In the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema

One of the best decisions we made on our trip to Spain was to head off the main road from Sevilla to Ronda, and take a detour through the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema. The ‘park’ is an area of wild beauty, rugged, steep, sheer, spectacular, dotted with isolated farmsteads and whitewashed pueblos blancos – the roads making for some nail-biting driving, the countryside for some dramatic photos.

Here is the road leading into – or out of – Grazalema. The farmer was tending his pigs a few kilometres outside and a couple of hundred metres below the village.

 

 

Zahara de la Sierra – Castles in the Sky

Between Sevilla and Ronda lies the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema, a rugged, mountainous country of dramatic views and towering skies, where pueblos blancos – the white villages – cling to the rock. This is Zahara de la Sierra, where we stopped for lunch.

 

Castles in the Sky, Zahara de la Sierra.jpg

La Giralda, Sevilla

Seville Cathedral stands on the site of a great mosque, built by the Almohads in the 12th century. It is the largest cathedral in Europe. Its bell-tower, La Giralda, was in its original incarnation a minaret, on top of which were erected a Christian belfry and Christian symbols.

You climb La Giralda not by stairs but via an internal ramp, built so that horses could ride to the top. As you climb, the views – of the cathedral, of Sevilla unwinding itself beneath you – are not to be missed.

The sense of the ages, the consciousness of ancient and multiple histories and cultures, the sheer drama of the spectacle, call for images in black and white. But the bright Andalucian skies, the warmth of the sun on the old stone, demanded colour. Take a look at these photos of the pigeon, looking out from a ledge: they are the same image, but how different in tone, mood, message!

 

The bells and the lattice-work, I think, because graphically so strong, work powerfully in black and white:

 

But when it comes to the view of the tower itself, I am torn, between the strong diagonals of the one view, and the warm tones of the brick and stone, in the other.

Photography Analogue and Digital

The world I was born into was analogue. That meant film: in my case, mostly Kodak Tri-X, or Ilford FP4. Tri-X for when you wanted to “push” the film speed, where the light was low, or where you wanted a contrasty, journalistic effect or – I shall come back to this in a moment – to go for something even more granular, pencil-like, ‘artistic.’ Ilford for when you wanted something subtler, more fine-grained, and richer.

Analogue generally meant black and white, at least for those of us who wanted to develop our own film and print our own photographs. Hardly anyone worked at home in colour. Black-and-white meant having a darkroom, or in my case, a bedroom taped over with black velvet and blinds. It meant chemicals and water, bathing trays and tongs, your fingers physically touching and rubbing the paper or burning and dodging with a home made tool.

When my eldest daughter was born, I went to the hospital with my Nikon FM and exposed a spool of film, one frame after another, right through labour and the very moment that Kathy slipped out on the end of her knotted and veined and muscular lifeline. I went home afterwards and developed the film, and printed the instant of birth – my child, a living creature, her feet towards the lens, face blurred and yelling in the distance, the umbilical cord trailing into the corner of the image – and rushed back to show her mother.  Later, I took a photograph of Kathy lying wrapped in a towel, her face inclined slightly towards the camera. I knew what effect I wanted – I loaded the Nikon with Tri-X, pushed the film speed, put the film into a fast developer – and emerged with a high key, grainy, sketch-like image of my daughter and firstborn, an image whose memory enchants, delights, and fills me with tenderness still.

Having Kathy, of course, meant giving up the darkroom and turning it back into the bedroom it had always been. The photographs that followed, over the years of her childhood and the childhood of Jonathan and Eve, were almost all in colour, 6 x 4 or 5 x 7, processed in a lab, stuck into one of those photographic binders or albums, or left to yellow slowly in their envelopes. Photography still interested me, but I was busy. I kept the enlarger lens, but got rid of the enlarger and the developing trays. I took ‘happy snaps,’ family snaps, travel snaps, and made the occasional foray, usually unsuccessful, into image making that aspired to be but seldom was more creative. Or, if not creative, at least technically more proficient. And I continued to look, with admiration and envy, and something akin to love, at the deep, sensual, forbidden blacks and subtle tonal gradations of the silver gelatine prints made by the masters.

And yet, much as I love analogue, digital has liberated me. While I might miss, in some abstract sense, the physical, tactile, almost magical experience of analogue photography – from the moment of snapping the image through to the final print – it’s simply not practical or realistic any longer to dedicate all that time and all that physical space and all the infrastructure – tanks, trays, bottles of chemicals, running water – to making images. Digital means I can process and print both black-and-white and colour, at home on my computer, while the latest cameras and sensors can handle a much wider dynamic range and far more challenging lighting conditions than the old analogue equipment ever could.

Of course working within the constraints of analogue was part of the creative challenge, and I am glad to see that – like vinyl – it is enjoying something of a resurgence. But there is so much more you can do today with modern equipment, and so much more you can do – without the hassle and unpredictability of chemicals and a darkroom – in Lightroom and Photoshop, that I can’t say I have any unfulfilled longing to go back to the old days.

I do find though that the modern tools and equipment bring with them a different kind of challenge: the risk that tools and technique trump vision and imagination. You see it, again and again, in the over-sharpened images and garish colours that flood social media – the pumped-up world of selfies and self promotion, the temptation to glamourise rather than observe, the obsession with a glossy and soulless technical ‘perfection,’ leading to a visual and aesthetic wasteland.

Finally, printing an image, which not many of us do any more, remains for me an important form of expression. Paper – the size, weight, luminosity, surface texture and tonal qualities of it – bears powerfully on the image and expresses it differently. I print in colour, but I still love black and white photography, and enjoy making black and white images and prints, on a dedicated Epson photo printer, mostly in larger sizes – A3, 11 x 14, or even 13 x 19 on occasion. I find the Hahnemuhle Silk Baryta captures a good deal of the tonal depth and nuance you would expect from the old processes and seems to work especially well for me, though I use other papers also.

Yellow-Billed DuckHere, to round off this digression, are two images from my recent field trip to the Marievale Bird Sanctuary: a yellow-billed duck, and a Hottentot teal. The duck is just a portrait, though nicely lit, but I do rather like the almost painterly qualities of the teal image.

 

See? You can do it in digital.

Hottentot Teal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens. Processed in Lightroom and in ColorEfex 4.

Flight – Five Images

Little Egret – Marievale.

 

Marievale Bird Sanctuary, Gauteng. I left in the power lines and pylons deliberately, as well as traces of the reeds and the trees, as I wanted to give a sense of the complex environment – not stereotypical, picture-postcard countryside – in which these birds live.

Nikon D500, 70-300mm. Processed in Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro.

 

Suckling warthog

As this is the only time, so far as I recall, that I’ve seen a mother warthog suckling her infants, I share this image – not as a great picture, but simply as a record.

Nikon D500, 70-300mm. Processed in Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro.

Mother and infants.jpg

Warthog Games

Two little warthog piglets were playing a robust game of catch and head-butting when we came across them at the edge of the camp in Marakele, on our first afternoon there, at the end of a game drive on which we had seen virtually nothing. Needless to say we sat for a while and watched – the mother contentedly snacking, siblings grazing, while these two little guys happily beat each other up.

Made me think of my three grandsons, actually – they’re not there yet, but they will be.

Taken with the Nikon D500 and 70-300mm. Processed in Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro.