Monthly Archives: September 2009

Walking the fine line…the photography of Roger Ballen

I don’t think I’ve ever had a more difficult time trying to define where a photographer falls in the spectrum of photography than I have in viewing the work of Roger Ballen. His photos from Plattelands his 1994 book on the poverty stricken townships that surround Johannesburg, seem at first glance to fall firmly into the photojournalism camp, but one can’t help making comparisons with Diane Arbus here. While there is a continuity, his later work enters the realm of the surreal. It’s a fine line between documentation and art, but Ballen handles this delicate balancing act with unbelievable agility.

Of photography, he says, “The problem with photography is the mechnics are too easy. Everybody can buy a camera, everybody can take a photo. In fact, photography is a difficult art form to achieve anything with, because there are trillions or billions of images floating a round and you have to create a vision that separates itself from that, and that’s a big job. I tell you it’s not easy.”

If you’ve got an hour to spare, I recommend you take a journey through the pictures of Roger Ballen here. They are absolutely compelling .

Birdwoman from Shadow Chamber, 2003

Birdwoman from Shadow Chamber, 2003

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under art, Photographer, Photography, portraits

This one perfect day…

Javanese dancer, Jogjakarta, Indonesia

Javanese dancer, Jogjakarta, Indonesia

Every once in a while an assignment comes along where all the pieces fall into place. I’m not talking about only the technical aspects, but also the amount of choice and control offered by a client so that you can really deliver. Almost all assignments fall short in one area or another. Either the deadline is too tight, or the client interferes, or the weather and light don’t give of their best. Of course the being professional is about delivering the goods despite the problems that arise.  But once in a while there comes along a job where everything is just perfect. This was such an assignment.

About 30 years ago, I did a six week tour for an airline, that took me practicallt the length and breadth of  Indonesia. The purpose of the assignment  was to gather pictures for a brochure and poster campaign. It was a gruelling, mind-numbing schedule, with just two half days off in 45 days. The fee was OK, but not great. The budget had been tight and the competition for an assignment that would show you most of Indonesia was fierce. Still with one or two minor meltdowns I survived the ordeal, and delivered my pictures to the agency. Out of it came a posters campaign that included this portrait of a traditional Javanese dancer at the Dance Academy in Jogjakarta.

The initial poster campaign was so successful that the agency came back and asked me if I would shoot two more posters. From their enthusiasm and the fact that the posters were prominently displayed on the agency wall when I went there to discuss the brief and the fee, I realised I was now in a relatively strong bargaining position. The result was I was able to negotiate a fee for two or three days work in Java that was almost as high as the fee for the original assignment.

Part of the brief was to shoot a fashion shot that would convey elegance in a uniquely Indonesian way. The ad agency gave me complete control; choice of garment, approval of model and choice of location.

On arriving in Jakarta I met with Indonesia’s top batik artist and designer, Iwan Tirta. From his range we selected an extravagantly dramatic, silk, batik evening dress and we decided to complement it with some traditional style gold jewellery. We interviewed models and I chose a very tall, elegant Javanese beauty, who set off the garment to perfection.

When it came to location, I wanted something recognisably Javanese but neutral in tone. Something monumental but something that would not overpower the subject. From my previous assignment, I remembered the 9th century Hindu temple at Prambanan just outside Jogjakarta. It was perfect.  The Indonesian tourism people organising my trip, protested that it might be easier to shoot in Jakarta, rather than flying all the way to Jogja. But by now I had got the star bit between my teeth and I insisted that no other location would do. This of course was not entirely true, there were monuments and temples all over the place… but photographers don’t often get to make power plays and I was determined to play this one to the hilt. With true Javanese courtesy, they acquiesced.

A very early flight to Jogjakarta;  a preliminary shoot at the temple to establish location, orientation and timing of the afternoon light; a leisurely lunch at one of my favourite Jogja restaurants and then back to the location around 4pm. I had calculated that by then the sun would be low, warm and in the direction I needed.

I set up my camera and tripod with the 300mm Nikkor 2.8, on top of a small temple nearby.  Earlier that morning I had visualised that I could set up, get my shots and get away with a minimum of fuss. What I hadn’t counted on was an afternoon influx of tourist coaches and next thing I knew, here I having to perform like a showman, directing a shoot in front of an audience of about 350 tourists and a platoon or two of young Indonesian military recruits, at my back. Most of the tourists were shooting away like made over my shoulder. My discreet little fashion shoot in the middle of Java had wandered into Cecil B. De Mille territory. Despite the distractions, the light did what I wanted, the pieces fell into place and an hour later, I was able to wrap the shoot, content that I had got at least as much as I had bargained for.

