Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Water’

Gallery view, Flowers Gallery, Cork St, LondonEdward Burtynsky, ‘Water’, at the Flowers Gallery, Cork St, London

Two days in London, and three wonderful exhibitions – bliss! Although I thoroughly enjoyed all three, I’m only going to talk about one of them here.  I’ve been interested in seeing Edward Burtynsky’s work in the flesh, so to speak, for quite a while and was annoyed that I managed to miss his ‘Oil’ exhibition a little while ago.  This was made up for in spades when I met with Eileen at the weekend and we went to see his new body of work called ‘Water’ at the Flowers Gallery in Cork Street in London.  I’m going to try very hard not to sound like a Burtynsky groupie, mouthing ‘wow!’ and ‘awesome!’ to everything I saw, but it’s going to be tough.  These images were gobsmackingly gorgeous.

Normally photography is prohibited in galleries like this one but this was an exception, so I managed to take a few shots of some of the images.  As photos of the photos, these pale in comparison to the real thing – huge canvases, beautifully printed, with extraordinary colour and detail – but they do at least give an idea of the work.  The theme, as you might have guessed, is water.  Sometimes it’s the absence of water, sometimes the ways in which we use and harness water, and sometimes the natural source of our water, hidden in the mountains and glaciers.

Many of the images are taken from an aerial perspective, and seen from a height, turn into very beautiful abstract patterns.  However, the beauty of the colour and pattern often hides the toll we’re taking on the natural environment.  In the image below, for instance, the shot is of the Almira Peninsula in Spain and what you’re looking at is greenhouses – mile upon mile of greenhouses that have effectively turned this area into a no-man’s land.  I’ll be giving some thought to that next time I eat a winter tomato.

Almira Peninsula by Edward BurtynskyGreenhouses, Almira Peninsula, Spain, 2010, Edward Burtynsky

These rice fields, taken from above, look more hospitable to human life but also portray intensive farming practices.

Rice fields by Edward BurtynskyRice terraces #2, Western Yunnan Province, China, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

One of the things I found most interesting is the way in which the images were both extremely detailed – if you peered in close you could see every bush, tree or bird – but also took on a very painterly appearance when viewed further back.  Somehow Burtynsky manages to preserve detail and create something that has the amorphous feel of an abstract painting, both at the same time.  In the following images, it’s very hard to see what these are in reality, but not because there’s any lack of detail.

Glacial runoff by Edward BurtynskyGlacial runoff #1, Skeidararsandur, Iceland, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

Olfusa river by Edward BurtynskyOlfusa River #1, Iceland, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

In some of the other images the content is more obvious and easier to pin down, but even these manage to express both a feeling of softness and sharp detail in the same shot.

Dam, Xiaolangdi Dam, by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #1, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

In these two shots of the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River, water billows and roils and at first glance there’s nothing man-made here.  In reality, the movement of the water is the effect of a constructed dam and there is a small, delicate metal walkway whose sharp detail contrasts with the force and expansion of the natural element of the water – you can just about make it out on the left, a little over halfway down.  These two images were possibly my favourites – they reminded me of Turner’s paintings, and those of some other artist whose name I can’t quite remember.   To me they epitomise the idea of the sublime in art where beauty, and fear, and awe at the power of nature all combine.  The sheer softness and subtle tones of the colours had to be seen to be believed – they’re somewhat lost here.  It’s impossible to show just how amazing these images were seen at full size, and I can only suggest that if you’re anywhere near London you should get yourself along to see them for real.

Yellow River 2 by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #2, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

Yellow River 3 by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #3, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

Seeing pictures as good as these is a double-edged sword – there was a part of me that felt they were so far beyond anything I could hope to produce myself that it made me feel like sticking my camera on ebay and giving up the game.  Of course I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but not entirely.  Eileen, who is always full of wisdom and good advice, took another view – she suggested that if they spoke to me as strongly as they do, then there must be something in what I like to do myself that connects with them.  Perhaps I should read my own blog posts a bit more often, because I just found this quote in my archives.

