Archivi categoria: thoughts

Is Street Photography Killing Itself?

Is the most egalitarian form of photography, ‘street photography’, being destroyed by its own popularity? Is such a thing even possible? I won’t profess to have a clear answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts. Those thoughts may turn into a rant, but I’ll try to contain myself!

Egalitarian = good, right?

This question hits right at the heart of photography and, most specifically, digital photography. If something is easy, more people will do it. The more people doing it, the more ‘cultivated talent’ there will be (which is a good thing). However, there can be a cost: the dross can become overwhelming.

Street photography is easy for everyone to engage in. If you have a camera and are able to access public areas, you can shoot street photography. While this sounds great, I can’t help but feel something of a massacre is taking place. Cameras have become optical machine guns, mowing down everyone and everything with carefree abandon.

The problem, as I see it, is exacerbated by a particular catalyst: for want of a better word, it is ‘cool’. When something is fashionable in this way, the self-image can become the real target, rather than the photograph itself.

So what has ‘coolness’ done for street photography?

It has clouded judgment, that’s what it has done. Some photographers evidently struggle to see past their excitement at indulging in this fountain of cool. Twenty years ago, to pull this off, you had to tote a film camera around and go through all the palava of changing rolls, developing them, faffing with lightboxes, checking contact sheets and making prints. If a person was prepared to go through all of this inglorious hassle, there was a very good chance they were reaching a bit deeper, within and without.

Now, in the digital age, you can buy the right ‘stealth satchel’, blaze away and saturate Instagram and Flickr within hours. At no point in this process will you have to consider the merits of the photographs being taken, because it doesn’t matter. You’re a rock and roll street sniper. At least a landscape photographer has to deal with bad weather, muddy feet and uncooperative light to get his or her shots and that obstacle of effort acts as a filter.

When it’s raining, the street ninja just slides into Starbucks and takes 482 photographs of coffee cups, tables, people’s feet, the window, people walking past the window, people tying their shoe laces… and they’re all painfully boring. Sadly, this garbage is overflowing into the street so to speak. The visible face of popular photography is more and more being defined by street photography, when we’re not being overwhelmed by photos of people’s dinner on social media.

Why could this be bad?

The good street photography is being buried, that’s why. It is more difficult than it should be to find consistently good street photography taken by someone without an already well-known name. The work is out there, I have no doubt of that, but the process of finding it is exhausting and depressing. There also seems to be a bit too much ego in the mix. Far too many of these (often very young) photographers seem unwilling to learn. They’re already amazing, which they know, because that’s what they tell each other continuously on social media. They also have lots of ‘likes’, so that’s that.

On the occasions when I have seen really good photographs on Instagram/Facebook groups, the inspiring work barely gets a mention. Nobody cares. That’s not what social media is about and street photography has become the social media of photography: an avalanche of banal, shallow and unreflective nothing that hasn’t the time to consider its own context. Tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. In the same way, much of this ‘great street photography’ is, well, the new great.

Editing. What is that?

Too many street photographers don’t edit. They share everything, perhaps because they think the world wants to know what fifty different takes of groups of random people walking down the street looks like at 8:56 in the morning, on their way into work. I applaud the enthusiasm, but photography is like selling your house. You show the best bits, while trying to avoid scrutiny of the bad bits.

You put your junk into the loft, or carefully pack cupboards. You mow the lawn, give a lick of paint to that beautiful front door and make sure your new kitchen is sparkling. The whole point is to draw attention to the good bits and let them define your house as a proposition. You curate the impression you want to leave people with. What you don’t do is give them a guided tour of the junk pile corner of your garden, the rotten window frame you’ve meant to replace and then hand them a map of the broken floor tiles.

When you’re Magnum Photos, you can put out a book full of contact sheets when most of the photographers who took those hugely iconic images are dead! Everyone else is better off editing at least until it hurts.

Endless juxtapositions and their formulaic brethren

Visual juxtapositions are akin to a trick that can be performed according to recipe. They are cookie cutter photographs that deliver all of their impact (if they have any at all) in no more time than it takes to mentally identify the game. A boot on a poster steps on a passing pedestrian’s head. The man standing at a bus stop is being shouted at by a woman on a billboard.

See, you didn’t even need a photo to experience all that such photographs contain: a simple, boring, endlessly repeated ‘jingle’. You could only ever write one short line about such photographs, because they contain nothing beyond the superficial.

