Saturday, 5 November 2011

Alex Boyd - Scottish artist and photographer

(Photo of Alex above by © Carl Radford)
(All other photos © Alex Boyd)

I can't actually remember when and where I first came across Alex and his work. More than likely it was via his Flickr site where I saw his Sonnets series and I was impressed by what I saw. Very quickly, you sense Alex is friendly, helpful, knowledgable and passionate about art. He is an interesting guy, clearly talented, successful and doing a great job of getting his art seen. He his currently mastering the more fiddly and tactile aspect of photography - wet plate collodion.  I wanted to get to know him and his art better.
I did some homework and I could quickly see that he had been interviewed in the past and had explained and answered many of the questions I would have started with here. So, readers, once you have read the interview with Alex, go back and check out these other links.

JDD: Wet Plate Collodion – why the fascination and interest?
AB: I had been familiar with ambrotypes, glass plate negatives and tintypes for many years through my work in museums, but had never thought it possible to actually produce this kind of work myself, although I was aware of contemporary artists like Sally Mann who had been working extensively in this process in the US. 
It wasn't until I was asked to exhibit with the Scottish Photographers group alongside Carl Radford that I became aware that someone in Scotland was actively creating their own wet plate images. A few months later I had a chance meeting in Glencoe in the Highlands at the foot of Buachaille Etive Beag with Carl, and it led to us talking in more depth about wet plate, and he convinced me (without having to use too much persuasion) to become one of his students. During that weekend workshop I became convinced that this approach to photography was one which I wanted to pursue further - I had never become more emotionally invested in the creation of images before. Other than Daguerreotypes, I had never seen images which looked so visually arresting - wet plate portraits and landscapes have a tangible almost three dimensional quality to them.

Why do you want to make the process of photography more challenging?
I think that question is relative to the individual. As I've evolved as a photographer I've found that my methodology has taken on a slower, more considered approach. Instead of taking 300 images in one day, perhaps I'll make 3 or 4. I went from the sheer adrenaline of shooting gig photographs, to landscape photography, to very slow landscapes with long exposures, to collodion. It may change, but at the moment I'm largely uninterested in the quick fix of the digital image - I want the involvement that this process brings. For me making images any other way would be more challenging.

Why make photography less instant?
Wet plate collodion much like any other process is one which comes with strict limitations. It isn't just the cumbersome equipment itself which presents the biggest obstacle, or the chemicals, or the technical knowledge required to create images, but the whole reason of why I'm making an image in the first place. Collodion has really forced me to sit down and re-evaluate what I'm doing as an artist. Every image is therefore the end result of a rigorous cross examination process. I learned a lot from photographer and explorer Thomas Joshua Coopers approach to photography - he would travel to the most extreme edges of our planet with only a handful of glass plates, and this would force him to focus his mind on what he was trying to achieve. The downside however is that I'm not as prolific as I could otherwise be, but I'm happy to work at my own pace. 

What are you hoping for from the results?
Introspection and inspiration. I don't know if I will be working with wet plate in 10 years time, but for now it makes sense. Maybe when I look back on this period I will understand more about myself and my choices. That would be enlightening, as now I have no idea!

Are you not just being trendy?  Is it a fad?
The wet plate community has grown immeasurably in the last few years, which is no doubt why it may be perceived as being 'trendy' - due to the increased exposure it is receiving. This expansion has been in part due to the more widespread teaching of the process in Europe by people such as Quinn Jacobson, Kerik Kouklis or Carl Radford. It's also easier to get your hands on the chemicals required, but crucially it's access to the knowledge required to make your own images. For many years Collodion based photography was the preserve of a small group of wealthy middle class Americans, however in the last ten years all of that has changed as people have begun to share the secrets of their craft, and the price of workshops has dropped. At present I can't say if it's a fad or not, but I suspect not. It's very early in the rebirth of the medium and people for the most part are still finding their feet. As a result there are only a few established artists who are pushing the format forward in any meaningful way, but those who are will leave a long legacy.

