June 28, 2006

The Inexpressible Joy of Sadness

Filed under: Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 5:56 pm

Kia ora tatou:

In the comments on the last post, Peregrina talks of wabi sabi and quotes Edward Fowler in “One Hundred Things Japanese”. Of sakura, Fowler writes: ”
the short-lived blossoms affirm most profoundly the Japanese aesthetic: that what is beautiful in nature and in human life rarely lasts, that evanescence itself is a thing of beauty, and that nostalgic memories of what has fallen at the height of glory are the most beautiful of all.”

What a fabulous thing to share. Thank you so much. You see, yet another penny has dropped into place. (I feel a bit like a biological parking meter). Allow me to explain.

I mentioned Ansel Adams as one of my inspirations (Art teachers refer to this as the artist’s model). But there have been others. A long time ago, after I had passed the how-to phase in my self-education as a photographer, I found myself fascinated by the work of the Greats. Truly their number has been legion. Karsh, Newman, Manos, Godwin, Robin Morrison, Winogrand to name but a few. I would look at their work and study their biographies, looking for clues to my own direction. And all of them, for a time, would have their say in what I did, and how I came to my picture making. But there is one you have probably never heard of, about whom I would like to talk.

My good friend Gordon Roberts, whom I have known since boyhood, and whose passion for photographing the natural world got me into photography in the first place, was in the process of downsizing his assets to make it easier to cope with his frequent shifting around the country. As he left for his next adventure, he gave me a copy of a book called ‘Japanese Rivers in the Four Seasons’ by master photographer Takashi Komatsu. Komatsu had spent a year and 300 000km journeying the length and breadth of Japan, to create an exquisite essay on rivers. A long lonely journey, I suspect, using a 4×5 and transparency film. The nature of the images and his brief comments show a dedication and commitment that were quite astonishing.

But it was the images themselves that got to me. There was something infinitely beautiful and at the same time sad about the images. There was an exquisite distillation of his subject material, a simplicity and refinement of subject material into something so subtly pure that it was easy to skip over it and miss the nuances. Colour, form, time and intention all seemed to meet at a single point.
I read the book again and again, looking for a key to understand, to add to my photographic vocabulary. And I found many keys. I have continued to find them. Only lately have I come to realise that each key I found was the one appropriate of where I was at the time, that the keys metamorphosed each time I revisited the work. So I gained an understanding of colour composition at a time when I needed feeding in that area. I learned something of the Nature of Journey at a time when that was appropriate. But the true essence of his work eluded me. Until now.
Looking at the concept of wabi sabi, it is clear that what he sees is the inexpressible Joy of Sadness. And, artist that he is, Komatsu attempts to express what he sees. His perfection is a transient one, captured in halides and dyes. His awareness of the passing of things is, nonetheless captured for a moment. His artist’s statement reinforces this. He can see the beauty of his rivers being gradually eroded by ‘civilisation’ and industrialisation, and like Adams, he attempts to halt this by holding a mirror up for his society to see.

In my journeying around New Zealand, I have visited and photographed some extraordinary places. The image above was made in the Ruapehu District, just west of Waiouru. After being held by the snow in Turangi, I was heading south. I came up around a bend and this scene called to me. I stopped, got out and studied it.
I have always loved snow and its inherent transience. It falls, is strong for a time, flexes its muscles briefly, then fades away. Looking at snow is like looking at the Passing of Time. Everything passes. The simplicity and monochrome palette somehow added a poignance to my feelings. The fences and trees were only temporarily overwhelmed. In a day or two it would all be gone. And only this image would remain. for a little longer.

For me this is one of those images, the really significant ones, which ask as much as they give.

Mono no aware. The Inexpressible joy of Sadness.

Ka kite ano

June 26, 2006

Coming Out-why I photograph

Filed under: Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 10:18 am

Kia ora tatou:

My gay friends use the phrase coming out, when you realise your sexual orientation, and are comfortable enough with it to go public, to stand by it and be what you are. What has this to do with photography? Read on.

My dear friend Denis La Touche recently asked me that question: Tony, why do you photograph? I confess that it is a question I have asked myself often during the 25 years or so I have been making photographs. Each time the question and its answer have informed what I was (or thought I was) trying to do with my picture making. As time has gone on, the answer has differed and changed. What was a valid response then is not necessarily relevant today. But if my growth as a photographer has been a journey both artistic and personal, then the statements at that time have in a sense been marker pegs on a road. When Denis asked me the question, I realised that while I have been asking all my students to think about this question, I hadn’t really done so for myself, or rather been prepared to put myself on the line. This post then, is an attempt to put my money where my mouth is.

