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Monday, May 15

Learning about the masters

I think most of you would be surprised at how truly ignorant I am of the work of some of the past masters of photography. Even well-known names are, to me, a largely unknown quantity. This might seem a bit weird when you consider that I've been taking photographs for just over 40 years. But the thing is that, never having studied photography in any formal way or spent much time in camera club circles, I've had little exposure to the photographers who are recognised as "the" names nor those who are on the next rung down, so to speak.

This has its good and bad points: I've been able to bash on without worrying too much about fashion or style but I've also missed out on a lot of inspirational photography. I suppose the negative point could be turned into a positive by saying that I've got years of enjoyable studying ahead of me whilst many of you will already be up to speed on the masters and have less to look forward to!

The recent TV shows about photography presented by Eamonn McCabe were a bit of an eye opener. He kept on dropping names that I suppose I should be familiar with but had never heard of. Some, of course, I had heard of but knew only a little about their photography. Here are a couple of examples for you: Bill Brandt and John Bulmer.

Obviously, I knew of Brandt although only in a very superficial way. I vaguely remembered his nudes and the odd gritty shot such as Top Withens and A Snicket in Halifax. Some of his other photographs revealed in the TV series just knocked me out. Take the one below, Hail Hell and Halifax. As Simon Cowell might say, OMG!

And then there's Shadow and Light. We've all seen plenty of stairwell shots - I've taken some myself - but I can't remember seeing a better one than this. It could be a giant's double helix.

Even Brandt's obviously contrived shots are excellent such as Eaton Square (top) and Belgravia 1951 below.

And here's a special treat courtesy of Vimeo - a short video showing Brandt's A Night in London page-by-page:

Now that I've whetted your interest, you might like to know that you can easily pick up a copy from Abe Books - providing you have four grand burning a hole in your pocket...

I smell the all pervasive whiff of Phil Rogers' algorithm here. Read his
comments on this post.

And now we turn to John Bulmer. OMG doesn't really do it for this photographer - he's right up there with the very best in my opinion. What about BHHG? Bloody hell, he's good! He catalogued the disappearance of much of the old industrial north of England in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of his images are stunning and just the sort of thing to which I aspire. Moody, sombre, poignant, touching - there are all sorts of emotions in his prints. A few really knock me out, such as these:

The interesting bit - for me, that is, you've probably all fallen asleep by now - is Bulmer's colour photography. I do as much colour as I do digital which is to say, none. But after seeing some of Bulmer's work I started getting an itch which I might have to scratch a little. It's not the garish sort of stuff a lot of DSLR users seem to like but very muted colour with a restricted palette. How much of that is just down to the film stock at the time is something I can't really speak about.

Bulmer only photographed in colour on days when the sun wasn't shining, hence the white, featureless skies in a lot of his shots. I tend to agree with that approach: skies can be a real distraction and a destroyer of composition. Bland skies let the viewer concentrate on the rest of the photograph. Bulmer was one of the first UK photographers to use colour for documentary work. I'm delighted to say that John Bulmer is still going strong at the age of 89. Here's his Wikipedia page which is an interesting read.

Here's a selection of his colour work, much of which was shot for the Sunday Times.

BUT! It begs the big question: If I were to have a go at colour after years of black and white would it be film or digital? I think I've said in the past on this blog that I think colour is better tackled these days with digital rather than film. I've got a DSLR so it would save quite a lot of money in terms of both film and developing.

Having just had a look at AG Photographic's website, it seems you can get basic Kodak film for under £3 for a 36 exposure roll but I think I'd prefer to use medium format since it scans better and that's around £5.50 a roll for Ektar 100. AG will also develop the film and make 18mb scans for £9 a roll, 35mm or 120. It soon adds up, doesn't it? £14.50 per film, not including postage. 

Since my only source of income is an early retirement pension and Cath plans on taking early retirement in October, we're not going to be awash with spare cash. £15 a film isn't really viable for two pensioners, even if they're as cool as we are. So it looks like it would have to be digital. The key to making it work would be to keep it as real as possible and avoid "post processing" a file to death as I was fond of doing in my Photoshop days. The whole idea needs some more thought.

But back to Brandt, Bulmer, et al. I've enjoyed researching these two so much that it's made me determined to find out more about all those photographers I should already be familiar with. It would be great if readers could recommend some names in the comments that I can chase up at my leisure.


Marcus Peddle said...

Last week I sent six rolls of colour film (slide and negative) and two rolls of black and white film to the lab for developing and scanning. As usual, the scans of the colour film were not very good but the black and white turned out fine. Like yourself, I've decided that maybe digital is the way to go for colour because of expense and poor quality scans but black and white film can't be beat.
I don't like the flashy digital colours that are so popular these days so I use the neutral setting on my camera and sometimes even reduce saturation in Lightroom to get rid of the 'digital glow'. When printing, I use non-glossy paper and get good results.

slackercruster said...

Great post! That is impressive you don't look to others for inspiration that much. I get inspiration from most anyplace, we just have to keep our eyes and mind open.

Martin Munkacsi inspired Cartier-Bresson to take up street photography. On the other end of the spectrum, Munkacsi also inspired Avedon with his fashion work.

Here compare Avedon's homage to Munkacsi's...

Here are a few of my favs...

Lisette Model, Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Michel Chelbin, Les Krims, Maggie Steber, Don McCullin, Salgado, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Gail Halaban, Cristina Garcia Rodero, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Bruce Davidson, Robert Doisineau, Jane Evelyn Atwood, W. Eugene Smith, Martin Munkasci, Larry Fink, O. Rufus Lovett, Weegee, Robert Capa, Judy Dater, Ray Metzger, Erich Salomon, Harry K. Shigeta, Emmet Gowin, Jill Freeman, James Nanchez, Helen Levitte, Shelby Lee Adams, Brassai, O.Winston Link and William Mortensen.

