Aggregate Prints 'Feathers' by Len Shood
In comparison with last week’s meeting which at times was profound, this week’s was lightweight. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Sorry, what I am trying to say is that feathers were the subject of the evening’s competition. Light the feathers might be, but thankfully the judge, Ralph Snook produced a substantial appraisal of the entries and was clearly ever aware of both the scope and limits of the brief.
The obvious choice for most entrants was a bird or birds and it was good to have a judge who knew something about birds rather than one who calls every specimen a duck! But this was not a natural history competition and some excellent bird photographs were eliminated, but only after Ralph had explained why.
We started with the Monochrome sections and I had forgotten how ineffective black and white photography is for nature. The first bird book I saw as a child, The Observers Book of British Birds, had black and white photographs and was useless as a field guide, and it is no surprise that the majority of bird recognition guides produced before and since used artist drawn bird portraits to depict the fine detail in plumage. The problems with black and white photographs are one, there is very little differentiation in the shade of some colours, and two, since birds are naturally coloured to blend with their environment, they become lost within it unless the background is very out of focus.
While there were some excellent natural bird portraits in the colour sections, including in flight, the rendition of their feathers was not as good as several well lit close views where the texture of individual feathers could be seen. Ralph used the word texture a lot, rightly so in the context of the competition, and also sharpness was often mentioned, as generally being crucial to the representation of feathers with their fine detail; alternatively a mass of feathers can convey the softness we associate with luxury. Lighting is critical in all these cases. There was a first class print of a Merlin, displaying its blue back to the camera, but with its head turned so looking directly the camera, an exotic secretary bird and our own chaffich which all did well. A cormorant with damaged feathers in its beak after preening filled the brief superbly.
Even hens were involved, the most amusing print of the evening being of five hens on a stillage, two up, three down. The centre one at the bottom, a brown one had its back to the camera, the other four, all white, faced the camera. Had the photographer arranged them or just found them like that?
Not everyone portrayed birds however, and although a minority of the images entered came into this category they obtained a high proportion of the awards because of the thought, imagination and detailed execution involved. They are examples of photographs that have been made, not just taken. Peacock feathers, or at least the tips of them featured in one or two. For one simple picture of five small feathers, they had been dyed an eclectic set of colours, magenta, rust, green, blue and black which looked good together. Another, a high key picture used three feathers arranged on a white plate as if it was a nouvelle cuisine dish. Feather headdresses were used effectively and we also saw feathers used as for flyfishing and for indoor sport with an ‘action‘ print of a dart flying towards a dart board, its tail feathers resembling the union flag.
There was a stirring of the audience when a striking image I can best describe as ‘a feather boa and no knickers’ came on the screen. Ralph, having a double take, eventually saw that the boa met the brief — (sorry!) and subsequently awarded it a Commended; not to award it at all would have been to deny a fine photographic image due recognition, but to award it higher, he probably feared for his good reputation. And as a competition judge it is a good one.
There is now an archive of all Len Shood articles on the home page immediately above the 'In Focus' archive.