Taking Pictures – Telling Stories

Taking Pictures – Telling Stories*

I started environmental photo documentation in 1972, but the most important work was in the south west forests of WA in the mid to late 1990s.   It is in part a review of this work for a recent traveling exhibition that has prompted this post

But the actual trigger for this post ws re-reading Truman Capote’s opening paragraphs to In Cold Blood, which he wrote with cinematic precision.  Capote first described the location and its feeling, followed by introducing the main characters and then the story.  Read this book, it is a masterpiece of story telling

This information is intended as a guide for people who need to document the environment and its defense.  This post should be read as a guide rather than rules.  Take what you want as a starting point for making picture sequences and videos that are understandable and make the story clear.  Clarity is crucial in the age of short attention spans.

Environmental stories from the South West of Western Australia are needed again – now.  For people about to embark on documenting environmental stories here is a quick reminder of a few points to help picture stories that make sense to an uninformed viewer.  Making sense is the whole point of them

Documentary clarity is crucial to easy reading of the story, and if the story is not clear no one will give heed to it.  In this time of digital image overload image strength is also crucial, and the two aspects must be fused to make images that demand and command attention and show that the health of the environment is the most crucial story at this time.  Most attention is given to social problems and to mass migrations, but without a healthy and sustaining global environment, no amount of social progress can happen

To make cogent and commanding sequences and videos there is a list of important steps to be undertaken,  The steps are Story or Concept – Research – Planning – Photographing – Review and finally Publication, editing and showing.

If a situation presents itself before the planning stage is ready, grab it and do the homework afterwards, but still do it.

There is a modern idea that reporting shoud be “fair and balanced” or “objective”, meaning showing both sides of an argument, the sort of demand made of the ABC by Andrew Bolt on Sky News.  Forget that crap, take a stance and be partisan.  Be prejudiced, the environment is on its last stand, and it needs committed support.  (See my earlier post regarding Martha Gelhorn).
This has to be something that attracts and engages you, it is impossible to be engaged with a story that you find boring.  No engagement equals no energy in the pictures and no power in the story

is crucial, If you are documenting damage to lakes or wetlands set up a research file on the locations, their hydrology, acid sulphate soils.  Get the maps.  As well as this information, make notes on the main protagonists.  What companies are conniving with which government agencies to gain access to what resourses?  Who is setting up to defend the environment?  For Old Growth Forest Logging do the same, starting with coup maps and logging quotas.  This information will inform the way you record your story and enable you to defend your stories if questioned.

There is a lot to go in here, choice of means, still or video etc; aesthetic approach, intended audience.  Aim at an untutored audience rather than the already committed.
As well as digital cameras, a lot can be done with a mobile ‘phone camera.  With a mobile phone stories can be rough edited and uploaded once you are in range of a tower.  You will learn what suits you after the first couple of attempts.  (Black and white film and darkroom printing is for misanthropic septuagenarians, one of them is enough.)
Also under planning is setting up a time line, what aspects of the story can be recorded where and when and how and with whom.

The doing of it.  Earlier I referred to Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Like him, use a sequence of introductions: a cinematic apporach, starting with the establishing shot that shows the location and gives context to the story.  Establishing shots can be made before, during or after an event.  Make them whenever you get the opportunity, you don’t yet know what you will need, so build up a library of these.  However, always start with some establishing shots at the beginning of the event or location you are documenting, use wide angle, showing the whole scene.  Next go in for a medium angle shot showing the area of interest, do this from two sides.  Next get in a close as you can, the four positions forming a diamond shape.  Having got those images recorded, become more fluid and let the situation dictate what you photograph next, and let whatever the light, the situation and your creative ability generate.
Make notes.  Many point and shoot cameras and mobile ‘phone cameras record not only the time but also the precise location in the EXIF metadata.  EXIF metadata is superb for authenticating a story.  OK, is true that EXIF metadata can be overwritten, but no one ever bothers, and many people don’t even know it exists.  This is where film is good, there is no metadata
Keep a journal, not just the fluffy stuff, but notes on light, who was there, distances driven, to whom copies of images have been sent, all the stuff that is easy to forget after the event

