Interview with Jim Graham

I am retired and now find myself in the envious position of being able to pursue my many hobbies and interests at will.

My principle hobby, photography, has played a large part in my life for some 30 years. In the analog era I spent many enjoyable hours in my home darkroom. That experience has, I believe, been of great benefit to me in the digital era. I particularly enjoy creating images which have a minimalist fine art character to them. While I do occasionally create colour images, monochrome images now account for the majority of my work.

Interview:

LEMAG: Jim, you used to work in film photography. What made you move to digital sphere?

Jim Graham: Just before digital cameras came on the market, I had a fully functioning darkroom at home. I had invested a considerable amount of time, energy and money into setting it up. As a result, I was initially very reluctant to make the switch to digital. I carried on working in my darkroom for a few years, watching with interest as the digital revolution gained momentum.

Eventually I bought a small compact digital camera. My first attempts at editing digital files in Photoshop were less than inspiring. I did however, instantly appreciate the advantages of working within this medium, and became determined to develop my Photoshop knowledge. Some 18 or so years later, I am still learning new techniques in Photoshop. It seems to me that the only real limitations with Photoshop, is the users own imagination.

LEMAG: Like many Long Exposure artists you favour a minimalistic monochrome approach over colour, why is that?

Jim Graham: I have always loved monochrome images. I think it’s the timeless, classic quality, that is imbued in a good black & white image, which appeals to me, and yet, from my earliest adventures in photography, until just a few years ago, I chased ‘Golden Hour’ sunrise and sunset landscape images almost exclusively. There is no doubt that the rich saturated colours in a ‘Golden Hour’ image are instantly engaging. Imade many such images; some were well received among fellow photographers. However, the enjoyment, and indeed, the challenge of capturing and editing those images began to lose its appeal. Around the early part of 2015 I decided to freshen my approach to photography. I had been experimenting with long exposure images for a while when I first saw examples of long exposure monochrome fine art images on social media sites. I became an instant convert, I knew this was the direction in which I wanted to take my photography. However, I wasn’t really sure how, or where to start.

One of the photographers whose fine art images I greatly admired is Rohan Reilly. Rohan is a fine art photographer based in West Cork, Ireland. I decided to sign up to one of Rohan’s workshops, which was based in Connemara. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the workshop but I also learned a lot. It made me think differently about the process of making an image. I learned to look much more closely at my surroundings, to spend more time considering my subject and to pre-visualise my preferred final outcome in advance of pressing the shutter. I also quickly realised that, while I was reasonably proficient in Photoshop, my tried and trusted editing techniques for ‘Golden Hour’ images, were not ‘fit for purpose’ in the fine art world.

I spent some time trying to emulate the images I had seen, I tried various techniques on a trial and error basis, but my efforts fell short of the standards I admired in other’s work. I became determined to change things around.

LEMAG: Can you tell us a little about your workflow, did it change when you developed your interest in fine art photography?

Jim Graham: Around this time I also started shooting some architectural images. Again I struggled to produce the results I had envisaged prior to capture. It was at this point, aroundmid-2016, that I read a review on ‘From Basicsto Fine Art – Black & White Photography –Architecture and Beyond’, an e-book co-written by the renowned photographers Joel Tjintjeelar and Julia Anna Gospodarou. I bought the book and read it over and over. It proved to be a turning point in my photography journey.

Up to that point my editing was loosely based around a workflow which catered for making mostly global adjustments to an image. In the book, both Joel and Julia Anna outlined the benefits of breaking an image down into a number of carefully selected areas. Once selected, those areas can be adjusted and the result blended into the overall image, typically using a gradient mask. That simple principle was the foundation for a completely new editing process for me. It is now central to everything I do in Photoshop.

I start my edit in Adobe Camera Raw. Because Igo to great lengths to ensure my raw files are well balanced and properly exposed, the work there is usually straightforward. Typically it involves only a few minor tweaks on the white and black points, removing chromatic aberration and enabling lens profile corrections. From there the file is taken into Photoshop, I do not use Lightroom at any stage during my edit. In Photoshop I run the Nik ‘Define’ Plugin to eliminate any small areas of noise which may be present. I then convert to monochrome. To do this I use Joel Tjintjeelar’s B&W Artisan Pro Panel, using the standard neutral setting. That panel also affords me a host of other excellent editing options. It is quite possibly the best £25.00 I have ever spent on my photography.

