nostalgia

A feeling of nostalgia is hitting me tonight.

As I sit here, after spending the whole week preparing copies of my Altiplano book to be shipped out, I can’t help reflect upon the journeys I’ve made over the past decade or so.

I’ve said many times, that the time we spend outside making images, is a way of us marking our time. Photography gives us a great chance to stop and think about where we are ‘right now’, and then as time goes on, we can look back at images we created and they bring us right back to that moment.

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Who we were, what was going on in our lives. Photography gives us a chance to not only relive the past, but also to draw contrasts with where we are now, who we are now, and how we’ve changed.

I can’t think of a better way of marking my time. Photography has given me a way of remembering the past, and of noting just how much I’ve done with my life.

And for that: I can’t help but feel rather nostalgic tonight.

I’m not entirely at ease with the emotion. I think nostalgia is sort of interlaced with a sense of loss. I think that’s ok though. Isn’t it? We must all accept that what water has passed under the bridge won’t return. What we experienced, what we felt and saw, happens only once.

For me, I think the feeling of nostalgia tells me one thing: to cherish every. single. moment. Who we are, are our memories. We are the culmination of everything that went before us. To revel in what we did, where we were, who we were, what we were doing, is such a precious gift.

Great times are often happening right now, except we lack the foresight to know it. You may be forming some of your most precious memories this year, except you won’t know it until much later on in life.

Well, I digress….. but it does have a point. I can’t help thinking about the amateur photographer I was, with a few friends around me who said ‘you should go pro’ (Don’t all friends tell you that?). Except I was daft (stupid) enough to believe. it. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s also been the best thing I ever did.

My Altplano book wouldn’t have happened without the past. I needed to go create some memories, and I needed to go and live. I went to the Altiplano of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile several times, so much so that I can mark my life by it. I know where I was in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

My Altiplano book couldn’t have happened without the culmination of experiences. As I said a few days ago, you don’t create work by watching YouTube tutorials, or by reading loads of blogs. You create work by finding out who you are. And to do that, you need to go explore.

That’s exactly what I did. I went exploring.

My Altiplano book couldn’t have happened any other way. And looking back, I realise it’s given me more than just a nice book, and some nice images: It gave me some special memories and markers for my life.

Nostalgia. Well, sometimes it serves us well :-)

The art of overlooking something

Sometimes I overlook images. I don't see them, don't recognise them for their beauty. It's a talent I have, one that I think most of us have to not truly see what is before us :-)

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As part of reviewing work for my upcoming Altiplano book this year, I've been finding work that I can't quite understand why I passed it by. The images are very beautiful and yet I failed to embrace them at the time I was editing.

We all do it. Sometimes we don't see our work for what it truly is (this goes both ways - sometimes I think it's better than it actually is, other times I don't appreciate the beauty because I am so hung up on how I wanted the image to turn out, and don't accept it for what it offers.

There's a remedy to this: every once in a while, I go back to my older images and review them ( in my case - I look at the unscanned Velvia transparencies). I then focus on the work I didn't use and try to see if there's something there that I missed first time round.

I can guarantee I will find something for sure. Either because I was too focussed on other things to notice it, or I was simply too close.

One of photography's much needed skills, is the ability to review oneself. To do that, you have to be open to what you've done, accept the failures as much as the successes, and to be as objective as you can be.

Progress

Sometimes you just want to go back and rewrite history. Your older work feels immature and lacking.

If you feel like that, it's a good sign that there's been progress in what you do, because you are probably seeing issues in the work that you didn't see at the time you made them.

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I've just had the uncomfortable task of going back over my older Bolivia work choosing images for inclusion in my forthcoming book 'Altiplano'. I think it's encouraging to note that I am uncomfortable with the older work, as I do believe there has been an improvement in my visual awareness, and hopefully editing skills.

There are maybe a hand-full of the 63 images that I intend to include in the book, that really need to be tuned a lot for one basic reason: way back when I started out, I didn't really know how to utilise the complete dynamic range of the print.

I think that review is healthy. But going over your older work endlessly trying to make it perfect isn't. Still, there are times when dusting off older work does give you the chance to reconsider.... but I often feel if the image is well known and much loved, it's best to leave it alone.

Let's see where my book preparation takes me......

Hit Rate doesn't matter

A good friend of mine recently asked me how many good images I shoot on a roll of film.

I can fully appreciate that it's just very interesting to know how often a photographer reaches success with his images - it might give an indication to the skill of the photographer, but it might not.

In my own case, I shoot a lot. And I'm very selective about what gets published. 

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

I don't think we should focus too much on how successful we are. Simply because I believe that experimentation is an important ingredient in the creative process and by definition, experimentation means being open to trying different things without fear of failure.

Let's consider that experimentation actually means. If you are experimenting, it means you don't quite know what the outcome will be like. This means that it could be somewhere between two extreme possibilities: a success or a failure. There's too much emphasis on failure being a bad thing. I think failure is a positive thing because you have to find out what you don't want to figure out where you need to go.

Indeed, I find that when I look back at my rolls of films, each roll is a chronological record of me working a scene. Take the transparencies shown below. There are four strips from one roll all laid out from start to finish from left to right. You can see that as the shoot proceeded I went from sunset to twilight.

