Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I won't mourn the demise of Velvia: a counterblast.

The news of the demise of Fuji Velvia as a large format film has been greeted with dismay it seems across the photographic spectrum, but more so than anywhere in my own genre of landscape photography. Here it is widely regarded as the film of choice for its extra saturation, it's contrast range and it's ability to reproduce deep, yet believably rendered colours. Yet I shan't mourn it's demise. Not because I don't believe that it can produce beautiful results that are still way beyond anything achievable in digital, and certainly not because I have anything against film itself. My reasons are more complex.

Perhaps I should, at his point, admit that in my landscape photography I am primarily a digital and a black and white photographer. 'So why would I care?' I can here you chorus through the ether! Well the fact that my phone suggests 'velociraptor' when I type Velvia may just be an ironic software glitch born out of a limited vocabulary, or as I prefer to believe it does illustrate a sort of dinosaurism in landscape photography. Now I don't want to deny anyone their pleasure if this is your sort of thing, but I do believe the demise of Velvia might serve to freshen things up a bit, challenge convention and force a bit of a rethink amongst many of its users.

The use of LF Velvia amongst landscape photographers has become so all pervasive that apparently without irony, lower saturation and lower contrast landscape photography has become accepted as somehow more artistic. Well okay, but maybe we have a difference of opinion about the definition of 'art' here? Don't worry I'm not intending to travel that road, except to say that it is the human element of artistic expression that interests me more than the illustrative, 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.

I am still madly passionate about the landscape, as a place, as an attractive retreat and it's environmental protection from the demands of big business and overbearing landlords. So you know there's little I like more than being out there, and failing that looking at what other photographers produce. Now while I'll happily allow that there are as many diverse opinions and different stages of artistic, photographic and even spiritual development out there, there is however an awful lot of similarity in the work produced.

It seems landscape photography is condemned to be primarily an illustrative genre. Now I will freely admit its a stage in our progression we all have to go through, myself included. There's a great excitement in simply finding a pleasing picture of what is before us, some may even start to consider such things as composition, light and colour rendition. These are or can be important elements, but in themselves they are just building blocks, technical
considerations that go into the making of art. The next step is to learn how to express ourselves with these tools. We, as people, have far more potential, far more to express in our relationship to the land as conscious, thinking beings rather than an empty all seeing eye.

Okay, you're saying, fair enough, but what has all this got to do with large format colour film? Well if there's a prevailing zeitgeist out there that spreads right from LF film to digital, then those at the top of the landscape photography tree must take some responsibility. 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. That is a massive investment in time, learning and skill, and to some extent money. For the majority (but thankfully not exclusively) of these leaders in our community the illustrative is still their primary aim. There are good reasons for this, illustrative is what sells, (to an extent, but the falling prices of both stock and gallery images might have something to do with the market being saturated with these style of images); illustrative is easy to communicate, it appeals to our predominantly low brow popular photographic press; illustrative is easy to teach, and many make a substantial part of their income from teaching /speaking rather than doing.

This hegemony has in turn bred an orthodoxy of approach. We look to our betters to learn from, in the early days imitate them, and perhaps to explore the possibilities available. But the irony is that a large format camera, filled with Velvia (and all that investment that goes along with it) is really the pinnacle of illustrative expression. One has to wonder if it serves any other purpose, whether the tools come to predict the output? If the basis of its appeal is the reality of its expression, then give me less reality! We all do it, we find a way of doing things that we think is better and proclaim it to the world, but fail to notice that it might only be a better way of doing what we do, that others may find different routes, have differing expressions and motivations. The overwhelming prevalence of LF Velvia users in the positions of authority, in British landscape photography especially, proclaims itself as just such an acme, or highest point in achievement. 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. 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? 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. Maybe just that approach is needed to find those ideas that will fresh up the genre's thinking.

If you're one of the majority that think the extent of landscape's remit is simply to find pleasing shapes and nice colours, then you're probably going to disagree with me. I, on the other hand, would contend that this is a blindly technocratic, backwards and limiting approach, that has learned nothing from art in the 20th century. This taught us that art is really to be found as much in ideas, the inner expression must at least equal the outer. Now I'm not claiming that we should throw away all convention, but at least find some individuality of expression, some new ways of seeing pretty shapes and colours that doesn't rely on a rigid simple formulae of foreground, middle ground and sky. Landscape photography has long been stuck in a comparative rut, it is in need of catching up with more modern ways of thinking. Perhaps the demise of Velvia will spurn new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing? Perhaps, in the long term, the demise of Velvia will be a good thing?

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