photographs come under the heading of buy one, get one free for the very reason that each has a minimum of two examinable aspects. granted, just how much of each you may wish to place under the aesthetic microscope depends largely on the skill of the photographer, and how far down you wish to drill, but it is undeniable that the bogof cannot be by-passed.
to take each one in turn, i'll start with the subject matter; in the current instance, since the post purports to be about cycling, for the sake of consolidation, let's assume that the photographs we are perusing are about this very subject. which, in this case, they are. almost exclusively.
we are all likely aware of the common or garden views from the tour de france that surface every year, frequently from the lens of the same photographers: sunflowers; and horses chasing riders, though in the latter case, hopefully not on the same piece of tarmac. those are cliches, and even the most generous of tour fans would be apt to view them as such. it makes little difference whether we attended the event in question; the hope and desire is that the photographer will have captured an aspect of the event that we, the mundane viewing public were either not party to, or failed to register. that's sort of what they're being paid for. that and the quality and skill of use pertaining to the camera equipment used. it is very unlikely that my lumix compact would render all the bends of the stelvio with the clarity of a double page spread; and heaven forefend that there should be any cyclists on it at the time.
so the principal characteristic of a successful photograph that would advertise its presence to us all would be what the photographer saw, how he/she saw it, and how well it was composed at the time of shutter clicking. this latter skill is one that escapes many of us. it's one thing to see that euskatel rider somersault into a roadside ditch; quite another to not only realise the moment, but have the final print agree with the unwritten laws of successful composition.
paintings, by and large, are required to fulfil the same parameters, but the techniques pertaining to oils and canvas are slower, more precise, and more leisurely implemented. it is a well known compositional technique available to the painter that the canvas be upended on the easel and the dispersion of shapes and colours measured in a more abstract manner. while there are many tricks of the trade available to the photographer, that is certainly not one of them, particularly when you consider that the painter can re-make and re-model almost endlessly until satisfaction is achieved. of course it would be unrealistic and simplistic to expect that the photograph in the frame and on the wall was taken in isolation. there will almost certainly be an entire bin of, or memory cards saturated with, cuts that didn't make it thus far, in which case we must accept the honesty, judgement and perspicacity of the person behind the lens.
given that these are professional people, acceptance seems uncontroversial; the final say, however, is entirely ours. it is of little use appreciating the skill and timing if the end result is less than pleasing.
part two, and the bit that comes free, if you will, is the inherent quality of the image. this is an entirely separate set of circumstances to that of the subject matter, and could, if acceptable, be seen as an appreciation of the surface. photography has had an upheaval in recent years, bringing added angst to those practised in the art. shifting from silver halide film to a succession of zeros and ones in the digital realm is not one that many have enjoyed. indeed, a few have remained faithful to the analogue method of recording despite editorial and commercial pressures to change. thus the surface area has either retained or dispensed with its meniscus; digital has the power of immediacy and is, essentially, free. once camera and memory card have been purchased, the costs of recording images have evaporated, bringing the ability to immediately review and discard while still in the desired location. those immersed in film have the continued and likely increasing expense of purchasing, developing and ultimately printing images taken in the confidence of their ability as photographers.
there are doubtess those expensive and disappointing moments of returning from a classic or stage race to discover that all is not as hoped for, while the moment has well and truly gone. in either case, the surface is as it is, and demands as much appreciation from the viewer as that of its subject. images processed on film will often have a degree of saturation and grain that do not display themselves in digital, and despite the giant steps made by today's technology, film reacts differently to light than does the charge coupled device (ccd) at the back of every dslr. and noise isn't grain. then there is the developing process itself; photoshop may be an alien technology presented from the gods, but it can only, at best, simulate the effects and sheen provided by chemicals. we need not know how each image was produced, but it is, i believe, incumbent on us to appreciate these aesthetic surface qualities arriving free with each photograph.
thus the luxury that the 2009 rouleur photography annual affords us, as cycling aficionados, cannot be overestimated. a collection of works by ten of the finest artists working in the rarefied atmosphere of cycling photography. some will be well-known to you, others have appeared from relative obscurity, but each, despite a uniform subject matter, highlight widely differing aspects of the same play. though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in similar appreciative response to a joni mitchell album, it's almost impossible to listen to all ten at one sitting; even repeated listening brings out features not apparent on previous sittings.
but the world of rouleur is not just about visual imagery. each chapter is introduced by quality writing from ten pilots of the written word, either setting each in thematic context, or adding complementary imagery of their own. this is the third successive rouleur annual (sort of what annual means, come to think of it) and it is of note that as the format has developed it has become stronger at each turn. each image is printed on quality paper, bound in hardback format to protect not just your average collection of bicycle photographs.
it would be churlish and long-winded to deal with each chapter in turn, but highlights are the bizarre rorschach reflections by camille mcmillan, which ultimately and surprisingly demand admiration; the idiosyncratic postcards of rein van de wouw, the painted road signs of geoff waugh, and the still and ghostly velodrome photos of ben ingham. however, it is more than likely, had i waited a further period of days before writing this review, the above list would have changed. writing of note is herbie sykes' (rightful in my view) demolition of the centenary giro d'italia, and bill strickland's appreciation of the space between the notes.
all in all, this is one of the highlights of the year for me, which could only be amplified by my missing copy of rouleur 15 turning up in tomorrow's mail.
photographers: timm kolln, marthein smit, gerard brown, olaf unverzart, daniel sharp, camille j mcmillan, rein van de wouw, taz darling, geoff waugh and ben ingham.
written contributions from: gerry badger (foreword), david millar (prologue), guy andrews, nando boers, matt seaton, william fotheringham, graeme fife, herbie sykes, jack thurston, bill strickland, and johnny green. the 2009 rouleur photo annual is available from the rouleur website at a cost of £35.
posted sunday 13 december 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................