Some photographers have built entire series (in fact entire websites) crammed full of variations of the same thing. They’re no more interesting than ‘zonies’ obsessed with Ansel Adams’ Zone System, who 20 years ago produced endless photographs of tree stumps and sticks that showed how wonderfully they’d applied -3 compensation development. My personal hit list goes something like this:

Juxtapositions. If they say nothing and have no appeal beyond their initial visual recognition, they’re boring. Really boring. Even the ‘good ones’.

Juxtapositions are almost ALL the same. This is a quick screen grab after google searching ‘street photography juxtaposition’.

Random photos of nothing, for no reason, with no content, thought, insight or anything. They’re not so casual as to be cool. They’re just boring.

Faux edginess. People being made to look mean, when they aren’t. Intensity that has been added in Photoshop, or with a pithy title that over-eggs the pudding. Their landscape photography equivalents are the ones shot in Yosemite (or similar) during evidently pleasant weather, that have been heavily over-cooked in post, and then titled ‘_____, Clearing Winter Storm’.

Arrows and street signs. OK, so there is always going to be potential here. Never say never and all that, but I wish I could erase memory of every photo like the one below I have seen and wish I could un-see.

So what do you think about these photographs?

Note: These following street photos are being shared under fair use for commentary and critique. The names of the photographers have been omitted to not single any artist out in a negative way. Anyone who wishes to have their photo removed will have their request respected immediately.

What can you say about this photograph? Is there anything to say?
Posting a letter. Am I missing something?
Waiting for a bus. Is the appeal in her age? If so, where is this going?
The hand/scarf over her face does not make this photo any less banal.
The most overused street photography formula of them all: arrow with person going the wrong way. I don’t see anything here to elevate this image beyond formula.
Is this photo truly compelling because of the black and white theme?
Does this work? If so, why? I see an initial ‘edginess’ replaced by nothing (along with the realization that there isn’t actually an edge)
Everyone hates a mop handle in the eye. Is this an aspirational photo? If so, why? The ‘punchline’ is paper thin.
We see many images like this. Is there supposed to be humour in the sleeping man? Is there something else going on that I am just not seeing?

What goes in comes out

Really engaging photographs are never the product of laziness, or formula, but this does not mean it should be hard work either. “Endeavor” is perhaps the best term. If we put in effort (and some thought) we can generally produce photographs worth more than a quick glance. That does not mean waiting for all of two minutes until a man of the right height walks past a poster depicting a large open mouth. Such photos are simply the free version of buying a ticket to Yosemite and placing your tripod in the exact spot ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ was taken 75 years earlier. It’s easy. It requires no real effort, thought or (most importantly) personal investment.

I am not suggesting a hipster coffee approach here. Riding to the Andes on a unicycle to collect the coffee does not make it taste any different. Working your ass off in photography without that effort actually affecting your photographs is no different. However, just engaging in the subject of photography helps. Learning a little more about yourself helps. Learning about the people and environment around you and your thoughts and reactions to it helps. The sad truth is that most of our effort in photography amounts to nothing. We’ve all worked hard and come back with a slew of entirely disappointing images, but this does not mean we stop trying.

Street photography is fantastic and compelling, but it is also incredibly difficult to do well. In part, this is because we have seen so much of it before. Brilliant, obsessive workaholics have been doing it for 70 years, but they aren’t us. They haven’t had our experiences. They haven’t seen everything through the same eyes. Their insights are not ours. Every single person wielding a camera has the potential to say something interesting, or see something engaging. Again, it comes down to relationships and, even on the street, our relationship with what is in front of the camera is key.

Once a photographer has learned a few ‘tricks’, they are presented with a choice: keep chasing gimmicks or formulas, or look deeper. It’s OK to be lost. It’s OK not to know what you’re doing. It’s OK to fail. It’s absolutely fine to feel insecure about your work. In fact, all of these things are very cool because they state very loudly that a person is trying, striving, exploring and searching in a very personal sense…. call it what you will.

It is this highly individual engagement that makes photography interesting. Street photographs needn’t take that away. It isn’t an altar that photographers must worship beneath and it isn’t a sport either. Some years ago I read a passage in a men’s magazine advising young men not to approach their sexual endeavors in the same way as they might improvements to their sporting performance. And here we are back to the supreme importance of relationships, expression and connection. Without these things, both just become repetitive, predictable acts that lose their luster.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


About the author: After studying Biological Sciences at Bristol University, Thomas served in the British Army before spending fifteen years living and photographing in conflict zones as a civilian. His work has won numerous international awards and has been exhibited in the UK, US, Europe. You can find more of his work and writing on his website and The Photo Fundamentalist. This article was also published here.

