Photography

Three New Exhibitions

There are some really good exhibitions on at the moment in London. Actually, there are always really good exhibitions on. But over the weekend I went to three new ones, and all three were really good, and well worth visiting in their own rights.

I spent a May Sunday visiting the three and using a Boris Bike to travel between them.

My first stop was the Victoria and Albert Museum where they have just opened The Future Starts Here which aims to show “100 projects shaping the world of tomorrow.” That could make it sound a little dry, but there are some real things of substance in here. From food to society and democracy, everything is covered.

The exhibition explores electronics that are there to help us – the first thing you see is a robot that will seemingly do the laundry for you, to exosuits that could help those who require extra support or strength. Sometimes there are projects that are relatively simple – reusing old smartphones to do other tasks around the home.

Other times, these are much bigger projects – underwater drones, or 3D printing building to live in on Mars.

The exhibition asks questions of the future of democracy. They even have an exhibit which shows Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica famously explaining what his company claimed it was capable of, speaking at a conference. I laughed out loud when I saw they’d included that!

The exhibition is there to challenge us, and ask us questions. What is the future going to mean for us?

It runs until 4th November 2018.

From there it was a ride through Hyde Park around Buckingham Palace, through Westminster and along the South Bank to Tate Modern. They’ve just opened a new exhibition – Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art.

This is an exhibition to be experienced rather than described. The images – mostly photographs – are broad, and arranged thematically by subject. The tale is told of abstract movement and photography moving in parallel as artists began to understand what was achievable. Sometimes they utilised nature – other times very close up imagery to present us with things we mightn’t understand.

I went away quite enthused and keen to explore some of the themes in some of my own work.

Shape of Light runs until 14th October 2018.

Finally it was over the bridge and into the City to the Museum of London, somewhere I’ve not been for a while. They have a new photographic exhibition called London Nights. It displays an enormous range of often extraordinary photos taken over the last hundred years or more. While today we expect our smartphones to be able to take halfway decent photos in the lowest of light, it’s worth noting that photographers in the past had to go to great lengths to take photos in such conditions. Some of the earliest pictures, showing London’s fog-filled streets, are therefore remarkable.

The real fun can come from seeing everyday shots of London from the past, particularly in familiar settings. Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus appear repeatedly, with the people and the signs being fascinating.

The exhibition is thematically structured, and reaches right up to some very contemporary photographs. But sometimes a photographer like Bill Brandt will have photos in a variety of sections, seemingly able to cover it all.

Often it’s the very ordinary that becomes extraordinary. There are a series of perhaps a couple of hundred contact prints taken in the fifties, and even though the images of are “just” of people, you can’t help staring into the lives of those captured at that moment in time.

The exhibition catalogue is particularly good and worth mentioning, being published by the excellent Hoxton Mini Press who publish some excellent photographic books. Furthermore, compared with many equivalent exhibition catalogues, it’s really good value at just £14.95 for a hardbound copy (for exhibition ticket holders).

London Nights runs until the 11th November 2018 and is well worth a visit.

Gursky

In 2011 a record price was set for the sale of a photograph. Rhein II by Andreas Gursky was sold at Christie’s for $4.3m. It was the then highest price paid for a photograph (and likely remains so). Compared to the Leonardo da Vinci Salvador Munci painting that was sold for $450m last year, that’s a relatively modest price. But photo sales are more interesting.

First of all, there’s the fact that they’re largely reproducible. While a painting is one of a kind, a photographer can make as many, or as few, prints as they choose. A photo might be sold in editions of as few as 1 or as many as several thousand.

Gursky reportedly sells in editions of six, with two artist proofs. Without any attribution displayed elsewhere in the recent Hayward Gallery exhibition, I assume that the exhibits in the Gursky exhibition currently nearing the end of its run at the reopened Hayward Gallery, are all artist proofs.

I went along to the exhibition because, frankly, I’ve never really got Andreas Gursky. What I mean by that is that while I appreciate his skill as a photographer, and the grandiosity of his works’ scale, I have never seen him as an artist far and away ahead of other photographers, as the prices of his pictures tend to suggest.

I wanted to see if my eyes would be opened by this exhibition. Was I missing something? Why are some of his photos traded for millions of dollars?

Reader, I still don’t really understand.

Gursky absolutely makes powerful pictures, often detailing man’s impact on the landscape. And the scale of many of his photos is really important. They are often more than 2 metres wide or tall, some bigger than that. And Gursky’s style is to have the lens wide open – everything should be in focus. Furthermore, and importantly, many of his images are composite photos made up from several images, with a significant amount of post-processing in software like Photoshop. Gursky is clearly a master at this kind of thing, because as he flattens out perspectives, you can’t see the joins.

