'Diminutive Dune' - Sand Forms at Low Tide
By Benjamin Graham, The 11th UK Landscape Photographer of the Year...
Less is more... Never has the axiom of one of my personal favourite first principles of photography served me so well. Yep. Less really was a whole lot more with that one up there.
I still, to this day, have to pinch myself sometimes. The 2017 UK LPOTY award was - remains - a unique and extraordinary accolade whose origin, for me, detonated like an incoming ballistic missile on an otherwise dull and humdrum Sunday morning in October of 2016. Right out of nowhere came the unexpected, dream phone call from one Charles Waite Esq. and, so wild was the whirlwind of the subsequent win-years, it really does seem like yesterday that he called me to break the news and I responded with what can only be described as a torrent of unintelligible gibberish, including me trying to explain to him how to produce a minimalist image like mine. I know, right? Me… Telling Charlie Waite how to take a photograph? Geez. What a dopey, delusional dork I must have sounded. Even more than I usually do, obviously.
So, dear reader, make no mistake that since the scrambled delirium of that seemingly hallucinogenic telephone conversation, the whole LPOTY mind-warp of a development in my tog-life continues to cause random frissons of emotion in me whenever I think back to that epiphany moment. In over four decades as a bloke with a camera, never in my wackiest imaginings (and there have been some properly wacky ones over the years, I can tell you…) did I expect to achieve recognition and validation of such enormity. It is one of the most significant moments of my entire life; right up there with the births of my children and my first paroxysmal heart attack… For those of you who may be suffering from a momentary sense of humour failure, that last bit - although an actual incident - is just a joke.
l love what I do, I believe in my work and I think that many of my images are aesthetically successful (otherwise what would be the point of it all?) and whilst a number of them had been competition-shortlisted or had made it through to be published as individual category finalists before 2017, I was simultaneously humbled, honoured and rendered utterly flabbergasted by the frankly outrageous LPOTY top award... Especially as it was in the face of so much intense competition from such an incredibly talented community of UK togs, many of whom I admire as heroes and to whose exemplary standards of photography I aspire.
The call for 2017 LPOTY entries was only the second time I had entered the contest and when Diminutive Dune was shortlisted earlier that year, making it through to the next round of judging, I was totally stoked. That commendation in itself was enough for me. But for it then to go on to win an LPOTY award? And not just a category... The whole damn thing. Geez... It all went rather surreal on Planet Benjamin after the announcement, I can tell you. And with a veritable plethora of stunning entries in the wonderful 2017 yearbook, many of which could have been selected for the top prize, I still can't quite comprehend that out of the mysterious, inscrutable nether-regions of the LPOTY judging dungeon that year, my image emerged as the ultimate winner... But it did. And I am still, to this day, honoured and flattered beyond beyond, because seriously, as a photographer, there can surely be little to compare with the attention generated by an LPOTY approbation. Having work recognised by such a highly respected and consistently over-subscribed competition is overwhelming and, in terms of public perception, professional interest and media visibility, it is probably unparalleled.
‘But Benjamin, you loquacious and inordinately convoluted wordsmith you; didn’t you really just get lucky?’ I hear you enquire. Well, since you ask so graciously, and as laconically as I am able, I will tell you what I think. So, buckle-up, boys n girls; blatherings ahoy...