If we analyse what I was doing, I think the roll of film breaks down to two major compositions. The first composition is using the peak of a volcano as a black triangle on the ridge of a borax field (it's not snow - this was shot in Bolivia). You can see I try the volcano peak on the right side of the frame at different focal lengths (it's bigger in the first shot and smaller in the next two). I then settle for the volcano peak on the left side of the frame. 

The 2nd composition is really about the black hillside in the distance. Again you can see I place the black hill in the background on different sides of the frame.

There is a theme going on with both compositions: I'm using a stark black object to frame against the white borax - these images are exploiting the tonal difference between black volcanos and hills against white borax.

A roll of processed 120 Velvia film, showing you the chronological sequence that the images were shot in.

A roll of processed 120 Velvia film, showing you the chronological sequence that the images were shot in.

The other thing to notice is that I am doing small shifts in the image sequence - changing the foreground slightly or using a different focal length to make the small volcano bigger in the frame.

I like to explore a scene, and take different compositions with different focal lengths. On the surface it may seem as if I'm making the same photo again and again, but I'm really looking for a perfect scene and this is the most important point: I have given myself permission to experiment.

When it comes down to the final edit, I think there are perhaps two images in this roll of film that I will compete and be happy with. I don't view the others as wastage of film, or failures: everything I've shot contributes to the final result. Consider them prototypes, or whatever, they all contribute to where I finally end up.

So with that in mind, I think 'hit-rate' is rather unimportant.

Shoot when you feel you need to shoot, consider if you are changing anything in the composition each time you click the shutter rather than just endlessly repeating the same shot, think about what might make the image stronger or weaker if you change something.

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

I think I am always shooting variations on a theme. Once I find my main composition, I will take around four or even an entire roll of film working the scene, experimenting, because I can't be a good judge of what I've shot until I get home, I'd therefore like to try out as many possibilities as I can. And that means discarding the thought of how many successful images I've made. It's really quite irrelevant.

Keep on experimenting and being open to trying new things. By it's very definition, experimentation means you don't really know the outcome of what you're doing. To truly experiment you have to be open to failure, because if you aren't open to failure, then you aren't experimenting. If you aren't experimenting, then you aren't growing.

Forthcoming Book

This year will see the publication of the second instalment of my Colourchrome book that was published last year. The new book will be of similar format: same dimension, but this time it will be a detailed monograph of my Altiplano images, interlaced with stories from my time at high elevation. The book will also contain some context towards the geographical and cultural region: Bolivia is a high altitude landscape and the land here is the way it is due to the environmental conditions and local farming.

Forthcoming book cover (prototype).

Forthcoming book cover (prototype).

I've been photographing the Altiplano regions of Argentina, Bolivia & Chile for the past nine years.

I had hoped to publish a book on the Atacama regions of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina  several years ago, but the project just kept extending as I found each year that I went back to complete the work I would find more locations worthy of exploring.

A handful of images

A handful of images

The whole region would take a lifetime to photograph, so I came to the conclusion recently that it is a task that has no end in sight, and I should really draw a line where I feel there is some kind of personal natural conclusion.

Expect an announcement later in the year.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, Argentina.  Image © Bruce Percy 2017.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, Argentina. 
Image © Bruce Percy 2017.

A landscape full of light

This week I've just completed working on new images from the Altiplano of Bolivia.

The Salar de Uyuni - the largest salt flat in the world, contains a world full of light at sunrise and sunset. These images were shot this June on Hasselblad 500 series cameras with Fujifilm Velvia 50 RVP film.  Images © Bruce Percy, 2015

The Salar de Uyuni - the largest salt flat in the world, contains a world full of light at sunrise and sunset. These images were shot this June on Hasselblad 500 series cameras with Fujifilm Velvia 50 RVP film.

Images © Bruce Percy, 2015

Over the past few months, I've had some time away from my busy schedule each year. I've been at home for most of the time, sleeping in the same bed and finding a routine in the day to day experiences of city life. It's been a real luxury for me to do this.

Having this time and space at home, away from workshops and tours, has allowed me to entertain working on some of my own images that I've been stock piling up for some time. It's been hugely rewarding (and of great relief) to be able to unburden my conscience by completing work from the Isle of Harris, Patagonia and now the Bolivian Altiplano. Having a backlog of work that is incomplete feels unhealthy: it creates a blockage of sorts in my mind, and stops me from moving forward with what I do. I like to leave work for a while before I edit it, to allow objectivity into the picture, but leaving work for far too long starts to invite a sense of procrastination and other complex feelings about your work. It's not advised. Trust me :-)

I love my work: I'm so extremely lucky to be able to go to so many wonderfully exotic landscapes each year. Many of these places have become friends - as my favourite landscape photographer - Michael Kenna has often said in his interviews - the more you return to a place, the more you get to know it, to open up a deeper conversation with it. I couldn't agree more.

With this in mind, I present to you my most recent images from the Bolivian Altiplano.