Back in Australia, both the ad agency and the airline were very happy with the results; but two little incidents from this assignment stick in my mind. While I was shooting, a bunch of French tourists asked what I was doing. It was such delicious fun to explain to them the copy line I was illustrating (see poster 2). Just as I was about to finish shooting, an English tourist walking hand-in-hand with her four year old daughter wandered into my shot. The little girl did a double take. She gasped aloud when she saw the model. “Look Mummy! A real princess!”  It’s nice to think that I had accidentally fulfilled the fantasies of a child. She probably has children of her own now. I wonder if she ever tells them of the day she saw a Javanese princess.

Fashion shoot, Prambanan, Java

Fashion shoot, Prambanan, Java

6 Comments

Filed under Australian, Fashion photography, Photographer, Photography, Rob Walls, travel

Uluru and photography restrictions

Uluru, © Rob Walls Photographed on Kodachrome with a Widelux camera

Uluru, © Rob Walls Photographed on Kodachrome with a Widelux camera

Parks Australia has recently released a draft park management plan for Australia’s Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, which places quite onerous restrictions on photography within the park. Part of the problem stems from the all-encompassing definition of commercial photography as defined in the report.  In most international jurisdictions “commercial” photography excludes editorial photography. It is generally used to define filming or photography where props, models, lighting and a production crew are required; photography that would interfere with the normal operation of a park and a visitor’s enjoyment.

Parks Australia for reasons they state, of “protecting the natural and cultural values” of the site chooses to institute regulations where all professional photographers must apply for permits and approval to shoot pictures in the park precincts. There are no exceptions. (I should add that these regulations have, in similar form, been in place for some years. The draft report however, seems to indicate a hardening of stance, for reasons not at first, obvious.)

The justification given for the restrictions is based on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Regulations 2000 which states under the heading Deriving Commercial Gain from Images Captured:

(1)    A person must not use a captured image of a Commonwealth reserve to derive commercial gain.

(2)    For sub-regulation (1): captured images include an image that was not captured for a commercial purpose or in contravention of the Act or these regulations.

What the prevention of ” image capture” (i.e. photography) has to do with environment protection and conservation is beyond my understanding.  It also effectively makes criminals of every photographer who has ever distributed for publication a photograph made of a Commonwealth reserve.

Now, contrast this with the simplicity (and generosity) of the equivalent US regulations on Commercial Filming; Section 1(c) of Public Law 106-206 signed by President Clinton on the 26th of May, of the same year:

STILL PHOTOGRAPHY

“…the Secretary shall not require a permit nor assess a fee for still photography on lands administered by the Secretary if such photography takes place where members of the public are generally allowed…”

If it applies these regulations Parks Australia is choosing to ignore the traditional symbiotic relationship between national parks and landscape photographers, whereby photographers publishing pictures of a park provide free publicity and help generate park attendance. Of course, one could be cynical and suggest that using the EPBC legislation is an effective way of eliminating competition for the parks management’s declared intention of establishing a commercial image library within the park (Section 3.97 6.6.8 of the Uluru Kata-Tjuta Draft Management Plan ).

If these regulations are imposed  they will generate a lot of friction with photographers. They will also create a ill-will from magazine editors, who faced with deadlines, are expected to get approval to use pictures of Uluru. The overall result will basically be counterproductive as there will be a reduction in publicity for the park.

The reality is that there are currently innumerable pictures of Uluru, from every angle and aspect, available from a multitude of sources.  How Parks Australia imagines that it can control how the park is portrayed defies common sense. A search on Google returns 479,000 hits for pictures of the site. The photo sharing site Flickr turns up 82,127. Both of these could be defined as commercial use of photographs of the park. A keyword search of one of the largest UK based picture agencies returns 3,082 photos.  Almost any photo library of reasonable reputation would have anything from 50 to several hundred pictures on file. There are literally millions of pictures out there.

Google image search showing some of the over 400,000 photos of Uluru

Google image search showing some of the over 400,000 photos of Uluru

These are the resources that travel and feature writers, use for publication in magazines, and newspapers throughout the world. They are part of the traditional way in which interest is generated amongst travellers to visit a site. For Parks Australia to come up with ideas that use tax-payer dollars to inhibit tourism promotion, especially in a climate of declining visitor numbers, defies common sense. Asking photographers to apply for permission to take photographs is like asking musicians to apply in writing before they can play music; a process guaranteed to stifle their creativity.

