Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Photographer’s Voldemort: The Self-Critique

In the two week period I spent travelling along the southern coast of Iceland I took 3136 photographs. This includes 200-300 individual images for stitching together in various panoramas, a number of bracketed shots for HDR images as well as the inevitable ‘click it and hope’ shots. There are also countless shots from the ice along Jokulsarlon beach – getting the sea and ice to form interesting patterns was more an exercise in patience and luck than skill. My task is to distil these 3136 down to 25 photographs for the website: More than that and the gallery would likely feel too big and any less may cause me many a sleepless night about the shots I left out.

It all starts simply enough. The photographs are loaded into Adobe’s Lightroom software and all are given a rating of three stars. As I walk through each image the out-of-focus and otherwise unsalvageable shots get reduce to one star; good images and those with promise get four stars.

Over the past few weeks, between travelling for work and, of course, going to Israel I have managed to get the first pick – the four stars – down to 180 photographs. Yesterday, after 11 hours, I have managed to get second pick to 68. Those 11 hours were also spent processing the photographs and stitching together the panorama shots, some of which have worked out well and some of which not so much. And so on to third pick. The critical analysis of those 68 images. The moment I dread.

No one talks about this aspect of the photographic workflow which is a surprise as it is arguably the hardest. I once asked wildlife photographer Daisy Gilardini about how long she spent processing photographs to which she replied between 60 and 90 seconds. It isn’t much time, but then I suspect that is the point: if an image is good, it won’t need much time to ‘tidy up’. But I feel I asked the wrong question. I should have asked “How do you select those photographs?”

Now, what makes a good image is always going to be an emotive topic and a question with no real answer. Humanitarian photographer David duChemin has long written about the importance of creative ‘vision’ and storytelling in photography and he should know – humanitarian photography has to generate a reaction in the viewer otherwise it has failed. By contrast even if a landscape shot fails to make you immediately pack your bags and get on a plane, at least it can still be pretty.

Many of the photography-related magazines include regular features that interview a notable photographer and ask the usual questions such as how they got involved in the industry. But none, that I have seen at least, ask the photographer to pick an image or two from their portfolio and explain why that selected that image and not one of the others from the same shoot. What was it that drew them to an image above all others? I once brought the idea up on a forum for a well-known UK magazine and was greeted by a wall of silence from both fellow readers and staff alike. But I can’t believe that I am the only one to struggle with self-critiquing work. Perhaps every photographer struggles with self-critique more than they would like to admit and, like Harry Potter’s nemesis, find it easier not to openly discuss the topic in the hope that it will not look their way.

Here is a classic case in point from the second pick of Iceland. Two images from one of my trips to the beach at Jokulsarlon. Can you choose which you prefer?

 

Jokulsarlon Ice #1

Jokulsarlon Ice #1

 

Jokulsarlon Ice #2

Jokulsarlon Ice #2

The problem is I cannot. What I wanted to capture was the essence of the beach: the striking black volcanic sand, the motion of the sea wrapping itself around the icebergs and the limited palette of grey, blue, black and white. Both images do just that. But what now? Where do I go from here?

I am sure that too will learn the art of self-critiquing my work. But, if anyone knows of a site, a magazine or any other resource where photographers show examples of how they self-critique, please let me know.

Oh, and I just realised that my Voldemort analogy may paint photographers as wizards and non-photographers as Muggles. But more worryingly, it implies that I’m Harry Potter. I do not believe this, of course, and I don’t want to live in Harry Potter’s world. For the time being, at least…

 

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Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Centre

I mentioned in recent post that when in Tel Aviv I found myself drawn to two places in particular; the beach and the Azrieli Centre. I’ve written about the beach so today I just wanted to share a couple of pictures from the latter.

The Azrieli Centre, the third tower of which was completed in 2007, stands out for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious, is the size. At 187m, 169m and 154m respectively the towers are a fair bit taller than the few surrounding skyscrapers and significantly taller than the majority of buildings in the area. Secondly there are three of them in a tight cluster, each with a different geometric footprint: One square, one circular and one triangular. Collectively the towers serve a number of purposes, commercial office space, a hotel, Tel Aviv’s largest shopping centre and an observation deck meaning that they see constant human activity – which is rather the point of architecture. The third is that they are rather elegantly lit at night – no fancy multi-coloured affair, no patterns and definitely no flashing lights.

