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Friday, March 14

The Doldrums


Towards an Iron Age hill fort, Somerset, 1991.
Copyright Don McCullin

The last couple of months have been a real struggle for me, photographically-speaking. Late winter is normally my favourite time of year for taking photographs but inspiration has been lacking. I have phases like this from time to time and it's never easy to put my finger on the source of this "staleness".

There are a couple of things that I think have been contributing to my malaise - one is an absence of transport and the other, perversely, is an over-abundance of gear. My stock advice to anyone starting out is to keep it simple with one camera system, one film and one developer. Maybe I should start listening to myself.

I've sold off a lot of stuff over the past year but I still have far too much. It's not just the number of cameras but the number of formats! I'm up to four now - 35mm, 6x6, 5x4 and half-plate/5x7. If you just have, say, the 35mm format to choose from, and you have a few different systems then you ask yourself which camera and lenses you want to take with you for a particular outing. Having to select from a few 35mm systems can be bad enough but having different formats to choose from as well just adds another layer of complication.

I keep thinking back to that BBC documentary a while ago about Don McCullin. He was filmed walking in his beloved English countryside with a Mamiya Press and a 75mm lens around his neck. What a great way to work. No complicated choices, no big heavy bag over the shoulder, no tripod to set up. Just one camera, one lens and a big, flexible 6x9 or 6x7 negative to work with. Looking at Don's landscape work, it certainly hasn't held him back.

I'm regularly finding myself tempted by Don's more minimalist approach, especially since we're looking to downsize to a smaller house and space will be at a premium. There's now just the three of us rattling about in this big, old house. A condition of any move, though is that I have to have a darkroom, albeit it will most likely be in a garage. But there's no doubt that I'll have less room for cameras and enlargers so something will have to give. Four formats and three enlargers is just a bit over the top!

Don and I seem to like the same sort of landscapes, too. Looking at some of his pics on a website, I was struck by this comment he made:

"I’m probably the only person in England who’s anxious for the winter. As soon as the leaves of autumn start falling from the trees, I become reactivated, the opposite of a hibernating animal. I know that I’ve got four long months of darkness, wind and cold to exercise my masochism. The English landscape’s known for its Constable summers but I’m obsessed with photographing it in the dead of winter, at its hardest ... I love the winter – not the climate, but the struggle, its abrasiveness, the nakedness of the landscape."

I've said something myself a couple of times in posts here, if not quite so eloquently. That's why it's all the more frustrating that I'm missing opportunities to be out photographing in the type of weather that gets me going. And that means I have less material to post here and write about.

I'm still posting three times a week but not really the kind of articles I'd wanted to. I like writing about darkroom work - the kind of thing that Omar does so well - but newly developed negatives are my inspiration to do some printing. When I'm not producing fresh negs there's less of an incentive to go into the darkroom.  I occasionally dig a neg out of the files and try printing it in a different way but there's no substitute, as far as I'm concerned, for a regular supply of new material.

Somerset, 2004. Copyright Don McCullin

The transport problem is also sapping me of get up and go. We've been in Carnoustie for ten years now and I've photographed everything within walking distance over and over again - and there isn't a lot to photograph in the town to begin with! Needless to say, I can't be bothered to re-photograph the same subjects. Sometimes I wonder if that's the main reason for adding different film formats: it's an excuse to photograph the old, familiar scenes in the belief that something new might emerge. I have access to the car at weekends but Saturday and Sunday seem to fly by in a whirlwind of shopping and family stuff. None of this is good when you have a blog to feed three times a week!

So what's to be done? Well, I'll just need to get the finger out and apply myself, I suppose. Sometimes art has to be worked at as I'm sure everyone reading this will agree as we're all prone to a spell in the photographic doldrums from time to time. However, as far as this blog is concerned, hang in there. I'm sure normal service will be resumed before too long.

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10 comments :

Anonymous said...

I find that the winter offers the promise of big skies with low light streaming over the landscape but that the reality in my part of the U.K. is often wind, rain and a dull grey that suffocates everything. I also like people photography so the events, shows of summer are ideal for me - and I shoot primarily in colour. In winter hardly anyone ventures out of the door! So my hat if off to you, Bruce.
I did see a video recently of Don McCullin trying out a Canon DSLR and being quite taken by what he was able to achieve in low light with the new technology. I would like to know how he fares with it or if he grows frustrated by the point and shoot nature of digital.
Daniel Milnor
http://www.smogranch.com
made a comment (see the archives section of his blog) that when he offers anyone a print and gives them the choice of an inkjet print or a silver halide photograph, they always choose the photograph.

Good post, Bruce.