I think wet plate collodion works best with portraits. You’re known for your landscapes. Can we expect to see more portraits from you in the future?
I've never really worked much in portraiture in the past so I don't really see why that would change now just because I'm using a different process. I would however agree with you that wet plate is ideally matched to portraiture due to its immediacy, and a survey of the modern community reveals that the majority are producing works of this type. When I was taught by Carl I too produced many portraits, however this was more to do with the workshop environment. To date I've largely eschewed portraiture altogether in favour of a return to landscape. That being said I have spent the last few months working on a project called Lux et Veritas which is based in portraiture - hopefully I can complete it in the coming year.

Does your recent wet plate work have any commercial potential?
It all depends on the viewer and the market I suppose, but it isn't something I'm particularly concerned with at present. My current project Low Lands is not as commercial as Sonnets, and it remains to be seen if the public or collectors will respond well to my new collodion work. My perception at present is that museum curators down to ordinary members of the public just can't get beyond the process itself to view wet plate collodion images objectively on their own merits. It's my hope that perhaps in a decade or so they will be able to view these images in a more considered way. 

Do you wish you had been born in another time in the past? If so, when?
It's probably quite obvious, but I'd love to have interacted with the luminaries of the Fin de siècle such as Wilde and Whistler, or have witnessed Weimar society first hand, I'd like to have lived through the first wave of photographers who struck out from the UK to photograph the world, such as John Thomson or Alexander Gardner. 

What part, if any, does your family background, your nationality and upbringing play in how your images turn out?
Growing up in Scotland I was acutely aware that my accent (which I'm still quizzed about on a near daily basis) and general worldview marked me out as slightly different. When I first moved to the UK I lived in several different places in the first few years, and found it hard to adapt to my surroundings when I finally did settle in Irvine on the Ayrshire coast. I generally rejected life on the west coast of Scotland and clung onto my German roots, becoming quiet and insular in the process. As a result of this I became fairly obsessed with ideas of self and identity, and my place in the world, and that has fed into anything that I've done subsequently. The Sonnets project is probably the most obvious example of this. I'm using a very clear motif from German art (the rückenfigur) to explore ideas of identity in some of the most well known landscapes in Scotland.

You appear to me to be someone with a clear and confident individual style and taste, not only in photography, but in music, film and literature as well. How did that go down with your contemporaries, at school say for example? Did you meet like-minded people at school/university? 
When I was younger I tended to be more introverted, and spent much of my free time reading anything I could get my hands on. Whilst at school I was aided by a rather brilliant librarian called Alison Sinclair who managed to acquire anything I wanted to read . From Goethe to Gogol I managed to develop my own interests in literature, and was aided by a supportive English Teacher called Anne McGowan who first introduced me to poet Edwin Morgan, and a Mr Fleming who introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut. These influences coupled with my time in the Art Department learning about the great American landscape photographers really did give me the foundation from which to begin to create my own work. In respects to my contemporaries I think there was a lot of indifference to anything other than the here and now, but that was to be expected given life in a little town on the West Coast of Scotland.  University of course was much different - it was good to meet people who had similar interests, but even better to find people who challenged my views and preconceptions. 

How important is it for photographers to be with other creative people?
I think it's important that there is a constant exchange of ideas between creative people, and for photographers to create work which reaches out beyond the usual role that photography fulfills. Most of my own projects have come from being inspired by literature, film and from visual artists - I don't really want to repeat the work of other photographers. 

You have exhibited in some high profile places; you have collaborated with some high profile people. How do you achieve that? What can other photographers start doing to market and promote themselves as successfully as you have done? 
Once I left home I lived pretty much hand to mouth for many years. Some of the places I lived in leaked badly, and some had walls which had gone black due to damp and mold. I was constantly ill. I wouldn't have money for anything other than the most basic food. Living in those kind of conditions can really push you hard to want to succeed, and as much of a cliche as it is to be a 'poor starving artist' it did give me the motivation to get out there and make images. I was lucky to have the support of my wife, my dad and my friends, who amongst them helped me to get out to locations, model, and even move and hang entire exhibitions. As for high profile names, I made a list of people I wanted to work with and wrote to many of them. Sometimes it worked out*, and sometimes nothing happened. I had nothing to lose. The important thing was having the ambition to get out there and believe in what I was doing. Nothing much has changed in that respect. 