I think the most obvious photomontage for me was a picture entitled Tour de France, which purported to show the race heading up a mountain. Except that somewhere in the lower portion of the image you could see the King of the Mountains banner – which would almost always be somewhere near the top. The images were probably taken from a helicopter, and I’m not certain they were shot on a single mountain. You can’t see enough detail, but some of the “leading” cyclists don’t seem to be accompanied by camera bikes which would ordinarily be the case, while groups further down the mountain do.

And Gursky also makes his colours pop quite a lot, often adding an almost ethereal glow to the pictures.

So these are heavily manipulated images. But they don’t pretend to be anything but that. And so I’m not sure.

Some of the images are not even taken by him. The exhibition features a satellite photo of Antarctica. I suspect that it’s a heavily manipulated collage of many satellite images, and it’s possible that Gursky commissioned his own images from a satellite photography provider. A second image of the North Atlantic claims to have had much of the clear water created with software. So perhaps Gursky was using imagery from a platform like ESA’s Earth from Space.

In another photo entitled Supernova we see a relatively decent example of astro-photography, but nothing especially impressive.

Returning to that record selling Rhein II, which is displayed here, and what’s most remarkable about it is how unremarkable it is. Another photo-montage, Gursky has removed a powerstation to leave nothing else but the grassy banks, the river, and the sky.

I’m probably being unfair. Gursky’s images are impressive, and he does have something to say. But I can’t claim to have been converted by this exhibition. I would put him in a similar category to Damien Hirst, in that I can see the talent, but I don’t really understand the appeal, and certainly don’t understand the prices that are achieved by his works.

Anyway, if you’ve not seen the exhibition, it’s too late, as it closed a couple of weeks ago.

Snow and Mist

Snow and Mist from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

The country has been covered with snow for the last week or so, but it’s not straightforward to get some spectacular drone shots because of the weather. Consumer drones aren’t capable of flying while it’s snowing. And you also have to consider wind speed, and there’s been quite a lot of that.

So my only practicable solution was to get up very early in the morning. Although a fresh fall of snow had been dropped the previous afternoon, and overnight the temperatures had remained sub-zero, but this morning the melt was very much on.

I shot this video and these pictures during a misty dawn. There was still plenty of snow on the ground, although it would disappear fairly rapidly as the day went on. The key thing to always remember with snow photography is that you need to increase the exposure beyond where the camera thinks it should be.

Wicken Fen: A Cycle Ride from Ely to Cambridge – Stuck in Draft #4

Here’s a cycle ride I took in April 2016. I think the winter and spring months are quite a nice time to do this ride. It’s not especially demanding and is easy to reach from London with direct trains from King’s Cross. Another in my series, Stuck in Draft.

Reading Rain recently, I realised that it had been a while since I last visited Wicken Fen, the National Trust owned wetland fen in rural Cambridgeshire. It’s a wonderful little paradise that shows how the fens would have looked before they were managed by man. The fenlands are very arable, so over years, a complicated system of ditches, dykes, pumps and droves has led to the marshes being drained and many crops being grown.

At Wicken Fen the National Trust has a 100 year vision to take over more of the land between Wicken and Cambridge and to preserve a unique natural habitat.

I suspect that most people drive to Wicken, but it’s pretty easy to get to via bike, which is of course how I travelled there. The closest station to the reserve is at Ely, but it’s a nice ride to continue on afterwards back to Cambridge. Ely is very easy to get to from central London, with three trains an hour leaving King’s Cross, the fastest taking a little over an hour.

The route I took, shown on the linked Strava map below, is actually not the one I’d fully recommend. My route took me along the A142 from Ely a bit too much, and although this isn’t a terrible road to cycle along, traffic does past you at speed. It’s worth noting that much of the landscape here is very exposed, so even a slight wind will be felt by you.

I’d instead recommend following the Sustrans National Cycling Route 11 which runs along the Ouse before turning SE and towards Wicken. The only thing to note about this, and other parts of the route, is that they’re not suitable for cyclist with skinny racing tyres.

My slightly duller route joined up with Route 11 at Barway, where a large grocery packing plant sits alone in the fens. An adjacent hostel suggests that many of the workers are not local. And continuing on, a sign in both English and Polish warning drivers to be on the lookout for cyclists, backs that up.

It only takes a little over half an hour to reach the reserve itself, down a short road in the village of Wicken itself. You pass a car park and several houses before reaching the visitor centre.

I would say that I’d arrived early, but the site is open from dawn to dusk, and now that we’re on British Summertime, that would have meant 6:30am – far too early for me to reach Wicken via public transport from London. Nonetheless, even a little past 9:00am, there were few about.