Hernan Zenteno said...

Many thanks for share, specially for the industrial/workers/smog, photos that are unknown for me.

Manuel said...

Dave Heath! You will love his b&w poignant photographs, much in the vein of W. Eugene Smith, from which he learned printing (and both were master printers). 'Multitude, Solitude' being his acclaimed book.

Process C-41 at home is not that complicated, but yeah you need an initial investment (Jobo processor) and chemicals. I usually process batches of 8 ~ 12 rolls at a time to economize chemicals, then it costs less than 2€ per roll.

Richard Warom said...

Thanks for this post Bruce very interesting and informative. I have very little knowledge of past photographers and have not really been bothered to find out about any except for watching the odd documentary or seeing photos in galleries and museums , I also have had no photographic training and have therefore struggled to learn the craft on my own and I think this has left me feeling dissatisfied with my results. But your post has given me the impetus I needed to spend some time looking at and taking more notice of what these past and present photographers found inspiring and how they composed their shots. The ones you have shown in the blog are really inspiring. So I'm going on the hunt for more. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Some very good work there... I had not heard of John Bulmer either, but there are photographers who specialised in that sort of document in regard to the decay and consequent rebuild of the eastern side of London, they will have lasting value as history, even if they never get hung on people's walls, which they might anyway.

As for digital, I met a fellow during a photo walk who claimed to not have a personal computer at home, rare enough in itself these days, but it must have been his deliberate choice, since he had a pretty expensive Fuji camera set up. What this arrangement meant was that if he wanted to see any of his pictures any bigger than the size of his rear LCD, he had to print the JPG's at somewhere like Boots, or Jessops. NO POST PROCESSING, or as they say on the American blogs... SOOC.

Personally, I like something called Iridient Developer, it is very light e.g. not bloatware... I think that it is a few MB rather than Lightroom sized GB's, and it doesn't try to be everything, it just addresses post processing. The developer and owner of the software sends updates with a personal memo about what he has modified/added and why.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Bulmer's work is wonderful isn't it, but you'll struggle to get that look - Kodachrome or Ektachrome I think - nothing like it since. The colours of the 60's and 70's are some of the greatest colours ever committed to print.

As for processing - there are kits out there, not too expensive, and I have been contemplating it myself - reckon you can do it without a Jobo, just carefully controlled water baths - check FADU and ask the question!

For inspiration - The Great Life Photographers - widely available, and totally stunning, also any of the Taschen samplers which show up in charity shops on a regular basis - there's a lot of chaff, but all of a sudden you'll hit something that makes your jaw drop . . .

Vic Wright said...

Thanks for the post Bruce.
I'm ashamed to say that most of my 'Past Masters' education has been from the Guardian Obituaries, I'm guilty that I should have admired their work when they were still alive.

Recent deceased masters have been:
Jane Brown -

Wolfgang Suschitzky - I was so impressed by his work that I bought his most recent book (published when he was 102).

Jazz photographer Terry Cryer -

And Colin O’Brien (inspired by Bill Brandt) -

Thanks again

John Carter said...

Thanks for this post; one of my favorites. Kodak in the late fifties and sixties used to write in their film literature about being sure to use color film on cloudy days. They said the saturation was closer to normal colors.

One English photographer I like is James Ravilious, and an American (USA) plus living close to where I live is Henry Wessel. Mr. Wessel has a very California approach to using Black and White film.

Love the post; I'll favorite it.

DavidM said...

Colour? I think you're right to consider using a digital camera for colour. Some people like the effects that badly-processed out-of-date film can produce, but I've seen no interest in accidental effects in your writing and photography so far. And ironically enough, if you like these effects, they are much better produced on screen. There seems to be all sorts of software out there, some of it free. And, as we mentioned in discussing 120 cameras, you don't need to wait until thirty-six frames are finished before you see what enthused you six weeks and thirty frames ago.
You might like to look at Edwin Smith. His archive is held by the RIBA, who put on a show of his work a couple of years ago. He's not simply an architectural photographer, but that's what he's best known for. Like David Bailey he was offered a job on Vogue, but gave it up after a few weeks. I'd like to have met him.

Will Morgan said...

Another great, but unfortunately hardly recognised photographer, is Colin Theakston, who was photographer for 'The Northern Echo' for 44 years. Harold Evans, who edited the paper from 1963-1967, thought so highly of him that he offered him a job on the 'Sunday Times' when he moved there, and features his work in his book 'Pictures on a Page'. You can also find examples in the 'Northern Echo' website

FishyFish said...

Raymond Depardon's work has some similarities with John Bulmer's - his images of Glasgow for instance. A Google search brings up plenty of examples.

I recently visited the Strange and Familiar exhibition in Manchester which is well worth a visit if you like these sort of photographs.. I think it comes to a close soon though.

Antonio Russell said...

Good interview with John Bulmer here:

Peter F said...

If you're looking to explore well-known masters, I highly recommend Alex Webb, one my personal heroes of color. His book "The Suffering of Light" is mind-blowing, but you can just google him, too. A lot of his best work is on color 35mm film from the not-so-distant past.

Bruce Robbins said...

Lots of good suggestions here. Thanks to everyone for the names. I'm still working my way through them but particularly liked Raymond Depardon. For some reason I much prefer British/European photographers to their North American counterparts. That might change with continued exposure.

The John Bulmer YouTube video was good and I found another four part video where he was giving a slide show to students in Hereford. It must be about an hour and a half in total and should be easy enough to find.