‘Back in the day’…well back in the late 1970’s, there wasn’t that much landscape photography around. You could see some in the extremely poorly printed books that appeared or else in the pretty rare exhibition.
The books were truly awful…I still have a few. Monochrome images were printed with no deep blacks at all. A sort of muddy dark grey was the usual. Exhibitions though were where you would need to go to see some high quality prints. These would be ‘silver prints’ of course done in ‘proper’ darkrooms.
However not many art galleries would show ‘mere photographs’, so London had the Photographers Gallery and elsewhere a few major cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Cardiff might have a gallery that was worth visiting.
We were living in North Wales for awhile in 1982-3 and became friends with a couple that had a small gallery nearby, and they sold photographs. They had an exhibition of pictures by John Blakemore and I was knocked out by these.
Here’s the standout image that still haunts me:
Blakemore used a view camera and I think this was the first time I was aware of what transformation a very long exposure could do to capturing the sea in movement. I will confess that at first I thought this was mist!
The image above wasn’t available to purchase I think…anyway I bought another from this sequence, but it has never resonated like this large black rock picture did.
Here’s the one I have:
Alas my print was never signed by John and even has white dust spots on it showing it needed the ‘spotting brush’ and it has ‘yellowed’ slightly which I guess means it wasn’t as ‘archival’ as we’d like nowadays. But hey, photographs weren’t ‘art’ were they and photographers didn’t do things like ‘Limited Editions’.
Perhaps one day I’ll get a copy of ‘the large black rock’ image for my wall. I realised that I pulled it out of my memory when I stood on Uttakleiv Beach in Lofoten and saw this rock:
No lapping waves to render as a ‘mist’, just a frozen beach…the power of the big black rock in an image that came back to me.
Alas my image lacks something that Blakemore’s has…mystery. The large rock in both images has nothing to give any scale and my long exposure rendered the sea without texture but there is no sea around the rock whereas Blakemore’s has those mysterious lapping waves that he’s turned into mist. Wonderful! I like the light reflecting off the foreground ice in my image but it’s Blakemore’s I’d want to keep.
A couple of posts ago, in the blog on ‘Trees’, I showed a few of Beth Moon’s beautiful tree photos that were shot on infra-red film.
In 2012 Mitch Dobrowner won the Sony World Photography awards with his Storm portfolio. These were his amazing images of the giant supercells, tornados and rainclouds that can be found, mainly in ‘Tornado Alley’ in the American Mid-West, usually during the summer months.
‘Storm Chasing’ had been a pass time for a select bunch of American’s for a number of years but Dobrowner’s images introduced the phenomenon to non American’s like myself.
Here’s the most famous of his images I guess ‘Rope Out’:
and here’s another ‘Arm Of God’:
I thought that some of these were taken with on infra-red film, because some of the pictures displayed the characteristic white foliage on distant trees or else perhaps he had used a strong red-filter on a monochrome camera, but I read Mitch used a Canon 5D2.
I wrote to him and he replied that he had a Canon that was a ‘full spectrum conversion’. I looked this up and eventually sent of a fairly unused Panasonic GH-1 to have such a conversion done here in the UK.
This conversion removes the infra-red ‘blocking’ filter that is usual in digital cameras. The cameras sensor therefore responds to a much wider range than is usual, giving the camera coverage from IR, through the visible light spectrum, right up to UV.
I realised that you couldn’t see through a DSLR’s viewfinder, only through the ‘live view’ screen but it would be more useful to use a converted mirrorless M43rds camera, like my GH-1, which had no mirror showing the image into a viewfinder, but instead had an electronic image viewfinder, plus it had ‘live view’.
To take pictures in the IR range, you have to fit a ‘visible light’ blocking filter to cut the visible spectrum away from the sensor. The filter goes on the lens now of course and I used a fairly common Hoya R72 to block the visible spectrum.
If though you wished to shoot with the camera as a normal visible light camera, you have to fit a special IR blocking filter, called a ‘hot mirror filter’. This is the filter normally inside the camera on the sensor and this blocks out the IR that your conversion is now going to let through.
Mitch Dobrowner wanted to see the effects of his filters and be able to say put on a red filter when using the camera in visible light mode.
