Can of Worms

I’ve only got myself to blame. After the last post which related to being dragged slowly and painfully into the digital age I went out and did a bit of street shooting, probably my favourite pastime. As I said previously I do use digital to shoot the magazine stories I work on, particularly if they need to be in colour.

For personal work I like to do things the old fashioned way which mainly involves wandering around the streets looking for slightly whimsical pictures.  I carry an old M6 with 35mm lens and a couple of spare rolls of film.

I wandered into town and roamed around a few favourite hunting grounds looking for likely suspects. I don’t like to call them victims. Thus I finished up outside the local markets where buskers put on shows. There are usually a lot of people around, a critical ingredient.

I’d had a reasonable day and jagged a couple of decent shots in between diving into cafes and warming up with a coffee. It’s cold down here at this time of the year.

Later in the day I processed the films and scanned this image, my favourite catch of the weekend.

Fremantle Markets 2012

© Roger Garwood 2012

Andrew, who I nickname Soobs, is a photographer colleague who lives on the other side of Australia these days. He read the last blog, regarding digital v film and another emailed exchange of opinions ensued. One thing about Soobs is that he does ask pertinent questions which, as much as I’d like to, are difficult to ignore.

I sent the picture to Soobs with some comments:

This is a straight scan from a TMax neg. I’m really pleased with the tones – a nice range with detail through to the deep shadows and highlights and it looks like film – and it is … and I can make a silver print if want to. So there! 

I had previously made some comments about the advantages of shooting film, thus opening a can worms:

Needless to say Soobs I had forgotten to mention what I feel is the most important aspect of film. 

In a nutshell the images actually exist. In a computer they don’t. They are a collection of 1s and 0s which are susceptible to the vagaries of technology, ranging from glitches in computers to the treadmill which traps us into continuing updates and upgrades.

By shooting neg on important material I’m doing two things. One is not losing some well earned skills which do need to be kept in tune. The other is the archival characteristics of film. I’ll add to that the ability to make silver prints as well as digital images. 

I think you’ll agree that a scanned neg doesn’t look bad on a screen either. In that regard I’d be the first to admit that times have changed and, to make a silly estimate, it’s clear that 90% of people will view 90% of pictures on a screen. 

I don’t share the notion that film is dead. All the stats show that film sales are increasing throughout the world, as are sales of film cameras. Leica make about 400 film cameras a month. I think that my final ‘camera to last a lifetime’ will be an MP but it can wait. Like the iPad I don’t actually need it, but I want it.The likes of Linhof, Sinar, and others, as well as custom manufacturers of large format gear, are experiencing increases in sales. All formats of film sales are increasing. Paper and chemistry is readily available so I believe the prophets of doom should get back in their cages. 

So, from where I sit, which is currently in front of an iPad, an M6, a steam radio and a plate of poached eggs on toast, I feel the sensible decision is to cover both bases.   

Of course I only say these things to stir him up a bit. It always works. Soobs fired back a series of  well considered comments:

1. People who use film nowadays are analogous to craftspeople who build their own houses from scratch; or – more relevant, perhaps – to those who breed goats, crop the wool, spin it to thread, then knit sweaters. It’s highly skilled, a labour of love, the product is superb – as per your film practices – but for the vast majority of people, it’s out of the question. It’s a niche skill within a set of niche skills. To say this is not in any way to be negatively critical of people who breed goats, or shoot and process film. They just choose to do it differently.

 2. The product you get is not necessarily any better than a more commercially produced one. (cf Simon’s printing)

 3. A negative can be lost, burnt, scratched, generally damaged. It has to be looked after very carefully. So do digital files. There’s no inherent archivability advantage to a neg – or a dig file. Depends on how they’re looked after.

 4. You can make archive quality silver prints from dig files. So once you silver print a dig file it’s ‘as if’ it came from film. Longevity  doesn’t of course apply to colour prints from either film or dig. 

I freely admit to being a dinosaur and haven’t had time to get back to Soobs on these issues, non of which I particularly disagree with. (For the record I do have a few chickens and have given serious consideration to getting goat to save me mowing the lawn). However, one underlying point I made is that I love the feel of a good camera. And for street shooting I enjoy something small and discrete. I’m convinced these big digital cameras, which look like Darth Vadar on steroids, really do upset people. I also like to get relatively close to a subject rather than ‘spying’ on them with a long lens. Working like that is a bit like shooting ducks on a pond – easy!

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Dragged, Kicking and Screaming, into The Digital Age

I first saw digital media photography in action about 14 years ago. I was covering the last of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races (It’s since become the Volvo Race).

I was contracted to the Toshiba Team and, for a change, being paid good money  to travel around the world, stay in decent hotels and do all of the things which give people who don’t do these things a warm fuzzy feeling. Some people have a funny notion of news work, they don’t understand how bloody hard it is.