Uluru was handed back to the indigenous community with reassurances that under Aboriginal management it would not be alienated to access by the broader community. That now appears to be happening.   To read the photography guidelines go here. You’ll have to go to page 95, as parks management have, within recent days, taken down the direct link to its image capture guidelines.

Your comment would be most appreciated, as I’d like the opinions of the photographic community before drawing the attention of the relevant ministers to this issue.

35 Comments

Filed under Australian, News, Opinion, Photographer, Photographers' rights, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, Stock photography, travel

Bucking horses and chunky cameras…

The Australian National Rodeo Championships, Cootamundra, 1964

The Australian National Rodeo Championships, Cootamundra, 1965

It was the summer of 1965. I had been a very green staffer on Rupert Murdoch’s newly founded national daily, The Australian, for a mere three months, when I was assigned to cover the National Rodeo Championships in the New South Wales country town of Cootamundra.

Arriving early, after an early morning start and a 200 kilometre drive from Canberra, I approached the ring boss, to introduce myself. He was a rangy, tall, laconic cowboy straight out of central casting, Marlboro Man in an Akubra hat. I asked whether there might be a good vantage point I could use to photograph the action. My hope was that he might give me the OK to shoot from the announcer’s box high above the arena.

With the faintest shadow of a smile, he said, “Right here’s good?” We were standing in the centre of the arena, which in about half an hour would be a scene of bucking mayhem as bulls and broncos did their best to get rid of the cowboys on their backs. I managed a nervous, “You’re kidding aren’t you?” “Keep your eyes open and your wits about you and you should be OK.” He reassured me.

The first riders were called and as that gate slammed open, and the first horse exploded out into the arena, I couldn’t think about taking pictures. I was much too scared. When the ride was over, I realised that I had managed to stay out from under the hooves and survived. I began to think about taking photos. After the third or fourth horse I actually found I was beginning to enjoy myself. But there were still the bulls to come. But with each animal my confidence grew.

Because of the pace of the events there were often a couple of riderless horses or bulls in the arena at the same time as the one with a rider. You not only had to watch the action in front of the lens but have an awareness of what was going on behind you. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I found I developed a fairly certain awareness of where everything was and where to place myself to stay out of the way. There were a couple of near misses, but in the end it became all part of the excitement.

This picture turned up when I was going through some old prints the other day. It was taken with a 180mm lens. So what, you might think; a reasonably long telephoto. The thing is it was actually a 180mm Mamiya Sekor and it was on a 6×6(120) Mamiya C3 twin lens camera. To fill the frame on a 2 ¼ x2 ¼ inch negative you had to get quite close enough to make for an exciting afternoon, especially with nothing between you and all that plunging, bucking, thundering livestock.

The world is such an over-regulated place these days, the opportunity to get so up close to the action like this rarely occurs. Nowadays you’d have to shoot from behind the barrier and probably wear a hard hat and a high-visibility vest as well. It’s probably a good thing, but I can’t help but feel that in a society that seems to reject the notion of personal responsibily for one’s safety and actions, that so much of the enjoyment and excitement has been leached out of the press photographer’s job.

2 Comments

Filed under Australian, News, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

Waterfalls and wilderness – part 2

Russel Falls, Mt Field National Park, Tasmania

Russell Falls, Mt Field National Park, Tasmania

While setting up to photograph Russell Falls again, a walker stepped into frame to take a shot and I used him for scale. It was only after I took the shot that I realised the mist drifting from the falls onto my lens, gave this shot a kind of primeval quality so characteristic of Tasmanian rain forest. You almost expect dinosaurs to walk into the scene.

The Eucalyptus regnans is one of the tallest trees in the world. This particular example is nearly 80 metres tall. It has been lopped several times in gales. Its first branch is 38 metres from the ground…and it’s still growing!

Self portrait with forest giant, Mt Feiled National Park.

Self portrait with forest giant, Mt Field National Park.

Russell Falls, Mount Field National Park, Tasmania

Russell Falls, Mount Field National Park, Tasmania

Horseshoe Falls, Mount Field National Park Tasmania

Horseshoe Falls, Mount Field National Park Tasmania

Fungus on decaying log, Mount Field National Park, Tasmania

Fungus on decaying log, Mount Field National Park, Tasmania

2 Comments

Filed under Australian, Photographer, Photography, Rob Walls, Stock photography, travel

Maybe I can shoot landscape after all…

I’ve never been much good at landscape photography. Which kind of poses the question as to why I would live in such a geographically beautiful island as Tasmania. But I’m a city boy. Nature to me is too often untidy. There’s always something in the frame that grates on my neat-freak tendencies. However, after the wettest winter in more than half a century, I figured there might be a fair bit of water flowing over the falls in Tasmania’s Mount Field National Park. I wasn’t wrong.