I feel a little presumptuous comparing my own work with Burtynsky’s, but I have begun to see that there are links.  One of the things that Burtynsky does to great effect is to play with the scale.  In his case he shoots on a grand scale which often appears small; in my own case my subject matter often consists of close-ups that appear larger.  The obvious example would be my ‘oil spill’ images, where tiny areas of oil floating on ditch water look as if they might be grand landscapes – here and here.  The image right at the end of this post is a particularly lovely example of Burtynsky’s large-to-small effect, with a river delta appearing like a tree or a piece of seaweed lying on the sand.

Two of the other things I love about the Burtynsky images are their colours and their softness, particularly the way the softness contrasts with sharp detail.  I wish I could achieve this feeling of deep, layered softness without loss of detail, and the rich range of tones that he produces.  Some of the colours in his images are spectacular; in others they’re very subtle but rich and satisfying.  I love strong colour, but recently I’ve found myself drawn to this greater subtlety of colour and this is something I’d like to explore a bit more.  The abstract nature of the pictures appeals to me greatly as well – all the more so because the abstraction arises out of something real without feeling overly contrived.  A lot of these qualities are nascent in my own work and on making the comparison I can see why Burtynsky’s work draws me so strongly.  Perhaps, somehow, I can take some of this and use it to come just a tiny step closer to what he has achieved here.

River delta, Edward BurtynskyColorado River delta #2, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011, Edward Burtynsky


Llinos Lanini, and why we shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel

Sheep, Llinos Lanini

Image courtesy of Llinos Lanini

You may have heard of RedEye. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that was set up to support photographers and photography in a variety of different ways.  They’re now intending to expand out into North Wales and last week they held an inaugural meeting in Mold, with a talk by a local photographer, Llinos Lanini (which has got to be one of the most wonderful names on the planet – I’ve been rolling it around in my mouth all day, like a very delicious sweet). At around the same time, an email by Seth Godin popped up in my inbox (Seth Godin, if you’re not familiar with him, is a well known internet marketer and writer). I’ll tell you what he said first, because it connects with the rest of it.

Seth’s point was that there are two opposing attitudes that people, businesses, or organisations tend to take: the first is a kind of take-it-or-leave-it, this-is-the-best-I-can-do approach, which can easily lead to sloppy, mediocre products and services.  The second – and the one I’m interested in here –  is feeling that our work just isn’t good enough, which usually leads to nothing happening at all. As he puts it: ‘countless projects go unlaunched, improvements hidden, thoughts unstated–because the person behind the idea is hiding behind the false understanding that their work isn’t good enough yet.’

Which brings me back to Llinos and her story. Llinos was a social worker, and then a relationship therapist for most of her working life, but in 2005 she bought a camera. If I remember rightly, she wanted to get a bit more exercise, decided against a dog, and bought a camera instead, thinking it would make her go out and shoot pictures. Less than six months later, she came across the sheep you see in the photo above, and took this wonderful shot. Shortly after that she saw a photo competition advertised in the Telegraph, and thinking she may as well have a go, she entered the sheep image. And she won!

Now Llinos claims that she got lucky, and it’s true there’s always a certain amount of luck involved in these things no matter how good you are. But it wasn’t just luck – she not only took a great photo, she took action.  There have been many times when I’ve briefly thought about entering a competition and then done nothing about it because I assumed I wouldn’t stand a chance of being placed.  I often give up before I even get started. And if Llinos had thought that way, she almost certainly wouldn’t be where she is today – which is earning her living by practising her art.  Not only that, she’s doing it in the field of fine art photography, which is one of the most difficult to break into.

Winning the competition was the kind of break we all long for, but if Llinos had left things there then nothing much might have happened. But she didn’t – she knocked on gallery doors, she asked if she could exhibit, and she generally put herself out there and took every opportunity that presented itself, even if it wasn’t obvious how it would contribute to her photographic future. How many of us would have done the same? And it’s not because she has huge confidence and a high opinion of her own work – as she spoke, she seemed quite self-deprecating (see the comment above about just being lucky!), and emphasised that she had no training and didn’t really know what she was doing at the time. She just went ahead and did it anyway.

I think women are particularly bad when it comes to putting themselves forward. It was refreshing just to hear a female photographer speak, as every other photography speaker I’ve seen has been male. I’m generalising of course, but my own observations show me that many more male photographers – even, sometimes, not very good ones – are quick to enter competitions, put their work on display, give talks,  and generally take any opportunity going. As women, we tend to hide ourselves and put our own work down. I see it in so many women I know, and also in myself.  When I was exchanging emails with Llinos, and saying something to this effect, she replied:  ‘I suppose that’s who my target audience is – women who don’t realise that they just need to believe in their own ‘eye’ and ability.’

While I think women are particularly prone to this, lots of us, both men and women, think ‘who are we to put ourselves forward for this?’. To paraphrase the oft-repeated quotation from Marianne Williamson: who are we not to? – our playing small doesn’t serve the world, and it doesn’t serve us.  And, yes, it’s true we’re not all going to win competitions or be able to make a living in this profession, but some of us will and some of us can. And without exception, we’ll be the ones who gave it a go.

On that note, I’d like to leave you with a selection of Llinos’s photographs, and to thank her for her kindness in allowing me to use them here.  (They are, of course, copyright and not to be used without written permission.)  I’d also like to say I’m grateful to her for waking me up and making me realise I can’t allow myself to hang back any longer, unless I’m content to remain on the outside looking in – and I’ve been there long enough, I think.

Edit: A few minutes after publishing this I checked my gmail account, only to notice in the left sidebar it said: ‘You are invisible’ and underneath: ‘Go visible’.  I’m smiling to myself.

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Getting my mojo back: the OCA residential weekend

OCA group photo, Amano SamarpanPhoto by courtesy of Amano Samarpan

Yes, that’s me, front row, second from the right

I’m not long back from a residential study weekend run and organised by OCA* students.  I’m not even going to attempt to cover every part of the weekend, partly because there’s so much to say and think about, and partly because I know that not everyone who reads this is part of OCA and I don’t want to bore you with insider stuff.  So I’m going to pull out a couple of highlights that got me thinking hard about photography.

I’m still buzzing with it all. Anyone who’s been reading along with me will have noticed the gradual diminution of blog entries over the last few months, and the complete lack of photographs in the last few, and you’ll have heard me bemoan the fact that I’d lost my photographic mojo and couldn’t locate it again.  Readers, I was depressed – more depressed than I even realised myself.  I’ve been having some treatment for that (alternative-style, not the drug kind) and was feeling a lot brighter before I went on the weekend but still not inclined to get out there and get shooting.  This weekend has changed it all about for me – yesterday I went out with my camera for the first time in months, and I’m full of ideas and enthusiasm and motivation again.  I’ve got myself back – yeeha!  (And a huge thank you to Penny and Eileen who organised and ran the whole thing with flair and friendly efficiency.)

Our first external speaker was Mishka Henner. I’d looked at his website before we went, and to be truthful didn’t really get a lot from his work, but how that changed when he started talking about it – it was fascinating and I ended up loving what he did.  It also made me aware of my own prejudices in one respect – Mishka uses photographs to make art, but they’re other people’s photographs and not his own.  Something in me wants to reject this as photography – as art, yes, but as photography, no.  I had to ask myself what it means to say we’re photographers.  For me, this involves actually using a camera but is my thinking too rigid in this respect?  For several of his projects Mishka uses photos taken from Google Earth.  Now, OK, he didn’t shoot them, but in terms of his projects he chose the frame, cropped it, enhanced it in Photoshop, and presented it as art.  That’s probably more effort than the Google people put into that particular frame, and these are all parts of the photographic process.  I must admit that I’m still inclined to feel he’s an artist who uses photography rather than a photographer as such, but old prejudices die hard and I dare say I’ll get over it.  It’s not really so different from Marcel Duchamp appropriating a urinal and presenting it as art (but then I wouldn’t have called him a ceramicist!).