Here are my favourite images from my short time with the Azrieli Centre. I hope you like them.

And yes, it is technically the Azrieli Center, but I simply cannot defer to American spelling.

Azrieli Centre

 

Azrieli Centre

 

Azrieli Centre

 

Posted in Architecture Tagged , , , |

The Day I Realised That I Would Outlive the World.

In a recent post on Facebook announcing my beginning to plan the 2015 photography expedition to Erta Ale, a friend replied and questioned, somewhat jokingly (at least I think it was jokingly) as to whether my shift away from architectural photography to landscape photography was the result of an early midlife crisis. I can categorically state that this is not the case, based on three facts. And here they are…

First, any midlife crisis I suffer now would not be an early one.

Second, I think I already had my midlife crisis when I was around 27, which at least got that out of the way, although it wasn’t a particularly impressive one as, like most 27 year-olds, there isn’t much at that age to have a crisis about. It was probably more a long sulk than an actual crisis.

Third, and the real reason for my shift to landscapes can, very definitely, be attributed to one particular experience in 2010 when I visited a place that is probably the most strikingly beautiful place I have ever seen. That place is Southwest Bolivia.

Now, the whole of southwest Bolivia is stunning and a single post wouldn’t really do it justice, so this time I want to reminisce about one particular part: The Salar de Uyuni.

The Salar de Uyuni is hard to miss - you can even see it from the moon. (Hint: Not that you need help but it is the white bit!)

The Salar de Uyuni is hard to miss – you can even see it from the moon. (Hint: Not that you need help but it is the white bit!)

 

There is an urban myth about being able to see the Great Wall of China from space, but when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon for the first time in 1969 they definitely spotted the Salar de Uyuni, apparently mistaking it for a glacier.

For anything to be seen, unaided, from the moon it has to be big. And at 4,100 square miles (10,500 square km) the salar certainly is big. Neil and Buzz can be forgiven for thinking that it was a glacier as there aren’t really many alternatives for geologic features that are pure white. But there is one: Salt. The Salar de Uyuni is not only the World’s largest salt flats, but at an altitude of 3,650 metres it is the highest too. The salar’s existence can be traced back to the very formation of the Andes when the Nazca tectonic plate subducted below the South American continental plate forcing the latter, in places five kilometres skywards. During this (geologically speaking) abrupt process, a vast amount of sea water was scoped up and when the area settled down a rather bizarre sea was created at around 3,650 metres. Over the millennia evaporation has reduced the sea to nothing but its constituent minerals and being nestled in the northern Andes – referred to as the ‘Dry Andes’ being close to the equator – with an monthly rainfall of approximately 1 mm there is little danger of the sea returning.

This is what a sea looks like after several million years of evaporation.

This is what a sea looks like after millennia of evaporation.

 

Now, the most obvious aspect of the salar is that it is so dazzlingly white although this is perhaps a little unsurprising given that there is an estimated ten billion tonnes of salt contained within. The next thing to notice is that it is also very, very flat. So flat, in fact, that orbiting satellites use the salar to calibrate their altimeters as they pass overhead. The high altitude, near perfectly clear blue skies and high reflectivity of the surface makes the salar an ideal calibration tool.

 

The evaporating waters from the ‘rainy’ season leave a flat surface with a curious pattern.

The evaporating waters from the ‘rainy’ season leave a flat surface with a curious pattern.

 

The reason the salar is so flat is that during the rainy season (‘rainy’ being a relative term in a desert) the rain water dissolves the salt at the surface. When the rain water evaporates, a uniformly flat surface is left, albeit one with a geometric pattern. There is a bunch of science as to why the pattern emerges that I once understood, but has long since been lost…

When researching the salar, it was difficult to find a widely agreed figure for the depth of the salt, but in the end I found the Mineral Corporation of Bolivia’s website. It appears that a 1989 study by a French research institute drilled a borehole down 120 metres while a 2004 study by American Duke University drilled a similar borehole down 214 metres. In both cases they found alternating layers of salt crust and clay – in the latter study a total 170 metres of salt – without touching the bottom of the salar. Of course, it’s not that deep over the entire salar, but even so, it’s impressive. Photographs really do not do justice to the area and to really appreciate the beauty of the salar you have to go and experience it yourself. And that leads me on to the pivotal moment when I changed from architecture to landscape photography.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries on Earth and one that derives a lot of its income from tourism and a limited mineral and metal export industry. The export industry is limited due to the radical left government’s unwillingness to form trade partnerships with US and European companies. The lack of large scale trade partnerships makes tourism all the more important to the income of your average Bolivian and the salar is a major tourist draw. So, what I learnt next was the catalyst to my change.

