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Under the Influence of Ansel: Jonathan Bourla

Large-format fine-art photographer Jonathan Bourla talks with D-Photo about his Auckland Festival of Photography exhibition, A Glimpse (inspired by Ansel), which pays tribute to one of the photographic greats

16 May 2013

D-Photo looks at interesting photographers doing interesting things — large-format fine-art photographer Jonathan Bourla talks with us about his upcoming Auckland Festival of Photography exhibition, A Glimpse (inspired by Ansel), which pays tribute to one of the photographic greats.

D-Photo: Can you briefly describe your exhibition?

Jonathan Bourla: A Glimpse (inspired by Ansel) is an exhibition of my fine art, black & white, landscape and still life photography.  There are examples from two collections (Auckland’s West Coast, and Water) together with some individual photographs.

In what way does Ansel Adams inspire you, and how does it show in your work?

Years ago my wife Julie kindly gave me a book of Ansel Adams’ photographs, and I found the photos inspirational.  The images were very powerful, with a wonderful range of grey tones, and detail throughout, from shadows to highlights.  My methods and style are based on some of Adams’ techniques (Zone System, use of a view camera, etc.) and with some later tuition from American photographer Howard Bond, himself a student of Adams.  To quote Bond, “I want the viewer of my print to have the impression that the subject was bathed in light which allows detail to be seen almost everywhere in the print”.  People have said my photographs are subtle yet very detailed, with a good sense of texture – this would not have been possible without Adams’ books on tuition and his inspiring photographs.

Bruce’s jandals

Why large-format photography?

There are technical and other reasons for choosing to use a large format view camera.  The large negative size can give detailed prints with good range of grey tones. In digital terms, my scanned negatives have the equivalent of 125 megapixels.

These cameras usually have what are called “camera movements”, which allow perspective to be corrected. For example, when photographing a tall building, and avoiding that falling backwards look.

Another plus is that you are dealing with individual sheets of film, rather that a roll.  Using the Zone System I usually have to develop negatives with different development times, and this camera makes that possible.

And then there’s the pleasure in using the camera.  The viewing screen is large, and once you are comfortable with the slow process and working with the inverted image, any other camera doesn’t feel right, at least to me.  Obviously it’s far from a universal camera, but it suits the work that I do.  I have a back-up camera, a medium format rangefinder, which is excellent – I bought it for windy weather too extreme for my big camera – but I just don’t warm to it in the way I feel with my view camera.

Eroded girder

Shooting large format must present its share of difficulties, how do you deal with them?

The obvious one is the bulk and weight of the camera, together with the need for a sturdy tripod.

Focusing is a bit of an art.  There’s a tradition amongst large format photographers to try to render everything in focus, but our camera lenses have other ideas, with little depth of field.  The solution (sometimes) is to re-orientate the plane of focus by using the camera movements I mentioned before.  By the way, I compose and focus with a dark cloth over my head (which can be fun in windy weather).

Exposure times tend to be long, ranging from half a second to an hour or two.  Obviously patience can be needed!

Sometimes the camera can draw its share of interested people. One day at Northhead in Devonport, I had a coach load of retired people walk past, fascinated I was using a camera that looked like ones their grandparents and great grandparents had used.  Another time, also at Northhead, a young boy ran up to me and asked if I had a proper camera hidden inside, and the outside was just for show!

Where were the images from A Glimpse taken?

The West Coast photographs in Glimpse are from Muriwai and Bethell’s Beach.  The Water photos are from Devonport and Auckland City waterfronts.  The Individuals include an Eroded Girder from Devonport; Sanctuary from Old St. Paul’s, Wellington; and Bruce’s Jandals taken at his home.

Muriwai rock & gulls

Do you have a favourite image from the collection?

I’ve always thought of Muriwai Rock & Gulls (above) as one of my favourites.  The challenge was to have a long enough exposure to capture the water how I wanted, whilst keeping the birds looking still.  Fortunately it worked, and I’ve always been pleased when I look at it.

How did the exhibition come to be shown at the Farmgate Gallery?

I was introduced to Farmgate Gallery by a friend.  I travelled to Clevedon to visit it, and was pleased that I did.  The gallery is owned and run by Clinton Schubert, himself a photographer.  Farmgate displays primarily photographic works, and I thought the concept of a gallery geared to photography, and run by an enthusiastic photographer was really good. After showing Clinton some of my photographs, he mentioned he was keen to have Farmgate take part in the Auckland Festival of Photography and asked if I would like to exhibit my work.

Muriwai colony

What do you hope viewers will take away from the exhibition?

I hope to convey in my photographs the sense of wonderment I feel at the time of capturing the image.  I try to reveal every detail, and subtleties in light.  I hope people enjoy my photographs, and Farmgate gallery itself.

Do you have a favourite Ansel Adams image?

That’s hard!  Of his Yosemite pictures, I particularly like the granite boulders and mountain of “Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, 1945”.  Although many of his photographs of Yosemite are very powerful with deep blacks and high contrast, I like this quieter shot – perhaps this liking would be an indication of how my own style would develop.


Anything else youd like to add?

I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to talk about my exhibition, and also the Farmgate gallery at which it will be held. I’d also like to say a big “thank you” to the Auckland Council Creative Communities Scheme for their support. If any of your readers have any further questions they are most welcome to email me on [email protected].

A Glimpse (inspired by Ansel) opens on May 31 at 6pm at Farmgate Gallery in Clevedon and runs until June 23 as part of this year’s Auckland Festival of Photography.

Under Devonport Wharf