Black and White Landscapes: Michael Jackson
In the search for new territory to shoot, landscape photographer Michael Jackson found that a well-trodden hotspot was a treasure trove of possibilities. Here he shares his experience of creating these unique black and white images. By Sean Samuels.
The next time you’re struggling to find the right angle or composition fora shot, try looking down, you may be quite surprised by what you see. Landscape photographer Michael Jackson was.
When he moved to Wales in 2007 he was struggling to find an original take on the landscape before him. He needed local knowledge and consulted galleries to see what was selling. His research led him to Poppit Sands, in Pembrokeshire, a local beach favoured by photographers for its stunning scenery. Little did he know upon setting foot on the sand that he was about to embark on an all-consuming project that continues to this day.
“I went there one evening at dusk when the tide was going out. I took some shots and when I developed the film one really stood out for me, because it had a type of light I hadn’t been able to capture before and there was a real silkiness to the blacks and the darks. I’ve always enjoyed looking at pictures of the moon and it just triggered with me when I first saw the images that they had a very similar look. This excited me so I ran with it, exploring the area further and further trying to capture the kind of image I had in mind.”
Michael decided he had to figure out how to reproduce this style. He wondered what had happened to make it so different. What had he done to make that one shot stand out? He returned to the beach over and over again to find out if it was the time of day or the place itself that made that shot so special. After a while he realised that two factors had played a significant role – the time at which the sun was going down and when the tide was out. He began to schedule his visits to coincide with these events.“I finally found the glow in the light that I loved so much in that first shot. Everything I needed as a photographer I could get from the beach, so I stopped going anywhere else. I sold my more traditional landscape scenes in the local galleries, so I was free to go back to Poppit Sands and take my time exploring it, thereby satisfying the need I had for this type of photography.”
Michael found that the light was best about half an hour to an hour after the sun went down, so he started to check the tide tables, matching them up with the sunset times. In doing this he discovered that he had only four or five opportunities a month to photograph – and even that small number depended on having good weather. It became a quest to source and to capture the images he wanted.
“Poppit Sands is an enormous beach and it was a good 10 minutes from the car park to get to where I wanted. I would arrive there a little bit early, have a look around and then, looking through the viewfinder, I would see when the light was hitting everything just right. Then I would go crazy and try to capture as much as I could. I would walk around with the camera on the tripod ready to go.”
The next stage was to find an original view point. When he first started going to Poppit Sands, Michael was taking standard landscape shots with a wide-angle lens capturing big foregrounds and the headland in the background. He was struggling to re-create the excitement he had first encountered. Having exhausted almost every angle he eventually looked down and found there was a much more interesting landscape at his feet. As the tide came and went it wiped away the patterns in the sand and every time he went back he found new, appealing abstract creations. “I started tilting the lens downwards. My photos were slowly missing out more and more of the sky and eventually I didn’t take any images of the sky at all, apart from when it was reflected in the water. It was a gradual realisation for me that the sand was always changing.”
Shooting on a Hasselblad 500C/M, Michael found that rather than face the camera directly down, he had to put it at a slight angle to avoid capturing its reflection in the water. This results in the images lacking a sense of scale, which Michael likes. You can’t tell howsmall or big things are.
“I am inspired by images of lunar landings and moonscapes, so I had those in mind when I was photographing the beach. At first the images were too sharp, they were capturing all the detail of the sand, which gave it a grainy look that I found distracting, but then I used hyperfocal focusing, which meant the picture was ever so slightly out of focus. This blurred the grains of sand enough to make them look smooth rather than gritty.”The kit Michael uses is as simple as it possibly can be. He wants it to be constant so he does not have to think about the set-up when making the images. On the camera is a 50mm lens with red filter and a polarizer, and he uses the same film type every time – Ilford Pan-F Plus.
“I wanted to concentrate completely on finding the strong abstract images that were inthe sand. With such a short window of time you have to be able to get there and get on with it. The serene and tranquil feeling the images have doesn’t reflect what I was going through at the time, which was me frantically rushing around trying to take these shots before the light changed. I have three camera backs with only 12 images per back so I was able to take just 36 shots in one session, but I found I was pretty exhausted after all the running around concentrating. I think my hit rate for shots I wanted to keep was one out of every 12.”
