THE ENVIRONMENTAL PORTRAIT IN A WORLD OF ‘SELFIES’…

Jessica on a red sofa and the Castle family, 2 environmental portraits by John Robinson.

The environmental portrait is a telling photograph of a person or group of people, it gives the viewer insight into an aspect of these people’s lives. In a FaceBook world of hyper happy selfies the environmental can introduce into the conversation a sense of calm and connection between the Subject and the viewer.

The environmental portrait has always been my first love in photography; and I offer environmental portraits in the Durban area done on A3 cotton rag art paper of yourself and or group for ZAR 1000.00 per print.

 

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SHOOTING IN A QUIET PLACE

The relationship between people and their God is a soulful place, belief is such a strong force; and there is very little that can break that system. I know this from my own relationship with God or Abba Father. I commune and walk in this space too.

To take out a camera in a place of worship is not something I can do lightly, I have to be trusted and walk through these flowers with out a hint of damage, each picture will be seen by those in that place and as a fellow worshipper I am not an outsider that can get away and never come back after the stems are broken and petals crushed.

The moments taken are considered first before committed to a place in the public space. I also know of no better tool then a 35mm film based rangefinder camera for this work, there is no hurry in this way of work; and thus plenty of time for the considering of the fall out from my actions on the day…

New Work…

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Left to right: Teddy, Jason, Cindy and Leele. 2018, Anton Lembede Street, Durban, South Africa.

Teddy is standing in for Jason and Cindy’s soon to be expected addition to their family, Cindy is now just short of seven months pregnant. I have so much hope for this small family unit, Jason and Cindy have such a strong bond, and are soon to be married too…

A friend of mine has agreed to marry Jason and Cindy when the time is right.

JR

 

 

Shooting for Real Raw Files

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Ken Rockwell writes about real raw photographic files, I have read his thoughts and I have also referenced him in my dissertation The Full Frame DSLR Camera vs The Analogue 35 mm Rangefinder Camera; but here I want to write about capturing real moments photographically and the .ding open source .raw files that I use in my photographic system…

I came to photography in about 1992, I was attracted to the idea that I could just document what people were doing around me in Johannesburg, South Africa as I was perceiving it. I was not and am still not attracted to trick photography, I use photo editing programs for inserting metadata and adjusting the colour, light and shadow of the digital file to as I saw the moment on the day I took the shot; and I do it in .dng files too. It’s very important that photography is about recording and reading real moments that really happened, and not about producing images of over adjusted colours and changing the construction of the original photograph.

The core value of photography depends on the perceived realness of the photograph…

In those days we were all using photographic film for our images, black & white film for social documentary, colour print for press work and colour transparency for most magazines. Digital photography was still in it’s infancy, we did know of the ethical monster that we were birthing at the time. Digital photography has now become to be as much about what can be done to the image after leaving the camera as it is about what was done during the moment within the camera.

Photography has lost the perception of truth in the public eye due to the prevailing perception of the ease of digital manipulation of photographic images in those same public eyes, the same eyes that read my pictures and maybe yours too.

I work all my images as .dng files (open source .raw files) in Adobe Bridge CS5 and I like doing so, many photogs (photographers) like doing the same in Adobe Lightroom. I use ‘Bridge CS5 alongside ‘Photoshop CS5 for all of my work.

Working in ‘raw’ has the reputation of processing ‘flexibility’ and greater image ‘quality’ among many digital photographers, both amateurs and professionals…

A young digitally based professional photographer friend of mine aspires to work with colour film one day, I tell him to just go for it now, but he still thinks that it takes extraordinary photographic skills to work with film.

All my important work is now done on colour print film in the same camera that I did my black & white work up till a few months ago, I have migrated to colour print film from black & white film for ease of processing reasons and because I like the feel that colour print film gives to my photography; plus that 50mm Leica lens can’t be beat for it’s crispness.

My work station is an old wooden desk with a hand crafted A2 Oregon pine light box on the one side, a Nikon Coolscan V ED film scanner running VueScan Professional, a MacBook Pro and a 1.5 terabyte external hard drive. The 35mm film dedicated scanner provides me with A3 124 megabyte .dng files off my 35mm colour print film. The .dng files are stored in the external hard drive and I work the files in the Adobe Photoshop CS5 raw window on my MacBook Pro just like any other digital file. I work my .raw files just like any .raw file coming out of a DSLR camera with the benefit of the extra information that the 124 megabyte files afford me; this plus the far greater latitude that colour film gives me over latitude coming out of a digital camera sensor.

