Wednesday, June 22, 2011

FINDING YOUR OWN VISION : The Workshop 17-19 June 2011

FINDING YOUR OWN VISION workshop with Alex and Rebecca Webb

Really, a workshop like this needs to be experienced but the following are my notes which describe what the workshop was about; my apprehension about attending it was soon dispelled as the content was exactly what I wanted to know as making books is for me an essential part of the photographic process. Evaluating and sequencing photographs then making photobooks ... is what concerns me in photography.

Alex Webb (standing) to left with Rebecca seated to his left;
between them at the back is Anna Gormley, the workshop organiser
The Glass Between Us by Rebecca Webb is the result of 7 years spent visiting different zoos, natural history museums and animal parks in 25 different cities around the world. For Rebecca, the link between text and image is important. A note about Rodin introduces the book; he advised the poet Rilke to go to the Zoo and really observe an animal until he actually saw the animal - it might take 3 weeks yet even a month might not be long enough! I find this a usefull insight into my own project of photographing Lucky, my mother's dog.
Rebecca is currently working on a project about South Dakota.

Alex started out as a dedicated black and white photographer; in the mid-70’s he went over to colour at a time when it was only just beginning to be made acceptable. He shows colourful and gutsy images with a soundtrack by Jimi Hendrix.

The Violet Isle is a duet of their photographs about Cuba; their designer-publisher suggested they do the book together and an equal number of their photographs were used. Has taken 11 trips to the country spread over 15 years.

Need to discover who one is as a photographer; beyond mind, not rational, intuitive, spontaneous, questioning … who one is as a photographer determines the kind of photographs one makes.

One can learn more by looking at and understanding other people’s photographs rather than just one’s own.

There are issues in photography such as composition and colour.

Photography is not just about photographing; there is also the process of selecting images, of editing, of playing with photos and the world they represent.

Photographs tend to work differently in book and exhibition.

A book is quite likely to start as an obsession; it can be a long and complicated process.

Does Alex shoot with a concept in mind!?  No, its’ totally experiental, walking the streets and responding.

Tends not to be able to talk about projects until about 7 years afterwards!!

Experience of feeling that a project is going nowhere and then “something happens!”

An image is the most primitive concept.

Photographs tend to be smarter than one is; one sees signs in them that one did not see at the time.

Photography is a process of exploring and discovering.

One can previsualise and yet still there are surprises.

There is often a difference between personal work and that required for assignments. Personal work is always important but one needs to keep the client happy and solve their visual problems. Hence, usually a need to make a few standard photos.

With clients, there is often a difference between the images they want to use and the way they intend to use them with one's own vision. One can suggest ways the images might be used but one still needs to supply commercially viable images. One can not be too purist about one’s work.

Alex was inspired to go to Haiti by Graham Green’s novel The Comedians. Once he got there, his work started to develop in a certain way.

When working he tries to be unobtrusive, creates an aura of ease, feeling his way with the camera, casually, images can happen immediately or take time to find. Does not tell people what to do!

Re-doing books has not worked for him. He once returned to a town he had photographed in 25 years later with the idea of making a new set of photographs. It did not work out though as some of the people he had photographed had died violent deaths, another had become a drug addict etc
One can though do a re-issue with different photos, a different editorial approach.

When working in a place, a fixer (minder) can make sense.

Takes time to perfect one’s craft. According to Malcom Gladwell, 10,000 hours!!

Editing can be a process of falling in and out of love with images.

Photographing intensively, a subjective business, a subjective process. Need to understand the kind of photographer one is and the kind one is not.

I ask if, when photographing or editing, if it is a completely intuitive approach or is there some guidance? Both he and Rebecca consider this to be a very good question and Alex replies by saying that although he is being open minded, the process is a selective one!

One the way back to Bethnal Green, I get on the bus and find Alex and Rebecca also there; there is another stop closer to the studio! We chat a little. 


Black and white or colour; both are different processes!
RAW images require a degree of post-production; Alex usually increases the blacks a little also the Vibrance.
He’s only just starting to use digital.; some clients still demand film.

Coherency and preciseness can conflict with pushing work to the edge (which might include not looking through the camera when photographing or using very fast film/high ISO)

Alex and Rebecca looking at photographs
We start to show our work and are asked to introduce ourselves by giving our name, how long we have been photographing, where we think we are coming from, our interests, what our job is and where we think we are going. I forget most of these when, a few hours later, after a lunch break, I finally put down some of the prints that I have chosen to bring along. Although I made brief notes on all those who shared their work, it seems pertinent here to merely record what was said about my own, largely because of the time it would take to write about work I cannot clearly remember.

However, it was interesting to meet Keith Greenough and see his work since he is also an OCA student, about to start Level 3.

Editing can be a more conscious approach than actually taking photographs.
There are images that tell you what something is; these amount to propaganda.
There are also images that contain ambiguity.