It needs to be said that the answer I will give today is different to one I would have given 5 or 10 or 15 years ago. Ask me the same question in a year or two, and you may well get a different response. So here goes.

Firstly I photograph because I must. My friends who are painters paint because they must. It is not a question of doing it because they feel like it or because they have a little spare time. Something inside them (and me) drives them to do it. Is it a need to bring out some inner yearning? Possibly. Is it a need to leave footprints in the sands of Time? It may well be. Is it a need to explore ideas both personal and/or expressive? Highly likely. It may well be. Or it could be a combination of all of the above. At the moment I would have to answer: all of the above. But then I am a Libran, so all of the above suits my indecisive nature…

Yes, I am driven to make photographs. Those of you who know me would, I am sure, agree. I am not apologetic about that. It is who I am. Yes, I want to show my vision of the world (more about that later), and photography is the medium that allows me to do that. If I am honest, I would probably rather do it with paint. But there seems to be a hand/eye issue that makes any attempts to paint on canvas look something a 2-year old could do better. For some reason photography is a blend of Art and Science that works for me. Most of the time.

As for leaving footprints, that too. One of photography’s strengths is its ability to precisely define a moment. A photograph freezes a moment in time. In the case of a portrait, it captures who, where and when. In the case of a landscape, where and when. So when I press the shutter, I have defined a grouping of these pronouns. But it is more than that. Of course it is more than that. It give me a concrete opportunity to look back, to remember, and to keep records.

Much of my work has been ideas-driven. My street photography was an attempt to challenge Heisenberg’s Law of Uncertainty. He won, but I was the richer for having taken on the challenge, and from time to time I attempt, albeit in a desultory fashion, to have another go. Nd what I see post-shoot informs me still.

When I thought further about Denis’s question, I realised in a way he wanted to get inside my head about what was going on when I photographed. Perhaps the question was really: what are you trying to say? I hear a number of you grinning at my attempts to get you to do it without having done it for myself. So this is an attempt to right the balance (another Libran moment).

My first experiments were with the landscape. 15 years ago my idol was Ansel Adams. I was entranced by his ability to master the grand landscape, to arrange incredibly complex picture spaces and make them work. Recently I saw an exhibition of his work and many of those early beliefs were confirmed, particularly his technical mastery. After all, it was he who said: “the way to Art is through Craft, not around it.” As I looked at the work, I realised that his statement still held true for me. Craftsmanship is a cornerstone of my photography. It always has been.

But I realised that in my journeying through all the genres (documentary, portraiture et al) it was really landscape that held true for me, that is closest to my weltaussicht. I am now working extensively in this genre, and it was the one that I began with. It has been a circular journey. Aren’t they all? But I am happy.

I also realised that while his subject matter held truths for Ansel, it didn’t for me. It is rather like visiting someone else’s home. You can admire it and appreciate their taste in decorating without necessarily wanting to live in it or own it or emulate it yourself. And as I looked at the Great Man’s work, I was able to disengage myself from it, while at the same time using it as a light to re-evaluate my own. And a few pennies dropped into place.

Like Ansel, working with complex picture spaces fascinates me. That means the grand landscape or “busy” material. Trees in a forest, a bush, that sort of thing. Finding structure where there appears to be none is a challenge.

I have for a long time been conscious that there is something special about our landscape. No it is not a question of visual diversity. Rather there is an indefinable something, a wairua or spirit present in our landscape, a consciousness that is Other. Kiwi filmmakers have been aware of it for years. Just look at Vincent Ward’s Vigil. But so few landscape photographers have looked at it. Brian Brake seems to have been aware of it. His photograph of Milford has a brooding menace that is almost terrifying. My landscape photography is increasingly concerned with describing the river behind the wall.

There is a glorious melancholy in aspects of our landscape that intrigues me. I wonder what has happened in places like this: who has lived and died here, what dreams have been born, flourished and passed away, how the people (if any) who lived here interacted with their environment. For that reason I am interested in the visual relationships between the Natural World and the Hand of Man.

While discussing it with my friend Pete McGregor, he mentioned a Japanese concept called wabi sabi. I looked it up on Wikipedia. Here is what it says:

Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese worldview or aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience. The phrase comes from the two words wabi and sabi. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” (according to Leonard Koren in his book “Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”). It is a concept derived from the Buddhist assertion of the first noble truth — Dukkha, or in Japanese, ñ≥èÌ (mujyou), impermanence.

