20 Stories, part I

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Introduction

Today is the first of a series of five posts from a long-form feature written for Medium Format Magazine earlier in the year (some of you may be familiar with my philosophical musings from my column in the magazine In Pursuit of Transparency). This series will be a bit different to anything I’ve done before on the site; usually we tend to focus on either a sequence of images with minimal commentary – in the form of a photoessay – or detailed discourse around a single topic. This series of images are from personally significant points in my medium format shooting career. They have had to pass curation not solely for being visually interesting and having a self-contained narrative, but also having a back story that is often more interesting than the photograph itself – and without the creator to tell the story, there’s no way you’d get to hear it.

Sometimes it’s around an idea or a particular inspiration; sometimes it’s around the execution; sometimes it’s about serendipity. There’s planning and there’s luck; there’s preparedness and there’s the mad scramble. There’s the behind the scenes peek into the chaotic life that’s necessary of a modern photographer – much less of it is about making pictures than building relationships. More often than not there are stories about the people involved – subject, client, production. It has not been easy to select these as there is always a strong emotional attachment to your favourite images – and there tend to be a lot of them if you’re prolific. It’s almost as bad as asking a parent to select their favourite child.

Let me know what you think. If the response from these posts is positive, I’d like to do more of this in the future…MT

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Photoessay: Quotidian for some

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Where I live, making images that are vignetted observations of life in the style presented today is very difficult for one simple reason: people tend not to walk much or use public transport; the former because it’s just too damn hot and society still expects you to wear a suit (and as a consequence, the whole city isn’t very pedestrian friendly in the first place), and the latter because it doesn’t really exist outside of a small network. You land up with a lot of cars and not much human interaction – and thus nothing much to photograph. It’s for this reason that whenever I travel to a place where there’s a lot of human life at street level – I tend to gorge myself photographically and amass a lot of material in a very short space of time. This reptilian approach to photography is not intentional but simply a consequence of circumstance. It does also have the happy coincidence of forcing one to break creative anxiety – every situation is constant reminder that your expectations are probably invalid, and to always be open to serendipity. MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7 and 24-70/4 S, with my custom SOOC camera JPEG picture controls available here.

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Creative anxiety

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You’ve just spent a ton of money on a large, shiny new lens. The one youtube and the rumours sites have been on fire about for the last few months, proclaiming it better than caviar on truffle on foie gras. Gilded. You managed to actually get one in your hands, ahead of most of the mere hoi polloi. You found an ideal location by trawling instagram and looking at the number of amazing images that came out of that particular geotag. You booked a flight to the ends of the earth with a company specialising in adventure photography travel, endorsed by the gurus themselves. And just in case that wasn’t enough, there was a whole bunch of other ancillary support gear you had your eye on that you added – new SSDs, a kickass backpack that’s bulletproof, that compact tripod that folds to the size of a stick of gum but can hold an elephant, raised twenty million dollars on kickstarter in two minutes AND managed to save a schoolroom full of burning children whilst winning miss universe.

Yet when you step off the van into that sunrise…you can’t make a picture worth spit. Why?

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Photoessay: Alpine

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Earlier in the year, I made a family trip to Japan – Tokyo (of course, images to follow) and Hakuba – site of the Winter Olympics in 1998. As it turns out, torn discs aren’t that much of an impediment to skiing since if you’re as out of practice as I am, most of the work is done by your thighs and knees; in the end I managed only two days before I gave up and decided to make the most of the one clear-ish day we had for some landscape photography. Even so, it had to be squeezed in between parental and spousal duties, so opportunities were somewhat limited; as it turns out the light didn’t last that long, anyway. All of my previous alpine photography experiences have been on bare mountains; it’s quite different to have the varied textures of different trees to work with, and the subtle gradations as the clouds shifted and shadow patterns across the hills changed. I deliberately left in the large color temperature differences between direct/reflected sun and snow/ ice in shadow; it seems the ice attenuates certain wavelengths to emphasise the cool shadows. Hopefully some of that delicacy is translated here. MT

Images were shot with a Nikon Z7, almost entirely the 70-200/4 with 1.7x TC, and post processed with Photoshop Workflow III and the Z7 Profile Pack.

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Photoessay: Alien geometry

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Every time an architect tries a postmodern, hypermodern, pseudo-alien interpretation of something – I can’t help but think that the opposite is true. By intentionally shedding societal convention and expectation of what a building or space should be, and given a sufficiently liberal client – all that’s left are the limits of the designer’s imagination*. And unless the designer isn’t of this planet – what remains is if anything about as human as things get. I do realise this sounds somewhat unintuitive at best, and downright hypocritical at worst; but ask yourself this: for something to be truly alien it has to be foreign to you. And if it was created by humans – as all buildings on Earth are – it’s still within the realm of our understanding and appreciation. Different, yes; completely alien, no. Somewhat related segue: not having the dictat and expectations of history is not a bad thing at all when it comes to design; I don’t think I’d be able to create a watch to a company expectation or style, for instance. To the creators of the buildings – I applaud the clients for not saying no (or for insisting son something different) and for the architects and contractors to pulling it off. MT

This series was shot some time ago with mostly the Olympus Pen F and various lenses, mostly SOOC camera JPEG. Some Nikon Z7/ 24-70 thrown in for good measure, too.

