My latest contract work is with ArtUK, I’m one of the 50 odd photographers working with them on photographing 170,000 sculptures, held in public collections, by the end of May 2020. This blog series is an account of two days work for them at Plymouth museums recently. But firstly, here’s a preamble:
I had decided to treat myself to a new camera, keep up-to-date with things, at the end of my contract with Beaford arts. Reading the details of what was required for ArtUK, amongst other things was a digital camera with a sensor bigger than 30 megapixels. I decided to go for the best camera I could afford and future proof myself by buying a Nikon D850 which has top of the range 45 megapixels. I’ve never been gadget-man, so I wanted to keep my kit to the essentials; therefore, could I get away with just two lenses for my new camera? I have fallen back in love with prime lenses after noticing that my zoom lens, through its lens barrel movement, was seemingly more likely to add dust to a camera sensor. So, I tried an interesting exercise: I looked at the meta data regarding lens length full-frame equivalent, for every one of what I considered where my best images from the last couple of years, and it brought me to an interesting conclusion as to which prime lenses I should buy. The clear majority of these pictures were either shot at 35mm or at approximately 60mm, I therefore started looking to see which lenses might work best for my new full frame camera. After much deliberation I decided on the Sigma 35mm Art Lens and the Nikon 60mm macro. I haven’t looked back; these lenses are perfect for me!
I also needed to update my portable studio. I have had, and used, studio lighting for the whole of my time as a freelance photographer, but I’ve never had a portable background stand, so this was something I needed to buy. Art UK also required a specific background colour, storm grey, which I bought in both 2.7m and 1.3m widths. I had heard of the problems from other ArtUK photographers have had with transporting their kit around and through various institutions; not been able to park right outside, having to take their kit up and down stairs, moving from room to room often with the general public about etc. I was determined to make my kitbag transportable and ideally being able to carry everything myself, all at once, if I needed to. I managed this with a small two wheeled suitcase trolley and by packing a bag on my back too – The only addition to this one-man operation was the large paper background and a collapsible table if needed. The kitbag I took to Plymouth is as follows:
Follow this link for Part 2: Photographing Sculpture!
My thoughts as Hidden Histories digitiser and as a photographer with a wealth of black-and-white photography experience on the development of both photographers:
Although these are simply thoughts as they are unsubstantiated because there is very little written evidence for either photographer in terms of their creative/artistic/photographic development, either through their own notes or diary or through academic research.
Ravilious was a gifted image maker in terms of composition right from the start of his time at Beaford, this was clearly due to his art training and family nurturing. However, his technical ability, image exposure and developing of the negative, is inconsistent and errs to the under exposure/under-development side. This produced thin negatives that were often difficult to print. Ravilious said of himself that he is ‘badly self-taught’ and he was scathing about the technical quality of his early pictures through the first decade of the Beaford project. He talks later about using Ansel Adams Zone System in an adapted format, essentially exposing for the shadows and developing for the highlights: it was interesting to come across a contact sheet RAV-02-1456, from November 1981, which has test shots for the use of the Zone System.
This is followed by a number of well exposed and well developed rolls of film including RAV-03-1461 which holds some landscape photographs reminiscent of Adams own. Although Ravilious surprisingly deemed these images as only ‘fair’. There is certainly greater consistency in his second decade, after this Zone system revelation. By this time, he had also acquired noncoated lenses for his Leica cameras which would give him a greater range of tones, and the Ilford 400 ISO film he used had been updated from HP4 to HP5 from 1977. His use of the same film sensitivity throughout his time at Beaford is often the mark of a good photographer, taking a lead from his photographic inspiration Cartier Bresson, and using film speed that he could really get to know intimately. This is demonstrated time and again with excellent use of shutter speed to freeze movement that mattered like a person’s face but allow movement in the frame from things like a football, shuttlecock, Wellington (RAV-03-1713-59A) or moving animals etc. A good example of his masterly technique is RAV-03-1526-22 when he pans a reveller dressed in drag sat in a pushchair being raced at a carnival, the pushchair and rider are frozen in the picture and yet the hedge behind seems to blur through his camera movement. Another good example is on contact sheet 1985 where Ravilious sets up his camera on a tripod in school and uses a slow shutter to emphasise the number of children in the overflowing classroom.
