Thursday, May 22, 2014

Digital Landscape photography: Yes...but is it Art?

Chambre Hardman's Birth of the Ark Royal.From a golden age of photography or just old hat?: Image National Trust

The other week I caught a programme on iPlayer which was originally aired on BBC Scotland on its Adventure Show series presented by outdoor writer, Cameron McNeish. This particular episode concentrated on the work of acclaimed and hugely successful outdoor photographer, Colin Prior. Most people throughout the UK will be familiar with Colin’s work though his glossy coffee table tomes, calendars, greeting cards etc. In the programme, Colin and a huge team of porters trekked through the Karakorum region where the photographer is engaged in a five year mission to capture the mountains and it’s people through digital imagery.

As with his Scottish and UK work, the images were never less than technically outstanding. In fact I remarked to my partner that some of them were like stills from Lord of the Rings. And in that, it encapsulates a personal growing distaste for what landscape and in particular mountain photography within the digital media, has evolved into.

Colin Prior.The Jack Vettriano of the photographic world?:Photo BBC/Adventure Show

A rather predictable medium where perfection is almost guaranteed and creativity is at a premium. I’m not a photographer, more a happy snapper who happens to take thousands of images a year. I do have an interest in photography as an art form though which dates back to when I was in my early twenties and working as a van driver in Chester. The old storeman in the company where I worked, taught me the basics of photography including black and white film developing and encouraged me to move away from point and shoot Instamatic photography and get a half decent camera and learn how to use it. In this case it was a Soviet Zorki 4 Rangefinder camera. My mentor passed on an old Gnome enlarger and all the required tanks and trays to equip a darkroom and I was away. Locking myself in the bathroom and watching through a roseate glow as ghostly images emerged in my plastic tray. A line of prints pegged out across the room.

In recent years I’ve become increasingly bored with digital photography as a medium and attracted to film photography. A year or two ago I blogged about Lomography (a large part of which is rehashed here) as an exciting and creatively satisfying film medium. Lacking the almost guaranteed perfection of digital, this lo-fi, analogue medium excites through its unpredictability. If you want a quick resume of what a typical lomograph film image is, then think Instagram. For this hugely popular digital image medium simply apes the imperfections of an image taken on say a cheap Chinese Holga camera. Weird colour tones, light leaks and heavy saturation etc.

These days, anyone with a couple of bob can buy an expensive digital camera and use it with an editing suite to create images which will fool 90% of the general public into believing that the image creator is a bona-fide professional. The other week I saw a feature in a North Wales media which posted prize winning landscape images, a lot of which had been so heavily manipulated by effects such as HDR that it only proved that in photography, you can fool most of the people most of the time!

Of course, there is a real difference between the amateur who equips themselves with expensive cameras and who knows their way around an editing suite, and the true professional who still requires the patience, creative eye and feeling for the landscape of the old film masters. For myself though, there’s only so many images of mountains folded into strands of cloud, with peaks aflame and flanks simmering in shadows and fire, that I can take!  I yearn for imperfection and gritty black and white urban brutalism! The other week I drove along the dock road in Liverpool and as always, was taken with the powerful imagery presented within the waterfront environment. Empty warehouses and boarded up street corner pubs. Ships and gantries, turbines and tankers, a flash of river down a dockland street. An environment far removed from the mountains of north Wales but in its way, just as dramatic and conducive to creative image making .

Cover Image from Colin Prior's Highlight.Published by Constable and available through Amazon and all good bookshops

Which brings me back to the Colin Prior TV programme. It’s funny to me how within popular culture, photography is somewhat immune from the same cultural critiques which are applied to painting or sculpture. Whereas a popular painter like Scottish artist Jack Vettriano is ridiculed and torn apart by the Guardianistas, a populist photographer like Colin Prior remains unsullied by the culture vulture critics. Why is this? Both are highly successful professional creatives, producing work for a mass market but whereas poor old Jack has to endure the contempt of the art world, Colin strides through the popular culture landscape untouched. To this writer at least, both are gifted individuals in their field but neither would produce a work I'd particularly want to hang on my wall, but I respect however,the fact that this is very much a minority view.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The naming of the stones

In the millennium year, I happened to be driving through a remote valley in north Wales when I noticed that The Forestry Commission had clear felled part of a steep hillside to reveal an interesting looking crag high above the road. I picked my way through the tangle of forest debris and loose rock to discover a fine little outcrop which stretched across the hillside for a hundred metres or so. No more than forty foot high and often interrupted by vegetated recesses which broke up the continuity, it was nevertheless,steep, clean and inviting. The crag was certainly not bristling with post modern extreme test pieces. It appeared more suited to the average punter, beavering away in the easier grades up to HVS, but as something of a punter myself, that's fine by me.

Within a week or so, I returned after persuading my old friend, the veteran Harold Drasdo-not unfamiliar with far flung outcrops himself- that it looked well worth a visit. I recall that we did about half a dozen new routes although a return visit last week, 14 years on, suggests that it might have only been three or four?  The crag carries no name on the OS map and at the time I didn’t name it or record the routes. When I went back on a glorious sunny evening last week, my first thoughts were, I really should get back here and work it out before putting it on record. My second thought was to ask myself why I hadn’t bothered before? It set me thinking about the often arbitrary nature of route recording. There have been climbs on virgin crags I’ve done before and not recorded yet by the same token, I’ve recorded some pretty so-so climbs which were often not as good as some of the unrecorded climbs?

There’s no real rhyme or reason to it that I can explain. I imagine that there are thousands of climbs out there unrecorded by the first ascentionist which either remain off the record or have been claimed as first ascents by others who have followed. I noticed that climbs claimed as FA’s in the Filiast Slabs area of Nant Francon and on Craig Tonnau above Roman Bridge were done earlier by myself but not written up. It’s not something I lose any sleep over. They weren’t  particularly memorable anyway.

Some climbers however, are almost fanatical in recording every micro route they do, regardless of quality, height or the probability that no one else would be daft enough to repeat it! One climber called Barry Clarke has achieved modest fame-or is it notoriety?- by steaming his way across every minor crag and boulder in the area and recording these routes in detail. The CC has even given him his own new routes page! Usually soloed and in the lower grades, Barry has made an art out of creating things on these neglected areas of rock where others have either played on and left unrecorded or walked right passed.

A couple of years ago I soloed some of Barry’s ‘New Routes’ on the back of Arenig Fawr. At least one I’d done myself back in exploratory days in the mid 90’s. With all due respect to Barry, most people would have seen them as little more that an easy-ish problem to while away a few minutes on a walk before wending their way to the summit. Still, with Gary Gibson’s  first  ascent record in sight, who am I to grumble about one person’s right to name and claim a first ascent. As far as sorting the wheat out from the chaff, I’ll leave that problem to the poor guide book editors who have the unenviable task of deciding whether or not these routes of Barrys are worth putting into their guidebooks. He obviously thinks they are.

Which brings me back to ‘Bwtres Llus’ (Bilberry Buttress) for that is belatedly, the name I’ve given to the crag. All it needs now are a few visits to work it out and it can be revealed in all its modest glory. Now...if only I could find that lovely dolerite crag under Moel Meirch where I did three unrecorded routes in the early 90’s?