Aside from the 10 billion tonnes of salt covering the salar, there is a far more precious element beneath the surface and one that you, and everyone you know, depends on every day. It is an element that has, in the last twenty years, become a globally sought resource and one that, for the foreseeable future will shape your daily existence.

Under all that salt is lithium. The element is found in every single piece of modern portable consumer electronics. Phones, tablets, battery-powered watches, GPS units, laptops and increasingly hybrid and electric vehicles.  Your reliance on any of these is a reliance on the underlying power source. And that, right now, is lithium. The problem for Bolivia and for the salar is that there is an estimated 9 million tonnes of lithium under the surface or, to put that in a global context, approximately 35% of the World’s total lithium deposits, based on the most conservative of estimates.

Now, that doesn’t seem to be so much of a problem. You’re a desperately poor nation, but you just happen to have a significant proportion of one of the most sought after elements in the World as a natural resource. But just like winning a rollover lottery, all this good fortune will come at a price.

The first is political: To date billions of dollars of investment have been offered to the Bolivian government and all offers have been declined. But with the increase in public interest in hybrid and electric vehicles, which require far larger batteries, now seeing the car industry showing interest in lithium the drive to find resources will only see Bolivia under more pressure to develop trade partnerships.

The second is logistical: The lithium is 3,650 metres up on the altiplano with no infrastructure. No roads, no electricity, no gas, no water. Getting to the lithium will require developing all these infrastructures as well as the mining facilities and that is a lot of time and expense.

But, for me, it was that third impact that made me reconsider my views. In order to mine the lithium, the salar – as a stunning piece of natural beauty – must go. You cannot have a mining operation and an area of natural beauty side-by-side. Even if you start with a small mining operation, it will grow as time, and demand, increases. And as I discovered whilst reading an article earlier this year that is exactly what is happening.

So, at the time, whilst standing atop Isla Incawasi I realised that by 2020 the beauty of Salar de Uyuni may be forever lost. This may be my last chance to experience it. And what of the other places I had idly wanted to visit: the Arctic, the Antarctic, Peru, Jordan and Cambodia? How long before they too are irrecoverably altered? So that is when I changed to landscape photography: The day that I realised that I’ll outlive parts of the World around me.

Whilst the salt may be unusually flat, this is still high up in the Andes. Volcanoes and other mountains can soar up to 2,000 metres higher. Here I’m a mere 100 metres higher.

Whilst the salt may be unusually flat, this is still high up in the Andes. Volcanoes and other mountains can soar up to 2,000 metres higher. Here I’m a mere 100 metres higher.

 

The dark tracks that can be seen crossing the surface are unofficial 4WD paths. Whether this is to preserve as much of the beauty as possible or simply to avoid getting lost is one of many questions I have no answer to.

The dark tracks that can be seen crossing the surface are 4WD paths. Whether they stick to the same route to preserve as much of the beauty as possible or simply to avoid getting lost is one of many questions I have no answer to.

 

This is Isla Incawasi, a refuge for cacti that, despite the high salt content and lack of water continue to grow at a rate of 2.5 cm per year.

This is Isla Incawasi, a refuge for cacti that, despite the high salt content and lack of water continue to grow at a rate of 2.5 cm per year.

 

At 3,650m there day/night temperature variance is not to be ignored. Walking across the salar would be suicide unless properly prepared. And pack your sun block too. UV radiation is three times stronger at this altitude than at sea level.

At 3,650m there day/night temperature variance is not to be ignored. Walking across the salar would be suicide unless properly prepared. And pack your sun block too. UV radiation is three times stronger at this altitude than at sea level.

 

The near perfect flatness and vast size of the salar gives the brain a hard time when interpreting perspective, a fact tourists have loved for years.

The near perfect flatness and vast size of the salar gives the brain a hard time when interpreting perspective, a fact tourists have loved for years.