If one finds street photography too difficult then one can try attending festivals; often, there are good things happening at the edge of these.
People are generally more relaxed.
Look for colour, light, mood …

Alex has had trouble photographing in London particularly when approaching children. In spite of being a “recognized photographer”, he has been accused of paedophillia. One does not have to be a street photographer; there are many different approaches.

When editing, it can help to pin one’s images up on a board.
After looking at them for sometime, maybe over a few days
It becomes obvious which ones do not work.

Lens choice can be important.
For instance, Henri C-B used a 50mm lens that gives a standard yet slightly distanced view; it is also easier to use for verticals than wider angle lenses.
(our eyes tend to see at about 45mm!) Some photographers use wide angle lenses such as the 28mm for effect; this often means that the photographer comes in very close to the subject which can be intimidating for the one being photographed and is considered to be an aggressive form of photography. William Klein and Bruce Gilden are examples of photographers who favour this approach. Alex likes a 35mm lens as this requires him to get a little closer if he wants some intimacy in the shot.

It is a good exercise to use either a fixed lens or a taped zoom lens for a while.

Alex is currently working on a photographic project to photograph East London owing to the Olympics. However, the theme is becoming more centred on the multi-ethnicity of the place.

There is something like a 99.9% failure rate with this kind of photography. Quite a lot of good photographs on a regular basis but very seldom one that is really good and seems to be making a statement.

The photograph can capture a moment in time, never to be repeated, a slice of history and need not be merely a surrealist moment.

National Geographic is one of the few magazines that still pay for assignments.

Sales from his archive, once thought to be the right kind of investment, have dropped considerably over the last 20 years. Alex and Rebecca live on the edge and they don’t own property. Alex has often faced debt; such hardship though has not stopped him from enjoying life. The media business is undergoing a lot of change with people unsure of how to make money and whether a source of money will last. Many photographers are working for NGOs.

I show some black and white photographs that I made about 8 years ago; they are of the Kailash kora in Western Tibet. The images come with quotes of about a paragraph each from Tarthang Tulku’s book, Gesture of Balance.

There are rather a lot of mountain shots, the same mountain mostly, and these can be a little monotonous. A title for the work might be “Pilgrimage” suggests Rebecca (who has suggested titles for a number of books!) Pilgrimage sounds good. A possible title for a small book.

There is too much text with the images; one needs less text and for one passage of text, one might have 3 or more pages of images.
The resonance between text and image is important.
The last photo in the sequence might best be the image of water of the lake rather than the image of the stupa; there is a finality to this image. While I can agree to this, I also see the need not to have an end but a continuing process.

I also show a group of my Osho Teerth Park that have not been sequenced.

Suggestion that the landscaped images could work well alongside bird images.

Keith of the OCA suggests there is too much green!!? Good to be aware of the green … something I might look at when the selection is ready as there may need to be some consistency within the green, a colour not always easy to reproduce.

Another participant is trying to rediscover the original sense of excitement he had about photographing

A photograph is about the particular way one sees a situation, a concept”

One can loose one’s way in professional work by trying to solve other people’s visual problems

Henri C-B’s early work is the most exciting, intriguing

Photography is in some ways very simple but complex issues surround it.

One photographer feels he got lost in the digital revolution; needs to find his way again.

Why do we find it easier to photograph abroad? Novelty factor?

One needs to take care when photographing on the street – people can be aggressive. Alex wears black.

A photograph can never be entirely objective hence a need for subjectivity!
Irony in photography.

This workshop is about Finding One’s Own Vision, a somewhat individualistic approach … modernism!?

STEPHEN BULL quote from 45%

Someone comments that I have found my own vision since I have done my own books. Yet vision is about SEEING not doing.

Is photography really easier than writing!? May not be!
Alex and Rebecca Webb are both Literature Majors.

Alex and Rebecca with a student during a lunch break


Photographs tend to “talk” to each other
An opening quote, possibly from a book, might help!
Colour between images important
Sequence one’s images before presenting to a publisher
A dominant theme can vary between projects or even within a body of work

One can introduce sections or chapters within a photobook
Rebecca went to 15 diferent publishers before she got her first book published
Need to find the right publisher
Called “The Glass Between Us” it is about the relationship between man and animals in zoos, animal parks, aquariums etc
The title is from a line by Milage (Polish) …
“we are separated from nature as if by a glass wall … “
text can be separated from images; they do not have to be side by side

one does not have to crop; it is a personal decision
sometimes necessary such as when straightening an image

sequencing can depend on many factors such as …
subject matter, colour, form, texture,
narrative but not necessarily a story
visual relationships need not be linear
corresponding shapes between photos as well as overall subject matter
images need to be seen individually as well as collectively
emotional impact of images

editing is an almost continuous experience

more powerful images can rest alone e.g. separate page
weaker ones to fill gaps in continuity perhaps

(negative space – blocks of uniform colour in an image)
am asked how I managed to get the detail in my black and white images
the answer is by over-exposing and under-developing film
avoiding the clumping
one does not need to produce a good looking negative
as Ansel Adams said, it is only the “score”

The COVER is suggestive of what the book is about, of what is to come
Also an advertisement!