When you are in a quiet place review what you have and see how a story can be told from it.  Don’t be kind to yourselff..  If you think your work is great, it is time to stop, because you won’t improve.  Be careful whom you ask for advice, most people will not want to hurt your feelings.  This is one area where an objective critical response is needed to help you advance; this is often the point at which we feel most alone.

is another area where we could do with help, but can rarely find it.  A good editing position is to cut rather than include.  It is too easy to put in too much, making the finished product long and indigestible.  We are telling a quick story to grab attention in C21, not recreating Kobayashi’s The Human Condition.
Showing, this is where my experience lets me down, I came from an age of shopping centre displays of prints and town hall slide shows.  C21 has moved on from there and I am not in a position to say anything more.

*The title was coined by Liz Reed in 2004, and used by the first FotoFreo event

Images to follow – later



Super Wide Woody

Super Wide Woody

Oct 31st, 2018

SWW camera

Most of my newer work is either 35mm or large format, and medium format camera use has fallen through a hole in the middle.  For me medium format always felt like it had the disadvantages of both small and large formats.  So I have passed my Hasselblad SWC on to some one who will use it as it deserves

Enter the Super Wide Woody, SWW

A big time ago I bought a 75mm f8 Super Angulon for the Linhof, but wide angle on these cameras is an utter pain in the arse, even with recessed lens panels.  I had considered getting a wooden camera to replace the Linhof, but each time I consider this I weigh up all the options and stick with what I know and trust

Linhof 90mm Angulon

My first 75mm f8 Super Angulon was in a recessed panel for the Linhof, but this lens, while an optical delight, was in a Compur shutter that was awkward and fiddly to use inside the recess. So I swapped it with a friend for a f5.6 version in a Press Copal shutter, a very easy and sensible shutter in many ways, but it could not be fitted into the recessed panel and work.  It works on a flat panel, but the Linhof standard ended up partly off the back of the focusing rail.  (For comparison 75mm on 5×4″ is equivalent to 38mm on 6×6 and 21mm on 35mm film, so becomes the “standard” super wide angle)

SWW in use

As I wrote, enter the SWW, Super Wide Woodie, a wooden camera box to take a Speed Graphic focusing back on one end and a Goersi helicoid focusing mount on the other with the lens mounted on this.  Added to this is a Goersi 72mm view finder on the top.  A 72mm VF as that was what was available and all these optical viewfinders have too much “TV Safe” clearance, which means the negative shows far more than the viewfinder does.  Even Leica viewfinders have this fault

I took the idea to sculptor and photographer Peter Kovacsy in Pemberton, and very quickly he came up with the camera body shown.  Not the design I had envisaged, but very light, with a logical use of materials and a simple elegance

Peter Kovaksi 228

Peter Kovaksi 243

Peter Kovaksi 244

This camera has the advantages of an easy to use International back for view camera screen focusing and composition. This is aided by the very sensible Press Copal shutter which opens the aperture as well as the shutter when the press focus lever is pressed, so is very fast and convenient.  Also easy is the viewfinder and scale on the focusing helicoid for fast and simple working.  This scale is surprisingly accurate, and will be augmented with a Hyper focal Distance scale after I have done actual tests resulting in prints. Currently the HfD stuff is on a piece of card

Next post will be pix from it, rather than of it

The Show is Over – Part II – Where Next?

Continued from The Show is Over: Part One

My photography has always gone ahead of my concious thinking and I never manage to catch up.  An example of this is the precursors.  Throughout my work there have been precursors, images that seem out of kilter with the work I am doing, but prefigure later portfolios. For example, within the work with women there were some images made with women in the landscape in 1993 which predicted the forest work.  At the time I did not know what was pushing me away from my studio, where this work was being done.  In 1994 I bought my house in the forest, and very soon decided to move here full time.  But the 1993 pictures at Abyssinia Rocks and Walga Rock led the way,  I just carried the camera for the pictures to clamber into and dutifully followed where I was led.  It has always been thus with my work, I just carry the cameras and feed them film.  Yes, total mindlessness . . .

