Col Du Peyresourde, L’Alpe D’Huez, Sa Calobra, Stelvio can only mean one thing to some: Le Tour de France — the famed cycle race established in 1903.
Michael Blann (a keen cyclist himself) has a passion for Le Tour, so much so that he’s set himself the challenge of documenting the stunning course.
Printing Michael’s work has been a real pleasure, so I recently asked him to talk me through the series:
“The idea for doing a project based on European mountains and their roads has been simmering for some time and I guess is rooted in my formative years riding a bicycle and watching the Grand Tours (of cycling). For me, there’s always been something very mythical about mountains and when I’m there I always feel a sense of excitement mixed with serenity. The challenge they present to cyclists adds a very primeval dimension of man overcoming mountain. They are always painful experiences but equally rewarding.
“So I guess I came to the project wanting to portray these mountains as something more than just rocks. I wanted to show their character, the way they are defined by their roads and man-made structures, the vegetation, the way they change through the seasons. But I also wanted to put this into the context of cycling, after all, many of these mountains have been given mythical status through cycling. L’Alpe D’Huez wouldn’t have the same notoriety if Le Tour hadn’t passed over it in 1986 when Bernhard Hinault and Greg Lemond resolved their differences and rode the climb together with a clear lead over the rest of the peloton.
“For me, I wanted to capture the permanence of mountains, their scale and sheer presence. It was important to shoot them through all times of the day and seasons. The contrast from winter when just a faint impression in the snow shows the line of the road set against the spectacle of a race in mid summer was very appealing. I also kept coming back to the idea that a cycle race is no more than a travelling circus that visits for the day and is then gone again, leaving the mountain behind. There’s the notion that the mountains are the constant that provide the platform for these dramas to play out.
“This line of thought dictated my approach as I wanted the work to have a quietness about it that showed a certain homage towards mountains. Pulling back from any human elements whether it is the roads or fans lining the race route was important, as it showed everything in context. People became insignificant in the grand scheme of things and scale became a strong thread throughout.
“This also dictated the equipment I chose to shoot on — a Hasselblad H4D-50. Like the old 10×8 cameras, I wanted to capture all the detail and fidelity to ensure nothing was lost when the images were enlarged. Great care is needed at the size as all the faults and imperfections become more apparent and it offers less leeway for error. For this reason I teamed up with Jack Lowe to help ensure a great result through the printing process.
“With the initial phase of shooting completed I am now embarking on the winter shots, much of which will be shot from a helicopter. The project will culminate in an exhibition and coffee table book in the autumn of 2014.”
On a Technical Note…
I’m not generally one to have ‘camera conversations’ but you can imagine that I’m often asked about the best camera files from which to make the finest prints.
For years, in partial answer to that question, I’ve banged on about the fact that more pixels don’t necessarily result in a better file — pixel size plays a huge part in the signal-to-noise ratio battle, for instance.
In addition, any photographer will tell you that the following statement is high on the list of insults:
That’s a great photograph — you must have an amazing camera!
(I have some great replies but more on that another time…)
That said, I thought you might be interested to know that Michael’s files from his Hasselblad H4D-50 were among the best I’ve ever seen (and please note that I’m by no means associating that with his great photographic skills!).
I loved poring over the details lurking in just about every corner.
A quick conversation on Twitter confirmed a general consensus that this camera is fast-becoming a modern classic…
Finally, here’s an example to illustrate my point — first a full-frame image and then a crop showing the file at 75% (not 100% as it then became so close that it was hard to see where the crop had come from!):
It’s always a treat when I can be involved in a body of work over a long period of time, seeing its progression and printing the resulting exhibition.
I’ve worked with Damien Wootten for many years now — nine, in fact. During that time, he’s visited several North East locations repeatedly for the last eight years to form the series, Coastal Retreats.
Mainly working in and around Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Damien’s immersion in the area really shines through.
