Book review: ‘Yangtze – The long river’ by Nadav Kander

Front cover

I thought I’d kick off a new strand in my Web Journal: an occasional series of reviews of photography books that I have collected. To kick things off, a look at one of my favourites: ‘Yangtze – The long river’ by Nadav Kander.

Kander, an Israeli-born South African living in England, made several trips to China in 2006-2007, travelling the length of the World’s third longest river and documenting what he saw with his camera. This is landscape photography in its broadest sense, more documentary in intent and style, but the breathtaking quality of Kander’s work and the scope and vision of the project speak for themselves. Quality that was recognised with the award of the prestigious Prix Pictet in 2009.

Changxing Island II, Shanghai, 2006

On the face of it, it’s the story of a river from mouth to source but, more than this, it is a document of a unique moment in China‘s history. The country is undergoing rapid industrialisation on an unprecendented scale and most of the scenes Kander photographed will be unrecognisable in a few years – let alone a few decades. But it is the people who are affected by this time of change who are often the real subjects. Small in the frame and dominated by the manic orgy of construction happening all around, they nevertheless carry on with their lives. An al-fresco lunch in the shadow of a massive flyover, people bathing in the river, hanging out washing, just passing the time of day. It is these vignettes of daily life which give Kander’s photographs warmth and humanity.

Yibin V, Sichan Province, 2007

Yet this is no celebration of beauty. Vibrant colours, dramatic skies, strong perspective, all the elements so beloved of landscape photographers everywhere are wholly absent. Overcast conditions dominate and a yellow pallor gives many of the images an oppressive, humid, almost toxic atmosphere. Unfinished building projects occupy many pages: ghostly, empty, fading into the mist as if in a dream. There is a sense of a dystopia being born, dwarfing and suffocating the very people who are the supposed beneficiaries.

It is a book of stark images which don’t always make for easy viewing but it is the sensitivity and precision of Kander’s compositions that I find so compelling. There is beauty here, even in the face of encroaching urban ugliness, brought to the fore by a formal approach to composition. Kander emphasises the monumental and juxtaposes massive concrete structures with the mundane lives of a people trying to come to terms with change on an inhuman scale. And it is the people who provide the images with the occasional splash of vibrant colour – almost as if they refuse to be cowed by what is happening around them.

Shanghai I, 2006

The book is divided into four sections, each illustrating a different and distinct part of the river. ‘The Mouth’, ‘The Upstream’, ‘The Flooding’ (relating to the highly controversial ‘Three Gorges Dam’ project) and ‘The Upper Reaches’. The first two are concerned with scenes of ‘urban regeneration’ with the odd, and I mean ‘odd’, diversion into Las Vegas kitsch – in one image a steel ‘palm tree’ lies broken in a hotel swimming pool. In another, two new apartment buildings compete for height, their architecture distinctly western with only a slight and rather unconvincing nod to the traditional Chinese aesthetic.

Wu Gorge, Hubei Province, 2007

As we move upriver the images take on a more human scale but here there are only occasional photographs that could conventionally be called ‘beautiful’. These are to be found mostly in the section entitled ‘The Flooding’, where a sense of what has been lost pervades. A classical landscape of the river flowing through the Wu Gorge (the now sedate river at one time a rushing torrent) is ‘tainted’ by the presence of two barges, presumably carrying materials destined for the never-ending construction work. Even close to the source, where one might reasonably expect wild, rugged scenery, there is a sense of unease. A broken bridge crosses a river shot through with the blood-red of natural iron ore deposits (a rather-too-obvious metaphor for what’s happening to China itself?) A misty view of the plain near where the river rises is starkly beautiful in its barren simplicity – yet here, too, there is industry.

Qinghai Province II, 2007

Qinghai Province I, 2007

Quality-wise, the book is first rate and given the pedigree of its publisher, German fine-art house, Hantje-Cantz, I would expect nothing less. With very few exceptions, the images are presented on a single page with just a simple caption facing – a commendable layout which gives each image plenty of room to breathe. Only the most basic of location information is supplied in the captions as it is Kander’s stated intention that the photographs speak for themselves, which they do with magnificent eloquence.

A nice touch, often absent from books of ‘art’ photography, is a section at the end devoted to further information about each image, including anecdotes from the photographer. An introduction by Kofi Anaan, who presented Kander with the Pictet prize, and a foreword by noted economist, Jean-Paul Tchang, round out this impressive and thought-provoking volume. Without a doubt, it is a book which deserves a place on the shelf of every serious photographer.

Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006

Posted in Book reviews | Leave a comment

Three versions…

Le Gour Bleu, Cascades de l'Hérisson, French Jura

Take a look at the three images in the composite above. Same picture; three different treatments, each separated by about a year. The photograph dates from my first visit to the French Jura in February 2008 and my first attempt to process the original colour negative is the one on the left. Back then, I was concerned with getting punchy colours, minimising the detrimental effect of the burnt-out woodland and removing one or two distracting elements. I was quite happy with this version for a long while, and it picked up favourable comments on image-sharing websites but, as time went on, my tastes changed and my experience of scanning colour negative film grew. It was time to take another look.

In the second version, I didn’t work too hard on toning down the burn-out bits or removing distractions like the protruding branch in front of the flattish boulder, reasoning that they weren’t particularly large parts of the composition in the first place. I consciously took a different line with my choice of colour pallette, going for a darker, moodier ‘feel’.

For my latest reworking (on the right), I have gone for a much more muted look. The sombre tones of version 2 gave the impression that the image was made in the dimmer light of evening, rather than at midday in a shady nook, so I brought the brightness up and the saturation right down. Am I happy with it? Well, not entirely but it will do for now.

And the point? Well, there are a couple of points, really. The first is don’t be satisfied with your first version. Come back weeks, months, even years later and have another go starting with a clean slate. In the meantime, your skills will have improved, your tastes will have changed and you will, most likely, have an increased awareness of any previously overlooked imperfections in your work.

And the second is that, if you choose to keep all versions of an image, you have a record of your evolving style – or at the very least something you can look back on to check your progress.

The (current) final version...

Posted in Aesthetics, Film, Philosophy, Trips | 4 Comments

“Summertime and the livin’ is easy”

Summer in the Gorges du Doubs

That’s how the famous tune from George Gershwin’s opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’, would have it and how true this is – unless you’re a landscape photographer!

Summertime really does us no favours at all. The sun rises inconveniently early and sets late and in between the light can be harsh and all but useless. Shadows are shortened, skies are often completely blue with perhaps the occasional wispy cirrus cloud – when they’re not grey and drizzly, that is! Trees are a uniform deep shade of chlorophyll-rich green and even the patches of colour offered by spring blooms are mostly gone, save for a few late-flowering plants. Green and blue are the dominant colours with little variation. Small wonder, then, that photographers flock to the coast in the summer. Not to build sandcastles or to baste themselves under the sun but to record rocky outcrops and deserted beaches early in the morning. But the great North European summer is rarely the warm, lazy idyll that nostalgia demands and those hardy souls who get up at 4am for the dawn are often rewarded with grey cloud and rain.

Of course, summer is the time of year when thunderstorms are most prevalent and there are great image-making opportunities to be had if you happen to be in the right place at the right time but, in general, this really isn’t the landscape photographer’s favourite season. The reason isn’t that hard to understand: summer is a static season with little going on in nature. The transition from the bleakness of winter to the excitement of new life and new growth in spring has passed and the natural world is waiting for the next time of transition: autumn. And it’s transitions that landscape photography is all about: the transition between night and day, the transition from the bleakness of winter to the promise of spring or the transformation that autumn brings when the trees start to lose their leaves. Photographers often find themselves at the point where water meets land; where order meets chaos and where the natural world meets that of mankind. Transitions are our stock-in-trade.

It’s often said that landscape photography doesn’t really have an obvious subject and that all those who seek to depict the landscape must find their own meaning in the multiplicity of forms and textures that surround us. This is why transitions are so important. Transitions define the contrasts which lie at the heart of the best landscape compositions and it’s no wonder that the one season which offers the least contrast, summer, is the one most shunned by photographers. In the main, landscapes are at their best when they are going through a transformation.

Perhaps there is an element of metaphor here? Almost for as long as humanity has been on this planet – at least as long as we could communicate and hold to belief-systems – spring has been associated with renewal, rebirth, awakening whilst autumn is the poetic opposite. Autumn is the time when the harvest of summer is gathered in, a time when we prepare ourselves (or used to) for the rigours of winter. For the photographer, the colours of autumn foliage are irresistible with each tree in a different stage of transition. Winter brings its own interest: there’s no need to dwell on the transformation a covering of snow brings to the landscape. But summer is, well, rather boring.

No, all things considered, in summer “the livin’ is easy” just so long as you’re not out and about with a camera….

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy | 1 Comment

What lens for landscape photography?

Les Planches Près d'Arbois - moderate wide focal length (35mm)

A question I often see asked in web-forums is ‘what lens do I need for landscape photography?’ and the advice that is usually offered is to use the widest lens you can so that you can ‘get it all in’. I find this advice somewhat strange. To truly ‘get it all in’ would require a camera, lens and tripod setup capable of recording one of those ‘virtual reality’ panoramas which allow nearly unlimited panning via specialised software. These produce images that are fun to play with and can be genuinely useful but as interesting standalone photographs they are somewhat lacking. This is taking things to extremes, of course, but is it so much different from using a lens that offers a near 180° viewing angle? When you do ‘get it all in’ what happens is that you lose any sense of the photographer’s personal viewpoint. The image becomes generic; a scene that could have been taken by almost anybody who happened to show up at that place and time with a wide enough lens.

When giving any sort of advice, it usually helps to try to understand the problem. And here another question reveals itself: ‘what is landscape photography, exactly?’. With portrait work, the subject is clear – and so is the lens choice. A short telephoto gives a flattering perspective as well as a comfortable camera-to-subject distance. Similarly, for wildlife work or sport a long tele is absolutely essential since it’s seldom possible to get as close as you would like to your subject. In fact, most genres dictate the lens choice simply because of considerations of subject matter. But when your subject is the landscape things are not quite so clear-cut. The subject matter quite literally surrounds us. It starts at our feet and continues, unbroken, to the far horizon.

The only lens that can easily cover this vast range is, of course, a superwide so this must obviously be the lens to use. But is it really? Superwides are actually quite difficult to work with and tend to limit compositional options. They take in such a large field of view that filling the frame in an interesting way is quite a challenge, which is why near/far – the oft-derided ‘rock-in-the-corner’ – compositions  are so often employed. But if this is the only lens you use then all your pictures will end up looking very similar. Having a ‘one size fits all’ approach to composition is a very quick way to lose the interest of your audience.

Château-Chalon - medium telephoto (100mm equivalent)

So what focal length should you use for landscape photography? Actually, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is to consider what compositional options a given lens offers, since compositional variety is the key to interesting images. So, my advice is to avoid extremes at either end of the scale and go for a range of options from medium wide to medium tele. For example, when I shoot with my full-frame DSLR my most used lens is a 24-70 zoom and for large format work (where movements allow greater compositional flexibility) I tend to select 120mm, 150mm or 210mm (approximate 35mm equivalents: 35mm, 50mm and 70mm) more often than other focal lengths.

In conclusion, think ‘happy medium’ and leave superwides for those rare occasions when you actually need that extra field of view. This way you will give yourself the greatest flexibility when it comes to framing up interesting parts of the greater landscape.

Posted in Digital, Equipment, Film, Inspiration | Leave a comment

‘Improvisational photography’ in practice

Last Resting Place - © Julian Barkway, 2008

Last time I wrote a bit about ‘improvisational photography’ without ever really saying why this is different from simply wandering around and photographing whatever takes your fancy. In essence, it’s not very different at all. It is, however, much more directed and controlled. It’s not about shooting anything and everything; it is about looking at and understanding the lighting conditions, understanding yourself and your response to the landscape, setting some goals and then choosing your subjects accordingly.

Take the image that heads this piece, for example. It was made whilst at the small coastal community of Achnahaird in Wester Ross, Scotland during a Light&Land  workshop, led by Joe Cornish and David Ward, and I was very much aware of, and a little in awe of, the great images both leaders had produced from this exact same location. So no pressure, then! Overcast conditions do not make for great scenics so my first thought was to head for the beach, looking for patterns in the sand or run-off channels. I used my digital compact to ‘jot down’ some ideas but there was nothing to persuade me that the effort of unpacking the large-format gear would be rewarded so I wandered over to the nearby salt marsh and quickly found the small pool that forms the subject of this customarily enigmatic and beautiful image from David Ward:

Achnahaird Salt Flats - © David Ward, 2007

There was no point in repeating David’s composition and, in any case, the conditions weren’t right so I settled instead for an average monochrome abstract of the same pool. OK, but not really what I was after. And then I saw the dead sheep. Other members of the group were shying away from it but I found it fascinating. Why? Because it told a story. Not only that, the carcass neatly illustrated the harshness of the environment and how tough you need to be in order to thrive here.

But how to approach it photographically? I could go in close and concentrate on the head with its empty eye-sockets but that seemed unnecessarily voyeuristic to me. Or I could make the sheep the exclusive subject. Well, yes, but a bland documentary shot would miss so much of the bigger picture. Finally, I could place the carcass in context, tell a story and thereby give the image more than one layer of meaning – clearly the best option. Knowing what I wanted the image to be about before I even unpacked the camera meant I could then concentrate on assembling the required elements in an aesthetic manner. I walked all around the dead animal considering how the sky was looking in each direction and how the features of the wider landscape would play against the main subject. Obviously, providing a sense of location would help set the scene and the unmistakeable outline of Stac Polaidh (extreme left) could therefore not be omitted and this more-or-less determined where I should place the tripod. Then I needed to decide whether to shoot from eye-level, looking down or to use a lower viewpoint – another easy decision since I wanted to clearly place the carcass in context; so eye-level it was.

With the camera set up, I was then able to concern myself with placing the horizon. The all-over cloud cover was starting to break up and I felt the sky had enough interest to justify taking up a reasonable proportion of the frame so I fitted a moderate wide-angle lens and proceeded to fine-tune the composition. The subject needed to be placed on the centre-line in the lower third, I felt – a very strong position in a vertical image – and, fortunately, everything else seemed to naturally fall into place. Aside from technical considerations of metering and filtration (2-stop grad over the sky; exposure read from carcass + 1.5 stops) the only remaining question, since I was using film, was colour or monochrome? Again, something of a no-brainer. It was clear that the visceral colour of the flesh where it had been gnawed by carrion-eaters was an important part of the story so, after waiting a short while for the clouds to align themselves in an attractive way, I confidently exposed two sheets of Velvia.

This is what the improvisational approach is all about for me: understanding what it is you are trying to say and then being in a state of mind where you can take advantage of whatever subjects and conditions are offered to you. It’s about letting your surroundings, as well as the prevailing weather-conditions, be your inspiration – not blindly shooting away with no real purpose. Finally, it’s about making a scene your own. It’s to this end that I included David Ward’s image. Not because I think my lowly effort can bear comparison but because it’s a great illustration of the advantages of this approach to photography. David’s image uses different weather and a different time of day to present a view of much the same area that is entirely dissimilar to mine. More abstract, mysterious and open-ended whereas I was concerned with presenting a narrative. Two very personal takes on the same place, if you like.

The other reason I included David’s image is that his work and teaching forms much of the basis for my own exploration of photography. He and Joe Cornish are not only great advocates of the improvisational approach but also great teachers and I would recommend their courses and workshops to any serious photographer.

Posted in Inspiration, Locations, Trips, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Improvisational landscape photography

This image wasn't planned. I saw the light in the trees, set up my 5x4 camera, and realised the potential for a composition.

Some landscape photographers like to arrive at a location with a very firm idea of the image they want to make. They will have checked the weather forecast, the sun position and will have previously reconnoitred to find a precise viewpoint. If their calculations work out, they will probably go home with an amazing shot – or, at the very least, the one they set out to take.

This can work really well – for some photographers – but whenever I’ve tried this approach, more often than not, a particularly recalcitrant cloudbank has conspired against me by obscuring the sun at the crucial moment. Or it’s raining. Or a farmer is busily muck-spreading somewhere in my field of vision. Or worse. I get to my chosen viewpoint well before dawn and it’s already overrun by a gaggle of photographers with precisely the same idea as me. Perhaps it’s because I’m fundamentally antisocial, but I feel it’s important that it’s just me and the landscape having a one-to-one dialogue. It’s better, I find, than having an angry argument with essentially inanimate landscape features then storming off in frustration whilst uttering choice profanities. That just looks silly. So, rather than come away without an image, these days I improvise.

A fleeting and ephemeral subject - a bit like improvisation itself.

Now, in some circles, improvisation has got itself a bit of a bad name – think self-indulgent guitar solos or ‘free’ jazz – so let’s talk about improvised comedy, not music. I’ve always admired comedians who can instantaneously produce arcs of sheer comedic genius based on the simplest of audience suggestions. What is their secret? Practice and preparation, of course. And rehearsal. If you want to appear spontaneous, you really have to work at it. The point is, in order to be confident at working ‘off the cuff’, you need to have a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of what you do. So musicians endlessly practise scales and chord progressions and comedians build up a repertoire of humorous ‘riffs’ on a variety of topics, honing their delivery and timing. Essentially, you have to learn the building blocks and how they fit together so completely that in performance you can take those blocks and combine them in surprising ways to build absolutely anything you want. But what, exactly, does all this have to do with landscape photography? Well, quite a lot as it happens…

‘Performance’ in this context, with due deference to Ansel Adams’ oft-quoted maxim that the print is the performance, is when you are out in the field utilising your skills. Practice is taken up with acquiring compositional solutions to a variety of conditions and understanding what types of subject respond well to which types of illumination. Armed with this knowledge, you can then go to a location and…. relax. There’s no need to stress about getting to a precise viewpoint by a predetermined time. No need to swear at the weather gods for not responding to the goat you so generously sacrificed the night before. No need to worry that the 42mm thingummy so essential to this one image currently lies, inexplicably, at the bottom of your sock-drawer and not in its accustomed place in your camera bag. No. Just relax and take in your surroundings. Walk a little. Observe the weather and cloud-patterns. Think about the multitude of possible subjects surrounding you. What’s looking particularly tempting today? Are the conditions right for a vista or perhaps intimate compositions might work better? That’s a beautifully-shaped tree over there! Oh, and look at that rock! Such amazing patterns. And that little stream. I wonder if there’s anything interesting there? One discovery leads to another. Not all result in worthwhile photographs, of course, but quite a few will.

Look for forms and connections...

I’ve heard some photographers refer to this as ‘working’ an area. I dislike this term. It makes something that is so absorbing and fun sound laborious. It’s not work! It’s about getting ‘tuned in’ to your environment so that you not only start seeing shape, form and texture instead of trees and rocks and rivers but also the relationships and connections between things. Once you start to think in terms of the abstractions of form and connections it becomes easier to build compelling and surprising compositions. First, though, you need that spark of curiosity that an improvisational approach promotes. You need that feeling of not knowing what you might find because, let’s face it, if you’re surprised by something unexpected then your audience probably will be, too.

Next time: a couple of practical examples.

Posted in Inspiration | 2 Comments

Light, subject or composition?

Shot at mid-morning on a blue-sky day in winter.

In the latest issue of the excellent online magazine, ‘Landscape GB’, Tim Parkin does a thorough job of analysing what goes into making a good photograph. Light, subject and composition are the fundamental elements under discussion and, of these, much weight has, traditionally, been placed on the importance of light, yet comparatively little on composition. We are constantly being told by the photographic literature to go out at twilight or in the golden hours just after sunrise and immediately before sunset yet religiously following this advice would have us putting our cameras away for the remainder of the daylight hours (up to 12 in mid-summer)! Why? Why ignore so much time that could be used for photography simply because the light during the rest of the day is considered by some to be sub-optimal?