About the Altiplano

At high altitudes between 3,600m and 4,800m, the air is thin here. There is no humidity so temperatures drop below freezing at night. There are no roads to speak of - just vast desert interspersed with Land Cruiser tracks spreading out in all directions. Professional help is needed and indeed, sensible. The guides and drivers I use here know their way around the landscape, and can also be found to navigate the largest salt flat - the Salar de Uyuni by fixing onto the far off distant silhouettes of volcanos. It is a challenging place, and coming here requires a lot of planning and discussions since many of the tour operators do not venture out for the special hours.

About the new Work

I should stress that there were some preconceived notions about what I hoped to achieve on my visit this June. When I say preconceived - I mean that I can't help having visual ideas or dreams about what I hope to accomplish. They are really motivators to get my inspiration working and I'm quite happy to depart from them once on location. They are dreams, and as such, they are often quite broad and not too specific.

It had been two years since I was last here, and I knew I'd missed certain key locations if I were hoping to complete a rounded representation of what is here. Now that I've completed the new work, I realise that although I did indeed visit some of these key locations and realise some of the images I'd hoped to make, the new body of work is different yet again from anything I had envisaged.

Things never quite turn out the way you want them to. In the process of aiming for what I was looking for, I've been fortunate to discover beautiful locations and imagery that I couldn't have dreamed of before setting off on this journey.

This, I feel, is the best thing about photography: you always aim for something, and more often than not, the final results and experiences are more surprising than you could have ever imagined.

Special thanks

I'd like to express my deepest of thanks to the following guides and drivers who assisted me over the three week period I was at high altitude:

Drivers

Abel Valdivia Lopez
Armando Mamani Flores
Demetrio Chavez Vergara

Guides

Alvaro Oropeza Carbera
Marisol Maydana

Film processing

AG Photographic, who should be commended for giving consistent and reliable results. In an age where I've had to switch lab because of poor or contaminated processing, AG can be trusted to give me the standard of film developing I need.

Certain Landscapes have the power to Shape You

I’m sure all of us have had a positive encounter with someone, at some crucial moment, which has changed the course of our lives in some way.

Well, similar to this, I believe that some landscapes, when I've met them at a certain point in my own creative life, have changed the course of my own photographic development.

Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland. Image © Bruce Percy 2014.      Seilebost becomes a massive sand flat at low tide. It's this vastness and space that allowed me to see parallels with the empty landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano - a landscape that has taught me so much.

Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland. Image © Bruce Percy 2014.  

Seilebost becomes a massive sand flat at low tide. It's this vastness and space that allowed me to see parallels with the empty landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano - a landscape that has taught me so much.

I remember many years ago first visiting the Isle of Harris in the far north west of Scotland. I was struck by the beauty of the beaches there, but I had difficulty in translating the scenery into photographs that conveyed what I was feeling. I've had many encounters such as this in my photographic life where I've visited a place, and although I love it and find it extremely beautiful, I'm still at a loss as to how to photograph it (well). Making good photographs is not simply a case of finding good compositions and good light, but it's more than this for me: it's about finding an underlying theme - something which gives the body of work a sense of cohesion.

I tend to look at these encounters with the view that perhaps I'm not approaching the place the right way, or that perhaps I'm simply not ready as a photographer to get out of the experience what I feel is there. That doesn't mean I shouldn't try - it just means that perhaps I haven't the skills yet to convey what I'm seeing.

Take this case in point. It had been four years since I had last visited Harris. In the intervening years, I had photographed many ‘empty places’ that had taught me so much. I felt that if I returned to Harris now, I might have a better handle on how to approach its minimalistic landscape.

It was just a hunch, but I feel I've worked on my self-awareness enough to understand that what I am looking for has changed over the years. When I first started out making pictures, I was always looking for the iconic - for places that were easily recognisable, and also objects that are easily understood (trees, rivers, mountains). See 'association versus the anonymous' for more on this. More recently I've found I'm much more interested in the mood and atmosphere of a place rather than photographing known or easy to understand objects asI believe photographs can be extremely powerful if tones and colours are used to spark an emotional response. Well, that's how I see it anyway.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivian Altiplano. Image © Bruce Percy 2013  Laguna Colorada is a red lake at high altitude. There are no structures such as mountains or trees in this landscape to grab onto for security. You have no alternative, but to work with what it gives you - tones and colours only.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivian Altiplano. Image © Bruce Percy 2013

Laguna Colorada is a red lake at high altitude. There are no structures such as mountains or trees in this landscape to grab onto for security. You have no alternative, but to work with what it gives you - tones and colours only.

I show both these photos for one purpose: to illustrate that the Bolivian shot made in 2013 helped me 'see' how I could approach the Isle of Harris here in Scotland. Ok, you might want to discuss how both images are quite similar, and maybe you’re thinking I've just borrowed from a template of what worked previously. But I feel the similarity is due to much more than that.

Firstly, when I went to Bolivia, I was forced to work with tones and colours because sometimes there's not a whole lot else in the landscape to work with. 

(On a side note I fully appreciate that it can be quite daunting for many of us and I would not criticise anyone for feeling there was 'nothing there to photograph'. I feel so often I rely on easy to understand objects such as trees, rocks and mountains to give my photographs focus. But i've realised that the act of looking for recognisable objects in the landscape is sometimes just me looking for a emotional crutch, and what I'm really doing, is avoiding working with what i’ve been given).

