How easy was it to ‘Photoshop in’ the trees?

It’s strange. In picture terms, people’s perception of reality is often hampered by a literal interpretation. A camera never lies. I suppose this is debatable – the choices a photographer makes when creating an image  can distort  perspective in a particular scene. But this is usually intended to create interest rather than to misinform. Most of the time.

In 2009 I had a print exhibited in the Association of Photographers Open exhibition. A moody shot of St Paul’s Cathedral – unusual, but not controversial. Or so I thought.

View towards St Paul's Cathedral from Tate Modern

View towards St Paul's Cathedral from Tate Modern - Canon 5D MKII

“It must have taken ages to ‘Photoshop in’ the trees,” is the usual comment. It happened again yesterday.

“No, it’s one shot”.

“But there aren’t any trees next to St Paul’s Cathedral”.

“Look from The Tate Modern,” I reply. It sometimes takes a bit of explaining, and it isn’t always believed. Computer trickery is always assumed.

So this is how I did it.

St Paul's Cathedral taken from Tate Modern

view towards St Paul's Cathedral taken from Tate Modern, a few metres to the right of the original camera position. Camera - iPhone.

Technique – 50mm lens, Canon 5D MKII. I stood with my back to the coffee cart at the Millennium Bridge entrance of the Tate. Click. Simple!

Kodachrome – no more!

Austin Healey rear badge

One of my last Kodachrome images - taken in 1990

I’ve recently been reading postings on forums regarding the demise of Kodachrome, a film which has been used by generations of photographers, amateurs and pros alike.  Introduced in 1935, it was available in various forms until 2009, when Kodak announced it would cease production due to a fall in demand. If you are one of the few who have any rolls left, remember you have until 30th December 2010 to get it to Dwayne’s Photos in Parsons, Kansas, the last place still processing this film, when even they will stop.

I shot my first rolls of Kodachrome in 1979 and was amazed at the saturated colour which could be achieved compared to contemporary offerings, such as Ektachrome 64, also from the Kodak stable. At that time, most of my professional work was in black and white and I don’t remember using it for commercial photography until 1988, when I started to contribute to Car Magazine.

Car was the leading automotive magazine of the period, and under the art direction of Adam Stinson, it produced some of the most innovative car photography in Europe and the USA, influencing many magazines worldwide. Adam favoured Kodachrome, so when I was invited to start shooting for Car, I spent many an hour negotiating the Fulham Palace Road during the London rush hour, trying to get to the Kodachrome collection/delivery point in time to meet the evening deadline. At that time, barmy as it may seem, film shot in the UK could only be processed in Paris. I think it was a 24 hour turnaround, and it was always an event opening each of the returned boxes and spreading the frames, in their classic card mounts, over the lightbox.

Ultimately, for me and I suspect for many others, this impractical method of processing was the beginning of Kodachrome’s downfall. As a new generation of films emerged around 1990 which provided equally great colour rendition and saturation, practical alternatives were established. For many Fuji Velvia, still in production today, became the alternative of choice. It was possible get this, and other E6 slide films, processed quickly and easily and in front of an art director in under two hours. Commercially it made sense to move away from Kodachrome – sadly, it no longer fitted into a lot of photographers’ workflows. Then digital came of age!

The last time I used Kodachrome was around 1990, when  I was asked to shoot a series of car books. After the first book, I made several calls to the publisher asking to switch from Kodachrome. He saw the quality of the Velvia test rolls I had sent, and (reluctantly at first) agreed to let me shoot the remaining books on Fuji stock. To this day, I still think this was the right decision!

Despite it being something that I currently wouldn’t have much use for, I’d love to see Kodachrome survive in some form, as it adds to the flavour and mix of the photographic world. Unfortunately the process is so complicated, I doubt it will be viable for anyone to try to take it over.

As a footnote, Polaroid pretty much finished instant film production a couple of years ago – but with the Impossible Project taking over what remained of the production plant, the concept of Polaroid instant film is still with us. (Fuji instant film has been in constant production for many years, but doesn’t have the same following). Polaroid themselves have taken an about-turn and have produced a new camera and instant film, the Polaroid 300 – and have appointed Lady Gaga as their Creative Director, so there may well be hope for analogue devotees!

The Somme memorial at Thiepval

wooden remembrance cross at the Somme memorial at Thiepval

wooden remembrance cross at the Somme memorial at Thiepval

Two days ago I had the opportunity to visit the Somme region in Northern France whilst on an assignment. I have driven past the area countless times on car shoots, but  this time I made a particular point of stopping and visiting some of the World War One cemeteries.

The most moving was at Thiepval, which is the site of the largest British war memorial in the world. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and opened in 1932 by the Prince of Wales, you can see inscribed the names of the 73,357 British and South African men who fell at the Somme and have no known grave.

It had a real sense of calm, and judging by the reactions of the people visiting, it still has great significance. Whilst walking around, reading the names, I found a wooden cross with a dedication written by a child. It said, “In remembrance of E. Singleton, the bravest man I know.” This really touched me. Even after nearly one hundred years, new generations are still identifying with the waste of life that has become indelibly linked to the Battle of the  Somme.

After several Google searches I couldn’t find an obvious identification for E. Singleton, but would be intrigued to find out more.

the Somme memorial at Thiepval

the Somme memorial at Thiepval

detail of the Somme memorial at Thiepval

detail of the Somme memorial at Thiepval

19th century revisited – Photogravure

A printing technique that has long fascinated me is photogravure, a black and white process developed in the late 19th century. Frequently seen in old books, the texture and tonality is beautiful, and very different to that you would achieve with silver gelatin printing. Often purposely dark and with lower contrast, the images may not suit everybody, but I was intrigued enough to attend a workshop recently.

With photogravure, an image is etched into a sensitized metal plate, which has been exposed to a large contact negative. The plate is inked and drawn through a press in contact with paper.  It’s not a particularly environmentally sound process, as the etching requires development in acid . But around 30 years ago, a new version was invented, using metal plates where images are etched into hardened polymer, and developed in nothing more than warm water. This new process is referred to as Photo Polymer or Polymer Gravure, depending on which side of the pond you are on.

Under the enthusiastic tutorage of Fiona Hepburn at The London Print Studio, I was taken through the various stages of the newer process with a small group of people. I was back in a darkroom for only the second time in ten years, so it was nostalgic as well as educational. It was great to operate a large printing machine again too. Though this one was different, a contact printer using ultraviolet light with the equivalent power of several dozen sun tanning beds! The original exponents of the process, such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, would have used the sun as a source of ultraviolet, with exposures lasting many hours. On dark winter days in London, this is not reliable, if not impossible – two minutes with contact printer is far more practical!

At the end of the day I inked up my plate and ‘pulled’ my first print in the huge printing press. Being a perfectionist, I probably reacted a bit like petulant schoolboy who had just scratched his favourite toy car, as there were a few dust marks around the edges of the resulting print! But after a few deep breaths, I realized that actually it was  a pretty good first attempt, as the overall image quality was fantastic.  A bit more care at the preparation stage will be needed, but with more experience I think I can use this process.

Hands - Paul Debois

Hands - Black and white polymer gravure or photo polymer print

The workshop also involved transferring illustrations onto the metal  plates, as many fine artists use photo polymer in their work. As a photographer, this came as a bit of a shock. The last time I remember drawing anything, I was 12 years old! But it was interesting to see how it was done. Honest conclusion? I think I’ll stick with photography!

experimental photo polymer print

Experimental photo polymer print