Archive for May, 2013

It was another gorgeous day out yesterday, so with it being the weekend and all that I decided to go out exploring again. This time it was a walk along Baldersdale and up Goldsborough – the sister hill to Shacklesborough where I’d been a few weeks ago. It’s not as high as Shacklesborough, but the view from the top is arguably much more dramatic. You get the whole sweep of the Baldersdale reservoirs and right round into Teesdale, over to Barnard Castle, and it being so clear yesterday, beyond to Darlington. The loneliness of Cotherstone moor follows the final sweep round to Shacklesborough again on the horizon. No wonder the bronze-age folk liked it so much they built things up there – stone circles, chambered cairns etc. All long gone now.

self portrait on Goldsborough

The Millstone grits are impressive too. Big hulking chunks of grey with it old-age wrinkles and dramatic overhangs. A climbers dream, and in the late afternoon light they looked good on camera too.

goldsborough grits

The textures of the rock against the clear sky would look good in black and white I thought. I also wanted to try out a new toy I’d found online for recreating black and white film.


During the week I’d read an interview with Sebastião Salgado -one of the great monochrome reportage photographers. In it he lamented the demise of all the wonderful film, papers and chemistry he used to use to achieve his incredible images. However, he siad he now used the software from DxO labs to recreate the classic Kodak Tri-X look from digital files. Well, if it’s good enough for Salgado, it ought to be worth a try.

Sebastião Salgado

Photo © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas

Back in the late eighties I used to work in a professional photographic lab in central London. It was a specialist black and white lab and at the time it was one of dozens of specialist labs all over the West End and the City. My department was film processing. It became my domain – processing hundreds of rolls of film for London’s advertising and PR photographers. Each type of film had its own process. Most of the film was developed in a big ‘dip’n dunk’ processor in Ilford ID11 developer. Different development and fixing times were given to different types of film, and we could also ‘push’ and ‘pull’ film stock up to 3 stops. On top of that I also used to do bespoke processing in a variety of other developers. There were dozens of film types and dozens of developers. The combinations were almost endless. Each film and developer combination would have their own characteristics. I really loved using Ilford HP5 for my own work, so I tended to keep the main processing set-up for really wide tonal scale and fine grain resolution on that. All monitored daily on a densitometer so that it was consistant from day to day.


my old darkroom in London

This attention to detail was important. These things mattered. Every photographer would have their film of choice and we’d work with them to get a bespoke process which gave them the final look they were after. No professional photographer would just use any old roll of film and expect to get consistant results.


the wetbench and some of the chemistry in my old darkroom

In time I also used to do bespoke printing jobs which needed particular paper and chemistry combinations. While the bulk of the work in the darkrooms was on resin-coated paper and developed in machines for speed and accuracy, I had a wet-bench and got to play with fibre-based paper and all sorts of toning processes. My favourite was split toning Agfa Record Rapid in Selenium toner. With a slightly stronger dilution you could part-tone prints where the selenium would act on the shadows first, and you snatched it out at the right moment to get rich purple mid-tones, deep blacks and cool highlights. It took a lot of skill and know-how to pull off with any certainty. I guess you could call it craftsmanship.

Most of those black and white films have disappeared now. Almost all the paper varieties have gone too, so there’s simply no way to do that stuff anymore. It’s mostly lost knowledge. Digital imaging is pretty ubiquitous now. It’s point and shoot lots, edit later. The forethought and preparation are gone. There’s no film stock to choose – checking all the rolls are the same batch to ensure consistency across the whole shoot. No clip-testing film at the processing stage to tweak the image brightness and contrast. That, along with peeling polaroids is in the past (alongside lunar landings and supersonic passenger flight).

film stock

some left over film – basically the stuff I never used very often

Still, the digital workflow is slowly opening up some of that finesse again. The DxO software does a really good job of replicating most of the workhorse film emulsions. It’s a bit like instagram, but with intelligence  I can now make my Pennine landscapes look as if they were shot on Tri-X. The extra contrast and sharp grain is all there, just like the original. Street shots can look like they were done on HP5 – a bit softer both in contrast and grain holding plenty of shadow detail. There’s a richness in the overall tonality which seems to lift it from the standard monochrome transformation. At least on screen they look a lot like film, and as most of the time they’ll only be seen on screen, that’s good enough for me. It’s good to use a bit of that knowledge again. I’m not sure most people could tell the difference – it’s fairly subtle, but to me it’s important.