One of the things I really liked about his work was that, although it was strongly conceptual, it was also very aesthetically pleasing. The images were visually satisfying even when you removed the conceptual element from them.  This isn’t necessary, of course, but it keeps me happy.  For one of his projects he would use a number of portraits taken by a particular, well-known photographer – such as Diane Arbus, Rineke Dijsktra, or Lewis Hines – and super-impose them on each other.  He selected portraits that were taken face-on and lined them up using the irises of the eyes.  The results are astonishing.  He shows the process in video form, each layer (set at 3% transparency) going on top of the others, until a final face takes shape; the faces emerge out of the blackness, slowly becoming more defined.  I find it hard to say why these are so compelling, but they certainly are, with the eyes staying strong and clear and the rest of the face acquiring a softly smudged state of ethereality.

Dutch Tulip Fields, 2012, Mishka HennerMishka Henner, Near Julianadorp, 2012

It’s not my intention to give any kind of comprehensive overview of Mishka’s work, and I intend to come back to some of it in due course, but I must just mention his Dutch tulip fields.   These are views of the tulip fields, taken from the air, and transformed into dramatic abstract shapes, reminiscent of modern paintings.  It struck me that here is a very different view of spring.  When I was putting together my first assignment on the Landscape course, which was to portray spring, this might have given me some food for thought – although I’m not sure my budget would have run to aerial photography.  I don’t know whether he took these shots himself, or if they’ve been taken from Google Earth again, but either way, they’re stunning.  However, as someone pointed out, OCA students wouldn’t get away with submitting photos for our assignments that we hadn’t taken ourselves.  It seems there’s one rule for students and another for when you’ve gained some sort of a reputation – fair enough, I guess, although I wonder if that’s the case in all degree courses.

One of the other sessions I found really interesting was from tutor Jesse Alexander. He took us through the process of development of his MA submission, from its early beginnings to the finished work.  Interesting in itself, and again I loved the fact that his images are visually stunning as well as having conceptual meaning.  His project is called Threshold Zone and is all about underground landscapes, the transition from light to dark, and the myth and meaning surrounding journeys into the underworld.  However, it’s not the images I want to discuss but the fact that he told us that he found these places pretty scary and had to face up to these fears while carrying out the project.  In a similar vein, another of the other students on the workshop showed us pictures of pollarded trees during the critique session, and said that even though she hates to see trees like this, and finds it almost painful to look at them, she feels compelled to take shots of them.  I don’t think I have any instances of this in my own work, but I wonder how many photographers are drawn towards subjects they find painful, distressing, frightening, and so on.  In a way, Jesse’s underground shots could also represent for him a journey into the underworld of his own psyche – it’s an interesting parallel.  By photographing these things, are we looking for a way of coming to terms with them, or perhaps simply expressing a reflection of some inner process of our own?

I’m leaving it here for the moment. I have loads more to say, and a huge number of things to think about, and a lot of that will no doubt find its way into this space in due course.  As you’ll have gathered by now, it was a terrific experience and has turned things around for me in so many ways.  This is due in no small way to the other students on the course.  It was a real joy to have such a diverse and interesting group of people to talk to, knowing that you wouldn’t bore them by rambling on about photography too much.  And it was just great to finally meet people whom I’ve mostly only known as avatars and user-names on forums.  It’s a strange experience – you feel as if you know someone already, but it also feels like you’re meeting a stranger.  People are very much as you imagined them, but also in some ways very different.  Weird.  I can only hope that we continue to have weekends like this.  Well done Penny, Eileen, tutors Peter and Jesse, and OCA for their support for the venture, as well as our two guest speakers Mishka Henner and Peter Rudge from duckrabbit. (and more of duckrabbit later).


