Vernissage—Anthropocene

Back in September I was able to attend the pre-opening and vernissage of Anthropocene, the latest collaboration by photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The three also collaborated on a previous project, Manufactured Landscapes.

Anthropocene  opening at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), Sept. 26, 2018. From left to right: Marc Mayer, Director of the NGC; Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator, Canadian Photography Institute, NGC; Nicholas de Pencier; Edward Burtynsky; and Jennifer Baichwal.

Anthropocene opening at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), Sept. 26, 2018. From left to right: Marc Mayer, Director of the NGC; Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator, Canadian Photography Institute, NGC; Nicholas de Pencier; Edward Burtynsky; and Jennifer Baichwal.

Anthropocene opened in two complementary versions, one at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the other at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The title of the project is a still-contested term that refers to a new geological era where “…human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts” (Stromberg, 2013)

The project is a large-scale multimedia production comprising still photography, video, a movie, augmented reality installations and a book. It is in line with Burtynsky’s other work both with and without collaborators: bold, richly layered, large-format photographic prints that make viewers stop to look at things that are worrying.

Anthropocene is very much a project, not only in the sense that it combines the talents of several Canadian artists, but also because it uses art to advance particular ethical and political positions. Although the artists—in words, at least—are careful to lay out information rather than to preach their stance on human impact on the environment, the conclusion of their work could not be clearer. It is possible to imagine a series of images showing the benefits of resource extraction for humanity—or even the utter dependence of our economies on fossil fuels—but that is not what has been done here. Anthropocene is a damning artistic documentation of wholesale exploitation, waste and degradation for the planet and its lifeforms.

I have seen and appreciated Burtynsky’s photographs for a number of years but I find that I am now looking at them differently since reading Stephen Shore’s (2013) brief book. Although I have always appreciated the beauty and content of the images it is only now that I am looking at them as photographs. The images play with framing, scale and geometry in such a way that it is not always clear what you are looking at.

Many of the photographs are printed so large and cover such a vast area that you must look at them twice: once from farther back to take it all in, and then an implied invitation to draw closer to peer at details and to orient yourself in the frame. Sometimes, for example, it is only at nose-distance that tiny blobs of colour reveal themselves to be heavy vehicles in an immense open-pit mine. By being invited into a two-step viewing, I found that my reaction was often to be impressed by beauty at large-scale, and to be shocked by the detail as I moved closer and more fully took in what I was seeing.

A viewer in front of one of the large-scale images from  Anthropocene .

A viewer in front of one of the large-scale images from Anthropocene.

In some cases the photographs contain few or no markers of scale or orientation and show a radically flattened perspective: is this scene large or small? am I viewing head-on or from above? As a viewer, I have little choice but to remain in front of the image and puzzle out how I should assess it. Once again, the effort is rewarded by an aha!, but it means that it is almost impossible to skip past Burtynsky’s work in a casual way. It draws you in with its geometric beauty and large physical print, and almost always delivers a punch. For some images, it is necessary to repeat the viewing cycle more than once: distant for a global view, then up close for precise detail.

Anthropocene, like Manufactured Images before it, demands time from its audience to achieve full effect.

Could you use such a set of techniques to manipulate the viewing public into accepting a particular ethical position? Yes, I suppose you could. But living near the National Gallery of Canada in an area that is now regularly visited by ice stormsfloods and, most recently, tornadoes, the message of climate change and environmental degradation is not a hard sell. It has the ring of truth.

Burtynsky was Master of Photography at Photo London in May, where I happened to bump into him while I was looking at one of the large prints to be included in Anthropocene. I told him that I always felt conflicted when I looked at his images, because they are so beautifully shot and printed, but their content is so often disturbing. “Good,” he replied. “That’s what you should feel.”

And I do.

Visiting the exhibit was like an object lesson to work through some of Shore’s points about the representation of three-dimensional reality within a two-dimensional frame. I will be spending more time thinking about what impact the factors of scale, perspective and orientation have on my own work and how I can use them to best advantage, to support what it is that I want to say and to help shape the experience for the eventual viewer.

Sunset in Tadoussac

My youngest son recently had a day off school, so we decided to make a long weekend of it in Tadoussac, Quebec on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Tadoussac is about 700km from where we live so it made for a lot of driving over the three days.

And it was well worth it. Situated at the meeting of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers, Tadoussac is probably best known as that starting point for whale-watching tours in the St. Lawrence Estuary. The town is touristy but not overly so and the whales (Fin, Minke and Beluga) and seals did not disappoint. The three hours we spent in an open zodiac with fresh air and brilliant sun on a surprisingly smooth river were wonderful. We couldn't have asked for a better late-September afternoon and everything we'd heard about the magnificent marine mammals of the estuary was true.