Taking the Last Picture of Something

The recent collapsing of the Azure Window in Malta finally motivated me to take my keyboard and tell you the story behind the picture above.

T’was the summer of 2015. We were on a journey on the North Shore, a beautiful region of Québec at the mouth of the St Lawrence River. A pretty classic road trip. Departure from Montréal, a stop at Québec City, two nights at Grandes Bergeronnes next to Tadoussac. Here we go for a nice weekend of oxygenation. A summary can be seen in this video:

But among the hundred of pictures taken during this trip, it’s without any doubts this lonely seaplane on a lake at sunset that is the most fascinating.

This picture had been shot on the 2nd night of our weekend. While we were en route for Tadoussac for dinner, when our attention was caught by the side of the road with this seaplane and this lake. This was the kind of moment where all the passengers of the car marvel at the beauty of a fleeting moment of a sunset, and when the detour to go to the shore is not even to be discussed.

It was August 21st at 8.13PM.

Less than two days later… “Another Tragedy for Air Saguenay”

“Seaplane Crash on North Shore: ‘vertical’ impact”

While we were heading back to Montréal, the radio announced the crash of a seaplane of Air Saguenay. After the obvious horror and empathy for the victims, a realization came to me — a realization that my photograph is probably among the last, maybe the last, existing of this aircraft.

The last visual trace of this seaplane in all its glory, innocently “immortalized” by my camera…

It’s also my guilty pleasure: this photography attracts, in an inexplicable manner, gazes and attention. As if an invisible force was attracting them, viewers stop and contemplate. And I like to come and have a contextualizing conversation…

Me: “Do you like this picture?”

Viewer: “Yes! It’s really [insert a positive adjective like beautiful, nice, superb…]!”

Me: “You know there’s a whole story behind this picture…”

Viewer: …

Me: “… This plane crashed the day after this picture. It’s probably among the last pictures of this particular plane.”

Viewer: *Mixed expression of fascination and half-disgust towards this new morbid information*

And this is where you really realize the responsibility of a photographer; our pictures might be the last trace of someone, somewhere, or something. Or maybe they will be the last trace of us in this world. That’s why they must exist (and the perfectionist will say “and be perfect too”).

This is where I also realized the broad scope of the name “visual storyteller” to describe a photographer. The story we’re telling is not always in the picture itself or in the moment it captured. No. It’s sometimes in a moment before or the after. In a temporality that hasn’t been frozen in the picture.

But taking a picture, and knowing it’s the last of the object you’re portraying, is a unique experience. Morbid, but profoundly aesthetic. Fascinating, but heavy with unsolved questions. It’s a peculiar feeling for a peculiar piece of art.

Almost two years after, I still don’t know how I feel about this picture and the responsibility it bears. But I feel that it deeply moves me, and will continue to do so until my last shutter click.


About the author: Jp Valery is a photographer and a product manager at Gameloft who’s based in Montréal, Quebec. You can find more of his work and connect with him on his website, portfolio, Twitter, Instagram, 500px, and Facebook. You can buy a print of Valery’s photo here. This article was also published here.

Review: The Fujifilm GFX 50S is the Lamborghini of Medium Format

Quick history lesson. The original Lamborhini motor vehicle wasn’t the supercar you know today. They were tractors. Yes, tractors. Full-fledged farm-going vehicular tools.

Ferruccio Lamborghini always loved cars and owned Ferraris, but he hated the quality of them. Frustrated, he approached Enzo Ferrari and gave him a piece of his mind and told him how to improve his cars. Enzo’s response went something like, “Leave the car making to me, you stick to making tractors.” Batman now drives a Lamborghini Aventador.

Fast forward and cross universes to cameras. The giants such as Hasselblad and Phase One have been untouchable and left alone to rule the medium format world for some time. Sure, there’s Pentax and Leica, but it’s more like buying a Mazda Miata or a 4-door Porsche — it’s not what you think of when sports car or medium format camera comes to mind. But here we are with Fujifilm, originally a film company, pulling a move like Ferruccio Lamborghini; they’re opening the doors to somewhere that’s otherwise been locked for what feels like all of eternity.

Phase One makes amazing medium formats that few ever touch but all hope and dream of. Hasselblad is quite similar but have introduced something that seemed ground-breaking, a mirrorless medium format in the Hasselblad X1D. Now, just like Ferruccio answered to Enzo Ferrari, Fujifilm has brought out the Fujifilm GFX 50S.