Since visiting Bolivia and learning to work with empty places, the experience has had far reaching repercussions for my photography. I now find it much easier to approach empty places with confidence and to work with different climatic conditions. I often see parallels between one landscape and another and I utilise these relationships when I'm aware of them. For example, the black beaches of Iceland have taught me how to approach the black volcanic lagoons of Patagonia. I see parallels all the time now and I know this is because one landscape teaches me how to photograph another.

As for the Isle of Harris: I remember when I made the image you see at the top of this post. I was on the beach with my group of workshop participants, and one of them, Carlos said to me 'this reminds me of your Bolivian Altiplano shots', to which I replied 'Yes!'. Most of the time however, the connection isn't so obvious. It can often be an unconscious process where I realise many months or years later that there is a connection between one place and another. That's why it's taken me about six years to figure out how I think Harris is best conveyed. I needed to go to Bolivia first to be taught how to work with empty places before I could approach a part of my own country.

Some landscapes have the power to shape us. They can be road-signs to show us where we are going with our photography. It's just up to us to have the awareness skills to see the connection, or let the connection come to us many years down the line, and run with it.

Driving the Salar de Uyuni

I've been in South America for the past six weeks. Today I am flying home.

One of my Photo Tour participants - Geoffrey Van Beylen, kindly sent me these videos of us driving the Salar de Uyni salt flat after an early morning sunrise shoot in the middle of it. 

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. In the video you can see that we are spread into two Land Cruisers, and that we are heading for a volcano (Tunupa) in the distance. As you watch the video, the volcano doesn't get any closer, despite appearing to be rather close. It's about 30KM away from where we were in our cars. It's easy to get confused by distances in Bolivia.

Here is another one showing the deserts that we have to cross. The distances are large and the roads are often just tyre marks in the sand often. I wouldn't recommend trying to navigate these places on your own. I am often surprised by the knowledge that my drivers have of the areas. They know these 'roads' well, despite the landscape often consisting of many criss-crossed markings that have no road signs and no indication of where they lead to. 

I'm personally surprised that Bolivia is not on the 'map' for most photo-tour / landscape-workshop participants. Most folks haven't figured out yet that Bolivia is really 'up there' in terms of scenery and photography.

The Salar at dusk, Laguna Colorada at dusk and the Salar again at dusk, but this time shot from an island in the heart of the salt flat.

The Salar at dusk, Laguna Colorada at dusk and the Salar again at dusk, but this time shot from an island in the heart of the salt flat.

I also spent some personal time after the tours back in Bolivia for a week exploring more of the landscape and making some new images. I found some very surprising locations that are not on the general tourist trail that are very worthy places to visit and I felt I made some new images which I hope to include in a new book I'm currently working on.

As with all things, I tend to find that I go back to a place to 'complete' what I felt I missed the last time, only to find out there is a whole lot more. It seems that I could spend years working on a book of the Altiplano....and it would be tempting to do so. But I now feel I need one or two more trips here to finish off what I started back in 2009. Yep, I've been coming to Bolivia for quite a while now. The quality of the light here at sunrise and sunset is like nowhere else that I've been so far.

As part of my time here in South America, I also visited a new place - the Argentina side of the Altiplano, which at the moment is even less well known than Bolivia is, but is just as impressive, and different. This particular place has a landscape that is not unlike the central highlands of Iceland in my opinion, and also many other strange and wonderful locations. Perhaps that book on the Altiplano is going to take much longer than I had anticipated..... and I feel I need to go back to this region as well. So I'm already hatching plans to do so within the next six months if I can.

So much to explore, and so little time.... :-) But I feel I've found 'my landscape', a place that I have room to grow as a photographer. The world may be getting smaller, and sometimes it may feel as though everywhere has been photographed to death, but in reality - we haven't even scratched the surface of what is out there.

I had a great time with my groups in Patagonia and Bolivia. Many thanks to all whom spent time with me (including you too Brian ;-)

We are masters of self-deception

For a long while now, I've been saying that I feel there is little difference in approach between post-editing (I dislike this term), and the initial image creation. Well, there is a difference - the difference is that we treat them differently. The difference is in our attitudes to how we consider and reflect during these two states of being.

original

When I'm working behind my computer monitor in my studio, I am looking at a photograph. When I am out in the field making images and looking through my viewfinder, I am also aware that I am looking at a photograph - only, I have to go through some kind of abstraction to do this. I've been doing this for a while now, that I see no difference between the making of an image, and the editing of one. They both require the same skills: ultimately it boils down to noticing shapes and tones and elements within the frame. Whether they are 3D real objects in the real world, or a collection of shapes and tones on a screen is irrelevant. Or so it should be.

But consider the image in this post. I've got two versions of it. The original, and an edited version. The difference between the two is that in the edited version, I've removed the break in the cloud in the top left-hand corner of the frame as well as its corresponding reflection in the salt flat.

It's all very easy to see how this image could be improved by removing this 'blot' in the image, and so often I find that books or articles on websites show us this technique, but none discuss how we should train ourselves to notice these distractions or 'flaws' at the point of making the exposure. Which is to say, most articles discuss how to 'fix' an image, but few discuss how to avoid this error in the first place. Because by avoiding it, it means we have a better awareness of what is going on, and thus, have a keener eye for making better images.