But the evenings surprised me. The lingering sunsets in Tadoussac's harbour are beautiful and the long stretch of rocky coastline seems tailor-made for landscape photography. (And although I've been casting furtive glances at the new Fujifilm XPro2, my X-E1 continues to deliver results that please me.)

This is just a little of what I saw. I hope you experience some of the enjoyment that I did.

Liquid colour in Manhattan with the X100T

I got the chance recently to spend a couple of days at a conference in NYC. Given that I'd only be there a short time, I decided to take just my Fujifilm X100T rather than pack the whole kit.

In my mind's eye, New York lends itself to black and white photography particularly well but I was concerned that I was falling into a rut. Or perpetuating photographic clichés. Or both. Or... well, whatever it was, I thought it was time to try something new for me. I'd be in meetings all day and it would be getting dark before 5:00 pm, so I'd have to try my hand at night photography. And I decided it was time to add some colour to my NYC shots. On top of that, the weather forecast called for quite a bit of rain. So there it was: night shots in colour in the wet. Challenge accepted!

I debated whether to rig some sort of waterproof cover for the X100T but decided to chance walking around with the camera on a wrist strap, held flat beneath my palm. I'd be ready at a moment's notice and still keep the worst of the rain off the camera body and lens.

To help deal with the wildly different light levels in the city, it was also time to try the Auto ISO setting rather than fiddle constantly with ISO and exposure in the rain. I usually shoot at the lowest ISO I can get away with to help keep the image quality up and have always been worried that the camera would choose sky-high ISOs just to avoid camera shake. This time, I opeted for simplicity: the fixed 23mm lens, Aperture Priority, Auto ISO and wide open at f/2.0. I'd add exposure compensation where necessary. 

And I was happy with the results. The X100T didn't get too wet, scenes were well exposed and I had a riot. Easily the most fun I've had in the rain (a decent waterproof jacket is also a big help).

To my mind, it worked. I'd be glad to hear what you think.



Les Rencontres d'Arles

For me, one of the highlights of our family vacation has been the chance to visit the annual photographic festival in Arles, France. While other gatherings are usually connected to photographic gear and business, Les Rencontres ("meetings" or "encounters" in English) are purely concerned with showing and celebrating photography as art. Founded by Arles-born photographer Lucien Clergue in 1970, the festival has blossomed and now receives some 100,000 visitors each summer.

With just a day to take in the showings that are scattered in different venues around the centre of Old Arles, I didn't manage to visit them all. I did see enough to make me thoroughly glad that we had added the town to our trip.

A few thoughts on the show, offered in no specific order...

First, I was most impressed by the absence of reference to technical details or specific pieces of gear. The point of the exhibitions was very much the artist's vision, not whether a Leica was involved, whether f/5.6 was optimum, whether the shadows were a little muddy, or whether analog / digital is superior. I found this a refreshing approach and a relief from many of the pointless discussions I've seen online. Just vision. Period.

I was also impressed by the importance of story in so many of the showings. In some cases, the story was explicitly connected to the artist's vision and conceived in advance.  In other cases, the story seems to have emerged less consciously over time as the artist returned to familiar themes, subjects or approaches. Perhaps "story" is sometimes the cumulative effect of a lifetime's work rather than a pre-conceived plan. In the case of one artist, Zhang Huan, the story he tells is communicated through a sequence of layers of calligraphy on his own face.

It was a pleasure to view images from several periods of Lucien Clergue's own photography and to appreciate how rich a body of work he built through studies of subjects available to him locally: patterns in wet sand, marshlands and nudes on the beach. 

David Bailey's retrospective was a treat, starting with 1960's UK fashion, celebrity and family. I enjoyed his larger format portraits and was reminded by many of the shots just how beautiful an effect film grain can produce.

A wonderful exhibit on "Typology, Taxonomy and Seriality" contained images from Richard Avedon, Karl Blossfeldt, August Sander, and Bernd and Hillary Becher (among others). This exhibit was held in the "Espace Van Gogh,"  the former hospital in Arles where the painter recovered -- and painted -- after cutting off a portion of his ear in 1889. The curated series illustrated over and over the variety (and sometimes beauty) to be found in "like" things: political figures, plant forms, members of early 20th-century German society, 1950s industrial installations, and the hairstyles of Nigerian women.

The W.M. Hunt Collection, however, provided a counterpoint to what I've just said about beauty-in-similarity. Hunt viewed the passion for collecting as foolish and seems to have gone out of his way to prove his point. Over a period of decades he collected large photographs of groups of people at conventions, fairs and events. Frequently panoramic in scope, the combined effect of the dozens of images in three rooms is the loss of the individual. The scenes of large "happenings" are so crushingly repetitive -- groups are sometimes organized into geometric forms by the photographer -- that there is little special about any of the people pictured. All those individuals have indeed been captured in a picture. Captured and assimilated. 