What are your thoughts on the future of photography?
There will be an ever increasing demand for so called 'alternative' processes as photographers try desperately to mark themselves out as artists in the face of what they perceive as the soulless nature of digital. This misguided view, which I'm seeing becoming ever more prevalent, is producing a wave of increasingly dull imagery which hides behind the processes themselves. Beyond that I don't know - photography as a medium is generally losing its importance, but will always have the potential to communicate something vital to the viewer. That will keep it relevant I feel. 

What would be the best thing anyone could say about one of your photographs?
I think the best reaction for any artwork is to inspire others to create their own. Praise passes quickly and in the end doesn't really stay with me - I just wish I could say the same about negativity, but I'm just happy that people are engaging with what I do.

Is there a photograph you wished you had taken?
There are many, but the one which immediately comes to mind is an image by Harry Benson of Willy Brandt taken in 1961 when he was Mayor of West Berlin, a city in the heart of crisis. 

Its a deeply resonant image, and in it I see a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. There is a similar feeling in his image of exiled Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Benson really was the master of capturing such moments. 

What question should I have asked you and what would your answer be?
Talisker Bay on Skye. That's where it all made sense.

I would like thank Alex for the time he took to answer these questions and for the quality of his answers. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. Feel free to comment and share. 

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Originality, Neil Young, increasing numbers and making money.

This is my last day here on Skye in the Highlands of Scotland. A place renowned for its dramatic scenery and beauty.

My wife and I rent a house and have done so for a few years now. I have a set of photos taken on these trips here.
Another thing Skye has is artists of all kinds. There is a very vibrant artist community here. I, naturally, tend to go and visit the photographers who nearly all take landscape shots. This year I have been struck by how similar these landscape shots look- you know, rocks in the immediate foreground, loch or river leading the eye to the mountains lit by either the setting or rising sun, perhaps with some snow. A wee white cottage or a lone dead tree the icing on the cake. Personally, I've yet to capture such a 'perfect' shot and I have no doubt that if I could see one and I was skillful enough to capture it as well as these photographers do, I would take such a shot. But why?
Just to see if I can. Just because it is recording the beauty of the island I visit so often. People buy such pictures. And why not?

Not very original though and in a crowded, networked and technically advanced environment, how do you stand out?

How can you be original these days when there are so many competent and enthusiastic photographers out there (and the numbers keep increasing!)? I was thinking about this last night whilst watching a BBC4 documentary on the great Neil Young who is well known for experimenting, for exploring new forms of musical expression, for putting the music first. Even though one musical 'formula' was highly profitable and popular, it was not to be repeated as far as Neil was concerned - often with disastrous consequences, losing sales and fans. Neil was not trying to make his music popular or interesting, he was making music that interested him, that stretched him, that advanced his craft and got him out of a comfort zone.

Neil isn't short of a bob or two, so having talent, being true to your craft, getting out of your comfort zone and working hard can be profitable, even if you lose fans and friends along the way.

Bland, unoriginal music also survives and makes money - and so does bland, unoriginal art.

Is this how photographers make enough money to live these days - produce the 'goods' that sell but try to be original in your free time in the hope that some people may love your original and personal work? Probably. But I also wonder if other employment is needed such as running courses, giving talks and, who knows, some other part time work.

I enjoyed David Fleet's blog post this morning on the viability of being a landscape photographer (you can read it here, as well as my comment). His post, as well as the Neil Young documentary, inspired this rambling entry today. I hope you followed my train of thought and what I was trying to say. I've said similar things here, here and here.

Please feel free to comment, especially if you are a full time photographer.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Lucy Telford: Wet Plate Collodion enthusiast

I am a member of a local photography club and for the third year running we have come together and put on an exhibition as part of the annual NEOS extravaganza.  We had a preview evening and that night I stood, for a long time, in front of some pictures that oozed feeling and soul. They were by fellow club member and Flickr contact Lucy Telford. Some of the pictures were taken without a camera, some with modified shoe boxes, Diana cameras, old film cameras and, her current love, wet plate collodion.

Lucy recently went on a wet plate collodion course with Carl Radford where she was, not only in expert hands, but she met some great photographers, such as Alex Boyd and Deborah Parkin.
Lucy shared her knowledge and showed us the equipment she uses in a talk to the club last night and it was both interesting and informative without being boring or over her heads.
I recently asked Lucy if she would kindly answer some question I wanted to ask her and I'm delighted to  share this Q&A we did. Enjoy and check out her work. Thanks Lucy.

(JDD) Wet Plate Collodionwhy are you so interested in this?
(LT) During the last year I have been searching around for photographic processes or techniques which enable me to make visible the way I see things in my mind's eye.  I have “tried on” various different things – 35mm film, toy cameras, pinhole cameras etc etc.  I had already come across examples of wet plate work on Flickr (my contact Allan Barnes) and been very taken with the look of the images, they are somewhat dream-like and timeless.  The more wet plate images I looked at and the more I got to know about it, the more interested I became.  Plus, well – I just like old things ;-)

Do you want to make your images more challenging?  
I presume here you mean the end result?  Yes, maybe.  In a way.  But no more than I want to make any of my pictures challenging.  I am not very interested in images where what-you-see-is-what-you-get.  I prefer there to be an ambiguity.  I would hope that people might emotionally engage with my pictures and begin to interact and interpret.

Will using wet plate produce better results and/or more personal results?
I am hoping that the more I do it and the more competent I become, that it will be a process which I use frequently.  I believe that it is a technique which suits my way of seeing.  More personal?  Yes, maybe.  The process is slow (compared to digital) and so invites ideas of constructing photographs which is something I am thinking of for the next year.

Old Cameraswhy the fascination?
Well, for a number of reasons.  I actually think that old cameras are quite beautiful in themselves.  I like old stuff :-)  I am not mechanically minded, unfortunately, but there is a delight in the (relative) simplicity of these cameras.  They are made to be mended.  I also like the results I get from them!

Why make photography less instant?
Because I find that I work too quickly and don't engage my brain so much when I use a digital camera.  I prefer to slow down and think and I can do that more easily with a film camera which only gives me 36 or 12 exposures.  Nowadays, so much of life is fast-paced and instant and I'm not sure that's a good thing. 

Is this not just being trendy?  Is it a fad?
No.  I am not sure that I know what IS trendy in photographic circles!  For me it is about experimenting, trying different things out and seeing what suits.  I honestly struggle to get the results I want from a digital camera so I don't use them.  Maybe this says more about my incompetence with digital cameras...

When I see your images made without a camera, it seems to me that you want to create images that may be in your head so you may even move onto other 'tools'/mediums?
Yes.  :-)  You are clearly a mind reader James so you know the answer to this already ;-)
Photograms have been used for a long time now and I wanted to have a play around with the medium.  There is no rule which says that a camera has to be used to make a photograph.

Are all of the above more the a scientist in you coming out?!  Although I have been surprised at finding how interesting old lenses etc are to me. 

Are you more interested in the mechanics of photography than creating art that expresses you and your feelings?
No, definitely not.  The mechanics of photography don't interest me much.  I am not entirely sure why the things happen as they do...I just accept it!  For me it is all about making images which express a mood / emotion. 

What is your background?  School successes/university/occupation – does it matter do you think?
I was only ever any good at arts/humanities subjects at school.  Science and maths were beyond me although I am now beginning to appreciate them.  I read English at Uni with philosophy which I absolutely loved.  Being able to spend 3 years reading books, dyeing my hair and going to the pub – what's not to like ;-)  As far as occupations go, well – I have had boring office jobs like most people.  I worked in sales for a publishing company before moving to Germany for a while and then, eventually, when we moved up here I became a recruitment consultant in Aberdeen.  I think that my love of literature does have an influence on my photography, I will often think of a quote or a book and that will sometimes spark off an idea.  I think, inevitably, our backgrounds and interests have an effect on the work we produce.  I like being outside and so consequently I tend to take a lot of photographs of the natural world, nature moves me more than buildings do and that is reflected in what I choose to photograph.