Will this be a classic like the Lamborghini Diablo? Or is this a Mazda Miata in disguise? Well, I’ve got the keys and this is what I’ve learned.

Body Design and Ergonomics

I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. When you look at the X-Pro2, you think rangefinder. When you look at the X-T2, you think old film SLR. When I look at this, I don’t think retro medium format camera. It looks like an X-T2 that got a medium format sensor back permanently attached to the back of it. Now to be honest, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. This is a professional camera with professional pricing so function should take priority over form. It just feels like an area that didn’t get the attention that it deserved given Fujifilm’s recent history of creating cameras that are as beautiful to look at as they are to use.

But here’s the thing about the looks of this camera: you completely forget about it the moment you hold it and to take a shot. The grip is extremely comfortable with a generous cutout for your middle finger, and don’t even get me started on how good the thumb grip is on the back of the camera. Fully customizable buttons mean this camera makes logical sense to its owner.

Although it seemed awkward at first, the side loading battery is a really nice touch for those times you’re swapping batteries on a tripod; it doesn’t save a lot of time but it’s welcomed. The C setting on the lens is huge plus too. As much as I love the aperture rings on Fujinon lenses, sometimes there is piece of mind knowing you won’t accidentally twist it.

But on to that EVF. To be honest, this is the feature that blows everyone away when I show them this camera. No one expects it to come off because it looks and functions like an extension of the body rather than an ugly appendage after thought. Can’t say the same for other mirrorless cameras with removable EVFs.

Being able to remove the viewfinder completely, add a tilt adapter, or use it in typical fashion allows the camera to be tailored to any situation for size and comfort. I absolutely love using the tilt adapter set vertically so I can get the camera low to the ground. Of course you could use the tilting LCD but at 1PM in the afternoon on a cloudless sky, using any back LCD to judge exposure or focus is near impossible.

My only issue with the camera’s design? The neck strap mounts. This is the one part of the camera that feels retro and I wish it didn’t. While in theory, having a adapter that quick disconnects the neck strap is a great system, two issues arise. Neck straps get extremely twisted because they’re able to spin freely on its post. Secondly, if you’re using a wrist strap and connect it to one post, it puts a lot of tension on that adapter and it seems like after time the adapter is going to bend.

The Sensor

This sensor is huge, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s important to understand why this larger sensor is so awesome. It’s resolution, dynamic range, and highly subjective but always talked about “medium format look”.

Image quality. Larger sensor, larger pixels, and greater signal-to-noise ratio equals sharper images with far more detail than you could ever want. Take a look at the following image. Then take a look at the image next to it that it was cropped from. It’s one thing to make a high megapixel camera, but it’s another thing to make one that looks good when zoomed in way past 100%.

Dynamic range. Unreal is the only word that comes to mind. Really, it feels like you’re cheating. With this camera you’re able to pull out detail from the darkest shadows with no noise at all. What this means is I’m now able to shoot natural light and forego using a light for fill because there is just so much data in these RAW files. Just take a look below and see what bumping the exposure by 5 stops in Lightroom does.

Medium Format Look. Ask four people what the medium format look is and you’ll get five different answers. In my experience with this camera, my subjects look almost as if they’re standing in front of a fake background. The longer focal length lenses used in medium format compress more of the background into a single plane and my subjects “pop” out of the image in front of that background. Moving from X-Series APS-C cameras this difference feels pretty pronounced. From a Canon full-frame camera, not as much so, but it’s still there.

So in a nutshell, that’s the Fujifilm GFX 50S first impressions. Looks good on paper. Results seem to back it up. But cameras are about more than specs, pixel peeping, and this isn’t the first medium format camera. Over the past two weeks I’ve packed my schedule with a wide variety of scenarios to see how it handles and here’s what I’ve learned and experienced in each scenario.

Landscape

No, this isn’t a hardcore purist’s landscape photo but I tend to put people in them so you have a sense of size and perspective. The first thing that I felt was the weight of the camera. Similar to my old 5D Mark II, but drastically heavier than their X-Series line means it’s too soon to get rid of those; they still have a place in my backpack. For this hike I used the Peak Design Everyday Backpack 20L which fits a GFX, GF 32-64mm, GF 63mm, vertical grip, EVF + Tilt Adapter, and tripod with lots of extra space.