The "Trepat Collection" was an interesting demonstration of a collaboration between a wealthy Spanish industrialist and a number of avant garde artists. His success in manufacturing and marketing agricultural machinery allowed him to commission works by the likes of Man Ray, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and Walker Evans to help create a distinctive brand for his company. 

Other exhibits, such as the impressively large-scale collages by Vik Muniz demonstrated that photographs as artefacts can themselves be reworked to create new images. Others again, such as the work of Mazaccio and Drowilal, undermine celebrity, advertising and sentimentality in our image-soaked society. Denis Rouvre's presentation ("Identity, Intimate Territories") of low-key projected portraits with narration by the subject reminded me that, far from being an issue for the French alone, multiple identities are a fact of life for all of us in a globalized world of migrants. 

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable day and I was only sorry that it couldn't have been longer. It was long enough to inspire me, though, and encourage me to work more carefully on my own photography. Less gear, more story. More vision. More "rencontres"!

 

All pictures taken with my Fujifilm X-E1 with Fujinon 14mm and 18-55mm lenses. JPEGs tweaked with Snapseed on an iPad. 

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A walk in Wakefield

Some weeks back my wife and I had the chance to spend a couple of hours walking around Wakefield, a small village on the Gatineau River about 30 or 40 minutes from our place. It was a lazy afternoon so we had no particular plan for our time... and I think the pictures I took reflect that.

Top down. Fujifilm X-E1 with 35mm. ISO 200, 1/3,500 sec at f/1.4.

Cast critters. Fujifilm X-E1 with 35mm. ISO 200, 1/70 sec at f/1.4.

Post pre-modern. Fujifilm X-E1 with 35mm. ISO 400, 1/34 sec at f/1.4.

Wakefield Inn. Fujifilm X-E1 with 14mm. ISO 200, 1/40 sec at f/22.

Wakefield Inn 2. Fujifilm X-E1 with 14mm. ISO 200, 1/110 sec at f/8.

Deck. Chair. Fujifilm X-E1 with 14mm. ISO 200, 1/420 sec at f/2.8.

Cold weather photography with the X-E1

Living in most parts of Canada means that you're either going to have to make friends with cold weather or resign yourself to spending large parts of the year indoors. Unless all your work is done in a studio, the same holds true for Canadian photographers -- and the start of this winter has been unusually cold.

I've had my Fujifilm X-E1 for almost a year and have been interested to see how it performed in the cold. A number of people have raised concerns about the lack of a weather seal on the X-E1, but I can't say that I've found it to be a problem. I never use my cameras unprotected in a downpour and am careful of blowing sand at the beach, so I take the usual precautions -- some sort of cover in the rain and an hour in a sealed plastic bag when coming in from very cold temperatures.

I recently spent an hour and a half taking pictures with the X-E1 and the 18-55mm zoom at the Mackenzie King Estate in Gatineau Park. The estate is an interesting place visually in all seasons and just 15 minutes from where I live, so it is a good option for blowing off the cobwebs. This day, however, the temperature was hovering around -17C with a brisk wind. After 90 minutes, the camera was still working as it should and there appeared to be plenty of battery life left (although I've been fooled before by the X-E1's battery status indicator : it can drop from a "full charge" reading to almost nothing in a matter of minutes. Not helpful.).

I'm happy to report that I didn't end my little cold-weather safari because of the camera, but because the light was fading and my hands were freezing.

As a sidebar, I'd be interested to hear how other photographers keep their hands warm in cold temperatures. I got tired of the mitts-on-mitts-off approach and now use Lowepro gloves. The gloves are a big improvement as they combine a covering for the hands with enough flexibility to adjust camera controls (the raised bumps on the gloves helpfully provide extra grip and tactile feeling on the controls). At the same time, they're still not warm enough for really cold weather over extended sessions outside. Manfrotto used to manufacture an interesting looking pair of gloves, but they seem to have been discontinued. Any other ideas or approaches?

So, it's 2014. Stay warm, keep shooting and have a happy and healthy year!

 

Cliché roundup—the Brooklyn Bridge with my X-E1

I understand that more than 8 million people live in New York City. I understand that NYC is a popular destination for millions more business people and tourists each year. And I also understand that the Brooklyn Bridge has been photographed by every single one of those people, multiple times.

I don't care. 

These are the pictures I took of the Brooklyn Bridge with my Fujifilm X-E1 and I like them. 

So there. Now it's millions and millions plus one.