I recently spent some time in the East Kimberley delivering some photography workshops. Due to the fact I was working with young people I am unable to share those images online. However, here’s a few behind the scenes shots and impressions from Wyndham that I have compiled into this short clip.
After accidentally erasing my first attempt of processing black & white film which you can read here, I loaded the same type back into the camera and went photographing immediately after work the following day.
With the shots lost, there was one that could be replicated easily; an outlying column of sandstone rock at Reddells beach that has been engraved with names and initials over time. I've seen similar engraving on the walls of remote caves in Cambodia, the insides of which were emblazoned with the names of hundreds of tourists. Cedar Falls outside of Brisbane is a small waterfall and bush walking area where people have sprayed tags over the rock-face. I've even seen a small fishing boat that had sunk in the shallow, clear waters off the dive island of Ko Tao in Thailand, that was totally covered and tagged by people that had dived there.
I'm pretty unforgiving when it comes to mindless tags and vandalism. To me, it's about as imaginative as a dog pissing on a lamppost. I was speaking to a friend about this recently and she was less scathing. She said if she saw the initials of a couple in a tree, than that added a story. A mystery. It conjured up a narrative about who they were, when they met, did they eventually get married etc? And in cases like that I get it. The photos and examples above feel different though,
And yet, I do have experience of this. When I was about five or six I wrote '"Steven's Garage" (minus the apostrophe presumably) in green marker pen on the garage wall of my parent's home in big, scrawling, childlike writing. Dad had been out and I wanted to surprise him on his return. He pulled up in the drive way and as he stepped out the car I proudly showed him my addition to the pebble dashed, exterior wall. He was surprised alright and instead of the kindly praise that I was expecting, I got an absolute bollocking for it
Also when I was at secondary school, I would occasionally engrave the names of my favorite bands into the wooden desk tops during class which were already covered. However one day I tagged the wrong desk. Mrs White, who had thick glasses, a soft voice and short wispy hair kept me after class one day, where she had found my latest additions. Strategically it was a flawed decision on my part because these were new tables, plastic coated with a mock grain underneath and pristine. She worked out it was my work because a) we all had designated seats for the whole year and b) there had been no other class in that room since we were last in there, so she didn't exactly need a qualification in criminology to deduce, correctly, that I was the culprit. At the time I couldn't' believe she traced it back so quickly and before my lame attempts at denial were over, I had a cloth and spray firmly placed in my hands.
So I have history of it. In this context we're talking about the natural environment where people, adults, have engraved their names into rocks that can't be wiped away. I get we all want to leave our mark etc but really?
So I went to retake the photograph with these ideas in mind. I knew my first composition from the original film had good lines, contrast and balance. However I couldn't replicate it from memory so I had to approach the rock like I was seeing it for the first time. After a couple of exposure errors I had to retake two more but as I was packing up I saw what looked like a misalignment between the camera and the film back which you can see in the short clip below.
This unnerved me because I didn't want to invest too much time and effort into this film only to realise that the shots were compromised by light leaks. And I wasn't exactly looking for much of an excuse to finish this one to get another chance to develop at home once again. So I quickly shot the whole film that evening, rushing through in the falling light. The shots included a couple of abstracts at the base of the engraved rock and a couple of the theropod prints in the reef that were visible due to the low and outgoing tide. Dinosaurs walked here, their marks still visible 135million years.
By and large very happy with my first successful attempt at developing film at home. Stunning detail, tones and feel with this film.
And no light leaks.
Since getting the film camera back from the repairers, I have spent my time shooting an ongoing series of work about the people and place of Broome. While it is entirely shot in colour, I've been shooting separate photos in monochrome, that aren't part of the main body of work. A series set in the Kimberley, with this light, demands colour photography. Then again, all those tones, shades and textures are perfect for monochrome.
However, my transition back to film isn't just about the quality, colour and slow pace that is endemic with medium format photography. It's about process and part of that is developing film at home. Over the past few months, I have been getting the necessary equipment together: including a light proof bag where you unpack the film, a developing tank where you place the film and the three main chemicals which must be poured in a specific order, for set periods of time, to process the film..
I shot a fine grain film with a mix of landscape shots. Several were taken on low tide at Crab Creek at the foot of the mangroves focusing on the hundreds of shoots growing through the sand. A combination of soft light from the setting sun and the shadows from the overhead trees provided dividing lines and contrast. I composed it abstractly, making the photo more about texture, lines, and light. There were also two detail shots of a 3 ft shark that had been washed up which I managed to capture just as a fly landed on its head, giving it a perfect sense of scale.