One reason Alex and Rebecca offer these workshops is that in their view, real editing, the process of sequencing, is not being taught in colleges and universities

If one does not have a tripod with one, there are other ways to support the camera. For instance, Bruce Gilden has a method whereby he attaches his camera by a length of string to his foot, and tightens this when making a photograph that needs a steady hand. My own approach is to allow the cameras to rest in one’s hands, to feel it’s weight

One student sees Alex’s work as a mixture of standard photojournalistic images with other being more imaginative.

Alex does not process his photographs very much … increases the black a little, pushes up the vibrance, possibly crop a little

Editing can be an imaginative process
There needs to be coherence of subject and theme

Nan Goldin took her second book to Prestel rather than her first publisher Phaidon; should have given Phaidon first refusal. Phaidon sued Prestel successfully. This was because of Goldin’s contract with Phaidon.
Alex always has a lawyer run over any contract.

I chat with Alex over contracts on the way to lunch on the second day. Anything from 5 to 10% on a visual book is appropriate; he has never had more than 7.5% This refers to royalties; the amount relates to the sale cost of the book not the advertised price.

Alex and Rebecca show images by a host of photographers that inspire them; these are detailed in an accompanying page!

When making a selection, the use of small work prints can help – 5b7” prints on Epson matt paper for instance.
A book dummy need not be anything special, just Xeroxes taped together !!

Personally, I find myself working digitally here …
For instance, opening a series of images in Bridge or Lightroom and looking at them on a screen
PDFs can also be made to create an electonic dummy
However, if one is aiming for a book in print then hard copy may be the best way to go!

One needs to first collect the photographs before assembling them in a sequence

A placement photo can be described as one near the beginning that lets you know what the book/assignment is about

A good designer is always worth listening to
One can choose who might want to write an introduction
Publish Your Photobook (contains 8 case studies)

When working on the press, one really needs to do checks every 2/3 hours to check it is running OK
Sometimes publishers may not like the photographer to be there when the press is running
For the photographer it can be an emotionally grueling experience
Intensifying the text can have a knock on effect on the blacks (reminds of when Indian Birds in Focus was being printed)
Adding a layer of varnish later can effect the contrast
Check the proof under different kinds of light though Tungsten is always a good light to use as it is a common one
Daylight balanced is best though

Limited Editions …. Not many! 40 copies for a 3 to 2000 print run?
Depends on market; manner of distribution

Question over consistency with digital work
RAW needs some processing otherwise tends to look dull

Alex’s approach to photography is about responding to a given situation
Not overly concerned with technical issues

When it comes down to making limited editions of photographic prints, there is very little legal coverage of this subject.
Some photographers such as Elliot Erwitt and Sebasto Salgado do not make limited edition prints.

Rebecca showing her photographs

Alex says he can not really talk about one of his projects until several years later; Rebecca however is happy to talk about current her body of work entitled My Dakota which after the unexpected death of her brother took on a more personal note as an elegy. There are some poetic words (handwriting can work well) but not a lot.

There is a need to choose the format of the book, develop the layout and choose an appropriate cover. Consider making a handmade dummy.

Rebecca feels her images are about the relationship between loss and landscape, an allegory for the destruction of landscape.

Images only need short titles.

There are creative ways to book bind!

I show a jumble of images from Jeerang; some portraits, some dance …

Dance images need to be compelling, involve one in the drama

Photographs of the mileu of the dance !

The contrast between dance and the outside world.

Colour and black and white images can be combined.

Where is this project going? Alex does not know and I also don’t know at the moment.

Suggest subject rather than rely on a caption.

Some of the photographs such as “Watching the Dance” are representative but not really interesting

Images need to be more dynamic

Looking at a group of prints can be a grounding experience.

A group of images can then be sequenced.

Confusion is a good starting point!!


  1. You've made a lot of notes Amano and 'm sure you'll find them very useful as time goes on. If you had to choose I was wondering what might be the one most important things you learned.

  2. Thanks for your question.

    What I have written is basically notes, a record of the event that I can mull over; its' not quite complete as I mean to add a quote from Stephen Bull's book, Photography.

    As to my overall impression, I can only say that this workshop was about photographic vision which seems to be based on an understanding that the photograph is not just an object that conveys reality, it is also highly subjective; the role of the photographer is to understand the implications a particular image may have and to make it an instrument of expression rather than just representation.

    Dos that make sense? Its' a bit theoretical but to boil down the learning experience of a week-end is not easy.

    A few days after, I went to the Magnum print room where Alex's retrospective book as well as 12 of his prints are on show. Just to look at and read these images is an education. Words can not really express hence the need for the visual as a form of communication in our lives!