I started taking straight forward landscape images, but in IR. Here’s one of mine taken with the GH-1:
This is an oak tree at nearby Kingcombe on a dull November day and the IR enabled the foliage and grass to be lighter than would have been normal, without being totally white if it had been photographed in bright sunlight. I was happy about restricting it to use on days when the sunlit foliage wouldn’t look extremely white.
I got some OK images with the GH-1 but working in mono you are always rather degraded by the damn Beyer filter which is part of all digital colour cameras and can’t be removed. The GH-1 images were often noisy and I soon sent my oldest Canon 5D2 to Advance Camera Services for ‘full spectrum conversion’.
The 5D2 worked better, even if you did have to have it in live-view mode’ to see through the R72 deep red filter that was blocking the visible-light.
Here’s one of my images taken with the full spectrum 5D2: Once again I kept it from looking too ‘infra-red’.
The blue sky has gone very dark, the rain can be easily seen and the ground is lighter than it otherwise would have been but a fairly similar result could probably have been obtained with a dark red filter on monochrome film I guess.
I have always loved photographing stormy skies, so Mitch Dobrowners great Storm photos and his book ‘Storms’, encouraged me to head of to the States and do some Storm Chasing myself. Mitch had said that he wasn’t really after Tornados but wanted those fantastic ‘Mother Ship’s’ of Supercells. I felt the same and in 2013 had planned to chase for only one week.
Alas I chose the week in May when no storms built up …..but the next year there was more luck and a two week trip ensued during which we covered 4000 miles:
We got a tornado and some great ‘Supercells’ like this one:
Even a heavy rainstorm is impressive in the Mid-West:
Strangely I later sold off the converted Canon when I went back to using a film Hasselblad. I never was totally happy with how a colour DSLR rendered monochrome. I could always see the patterning that the Beyer filter produced when you enlarged a 24Mp DSLR image that had been converted into a monochrome picture.
So now I’m relying on a good old Ilford film, SFX200 that has a slightly extended spectrum. With this film I can block the visible light with the R72 filter and get an IR like effect. Alas I lose about 5 stops of exposure doing this. It does give me some lightness in the greys that make up much of the monochrome landscape. I’ll post some results of that soon.
Here’s an image by the American photographer WeeGee, who was famous for beating the police to crime scenes. This isn’t, as far as I know a crime scene…it just makes me laugh!
The fire occurred at the American Kitchen Products Co. building, next to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Copies can be obtained from the J.Paul Getty Museum…I’d love to have one. The text online with this image says ” Weegee’s dramatic high contrast print nevertheless subtly reveals the tones of the building’s facade at night. Glaring white ambulance lights, lamplight, and chutes of water from a fire truck mix with the ghostly glow of fire and steam. Using a combination of flashbulbs, and by some accounts flash powder, Weegee generated enough light to capture this scene.”
Well the exposure is obviously fairly long and I think a car headlight pointing towards the scene would have provided enough ‘fill’ light here, even with his Speed Graphic 4×5 camera.
There’s a 1939 photo showing Weegee perched on the front of his flat photographing the morning lineup at New York City Police Department …as the headquarters was directly across the street. He used a radio tuned to the police to discover where the latest killings were and made a living selling gory images to the New York papers.
I do love trees, but their beauty is pretty hard to capture in photographs.
I feel much of monochrome photography is similar to producing ‘line drawings’ and one of my favourite artists producing really great pen and ink drawings of trees is Sarah Woolfenden.
Here’s one of her exquisitely detailed pictures, of a Yew:
Incredible detail in Sarah’s drawing. Sarah has the artists’ advantage over the photographer…she can ignore the background. Us poor people behind cameras haven’t got any easy ways to eliminate confusing backgrounds, so we often turn to choosing subjects where the background just doesn’t exist.
Michael Kenna has made some truly wonderful pictures of a single ancient oak beside Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido by making them in the snow, sometimes against misty backgrounds.
What a stunning ‘minimilist’ image, but then Kenna encouraged a whole genre of photography didn’t he. He certainly makes this withering tree look like an ink drawing.
Back to Sarah Woolfenden. She doesn’t ignore ‘the background’ that often in fact. Here’s a wonderful image of an oak.
A large oak in it’s forest setting and a photographer would have to catch it like that as well.