Though the weather was still pretty marginal (overcast and showery), I decided to use the opportunity to shoot some HDR (High Dynamic Range) pictures. The first of these of Russell Falls, shot from under the deep shade of rainforest and giant Dicksonia Antractica ferns is made up of two exposures. The second of Horseshoe Falls is from a range of five exposures.

I’m so pleased with the results, I’m going to go back in a couple of days to shoot when there is sunshine, to see how that works. Maybe I can get a handle on this landscape lark after all.

Russel Falls from under the fern canopy.

Russell Falls from under the fern canopy, two exposures.

Falls2

Horseshoe Falls, four exposures

Horseshoe Falls

Horseshoe Falls, three exposures

5 Comments

Filed under art, Australian, Photographer, Photography, Rob Walls, Stock photography, travel

The Harley Davidson of cameras…

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Long before digital photography was there to provide me with everyday excitement and enthusiasm, whenever my work became stale and predictable, I would try to introduce a change of pace, subject or format to freshen up my eye. Sometime in the early 80s, I suggested to my then assistant, Frank Lindner, that we take a trip to the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival, to see what it was about.

For change of format from my usual 35mm work, I borrowed a 5×4 Pacemaker Speed Graphic from my good friend and colleague, Simon Cowling, and with a couple of Grafmatic backs loaded with T-Max 400 set off on the 600 kilometre drive to Tamworth.

We arrived mid-morning and drove around the city looking for picture opportunities. We drove all over town looking at all these boring, cowboy-hatted, line-dancing types and country yodellers, but just couldn’t get excited about the subject. Now don’t get me wrong. I like country music. The real thing, American country music, that is. I just don’t enjoy the derivative Australian version that masquerades in pseudo-American accents as the voice of rural Australia. But that’s another story, and will probably get me a whole lot of rude comments from Slim Dusty or Lee Kernaghan fans. To me, Tamworth lacked authenticity, and I wasn’t in the mood to make pictures taking the piss out of imitation cowboys.

In cruising through town we had both taken a sideways glance at a particular noisy pub. The Locomotive Hotel had been adopted by biker gangs as their headquarters for the weekend and the noise of their rioting could be heard for several blocks. Neither of us said anything. But on our third pass, I said to Frank, “What do you reckon?” The answer he gave was probably not the one I wanted or needed. “I’m game if you are.” Now, we were committed by our egos, come what may.

Finding a parking spot nearby we tried to insinuate ourselves quietly amongst this rough and rowdy crowd. As we arrived they didn’t seem to take much notice of us, but they were too pre-occupied throwing beer cans at a singer on a makeshift stage on the back of a truck and also, as we were, distracted by biker women who were flashing their breasts. Frank and I tried to look as tough as we could. Anyone knowing Frank is probably laughing right now. I at least had the advantage of size, but in reality there was no disguising the fact that we were soft civilians. I also had that Speed Graphic hanging like a baby coffin from my left hand and in my mind it now took on the dimensions of the Polaroid 20×24 camera (and I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with that monster too, but that’s another story altogether). Discrete photography was never an attribute of the Pacemaker Graphic.

Frank and I separated to look for pictures. In less than ten minutes, he was back having been immediately robbed of his cash in the hotel. Luckily they let him keep his cameras.

Things were looking decidedly perilous. After about half an hour of trying to get up enough courage to take pictures, some burly bikers bailed me up, eyed the Speed Graphic and demanded, “What the fuck is that?” This was it, I thought. The moment when I’m kicked to the ground and stomped to death by a crowd of enraged bikers.

Seeking an appropriately conciliatory response, I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline. I briefly weighed up my chances of using that big camera as a weapon. I’d once seen one used to knock out a photographer, but that’s yet another story. I immediately thought the better of it. Suddenly, inspiration! Trying desperately to conceal the quaver in my voice, I said, “I guess you could call it the Harley Davidson of press cameras. It’s called a Speed Graphic”…a couple of beats while this information penetrated their beer and dope-soaked brains…”Shit mate, that’s cool. Take our photo!” they ordered.

I didn’t hesitate. Desperately struggling to hide the trembling of my hands while cranking away at the rangefinder I got away a couple of frames. They bought me a beer…

PS If you are old enough to remember using a Speed Graphic, please feel free to add your memories of this wonderful camera…

4 Comments

Filed under Australian, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls