Category Archives: Part 2 assignment prep

Assignment 2 – the selection process

The early stages of the selection for this assignment were difficult, and I felt I was really struggling to obtain anything meaningful and coherent with my first few shoots. I have three series of images of different subjects during that period which just did not work, and which were not worthy of adding to the final set. (Copies of the contact sheets for these three, as well as the others are attached at the end of this post). I am therefore grateful for my tutor’s suggestion not to rush the process, and to concentrate on what it is I like about this image below, which I had told him seemed to be the best of what I had so far achieved.

p1510424

On mulling it over, I decided that the main features of the image I liked were the natural pose, which has a sense of dynamism and the fact that the person was directly engaged with the viewer in a way that expresses both their personality and their relationship with me, the photographer. The background is bland but has meaning to the subject, being farm land which is currently being prepared for a large housing development.

It therefore seemed sensible to concentrate less on the location (albeit still showing it as a background to the subject) and to focus more on a natural, unforced pose and expression, which expresses my own relationship with the subjects, and this made the shooting and selection process much easier for subsequent shoots. As a result of this thinking, the final three shoots were straightforward and lacked any of the angst and doubt of the first few.

Below, I have considered each of the sets of contact sheets. In most cases, these are a selection taken from a larger number of images in order to fit them onto one page. (I do not know why they have white lines across them, but it is not important for this exercise).

Subject 1 – Chris

Lightroom (P1510363.RW2 and 13 others)

This was my first shoot, and although I am happy with the concept of the shoot, and particularly like P1510374, it subsequently became clear that the subjects were all going to be photographed outside and at full length, so reluctantly this set had to be dismissed.

Subject 2 – Talis

Lightroom (P1510390.RW2 and 14 others)

There were a number of possibilities in this set. I particularly like the last image, and this was my first choice for this subject. However, on asking fellow students their opinion of the proposed series, this was the one that did not seem to fit. Apart from it being about a building, the colours and style seem to jar with the others, rather than flow, and I have decided to go with P1510400 instead.

Subject 3 – Ann

Lightroom (P1510409.RW2 and 12 others)

This set was relatively easy to produce and there are several within in it that I like, especially P1510419, but th3e subject is too far away in the image, and so I have decided to use P1510424 instead. As mentioned above, this was the starting point for the final set of images.

Subject 4 – Amanda

Lightroom (P1510864.RW2 and 19 others)

Sadly, none of these were suitable. The weather was very bright sunshine, and there is a great deal of contrast in many of them. Also, the subject is posing rather more than I am aiming for, so this set has been rejected.

Subject 5- John

Lightroom (P1510432.RW2 and 13 others)

In my first shoot with this subject, there were similar problems to the shoot with Amanda, and the light was too harsh for successful images. I also was not happy with the decision to photograph the subject next to the sign – it looks forced and slightly peculiar. He was kind enough to allow me to undertake another shoot, and this was much better. For the purposes of this assignment, either P1520953 or P1520991 would work, but I decided to use the former on the basis that all the other selections were full length, so this one should be too.

Subject7 – Steve

Lightroom (P1520010.RW2 and 4 others)

This short shoot was not successful for a number of reasons. Again the weather was not helpful, and I did not have time to chat to the subject enough for him to feel comfortable about what I was doing. He therefore looks unhappy and posed in the shots, and I decided to leave any of this series out.

Subject 7 – Gareth

Lightroom (P1520043.RW2 and 19 others)

Bizarrely, the weather was also sunny for this shoot, but the telephone box happened to be in the shade of a large tree, which softened the light. Any of the last four would have been fine for the series, but I felt the composition was best in P1520073.

Subject 8 – Vince

Lightroom (P1530040.RW2 and 18 others)

Another gloomy day for this shoot, and again there were several possibilities for the final selection, but I decided on P1530108 as the image most reflective of the person.

This selection process has been long, but I really benefitted from taking a step back for a while to allow some objectivity to enter the equation. I am also grateful to fellow students for the feedback they have given on the whole process and I am now more confident that the series reflects what I was hoping to achieve One of the elements of the final series which has been remarked upon is its autumnal feel, which is good because it lends a unifying seasonal background to all the images.

Assignment 2 – review of progress

I have now photographed six people for this assignment, so between the 197 images, one would have thought that I should have managed to collect enough options to make an assignment. However, I am not sure that I have. Only two of all the ones I have made seem to have the visual aesthetic I want, and they are these two.

In both, there is a clear visual dialogue going on between the subjects and the camera (or rather me, standing behind the camera) and a slight sense of movement. Rampant perfectionism has now set in and I am not completely satisfied with even these two. The first looks a bit clothes cataloguey, and I’d like to reshoot the second with a long lens to bring out some more clarity. In none of the other 195 images is what I want apparent. Steve’s look uncomfortable, but to be fair I didn’t give him much time to relax. John’s are too far away, and the idea of photographing him in front of the sign has not worked as I had hoped. Amanda has “posed” for all her photographs and they feel too static. Talis’s ones are better and do express her personality, but there is no movement in them. However, one of these might be a possibility.

There is an image in Sternfeld’s Strangers Passing series that keeps coming back to me, and this is the sort of visual language I am attempting to achieve, albeit with a different subject. The woman has obviously agreed to have her photo taken, but the effect is of a glance of acknowledgement and agreement rather than an obviously posed shot.

sternfeld-woman-pumping-gas

So, where to, now? I have agreed a reshoot with John, and will have to see whether I can inveigle a couple of the others to let me photograph them. I need to press on, as I am falling badly behind.

 

Assignment 2 – further research

After having produced a few images, I asked my tutor whether the idea was sound, and he referred me to the following photography series, for ideas:

Richard Avedon – In the American West

richard-avedon-in-the-americamn-west

© Richard Avedon

Joel Sternfeld – Stranger Passing

joel-sternfeld-strangers-passing

© Joel Sternfeld

For the purposes of this assignment, Richard Avedon’s work is not relevant, because there is no sense of place – everyone is photographed against a blank white background. This forces the viewer to concentrate wholly on the figure and their stance and clothing. But Joel Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing series is just the sort of approach I was thinking of. In each of the images, the subjects are shown in their own environment, rooting them firmly to a sense of place. There is a variety of postures, and the figures range from close up to quite distant. What they all have is a connection with the photographer, albeit sometimes very fleeting.

At the start of this project, my thinking was along the lines of following in the footsteps of David Hurn and John Myers, with their honest, yet sympathetic examinations of everyday life in non-urban Britain. However, Sternfeld’s work encapsulates the type of imagery I am looking to produce here, and further communication with my tutor makes me think I am on the right lines with this. Chris’s advice was this:

Using a reference such as ‘Stranger Passing’ is appropriate and I can see his influence in some of your shots, particularly shot 3 (lady, fence, field) it’s fine to use his work as a template for yours, it’s how we learn to develop our own practice. Look at 3  image and analyse why it works, look at the composition, the way that the subject holds herself, then compare to your other shots and Sternfeld’s. As I said previously, series of photographs work when there is a coherency of visual language running through the set, this is what you should be aiming for. The subject holding the sign is also interesting, although this is a tried and tested formula I can imagine you producing a successful series with this approach (Chris Coekin, email, 2016)

Joel Sternfeld

So, how does Sternfeld hold together a wide variety of different images, which ostensibly have nothing in common except that they are portraits? A comparative series of his images from the series are available at http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/artworks/stranger-passing for viewing. The people have no names, and are merely identified by a location and perhaps a couple of words about what they are doing there. This lack of  names makes them seem to be examples of a range of different types and also keeps the concept of The Stranger in the foreground, as in people one passes by and notices, but without really taking any time to learn anything about them. Eric Kim’s appraisal of Sternfeld’s work has been very helpful to me, there being very little information about his methodology and motivation available online.  Kim argues that this lack of background is deliberate, in that Sternfeld’s images themselves leave out a lot of information. “You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo,” he told the Guardian in a 2004 interview. “No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.”

Douglas R. Nickel (Lensculture) describes his work as an “intelligent, unscientific, interpretive sampling of what American’s looked like at the century’s end.” Unlike historical portraits which represent significant people in staged surroundings, Sternfeld’s subjects are uncannily “normal”: a banker having an evening meal, a teenager collecting shopping carts in a parking lot, a homeless man holding his bedding.  (Lensculture, publisher’s description). This describes his work as circumstantial portraiture, which says as much about its subjects’ lives as their personality, but leaves a informational void that the viewer can fill with their own opinions and explanations.

Despite the information contained in how we look, we could be almost anybody. And if we tend to hate people who pigeonhole us based on appearances, we’re also grateful when someone sees us accurately without summing up too comfortably. Sternfeld is that kind of observer; he sees, but he leaves the conclusions up to others — to history, maybe, or to God. Neither the best nor the worst that a person can be is ruled out automatically. On the questions of the content of a particular human soul, he maintains a strong agnosticism.” http://www.npr.org/programs/wesat/features/2001/010707.strangers.passing.html
Writer Ian Frazier, on artist Joel Sternfeld

Badger (2007, p. 218) describes Sternfeld as a latter day Carleton Watkins – the perfect balance of subjectivity and objectivity. The images are about the people, but also their interaction with Sternfeld.

Application to my own work

Taking the images I have posted above as a representation of Sternfeld’s work, what can we say about how he makes his work? The subject is usually in the centre of the frame, although not always. Their size in the landscape varies, but the subjects tend to be in the middle distance, which indicates a lack of direct contact. There are clear references to the subjects’ environment, some subtle, others obvious. The colour palette is strong and saturated but quite flat – there is no sense of light. Eric Kim argues that the specific colour palette is what differentiates Sternfeld from other similar street photographers. Some images have an element of fun, but others are sad, or pathetic.

p1520017

These are some elements that I need to consider with my own series. I have taken about 150 images so far of six people, and am in the process of sorting out a set that has some internal consistency. While doing this it has become clear that my photographs of a couple of the people have not worked out as I had hoped and I am going to have to reshoot. So far, using contact prints, I have come up with a couple of different options, which are shown below. However, I still need to consider which is the better of the two, and suspect that my series title (whatever it may turn out to be) will inform that decision.

Varying distances

Full length, but all the same distance (or they will be, when post-processed)

I need to keep focused here, because my preferred images are currently from different sets. Also, having jettisoned the indoor close-up from my last attempt, I am not happy with either of the new male portraits yet and will have to reshoot them. Conversely, I reckon that amongst my images are the right ones for the three female ones.

Finally, delving down a little further into the images above, the body language of each person is revealing. Just looking at set 2, person 1 looks wildly uncomfortable but determined to face up to the camera, No 2 looks slightly wishful, no 3 looks sardonic, no 4 looks assertive and no 5 looks non-committal. All these are my own interpretations, based on what I know about the people concerned. Kuleshov, the Soviet filmmaker argued that a person’s relationship with their background and other co-located images tends to mould our opinion about people’s expressions (link here), so clearly there is an art to picking a group that together have the meaning one wants to express.

References

Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography. Quadrille.

Higgins, C. (2004) False witness. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/mar/10/photography (Accessed: 8 November 2016).
Kim, E. (2014) 6 lessons Joel Sternfeld has taught me about street photography. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/02/14/6-lessons-joel-sternfeld-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ (Accessed: 8 November 2016).
Sternfeld, J. (1996) Joel Sternfeld – stranger passing – book review. Available at: https://bookpage.com/reviews/2113-joel-sternfeld-stranger-passing#.WCGhV4XXKmQ (Accessed: 8 November 2016).
Sternfeld, J. (n.d.) Stranger passing. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/books/10705-stranger-passing (Accessed: 8 November 2016).

 

Update on assignment 2, and other stuff

I haven’t posted anything here for a little while and freely admit that gloom and despondency have been the order of the day. After my first four shoots for assignment 2, I am now unsure about whether my idea will work or not. The plan had been to create a space around each of the subjects which reflected their attitude to their role, i.e. detail people would have close-up images and strategists would have plenty of space around them. However, although this works for each person individually, I am not sure that it give coherence to the set as a whole, and I am wondering whether to go back to the drawing board. My preferred images of the four people I have photographed so far are shown below, and I’d love some feedback about what fellow students think.

Additionally, I have been talking to the people at the office about framing some of them and putting them up around the office, so they need to work for that too, and I am not sure about how people would react to some of them. They are not the sort of images most people are used to seeing.

I still plan to photograph another two or possibly three people for the series, but really want to keep a version of image 1 in the set, as this person is an important member of the team. Part of my issue is around going back and asking people if I can photograph them again, although none of them were at all negative about the idea and they all seemed keen to help.

However, despite this hiatus, I have been busy elsewhere. On a more positive note, I had an epiphany with regard to White Balance and went off to my local country park to photograph the autumn trees this weekend. (Until now, I have essentially only been using Auto White Balance). I was much happier with the colour balance in the images I produced, and am glad I have added this to my list of photography skills. Also, while I was standing there taking photographs, I started talking to various people, and one lady kindly allowed me to photograph her little girl, in exchange for a copy of the images. I sent her the images and was delighted, but a little flummoxed, to be asked by her if I was a commercial photographer, as she liked them so much.

Below, I have put a couple of the images I took, including one of the little girl.

My mentor, Stephen Bray, subsequently contacted me about the trees image, which I had posted on Facebook, and suggested that it might be better without the people lurking in the background. I responded saying that I had wondered that, and was considering whether another one might be better, featuring some people more prominently. His response is quoted below in full, and I need to think it over in more detail. I have versions with and without people as well as the one above, and look forward to a fairly detailed appraisal of the messages sent by each version.

My preference would be plain without the people, but that’s just personal taste. Your image might work well in a collection – where the other photographs also show people obscured by nature. That would be enigmatic and cause people to stop and think, because the people’s inclusion would obviously be deliberate.

Finally, I have been spending an inordinate amount of time trying to organise my Lightroom Catalog, Keywords and Collections in a more sensible way, to free up computer space. Last week, doing a search on my Catalog with Awesome Duplicate Photo Finder, I discovered that almost half of my images are duplicates, which might explain why my computer is slowly grinding to a halt. It’s a slow process but should ultimately be worthwhile. As part of this, I have opened a new WordPress.org blog to shadow this one, while I learn how to use it – the processes seem to be very different from WordPress.com. The purpose of this was to allow me to export images directly from Lightroom to WordPress, but so far I haven’t found a way to do it successfully, so the whole thing might have been a waste of time and money. Ho hum!

Assignment 2 research – John Myers

My research on the subject of photographing Middle England came up with the work of John Myers, and specifically his series of the same name. This interesting video explains his motivations and how he went about the project.

Myers, who was a lecturer at Stourbridge College of Art was well-known in the 1970s and 1980s, often featuring in Sunday supplements and photography magazines. He was quite open about the fact that he saw his work as documentary, albeit about what we think of as normal. In the video above he says that almost every image from his Middle England series was taken within walking distance of his home, so are very local, in a similar way to Jim Mottram.

Myers is interested in how a subject relates to the environment of the frame. He feels that the size and location of the subject in the images can subliminally give viewers and insight into the inner lives and horizons of the sitters. I want to use this idea in my assignment series, to indicate something about the subjects’ breadth of interest and whether it is detailed or strategic.

In the article referenced below, Frances Hodgson describes Myers as someone who refuses to exploit his sitters. There is a transparent honesty about the images, and a feeling that they were a cooperative activity between the sitter and the photographer. One can contrast this attitude with, for example, the work of Bruce Gilden or Martin Parr, where the subject is used, perhaps quite cynically, to illustrate the photographer’s opinions. Take for example, Parr’s 1980s Cost of Living series, which focused on the middle class people around Bristol and Bath. The images tell a truth about them, but it is a very politically charged truth, and not a complimentary one. Myers work is much more sympathetic, and that is what I am hoping to aim for in this assignment.

Myers says he often uses flat light and an eye level view for his pictures, as he wants others to see them as if they were behind the camera. Most of his subjects are full length and shown in the middle of the frame. He also says that he looks back at these images now and feels no personal connection to them – they are from another person, i.e. the man he was when he took them, not the man he is now.

Below are three images from the series which give an idea of how he liked to pose his subjects. In all three, the subjects are gazing back at the camera, blank-faced, but the background has a wealth of information about their space, as does the way they occupy it. In all cases, he said that he used the same 4×5″ camera, so that everything about the composition and pose was considered before the shot was taken, with the active participation of the sitters. For example, the image of the couple gives so much away about their relationship in their relative positions and stances.

References

Hodgson, F. (2012) John Myers – middle England. Available at: https://francishodgson.com/2012/03/09/john-myers-middle-england/ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).
IkonGallery (2012) John Myers: Middle England. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FXwUeXERZQ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).
2014, J.M. (2014) John Myers photographs of middle England. Available at: http://www.johnmyersphotographs.com/sales.php (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

 

Assignment 2 research – David Hurn

A couple of years ago, I attended several of the talks at the Photography Oxford event, one of which was titled Shooting Local, so my starting point was to refer back to my notes on that here. I was particularly struck by David Hurn’s long term project about his life at Tintern Abbey’s village, and how he was using his declining years to “give the ordinary its due” and to photograph village life in a sympathetic manner. Several points about the discussion resonated with me, the most specific being my concern that much of the photography work I have seen lately has been about The Other, i.e. communities which we see little of in our everyday lives unless we belong to that group. There seems to be relatively little available on that part of the UK in which most people live, and who represent the silent majority – the inhabitants of towns and villages which are not part of large urban conurbations.

