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Trace and Opportunity in Photography

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the surface is not far away, ƒ/2.0, 35mm

Again a small and side comment during a walk disturbed me. It's raining so it's a pity for you doing photography. This posed a question to myself regarding the precondition of taking pictures. Why restricting yourself to some positive conditions in order to take photographies? Especially when you witness a trace, it's an evidence of your own life.

Retouching, by restricting yourself to good setup while doing photography (e.g. sunny weather, perfect lighting or framing), is loosing a part of the truth inherent to the trace you want to capture. The picture surface was taken during this rainy walk. The situation (circular effect of the droplets) allows to set the trace in a timeline by witnessing the rain. A photography is not more readable if you have perfect surroundings or condition but when partial or disturbing elements are there to stress the witnesses.

I will continue to take my camera with me even if the conditions are far from being perfect. My perception of the traces is strongly linked to my capacity to keep the anteriority alive.

If you would like to dig more in the trace topic, the book Photography, Trace, and Trauma by Margaret Iversen (ref) is maybe one of the most sensitive work, I read, on the topic even if I personaly think the Trauma aspect is just the filter of our mind.

Assignments In Photography

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playbook, ƒ/2.2, 49mm

One of my biggest passion beside photography, it's to get lost in bookshops and libraries. My eyes were attracted by a book called "The Photographer's Playbook" and especially seeing the publisher "aperture" which is usually an incredible publishing house for photography books.

The book is composed of 307 assignments and ideas for photographers. Don't be scared, it's not a schoolbook. It's basically ideas or advices given by wellknown photographers to their students.

There are lots of them and even if you don't like some, you can skip to the ones you like.

Some ideas are really refreshing like the one from Elisabeth Tonnard which uses the text of Roland Barthes "The Death of the Author" and propose to replace each occurence of words like "words" with "images" or "write" with "take photographs". Then she proposes to use the resulting text as a trigger for your photographic works.

Some are meaningful notes that can be used as day-to-day support like the ones from Denise Wolff or Alex Klein.

A great companion book for any photographers willing to be enlighten or shaken by random notes or ideas.

What kind of photography?

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cat -u, ƒ/2.0, 35mm, catu on flickr

In term of photography, I'm still a big naive photographer. I had this impression that photography still embraces freedom, the acceptance of unconventional artistic perspective and openness in terms of diversity. There are many photo groups on Internet and I decided to upload a photography to a group called street photography.

Then something happened, the picture was rejected. Reading the rules, it seems that the definition of street photography is more strict than expected. Then I decided to wander around various photography groups which are classified as street photography.

What I have seen in these groups with strict rules? A continuous stream of the same thing, a street, some people and that's it. So there is at least: two kind of definition of street photography. The one which is only a matter of inventory. But the most interesting one in my eyes is the wandering approach where you only expect the unexpected.

Taking your camera and getting lost, I love this. Each second is the beginning of a new world to photograph and sometime without a street and people.

A photographic addiction to trees

Lost in the trees...

Lost in the trees..., ƒ/2.0, 35mm, trees on flickr

My recurring subjects in my photographs are the trees. This addiction was not something obvious to me but something that slowly grown in my series. Maybe this inclination is due to my ecologist view but I think there is a kind of ambiguity.

Perhaps I bumped into the same differences between the work of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams. Grandiose versus banality, Ansel was more into incredible landscape where Robert focuses more than uncommon places.

On the above picture trees, it's a very common image, you can see this while being in a train. When I took the picture, I wanted to get a set of trees with the passenger being lost in thoughts. The idea is to get the opportunity to think about banality but especially our estrangement from the nature, the trees and our inability to see the importance of nature.

Otherwise in trees2, I was waiting for the mist and the sun to give an overall impression of majesty in the trees. Even if the trees are very close to a huge chemical industry, the message is more about the flamboyant existence of these salix than the destruction of nature.

The subject (the trees in such case) are not meant to be a common vector of passing an ecological message. But they provide a reference point where it's becoming a more fundamental way of thinking our role in the society, the geography and our direct surroundings. Some of my set of trees are even more going into the abstraction of the world or its scientific and mathematical representation (e.g. fractal trees).

Maybe my addiction is just due to the trees being the roots of many topics.