The advice is given in good faith, of course, and I’m not here to argue against the notion that twilight and golden-hour light can make for some fantastic images. But you have to ask why magazines aren’t telling us to go out and make images whatever the weather or time of day? Surely they are there to foster an enthusiasm for photography (and thereby sell more advertising space)? Well, yes. But they also want to offer useful advice that has an immediate payback (so you’ll keep coming back for more) and they want to offer advice which can be summed up in a pithy way when space for editorial content is at a premium. Hence endless features on Photoshop, filters, how to shoot seascapes in golden light, etc., etc.

Early evening on a blue-sky day in August

What is a lot harder to do is to provide practical advice on making strong images whatever the weather. It’s harder because if you take obviously spectacular lighting out of the equation, what are you left with? Quite simply, subject and composition. Arguably, a strong enough subject can be photographed well in most conditions (recognition of that subject will usually be enough to carry the image) but what if we want to make images of the other 99.99999% of the broader landscape that doesn’t consist of immediately recognisable features? Well, that’s where composition comes in. What the magazines don’t say, because they haven’t got the space or because it’s not an easy solution, is that good composition trumps considerations of light and subject. You only need to spend some time with the images of the masters to reach this conclusion. As Tim concludes in his article, it’s the only thing the photographer can bring to the equation: the light is already there, so is the landscape. Composition is what turns a mere record of a scene into a personal statement.

So what is good composition? Well, you can forget leading-lines, rule-of-thirds, don’t-place-the-subject-in-the-centre, etc. Or at least, don’t forget them entirely as they are all useful tools for building a successful composition but, like a great chef creating a symphony of flavours from the simplest of ingredients, they should be used with care and, ideally, in combination with other compositional tools. Composition is not just about the static placement of objects in a frame, either. It’s about the dynamic flow of an image; it’s about energy; it’s about narrative; it’s about evoking an emotion. Above all, it’s about communication. Communication? What’s composition trying to communicate? Surely it’s the subject that communicates? Well, yes, but not entirely. Composition is the framework which underpins the subject – subtly informing the viewer as to what is important and what can be glossed over. It takes the viewer by the hand and leads him through the part of landscape the photographer has chosen to place a frame around, pointing out objects of interest along the way. It says, “look at this! Isn’t it important/beautiful/ugly/intriguing/strange?”

Ultimately, there’s no such thing as bad light. Just light that’s inappropriate for your chosen subject. And I’ll be going into that next time, when I talk about an ‘improvisational’ approach to landscape photography.

Posted in Aesthetics | 2 Comments

Taking inspiration from others – follow-up

I was just browsing the fascinating podcasts over at LensWork when I found Brooks Jensen’s typically insightful take on this topic.

It’s really worth a listen!


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Taking inspiration from others

Reflected Branches (inspiration: Fay Godwin, Jan Töve)

I’ve often heard people say that they try and avoid looking at the work of their fellow photographers because they would prefer that their own work be unsullied by the influences of others. This, they say, is the only way they can create work that is truly original.

However, I find this a rather strange position to take. Firstly, it is impossible, these days, to avoid photographic images; they are everywhere! And secondly, I don’t think it is a particularly useful route to follow. Unless you happen to be a photographic genius (and, let’s face it, there are precious few of those around), creating something that is completely original in every way is a tough call. Even if you are lucky enough to have that original idea, what do you do when people start to take their inspiration from you and try to emulate and build on your original concept? If you are working in true isolation, and ignoring what the world around you is doing, you will not be aware of your many imitators so, unless you can come up with more original notions, you’ll simply continue working away at refining your original concept – despite the fact that your work will no longer be perceived as ‘fresh’ and may even (if you are truly unlucky) be seen as a poor pastiche of your later imitators.