I produced an image that is meaningful to me, is technically well-executed, is part of a series that I keep returning to for inspiration in my ongoing work, is something I am proud of and is a shot that I enjoyed in the moment of discovery and creativity; all those are fundamental to its success on a subjective level. In terms of its objective content, the image has a lot of what I prefer in many of my favourite landscape photos (both my own and those of others): spaciousness, ambivalence, tranquility, a sense of isolation and the merest whiff of mystery. So, the great thing for me personally is that, although I didn't foresee it rising to such a lofty level of acclamation, it happens to be one of my own preferred images of 2016/17. I like the tonal simplicity and the contiguous textures that contribute to its initial ambiguity. Is it a desert? Is it a beach? Is there water in it or not? The minimal composition using the simple s-curve motif and the analogous pastel palette work for me too. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - its scale is indeterminate, the sand-forms could be two metres long or two thousand, I'm in favour of an element of subliminal mystery like that. I also appreciate a photo that demands more than a cursory visual enquiry to reveal its true essence or complete story. Fortuitously for me though, on the occasion of the 2017 LPOTY competition, it happens to have had some inherent and timely qualities that resonated emotionally with the judges. Had I entered the same image the year previously, with a different judging panel filtering selections, then, quite possibly, it might not have even made an initial shortlist. So, in answer to the question: "did I get lucky?" to those who were eager for a definitive answer after such a garrulous narrative ramble, the truth is: who knows what the luck component was in the whole process?
On a practical level - for the landscape photography that I particularly adore - I certainly am lucky to live near the coast. That’s totally a thing I do not take for granted. Other commitments permitting, I am out locally at dawn and sundown as often as possible, in all weathers, all year-round, therefore I experience an enormous diversity of conditions, the good, the bad, the ugly and, occasionally, the downright sublime. Ultimately though, the fact is that wherever you are, you make your own luck in photography. The old clichés are all totally true. The harder I work, the luckier I get… I got the shot because I was there… Why was I there? Because I’m always somewhere… The law of averages declares that, despite an inevitable and innumerable catalogue of sessions decomposing into gloomy, keeper-less despondency, if you are out all the time then, eventually, some moments are going to offer up precious photo opportunities to you… Like the plucky, lonely surfer who is always out there riding mediocre waves in sloppy seas, in the ever-optimistic expectation that something promising is just over the horizon, one day sooner or later the big kahuna rolls in.
‘But Benjamin, you frustratingly effusive, pedagogically salient, yet simultaneously obscure interlocutor; why should we indulge your exasperating contradictions of lucidity and obfuscation a moment longer?’ I hear you enquire...
Well, you don’t have to take it from me, you can take it from someone more qualified than I, Robert Capa, who famously and succinctly said: “The photographs are already there; you just have to find them.” In fact, this entire piece could have been solely that quote... But where would the lexicological fun be for me in that? Hey, wait a minute... is that even a real word, 'lexicological'? I like it though... Anyway, as I was saying, if you remain unconvinced by my compound convolutions, then heed the brevity of Capa’s unassuming, prudent wisdom, for the job of a landscape photographer is making something of everything that Mother Nature provides. That and (there really is no escaping it, I’m afraid) getting up at crazy o’ clock in the AM as often as possible to experience and photograph the extraordinary conditions that are out there just waiting on you to show up.
Finally, and returning to my prior wafflings, if you are intending to enter any competition then you have to accept - with a judging panel that is inescapably comprised of diverse personal proclivities, in which multiple subjective notions of photographic art and compositional propriety form a part of the selection process - that, after submission, it is all totally out of your hands anyway. So, work hard and keep creating what you love. Produce technically-accomplished, aesthetically-satisfying and/or challenging images that convey a sense of place, encourage visual inquiry and that arouse an emotional response in your viewer. Submit your best and favourite shots, then, my advice is: after they have been sent, forget about them entirely and immediately go out and shoot new material in readiness for the next competition or personal project, whatever those might be. And don’t ever lose sight of who you shoot landscapes for in the first place... You.
Nerdy image notes for geeks and gear-heads (you know who you are!)...
'Diminutive Dune' was shot on the sands of East Head, West Wittering, West Sussex on the 4th October 2016. It was one of a dozen or so 'sand-form' images that I acquired during the blue hour after sunset. In the pastel softness of the early twilight, the subtlety of the contours caught my eye for compositions and this one was always a personal favourite
Grid Ref: 50.7858°N 0.9202°W
Sunset was at 18.33 and the image was acquired at 18.44
The camera used was a tripod-mounted Nikon D810 at knee-height, using mirror lock-up mode, electronic first curtain shutter and a naked 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens
Camera settings were 0.6 of a second at f11 and ISO 64