The other little bit of digital kit I got recently was a film scanning attachment for my iPhone. It’s a series of stacking boxes with a built-in light-box and a tidy little app which allows you to scan your negs or slides at the touch of the screen. There’s a handful of built-in presets which help manage the colour from popular colour neg film stock. It’s not brilliant quality – you are photographing through a tiny plastic lens onto a teeny sensor, but it’s a great way to evaluate negs, and is OK for web-use.

contact sheet

one of thousands of contact sheets

I have thousands of rolls of negatives filed in a big cabinet. I used to meticulously label every sheet and attach a contact sheet to each page so I knew what was on each. However, a few dozen seem to have slipped through the net and I had rolls of negs which for one reason or another had never been printed, let alone seen as positives. It was great seeing these photos for first time after sitting unseen for years. Although a bit clunky, a bit soft and low-res, the iPhone previews at least give a fair idea of the potential of each frame.

There’s a couple of rolls of the Berlin Wall coming down…

Berlin Wall section

Last bit of wall in the West

boy with shrapnel collection

boy in East Berlin with his shrapnel collection

…and I’d completely forgotten about the rolls I shot of hand-made signs during the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001.

closed footpath 1

closed footpath 2

At some point I’ll get to printing these properly – paper and wet chemicals of course.

But the thing that they made me think about, which is why I’m writing this post, is that those two sets bring home the real purpose of photography. That of capturing a moment in time.Those are both historic moments in their own rights, but smaller than that, each image is a minute moment in time of a larger culmulative moment.

My digital files now tell me what that moment in time is. The gritstone pics on Goldsborough were just 1/640th of a second. That’s faster than the bink of an eye. A really really small moment in time in comparison to a day, a lifetime even. In contrast, the gritstones took millions of years to build up. The geology of the landscape is a snapshot lasting epochs. I guess where I’m ending up today is thinking about the relative time of moments and capturing those moments. Can the time of photography say anything about the time of geology?

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Monday morning and I find myself sat in a coffee shop easing myself into a new week. It’s not my normal thing. I don’t drink that much coffee and I’m normally miles from anything more metropolitan than a tearoom. But I like change. Change is good.

I live in a beautiful corner of the country. The North Pennines is simply stunning. It’s wild and remote with big skies and very few people. However, I seldom get the chance to create work here, let alone the time to really explore it. So, this year I decided to do something about that. Now the harsh winter is a fading memory I’ve been able to get a out and about and explore the gems on my doorstep.

summerhill force

rainbow under Summerhill Force, Upper Teesdale


Shacklesborough above Bowderdale

The most revealing bit about exploring a geopark is how much the landscape becomes as much about what’s underground as the stuff on the top.

Lately I’ve been lucky enough to be working with a bunch of other interesting artists exploring a local geo anomaly known as Gods Bridge. It’s part of a project run by a local arts organisation with mentoring support from Tania Kovats.

Gods Bridge is a natural limestone bridge over the River Greta on the edge of Stainmore Forest and about 2 miles upstream of Bowes. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bridges at the moment and there’s a bunch of projects in development which use some of the engineering forms of bridges.

gods bridge

The project is doubly interesting for me. Not only is it a local thing and a chance to understand the landscape on my doorstep, but the resulting artworks generated by all the participating artists are going to go on a touring gallery show. And that for me is the big challenge. I like challenges. Challenges are good too.

Over the past few years I’ve carved a career based on temporary works which take advantage of the scale of landscape. For me, working outside the gallery environment offers just so many more possibilities than the confines of four gallery walls. For me I’ve come to regard gallery based practice as far too limiting and a compromise for arts true potential.