Back to my original point: I see no distinction between editing back in my studio, and the creation of the image whilst out in the field. I've discovered that all the time I've invested in working on images and editing them at home has improved my eye to notice distractions like the break in the cloud at the point of exposure. In general, when I am out in the field, I am thinking not about clouds and sun breaking through, but more about tonal relationships and relationships between shapes in the landscape. If my eye is well practiced in this pursuit, I would notice the break in the clouds and figure that it is distracting. I would not make the exposure, either waiting for the break to dispel, or re-composing as best to remove it all together.

But as much as I hate to admit it: I'm not infallible. I still have a long way to go with my own photography, because photography is all about awareness, and I sometimes let a little issue like this break in the clouds slip through the net. I would say that I often notice issues like this whilst in the field.

I think this is definitely one of those cases where living with a new image for a few weeks, or in this case, several months, has allowed me to grow irritated by this anomaly. What appeared to be ok to me at the time I first edited this image, now rubs me up the wrong way. This has only happened because I've had time to live with the work, and eventually begin to see it for what it is, rather than what I tricked myself into believing it was.

So there are perhaps three things to consider in this post:

1) Always leave some time between the shoot and the edit before you work on the images, as this will give you greater objectivity

2) Once edited, live with the work for some time, so you can learn to see all its facets, it's perfections and imperfections. This too, will give you greater objectivity, and you will learn a few things about yourself in the process. For me, I learned that I still don't often see all the issues in an image until much, much later on. I still have a long way to go in closing this gap between image creation and the editing stage.

3) Noticing the break in the cloud while looking at the image a few months down the line, has taught me to be more observant to these issues while out creating the images in the field. My time behind my computer has taught me what to look out for and observe more while making the original capture. As I said at the beginning of this post: there should be little difference between our time behind our comptuter screens and our time out in the field. We need to be able to interpret scenes as scenes, whether it is real and in front of us in all it's 3D glory, or whether it is a 2D representation on our computer screens. We are dealing with shapes and tones always. There is no difference. What we do and learn behind our computer screens should feed back into our time out in the field. That's why I abhor the term 'post-processing', because it encourages the attitude that there is a distinction between the two. There is no distinction. There is only shapes and tones.

The only difference between the two states of 'being' is that we think there's a difference. We are masters at deceiving ourselves.

A Gift

Some images just come to us, like a gift.

Whilst visiting the Bolivian altiplano this summer, I felt I was given such a gift.

Flamingos, Laguna Colorada

For the very first time, I saw Laguna Colorada shrouded in fog. This is not 'usual' circumstances for this location.

I love fog, because it can hide parts of the landscape and simplify the scene down to one or two elements. Laguna Colorada is surrounded by hills and far off volcanoes and as pleasing as these may be to include in the photograph, sometimes it's a real advantage to have backgrounds either partially veiled or completely hidden. Reducing down the landscape to this extent can bring 'focus' or 'presence' to the scene by presenting the viewer with just the main attraction.

Fog is also of great use in enabling objects within the scene to become contextually lost. With little else to give a reference point to what it is that you're actually seeing, your mind's-eye is fooled into believing that the subject is hovering in space. In the case of my visit to Laguna Colorada, I had far off groups of flamingo's isolated to such a degree, that they appeared to be almost suspended in mid-air. The illusion was complete when I chose not to include any parts of the foreground shore of the lake in the shot.

I shot this image with a Hasselblad 500 series camera (of which I own two). I used a 250mm lens, which despite being rather old and crusty, worked, even though I had not tested it before leaving the UK.

I've always been fascinated by telephoto 'scenes' often seeing them in my mind's-eye, but I've never really tried to shoot them in the past. I felt for a long while, that I  had to master wide angles and standard field of view lenses before I could move on to telephotos. It's perhaps taken me about ten years to get to that point!

Those of you who follow what I've said in the past, or have spent time with me on my workshops, will know that I am great believer in using primes at the beginning of our photographic development, for a few reasons.

Firstly, by having only a hand-full of fixed focal lengths to use, we learn to visualise or 'see' compositions that we know will work well with the focal lengths that we have. For instance, if we only have two focal lengths to work with, say 24mm and 50mm, we tend to find that over time, we start to visualise scenes in either 24mm or 50mm. It's a great way to bring on composition learning/improvements because we have fewer decisions to make and we study what we're working with better as a result.

Secondly, we learn more easily about the properties of the focal lengths we're using. For example, wide angle lenses have more depth of field than higher focal lengths and wide angle lenses tend to push  backgrounds further away. Whereas a standard field of view lens has less depth of field, and tends to bring backgrounds towards us.

Lastly, zooming with our feet allows us to engage with the landscape more and change the foreground subject matter (often quite drastically within a few foot steps), while allowing us to maintain the same background to foreground ratio. In other words, if we keep the focal length the same, we can keep the the background to the same proportions, whilst changing the foreground substantially.