*Open College of the Arts

Kertesz, the Polaroids, and the Royal Academy


Kertesz polaroids

A selection of Andre Kertesz’ still life Polaroids

I went to the Royal Academy recently to see Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century.  I so enjoyed this exhibition – the Hungarian photographers have a style and visual language that’s very close to what I love to do myself.  I’ve always adored Andre Kertesz’ work – he’s got to be in my top ten list of favourite photographers – and there was lots of it here as well as loads of other amazing stuff.

I like pretty much everything Kertesz has ever done, but my absolute favourites are the series of Polaroids he took towards the end of his life.  In many ways Kertesz is a sad figure – after considerable early success in Hungary and Paris, he emigrated to New York and then war broke out in Europe leaving him unable to go back.  Unfortunately New Yorkers didn’t appreciate his distinctive style and approach, and although he continued to work for magazines there were frequent disputes with editors and cancelled commissions, and he also found himself too busy to work on his personal projects.  It wasn’t a happy time for him – he never really learned to speak English very well, which added to his isolation, and he always felt like an outsider.  Many of his New York photographs reflect the sadness of that time.

His wife Elizabeth, whom he adored, died in 1977. There’s a terribly poignant photograph called “Flowers for Elizabeth”, taken while his wife was in hospital.  In the book ‘Kertesz on Kertesz’ he says: “I wanted the apartment to be painted for her when she came back, but she never came back.”

More or less confined to his apartment, and depressed after Elizabeth’s death, he started playing with a Polaroid camera that was lying around.  In his own words:

Years ago I was given a little primitive Polaroid camera and I didn’t like it – it was for snapshots.  But one day I took it out.  I had discovered, in the window of a shop, a little glass bust, and I was very moved because it resembled my wife- the shoulder and the neck were Elizabeth.  For months and months I looked at the bust in the window, and finally I bought it…….And I took it home, put it in my window, and began shooting and shooting with the Polaroid camera – in the morning, in the afternoon, in different lights.  Something came out of this little incident, this little object.  They made a book of all the pictures I took.  It is dedicated to my wife.

Kertesz on Kertesz, 1985

I think these photos are small and exquisite treasures; they represent everything I’d like to be able to do with still life.  I’ve been trying to get a copy of the book, which is out of print, for some time now and was thrilled to get an email from Amazon this morning saying that it’s on its way – I can’t wait to see it.

After going round the exhibition, Eileen and I sat outside in the forecourt for a couple of hours, talking, people-watching, enjoying the evening sun, and taking photos.  Here are a few.


Buildings reflected in Jeff Koons' sculpture

Buildings reflected in a sculpture by Jeff Koons, at the Royal Academy

Cooling down


Colour reflections

Last of the evening light

Evening sun

Mending spider’s webs and renovating mushrooms

I came across the work of photographer Nina Katchadourian a while ago, and was really taken by two of her projects: in the first, she mended spider’s webs with red thread and the in the second, she patched cracks in mushrooms with bicycle repair kits.

The spiders would often react to the repair by pulling out the red threads, leaving a pile of them on the ground below.  You can imagine them being disgusted at the standard of workmanship and outraged at the use of red thread!

There’s something very playful and whimsical about this that I find  enchanting, but it does pose some more serious questions about our interactions with nature.  Should we intervene?  Katchadourian says that she often destroyed the web further in her efforts to do the repair.  Sometimes we just blunder in and make things worse.

It reminds me of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon and ‘helped’ it by pulling the cocoon apart.  What he didn’t realise was that the struggle to emerge was designed to force fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings and that, without this struggle, the butterfly’s wings would never form enough to fly.

Putting all that aside, I do think there’s a wonderful innocence in the notion of repairing webs and mushrooms that takes us back in time to childhood when magic was around every corner and everything was possible. It’s refreshing to come across work that just has to make you smile.

Photo challenge: what could you do to ‘repair’ nature and then photograph it?