So, in a world where everything that can be done probably already has been done, how do you produce work that has that spark of originality? Over in the art world, most artists do what artists have always done. Rather than seek to be iconoclasts, building something radically new from the ‘ruins’ of the work of previous generations, most artists seek to synthesize an original style by drawing ideas from the work of others. In this way, art evolves organically. Yes, occasionally a group of artists will take inspiration from a source outside of their art and, by so doing, forge a totally new path (expressionism grew from the work of psychologists such as Freud and Jung; abstract art was a reaction against the ‘easy’ realism of photography). But inspiration has to come from somewhere. You can’t always rely on some ‘inner voice’ to tell you where to take your art. Essentially, no art exists in a vacuum.

Stephen Shore: banal 'snapshot' style?

It’s with this in mind that I actively seek out sources of inspiration and not just from photographers whose work I find immediately appealing. Having a strong negative reaction towards someone’s  work can also be a fruitful avenue to explore, providing we understand exactly why such work leaves us cold. And by understanding what we don’t like, we can better understand what it is we do like, thereby giving us better insight into the development of our individual styles. Often, I find that with close study, images which initially left me distinctly unimpressed slowly become personal favourites – one example being the work of American photographer, Stephen Shore, whose seemingly banal ‘snapshot’ style hides a meticulous approach to composition and a sharp eye for detail. In fact, I found the whole ‘art photography’ aesthetic of washed-out colours,  grey featureless skies and a seemingly undisciplined approach to composition somewhat bewildering until I sat down with some examples and tried to understand what was going on. Fundamentally, the problem lay with my expectations of what constitutes ‘landscape photography’. My initial introduction to landscape images was via the style we constantly see in photography magazines – strong colour, composition-led, heightened drama, etc., etc. – and this conditioned me to think that this was the only serious approach to the landscape as a subject. Anything else was obviously inferior.

Ice and Branch (inspiration: Shinzo Maeda, Jan Töve)

I find it sad, therefore, that so many photographers who make images of the landscape appear to seek inspiration from limited sources or do not actively seek out inspiration at all. My own approach, is to be interested in the full gamut of photography and if I see a style that I do not immediately warm to, I make every attempt to understand why that particular style might be deemed by others to be of merit. Obviously, not every photographer’s style finds its way into my own image-making – if that were the case my own pictures would look like dreadful pastiches (I hope they don’t!) – but I like to think that the work of others has inspired me to go down paths I might not otherwise have even considered exploring.

For those people who wish to develop a personal style (and not all do, for a variety of perfectly valid reasons), my advice would be to cast your net as widely as possible when looking for inspiration – and don’t just look to the work of other photographers or even artists. Be proud of your influences! If an image has been directly inspired by someone else’s work, why not pay them the compliment of crediting them as being your source of inspiration? There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the giants on whose shoulders we all stand.

Posted in Aesthetics | Leave a comment

Why I keep going back to the Gorges du Doubs…

Between Maison Monsieur and Le Châtelot... (April, 2011)

Anyone who has checked out my images (either on Flickr, my website or anywhere else I share my photographs) will have noticed that I’m not what you might call a ‘location bagger’. By which I mean I tend not to photograph well-known locations just for the sake of having a photograph from that place in my portfolio. And I certainly don’t believe in flitting from point to point, snapping superficial impressions as I go. On the contrary. My philosophy of landscape photography is to get to know a comparatively small number of locations really well over time. I believe that it’s only by constantly challenging ourselves to wring new compositions out of a places we already know well that we can start to make images which do more than merely scratch the surface.

Further investigation of my pictures would reveal that one location appears to get more attention than any other. So what is it with the Gorges du Doubs? Well, I first discovered this beautiful place back in 2006 whilst looking for interesting routes when exploring western Switzerland. My interest in photography had moved up a gear with the purchase of a secondhand Mamiya 645 a couple of years previously but had yet to reach the status of ‘obsession’ so I wasn’t really looking for photography locations, as such. Anyway, it was a sunny day in February. Snow was on the ground. Before crossing the border into France, I stopped at the hamlet of Biaufond – one of the most accessible parts of the gorge – for a coffee and to make this image:

The border crossing at Biaufond. February, 2006...