I also feel that wide angles tend to invite us into the frame. We are encouraged to feel as if we could step from behind the camera and walk into the scene. Whereas I feel telephoto shots do not. Telephoto images are often of detached views, or at best, take on a voyeuristic point of view of the subject. We feel we are onlookers, because scenes take on a remoteness to them. This can be of great use in the right circumstances.

With the flamingo's in the lake now suspended in mid-air (because there were no contextual clues as to where they were) the use of a telephoto not only brought them closer toward me, but it also allowed me to enhance the illusion that they were floating, because as discussed, telephotos bring a sense of detachment to any scene they are used to capture.

Like someone said to me recently - 'it's like flamingo's in heaven'.

Altiplano

Some news to come about the Altiplano (Bolivia & Chile) at the end of this month, in my monthly newsletter (due out on the 31st at 7pm GMT). altiplano-2

Searching Laguna Blanca

As a landscape photographer, I believe that part of my nature is that of 'restless searcher'.

 

I know many people who have turned to photography, as a response to the routine in their lives. I will often hear clients tell me that they feel more alive, and in touch with nature through photography.

I think this is because routine tends to dull our senses. We stop noticing things because anything that does not change in our environment does not tend to stand out after a while. Routine seems to contain a lot of  background noise - information that we do not need to process again and again, because we already know it.

Consider the commute to work, where you felt you were on auto-pilot. All you know if you got to your desk on time, but you can't specifically remember details of the journey any more, because, just like how you know which key to type on your keyboard, everything has become second nature. You have stopped looking.

I think that most people thrive on new stimulation. For example, one way to become stimulated is to go on holiday. Being in a new environment, with different sights and sounds can seem to awaken part of us that has been lying dormant while we go about the routines in our everyday lives. This awakening is something I think most of us find attractive about photography, because the very act of making a picture forces us to engage in our surroundings in a way that we normally wouldn't. I think this is why I often hear participants on my workshops tell me it takes them a day or two to get their 'vision' working - they're out of practice, because the routine of their lives does not require such intense processing of their visual surroundings anymore.

In this way, making images with a camera isn't really about making images at all. I think it's more a vehicle  that encourages us to engage with our environment. Give someone a camera and they will go looking. Or more specifically, they will go searching. A camera is a baton, a symbol that says 'now I must open I eyes and go see, look, find, enquire, engage'.

I had a client a year or so ago, who expressed his view that we should try to avoid routine in our lives - even in the smallest of ways. He would for instance, take different routes home in his car each day from work, so that he was able to think more. Or if he was walking, he would deliberately leave his office and make up his journey home. He wouldn't look at a map or plan his trip. He would simply go, and see what he would come across as he made his way from one side of Philadelphia to the other. During the workshop, he was keen to encourage the group to choose different seats each day. As much as this seems perhaps a bit eccentric, I can fully appreciate what he was doing. He was trying to reduce the level of routine in his life because it allowed him to engage more.

I've been looking at these three images the past few weeks since I worked on them. Essentially the same location, same volcano in the background - Licancabur - just on the border between Chile and Bolivia. I could have shot this scene once and decided that there was little point in making another image of it . But as you know, we don't tend to do that as photographers. We will often shoot the same subject again and again. Sometimes it's because we don't think we quite 'got it', and other times, it's because we're still noticing things about the landscape and recomposing to take into account the new information we have at hand.

In my own case, these three images came about because of two things: firstly, my awareness of the colour temperature, and secondly, my awareness of foreground subject matter.

With regards to colour temperature, I had started my shoot at this location in twilight (the blue hour) and as the morning progressed I watched the hues change the landscape dramatically from blue to golden yellow / orange towards daylight temperature. There is this inquisitiveness we have as photographers to go study the changes in the light. To take pleasure in noticing the small changes in our environment. We have the luxury to stop and watch, to notice and to enjoy.

My second point, about being aware of foreground subject matter meant that I kept searching for a better composition. I like to think of this as re-interpreting the landscape.

I believe that doing landscape photography is about having a conversation with our surroundings. When we alter composition, we are effectively asking a new question. How we feel about this new composition is our answer. Making landscape images is a dialog between ourselves and how we feel about our environment. As I said earlier on in this post, I feel that photography is really a vehicle, one that allows us to enquire, to engage and go ask questions. We are ultimately searchers.

Colour as a Unifying Theme

Over the years, as my own photographic 'style' has been changing, I've had the good fortune to be in a position where I spend a lot of time 'noticing' the changes. This is perhaps one of the benefits of being a photographic workshop leader. In order to convey a message, and illustrate things, I've had to look at my own work and get to know myself a bit better as a result.

 

I wrote a nice little e-book about 'self-awareness' a while back, because I think that in order to grow as an artist, we need to become more aware of how we react to our environment. we need to get to know our moods and responses, as this will allow us to understand ourselves better.

One aspect of making good photographs, that I think is seldom discussed, is that of using colour as a theme. We are often very absorbed by the idea of composition in terms of form only, that I believe we spend very little time considering how colour may affect our style. Or more importantly, how colour can be utilised as a theme to bring a body of work together - and make it stronger than the sum of its parts.