Revival of the salix

Revival of the salix..., f/22, 35mm, trees2 on flickr

Belgian photographers

Belgian photographers

Belgian photographers, ƒ/2.0, 35mm, books on flickr

At the end of the years, it's the time for gifts and especially photography books. As we have to focus in photography, I'll just list some of my favorite Belgian photographers and some of their books. There are a lot of books published in photography but some attracted more my eyes... I really enjoyed "Charleroi, il est clair que le gris est noir" by Stephan Vanfleteren. An incredible vision of Charleroi, a city in the center of the coal basin and strongly hit by the melt down of the industries. Stephan did an impressive work (with strong black) while touching the viewer with a forceful human perspective to this city. Another interesting book is the work of Manuel Lauti with Pages Inattendues. A vigorous relationship with people, reading and connecting them with a small extract.

Still Photography Versus Videography

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Living our photographies, ƒ/22, 35mm, fagnes on flickr

Discussing with strangers in the train this is often an opportunity for a new blog post. The main issue I have with new comers in photography (read people buying a camera), they usually focus on technical aspect and not on the act of photography. But sometime, I have interesting questions and especially this one: "Do you think there is a real difference between taking pictures or videos?"

This question was in my head for the past days... Photography is very different of a video. Photography is the ability to stop time at an instant. To create a new interpretation of an instant and build a new timeline in your surrounding environment. Some still photography is just so intemporal that you cannot even define when it was taken. I feel videography as ensuring a continum where you extend time where you don't keep control of the time like in still photography.

While searching in my archive, I found a series taken in the Virton train station. Every picture is a moment but it looks like a movie. The paradox if you add all the pictures all together, this is like a video which is not.Maybe the impression is linked on how you dream, it seems you have the impression of each steps, these steps are just a moment of our lives.

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43 still pictures of a train passing who passes...

Soundscape and Photography

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Every second is the beginning of something, ƒ/2.0, 35mm, train on flickr

One year ago, the opportunity of doing an exhibition helps me to experiment something new with photography. In some past exhibition, I had the impression that some viewers cannot be immersed due to surrounding sounds (e.g. noisy environment or people talking too loud). The idea was to enrich my artwork with a soundscape supporting the viewers' feelings. The soundscape will be there to limit the overall noise disruption from the exhibition. The experiment looks fun to do and I try to document my journey to build a soundscape to support my photographs.

My theme for the exhibition was the train and I already selected a series of photos. Based on this photographic material, I draw some indicators that could be used as key elements or references for the viewers.

  • Sounds of train starts (1)
  • Sounds of train stops (2)
  • Environmental sounds of train (e.g. doors(3), railways(4), people talking(5), ...)
  • Vocal announces inside or outside (6)

Having these in mind, I recorded sounds during some trips in various trains or train stations in Belgium. I had the luck to borrow a Zoom H6 Six-Track Portable Recorder from a very kind colleague. Recording in public spaces is not so far from photography. The difficulty is the sound framing. Where you need to highlight a specific element in the sound and discard the rest. I was not used to record sounds, so it was pretty new to me. Similarities with the act of photography are interesting, being alone, avoid distracting elements in your frame or record the right instant.

After 3 months of recording raw materials (don't forget to limit level and record in raw WAV/PCM format), I did a selection of the sounds (another similarity with photography 'select or die'). I classify the samples to use in loops and the others which are longer samples. What's the process to create a coherent soundscape for the photo set. I wanted to recall the train atmosphere were you have some kind of monotonous sounds but which shouldn't be boring and tend to be forgot after a certain number of repetitions.

So I started with the loops, this is an art in itself. While listening to the raw materials, I selected some repetitive sound patterns. From the each of the selected repetitive pattern, I cut some seconds that could be repeated to reproduce the original sound patterns of the raw sample. The seconds selected should be clear without distracting noises. Then you can create the loops, tests it (keep the loop playing and listen) and save it (still in raw WAV/PCM format or FLAC). For this process, I used Audacity which is a simple but advanced free software to edit audio samples. The software includes functionality like finding the zero crossing point to have smooth transition in the loops.

After the creation of the audio loops (4 and 4bis), I had long samples with some specific element like doors closing(3), train starting(1) or stopping(2), vocal announces(6). How can I play all these samples sequentially and find an accurate pattern for my photo sets? I tried some audio software to do that but these are often huge and utterly complex to use (e.g. you need to use a graphical user interface to shuffle a list of sample for each experiment). I end up using bash and SoX to do the composition. This approach helps to focus on the content and just write some lines of shell script to create my soundscape.

