Thursday, August 30, 2012

A reply to Tim Parkin's response.

Below is my response to Tim Parkin's comments made on my blog post Why I won't mourn the demise of Velvia: a counterblast. For those of you who aren't aware, I count Tim as a good friend, we have known each other for many, many years both online and in person. And we have frequently argued long into the night, but we do share an abiding passion for landscape and actually agree on far more than we disagree. As if I now need to point this out, this was not a personal attack on Tim, but an opportunity to give landscape photography an occasional and much needed proverbial kick up the arse. 

Tim: Blastproofing
Rob Hudson has recently posted a ‘counterblast’ to the demise of large format velvia film. In the post he declares that the death of Velvia is actually a boon to landscape photography. And whilst I respect his write not to mourn such a niche product, I thought I’d write a short rebuttal covering a few statements from the article.
“what it looks like should probably be driven by what you are trying to say, rather than because you happen to like strong colours or prefer a particular palette”
Hmm, agree… but this predicates on a dichotomy between saturation/colour and communication/art – surprisingly I think you can have one and other at the same time.
Rob: Of course you can, and no doubt should, I have done so myself. It is a pity that so few seem to realise its even a possibility. 
“Until very recently the chosen format for virtually all colour landscape photographers of any degree of seriousness has been a large format camera very probably loaded with Velvia.”
Tim:  from Stephen Shore, Charlie Waite, Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe, Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter, Jim Brandenburg, Philip Hyde, Paul Wakefield, Neil Armstrong, Christopher Burkett, Shinzo Maeda, Edward Burtynsky etc
Rob: Well I was commenting predominantly on British landscape photography which should remove a fair few of those, but whatever, I'm pretty sure that was Velvia in Charlie's Hasselblad. It does rather make me question if the UK isn't a bit backward in these things? 
“This hegemony has in turn bred an orthodoxy of approach.”
Tim: Hegemony is strong word – implying the threat of of some sort and the imposition of a universal world view. Large format may be my particular pleasure but considering I could only find a hundred or so large format landscape photographers online compared with, lets say a few more digital or MF/35mm film users, it’s difficult to say it has been enforced in any way.
Of course in every genre of photography and in every type of equipment or medium there will be good and bad. From wet plate to iphone there are creative genii and derivative idiots. And in large format landscape photography there is sometimes a difficulty getting past the representational and to experiment. However that is why all the large format photographers I know use big and small cameras, film and digital to ‘experiment’ with.
Rob: Of course if you'd read down a little further you will have noticed that I said "I'm not saying this as some sort of paranoid, conspiracy theory, I'm sure nobody set out to create such an environment, but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself?" See another reply below for what I mean by "structural investment" . 
“For the majority (but thankfully not exclusively) of these leaders in our community the illustrative is still their primary aim.”
Tim:  – being representational doesn’t correlate with being merely illustrative. Romantic does not mean lacking in a meaning or metaphor. etc.
Rob: Again - why is metaphor and meaning such a rarity? And when expressed often trivially and shallowly? I'm not waving a finger specifically at LF here, I know it's widespread throughout photography and the art world, but does the self perception of the format as perfecting representation photography not mean there is added entrenchment? 
“When in fact alternative approaches to the art exist, but as they don’t fit in with the orthodox view, they are dismissed as inferior.”
Tim: Oooh! You’d better back this one up Rob!! 
Rob: Again I'm not saying this as if its a conspiracy, simply that the constant reiteration of superiority will have the impact of dismissal of other formats and approaches. 
“but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself?”
Tim: … Me and Dav Thomas specced out a full large format system for under 1,000 pound including tripod and bag and two excellent L class lenses. I’d be interested in a digital set up that had just one L class lens that would cost the same. And the cost of film over a year would probably add up to the upgrade cost of most digital photographers (£600-1000 a year?).
I know of quite a few photographers who have recently moved from Canon to digital, selling all of their cameras and lenses (and a few who then went back again!). In comparison with that sort of burn rate large format – amortised – is not significantly costly
Rob: By "structural investment" I wasn't talking about money, but the edifice (some of which is economic) around LF in terms of sales, teaching, writing, promotion, books. It becomes a self fulfilling fantasy that is difficult to step away from without alienating fans, galleries, magazines etc.
“One thing is certain, as the price of colour film is on a seemingly never ending upward spiral, a more haphazard, playful, exploratory approach becomes increasingly inconceivable amongst LF film users.”
Tim:  is the one area where most people commenting on large format seem to get wrong. Just because you use large format doesn’t preclude the use of other cameras. In fact I would go as far to say that large format camera users tend to own and use a larger variety of cameras in different ways. They almost always own smaller compacts to ‘experiment’ with as well (sometimes transposing their experiments onto LF – sometimes not)
Yes film costs can be expensive but they can compare with the amount spent on digital camera upgrades, lens collections, etc. LF photographers don’t tend to replace lenses as nearly all of them out resolve the film they use.
A set of four lenses (a typical collection) can be bought for about £200-300 each – making a full collection of lenses add up to less than half the price of a 24mm Canon tilt shift.
And the cost of colour film is a minimal expense with large format photography – the biggest expense is time for each exposure. And large format itself is not a limitation on experimentation – take a look at the work of Brett Weston for example or Frank Gohlke (colour too!).
In summary I think Rob is right – Fuji Velvia exerts a magical influence on people and makes the mere representation of the world enough for many. And large format ends up attractive to magic bullet chasers – however in my experience most of the people who are just after resolution will have migrated back to digital by now – hence curing themselves of the Velvia virus.
However, Rob is also wrong – illustrative/artistic is not an either or. Large format doesn’t preclude experimentation – and large format cameras don’t preclude other cameras.
Fine art photography has a certain level of distaste for the vernacular and also has a soft spot for the experimental and ‘alternative’. Sometimes this produces interesting work but on occasion it ignores work that doesn’t fit with preconception. Like all walks of life,  the good and the bad live along side each other in various proportions, but no media or material dictates the message or lack of it.
I know Rob was being a little ‘Devil’s advocate’ so I know he won’t mind the strong response 
Rob: I don't mind the response at all! :-) As I said above, I wasn't talking about financial investment, so I'll happily accept your premise that the costs may be lower. However, the fantasy that upgrading will improve your photography is a common fallacy right across the photographic spectrum, indeed it seems to have taken on epidemic proportions. It is certainly another way of avoiding confronting the gaping hole in most people's photography, which is ideas, and concentrating on the technical and the artistic superficialities. I'm not expecting everyone to agree with me on that, but from a personal perspective I don't need to be in the toyshop before I play.  
There really needs to be a significant shift towards ideas and creativity in most photographer's time and energy. Having said that, if LF promotes itself as "the ultimate upgrade" then there is the risk that it will attract just these type of people disproportionately. Technical skill and creativity should not be confused, they are separate entities that with luck may combine successfully. The trick is finding the balance. Landscape photography in that context is unbalanced! 

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