I've noticed in my own work, over the past couple of years, that the colour palette of a location figures largely in influencing what I choose to shoot. I think this all began in 2011 when I first visited the black volcanic beaches of Iceland. In venturing here, I discovered that I could shoot monochromatic scenes with colour film, but also, that the final work had more unity because the colours and tones present in the work were similar.

 

Certainly, being presented with the reduced monochromatic colour palette of black sand and white ice, should have spelled out for me the direction where the work might go. But I'm not so convinced that most of us observe colour in this way, during the making of images on location (back to my point about developing a sense of self-awareness).

My impressions of the trip just after getting home, was that it had been a complete failure. My head had been so full of the cold that I came home thinking I'd gotten nothing out of the trip. The epiphany happened once I got my films back from the lab. It was only upon viewing the processed transparencies that I saw unity in the reduced colour palette. I saw a way forward and I consciously decided to run with it.

I think there's an opportunity in every place we go to make photographs, to notice colour as a potential theme to the work. This is also true whilst editing the work afterwards. it should be possible to notice that perhaps a handful of the images go together more strongly than others - all because they have a similar colour 'feel' to them.

Utilising colour in this way, is now pretty much at the heart of my photography.

I tend to hone right in on those particular images that have a strong colour aesthetic. I will look through the entire shoot to see if I have others that fall in-line with this mood, or usually, it comes about naturally as I build up a body of work. Some of the images relate to each other more, because there is a strong colour relationship between them.

I will even, after collecting many completed images, distill them down to those that have a strong colour relationship, because it has become a 'signature' - a unifying theme to the whole portfolio.

I don't expect others to be as literal with colour as I am. But I do feel that being more aware of colour relationships as a unifying theme that goes right through a body of work is beneficial.

Composition of an image does not just end at where we place objects within the frame, object placement is only really one dimension. Colour adds an additional dimension.

Just like black and white photographers will often tone a collection of images so that they have a similar feel, colour photographers should consider utilising the same approach in their work. If it brings forward a direction in which one wishes to explore further, then that's a good thing.

Desert Siloli, Bolivia

The desert Siloli, is a fascinating landscape situated at an elevation of around 4,500 metres on the Bolivian altiplano. I've been to this place a few times now, but I've never seen it quite like this before. As part of my Bolivian photographic tour that I conducted here in June of this year, we were supposed to go to see the stone tree - el arbol de piedra. It is situated in the heart of the Siloli desert. A place that I had ear-marked for some more image making for (hopefully) a forth-coming book.

But the weather this summer was very unusual. June is the time of the dry season, and so there shouldn't be any snowfall at this period in the year. Only it snowed a lot, and I hear it is still snowing - right down the lower elevations of San Pedro de Atacama - apparently the first time it has snowed at this low elevation in 17 years.

I always find it very interesting to note how I build up an anticipation of what I will be shooting - a form of pre-visualisation if you like. It's not something I welcome, as I feel the sense of expectation can get in the way of taking on board what is actually presented to me. In the case of the Siloli desert, I had not anticipated snow there. Nor had I imagined that I would only be allowed 1 hour here due to the weather deteriorating. It would perhaps not surprise you to learn that we spent a cold evening in a hotel with no running water and a snow blizzard outside the door. We were concerned that we may not make it out the next day, despite having two land cruisers at our disposal (we did make it out the next day, although it took a bit longer than we'd imagined).

It was interesting to note the mood of the participants on the trip. Some took the downturn in the weather conditions well, while I could feel morale slip a bit for others. One participant in particular said 'it's part of the deal, part of the adventure'. Something I was very happy to hear. It is the right attitude one should have as a photographer.

Photography should be surprising. We're not in it for an easy ride, and part of the reason we make photographs, is to put us out there in the world so we can engage, and experience life in a way that we wouldn't if we hadn't taken up photography in the first place.

So I thought I would share this image with you. The sky by the way was really like this. We commented at the time that it had an HDR look (of the badly processed variety) about it. I thought it looked surreal.

Silver grey tones abounded the landscape as I ran from one spot to another with my Hasselblad film camera. This is perhaps one of the more memorable shots I made. Being a film shooter, I tend to remember some shots more than others - if it's got something about it - I tend to remember it. I like this fact about film photography - it taught me how to listen to my own feelings and tune in more to my responses to the landscape and use it to gauge the worthiness of what I am shooting.

My new images from the Chilean Atacama, and the Bolivian altiplano are up in my new section of this web site.

Working on some new images

  Just a short post today. I'm entrenched in my home studio, busy working on a massive backlog of images from the Bolivian altiplano and the Chilean Atacama desert.

 

I thought it would be fun to share with you an image of my beautiful Gepe light-table. I love working with transparencies, and laying them out in a collection like this.

I can 'see' the portfolio coming together a little more clearly when I do this. I'll sometimes pick out the best images from my sheets of Velvia 50 to scan, before I go back and have a bit more of a detailed review of what else is there. It really depends on how i'm feeling. Other times, I'll work systematically through each sheet of film one at a time, until I've garnered all the good stuff. On average, there tends to be around 2 images a sheet (10 shots) that I like, and want to scan.