It was the essays, by Sarah and Diana, and re-reading John Barrett Lennard’s essay to my first 24 year survey show calalogue, that opened my awareness to some aspects of my work I never understood, aspects that are possible directions for new work

First printing, printing negatives from 1963 (ninteen sixty three) onwards, a serious printing period to update my body of work

Then more forest work, showing the state of the south west Western Australian forests in 2018+, following from the 1994 – 2003 sets of images.  Add to this more Littoral images, but without differentiating them, perhaps re-label all of them as Southern Forest Region.  Also simple pictures of trees, like the new images of Melaleuca cuticularis at Broke Inlet, from where Rae and I have just returned.  Images where light is prime driver, more important than a mere catalogue of species

The above paragraph shows I have no plans for major travel, the Weatbelt excepted, but that is only a day away.  I am one of the photographers who work in their local area and try to dig deeply and extend my understanding of where Iive.  The other attitude is to keep constantly on the move and keep finding new subjects, but this approach can lead to a superficial reading of the world.  There are, obviosly, workers like W E Smith and Edward Weston who traveled and waited until the local visual mycellium entered their vision and they saw with almost local eyes

After that re-studio my shed and make the big 10×8″ camera portraits I once planned.  Perhaps not for Bunbury, ‘though that tiny white confrontational cube is enticing

The Show is Over – Part I Nov 20th, 2018

My second twenty four year survey is over, where to next?

Gallery from outside at dinner time

Mainly, I feel liberated for the next phases of my work, but to that later in this post

Firstly, I will thank Julian Bowron, then Director of Bunbury Regional Art Gallery, BRAG, for inviiting me to have this show and for the organisation of the first stage, and for constant input to the show’s tour.

From Julian’s introduction to the catalogue “I first became aware of John Austin’s work when looking through the City of Bunbury Art Collection and discovering images from his enigmatic portrait series of the artist Howare Taylor. . .  By then I knew that on the edge of the forest at Quinninup lived a remarkable photographer who should be the subject of a BRAG retrospective exhibtion by a senior South West artist . . .

The show was far harder than I had imagined, at first it seemed it would be simple.  Julian suggested the show during the Doug Chambers opening. I thought about a small show of big prints of 10×8” camera portraits in the tiny cube gallery in the middle of BRAG.  Big confronting prints with no room for the viewer to stand back for relief, and I would still like to do this.  During our subsequent meeting Julian corrected me to a twenty four year survey show.  I glibly accepted, thinking that the work was done, the prints existed in my plan chest, and all that was needed was a competent curator, a catalogue and funding for framing

Nothing could have been further from reality, it was a lot of hard work.  Almost all the prints are new prints, the matting was tedious and the mental stress was huge.  But the show was ready a month before the opening on 16th September 2017, and the beginning and end tour dates penciled in for Busselton and Manduah

The show has had a lot of great responses, and in particular the reception from women has been understanding and embracing.  It has generally been women to have responded best to my work.  It was two women,  Diana McGirr and Sarah Drummond and who wrote the penetrating essays for the catalogue.  Added to this are Eva’s comment in the BRAG visitor comments book and Rachel’s perceptive comments via Messenger that became the text for the Manjimup leg of the show

Survey II.v 1994 – 2018 at Mandurah WA

The Mandurah WA leg of my Bunbury Regional Art Gallery (BRAG) Touring Exhibition opens on Sunday 14th this month at 4.00pm at the Alcoa Mandurah Art Gallery, Mandurah, Western Australia

This showing has been curated and hung by Gary Aitken based on the original BRAG show in 2017 curated and organised by Julian Bowron

Julian Bowron has kindly agreed to open the show, as he understands my work as well as I do and as he was guilty of the idea for this show
John Austin Mandurah invitation