Unfortunately, the EVF + Tilt Adapter doesn’t fit in this bag while attached to the body. In fact, it didn’t fit in any bag I had at home. The height of the camera increases drastically and the EVF extends back, lengthening the camera body by a good amount. When it came to using the camera I opted to stick with the EVF just because of the sunny conditions that would make seeing the back LCD difficult. I’ve taken shots at this exact spot on many occasions and it takes a lot of adjustments in Lightroom and creative masking in Photoshop to get someone to standout; they easily become lost in the image as the background tends to consume them.

Not with the GFX though, Alicia seemed to stand out from the image more and so did the road to the right of her. The only way I could describe the difference is that the road feels closer than it used to with the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 on an X-Pro2. Aside from that, the dynamic range just saves you time. You don’t need to shoot multiple exposures and blend them with luminosity masks or use ND filters to blend exposures in camera. I can easily push the shadows slider without the image falling apart, all while maintaining a really natural image.

Backlit

Due to the lack of phase detection autofocus, this was a little trickier. The GFX really needs a contrasty spot to focus on or it won’t focus at all. However, if face detection works, it locks on confidently, but due to the heavy backlight and lack of contrast it doesn’t always do so. Besides the focus, the greatest strength lies in the shadow recovery. I can easily bump up the shadow slider to + 100 in Lightroom and all of the dark areas come back naturally with no noise introduced. Whereas on a older camera with less dynamic range, it would have shifted the image in an ugly way.

Artificial Lighting

A huge let down to many people was the 1/125th of a second sync speed, everyone said it should’ve been higher, but it hasn’t been an issue for me at all. In fact, I’ve had the opposite problem. Getting the depth of field desired could require shooting at a smaller aperture between f/5.6-f/11. In a dark environment like a forest, that could mean dragging the shutter along at 1/30th-1/50th of a second if you’re trying to maintain base ISO for greatest dynamic range. That translates to this camera needing to sit atop a tripod more often than not when shooting with lighting.

But in this camera’s defense, I’ve been able to handhold a few of those shots and get amazingly sharp images without image stabilization. The above shot was taken in a shady baseball dugout on a bright sunny day and the shutter speed was 1/100th of a second with no ND filters used. Of course if she was out in the sun, the sync speed would be an issue but that’s what ND filters are for. With HSS in the near future and global shutters on the somewhat distant horizon, lenses that lack leaf shutters aren’t that big of a deal.

Lifestyle/Commercial

Focus is so important when you’re blowing up these images large and the face detection does that so well. Similarly to the X-Pro2, I put complete faith into the face and eye detection and it nails it every time. If for some reason I can’t use it, the 425 focus points are amazing as well. I’d rather place the AF exactly where I need it rather than focusing and recomposing. Sure, it’s a lot of focus points and using the joystick on the back can be slow, but that’s where the touch screen becomes oh so handy.

I found that taking my face away from the viewfinder and tapping where I want to focus was quicker than using the joystick and slowly moving across the viewfinder to get the right AF point. However, one issue has carried over from the X-Series bodies. When my subject is just a little wider than the AF point, more often than not, the camera will focus on the background instead of my subject. Zooming in and checking focus is easy with the EVF but it’s one thing I wish I wouldn’t have to worry about.

Do You Drop Used Corolla Cash for this Camera?

I need to print large, I need more dynamic range, I have a ton of old medium format lenses to adapt, I just sold my Mom’s Prius without her knowing and I need to burn this cash before she realizes it’s missing. All valid reasons to buy a GFX 50S. Reasons you shouldn’t? I only post on Instagram, I switched to mirrorless because my SLR was causing back and neck problems, I make my living photographing Supercross, I have $200,000 in student loans from grad school.

I know that photography is about the person and not the camera, but with this camera, to a certain degree, it kind of isn’t. The dynamic range is a huge selling point and it changes the way you can shoot entirely. Being able to pull out all of that detail in the shadows with no noise at all is huge. Not only does it speed up the shooting process, it speeds up the post-processing as well. So if you’re someone who sees value in that, which should be every working professional, I would consider jumping ship from whichever brand you’re currently loyal to.

But beside the ease of use and lack of processing required, that medium format look has been a huge gain. I’ve sent some of the photos to the companies I collaborated with for these photos and they’ve asked what I did differently. Exact words were “something special” and “a different type of clarity than you normally produce”. On my end I haven’t done anything different, so if the medium format system does that much for me, I think it’s a way to differentiate yourself from others in a subtle way. You just need to decide if that difference is worth the entry fee.