Not bad aesthetically but technically flawed (That lens flare! Ugh. What was I thinking?), it was, however, good enough to pique my photographic interest in the gorge.

...and the same, three years later.

By comparison with similar landscapes in the UK, the gorge is huge. Up to 500m in depth, it cuts roughly 50km through the Jura Plateau  from Villers-le-Lac in the south to Goumois in the north. As it’s such an easily defended natural barrier, it will come as no surprise that the river Doubs marks the Franco-Swiss border for the gorge’s full length. These fast-flowing waters have also, in the past, powered various types of industry: the remains of forges, glass-blowing workshops and mills can be seen from Le Châtelot all the way downstream to Goumois and beyond. And the locals were not above a certain amount of illicit cross-border co-operation, either – as you might imagine, smuggling was rife here. Nowadays, however, the only industry to be seen is related to the three hydro-electric stations serving the dams at Le Châtelot, Biaufond and La Goule. Tourism plays a part, of course, although specific infrastructure is limited to the area surrounding the Saut du Doubs waterfall. In other parts of the gorge, there is a scattering of restaurants and a couple of fairly basic hotels catering to hikers. Not surprisingly, all the restaurants I have visited serve the freshest and most delicious trout you can find anywhere, cooked simply and served whole.

La Goule, October, 2009

So, apart from the tasty trout on offer, what keeps me coming back? In a word, nature. Much of the gorge is a protected wildlife preserve and, outside of the previously mentioned restaurants and a handful of tiny communities, is managed with the lightest of touches. Trees are left to rot where they fall, the victims of frequent landslips or from having their root-systems undermined by the high levels of rainfall. Moss coats the branches of older trees and there is a great sense of the fecundity of nature in this damp environment.

Above all, it is the feeling of being apart from the modern world that attracts me. You don’t have to walk very far along the river before the only sounds you hear are birdsong, rushing water and the wind in the trees. The air is full of the moist, earthy scent of fertile nature. Despite never being very far from civilisation as the crow flies, you hear no motor traffic and soon forget the hectic pace of life we all endure these days. Being deep within the gorge is an almost womb-like experience, with the steeply wooded sides acting to absorb most exterior sound and the limited number of access points for hikers practically guarantees that, if you walk far enough, you can be completely alone. There are not many places I have been which offer such an experience and it doesn’t take long before my mind is free of day-to-day worries and I can concentrate on absorbing the sights, smells and sounds of this wonderful place.

Near Le Châtelot (October, 2010)

So much for the poetic side. On a more practical level, the gorge offers a variety of environments. Downstream of each of the three dams, the river runs over a boulder-strewn course; its waters white and swirling before being tamed once again by another wide reservoir. At times a rushing torrent, sedately flowing or glassy-smooth, the river changes character depending on where you happen to be. In places, limestone cliffs drop vertically into the water, constricting its passage and escarpments rise like battlements from the densely wooded lower slopes.

There is much to photograph here in all seasons but most spectacularly in Autumn when the predominantly beech woodland turns a deep shade of copper and other trees explode in a riot of colour. This is my favourite time of year in the gorge. But beware. The Doubs is one of the best trout streams in Western Europe and the needs of anglers come first (well, they do pay a fair bit for the right to practise their pastime here) so, from October until February, certain sections of the river are festooned with hundreds of metres of blue twine. Tied to trees on either side and stretched across the full width of the river, it is there to prevent predation of immature fish by cormorants. Sadly, what is a necessity to attract fishermen (and therefore much-needed cash) also renders photography next to impossible – a cause of much frustration! Fortunately, large sections of the river do not require these drastic measures so one shouldn’t complain too loudly…

That, then, is the Gorges du Doubs. Not the most well-known of locations – quiet, tranquil, out-of-the-way, in fact something of a well-kept secret. Actually, I’ll let you into another secret. It’s a horrible place. No, really. Wet, miserable and hard to get to. You would hate it! Yes, best stay well away…. ;0)

So that you can more easily avoid the place, this is where you shouldn’t go:

Posted in Locations, Trips | 2 Comments