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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THE SOCIAL BY THE POP UP AND MALLAZ CUSTOMS

In a colab with DJ Castle, Castle & Robinson has come about, Castle & Robinson is the joining of a DJ and myself as an event photographer to provide the music and a record of peoples house parties, clubs and events in around Durban, South Africa…

While Reclining one Saturday afternoon in ‘Little Nigeria’ (South Beach) Durban, South Africa…

The men are drinking quarts of Black Label upstairs while the woman folk are rubbing  down my host’s wife with peanut butter and tomato sauce in the courtyard at the back of the building in a well humoured anticipation of an addition to the host’s family.

The man talk is of a celebrity visit to South Beach; and there are strong views on this issue: will South Beach be graced to this magnitude or will the area once again be left out in the cold?

The blue walls of this building contain dramas that could feed a T.V. series for a season or two.  Outside in “piss alley” the road is controlled by the Congolese, inside the building my host’s brother rules the realities of life. The building has about 14 flats rented to people who cannot afford beach front apartments on the golden mile… Little big eyes and her peanut covered mommy come back from the courtyard and her daddy is shocked by what the women have done to his babe.

The fast beats of tech music fill the background of beer and men talk all afternoon, the brothers are close and the under current of the talk is coping with life and concern that hurt is kept away from the family. Hurt and life is interrupted by asking for this or that tune to be played. Our ‘beer talk’ is mixed with two plates of cake, pretzel sticks, sweets and cookies and a bowl of sugared pop corn from the baby shower in the courtyard.

I place a blanket over the little girl who is soon to be ‘big sister,’ not even strange visitors and cartoons on the T.V. can keep her upright. My bicycle ride home is delayed by a swapping of movies and series for .jpg files of family pics I have done for the host in the past.

My ride home on Lady of Loreto, I named my bicycle after a patron saint of flying, is stopped for the fuel of a mutton curry pie on Maydon Road past the back of the Durban Port to my room in Woodlands in south Durban.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

Live by the Sword and Live More Fully

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Me half way up some stairs in Kinshasa, DRC. Photo John Robinson.

As a self confessed visual poet and spirit thief, I will do well as a photographer to make some of my own spirit more available to the people around me.

In a conversation with T-Bone at the BAT Centre in Durban about the tangibility of the substance of a good photograph, I realized that as a photographer I am able to connect with the spirit of others and or the spirit of the moment before my lens but I am hard pressed to share my self with those around me on a daily basis.

T-Bone asked me if there was a tangible transfer of something when a photograph is taken “like in drama on the theatre stage” I said a big yes to his question, T-Bone is a drama specialist at the BAT Centre. I have seen many ‘stiff’ or ‘dead’ photographs to conclude that something of the ‘spirit’ or the ‘moment’ resides in some other photographs. I told T-Bone that a photographic image that speaks to the viewer is the same as the stage drama that speaks to someone in the audience in this sense.

Take my camera out of my hands and I become a bit of stiff too, but I am learning to loosen up on my spirit in the social sense, it’s hard, but I am making headway. I don’t like the word ‘networking’ and I am an useless networker, but I like the word ‘connect’ and as a photographer I understand the concept. By connecting my spirit with those of others, those others may too get a hold on who I am as a person, while I get a hold on something of their spirits. We are members of human race and all have something in common; and it is for us to find out what our commonalities are and blossom together if possible.

As a narrative photographer I am a task master at lurking on the edge of an activity with my ‘M6 and getting away with some of the gold on offer. As a member of the same race that I shoot I am too now more giving of my own spirit to those others around me. It’s like giving back of what I have gotten over the years as a photog; and it’s good for me too. I am freed up to just be me more often, and in front of others too.

They say “live by the sword and die by the sword”… I add to this by saying I can also live more fully too before the end comes as it will for everyone of us.

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…

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.

 

I DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT…

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Diagram courtesy of https://www.videomaker.com

Printing my own black and white photographs in the darkroom taught me a bit about what my M6 camera and a bit of Kodak Tri X film could record for posterity. Learning about the importance of 18% grey, middle grey or zone V taught me about the importance of correct exposure in gaining from all the black & white film could give me no matter what light conditions I work in.

I have now given my Leitz enlarger away and no longer wet the floors of any darkroom floors; I now just do the ‘darkroom’ thing with a Nikon Coolscan V ED scanner, Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS5 in my office. But my hand held Polaris light meter still ensures that the colour or black & white print film in my camera records the moment so close to how my eyes perceived it. A hand held light meter in incidence mode ensures that the high and low lights remain as just that. When I still worked my negatives in the darkroom, the negatives exposed with my hand held meter in incidence mode were much less hassle to work with. The empirical evidence in front of my eyes told me that it was much better to work with the available light then fight with it in the ‘darkroom’ or ‘lightroom’ as the process is commonly called now.

The hand held light meter in incidence mode meters the light in an as is way, deep shadows or blacks will remain as just that and high lights or whites will remain as is. If you a photographing someone in the dim shadows they will appear as such. When I am doing a portrait I sometimes reposition the subject to get some of the available highlights to fall across their face; I then take a light metering and shoot the portrait. Work with the light, don’t fight with it, you will get better pictures in the end.

Though I have given up on the darkroom, I have not stopped using colour and black & white film; and when I use film I use my Polaris light meter too.

This method of exposure gives me images that have all the tones from the highlights through to the deep dark shadows just as God gave them to us all.