 

A salt hotel is no idle title – The building is made of salt, the table and chairs are made of salt, the beds are even made of salt.

A salt hotel is no idle title – The building is made of salt, the table and chairs are made of salt, the beds are even made of salt.

 

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Finding Tel Aviv’s Heart.

Well, after the hassle of industrial action at Ben Gurion airport meant that I was delayed arriving in the UK by six hours, subsequently missing the last train home and thus flying out on my all-expenses-paid weekend trip to Barcelona, I have begun the process of recharging my batteries and adjusting to normal life.

The trip saw me first spend a week in Tel Aviv, then off to Jerusalem for a week. I also spent some time in Palestine. Whenever I could I was out with my camera. The weather was unyieldingly hot which, whilst many people’s ideal, was far from mine. It may be my Scottish blood but I much prefer the cold. I found myself struggling to concentrate on my creative side – a process difficult at the best of times.

In Tel Aviv I had the added restriction that I was there on a company funded training course and so, as eager as I was to be out and about, that had to take priority. As my old boss once said to a friend and colleague of mine: “Work life pays for home life”. Yes, with the course finishing at 6-6:30PM and sunset at approximately 8PM, photography in Tel Aviv was a fast and furious affair. Whilst nothing focusses the mind like the tick-tock of a clock, there was still the practicalities of getting from A to B to consider.

As a city, and this is in no way a criticism, Tel Aviv is pretty much the same as many other coastal Mediterranean cities, which makes photography both easy and complex. Easy in that the same type of shots that work in one city will work in another – cookie-cutter photographs; complex in that it is difficult to take a photograph that is different. As my photography has matured, I have long since stopped taking photographs that (1) are the standard tourist fare and (2) similar to photographs that someone else has taken, unless I believe I can do it better.

I’m fascinated by street art (or graffiti if you prefer) and Israel has a thriving street art scene. I’m going to write a separate piece on street art in Israel, but as I arrived in Tel Aviv, my primary objective was to shoot the street art. The other objectives were more vague – having just returned from Iceland and work consuming my evenings and weekends meant little time for researching the trip to Israel. But, in the end I became fascinated by two locations in Tel Aviv.

The first was the Azrieli Centre; a complex of three skyscrapers whose geometric simplicity is quite striking. More on this is a separate post.

The second was the beach. The last time I was on a beach (a few weeks ago) it was in Iceland at the top of the North Atlantic with ice cold water and a biting wind. This was an altogether different experience with a warm, yet cooling breeze and the much more temperature waters of the Mediterranean. My immediate feeling when I saw the beach was the it felt like everyone was there; the young, the old, the in between. joggers, volleyball players, surfers, people lounging in bars, people sitting on the golden sands, people still dressed in office clothes. Name a demographic and it was probably on the beach somewhere. To me the beach was the heart of Tel Aviv, right on the edge where land had run out.

As the beach is generally west facing, the sun set over the sea, making for the classic tourist shot of the sun hitting the horizon. As this kind of shot is a bit of a tourist cliché, it was not one that I was interested in and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I could take a very good one anyway. But a west-facing beach did mean one thing – a chance to do something creative with silhouettes. I like silhouette photography. A silhouette in a photograph can hide the fine detail that humans automatically look for upon seeing another human such as eyes, mouth, skin colour and symmetry. A silhouette becomes everyone. It becomes you.

 

Taking photographs of people can be a great way to break the ice. 1/750 sec, f/11 ISO 100

Taking photographs of people can be a great way to break the ice.
1/750 sec, f/11 ISO 100

So I found a suitable spot, set up camera and waited. The problem was, as mentioned, the beach is so popular and finding an uncluttered shot was an exercise in patience. In the end it took about an hour and 40 or shot shots to get one I liked, but when it happened I immediately knew that it represented how I saw Tel Aviv; young, healthy and enjoying life.

Of course, people become curious when  you set up a camera and, unlike a regular tourist, don’t move on after a couple of minutes. Over the course of the hour I got talking to a number of people, including a wonderful older guy and the couple above.

So, yes Tel Aviv in many ways is no different from other coastal Mediterranean cities I have been to, but the relationship that the inhabitants of Tel Aviv have with their beach does appear more intimate, perhaps even symbiotic. After all, what good is a beach without footprints in the sand?

 

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