All of this rides on a strip of Japanese made plastic and photosensitive emulsion that I buy and process in the Foto 45 shop in the center of Durban. Oh, and the legal proof that what the reader of my photograph sees is actually what I perceived but not chimped with my Leica M6 on the day…

Painting With Light

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I love perspective, photography is also about perspective as it is about cropping, to understand something better I have to sometimes walk across and stand in other shoes. Perspective helps me to to see as other people might have seen.

What is photography?

At the roots of the word photography the words light and drawing lie around. Up to the time of the invention of photography people where painting in multi chrome and drawing in mono chrome; and the pointillists or neo impressionists were beginning to paint with small dots of pure colour that where blended together in the eyes of the viewers of the resulting work not unlike the pixels of modern digital photography.

Their world changed and the new black and white pictures of those first photographers pushed aside the non photographic realist artists of the period as photographers went to the front line of war, adverts begun to employ the photographer rather then the painter and more and more portraits of the famous where done through photography rather then artist and paint brush. There was a time when photography just did realism better then the painter with colour and brush of the time. If the technology of the time had permitted and photographers had started out with colour, we might have been known as photo portraitists rather then photographers.

The realism of that period of photography was backed up by the little slip of plastic covered in emulsion that we call the photographic negative; in the analogue or film age of photography the realness of the photograph could be just broken or backed up by the production of the original negative.

Now in our modern digital photography world news wire services like Reuters ask their Photographers to give in unprocessed .jpg files straight from their cameras because of the eroding of the realness in the public eye by ‘over processing’ of image files in the digital news picture industry and in the modern photography arena in general.

Though I too love the creamy colour of the modern digital photograph, I prefer the crisp image that my rangefinder lens provides me with the no nonsense provability that colour film in my M6 camera still gives me and my readers… JR

I Walk Because I See More Then When I Run

Mozambique refugee mother

Photos Jenny Matthews from her book Women and War.

Visual literacy can be described as the art of reading or writing with what is presented in a visual format as against the written word. A photograph is a 2 dimensional crop of what is; and there is a lot that surrounds me…

All of what you are colours how you see all that is around you. I have presented the same picture of a Swedish doctor working in a Sudanese internal displacement camp to different people. These different people have interpreted the same photograph differently accordingly to their world views. One person commented on how thin the people in the camp were, another commented on how pale the medic was and a third pointed out that there are also African doctors working in the Sudan… While the ‘language’ of photography transcends all the languages of the spoken and written word, it’s not an exact language as a photograph can be interpreted in so many ways, it’s a lawyer’s nightmare in this regard. The subtext of a photograph is also affected by the angle of view of the photographer, by what is in focus, in the foreground and what’s small and insignificant and in the background for example. The message of the photograph is affected by many things.

As much as the world view of a reader of a picture filters the message of a photograph, the world view of the photographer also affects their resulting images. I am an African photographer and I have never been to Norway, but I have seen pictures of the Norwegian fjords and pasture lands. This image of the fjords has coloured my perception of Norway as a whole; and if I got to photograph in their country I feel that the images burnt into my mind will affect my resulting images too. The pictures of the Norwegian fjords were taken by my ex wife’s father on his holiday there, the photographs of the landscape were ‘chocolate box’ in essence. I went away after seeing these images of the fjords and pastures thinking this maybe why the Norwegians too donate so much to my Africa. The social documentary photographer Dorothea Lange said that photographers should work by looking at that which they instinctively respond (Dyer, 2005).The photograph is also as much subjective to the individual photographer as it is also truth.

The photograph cannot exist if not for the camera itself first being present in the Sudan or the Norwegian fjord for example. I use cameras to make photographs to message a truth to my visually literate readers but have found out that the presence of a camera itself can alter the very subject that I have come to message to my readers. Jenny Matthews in her book Women and War talks about photographing survivors of a rebel attack in Mozambique, in Matthews’ first photograph the woman looks like a war weary refugee, in her second image the woman noticed the camera and she became the beatific mother, both moments happened, both images are truth. In the second photograph the camera itself changed the resulting picture. The woman in Matthews’ example became normative in that she put forward a face that she felt appropriate for a photograph of herself when she saw a camera pointing at her.