As he describes:
“At times everyone needs somewhere to retreat to, and I’m sure — like many — my destination seems to be the coast, and being a photographer it seems inevitable that I take my camera with me. I’m very familiar with the North East coast of England and parts of it are deserted, wild and beautiful — but it is the more ordinary, everyday and less attractive areas that interest me more photographically.”
“I have never questioned too deeply why I have chosen these locations to work in and accepted it as an impulse and a need. Hopefully these images have something more to give than just to show the surface of things and offer something worthwhile and contemplative to say about our place within our landscape. These coastal areas seem to symbolise that – where the man-made reaches the edge of things. This is where the natural environment takes over, restraining human encroachment.”
I love the Northernness of ‘Coastal Retreats’, a feeling that I’m sure prevails as a result of Damien living in the area along with his seemingly unconditional persistence!
Anyone who lives in the wild and woolly North East will know exactly what it feels like to stand in many of the scenes Damien’s captured, not least a biting one such as this:
Printing this series has been a true pleasure — I hope all those who manage to see the show between 12th October and 2nd February at the Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland enjoy it as much as I have.
The photographs are all 40x40cm Archival Pigment Prints on 60x60cm Museo Silver Rag 300gsm using HP Vivera Pigment Ink.
One of the joys of 2013 has been meeting and working with the acclaimed photojournalist, Tom Stoddart.
As his site describes:
“During a long and varied career Tom has witnessed such international events as the war in Lebanon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of President Nelson Mandela, the bloody siege of Sarajevo and the wars against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”
On meeting for the first time, I couldn’t help but think that the clinical environment of my studio was surely at odds with many of those frightening, desperately upsetting scenes to have passed before Tom’s eyes.
When he calls to let me know that a photograph is on its way for me to print, it’s hard to know exactly what will appear on my monitor — especially when the file is entitled ‘Cool Dude’.
So, what will a photograph by Tom Stoddart be like that’s called ‘Cool Dude’?
Well, it’ll be like this:
A striking image and one with an equally striking story:
COLOMBIA – NOVEMBER 1996: Cocaine is worth billions of dollars to the Colombian drug traffickers. More than 70,000 people have died in the cartel wars, and Colombia’s elite Special Forces have battled hard to stem the flow of drugs from the jungle region of Guaviare which covers an area of 26,000 sq miles and produces more than half the world’s cocaine. The photograph shows Special Forces after blowing up a landing strip used by cartels to transport cocaine from a coca-processing lab in the heart of the Colombian jungle.
Tom candidly told me about another facet to this photograph:
Having flown in by helicopter, a 4×4 vehicle belonging to the cartel was found nestled in the bushes. Unusually, the Special Forces decided to try and drive it back to the Police station some 100km away.
So, Tom now had the choice of returning by car or helicopter.
He chose the latter, which was fortunate as the 4×4 was ambushed en route. One of the Special Forces’ men was killed, the others were wounded but survived…
Tom has kindly given me a copy of his stunning book, iWITNESS.
Published by Trolley, printed in Italy and with a foreword by Sir Bob Geldof, it’s a beautifully produced tome full of anguish, sadness, desperation, horror, hope and optimism.
As Tom said when he handed it to me, “It’s just so sad that images like this even have to exist.”
It has been a great pleasure to make three huge prints for Chris Harrison’s latest show, I Belong Jarrow, which opens this evening in Norway.
Chris grew up in Jarrow (very near to my studio here in Newcastle upon Tyne) and now, as he writes on his About page, lives in a little yellow house on the edge of a wood near Oslo.
Although he’s settled abroad, Chris is obviously still very attached to the town he recognises as home:
“I was born and brought up in Jarrow, a tough industrial town on the south bank of the river Tyne. It’s where I call home.
“I have lived abroad for more years than I care to admit. My Mother and Father are getting old and moving out of Jarrow, cutting me adrift with no way back. Finally, I have been forced to think about who I am and where I belong.
“I never wanted to leave Jarrow. I always imagined that one day I would make it my home. I realise now that I can never return. Somehow I traded knowledge of the outside world for some vital piece of me.