A colleague who was contracted to one of the other syndicates was working with an early professional digital cameras. It was a mongrel spawned by Nikon and Kodak, had the memory of a gnat and had cost him about $25,000. He was also using a state of the art Mac laptop. These days they’d be about as useful as a garden gnome but in those days they represented state of the art technology.

I don’t think many of us working at that time realised we were on the threshold of a revolution which would have massive repercussions in the media.

I was working with a few Leica R bodies and lenses which weighed a tonne. I was also working with film, C41 colour neg. which I processed in hotels, in the bathroom basin with a two bath kit of powdered chemicals. I then scanned the negs on a Nikon Coolscan and was able to caption and send pictures from my computer. In the time it had taken me to do that my friend had download his camera’s memory cards, edited them, captioned them and hit the send button. In fact he had pretty well finished his work before I had unloaded the film from my cameras.

It was in the first few days of the race that I realised the potential of the new technology. My colleague, I’ll call him Bert  (that isn’t his name because I’m going to talk about his financials here).

In addition to the contract he had with his team he made deals with about 200 newspapers and magazines around the world, offering them a simple service from the race. He would photograph the end and beginning of each leg of the race (when they arrived and left each destination). He would also supply a story for each of 10 days during each stopover. The stopovers were generally for a couple of weeks and there were about ten of them. So, on each of those days he sent half a dozen pictures with captions and a short story. Now here’s the stroke of genius. He didn’t mind how the pictures or stories were used. They could be covers, spreads, postage stamp size, whatever. The customer had no rights to sell them on to others nor did Bert lose copyright.

I know a heap of photographers who, with some justification, bleat and moan about the small amounts we can be paid, particularly now. But Bert was offering a service and for what he offered he was asking US$40! I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t open the filing cabinet drawer for that amount. Now look at  200 x $40. When I went to school (I did go to school!) that was $8000. Now look at that for ten days – $80,000. Now look at ten stopovers. $800,000 for ten months work plus the syndicate’s contract. I was impressed.

And so, very slowly, I was dragged, kicking and screaming and probably biting, into the digital age. I don’t like the cameras much. I do like the convenience. I still use my old Leicas and film for what I deem serious work – which doesn’t make money. But digital is convenient, it’s fast to process and pump out material.

I have, for the best part of my career, worked as a freelance for some excellent magazines. I would be commissioned to work on a story, deliver the goods and, hey presto, get a cheque in return. I retained copyright and put pictures into stock libraries which gave a tidy turnover. I also received syndication fees from the magazines – generally 50% of ongoing sales.

It was a gravy train. These days there’s no train and no gravy to speak of. We all know times are tough.

I asked myself, in light of the rapidly changing market, what I felt I should do. The answer was simple. Carry on as you are – writing and illustrating stories. But instead of looking at the megabucks hit five or six times a year offer publications shorter stories with fewer pictures. Then sell them many times for small amounts. A few years ago it was possible to get good four to five figure payments from magazines. I decided to make a new business plan and spreadsheet based on average sales of $200. It showed that by doing about six stories a year and syndicating each of them methodically I could make a reasonable quid without actually stressing too much and with radically reduced overheads.

Is it working? Well, it is. The early signs are good. Sales are going up, not down and it’s a difficult market with magazines and newspapers closing and the competition increasing. Basing my business plan on $200 sales was a bit low as sales average above that.

Would this be possible without digital technology? Well yes but it wouldn’t be as simple.  While the big change has been in equipment the bigger shift has been the effect the web and electronic media are having on traditional markets.

Digital images make it possible to cut overheads dramatically. About 15 years ago it was necessary to supply magazines with either original transparencies or duplicates.  That meant high film overheads and high duplicating costs. Many magazines would expect to see anywhere from a hundred to well over a thousand images. That made it necessary to get high publication fees.

Now it is possible to fill neat little markets with  stories of a 800-1200 words and a selection of about 20-100 pictures. The production and freight costs of preparing and dispatching are, to all intents and purposes, zero.

What of the immediate future? Well, here’s a thought. Statistics from the USA show that the industry in the most rapid decline is print media. The industry showing the most rapid increase is electronic media. My conclusion is that the market is still there but it’s highly fragmented and, like shrapnel from a bomb blast, nobody knows exactly where it’s going land or who it’s going to hit. And we know there are plenty of casualties.

So Just What Does Make a Picture Great?

This is an area where photographers can be treading on thin ice. I was in a lengthy email conversation with a colleague. I’ll call him Andrew (because that’s his name).