According to Leonard Koren, wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty and it “occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.” Andrew Juniper claims, “if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” Richard R. Powell summarizes by saying “It (wabi-sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

I also found reference to a concept called mono no aware. A definition again:

Mono no aware is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It is also referred to as the ahness of things/life/love. It was popularised by the Edo-period scholar Motoori Norinaga. It was originally an idea from literary criticism. In his criticism on The Tale of Genji, Motoori noted it as the crucial emotion that moves readers. Generally, its scope is not limited to Japanese literature but affects the Japanese view of the world in general.

Thanks Pete. They pretty much sum it up.

And there it is. My coming out, if you like.

Ka kite ano

June 18, 2006

Do you prefer Manual or Auto, Sir?

Filed under: Technical posts — Tony Bridge @ 1:32 pm

Kia ora tatou:

Those of us old-timers who grew up on film will remember the small trailer-load of filters we use to carry round, especially when we were trying to balance the light or the colour of the light or worse still, work with mixed lighting sources. 80A, 85B, fluoros of different sorts, we used them all. Some of us even carried colour temperature meters so we could get things accurate. I used to look at the video dudes and their ability to do white balance and sigh…if only…

Now that digital is here, most of those are obsolete. After all, we have built-in white balance in our digital cameras. Who needs to even think about it? Just put the camera on AWB (Auto White Balance), and leave the camera to sort it out. It will do a fantastic job. Who wants to drive a manual, when an auto is easier?

I do, frankly.

There are a number of issues at stake here, a number of picture-making concepts to be worked through. Let me explain. But before I start, for those of you who don’t really understand White Balance or colour temperature, here is a good tutorial.

One of the joys of driving a manual car is that the driver has complete control of when gear changes occur. He controls the process of locomotion. Granted the auto gearbox may provide smoother changes, but it works according to the algorithms programmed in at the factory. In other words, it knows best. Or thinks it does.

With AWB, it is the same. The camera reads the temperature of the light and adjusts the colours of the image according to what has been programmed into it. Think about your exposure meter. It is programmed to average the light to a mean middle gray value.This means that it will get most things right most of the time, but not always. AWB is the same. It looks to give you an average reading of the colour temperatures in your scene. Thus it will take the blue out of a shot done in the bush by lowering the temperature. But what if you want to keep the cold blue-green of the forest (which , to my eye is what it is really like)? Then you need to take control, to pick your own gear?
And if you shoot jpegs, you had better have an unwavering faith in your camera (manufacturer) or be able to be happy with whatever you get. Because it is not easy to sort it out afterwards. OK, OK, shooting RAW is a Get-Out-of Jail card. And I shoot RAW 90% of the time.

But there are reasons I do not use AWB and times when I do.
The latter first.
When I am faced with a mixed lighting situation, where there may be tungsten, fluorescent and daylight in the shot, I will use AWB, or perform a Custom White Balance using a calibrated grey card, and fine-tune later in my RAW converter. My Canons to a great job of that as a rule.

For my personal work I set my camera to the daylight setting and pretty much leave it there. Here is why.

I grew up on film. I shot daylight film, balanced for 5500K. So I learned how an image would look when shot in the trees (excessive green), late in the day (low temperature-9000K, giving blue casts). Over time I became able to predict what the film would do, and how to adjust its response to the colour of the light reaching it. In other words, I could choose to the vocabulary I need to make the statement I wanted. I also liked film because it reproduced what was there in colour and temperature terms, not what my mind thought it saw. Over time I came to enjoy learning to see again. Colour slide film (manufacturer’s inbuilt bias aside) gave me a vision of the world rather more realistic than my learned awareness. Just to reiterate: your brain tells the eye what to see, not the other way around.

There is another reason I like using this setting. My aim is to photograph what is in my mind’s eye, rather than accurately duplicating what is in front of me. If I want to do that I will go and study the science of photography or join the Air Force, where they teach those things brilliantly. Thus if the dawn I watched had (to me) a particularly roseate glow, I want to bring that out in my image. If the trees or bushes I photographed by the Maungapohue Natural Bridge had a curiously cold green quality, I want that to show in my images.

Now I use a digital camera I can do that. Chimping (reviewing an image on the camera LCD) is a necessary part of my workflow. By leaving the WB setting on Daylight setting, I can see immediately what if any colour balance issues I may have, and note it for future adjustment when I am processing. It enhances my previsualisation of the final image, and gives me a vital tool for realising my vision.

There is a lot to be said for manual gearboxes.

Ka kite ano

Create a free website or blog at