Selected Photographs by Rod Smallwood

1963 to 2003 2003 to 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013

Having selected 99 images that I produced during 2007 (I was actually going to choose 52, and the first one was taken 9 days before 2007....), and found that many people liked them, I decided to also include a few which covered the period from starting serious photography in 1963 up to the present. The selection from film (1963-2003) is limited by the time required to digitise many thousands of positives and negatives, and includes only a few early photographs - some industrial archeology and my all-time favourite portrait - and some from memorable trips to Yosemite and Sikkim. The period from 2003 to 2006 was an exciting re-discovery of photography and a tremendous learning experience as digital imaging capability increased on an almost weekly basis from merely acceptable to awe-inspiring. By 2007 I had two outstanding digital cameras and was having a ball. The images are displayed in chronological order, with some explanatory text.

As you will see, the subject matter is rather eclectic. I am interested in the interaction of built environment, technology, and the natural environment, and that interest can be scientific and sociological, but also (and I think this is probably not very common) I am interested in how colour and form interact to produce images that move us in some way - so, since I was a teenager, I have rarely been without a camera.

I have not provided any technical information - I have never found this to be of any use when looking at other people's photographs, because it does not help me to see the scene before it was photographed - solving the forward problem of taking the photograph is difficult enough, solving the inverse problem of working out how someone else did it is impossible.

What is worth talking about is my viewpoint in these images - by which I mean the choice of lens and where I (physically) stand. I now use, almost exclusively, 35 mm digital cameras, and prime lenses with focal lengths from 21 mm to 135 mm - like the old days when zooms were second best. This has made my photography much more considered - I have thought, before pressing the button, about what I want to include, and where I need to stand to get the relationships right. I have also become much less concerned about what lens I have to hand - I am quite happy to travel with a camera and a single prime lens, because focal length is not a primary determinant of what I photograph. Another advantage of using prime lenses is that they are fast, and combined with the low noise of large sensors, enable hand-held photography at night and indoors.

The majority of these photographs have been taken with focal lengths between 28 and 50 mm (in proper textbook speak, I leave it as an exercise for the viewer to recognise the exceptions). I have come to realise that I often did not like pictures of mountains taken with a 21 mm lens - they did not 'look right' (the photograph of Tryfan is an exception). I recently re-read Alan Hankinson's book about the Abraham brothers, who were active at the end of the 19th century, and who took many of the classic images of British crags. They used a plate camera (8.5"x6.5") with 6" and 12" lenses - the 35 mm equivalent of which are 24 mm and 48 mm. Do I generally prefer mountain photographs that I have taken with 28-50 mm lenses because I have known the Abraham brothers' photographs since I started climbing in the Lake District 40 years ago (they were based in Keswick), or is there something more fundamental in our visual perception?

I haven't much time for the pretensions of 'art photography' (or other pretensions for that matter), and find the arguments, which have been going on since photography began, about whether photography can be art to be completely pointless. The art photographer takes landscape photographs for only an hour around sunrise and sunset. Being of a more pragmatic disposition, I recognise that the world continues to exist for the other 22 hours of the day, and is still interesting, so if there is enough light to take photographs, and the subject is interesting, I'll place myself beyond the pale and press the button. I also do not have much time for the 'super Velvia' colours that are seen in magazines and National Trust publications (taken by some much-lauded photographers), and the contrived viewpoints to produce something different (photographic evolution driven by commercial pressures?). I was very pleased to see Mark Read, writing in a Guardian Guide to Photography, saying 'light is the critical factor in capturing great landscapes, but don't spend your days chasing the sun (and don't even think about using colour-enhancing filters). Learn to work with the light you have - however misty and flat - and your results will reveal far more about a landscape than any picture postcard'. Amen to that.

The 2008 selection includes more 'unbeautiful' landscapes than previous selections. All of our National Parks contain evidence of industrial activity which is usually ignored by visitors, unless it happens to be labelled as a World Heritage Site. I live in the Peak District National Park, which has been farmed for 5000 years, was mined for lead for over 2000 years, had industrial scale sheep farming by the monasteries on the limestone uplands, was a cradle of the factory system at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, is quarried on a huge scale for roadstone and cement manufacture, and the field walls tell the history of enclosure and the conversion of the peasantry to land-less labourers. I have been interested in industrial archeology for as long as I can remember, but had always kept industry and scenery in separate compartments. I have more recently been attempting to show the processes by which we have transformed our landscape. I don't have to go far to do this - if I walk up the hill behind the house, I cross a desolate limestone upland which is covered with the remains of mining and quarrying, with Mam Tor and Kinder Scout - the beginning of the Pennine Way - on the horizon.

On looking through the 2008 thumbnails, I realised how many photographs were taken from moving trains - about 1 in 20. I almost always have a camera in my bag when travelling. The success rate is low - the view, the light, passing objects and reflections in the window all have to be right. To increase the chances of success, I use a fast shutter speed, set the camera to continuous, hold it as near the window as possible without touching it, and keep the shutter release pressed until the interest has passed. Sometimes the results are wonderful - the impressionistic view of Durham Cathedral and the framed picture of the Swiss countryside with the blasé traveller reading a magazine.

The 2009 photographs includes our first holiday in Iceland, which is absolutely stunning, as I hope is obvious from the number of included photographs. Although I have a reasonable collection of photography monographs, I have never felt that I have been particularly influenced by the work of any individual photographer. I was surprised, when I was selecting these photographs, that the work of two other photographers came to mind. The first, surprisingly, was Ansel Adams - yes, he did take some colour photographs. There are about ten of them (all Polaroid I think) in Death Valley (Ansel Adams, Nancy Newhall and Ruth Kirk). I had not looked at them for years, and I remember thinking that they were rather low contrast and pastel colours - just like some of the marzipan mountains in Iceland. I think that is convergent evolution, not influence. I am not so sure though about Fulvio Roiter. I have several of his books, dating from around 1980, of Venice, Florence, Tuscany. He also used a Leica, often with a wide aperture so the foreground is very sharp and the background out of focus. Some of my photographs of Bologna in particular reminded me of his photographs, and in one of mine there is a young lady who could have just walked out of one of his photographs into mine. I have looked at Roiter's photographs a lot, so there may be some unconscious influence - but also using a manually focussed rangefinder camera with very fast lenses does seem to me to be much more conducive to exploiting differential focus than does using an autofocus camera.

I thought that photography on lava fields in Iceland would be a real challenge because of the contrast range between black lava and sky, and for many of the images I made several exposures - viewing on the camera screen in bright sunshine is almost useless as a guide to the under-exposed portions - and found that it was possible to have a decently exposed sky and detail in the lava. At the Leirhnjúkur lava field there were three or four young men using graded filters to control the contrast - an option that is not available with a rangefinder camera because you cannot see the effect until after taking the photograph - but my envy proved to be not necessary.

2010 ended with snow and some brilliant light - the photographs in Snowdonia in early December were an excellent end to the year.

The 2011 selection begins with mill engines and finishes with sunset on Curbar Edge and, in between, includes Japan and several countries in Europe.

The 2012 selectionincludes some of the photographs that may be a bit obscure (why photograph a white Transit van in a forest in Romania?). For the first time, the collection includes pictures of birds and beasts - lots of them, following a trip to the Galápagos - so there are fewer local photographs.

At the end of 2013 I started presenting the sets of images in pdf format so that they can be downloaded to your computer. There is a new index page for these which tells you how to view them.

Higher level index

Copyright © Rod Smallwood 1963-2013