A helpful staff member pointed out the various routes around the reserve, and where was currently accessible. As these are wetlands, much of the land is inaccessible for large parts of the year. Sedge Fen has a Boardwalk allowing access year around, and that’s where most visitors go. Beyond that there is the longer loop that takes in a couple of the bigger hides that tower over the nearby fens. When I visited this was an out-and-back walk since the ground was still too wet towards the back of the reserve.

The National Trust also has cycle hire, a nice little café where I got a snack for lunch, and a well stocked shop. You can do short boat trips, and they even have some geocaches hidden around the reserve!

One solution for being able to get into the reserve early might be to camp, and I note that there’s a wild camp nearby that you can reserve for a group – especially good for families.

I got back on my bike and headed south, still in Trust-owned fens. The cycle route is well signed and you’re soon out in open land.

I’d brought my kite with me since I thought it might be fun to try some more kite aerial photography. There wasn’t a great deal of wind, but it was enough to get my camera up into the air. Not as fancy as my drone, but it’s much more packable in a runsack, and I’m not sure that the Trust would have been happy with me buzzing around with rotors, whereas a kite is harmless.

The cycle route is also called the Lodes Way, because it reaches the pretty village of Lode near another National Trust property, Anglesey Abbey. But also because lodes are what the manmade waterways that criss-cross the countryside in these parts are called. Lode is a pretty little village, filled with thatched cottages (alongside some more recent buildings). I’d have called in at the Abbey, but the car-park suggested that it was quite busy, so I decided to give it a miss.

From Anglesey Abbey, I should have perhaps headed south a little further to the village of Bottisham, before joining National Cycle Route 51, but I instead cycled along the B1102 through the village of Stow cum Quy before rejoining the route and riding into Cambridge. If you’re lucky you might pass the end of Cambridge Airport’s runway when something interesting lands.

The massive new CyclePoint at Cambridge Station has recently opened, with room for nearly 3,000 cycles, perhaps the closest anywhere in Britain to those enormous cycle parks you see near Dutch train stations. In due course there will also be an attached shop. But the whole area around the front of the station is still something of a work-site at the moment.

The whole trip at 36 km (22 miles) is a nice day out – especially if the weather is good.

Saturn – Farewell Cassini

Farewell Cassini. You have been wonderful!

On Friday, just ahead of Cassini finally burning up in the atmosphere of Saturn as the probe ended its 13 years orbiting the planet, its rings and its moons, the mission’s Twitter feed sent this.

And so, I did.

The picture above was taken in Zakynthos where I was on holiday. I only had my RX100 III “point and shoot” with me, which only has a 70mm zoom lens. That means that I had no chance of seeing the rings of Saturn. So instead I took a photo of the night sky, looking southwest, and relying on mobile apps to point me in the right direction to see Saturn. There was also a little light pollution from streetlights in the village I was staying in.

You can see Saturn in the lower quarter of the picture, just to the right of the Milky Way, which was nicely visible. The photo was taken in the relatively early evening after the sun had set since Saturn was only visible for a few hours before dipping below the horizon.

The picture below makes it clear exactly where in the image Saturn is.

The rings of Saturn are very viewable for the amateur. I still remember the excitement when I was younger, and my mum borrowed a large telescope from the school she taught in that was going unused. We had it at home for a few months, and seeing the rings of Saturn from my suburban back garden, with all the attendant light pollution, was just the most wonderful thing.

Sadly, I don’t have a telescope today – it’s on the wish list – and I certainly didn’t take one on holiday with me.

But looking up and seeing Saturn was a wonderful thing.

BTW NASA has published a wonderful free eBook containing many of the best images of Saturn and its moons, taken by Cassini over the years. It’s definitely worth a download! All the images within have links to the full size images from NASA’s website, so you can download them and make your own prints if you choose.

Also check out both episodes of The Sky at Night and Horizon on the Cassini mission.

Brancaster Beach

Brancaster Beach from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Up early this morning to head to Brancaster beach along the North Norfolk coast and capture these images. The beach is vast as you can see and to the east of it, there’s a channel, Norton Creek, which separates the mainland from Scolt Head Island. The channel itself leads into Brancaster Staithe where many boats are moored.

The island is quite enticing to get to, but despite being just about reachable at low tide, it can be dangerous and there are plenty of stories of people being trapped or worse.

On the tip of the island is the wreck of the SS Vina, a ship that dates from 1894 and was used as target practice during the war. Today, despite efforts to salvage it, its position means that it’s hard to reach, and it’s visible at low tides.

A couple more photos over on Flickr.