Who or What have influenced your Photography?
Other photographers.  Until I got going with a camera seriously a couple of years ago I didn't really know any photographers apart from the really famous ones but I set out to immerse myself in the work of others to see what can be achieved.  I am constantly discovering new (to me) photographers and that's really exciting.  There are many photographers I admire but the ones who have had some influence on what I do are probably Sally Mann, Susan Burnstine, Josef Sudek and some of the Pictorialist photographers.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of photography?
Well, it wouldn't surprise me if there were a digital backlash – film is still being used (and not just by me) and I think people are now discovering digital's limitations as well as its advantages.  Everyone is a photographer nowadays and it is easier and easier to make a decent image so photographers have to up their game.  I suspect, though, that as time goes on there will become a greater and greater divide with digital and computer technology veering off in one direction and simple homespun cameras going in the other.  Never the twain shall meet and may everyone be happy in what they do :-)

Does your work have any commercial potential?
Lol...not sure about this one!  Maybe.  I think the wet plate stuff could be a goer as far as portraits go.  There can be nothing more unique.  Some people might go for a lomo wedding shoot but it would be stressful shooting a wedding with simple film cameras – not being able to see what you've got until it is too late!  I can see the potential for doing large format or wet plate portrait work.

What are your feelings regarding digital and video?
I think that photography is about choosing the right tool for the right job.  I would use a digital camera to shoot a wedding, no question.  I can, in fact, use a digital camera – I know it is hard to believe ;-)  I like using my homemade lensbaby lens on a digital camera too. Video is a closed book to me.  Other than videoing my kids learning to crawl and walk etc I haven't done any so can't really comment. 

Is there a photograph you wish you had taken?
That's a difficult one.  Probably one of Sally Mann's photographs from her “Immediate Family” book.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Does your photography reflect your passions or the world you live in or both?

Last Friday, I set up my photography exhibition as part of the NEOS 2011 exhibition alongside fellow photographers from Deeside Camera Club. There was a real eclectic mix of styles and range of subjects - a healthy, interesting selection.
I've heard it say that the pictures you take of subjects that interest you are nearly always better than trying to make interesting pictures. Abandoned communities in the area where I live interests me. These images are becoming my most viewed, most talked about and most lucrative aspect of my work.

Exhibiting alongside some of your peers can also let you see how your images come across to the viewer. I was emotionally taken by the work of Lucy Telford who uses old cameras, 'toy' cameras, homemade cameras or no camera at all. I loved them. It got me thinking. What do my and my fellow photographer's pictures say about the world today? Should they say anything about the world we live in? What if your interest say nothing about the world you live in? Does it matter?
Today is the 10th anniversary of 9/11. There is much reflection and consideration of the actions taken since then. Have photographers represented, recorded, reacted and reflected the last 10 years?

To help me answer that question, I listened to Jeff Curto's class on 'The Atomic Age and New Frontiers' which looked at the work of photographers and artists who worked in the changing world after the dropping of the atomic bomb and the post war world. This was a world of abstract expressionism, be-bop jazz, anti-communism, rock 'n' roll, beat generation poets, civil rights, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and growing mass media.
Having looked at some of the photographers in Jeff's talk, I personally think the images reflect the photographer's passions and interests that have been used, if that's the correct word, to reflect the times by others. Some photographers have documented their world, some have picked up on the mood of the times and others have used the technology and media of the time. It all adds up to a great and exciting body of work.

Take a look at this selection and ask - 'do they reflect those post WW2 changing times?'

Aaron Siskind:

Frederick Sommer:

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Summer months will be different in future.


I missed blogging on here in July and I'm sure I could have and should have done at least one. Sorry guys.