As a narrative photographer I have to have a handle on the dynamics of what surrounds me when I use photography to message to readers of my images…

Fools Only Go Where Angels Don’t Tread

I always carry my Leica M6 around with me because it has become a habit, it is my comfort blanket of sorts; and there is always a roll of colour film in it and a spare roll in my shoulder bag. Without my camera on me I have no chance of shooting a decisive moment, with my M6 on me I may just be in with a chance as it where. Decisive moments are not only in places of high drama and action worthy of front page news, often the best of them go past unnoticed. The photographer just has to be at the right place at the right time, that place can be anywhere that life is being outworked. But I am not writing about just getting out there and snapping pictures, this is about playing it forward.

I liken narrative photography to walking carefully through a flower bed, I want the telling pictures but without plowing up the space that I am working within.

The other day I took a long walk to clear my head and to put the city behind me; and the beach does that for me. I am working on a body of beach scape pictures, it’s a move from the person centric portraits of my South Beach work to a more environment centric focus of local beaches. I made a dent in the project with a few new images, but then the rest of the afternoon was quiet time for me to just absorb the space around me. I could have loaded a fresh film but the feeling to sit on the outskirts of the day’s activities and just look at what was was stronger.

Cuttings Beach is an 1.5 hour walk from where I stay in Durban South, it is just beyond a cemetery and a wetlands and between the Mondi paper mill and the SAPREF oil refinery. It was a Sunday that I felt that just looking was the better option. A large group of believers in the local Shembe faith were there alongside the normal subsistence fishermen who have made this place a home from home. By just sitting on the side I got to look deeply and enter into a conversation with one of their church elders, I came away with an understanding that will be of use next time I am communicating more fully aspects of the Shembe faith.

That day I made more then one new friend and made concrete for myself the concept of walking softly through the fields of photographic flowers.

As a narrative photographer I don’t want to be so busy taking pictures of all that is around me at the expense of first engaging with aspects of these subjects. How can I my photographs narrate fully if I as the author don’t first engage with the spaces? I want to dig below the surfaces with my images; and my conversations that Sunday opened up these narratives for future readers of photography. Instead of just a picture of an ‘unaware of it’s fate’ chicken on an African beach I can have a deeper outworking, by now knowing somethings more of the goings on of Cuttings Beach, Durban, South Africa.

SOME BASICS OF FILM AND DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Cameras and coffee.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the story tripod of the the photographic image; and how the photograph relied on story, technique and composition to convey the moment to the reader of the photograph.

Now I want to write a short piece on the most basic photographic tripod; and this is the tripod of the manual exposure mode of your film and or digital camera.

A camera is a lightproof box connected a hole through which a controlled amount of light gains access to a light sensitive surface producing a ‘drawing with light’, or photograph.

In all cameras light is controlled by just 3 mechanisms; and they are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The aperture controls the intensity of the light coming through the hole or lens, the shutter controls how long the light coming through the lens is in contact with the film or the digital sensor and ISO or International Standards Organisation controls the sensitivity of the film or sensor to the light coming through the aperture and shutter.

At this point I want to say that there is no single standard exposure setting for bright sun light or late afternoon light as it where. The 3 legs of this tripod work together; aperture, shutter and ISO work together for the photographer’s good, there many exposure options whatever the light conditions are.

Exposure is based on ISO and balanced out by aperture and shutter speeds like an inverted equilateral triangle. ISO is at the bottom and aperture and shutter speed keep the balance on top. ISO in photography can be defined as the film or sensor’s sensitivity to light, ISO 100 is half as sensitive to light as ISO 200. ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200, and ISO 800 is twice as sensitive as ISO 400 and so on to ridiculous heights with the new digital cameras.

The principal to remember in exposure is one of halving and doubling, ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200 and so on…

When coming to grips with manual mode on your camera the first step is deciding what ISO film you want to load on your film camera or what ISO you want to set your digital camera at.

Another way of understanding exposure is seeing it as two glasses filling with water under the water tap. The size of the glass is like ISO in exposure, one glass is twice the size of the other glass so it will need twice the amount of water to be filled to the brim. The water in the filled to the brim glass is like exposure in photography. The smaller of the two glasses is like ISO 400 to ISO 200, it only needs half the amount of light to be fully exposed. When filling a glass just to the brim with water whatever the size of the glass you always depend on how wide the valve in the tap is and how long the glass is held under the tap. The valve in the water tap is like the aperture, and the time I hold the glass under the tap is like the shutter speed in the camera.