I  love how transparencies have the colours already 'programmed' into them. Velvia is a highly saturated film, so I tend to work the opposite way to most Raw shooters - rather than adding in the colour, I tend to scan and then decide which colours (if any) require desaturating.

If you click on the image above, you'll see a higher resolution one.

For those of you who have never shot film, or transparencies, you're missing out on one of the most satisfying parts of creating images: that of laying out your transparencies on a light table. There's something about the tactile aspect that I think lends some kind of emotional investment to the work.

As for viewing the images on the light-table, the colours just glow - this alone can provide ample inspiration for the editing stage, and I'll often find myself feeling very excited as a result.

From left to right: Salar de Uyuni, Sol de mañana geyser basin, Pescado Island, Sol de mañana geyser basin, Flamingos at Laguna Colorada, Atacama Chile, Little Italy stone desert Bolivia.

How far have you come, in your own photographic development?

Last year, I conducted my first photographic tour of the Bolivian altiplano. We made our way from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile across the southern side of Bolivia to the capital La Paz over nine days. It was quite a tour.

I'd originally shot the altiplano in 2009, and the images from that particular shoot were at that time, an epiphany for me: I saw the start of my journey towards more simplified compositions.

Returning back in 2012, I wasn't so sure I could add anything new to what I'd shot back then, so it was a surprise to me to note that my compositional style has become more reduced and more simplified in the intervening years.

One could argue that shooting a square aspect ratio camera helped me achieve that look of simplification. I would indeed agree, that square offers the opportunity to be more abstract with compositional elements than any rectangular aspect ratio can. I also feel that rectangles are more traditional, whereas square has no deep roots in art history: rafael did not paint his images on square canvases.

One could also argue that I've had a chance to become more familiar with the altiplano. This is also true. I do believe that we often need two visits to a location: the first to understand it - to know what works and what doesn't work, the second visit to do the work with a more refined viewpoint.

I'll be heading back to Bolivia in two months from now, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what new material may transpire from the tour we will be doing there.

By looking back at my previous work, I'm often able to see that there has been a shift, a subtle change in direction. I feel all photographers should do this as a matter of course. Consider, reflect, open up an inner dialog, ask yourself some questions about your development. Other times, I feel the changes are less apparent, but usually something comes along to show us just how far we've come.

Note: I'm returning to the Bolivian altiplano in June to conduct a photographic tour with six participants. If you'd like to come along, I'm pleased to say there are two spaces left. The tour was originally full, but there's been a couple of cancellations due to health issues and other commitments. If you would like to find out more about this trip, you can read all about it here.

1 space now free for Bolivia 2013

Dear all, I'm just taking some time-out at the moment, after a rather busy schedule this year. So I do hope to be back on this very blog with more thoughts about photography soon!

In the meantime, I have had one cancellation for Bolivia next year, due to a graduation, so I thought I would let you all know about this space as the trip was extremely popular and sold out in a matter of hours this year.

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My Bolivia photographic-safari for 2013, now has one space free on it, due to a cancellation. This trip was extremely popular this year and had sold out before I'd even gotten round to mentioning it on my monthly newsletter!

If you'd like to know more about this trip, then you can find the details here. I expect this space to go very quickly, but rather than just let you find out by going to the workshop pages on this site, felt I should really just tell you all about it.

I hope you are all out there making nice images!

regards, Bruce.

New Website Portfolio's

I've been away all week on the isle of Eigg with a terrific group, running a workshop. I've not got much time today, but felt I should let you all know that all the new images I've been producing for the past year - are now up on my site.

I decided to separate them into a 'new' section, away from my older work, as I feel there's a refinement in my style over the past few years. So if you'd like to browse the work, which includes Iceland, Norway, Patagonia and my recent trip to Bolivia, please click on the 'new' section to the navigation menu at the top of the blog.

I hope you enjoy the newer images presented in portfolios, even if you feel you know most of the work by visiting my blog.

Final Selection

I've more or less completed the scanning and image selection from my trips to Bolivia and patagonia this June. I have to say that the number of images I'm left with is very small. But there is a reason for this: I felt that there were two particularly strong shoots for me during the time away where the images feel very 'cohesive'. I really prefer to choose images that behave as if they belong to a set, and in the final selection here, I think you can see that.

The two shoots in particular that really worked for me were of Laguna Colorada on the Bolivian Altiplano, and that of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentine Patagonia. I certainly have other images that were successful, but they don't fit this particular 'theme' or 'style'. And I think this narrowed down selection indicates perhaps where my style is strongest at the moment.

I think that's a very key thing to understand about your own photography: what it is you're currently trying to achieve and being successful at. I see these images as a reflection, an indicator of what it is I'm striving for. I think they're very simplistic and mostly are involved in conveying colour as mood. There is almost nothing inside the frames as such, but I think the mood of the places is very strong in them.

I shot a hell of a lot more images, but I've had some technical problems with those. I made them on Kodak's Portra 160 (the new stock) but I'm having trouble scanning them. I've determined it's not my scanner that is at fault, but I've got coloured streaks going through the images in very bright clear areas, and I'm not sure if this is a product of the development, or if it's an issue with the batch of films I've bought. I'm seriously not happy about this and it's a lesson to myself to never go away again on a shoot with untested equipment or materials.