Like a vision of the Virgin Mary appearing in the mould growing on a slice of stale bread, my Digital Impressionism project was not so much a carefully constructed work of art but more a chance discovery down the back of the sofa. It had been growing for a number of years before I realised.
My first digital camera was a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T7 and I chose it because I wanted a really slim one I could tuck in a pocket and pull out to take quick snapshots of dancing. I love social dancing – Ballroom & Latin, Swing-Jazz and Argentine Tango – and I wanted to be able to take photos of my fellow dancers without carrying any bulky or complicated equipment.
I also wanted my photos to illustrate the mood and movement of dancing, so I dialled out the flash. I found this produced some interesting effects.
Milonga Mood, in 2006, was among the first photos that showed me what was possible with digital cameras and I started to experiment. I found I could take photos that captured the mood and movement of the dancing but I did not think of this as an art project.
I was enjoying my photos and curating a collection of my favourites for the next ten years. Then in 2017, I took Meet Market.
I had been dancing at an al fresco Argentine Tango event under the canopy at Spitalfields Market and my friends and I were putting our coats on and gathering our bags ready to leave when I spotted a photo. I grabbed just a dozen frames – my friends were not hanging about – but I could see I’d got a couple of photos that looked promising.
At home, I put the photos on my studio monitor and showed them to my friend and talented artist, Alen Clo. She looked at Meet Market, as I would christen it, and said it looked like a Renoir painting. It was not simply a question of the pixel blurring looking like brush strokes, it was the colour and composition too and it occurred to me that if I had envisioned this photo and set out to construct it, it would have been a long, complicated and expensive job.
Look, don’t touch
Therein lies the difference between the photos in my Digital Impressionism project and all the others I take. In my professional work, I know what the photo is that I need for the job and I, or the photographer working with me, collaborate to construct the required photo. This was different.
By the Autumn of 2017, my Digital Impressionism had got its capital letters and become a deliberate project and I set about shooting photos expressly for it. On a long weekend in Venice, I shot over 1,000 photos. With my friend and fellow photographer, Marija Lončar, modelling for me, I set about constructing photos for my project. It didn’t work. Then, one evening, as we walked and talked on our way to a restaurant – bingo!
I can have all the ingredients in terms of light, movement and subject and I can shoot thousands of frames but get nothing. Then, without any planning or intent, an opportunity presents itself. I point and shoot and in only a few frames, the image is there. But I have to see the opportunity, not the photo, it does not announce itself and I cannot construct it.
With every other photo I take, I have a vision in my head and I work to make the camera’s view match mine. With the Digital Impressionism project, I do not know what the photo looks like and I cannot visualise it. The camera captures it and then it shows it to me.
Trick or treat?
I’m not retouching these photos, the effects are a consequence of low light and movement. The movement might be in the subject, or in the camera or both. There is also the camera itself.
The Sony Cyber-shot produced a much softer pixel blur than the Sony Xperia Z5 that followed it. The Sony Xperia Z5 was a more powerful camera and with that, I found I got a pixel blur akin to a cross of impressionism with pointillism. I also found ways to confuse the metering. I do not adjust any settings on the camera, the tricks are all in the light, speed and movement in taking the photos, and the time it takes the camera to calibrate.
The Sony Xperia Z5 did me good service for several years and I was able to experiment and develop my ideas with it. Then I dropped it one too many times. I bought my current camera phone; a Sony Xperia XZ2, in April 2020.
Art vs Science
I use camera phones because the project dictates the photos find me, not vice versa, so I need a camera that is always to hand. The technology works against me as it strives to capture the most precise, the most forensically accurate rendering of the scenes I photograph. By sleight of hand, I endeavour to blur and confuse the view. I suppose that at some point, the technology will be too fast and too powerful for me to cheat it.
Since April 2020, because of the COVID19 pandemic, there has been no dancing and little other opportunity for me to work on my Digital Impressionism project. In August, between lockdowns, I was in Liverpool and walking back to my hotel at night past the cathedral on St James’s Mount, and I spotted a possibility. I shot a handful of frames and I knew I’d got the shot.
I could spend hours in Photoshop using its tools to create a truly unique reworking of a photo and, indeed, I often do in the course of my publishing work. There is a great deal of art in the retouching of photos but it is precisely because I do so much of that professionally that I am not interested in doing it in my spare time.
No shopping trip
Retouching a photo in Photoshop is a hole into which you pour the rest of your life and then the job is never quite finished. I have not retouched a photo I could not go back to and tidy up just a little bit more.
With my Digital Impressionism, I create the photos in an instant and in that moment the image is complete and fixed. Night Vision is a perfect example. I spotted the potential for the photo in the view of the cathedral. I stood reaching past the railings and wobbling the camera partly as technique and partly as a consequence of my precarious footing, and snapped a dozen frames.
On my studio monitor, I could see that the broken tower and the pixelation in the clouds made my image look like a damaged autochrome. If it had occurred to me to make this in Photoshop it would have taken days and generated a thousand fakes none of which would have given me anything like the delight that this one, real, photograph gives me. ◽