(Continued from today's earlier post.)
Reviews by Geoff Wittig
The Landscape seems an easy subject for photography at first blush. It doesn’t move, or threaten to smash your camera. Just point your lens at a beautiful vista, press the shutter button, and bingo, you’re in business. Right? Um, no.
Worthwhile and original landscape images require a lot of work. One frequently starts with an idea for a beautiful photograph. Say, a dramatic mountainside or waterfall in perfect light, inspired by one of those peak moments you’ve experienced in nature. You scout for ideal locations you know, or found with Google Earth or paper maps. You figure out the optimal time of year for the best foliage, or ideal snow cover, or good spring runoff. Then you visit the site and identify the most promising compositions and framing. You determine the focal length and depth of field you'll need. You calculate where the sun will set and rise, or when it will clear that ridge to the east. Next you follow the weather, waiting for just the right mix of sun and clouds, or morning fog, or the bright overcast that will best illuminate your subject. When conditions look promising you hike to your chosen spot, typically well before sunrise, and wait for the light. Most of the time, you curse as a giant cloud blots out the sun a moment before the light is ideal, or the wind comes up and sets those autumn leaves into frenzied motion. When it's clear that magic isn’t happening today you pack up your gear, and you come back the next morning. And the next. And...finally, if you're lucky, it all comes together for one perfect instant. If you don't waste too much time setting the exposure or fumbling with the grad filter. After all that preparation time, in the end you're frequently racing to make the exposure. It's exhilarating when you finally click the shutter, and know that you have it.
That’s the experience that encourages me to keep at it.
David Noton is an English landscape photographer working with digital capture, after many years shooting transparency film. Full Frame is a straightforward account of ten photographic journeys, from nearby Dorset to far away Laos and Bolivia. Noton details the thinking and preparation that went into each excursion, and narrates the 100 photographs reproduced in the book. For each photograph he describes getting to the site, the æsthetic and technical decisions behind the actual exposure, and some of the post-processing required to get the best out of the resulting image. He also ruefully notes the near-misses and disappointments. I repeatedly found myself smiling in recognition.
The format is more interesting than the typical how-to book, yet it still covers a lot of technical ground. Noton describes the essentials of optimal raw exposure and post-capture sharpening, but regards them simply as tools to achieve the desired æsthetic goal, not as ends in themselves. He dismisses HDR software for its typically artificial-looking output, instead masking and blending separate exposures to deal with excess contrast. And he explains why he sold his 617 panoramic film camera within days of returning from Canada with several spectacular panoramic images stitched from multiple digital captures. The photographs themselves are lovely, ranging from conventional postcard beauty to more somber and moody images.
For me perhaps the most appealing part of this book is Noton’s perseverance in the face of adversity. Two weeks of frustration with miserable weather in Bali came down to a single beautiful photograph taken just before boarding his return flight. Murky skies choked with ash and dust from slash and burn agriculture in Laos made attempting a traditional landscape image an exercise in futility, so instead he captured a stunning portrait of a young girl. I'll keep this in mind the next time I’m rained out on a vacation photo trip during a precious week off from work.
Readers who like Noton's photography and his wry written "voice" might also check out Waiting For The Light (David & Charles, 2008) (U.K. link). It is another appealing mix of entertaining anecdotes, useful tips and beautiful photographs.
Photographic monographs featuring ruined and decaying buildings are prominent these days; I reviewed a bunch of them a while back*. Detroit Disassembled is a worthy addition to the genre, both for its subject matter and its æsthetics. Andrew Moore’s impossibly lush and detailed large format images of abandoned factories and decaying warehouses (you can see small JPEGs of some of them at his website) are simply stunning. They draw striking formal beauty from the most unlikely sources. I especially enjoyed a Dali-esque melting clock face on a peeling wall, and the vivid green floor of an abandoned headquarters office whose carpet has turned to moss.
If you like the formal beauty of the work of Edward Burtynsky or Stephen Shore, you’ll like this book as well. The images are followed by an elegiac essay by poet Phillip Levine, who grew up in Detroit and mourns what it has become. I grew up in Buffalo, which is now a similar post-industrial ruined landscape, so this book really hit home for me.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their numerous students at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie on photography’s place in the contemporary art world. Bernd Becher became the first professor of photographic art in Germany in 1976, one year after the Bechers' participation in the landmark New Topographics exhibition at George Eastman House. Their cool, formal, unsentimental approach to photographic documentation of industrial structures was about as far from Ansel Adams as one could get. It's apparent that the Bechers encouraged experimentation in their students; the diversity of approaches and subject matter is impressive. One can argue that they all seem to share a certain gimlet-eyed skeptical coolness in their art, but I may be reaching a bit. The book starts with an introductory essay by Stefan Gronert detailing the history of the school from the Bechers' arrival, and their place in the contemporary European art world. Next is a summary of each artist's work; one can debate some of the critical judgments, but it's an excellent introduction to the work of photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth and Elger Esser.
Included is a clever digression on the subject of giant-sized prints, and the connection between the work of the Düsseldorf photographers and other contemporaries like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman. The text has (I believe) been translated from the original German, but survives with meaning largely intact and is easily comprehended. I found it a lot easier to follow than much of the turgid "artspeak" found in the pages of the average issue of Aperture. The reproductions are grouped by artist, and are of very high quality. The Bechers' "typologies" are well served, with their characteristic grids of images. Andreas Gursky's infamous 99¢ is reproduced double truck, and is none the worse for it. Candida Höfer’s meticulous library images look great, as do Axel Hütte’s enigmatic landscapes.
I readily confess to a prejudice against this style of photography, but this monumental book does justice to the images themselves, and does a fine job of putting this group of artists in perspective. (One factoid I would never have guessed: the 19th century American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, perhaps the most celebrated and popular of the "Rocky Mountain" descendents of the Hudson River school, learned his craft at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie.) Highly recommended for anyone interested in contemporary art photography.
*Detroit in particular seems to have photographers descending on it to mine its post-industrial decay for dramatic effect, most notably in Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre's The Ruins of Detroit, a book which came out only in May but has been "steidled": that is, it's temporarily gone out of print while it awaits a possible second printing. You can see some of the work from it at Marchand and Meffre's website, including their picture of the same clock Geoff describes seeing in Andrew Moore's book (see below). —Ed.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.