The whole play script used for the soundscape written in Bash shell and using SoX:

#!/bin/bash

looprepeat="7"
fadeout="fade t 0 0 3"
LONGSLEEP=40
SHORTSLEEP=10
VSSLEEP=5

while [ true ]
do
        play BelgianTrainLoopOK2.flac repeat $looprepeat $fadeout; play BelgianTrainAnotherStopOK.flac $fadeout
        sleep $SHORTSLEEP
        play BelgianAnnounceBruxelles.flac $fadeout
        sleep $SHORTSLEEP
        play BelgianNewLTrainStart.flac $fadeout
        sleep $SHORTSLEEP
        play BelgianTrainLoop2.flac repeat $looprepeat $fadeout
        sleep $SHORTSLEEP
        play Arlon-to-Marbehan.flac $fadeout
        sleep $VSSLEEP
        play BelgianTrainDoorClosing.flac $fadeout
done

I also did a quick visualization of each samples to find out any glitches or issue that cannot be directly spot by listening. The above script runs during the exhibition and based on the mood of the day, you can change the parameters (time between samples) or the order of the samples.

Not sure if my first experiment is a success but I had interesting feedback during the exhibition. An old lady told me that remembers her when she took the train with her parents. Some where indeed more attentive to the photos or came back when they started to hear the soundscape. And another funny discussion was a guy working at the national train company in Belgium who remembered the exact model of the train.

The overall soundscape including samples and scripts are freely available under a BSD 2-Clause License.

Old and New

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We might need to change the curtain, ƒ/22, 14mm, curtain on flickr

While doing photography, I became slowly interested in the old and abandoned places. I released some of my pictures in a small urbex album on flickr. But my interest for such place is irregular and especially with some peaks. These wanderings into a kind of decrepit world could be in contradiction with my work on the movement, nature and people in the street. I strongly think that is the opposite where these dirty and old places are there to show the evolution of life. There are not still pictures, the picture of the abandoned places is the key to the new or the next step in our lives or environment.

The quote from the photographer, Sally Mann might reflect this:

"Photographs open doors into the past, but they also allow a look into the future." -- Sally Mann

Urban exploration is not an adequate term as the main focus is made on the journey into old and lost worlds. And the photography is relegated as an inventory step. I don't feel this as a tourist but more as a method to ensure that we are still alive. My peaks seem to be a kind of fearless interests in decayed world to take picture of an ending world but showing the future. Photography is an act of living.

Mirrors and Photography

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Moving duplicity, ƒ/4.5, 35mm, movingduplicity on flickr

A mirror is a critical element in photography and especially in some models of camera. But I don't want to talk about technique but more about the mirrors to represent, view and feel the world in a different way.

Everything is an image and mirrors are here to duplicate the representation of our surrounding world. I'm always curious to see those mirrors in public spaces. There are often used to expand the space and reassure the people. Those mirrors are often a great opportunity to acquire new perspectives and sometime "to trap" moment of life indirectly. I got this opportunity at the cloakroom at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. They have a mirror at the entrance of the cloakroom where people can have the impression of a larger room.

At the entrance, there is a small area where basically you cannot be seen in the mirror (at first sight). I waited there with my camera especially to catch the movement of people and especially trying to get the two perspective of a same person.

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I kept and crop the movingduplicity because the movement was a kind of integral part of the whole picture. Due to the setup, I couldn't frame exactly the picture as I wanted during the shooting. So I decided to crop the upper and right part to split the frame between the mirror and its other part.

Influential Photographers

Influenced? We are influenced in our life for good and bad reasons. If you are doing photography, it's very rare to start from scratch. You are kind of on the shoulders of giants. Even the simple fact to start photography, you are influenced. The first time you have a camera in your hand because someone decided to make a gift, a camera.

Brooke Hayward has offered a Nikon camera to Dennis Hopper for his birthday in 1961. So Brooke indirectly influenced Dennis to do photography... I mention Dennis Hopper because he was a photographer who influenced me. Some years ago in Amsterdam, I saw an exhibition where some photographs of Dennis Hopper and I was really touched by his work. I didn't know why I was touched by his work. It was quite standard black&white pictures nothing more but something touched me personally. It's not the only photographer who influenced me but that's the first who really change my way of doing photography.

Very recently, I found this quote from Dennis Hopper:

I think of that with my photographs. I think of them as ‘found’ paintings because I don’t crop them, I don’t manipulate them or anything. So they’re like ‘found’ objects to me. Dennis Hopper

Snow and Train Station

Snow and Train Station (Arlon), ƒ/2.0, 1/50, 35mm, snowtrainstation on flickr

That's how I feel when I'm doing photography. So it seems that's my initial interest in the Dennis Hopper photography. Even without knowing this quote, he transfers this feeling into his photographic work. Don't forget while reading photographic books, when going to exhibition and to the museum, you might be influenced for the best.