Since he first began the project, Michael has revisited the beach four or five times a month – around 200 times in all – and during that period he has taken thousands of shots.He develops the film by hand and has staged a few exhibitions in Wales, as well as entering the images for competitions. In 2008 and 2009 he reached the finals of the Hasselblad Masters, and last year the images were included in a tour to New York, Copenhagen and Hong Kong.
“I’ve realised this is a project that may not have an end. I’m finding that things are changing all the time whenever I go down there. I’m sure many photographers say this but once they’ve been looking at something for a long period of time they start to see it differently. I’m also trying out new and different techniques on the beach too, which refreshes the process and makes it more exciting for me.”
Michael now prints using an Epson 3800, but he is beginning to move to silver gelatin prints to see how that might work. These types of longer-lasting print are likely to offer Michael more commercial opportunities while increasing the value of his work.
With the Poppit Sands images he has found that a large format suits the work best, sometimes going to 40in sq. These dimensions suit the abstract nature of the work. “I want detail in these images because that’s what the subject requires. I couldn’t imagine taking these shots with a different camera or in a different style. The sharp whites and velvety blacks suit it.” This love of clear contrasts began when, before working as a photographer, Michael trained as an apprentice painter, during which time he learned a lot about structure. He gave up painting in favour of black and white charcoal drawings, then one day he saw images taken with a Holga camera and bought one immediately. “I took a few shots and was completely hooked. It seemed to bea natural move to go from black and white drawing to black and white photography. Then I became fascinated with photographers such as Charlie Waite, which convinced me to buy the Hasselblad.”
The time spent photographing the beach has also informed other work he has done. Quite a few of the shots contained film imperfections or blurring from the sand or tide moving the tripod during the long exposures he used, which sometimes lasted up to a minute. “I found these foibles interesting and started taking a 35mm film camera with me. While I waited for the long exposures to happen I would take blurred abstract snapshots around the beach with the 35mm. I found that different subjects required a different style or equipment, and that interested me and pulled me another direction. There really is something special about Poppit Sands that draws me to it. Other beaches just don’t have it.
“Creativity is always down to gut feeling. I don’t like to restrict myself by saying I’ll use only one type of camera. The one constant is there are no rules other than the ones you make for yourself. The best thing is to learn from the mistakes you make. This will mean your images are unique and more interesting. Use the limitations of your equipment to your advantage.” Michael puts the great tonal range in his Poppit Sands images down to the light. It may be the fact that they are taken on film rather than digital, it may be the red filter, or the polarizer, but he has photographed the beach when he has been there too early and when he has been too late, and has come back with nothing. He believes the winning formula is a mix of the angle of the light on the beach at just the right time, a lot of luck and a lot of patience.This also applies to marketing his work. Producing the images is just the first stage and Michael spends most of his time in getting his images seen. It’s the most important thing he needs to do.
“I do still get out a couple of times a week. The four days I worked on the Poppit series came in a chunk so I’d spend every evening on those days going down to Poppit Sands and then the next few weeks I’d be developing the film and editing the prints. This would see me through to the next time I went down to the beach.
“Sometimes you can spend too much time doing the fun part and not enough time on the promotion, which you have to do a lot. It is a very important part of the process, contacting galleries and sending out emails and getting people to know you exist. So when I do go out I try to grab as much as I can, which fulfills my needs until the next time.”
When Michael embarks on new work, it doesn’t just suddenly appear as a different style. Everything he does has its roots in the Poppit series.The project he’s working on at the moment is all about individual buildings. He found working on the beach to be a very solitary existence and craved to be around people, so he has gone from sand to buildings, and I’m sure he’ll move into even more unusual directions.
Michael’s experience is a lesson to us all. When it seems you just can’t make a good image, no matter how hard you try, stop, look again and approach it from a new angle. It is likely you will see the subject for the first time and in doing so open the door to a new world of creativity and endless possibilities.
Michael Jackson became a professional photographer in 2004. He has been published internationally and is a regular contributor to Welsh Country magazine. In both 2008 and 2009 he was nominated as a finalist in the Hasselblad Masters Award. His work has featured in a number of joint shows, including at Milk Studios, New York; DASK Gallery, Copenhagen; and Taikoo Place, Hong Kong.
For more information about Poppit Sands visit http://poppit-sands-beach.wales.info
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