Andrew and I happened to be discussing snaps. I made a case outlining the importance of the simple family snap and pointed out that whenever I’ve been to a news story which involved fire, flood or similar tragedy which had left property destroyed the response from the victims was nearly always along the lines:  ” … and we’ve lost all of the family snaps … ” I’m sure I’d have no trouble finding other photographers who have experienced similar reactions.

My attitude is that great pictures exist in the eye of the beholder. That invariably puts the humble snap at the top of the heap for many people. But snaps are also an important recorder of history and that happens to be an area where photography scores very highly indeed. It gives us a pictorial record of moments in time. Often those pictures are ultimately treated as works of art, are bought by institutions and traded among collectors.

I’ve been trawling through old negs recently, mainly snaps from my earlier days in photography, and scanning them. I was working on one particular image, taken around 1963 when I was strolling around the back blocks of Paddington. I’d come across this negative while the exchange between Andrew and I continued –

Rag and Bone Merchant, Paddington, London.  circa 1963      © Roger Garwood 2012

I was a carrying the Leica M2 loaded with Tri-X and fitted with a 50mm Summilux. I decided that I’d use this as an example of what I like in a picture. I like it, you don’t have to.

Here’s the slightly edited  extract of what I said:

” … re snap v great picture. It’s a discussion we could have interminably – and forever.

In many respects it doesn’t matter. I’m a great supporter of the snapshot and saying that reminds me of the number of people I’ve met [while covering news events]who have had their property burnt out and say: ” …  we lost all of the family pictures”. In most case it’s a sure bet they were snaps. But to them they were the best pictures in the world and I wouldn’t dream of arguing with them.

In that regard I have no argument with your pictures of the family. They are, and you said so, family snaps. And it is not the right of anybody to pass some sort of etherial, aesthetic, judgement on them. When it comes to pictures which are designed to be published … for general consumption I believe we need to look at some basics which give  pictures broader appeal.

So what are the basics? Well, in that respect, it’s every photographer for himself – that’s what defines style. It’s what makes Salgado, Strand, C-B etc stand out from the crowd.

Thank goodness we each have a set of rules as to what we like, what we define as good or bad, and it’s very hard to qualify what they are. I have a tendency to like media work which depicts day to day life. Some I don’t like. For example, try as I may, I find it difficult to appreciate the work of Robert Frank. Yet the work of, say, Eugene Smith, I deem as brilliant. I also acknowledge that I have tunnel vision as to what I feel is good. I’m  happy to be dismissive of the work of say, *** ***, which has never been great but is sold on the back of bullshit [by third rate curators, particularly in Western Australia]

What do I look for in a picture? Well, attractive lighting is important. Light can make or break an image. Secondly, and broadly speaking, composition which is easy on the eye, where the elements of a picture seem cohesive and the eye can be lead from part of a picture to another. (I can feel a blog moment coming on) Look at this shot and see what you feel makes it work (if you feel it works at all).

I think you’ll find your eye will move over various elements of the picture, taking in detail, reading a poster, the phone number, the man in the chair, looking at the rubbish in some detail but always looking the girl in the door. It’s the sort of ‘snap’ I like and the reason I took it was because of its complexity, its variety of interesting points. All in all it works and had I been ‘working it’ as part of a story I would have spoken to the bloke, taken a portrait of him, detailed shots of the rubbish, posed a shot of him and the girl together, posed a shot of him beside the rubbish and so on. Try and imagine the shot without the girl. Or of him leaning against the ladder with the rubbish around him. It would have worked. As it is I settled for the one frame candid snap.

I happen to like pictures with a lot of detail in them and also with a touch of whimsy. The whimsical touch in this is the girl. She’s totally out of context but without her you’d be looking into a black hole. As it is, small though she is, she is very much an essential element, possibly the strongest part of the image. And, referring back to the last post on serendipity, she’s a touch serendipitous.

Anyway, I’m rambling (hence the blog’s subtitle title).

The point I was trying to make is that if we are to be professional we can’t be indulgent and take pictures which please us alone. There’s enough esoteric stuff out there without imposing it on the whole world. 

Serendipity’s Role in Photography

Most photographers will tell you that serendipity plays a large part in their work. Those fortunate moments when the gods shine on us. When the elements of a good picture fall into place, we are in the right place, we have our wits about us, and we manage to capture the moment.

Most photographers with a bit of experience will also tell you that if you really work at it, practically day in and day out, you may be fortunate enough to get a world class picture every year or so. If that notion was good enough for Cartier-Bresson it should be good enough for most of us. I’m happy to accept the philosophy.

I think the two most difficult aspects of photography are landscape and street shooting. Photographers will appreciate they have absolutely no control over any of the elements which make the difference between a mediocre picture and one which brings the bacon home. Landscape photographers will revisit a location many times, note the light, the time of year, weather patterns. They may camp for a few days, knowing the weather is changeable and will ‘happen’ for them. Similarly street photographers like to be around people, watching the elements which may form a picture and be ready when it happens. I’ve been known to follow two or three nuns for hours (that’s not true – but a lot of minutes anyway) and still fail to get a decent shot. Street shooting and landscape photography are like going fishing. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. Either way it’s always good fun.