“With this realisation, I have returned home in order to try to establish how much of where I am from determines who I am, and to begin to understand why I can’t seem to let go.”
In this, our Olympic year, the world has witnessed an extraordinary multi-cultural spectacle in the London Games.
For most, I’m sure, it has been joyous, exciting and fascinating to see so many people from so many diverse walks of life meet for one huge event.
As you may have read earlier in the year, I have had a small part to play in the Olympics too. However, I have also been working on the culmination of another huge multi-cultural project — Julian Germain’s Classroom Portraits.
I have worked with Julian on this project for seven years — scanning and printing some 200 images selected from the 500 or so made.
Largely commissioned by The British Council, this body of work has now become a huge documentation of the world’s youth in their schools around the globe.
Over the last few months, I have really enjoyed preparing many of these photographs for Julian’s major show The Future Is Ours at Nederlands Fotomuseum and for the accompanying book, Classroom Portraits published by Prestel.
Over the years, so many discussions have arisen in the making of these photographs.
In preparing this article, I posed a question to Julian:
“In your preface to the book Classroom Portraits, you describe the seemingly magical moment where ‘you are waiting for them and they are waiting for you’.
“Having visited so many schools in so many countries across the globe, you have clearly had a unique insight into the lives of thousands of children from so many backgrounds and cultures.
“I wonder, on your travels making these portraits, can you recall where you experienced the greatest vibe of happiness?”
“Well, that isn’t an easy question…
“Firstly, I found mostly happy, interesting kids everywhere I went, as well as a few surly difficult ones. I enjoyed every country too, although I did find Saudi Arabia and Qatar more difficult to acclimatise to.
“I guess you are really referring to a vibe coming from the pupils but I can’t avoid my response being coloured by the vibe that I was getting not simply from them, but from being in their country, experiencing their culture beyond the classrooms.
“On that basis, I was probably most deeply affected by experiences in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Yemen — all extraordinary places with particularly friendly and, let’s not pretend otherwise, very poor people, without access to the consumerism that defines our (or any) modern economy.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I was seduced by the idea of this kind of innocence of materialism — lets face it, in a way this is one of the themes of For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness isn’t it?”
“Nevertheless, to try and give you an example of a happiness vibe moment…
“In Ethiopia, because of the rain and mud, I had to abandon my truck, lights, generator and walk two miles to a village primary school.
“It was a beautiful walk past open countryside and occasional round wooden houses with thatched roofs, no electricity or running water. The few people I saw smiled and waved.
“It was quiet, tranquil even, just the sound of the birds and the light breeze in the trees. The school was crowded with kids (so they must have come from far and wide) and it was missing at least two teachers that day.
“Some pupils had notebooks and pens but most didn’t. The teaching was obviously basic. There were just a few textbooks. No desks or tables, just benches and a blackboard, mud floor and walls.
“I photographed every class, two in lessons and the other three outside because every class was desperate to be photographed. They took it very seriously and were very proud.
“At the end of the morning (a different crowd of kids arrived for the afternoon session) I walked back along the track with several pupils, each of them eager to show off their handwriting before peeling off at various points on the track to follow their own particular paths home.
“They told me that if and when they graduated to secondary school they would walk 9 miles there and 9 miles back, not a prospect that bothered them in the least — in fact, they were looking forward to it.
“That afternoon I visited that secondary school and made a portrait of a Grade 12 Physics class with at least 70 pupils, several of whom had gone to the aforementioned primary and would shortly be embarking on that long walk home.
“The lesson was on the First Law of Thermodynamics — way over my head. The teacher was amazing, dressed in a sparkling white lab coat, passionate about his subject and very proud of his pupils.
“I was moved, overwhelmed by the vibe created by a room full of young people with such enthusiasm to learn.”
In addition to the photographs, the reader is treated to a foreword by Dr. Leonid Llyushin, Professor of Pedagogy at St. Petersburg State University along with a preface by Julian.
A truly stunning, engaging publication and an essential addition to any photo book collection…
The exhibition of 140 prints is running at the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, until 2nd September.