When it came to the development I aimed to be meticulous and double check my processes. The mistake I made was multi-tasking when I watched a YouTube video on home development on the laptop, in the kitchen, while dicing onions in preparation for dinner. I thought a quick chili con carne would simmer away while I got involved into processing my first film at home. I had done it a few weeks previously,with a friend so I figured the video would simply refresh my memory.
Wednesday night was my first solo attempt
Once the food was cooking I went back to the office, stuck my arms in the light proof tent and was ready to unwrap the film when I stopped and noticed that the zip was only closed halfway. That simple mistake would have let light in and ruined it. Then I unraveled the film, loading the edge onto the reel, threading it through the loading mechanism and ratcheting it along so it was neatly coiled and ready to sit in the development tank.
The thing is, it takes about two sentences to describe the process. It took me twenty five minutes to actually do.
Inside the bag everything got messy, quickly. The protective paper on the outside of the film was strewn around like streamer paper at an office Christmas party. For the most part I wasn't 100% sure if what I was loading onto the reel was the protective paper itself or the actual film. I didn't want to leave fingerprints on the roll. so decided to wear white cotton gloves that I normally wear when handling negatives and therefore I could hardly make any sense of what I was handling. Added to that the humidity increased inside the bag making everything damp and more difficult to work with.
However, I managed it and went to get the food finalised while nostalgically imagining having a freshly cooked dinner twenty minutes later, as the negatives dried in the shower.
The first step of development process is mixing the correct ratio of developer and water, which needs to be 20 C. It's a four minute process of agitation, rest, agitation and so on. Then you add stop solution to halt the development. Finally you fix the film with fixer so light no longer affects the negative, Simple. Should take about 15 minutes in total.
I was on course and had made it to the final stage. Out of habit, I shook the bottle of fixer and a drop landed on my foot. Did I open it beforehand and not remember? However, in the bathroom I saw the bottle of developer on the sink and realised I used the wrong chemical from the outset. This was confirmed when I opened the lid and saw that the foil was in tact. After a quick debrief with a friend I decided to start again to see if there was something to salvage from the negative.
Mid-way through the first stage he text me saying:
I knew he was probably right but I had to carry on. Once I completed the three step process again I sent him a pic of the results and jokingly asked:
'think it's underexposed?'
Humour is hard to convey via text.
As a result of getting the chemicals mixed up the film was entirely wiped clean. I've since mentioned this to three photographers about developing and cooking at the same time and on every occasion, every one of them winced at the thought of the multi tasking fiasco described above.
Lessons learnt. Do one thing, do it right.
And always read the label.
I sold it all on ebay and went back to film. Okay, that's half a lie because I still have one digital camera for everyday use but my immediate and personal projects will be shot on film. Nikon was my bridge to digital in 2006 but after twelve years I needed to shake things up and once I made the decision not to do paid event work any longer, it was easier to let the equipment go.
It wasn't just that though. At the beginning of 2017 I felt bored, unchallenged and disillusioned with photography and for the best part for the year I decided to not even pick up the camera. My strategy was to go quiet and reignite the energy through solitude.
And when my father planned a visit mid 2017, I asked him to bring my film camera which had been sat in his humid, dank, basement for six years. It looked fine, smelt a bit musty and I noticed instantly there was a lens jam when the aperture blades would stick after nearly every shot. So then it's a case of removing the lens, manually unwinding it with a screwdriver which is unnerving when you can see the reflection of the flat head shimmering in the reflection of the rear lens element. So before any serious us and after researching online, I found a guy in Perth and got it repaired. And then after more quiet time and thinking without actively deliberating, an idea formed for a project and I started shooting in November 2017.
It felt like old times getting my film hand checked at airport security when I returned to the UK at Christmas. I remember seeing a young security guy in Dubai take an exposed roll out the bag and shake it slowly next to his ear, pacing up and down, looking and listening.
Back home, I gladly found the old photo lab that I used from my uni days and was happily amazed that the same two people still worked there. They even used the same style square carbon receipt pad to take my contact details and my order for processing and basic scans. Standing at the counter it felt like time travelling with all those memories flooding back. Two days later I got an email saying they were ready for collection and when viewing the files on the computer everything seemed good. The quality and was all there and apart from the occasional light leeks and fogging on some negatives, I was happy.
The beginning of a series started to form.
When I returned back to Australia I bought a flatbed scanner from the proceeds of selling a lens and that's when the the problems became visible.
Ten out of twelve shots, from one roll, were out of focus. The camera was front focusing which essentially means if you focus on the eyes of someone then everything on the focal plane in front of them is sharp. In this case it was the person's chin or stomach.