It is at this point that I start making my selections. On a minimal seascape image that is typically only 3 selected areas, the sky, the water and a foreground element such as a pier/rocks etc. In an architectural image the number of selections can run to dozens. I spend as much time as it required to make very precise selections. My preferred selection tools are the pen tool, the new curvature pen tool, the quick selection tool and the lasso tool. Refining the selection is done using quick mask mode and the brush tool. I use a Wacom Pro Tablet for my editing and find the pressure sensitivity in the pen invaluable for fine-tuning a mask. This simple process takes me 80% to 90% towards my final outcome. At this point I shutdown Photoshop and allow myself at least 24 hours before starting again. I do this because I often find that when I return to an image with ‘fresh eyes’ I view it with greater clarity. I often spot mistakes that I have made or identify additional adjustments, which may be beneficial.

Finishing off and fine-tuning the overall image is done using luminosity masks. For anyone who has not yet begun to use these masks, I would strongly suggest giving them a go. Put simple the masks, once generated, create very smooth selections based on the luminosity values in an image. There are many panels on the market, which will generate these masks for you at the click of a button. I use Joel Tjintjeelar’s B&W Artisan Pro Panel to generate mine. The beauty of luminosity masks is the beautifully smooth and feathered way in which they define a selected area. I often tweak the masks using levels adjustments on the masks themselves or simply paint onto the masks using a soft white or black brush. Either way, they are infinitely adjustable. I then use the masks to make subtle adjustments to the highlights, mid-tones and shadow areas. I also use the masks to identify the areas in an image I want to sharpen. Typically that will be buildings, rocks, piers, man-made structures etc. I never sharpen skies or water.

LEMAG: Your images, appear to ooze calm. It is that intentional on your part?

Jim Graham: I’m very pleased to hear you say that Derek. By nature I’m a fairly quiet and relaxed person. I’m not a thrill seeker or risk taker. I’m most content when I’m in a relaxed frame of mind. If that is reflected in the images I create, it is evidence of what I have always suspected, that photography is a pursuit, which not only brings me great satisfaction, but also is also highly beneficial to my general well-being. It acts as a cathartic release from the pressures of daily life.

LEMAG: What subjects appeal to you most?

Jim Graham: I have tried shooting many subjects in my time as a photographer. Landscape, seascape, portraiture (including studio portraiture), macro work, architecture and a few other more obscure subjects. I have enjoyed the challenges presented by each but it is my work from the last few years, which has given me the greatest satisfaction. Minimal landscape/seascape and architectural photography is where I plan to concentrate my efforts in the future. Like all photographers I have a lot yet to learn, and it’s by concentrating my efforts in those areas, which I believe presents me with the best opportunity to develop and improve.

LEMAG: Do you have your favourite photography spot?

Jim Graham: At this point in time, the answer to that would be, yes – Venice. I have been there twice. Once, on a Rohan Reilly workshop, and once on a vacation/ photography trip with my wife. Both times I was amazed at the sheer potential for making great images in and around that beautiful City. There are so many different aspects to Venice. The wonderful architecture, much of which is leaning in every direction as the City continues to sink and settle into the foundations upon which it was built, the Gondolas which transport people and produce around the City, the many exquisite bridges, the fishing huts and fishing nets and of course the iconic depth markers and direction markers which abound in the waterways around the City. Another quite unique and fascinating event, which I have been fortunate enough to experience on both my visits to Venice, is the Acqua Alta. When the wind and tide combine in the right circumstance, the level of the Grand Canal rises and overflows into the City streets and squares. Seeing, and having the opportunity to photograph St Marks Square when it is under 40 to 60 cms of water is quite special.

I’m planning on attending further workshops in Tuscany and Japan in 2019 and 2020 respectively. If you were to ask me the same question after those trips, who knows what the answer would be.

LEMAG: You have a solid set of long exposure images in the ‘Architecture’ gallery on your website. Yet it is ‘Morning Flight’, a landscape image from the area in Northern Ireland, which greets visitors to your site. Why did you choose that particular image?

Jim Graham: I chose ‘Morning Flight’ for two simple reasons. Firstly, I’m proud of it and consider it to be one of my best images. It has proved to be very popular on the various photography forums on which I have shared it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I felt that I should have one of Northern Ireland’s most iconic locations as my lead image. I have lived in Northern Ireland all my life. As most people will know we suffered 30 years of political unrest and violence. Thankfully that is largely consigned to the past and we are moving forward towards a better future. ‘Morning Flight’, is a small token on my part to showcase one of the many stunning locations on offer to potential visitors looking to explore this part of the world.

LEMAG: You seem to have only a handful images taken at blue hour or at night. Any particular reason for that?

Jim Graham: Quite simply, it is the fact that I am so drawn to the lure of monochrome images. As I have already said they are classic and timeless. I am, however, very conscious that I do not want to become a ‘one trick pony’. I haven’t closed my mind to the idea of making colour images. A small percentage of the work on my website is in colour.

One image in particular, ‘La Matta e Rotta’ (MorningHas Broken) was shot from the Academia Bridge in Venice around sunrise. I have a monochromatic version of that image but have to admit, that much as I like it, it doesn’t have the impact or presence of the colour version. Shooting at night is something I have not tried as yet, and perhaps something I should give serious consideration to.

LEMAG: There are a few thousands of admirers of your photography who follow you on different social platforms. But whom does Jim Graham admire?

Jim Graham: In Issue one of LEMAG I read Joel Tjintjeelar’s interview with interest. Joel’s response to that same question mirrors my own thoughts on the matter. I do greatly admire the work of established photographers like Levin, Kenna, Chritchley etc. I look at their work, and find it inspiring. They have great talent; they also have had the breaks and good fortune, which is needed to establish yourself in the art world. But when I look around Social Media Photography forums such as, Facebook, Instagram, Flicker etc. I see work from so many very talented photographers. It is those fellow photographers, who like me, squeeze their passion into their busy daily lives that I admire most. Doing something for the sheer joy of it and doing it well, with little or no monetary reward, takes dedication, determination and perseverance. That, I greatly admire.

I strongly suspect that over the coming months LEMAG will showcase the work of many of these hugely talented amateur photographers, whose work inspires me so much.

LEMAG: Tell us a bit of your trip to Valencia please. It is, again, an extremely popular destination for long exposure photographers. Why did you decide to go and what did you find there?

Jim Graham: I went to Valencia on an Illume Tours Workshop, organised and run by Rohan Reilly, in February 2018. Having been on three previously successful workshops with Rohan, I knew what to expect, early rises, long days, meaningful tuition and a lot of fun and good humour. Most of my photography outings are solitary affairs. Generally that suits my way of working. Taking my time, having only myself to please, and going only where I want to go works for me. As a foil to that, I also thoroughly enjoy the workshop experience. Meeting and socialising with like-minded individuals, seeing how they respond to a photography location and how they work that location is fascinating. Spending time in the evenings over dinner and a glass of wine while talking photography is the icing on the cake.

Valencia was a no-brainer for me. I love architecture, especially modern architecture, and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia has an abundance of wonderfully mesmeric buildings and structures. The renowned Architect, Santiago Calatrava, is responsible for the majority of the designs in the C.O.A. He also designed the beautiful Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin. I had travelled to Dublin on two occasions to photography that bridge prior to my trip to Valencia. On each occasion I came away with a number of very pleasing images. That whetted my appetite for Valencia and when I arrived there I was not disappointed. I had of course seen many images from C.O.A. prior to my visit. Photographs, however, are no substitute for being there. I found the place to be utterly fascinating, awe inspiring and, like Venice, a treasure trove of photographic opportunities. I hope that the images I brought home with me, pay homage to what I found there.

LEMAG: Let us touch upon your own turf. Ireland is a magical place for all kinds of photography. Do you have any favourite locations?

Jim Graham: Ireland abounds with wonderful scenery. Classic landscape images are available in each of its 32 counties. For me though, I would single out two areas in particular which I know I will return to time and again. The first is the Antrim Coast on the North Eastern shores of the island. The rugged unspoilt beauty of the shoreline winds its way between bays and high cliffs for nearly 100 miles. Inland, and within view of the coast road are the stunning Glens of Antrim. Nine lush areas of grasslands, forests, bog lands, mountain upland and water falls. My only regret is that I have yet to do the area justice with my camera.

The other location is the Copper Coast in Co. Waterford. It is a geopark designated area comprising of approximately 11 miles of coastline. All along that stretch of coastline are many beautiful Sea Stacks, most of which are accessible for photography. I have been to the Copper Coast twice and feel as it I have just scratched the surface. I plan to return soon

LEMAG: In the introduction to you’re website you say: ‘I now find myself in the envious position of being able to pursue my many hobbies and interests at will.’ What are those hobbies and interests?

Jim Graham: I have always loved music. Ever since I was a small child I have connected with music. I enjoy many different types, rock, pop, classic, blues (especially early delta blues), jazz, Irish traditional and many others. I enjoy keeping fit, so walking and cycling account for a healthy proportion of my free time. I also love to garden and over the years have taken on numerous DIY home and gardening projects. Until recently I had a boat and spent time cruising and water-skiing, sadly at 66 years of age, I feel I am getting a little too old for that now. My wife is due to retire in August 2019. I suspect that ‘travelling’ will then be added to my long list of hobbies.

LEMAG: Jim, thank you very much for finding time to talk to us.

Jim Graham: Thank you Derek for this opportunity to share my images and a little about my background and passion for photography. I wish you and your colleagues every success in developing the very exciting LEMAG project and hope it goes from strength to strength.

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