Project work can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it helps focus energy and cultivates a more cohesive, communicable vision; however, on the other, it can increase the perceived need to ‘complete the job’ which is not always welcome.
During my last flight to Mazar-e Sharif, I was forced to enjoy the view, without camera, due to the practical difficulties I faced. For the return, I found out I was going to fly via Kunduz and Faizabad on the way back to Kabul. I was pleased as punch to know that this would double the flying time and take me over terrain I have never seen before. However, the good luck ended there. The weather from Mazar to Kunduz was ultra-low contrast hazy dreariness and, although it improved remarkably from Kunduz to Faizabad, the windows were scratched to hell from daily dry cleaning in a dusty environment. When I had finally found a few slightly clearer slivers of glass, they promptly iced up!
None of this should be an issue, because it happens and anyone shooting work over a long period of time knows this. For example, when shooting Russians and Royals from 2008 to 2010, I recognised I would shoot next to nothing useful for the entire summer, due to the bright, hazy, lifeless light that resulted in quite awful B&W negs. However, every now and again there was an opportunity, so I just carried on regardless of the very low yield. Besides, I needed to be out there to maintain the emotional connection that was the force behind the project. In the case of the current aerial project, I have decided I want to put on a substantial exhibition in Afghanistan (of all places) and I may… just possibly… have identified how it might all come together, but due to my comings and goings, I know the date by which I will have to have everything together if its going to happen! I will be aiming for the summer, which is not very far away when you consider that I have to organise everything from scratch, find funding, make it happen in a security paranoid conflict zone…. and have not finished shooting the project yet!
I’ve been in country for nearly 10 weeks on this stint and perhaps starting to feel the inner tension a little. That, combined with the timelines I need to work to, I’m feeling the pressure. I had been hoping that shooting in winter would be easier than in the middle of summer, due to the far better air quality and visibility, but I had not factored iced up windows into the equation, or the large percentage of planes with awful windows I seem to have ended up on of late. I know I will get there, but the project has changed from a little fun to something much more ‘important to Tom’ so, recent slim pickings have been getting to me a little!
OK, waffling over: On these flights with scratched up hazy windows I just seem to be getting slightly better quality out of the magical little Panasonic GM-1 than my Sony A7 and A7R. ALL of the keepers from this last round of flights came from this little camera. It just seems to cope with shooting through mucky, hazy glass that little bit better and seems to be something to do with the smaller sensor and shorter focal lengths involved. I had already noticed that with bad windows, the 35mm FE seems to do better than the 55mm FE, although the letter is slightly better on dry land so to speak. The lower dynamic range of the GM-1 is also a blessing when shooting such low contrast scenery, because there is more contrast in the out of camera file than with the 14+ stop Sony sensors. If you’ve never used a M43 camera and are sceptical about the image quality, you really ought to give one a whirl. 16MP is good for a top quality 16×20 print, with no excuses. Anything smaller is a cinch. The little Panny is silent, tiny, stabilised and the best pocket companion I have ever used.
Even if I didn’t get the best shots from the Sonys this time around, I don’t know what the weather or the windows are going to be like until I get on the plane, so want the big guns with me in case I get clear views and scenes that will benefit from being printed big. Truth be told, most images work very nicely at more modest sizes, so can honestly say I could happily have shot the entire project on the GM-1 and nothing else. However, the 30”+ printable frames from the A7R will really add a kicker to the overall display of images. If I show 40 images, I doubt more than 6 will be very large, but it does help ‘dynamise’ the viewing experience, as long as the images print well at that size and are not just gratuitously large. There has to be a good reason why those frames were chosen and there will be!
I’m not shooting with the same set of eyeballs as I was at the beginning of the project and I have been homing in a little more on more abstract slices of the landscape, or those where I know I can bend perceptions of scale. Of course one shoots with ones own vision, but as I was looking over the images with a friend and talking about photographers, I found myself thinking of the influence Brett Weston, Paul Caponigro and Wynn Bullock have had on me. Caponigro, in particular, is a ‘slow burner’ and I remember the very strong connection I had with his work ‘New England Days’ on one specific occasion. I enjoy it at all times, but there was a day when I felt it resonate so strongly within me that I was quite taken aback. He has produced a good many ordinary scenes. Bullock, in particular, has a darkness to some of his work that I can relate to here.
I particularly enjoyed trying to find large swathes of untouched terrain and the truth is they are rare. Human traces are everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere and in Afghanistan, this term means just that. There are small communities without utilities or road access, where the nearest ‘connected’ village is a day or more on a donkey or on foot. When you see the severity of terrain around these scratches in the rocky wilderness, the extent of this isolation is apparent. Little has changed in thousands of years in such communities and, for many, the current conflict is nothing more than a distant tale of possible curiosity, but little importance.
I’ve chosen to show three of the seven images I have long listed for the project. Honestly, I was surprised to come away with anything so seven shots feels like plenty!
PS. N-S-E-W is a placeholder name. I have not yet decided the name of the project.