A few things to report and update. My summer shooting started off well with a walk up a glen I drive past every day near Alford. Initially I went up the wrong track but this happen to be fortuitous as I spotted a ruin I didn't know about. Re-traced steps, moved the car and park it beside the gamekeepers house which meant I had to walk passed him and explain where I was going. No problem really with him but I think it is important to not draw attention to yourself or to antagonise gamekeepers. I got to the ruin which looked promising but, and I need to remember this, when I got to it, it was surrounded by nettles, ferns and gorse. Rural exploration should be saved for Spring, late Autumn and Winter. An internal shot of the the ruin called Mains of Brux is above and an outside shot below:
The great thing about this day was when exploring this place I spotted another ruin just up the hill a bit. I also spotted a red rusty roof - great! The place was called Ferneybrae:
So a good day and a fantastic start to the summer. More shots here.

Unfortunately, the weather this summer has been restrictive, so I've decided that, with the current poor weather we're getting in the summer in Scotland combined with the fact that the houses are so covered in undergrowth, I'm going to concentrate on other aspects of my photography during these months.

One project I'm starting to build up is photographing local musicians. A local folk club is run by renowned fiddler Paul Anderson and his highly acclaimed singer Shona Donaldson. Luckily, I know them both and have done work for them so I have been allowed to shoot during the folk night in Tarland. Here is a shot I took of Jonny Hardie of the Old Blind Dogs:
The challenge for me shooting the folk club, apart from the fact I am not really a portrait photographer, is the low light. I use the 85mm f1.8 on shutter priority to maintain the shutter speed no lower than 100s so it ends up shooting wide open, making focusing tricky. As the evening went on I resorted to flash which I hate when shooting performers, but it was needed in the dimly lit room. Next time, I'm going to  try the auto ISO to see how that goes.

Anyway, I'm glad to get back to the blog. I did actually listen to another Jeff Curto podcast but I didn't feel a blog could be constructed from it so that also delayed things. Also, my wife's father has been ill and in and out of hospital, so that takes priority.

Thanks for visiting, all the best, James.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

The female POV

My experience of female photographers on the internet on sites like Flickr, is that they can be the most inspiring, creative and exciting exponents of the craft of photography seen today, but they can also be the most predictable, boring and self indulgent of all photographers. Self portrait after self portrait, flower after flower, shoes after shoes, pet after pet, baby after baby.  That said, it was seeing the work of a female photographer (Diane Arbus) that slapped me across the face and woke me up to the power of photography again.

To get to the point of this post - can (and should) forms of expression be discussed in 'men's' or 'women's' art? Does gender affect output? (Not many female landscape photographers is there?) Does gender of the photographer affect the viewer's response to the image?

Well, having listened to Jeff Curto's Class # 11, Spring 2011 podcast, the answer seems to be, no. Time and place determine style, not gender. The so called golden era of photography (1880-1920s) coincided of course with social, cultural and political change, especially for women. Historically, photography has been a male dominated field, due partly to the technical and scientific nature of the art form, but also due to the fact that men were involved in photography as a commercial, money making venture. Women's place remained in the home, as wife and mother, until quite recent times. Women were often stuck at home and not until there was a series of technological advances which could 'release' them from the home, could they grab the new Kodak and shoot the flowers, pets, babies and friends that surrounded their world, i.e not too far from the hearth. Working class women of course remained in a life of poverty and toil, in the factory or working in the 'big house'. Interestingly, many started late in life to help deal with 'empty nest syndrome'. Women moved from the hearth to groups like the photo secessionists, FSA and f64. They were soon making social and political comment and embracing all technical aspects of their craft.

As their world changed and more opportunities opened up for women photographers, they have produced some of the most creative, original and powerful pieces of work. They have moved far from the hearth and are often at the forefront of photography. A great excuse to show some examples of the development of women photographers (mostly American):

Julia Margaret Cameron:

Lady Clementina Hawarden:

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Gertrude Kasebier

Anne Brigman

Chansonetta Stanley Emmons

Imogen Cunningham

Dorothea Lange
Marion Post-Wolcott
Margaret Bourke-White

Barbara Morgan

Diane Arbus

Marie Cosindas

Olivia Parker

Joyce Tenneson

Sally Mann

Annie Leibovitz

Connie Imboden

Cindy Sherman
Mary Ellen Mark

Susan kae Grant

Thanks again to Jeff Curto's History of Photography.