However, there’s nothing like sleeping with the enemy to keep things exciting, so I’m biting the bullet and going to see if there’s a way my practice can evolve a parallel gallery-based strand. One that won’t compromise my ideas or deviate too far from my true roots, but add a new and valid dimension to it.

What that will be and how that will work, at the moment I have no idea. But that’s exciting.

So back to the river…

bridge with artists

littered with artists

The first site visit was good and it was fun to climb all over it with a bunch of other artists, but it was really too unfocused to get any real insight. So last week I went back for another explore.

I remember when I stayed in Suzhou last year the hotel was next to a 2000 year old bridge. That was mind blowing in itself – we don’t have any bridge in the UK close to that kind of antiquity. Let alone one still in daily use.  Gods Bridge though is millions of years old. Made by the gentle erosion of the limestone over millennia by the slightly acidic river water, the natural fissures in the limestone have maintained its sharp lines.

bridge in suzhou

2,000 year old bridge, Suzhou, China.

It’s not a well-known site in the wider sense of things, but thousands of boots trudge across it as part of the Pennine Way. The route from Tan Hill to Middleton-in-Teesdale is one of the lonelier stretches. The only bit of civilisation you get is crossing the busy A66 just beyond Gods Bridge.

The bridge itself is a protected structure. It was made a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the late ’80s. The two lime kilns either side of the river are grade 2 listed buildings and have been subject to a preservation order longer than the bridge. Not sure what that says about our attitude to architecture and geology, but still. The SSSI statement covers the bridge and a couple of hundred metres of the river either side. It’s the river course though which is in some respects the most interesting.

Upstream of the bridge, the River Greta is a fairly bog-standard upland river. Just a couple of miles old, it has already got a fair bit of pace in it and a good bit of meandering is going on…

river greta

but then, just before it gets to Gods Bridge, it just disappears. It’s as if all the water has just evaporated. Gone.

empty river bed

It’s a bit like that magic trick where you pour a pint of milk into a newspaper cone, then you open up the newspaper and it’s all gone.

A bit of geological magic.

There’s water under the bridge, and beyond it it’s business as usual.

river greta downstream

The River Greta takes its name from the Viking ‘Griota’ which means a stony stream. It’s clearly been like this for a long time.

On my revisit I went to see where all the water goes. This time around there was a bit more water around and you could easily see where the water was rejoining the riverbed from a large fissure in the bank on the side.

Exploring upstream I managed to find where it mostly disappeared down a parallel subterranean gully.

The SSSI statement explains this a little more. The river has found new routes through fissures in the limestone and is still carving them out. Give it a few more millennia and there’ll be a new and bigger bridge. This is an ongoing geological process with the river and shows how even at the really slow pace of geological change, the landscape is constantly changing.

Over the weekend we had some torrential rain with some of the highest river levels for decades. Unfortunately I couldn’t get back to the site right after the rain, but managed to pop over the next day.

Sure enough, the river bed which on the Friday had been a barren rocky path, was once more a shimmering, flowing river. Unfortunately I had missed it in a raging torrent, but the debris line showed just how high the water had been the day before.

greta after rain

note the debris line on the right.

With more water flowing through the bridge I spent a lovely couple of hours floating sticks and moss down the river with my kids and explaining chaos theory to a four year old while I sketched out the paths the sticks took through the bridge.

I’m still not sure where this project is taking me or what will come of it, but getting to know and understand this little bit of limestone is fascinating. At the moment I’m thinking about how Gods Bridge isn’t really a bridge but a tunnel. It’s the underneath bit that’s the most interesting.

gibsons cave

Summerhill Force flowing in front of Gibson’s Cave, Upper Teesdale.

It’s this subterranean narrative which transforms SummerHill force into Gibsons Cave through the erosion of sandstone underneath the Whin Sill, and Shacklesborough becomes a glacial island (although the presence of giant boulders from the lake district on the top show it wasn’t always an island, but let’s not get picky).

This is going to be an underground journey I think…

gods bridge underground sign

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