*And structural engineers’ ability to execute. I respect/ pity those who work for Gehry, Hadid etc.

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Stream of consciousness

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Thoughts, truths and insights from the years presented in no particular order…

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Photoessay: Repetition in high key

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Perhaps repetition is the wrong word; riffs on a theme might be more apt. Pay close attention to the sequencing of the images and you’ll notice the key lines flow up down along diagonals that provide continuity between frames; in this way the repetition and structure extends beyond the individual image to the entire set. The tonal bias is mostly high key and cool, but even then there are slight variations to hint at different moods*. I think of it almost as a rising and falling of music that smoothly transitions between passages. Still, the outer covering merely disguises the fact that the underlying structures themselves are the usual rectangular blocks; it’s simply not economical to make something that isn’t regular (not to mention producing spaces that are highly inefficient). These are after all public buildings in the administrative centre of the country; a little decorative facade cladding is fine, but let’s not go too far overboard. MT

*I’m very pleased with the tonality from this series; there’s something about the light openness of the mid and highlight tones that I’ve only been able to achieve with medium format up to this point – but it might also be because I’ve had a strong preference for darker, richer tones. Think oil painting vs watercolour.

This series was shot with a Nikon D3500 and AF-P 70-300 DX VR, and is a mix of SOOC JPEG and edited raw using Photoshop Workflow III.

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Appreciating urbanscapes and structures

Urban geometry, structures and shapes are normally found in MT’s photoessays, but I thought I’d take a jab at it. While MT travels a lot more, I do most of my shooting locally in Kuala Lumpur. I admit I don’t actively seek out heavily compressed shots of buildings and structures but my default lens when shooting on the street is the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8, which enables decent isolation and compression. From time to time, the visual drama is just so appealing that I have to frame for a tighter perspective. My previous work experience as a Civil Engineer and being involved in the local construction industry also allows me to appreciate architectural design and beauty more, now that I am no longer an engineer. The thing about photography is, we sometimes need to open our eyes and appreciate the beauty around us – regardless of the form it takes.

All images were shot on various cameras and lenses, mostly a variant of an Olympus OM-D with either M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 or 25mm F1.8 lens.

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Photoessay: Growing up

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I have come to the conclusion that four year olds are mostly like uninhibited adults. At least mine seems to be; I suppose their actions make sense in their minds with their limited understanding of the world, and when you disagree – there will be hell to pay because there is no way anything could possibly be different to how they have imagined. (Arguably, this is the same with a lot of supposedly fully grown adults I have to deal with, too.) There are moments when they are remarkably mature and self-sufficient; there are others when we are reminded that they sleep the sleep of innocents and don’t carry any of the worries of reality. They are a bundle of nerves and listen almost solely to the lizard brain. There is no self control and that leaves parents torn between the short term pain of trying to impose it, and the long term gain of raising a person who doesn’t bang tables to get their way. Just looking at these images has driven home though how much she’s matured over the past year, though she probably won’t be self-sufficient for another 15 years or more – and getting seemingly longer with every generation. To think there are entire species whose lifespans are much shorter than the past four years; and intelligent ones who are fully mature and ‘adult’ after just one or two years. We humans are probably the only species with the luxury to explore and pursue something higher up the pyramid of needs than mere sustenance and survival – we should not waste it on pointless diversions… MT

Shot over the last year, mostly with the Nikon Z7 and my custom SOOC JPEG profiles.

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On Assignment photoessay: Automated building

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Some time back, I was given a rather interesting commission by a large local industrial conglomerate: to photograph their automated building facility. The factory uses an automated system to lay up wall, floor and ceiling units for modular buildings according to plan; these precast slabs are then simply installed on site, with reinforcement, connections, conduits for piping and electricals etc. all laid up and ready to go. The surfaces are finished during the production process, and unlike cast in place or brick-types, do not require additional plaster or skimming for a very consistent and precise finish. Interestingly, I was told that below a certain scale this is a more expensive process for building than traditional manual labor, but the overall quality is much higher (and it begins to make sense for large developments). From a photographic standpoint, the completed slab stockyard was very enjoyable – no end of shadows/ geometries/ strong colors/ details and all of the things that make for interesting vignettes and artistic experimentation; the factory was much more challenging due to the lighting.

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