Is the GFX 50S a Lamborghini?

Undoubtedly yes, it’s a Diablo. Or a Countach. The Fujifilm GFX 50S is the camera that will start to democratize medium format the same way the Canon 5D Mark II democratized film making. Focal plane shutter means you can adapt medium format lenses or full frame lenses and get crazy thing depth of field. Electronic viewfinder, 425 autofocus points, and face detection are all selling points to pull people away from their full frame cameras or their slow medium format DSLR.

Sure, there are some sore spots to some like the sync speed or lack of phase detection autofocus. But at the end of the day when you’re looking at the images on your computer you’ll still tell yourself damn, I just drove a Lamborghini.


About the author: Allan Higa is a Hawaii-based lifestyle and travel photographer. You can find more of his work on his website, or by following him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.

I Never Shoot Photos for Free, But This is Why I Did

One of the often recurring discussions among professional photographers is whether or not we should ever work for free. I’ve been known to rail against those who do and against clients who request free pictures… so why did I recently waive my own rule?

A little background first: I describe myself as a corporate communications photographer working for businesses and organisations needing creative, high quality images for websites, brochures, press releases and so on.

However, between corporate assignments I will often seek out personal projects which interest me. These allow me to stretch myself creatively (I prefer not to experiment on paying clients) as well as try out new techniques (ditto).

Just before Christmas I was thinking about what my next personal project should be. In the back of my mind I was thinking I’d love to do something with a purpose beyond just trying out stuff or photographing random things. I wanted it to have some kind of purpose — perhaps an outcome which could help someone else or tell an important story.

Then I spotted a plea for help on Twitter from a local youth drop-in center which is at threat of closure due to funding running out in March this year. Something about that tweet made me pause and think that this could be the perfect project.

I got in touch with the center manager and suggested I could take portraits of the young people who benefit from the service and we arranged a meeting the following day.

What interested me was that this center, called Routes, is set up as a youth cafe where people, generally under 25, can go for help with issues ranging from homelessness to unemployment, mental issues, sexual health and drug abuse. The service is free, non-judgemental and is attractive to anyone who fears authority won’t give them the support they need.

With the center manager, Sarah, I developed the idea of using the portraits with case studies to support grant fund applications, press releases, social media and so on. Then Sarah suggested an exhibition, which really interested me as I’d never had my work exhibited before.

With time running out for the center’s funding, we had to work fast, so early in January I set to work shooting the portraits. Within 5 weeks a set of 20 portraits was shot, edited, captioned, printed, framed and hung on the walls of a busy local cafe which often hosts art and photography exhibitions.

I put in a lot of work and donated a valuable licence to use the images, all for free, much against my natural inclination, but there are some crucial differences here.

For a start Routes didn’t approach me and ask that I work to their brief, their deadline and hand over rights well beyond what might be reasonable. It was my idea to approach them, I had full creative control, could pretty much dictate how and when I would shoot and the licence to use the images is restricted to Routes’ own use alongside the case studies.

I have to admit, the project ballooned well beyond what I’d initially imagined. The editing took longer than I’d expected, I’ve written press releases, taken a press release photo, done a lot of social media work, dealt with the printers, framers, graphic designer, cafe owner and spent much of last Sunday hanging the pictures in the cafe.

However, at no time have I felt exploited nor have I regretted any of this effort. It was fantastically inspiring to work with the young people, it’s been invigorating to work on a project which was entirely within my control and to have it result in images which potentially could save a valuable local service.

It’s still possible the service will have to close, but Sarah is working tirelessly to find other ways of winning the funding needed and the photos will bring the personal stories to those who control the purse strings as well as to a much wider audience, so fingers crossed they’ll do the trick.

What I’ve gained from all this, quite apart from the joy of working with the young people who posed for me and finding out just what’s involved in mounting even a small, local exhibition, is the opportunity to raise my profile in the area and even internationally.

The questions is, would I “work for free” again? As long as I got to control the creative aspects, timing, and perhaps the most critical aspect, image usage, if it’s a worthwhile project I would certainly think about it.

The problem for most clients asking for cheap or free work is they still want all the control and they want image rights beyond what’s reasonable. To me, those are clients like any other and while I’ll happily work with them, it’ll be on standard terms and at my rates.


Click here to see the series and read the stories behind the Faces of Routes.


About the author: Tim Gander is a freelance corporate communications photographer based in Frome, Somerset. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see more of his work on his website or find him on Instagram or Facebook.

Photo Books: The New Photographic Ritual

Moving down the aisles that are carved between each row of seats, the line slowly edges on. A choir of no more than three people — woman and two men — expel their voices gently and slowly, serenading the churchgoers as they inch forward toward the pulpit where they receive their bread and wine.

The communion is a ritual in Catholicism that occurs at the height of the mass. It exists in a ceremonial way to cement the beliefs of the Catholic church between those who gather at each mass. It is unremarkable and unsurprising yet it remains an event of significance. Catholics understand it’s importance and, like most rituals, it plays a pivotal role in helping those who participate to understand different traditions, stories and values. Traditionally, in a ritual, every person present must participate. The act of the ritual requires the whole necessarily because it carries the tradition and maintains the sense of community through interaction and representation.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a small library of photobooks. Few of them collect dust and are rarely viewed. The majority, however, are often spread throughout my house and office. I find myself continuously looking back to them, attempting to dissect what integral information I missed the last time. Maybe I interpreted something wrong, or I want simply to experience them all over again. Photobooks are more than just books of photographs that happen to go together or follow the same theme. There is a sense of narrative experience that is revealed within the pages of these books. It comes to life in the editing, the design, the paper choice, the ink; the physical things help to bring it to life-like wine or bread.

Sometimes I buy photobooks full of images I don’t – can’t – understand. Such was the case when Delaney Allen’s inaugural book Between Here and There arrived at my doorstep. The thick cardstock that forms the outside of the book with a typewriter font stamped onto the front cover is peculiar enough but the images inside perpetuate that sense. A snapshot-like image of a girl, blonde haired and ecstatic with bulging black sunglasses leads the viewer in. A close-up image of water with light refracting through it creates a rainbow while flares and dust settle around the edges. A cave; light peaking gently out of the far-end carries the viewer through the narrative. Of course, you must allow these images to lead you, to let them consume you and take you on the journey and to tell you the story they want you to tell. Further enhancing this effect are emails between Delaney and his then girlfriend. They break the flow of images but not in the way you would expect. Finding them hidden between caves and oceans they carry the narrative while forcing the viewer to maintain their own sense of curiosity and to form images in their own head of the events described. The combination forces you to question whether the images in your head were ever in the book.

Surely it can be understood, then, that the importance of the single image in this book is a moot point. There is no one single image that stands out rather, a collection of images that form an entirely new world. This new world that I so eagerly live in – one that I can escape to whenever I want – is the only point worth discussing. It is not a world given to me but one that I create of my own volition and is a direct product of the ritual nature of the photobook. My persistence in tracing back and forth the images as they relate to each other, trying desperately to understand what story they tell and how they relate to me. By sheer participation I have joined them in the collective act that is the photobook as ritual. My role as the viewer allows this story to be told and to be lived, to transcend the confines of when it occurred, if it ever did.

Photobooks have not always been as common as they are now. Yes, photographers made them, but they persisted to be a sacred element in the trajectory of the photographer’s career. The accessibility and availability did not exist for the amateur, hobbyist or emerging photographer to make a photobook. Recently, however, we have seen the rise of photobooks and zines in many forms. Photographers are frequently self-publishing large monographs of long-term works, approaching boutique publishing houses to produce limited zines and small-run books, or simply reigniting a DIY ethic where Xerox machines and home printers transform into a workshop for homemade books and zines. The photobook adds an unexplainable element to the significance of the image in our lives.

Photographers don’t, and haven’t been able to, heighten the significance of the photobook all alone. The collaborative nature of the format – the designers, editors, publishers, printers and audience – ensures that it is ever-evolving. Furthermore, the inclusiveness that the photobook provides is a glimpse into the ritualistic nature that it embodies. All of the participants of the bookmaking process work together to understand the narrative, to allow it to exist on a fundamental level that transcends just photographs in a book and rather, provides a platform for them to be understood and to live in the real world. Photographers look to books as the final form of their projects. The image in book form provides an interaction that every single person who comes in contact with it, regardless of their role, will interpret differently. This allows these images to live almost forever. Like a ritual, the photobook suspends in time the ideas and narratives expressed by the images, allowing them to be absorbed by viewers forever.