So when I want a glass filled to the brim or a photograph exposed just right, if I halve the size of the valve through which the water flows I have to double the time the said glass is under the tap. Or if I double the time time I hold the glass under the tap I have to halve the size of the valve or visa versa. It always depends on the size of the glass or the ISO of the film or the camera setting.

Firstly you set your ISO then whatever you do in your aperture setting you have to compensate with your shutter speed until you get your light meter centered on the dial in your viewfinder and visa versa if you slow down your shutter speed by 3 stops you will have to close down with your aperture by 3 stops too. If you open up the aperture by a stop you increase the intensity of the light to compensate for this increase you will have to decrease the time the film or sensor is exposed to light by a stop too or you will over expose your photograph in the end.

By practising this exercise you will now discover that there are many combinations of aperture and shutter speed that will give you a perfectly exposed picture under any given lighting situation.

In closing, no you can’t change the ISO mid film, you should stick to the given ISO.

ON THE PORTRAYAL OF THE HUMAN FORM

Durban's People, a young model on a street fashion photo set, Bulwar Park,  Glenwood, Durban, South Africa.
Durban’s People, a young model on a street fashion photo set, Bulwar Park, Glenwood, Durban, South Africa.

 

As a narrative photographer I take pictures of what is around me, I don’t go into a studio situation to get a picture of say ‘two people looking meaningfully into the middle distance’ or ‘someone next to a window in the morning light.’

I once saw the Oliver Stone film Salvador with two student friends, Hamish was studying commercial photography, Bruce was studying journalism and I was a interior design student. Salvador is a film about two photogs covering the war in Salvador in South America, I came out of the cinema hyped, telling Hamish that as a photographer he should do this type of work when he was finished with his diploma, Hamish just looked at me as though I was mad. Hamish went on to be a successful commercial photographer and I went onto scraping out a living as a narrative photographer. Though both Hamish and I use the same cameras, I seem to think quite differently about photography to Hamish as a commercial photographer. I never wanted to become a war photographer as in Salvador but I have perceived life as it is around me as a photographer.

As Hamish though I was mad, I too have had a hard time understanding the ways of some other photographers in the portrayal of the human form. I posted the following on a Facebook photographic group: What is it with some (group Name) photographers and young womans bottoms and boobs? I got 10 likes and 1 reaction and the comments ranged from because I like it, I can and a sarcastic don’t you know? to the quite defensive and the inclusion of the word pornography. One photographer’s model said “if you have it flaunt it.” 

Then there was also the inclusion of the word passion and the sense of the decisive moment which I as a narrative photographer can understand too, I now think that it is something about the personal thrill of the photographer concerned in getting a preconceived concept together. Maybe it’s the same way I get a thrill when a moment came together when I have done a portrait on the streets of Durban.

I think we all as photographers have our driving forces, some forces are exclusive to the different types of photography, and other forces are common to us all.

 

USE IT LIKE A HASSELBLAD

Joshua G's  5th birthday

Sisters in Woodlands, Microsoft Lumia 435 ‘phone camera, Photo John Robinson

Cell phone cameras do not produce the same image crispness of a medium format Carl Zeiss lens, but the ‘phone camera does have the same ability of a medium format to take pictures out of the way of the human contact between the photographer and the person photographed…

Way back when I was just starting out on my own photographic journey, I remember Jenny Gordon commenting on the ‘feel’ of her photographs taken on her medium format Hasselblad camera at the time. When a Hasselblad camera is used, it is usually mounted on a tripod out of the way of the photographer and the persons photographed at the time; and this reduces ‘strain’ on the person or persons photographed.

Click your shutter button now, don’t chimp, look and be surprised later. When using a ‘phone camera in bright light it’s often hard to see the coming image on the camera screen, so just have a quick look to make sure of your angles, the camera has already a surprisingly good hold the exposure and focus side of things. So just get on with capturing the moment – it’s only digital, so no loss as ‘they’ say… And your pictures will be more spontaneous and ‘of the moment’ too.

On the theory side, when someone is being portrayed they can become ‘normative.’ Another way of saying this is: they present themselves to the camera in a way that they think they should be portrayed. The result of this behavior by the person been photographed is that the photographer does not get the moment as she or he saw it. The ‘phone camera is much less “serious” in the mind of the person photographed and so they get less up set by the process…

To end this piece, I say spend more time taking pictures and less time getting hung up in photographic gadgets; I also think that if H.C.B. had had a ‘phone camera he would have used it too.