A few years ago (about 1972 to be precise) I was in Brighton, England, and happened to be looking at a wall who’s bricks had been carefully painted, alternately black and white. I took a couple of frames and turned to carry on walking when I saw this couple walking towards me. So I waited:

Brighton Promenade, England 1972

© Roger Garwood 2012

It was a one framer, no second chance, no control over the picture. Leica M2, 50mm Summilux, Tri-X. Exposure would have been about 1/250th @ f8.

I count this as the first conscious moment of being aware of the part serendipity plays its hand in the work of the street shooter.

Why Am I Doing This?

That’s a difficult question. It’s not because I’m bored. I’m not. I’m happily earning a precarious living preparing features for magazines.  That  involves a bit of  writing, a bit of photography and a bit of travelling. I also enjoying sitting around with colleagues  enjoying sunshine, fresh air and sharing notes about what’s making the world go round. Sometimes that involves navigating our way around a few wine bars.

I like this industry. It’s commonly called photojournalism. I was lured into the media because my mother taught me to read before I went to school, thus print media is a large part of my conditioning. I didn’t see television until I was about 16. That’s a slight exaggeration as I did watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a television and can remember being told what a privilege it was for me. Let’s not go there but in later years I did spend a considerable time as a sort of proto-paparazzi, chasing the very person I had watched on the TV as she was crowned.

I started work in Fleet Street as a stringer for the Daily Sketch and the Daily Mail and then went onto the London staff of Paris Match. Now I simply freelance, work on my own ideas and syndicate the resulting stories. Then I spend a bit of time with colleagues, navigating a few more wine bars.  Such is life and I have to admit that in terms of lifestyle things don’t get better.

But where next I ask?

It’s clear there are many changes happening in the media and I feel it’s essential to become accustomed to working within eMedia. There are many online magazines emerging; newspapers are collapsing and the new era of electronic media is expanding at roughly the same rate as the known universe. One of the eBenefits is that it’s possible to publish a blog without the  constraints placed by conventional media, and I want to be part of it.  A simple blog is a humble beginning. I feel blogging can be fun, I hope it will be anyway. I can be my own media boss and that is the real challenge. In their own sweet way every blogger can nibble away at media moguls’ empires, challenge their editorial control and offer those who do read blogs an alternative opinion to the mainstream manipulation of public opinion. And of course there is the added advantage that we can become mega bloggers, like the Huffington Post, sell out for squillions and spend the rest of our lives relaxing on large yachts.

So this is my first effort. Over time I’ll probably talk a bit about ideas, cameras and lenses, writing and travelling. I won’t give ideas away until I’ve finished working on them and sold subsequent material – I don’t want to give the competition too much of a head start and believe me this is a very competitive  industry.

I have spend time lecturing in both journalism and photography and I may voice some of my opinions about teaching practices. In that respect I’m  often at odds with mainstream thinking.

By and large my blog will be a random selection of past work and experiences. To kick start I’m posting a picture taken several years ago, several decades ago in fact. It’s utterly sexist but I like it. I’d be mad if I didn’t.

I slipped out of the office to buy a bottle of red before I went for a lunch with my erstwhile business partner, Trish Ainslie. The hotel over the road had a small bottle shop and as I waited at the counter I looked into the bar. This picture was taken after the then Premier of Western Australia, Charles Court (a real wowser) had banned strip shows in pubs. Fremantle is a port city and the pubs were patronised by wharfies, the dockworkers who enjoyed a bit of entertainment  with their beer. So in a true Australian spirit the very next day,  following the ban on strippers in pubs, we witnessed the advent of what became known as Skimpies. They were very welcome and the beer tasted pretty good to.

I am in the habit (or was, pre digital) of carrying an old Leica and 35mm lens around, loaded up with Tri X in those days. I could see no reason to ignore this picture. I didn’t realise at the time that it had started me on a distinct path, a change of direction, as to the type of stories I liked to work on. But more of that later.

Skimpy Barmaid, The Fremantle Hotel. circa 1987

The photograph was taken with a Leica M4-2 and 35mm Summilux lens. The exposure, on Tri-X, rated at 400asa was probably about 1/30 sec @ f2. I can’t remember what wine I bought but it would have cost about four bucks. Lunch would have been the Roma’s chicken, mushrooms and chips – that’s about all I ever had there. I have a cruel sense of humour, I give this picture to friends on significant birthdays, just to remind them how good life used to be before they hit a pensionable age.