Looking again at Ravilious’s chosen ‘Best’ and ‘Good’ image distribution throughout the archive, he chooses a greater percentage from his early years despite his poor technical ability at the time and his admittance that many of his images from this era would be very difficult to print. I have found that an advantage of digitising the negatives is that a greater range of tones can be captured in a RAW file than is possible in a print; therefore it ought to be possible ultimately to make better ‘digital’ prints from some of these earlier negatives that Ravilious might well have struck of as ‘Fair’ or ‘Poor’ because the exposure or development dictated it thus.
Deakins was also art trained, a gifted painter at school he came to Beaford at 21, fresh from Bath Academy of Art. Working on the Beaford Archive was to be his ‘gap-year’ before pursuing his passion for cinema at the National Film School. Deakins was not at Beaford for long enough for me to discuss development and, of course, without a consecutive timeline of photographs it would be impossible to make any assessment. However, what we do have is a remarkable archive, the beginning, of what was to become an incredibly successful career at the highest level in cinematography. There are certainly innumerable references, within this year of images, which demonstrate a cinematic leaning and dramatization of the subject. There is a continuous searching for style through Deakins work; a lot of experimentation, pushing himself to try making images outside of his comfort zone and his technical ability as a way of learning and improving on his ‘seeing’ and his craft. Deakins also pushed the boundaries of ‘taste’ or ‘acceptability’ of an urbanite choosing to unsympathetically document a fox hunt and a stag hunt and kill, a cow slaughtered in an abattoir and cut into pieces for the butchers, death at lambing time and chickens killed, plucked and ready for the table. These images were shot in a cold but honest, undramatised fashion, accurately recording the grittier side of typical rural life.
I’ve come across many inconsistencies where we read, and we think we know something about James Ravilious but in fact the truth is less certain. For example, it is said that he never used flash, and yet contact sheet RAV-02-1605 from an early January morning in 1983 women are pouring milk into bottles before delivery. I can’t say for absolute certain that Ravilious has used flash but the lighting in the workshop where the women are photographed would be extremely uncomfortable and difficult to work under. We were also told that he never set any of his pictures up, however it’s hard to believe examples like RAV-02-1718-21, RAV-02-418-10A, RAV-02-683-37 and RAV-02-1123-2 have simply arranged themselves.
The North Devon countryside clings on to the colour green for as long as it possibly can, already hinting towards next spring; whereas other parts of the country are a dazzle of autumn hues or brown and dying from months of drying summer. Searching for a way to represent this I went for the first time to Harford Wood. At the moment, working full time on digitising negatives, I don’t get the freedom required by most landscape photographers, to choose time of day, weather conditions and location. However, with a few hours on a Wednesday morning before seeing a client for a workshop, I made a slight detour to the wood. On this damp, slightly misty day, I was blessed with ideal conditions to see Harford Wood in a soft, dreamlike light with no wind at all, which made my views seem like huge pictorial canvases. I was also enjoying the warmth of the light falling through the high canopy of golden yellow leaves, in stark contrast to the overwhelming reflected green light experienced through the summer.
*Forest bathing is the practice of taking a short, leisurely visit to a forest for health benefits. The practice originated in Japan where it is called shinrin-yoku – from Wikipedia
As digitiser for Beaford Arts, Hidden Histories project, I have the privilege of seeing all of Roger Deakins’ and James Ravilious’ 10,000 images in the Beaford Archive. As a photographer, I have left myself open to any influence on my own work gained through this exposure. I’ve found myself drawn to the hinterland between urban areas and the moors, the edges of farmland, areas left to wild, in this lush fertile land know as North Devon. I’m inspired by these quiet, contemplative landscapes, devoid of landmarks or horizon, which are not descriptive of a specific place but describe perfectly this region. In response and in comparison, to Ravilious’ images, my own are a soft, warm, saturated green, the colour of North Devon. The Beaford Archive is a social documentary archive of North Devon from the 1970’s and 1980’s but these intimate landscapes I’m hoping will be more timeless, looking the same now as they were then. “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1856, and these archived images should act as a warning to intensive farming which would destroy this unique eco-system forever.