In celebration of such extraordinary and widespread publishing efforts by photographers, the Aperture Foundation, in October 2015, published a manifesto of self-publishing titled Self-Publish, Be Happy. This book serves as a bible of sorts for those who live the DIY ethic and endeavor to make their own photobooks (a relatively new concept given technological advancement and increased accessibility to professional-grade printers). Even still, the celebration of self-publishing isn’t to say that a photographer should completely avoid the traditional route for publishing a major body of work, but instead, this book showcases some of the many methods of bookmaking and speaks to the fact that each project demands its own methods for expressing its ideas.

Photographer Stacy Kranitz’s images live within the pages of her latest publication, Speak Your Piece. This book is much more a representation of a place than it is attempting to tell a set story. The typical boundaries of a book don’t exist. Kranitz experiments with the relationship between text and images but in an unexpected way. Many of the pages do not feature images at all which, at first, seems an odd choice but the lack of images and instead flourishing amount of text – all taken from a local paper with a column that shares the same name as the book – allow the viewer to define their own relationship in much more abstract terms. It leaves the viewer attempting to decipher who these people are and a craving overcomes you to know them. In a single quote, it is impossible to know them but it allows a brief glimpse into their lives and the things that make them tick. The simple act of you reading their letters – letting them speak their piece – allows them to move past the confines of time and space, enhancing their voices in a way that puts you there, with them.

The shared experience fills you with a sense of place. The looking over and over again at the images and text within these pages places you within them. It makes me think back to being told stories as a child. We were told these stories in a commanding way, as if they were biographical accounts of someone’s lives, but once they were told they were left and they simply existed. We discussed them, changed them, lived within them. I’d argue the same thing happens when peering into the lives of Stacy’s subjects who live between the pages of her book; although you read the stories as told by the subjects, the incompleteness forces upon you the duty to fill in the blanks, forming your own stories as you go, in fact becoming a part of the story.

Living within the image is a common trope in speaking about photography but it holds true at every turn. Staring long enough at a photograph prompts you to make up your own stories about them, as if you are there in the picture, not as a camera but as a part of the scene. An effective ritual does the same by placing you within the context of it – the story and events that it represents.

The first time I looked at Bryan Sheffield’s book, Lord God, I thought it was simply a record of trees across the United States. Sure, it is that. It is also a celebration of them, of nature, of the beauty of it but in a mysterious way that only Bryan could convey. The flash-lit images thrust you into the personal space of the trees. If it’s possible to find a candid moment in the life of a tree, he does it. The journey these images take you on is like no other. The viewer is sharing their existence with these trees each time this book is opened.

I’d imagine the only way to explain the mystery of looking at this book is by comparing it to a walk through the forest. Slowly, you move down the path, between the trees and bushes. The cool autumn air brushes your hair across your face but you remain unmoved. Your hands caress each trunk as you pass by it. These trees have been here for years; growing, living, stretching out across the landscape beneath the earth in web-like formations that go on for hundreds of feet. It’s like they are all connected to each other and in that moment of reverie, you too are connected to them. The forest speaks to you. Even if you decide to look up and away from the trees printed in ink back onto themselves, it becomes impossible to ever leave that forest because it grows deep inside your mind.

Within the confines of a printed book or zine, images take on a life of their own. The viewer interacts with them differently. Upon gallery walls, surely the viewer takes in the images in just as substantial of a manner, but there remains a separation between the viewer and artwork. The physicality of the image in printed form and our ability to truly interact with it lies only within the confines of a photobook. The viewer controls how the images are absorbed, experienced, the pace, the meaning, the story. More and more, this is becoming a viable option for photographers wishing for their projects to truly live within this world.

While the photobook industry has admittedly become oversaturated with books and not all of them holding deserving bodies of work, the importance of this medium cannot be ignored. The celebration of the book has changed photography’s role as an art form into something more experiential. The book has woven photography into the fabric of our lives. These books fill the shelves that line the walls of our homes, sit in piles upon coffee tables in living rooms around the globe, and sit forever open in our minds.

We live with this art in ways that are impossible as simply a single image anchored on the wall (or even embedded on a screen as a digital apparition, for that matter). Moreover, the true ritualistic nature of the photobook is proven in its transcendence of time. Each time we pull apart the pages of these books we again experience the story and it becomes a part of our consciousness.


You can find the archives of Alex Thompson’s column here.


About the author: Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer living in California’s Central Valley. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work focuses around environmental issues and the social consequences of environmental degradation. His work has been featured in publications like LA Weekly and The Guardian US and he is currently working on long-term projects documenting the effect of extraction in Wyoming and life in communities along the SF Bay-Delta. You can find his work at www.alexthompsonphoto.com or on Instagram @alexthompsonphoto.