I can see that there would be a predominance of mid-tones in a monochrome photograph of that oak and Sarah chooses to make much of the background lighter than it would have been. The photographic trick to achieve this is by using filtering and a green filter would render the foliage lighter than usual. There’s an even more extreme trick the photographer can play…but it leads to troubles if not carefully used. That’s Infra-Red.
The American photographer Beth Moon started taking pictures of some of the ancient trees we have in the UK and often used a Pentax 6×7 camera loaded with Infra-Red film.
Her images are extremely powerful, like the wonderful oak ‘Majesty’ at Nonington in Kent above. She went on to record some of the ancient trees in the US National Parks and in Africa, like these Baobab’s.
In the oak image, the Infra-Red has rendered the green leaves as white. That’s what happens when you use IR to capture leaves full of chlorophyll, as they will be on a bright sunny summer day. The Baobab’s however don’t have that bright green chlorophyll soaked foliage and it is rendered somewhat more realistically. The give away is the sky, that the IR has rendered as black.
I’ve tried using an IR converted digital camera to capture trees and to make them ‘stand out’ in monochrome, but I’ve done it in the winter. No green leaves to turn white, just some grass and ivy on the trunk to render lighter…just as Sarah did in her oak drawing.
The IR camera turned the sky really dark….and I love dark and stormy skies and this is about a close as I’ve been able to come to matching the ‘intensity’ that an artist like Sarah Woolfenden can produce with her meticulous ‘pen man ship’.
Here’s a few more stunning tree images from Beth Moon:
Less obviously an Infra-Red image, but the yew isn’t ‘big on chlorophyll’ , but the softness of the image says IR I’m sure. Here’s another:
Normal film I’d say, however it’s best if IR doesn’t show it’s self too heavily I believe.
I’d say that was also on normal film, and here’s one by Michael Kenna that certainly is:
That’s a really great image and he’s managed to get the trees ‘upright’ without leaning. I can’t work out how long a lens as there’s still lots of ‘perspective’ there so possibly he used a ‘FlexBody’ tilt-shift adapter on his Hasselbald.
Here’s another one from Kenna that I haven’t managed to work out how he got that ‘inner glow’ as trees that are densely growing don’t let much light past their crowns do they:
From the same Abuzzo set of images and I think the magical light is just glorious.
NB: See note below for reply from Michael Kenna about this:
Mist is good to isolate trees of course, and here’s another attempt of mine:
A silver birch ‘quivering’ in the breeze that was present, along with the mist.
Sarah Moon’s tree images were printed in ‘Ancient Trees-Portraits Of Time’ published by Abbeville Press.
Michael Kenn’s Kussharo Lake Tree was published in a book of that name, along with many others of the same tree taken over a number of years but it is old out. It was also included in ‘Forms Of Japan’ published by Prestel. Now that’s a book that every landscape photographer should own.
His 2016 Abuzzo pictures are in the book ‘Abruzzo’ published by Nazraeli Press.
He is represented in the UK by the gallery Huxley-Parlour and there is shortly to be an exhibition ‘A 45 year Odyssey Retrospective’ at the small Bosham Gallery on the Sussex coast, who I believe are now representing him as well. I wish I had the money for a few of Mr Kenna’s Limited Edition prints!
Michael sent me the following note regarding my queries about his two Abruzzo tree images:
Hi David, Poplar Trees was probably made with the 250m lens. I don’t keep notes and freely move between lenses so I’m not 100% sure. Stone Pine Tunnel – again probably 250m. Yes, the light at the top was being blocked by the tree canopy.
We all have influences and it’s only fair to recognise them, but hopefully move on to produce your own work and certainly not copy others.
However sometimes it’s thrilling to get as close to those ‘influencers’ as possible and one way a photographer can do this is by standing in the same spot and seeing…and hopefully feeling…something akin to that felt by your hero sometime before.
One of my great influences is Michael Kenna and in 1986, Kenna was in Halifax and took a photo reproducing a well known image of Bill Brandt’s,’ A snicket in Halifax’ taken by Brandt in 1937.
Here’s Brandt’s image, taken from his book ‘Shadow Of Light’ (Gordon Fraser):
Bill Brandt: ‘A snicket in Halifax-1937.
Like all of the images in the book, it is printed extremely contrasty. Brandt certainly printed in a variety of ways in his life and certainly went for the ‘soot and whitewash’ look later on.
I like powerful dark images and Michael Kenna certainly does too. His version is different though and was obviously taken at night with street lamp illumination. Well I say obviously, but knowing Kenna that could be moonlight. With reflection I think it’s good that Kenna’s image doesn’t exactly mimic Brandt’s.
Michael Kenna: ‘Bill Brandt’s Snicket, Halifax, Yorkshire, England. 1986’
As you can see from the credit, this is taken by Kenna back in 1986 and appears in his book ‘ A 20 year Retrospective’ (Ambient Foto 2).
Like Michael I guess, I turned up in Halifax and thought I’d go looking for the ‘Snicket’. I found it at Dean Clough, where there are still many mills, now finding different uses.
I was thrilled to see that the cobbled pathway was still surviving and later when reviewing these images, to even see the same cobbles stones identifiable in both the 1937 and 1986 pictures…and there they were in my 2015 version. The handrail seems the same even. That mill though has had a good cleaning.
David Taylor: ‘Homage to Brandt, Halifax 2015’
I was lucky to get a rainy day, just like Brandt and could image him standing there, looking at a much more grimey mill building, with probably a Rollieflex in his hand. I don’t think Kenna had yet got around to using his Hasselblads, so perhaps a Nikon 35mm. My picture was on a Leica Monochrom. Wonderful camera…alas I couldn’t keep it!
Michael Kenna has been good at crediting his influences over the years, such as homages to Atget and Cartier Bresson and others. He learned from these guys and went on to forge a remarkable style of his own. Alas I see work from so many photographers that is influenced by him, but without any credit being given. Michael we do owe you so much.
In the early summer of 2015 I took my dear little Toyota campervan to France.
I headed to Mont St. Michel on the Normandy coast and found a quiet parking spot on the west side, that looked out across the marshes to the Abbey of Mont St.Michel.
A heavy rain cloud produced this image.
Dawn and nightfall are as useful for monochrome photographers as for colour photographers and as night was falling I got this with some mist lying along the shore line and just after the Abbey illuminations came on.
On another day out on the marshes I walked past a young couple, who sat down and started kissing.
Well we all are envious of French lovers so I had to capture them.
I photographed from various locations for about 3 days before settling at another spot on the eastern side.
As the afternoon past I sneaked a picture of what looked to me like a French farmer, who chatted on his mobile phone with the Abbey in the background.
I was photographing with a Leica Monochrom camera at the time and having been taking landscapes on a tripod, the camera had a strong red filter on it. In a hurry to capture a picture, I left the filter on and quickly took another stop off the exposure, as the camera meter misread the red filter.
Not sure which image I prefer…but the red filter turned the red trousers and shirt that this guy wearing…into a much more interesting (for black and white)… white! Alas I wasn’t clever enough to realise that until I’d got the picture on the computer!
Knowing that evening was a good time and liking this spot I headed off along the track shown above. A pretty long walk but eventually, when it was now really dark I was able to get the image I guess that I had been waiting for. You usually know when a picture is worthwhile as you press the button.
It is obviously made by the ‘searchlight effect’ from the lights. I love it’s simplicity and think that even my hero Michael Kenna, who famously photographed Mont St Michel back in the ’90s, would have been pleased with getting it.
I felt able to drive away from this location…well until the next time I’m in France when I’ll try for another good image of it.
Living on the Dorset coast I’m near that strange bit of coastline that runs the 8 miles from Portland to Burton Bradstock that is Chesil. It’s a ‘beach’, made of stones that are washed up forming a bank with a partly freshwater lake, The Fleet inland of the bank.
One of my favourite spots is to go onto the South Dorset Ridgeway above Abbotsbury at Wear’s Hill. From here I can look down on The Fleet, bounded by Chesil Bank and with the rather strange ‘island’ of Portland beyond.
Sunrise with the low sunlight reflecting off The Fleet. St. Catherine’s Chapel is foreground and Portland at the end of The Chesil Bank.
Another morning, a bit later…perhaps 10am. The well masked sun is lighting both the sea and part of The Fleet. I always like the little country road, seen on the left when it gets caught by the sunlight.
And a misty morning. Portland just visible and now the light is on the foreground little hills, with the sheep…and that lovely little road gets quite well lit.
So I can happily walk up onto Wear’s Hill most mornings and see a slightly different vista.