mm is one of those enigmatic focal lengths that enable all sorts of possibilities without getting its own ego in the way. Hence the reason it has been a perennial favourite of documentary photographers. These days, of course, high quality zoom lenses have got to the point where they can stand proudly in the company of prime lenses. To a point. So, armed with my lens of choice (the 24-70), I will wander the streets of whatever city I happen to be in, following the river of Life, and looking for the moments between, because it is in those moments that we can document ultimate truths.

I was walking yesterday with a friend, when we found ourselves wandering down an alley in central Christchurch. It was one of those places where you simply wandered in, looked and waited for something to present itself to you. We walked under the shadow of a building at least 100 years old, where the taggers had been having a field day. There was something surreal about the scene in front of me. As I looked at it, I felt as if I’d been catapulted into a scene from the Matrix or 12 Monkeys. There was something apocalyptic about the scene I was observing. I half expected to see the Terminator (aka. Arnold Schwarzenegger) gradually materialising into view. I wanted to leave. Hasta la vista, baby.Somehow the cryptic hieroglyphics upon the wall reminded me of some arcane verse from the Book of Revelations, or perhaps the glowing text upon the wall which revealed itself to Daniel. When I began to think in that way, suddenly I had moved from being a man standing in an old part of town, staring at something utterly incomprehensible. The soft shadowy light and the eerie glow of the spray can text seemed to allude to some form of parallel reality, and that realisation dictated my approach.

Photographing it wasn’t hard. I racked the ISO up to 400 to cope with the soft light in the alleyway, and to ensure I had sufficient depth of field. I made a series of exposures, some of which, while they obeyed the 1/focal length rule, I didn’t entirely trust, since these days I prefer at least 1/2x focal length for a large full-frame sensor. Eventually, I got there. I made perhaps 20 frames on this particular scene. Again, while it had in-body stabilisation, I wanted the sort of quality the Sony is capable of delivering, and I had a large print in mind. A1, perhaps.

Then it was a matter of downloading it. I used Lightroom, but ensured the sharpening was zeroed. Lightroom, while it has an improved sharpening engine in version 3, still it is not the sharpest knife in the block. I prefer to do the sharpening myself, using the power of Photoshop.

While it appears to have been heavily worked, the finished file is not in fact that far removed in terms of contrast and saturation from the original raw file (believe it or not). I have however worked another step into my workflow.

I’m a big fan of DxO Optics Pro. Its ability to correct the defects in a camera lens (and they all have them!) is quite extraordinary. It also offers some incredible tools for straightening and correcting perspectives and lens distortions of various kinds. Granted, it is not cheap, and it certainly requires significant computing horsepower. The results however have to be seen to be believed. I rate it up there alongside Capture One Pro as one of the raw processing engines of choice today.

I open the file directly in DxO Optics and apply the necessary corrections to it. I then export the file as a 16-bit TIFF and open it in Photoshop. The picture of the alleyway came into Photoshop with the perspectives more or less corrected. It was then a question of applying hue and saturation adjustments (I go into these in more detail in my masterclass workshops). I then worked through a series of localised and global sharpenings, including a two-pass sharpening routine I have acquired.

I then select the image (ctrl-A) and copy it onto its own layer (shift-ctrl -J). I use the edit stroke function to create a subtle border around the image, then return to the background layer and use the canvas size to increase the white border around the image. The final step is to flatten the image and send it to the printer.

The scene is in a part of town I’ve probably walked past thousands of times across the years. Yesterday, acting on a whim or a subconscious prompting, I found myself in front of this tableau. There is a sense for me of being connected to something surreal, to observing something I may not necessarily want to see. As sometimes happens with my pictures, I make the image and then discover something in my photograph which I had not consciously seen when making the exposure. If you look down the line of the fence, just past the gate, you will find, peering around its edge, part of a face against the bright magenta background. I didn’t see this consciously until I was wandering around the image, making micro adjustments to tone and contrast. But it had been there all along, watching me while I fluffed around in front of it.

Only today did the face (I have decided to call it Che) decide to make itself known.
As for the message…I am still working on that.

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