These images are featured in my new gallery page Green and Pleasant Land.
“Creating digital surrogates for 10,000 negatives will facilitate improved access and significantly reduce the impact on the original negatives. ?The newly digitised material will also provide inspiration for our activities. A digital master archive image will be produced at a high resolution which will minimize the need for subsequent rescanning and retains the maximum amount of data. This RAW mastered file will be immediately archived.”
Photographic negatives hold far more image information than the resulting print. There is a far greater range of grey tones, and the photographer chooses how much or how little of this information is to be made visible in the final print. The amount of contrast is controlled through choice of grade of printing paper, 1-5, where 1 is low and 5 is high contrast; or through using variable contrast paper in combination with coloured filters to produce a similar result. Brightness and darkness of tones is achieved through the time exposure of the paper to the enlargers light, focused through the negative. And a fine control of exposure here is achieved through ‘dodging’ and ‘shading’, where the photographer can selectively darken or lighten areas of the print through selective exposure to light. The photographer desires an information rich, full tonal range negative, one which is correctly exposed and developed, for the greatest opportunity to create a fine print from it.
A negative isn’t created in digital photography, the closest thing we have in terms of an image file which holds greater information than our final print is the RAW file. The RAW file holds more visual information than is possible to see in a print and, similar to the negative, the photographer can select what to include in the final digital image or print.
“In line with recommendation from our Digital Consultant, Elizabeth Fife-Faulkner, we will employ the photographic capture method. This method allows faster image capture than the traditional flat-bed scanner method, produces higher quality results and is fast becoming the industry standard. In addition, the method reduces the instances of static, a significant issue for archive materials and in particular for 35mm photographic negatives.”
Most of the Digital Consultant’s recommendations were implemented but a popular method of copying a negative or slide using a camera, bellows, a lens and flash was hotly debated right at the onset of the Hidden Histories Project. The concern with this method was that of contrast, the longstanding digital printers of the Beaford Archive images at Focal Point in Exeter suggested that a LED light source would be lower in contrast and therefore help produce a greater range of tones in the digital copy. This was also in keeping with James Ravilious’ preference for old uncoated lenses for his Leica camera because he disliked the modern higher contrast lenses.
Focal Point were able to convert an old Bowens Illumitran Slide Copier, which originally had it’s own flash light source, into an LED copier more suited for our needs. This cobbling together of the best of old and new technologies was very much in keeping with the spirit of Ravilious!
10,000 images of the 80,000 negatives that exist in the Beaford Archive, roughly 1000 of Deakins and 9000 of Ravilious, were selected by a curator from the contact sheets I had scanned and created digitally. This information including negative number, description, date and notes, was received on an Excel spreadsheet.
Once the apparatus was set up, cleanliness and keeping surfaces dust free were key through regular dusting with compressed air. Negatives, which are removed from their archival sleeves by their sprocket holes with tweesers, were only handled by their edges.
The guys at Focal Point recommended that the optimum lens was a Rodenstock 60mm f4 enlarger lens. I discovered that it’s ‘sweet’ spot, where the grain of the negative was in focus right to the corners was between f8 and f11. My natural instinct had been to close the lens right down to f22 but this resulted in a softening of the image.
Once an exposure was achieved with a slight clipping of the negative’s highlights (a prints shadow image) I bracketed the RAW exposures by a third of a stop each way. Photographic film base for Ilford HP4 and later HP5 is the same density and so the only variation on exposure is through fogging to light or the occasional fixer stain. Many of the films have a variety of exposure and over/under development but this doesn’t affect the copying exposure to digital a great deal.
I then worked in batches of 10 films at a time which, at 4-5 pictures per roll that the curator had chosen, equaled approximately 45 images per folder. This gave me both a simple, straightforward filing system and a reasonable number to invert to positive images, adjust levels of exposure and spot out dust, scratches and hairs later on. (I’ll go into this in detail in a future post). After every batch I checked the focus and made adjustments if needed. The images were downloaded and a best of the 3 bracketed exposures was saved for each image. The Nikon RAW NEF files were converted to RAW .dng files because this format is considered universal and more archival because it isn’t associated with a particular camera brand. These files were then immediately backed up so that duplicates existed.