Mike.

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Mike,
I read something similar about Don but my impression is that he likes digital mainly for paid jobs. He still loves the darkroom and I think remains a film photographer at heart. Let's hope he doesn't do a Gibson!

Jon Hoffmann said...

'Do a Gibson' that really made me smile. I've just been trying to fix my print washer. Not sure what's happened but cannot get the water pressure right, or the temperature. I felt this was the end of the darkroom as I'm only interested in printing on fibre based paper. Therefore I've been 'doing a Gibson' recently, but it does't satisfy me at all, and I just end up trying to copy my Tri-X look on digital. Film is such a part of me, I just cannot let it go

One camera one lens I found can help. I'm trying that now with a Hasselblad and one lens, although I would like more than one film back!

Bruce Robbins said...

Jon,

Don't give up the darkroom! I'll have to ban you if you do. :)

If you haven't already then please join the UK-based Film and Darkroom Users Group. I'm sure you'd feel right at home there and if you post a wanted notice you'll probably find someone willing to sell a print washer. Stuff like that comes up from time to time.

It's also pretty easy to make a print washer using a small plastic water tank with an inlet tap and an outlet. Split corks lengthwise, put a rubber band around them and attach them to the prints which then float happily in the water hanging vertically. I used a system like that for years.

morris1800 said...

Hi Bruce you obviously need a new challenge in the darkroom. Have you tried Lith prints of your stock, I find its not just doing something different with your existing negatives . Its a wild darkroom approach waiting to be tamed..... well I try. I have been doing Lith printing for a year now and still haven't been able to produce two prints the same from the same negative. It can bring back the excitement of watching the image develop in the tray even on negatives you have printed many times before. You have posted some excellent negs that would make super Lith prints. Of course the finished lith print may not be to everyone's taste but if anyone fancies tackling all the variables,exposures,developer concentrations,developer types, developer temperatures,different papers,dev times of 5 mins to 40 mins all producing a different print then Tim Rudmans book on lith printing is the must have book.

Anonymous said...

I, too, love winter. The light is special this time of the year, and the scenes seem especially well-suited to black and white film. I'm out more this time of the year and spend the hot months in a nice, climate-controlled darkroom. Go figure.

David McCormack said...

I enjoy monochrome winter landscapes and I’m beginning to panic a bit as I’ve not been out with my camera this winter.... and spring is already here!

Keeping it simple is a great way to work, one camera one lens. My favourite gear to take on a walk is my beloved Fuji GSW690iii with a fixed 65mm lens, sturdy monopod, light meter and a pocket full of HP5.

A few years ago I bought a new Bronica SQAi with backs, finders and lenses and all sorts of things thinking it would be good for my photography.... but it wasn’t. At that time I was still getting used to using a rangefinder (the Fuji GSW) and was also using a couple of very old Mamiya TLRs that I’d had for decades (from my wedding days) and thought that a new SLR medium format modular kit would be easier to carry around, one body and all that... electronic shutter... nice lenses... but the number of rolls that I’ve put through it I could count on one hand. I’m going to sell the lot I think and buy only manual cameras from now on. I don’t like relying on battery power (particularly the fiddly little things in the big Bronica) and the whole film back thing is just too fussy for me. The simplicity of the Mamiya C220 and the Fuji rangefinder is just a joy to work with and much quieter... and no batteries!

You say you don’t have access to a car in the week Bruce, could you use public transport to get you to Pittenweem? Some lovely coastal walks to either Elie or Crail from there and plenty of land/seascapes to be had. We lived in Pittenweem for a year when my wife was doing her gardening apprenticeship at Kellie Castle... great place is the East Neuk.

I do hope you find your muse. Here are a couple of winter landscapes taken with the Fuji/monopod/HP5 combo.

Kevin Allan said...

I certainly understand the winter motivation problem. The last few months have been so dull in North East England that I have only taken studio images recently.

On the transport side, a bicycle, in combination with a simpler gear set-up, might solve two problems. I can easily pack a Yashicamat, or a Pentax MX with 50mm and 28mm lenses, in a saddlebag, which is lined with the foam taken out of a hard camera case.

Jon Hoffmann said...

I'll try not to give up the darkroom Bruce, but a move in the near future might mean I have to. As to making my own print washer, ask my wife about my DIY skills, she would just laugh! I'll certainly check out the film and darkroom user group. Keep up the good work.
Jon

Derek said...

Interesting thoughts on motivation/weather and film formats. Something we all experience from time to time.

Take a look at www.ianruhter.com this photographer is using traditional large format while taking images from the back of a van!

The video on his site Till Death Do Us Part explains his motivation for this.