And I was worried because I had started shooting new rolls as soon as I got back to Broome throughout January/February. So despite getting into a routine and with all this glorious weather and colour and rain,I had to put the brakes on the project, sent all my new film off for processing to alleviate my concerns and managed to track down a Hasselblad technician in South Australia. After a brief conversation it was with him within a week and he started work immediately.
It's the beauty and uncertainty of film. The instant feedback has disappeared, the moments long gone. Luckily, the shots that I knew were keepers, came out well, bar one or two. So at this early stage it's a case of ironing out those problematic variables and leaving as little to chance as possible. Once concerns about equipment are gone it allows room for the conditions where luck can be created.
“There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”
“Today everything exists to end in a photograph. Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”
"It's pretentious for photographers to believe that their pictures alone change things. If they did, we wouldn't be besieged by war, by incidents of genocide, by hunger. A more realistic assessment of photography's value is to point out that it's illustrative of what's going on; that it provides a record of history, that photograph's can prompt dialogue. What we can do as photographers is to carry viewers into the lives of others... so hopefully viewers will be more understanding and sympathetic. But even if they are, that's a long, long way from outright change."
Early in March of last year, I started reading Larry Fink’s book On Composition and Improvisation, part of the aperture photography workshop series. There are some stunning black and white photographs chronicled in this volume presented with a mixture of the photographers insights, compositional techniques and other photographic processes. It's a book I refer to regularly.
On page 26 there is this photo of a boxer training before a fight
Below this photo he instructs:
At around this time I was on Roebuck plains towards the tail end of the wet season. My intention was to get some dramatic storm fronts cutting across the salted, treeless plains just outside of Broome. The earth is chalky white, spread with clusters of spear grass, rough spinifex and pale termite mounds. Even though it looks landlocked this area is within an eleven metre inter-tidal zone where you often see hermit crabs marching along deep 4x4 tracks.
Down the end of one of these dry and weathered track I came across a friend of mine and we spoke through the wound down window for a while. The horse took the initiative and came in to inspect and as it did I took some photos and framed it with the recent advice still fresh in my mind, using the wing mirror to give it the effect of adding depth to the composition.
Most of the photos I took used this effect. The mirror is brash and bright, unlike the delicate placement of the table corner in the boxer photograph but was useful to use a compositional technique days after reading about it.
You can buy On Composition and Improvisation here.
It was late afternoon in February and I was on Roebuck plains trying to find an interesting composition of the storm that was enveloping Broome. Looking up it was hard to find much drama or scale since the clouds were mostly spread out across the sky in one mass vortex with sporardic tentacles of rain. I took a self-timed selfie to start the photographic process while illustrating some of the dramatic lighting and clouds.
When the first drops of rain landed, moments after this was taken, I knew that the photographic opportunity was gone. I walked quickly back to the car getting wetter with every step as the rains fell harder, disappointed that I didn't get out there sooner. However, driving home and heading west I did see the vaguest break in the clouds and figured it would be worth heading to Cable beach, just to see what the conditions were like. Broome is a small town but it never fails to surprise me how different weather can be a few minutes drive from one area to the next.
Five minutes later I was walking the 50metres up to the surf club and I could sense the opportunity. Sometimes there is a moment; a palpable suspicion of photographic potential and that was lingering in air. The first thing that I noticed was the contrast of light between the foreground and background. Then there was this calm, awe filled silence that was intermittently broken by the flash of lightening and deep rumble of thunder on the horizon as people faced west.
But with the sun already below the horizon I knew I didn’t have long to capture something interesting. I wanted to make the couple in the foreground, who were taking photos, the focus of the shot. Then it was a case of shoot, recompose and hone in on the composition. I did take a lot because I tried, unsuccessfully, to land a lightening bolt.
I never knew what I had until about five months later when I reviewed the files. I came away from the afternoon annoyed because I felt I left it all too late. Also I tend not to look and edit the photos until months later. Time passes and objectivity replaces emotional attachment to an image, which in my experience is vital when reviewing and selecting your own work. Now, not only am I really happy with the photo as in ties in with many ideas I have about technology and our relationship to the environment, but it was awarded the photographic prize in for Shinju Matsuri, Broome's annual cultural festival, where the judges said:
'We thought the artist created an image that went beyond a mere photo. The photo is glamorous in its presentation of light, landscape and individuals.'
And I also managed to get into Capture Magazine's 'The Annual' with this photograph, which is Australia's leading publication for pro-photographers. I think it is one of my strongest images to date and there is a line of enquiry that I am pursueing further with this.