David Hurn – Tintern

david-hu8rn-quote-from-vice-mag

(Bayley, 2014)

I decided to look at David Hurn’s Tintern series in a bit more detail. A link to the most recent images can be found on the Tintern Village website here. The images are taken at local (very local) events, and give an insider’s view of life in a south-western village from the 1980s onwards. He has lived there for many years, so has been pursuing this project alongside his better known documentary and war photography. The images are all black 7 white, and are often taken at odd angles. They include a mixture of individuals and (more often) groups, and focus on the interactions between the subjects. I assume that everyone is aware that Hurn is taking photographs, but that they are so used to it that they hardly register. One could say they are aware, but not directly engaged with the photographer, and there is very little interaction with the camera. The commentary which accompanies the series is also enlightening, referring to people by name and discussing village events. I particularly liked the set about the New Historians group, which resonates strongly with my own experience of local groups who meet up in pubs and community centres – a mixture of wildly different people, united by a common interest.

© David Hurn

Hurn says that his intention is to make the commonplace and mundane interesting. The vice.com article refers to his work as the sublime moments of everyday life. He says he likes to photograph the ordinary, well. This chimes well with my recent thoughts on the representation of everyday life as a resource for future generations – if we only photograph the bizarre, beautiful and amazing, then those details which will show us the reality of life and how much it will have changed are lost. So often in photography, the background tells as much of a story as the people occupying the foreground, and it is a constant source of amazement to me at how much has changed since, for example, the 1980s. Although that decade is only 35 years ago, one can see just how different life was from the present. Hurn manages to take the everyday scenes around his home and imbue them with the same honesty and attention to detail as he would to any of his big documentary project. By doing so, he validates these scenes as having just as much right to be recorded as life during wars, disasters or other momentous events.

As I was researching Hurn’s work, I became aware that a section of my own non-OCA work references a similar idea, i.e. capturing the reality of life at the very local scale, and that subconsciously I have been recording village events as a way of capturing my own experience of that life. Below are three images from Hurn’s series, with three of my own underneath, which were all taken at my village Duck Race event in May.

Looking at the two sets together, I make no claims as to the quality of my work compared to Hurn’s, but there is no doubt that the subject matter and methodology is very similar. Both sets comment on the events in a straightforward, sympathetic way, and from inside the group concerned. I have been considering whether to submit a selection from my Duck Race series as this assignment, but have decided overall that it would be better to shoot something specifically for the submission, rather than reworking photographs I took earlier in the year, albeit after I had started this module. However, my village images are an ongoing project, and so will doubtless turn up again in my work.

References

Bayley, B. (2014) Sublime moments in mundane life: David Hurn’s amazing photos | VICE | United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/david-hurn-photographs-sublime-moments-in-mundane-life (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

Tintern Village (2016) David Hurn’s Tintern photographic project. Available at: http://www.tinternvillage.co.uk/history/david-hurns-photographic-project/ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

Woodward, H. (2014) Photography Oxford – shooting local. Available at: https://hollywoodwardoca.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/photography-oxford-shooting-local/ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

Assignment 2 – The final idea

It has taken a long time to get to grips with this assignment, and until now I have had no sensible ideas of what to photograph. However, yesterday morning I attended a vitally important local event in my capacity as Acting Chair of the Parish Council – the opening of a new playground in the north of the village – which was to be featuring in the local newspaper in the Saturday morning edition , on page 25, so it was hardly headline news. Here is a screenshot of the page.

img_0385

A motley crew of people turned up for the opening, including representatives of the waste management company which helped pay for it, the Parish’s paid staff and a couple of other councillors. I didn’t take my camera, thinking that I would be too busy to use it, but there would have been several opportunities, including elderly and overweight people trying out the zipwire and candid shots of the interactions within a very disparate group of individuals, etc. There was one image that stuck in my mind though, and I dearly wish I had had the forethought to take at least my phone. One of our Borough Councillors (who must be in his late 60s) turned up on his motorised bicycle, crash helmet askew, and with his paperwork extruding out of a pannier, but brimming with enthusiasm. It was a classic example of the reality of local government at its most grassroots level, and I decided I wanted to work with it for my assignment, which is nominally called The Foot Soldiers of  Local Government – Portrait of a Community in Flux.

In particular, I am interested in the ideas of belonging and community and how these can be portrayed through the work of the Parish Council. Photographers I intend to reference will include Tony Ray Jones, Martin Parr, John Myers and David Hurn, although there may be others.

My initial thoughts are to make a series of portraits of some of the Parish Councillors, standing by the elements of community life that most concern them, individually. Some would be close-ups and others shot in the middle distance, to indicate something about their relationship to their subject, and all will be aware, but with the subjects not necessarily looking at the camera. So far, I am thinking the following:

  • Anne – potential new housing projects – outside, Wichelstowe – large scale
  • Chris – planning – in the office, looking at plans, or bus service, at the bus stop
  • Hannah – childrens’ amenities – at the playpark, or renewable energy, at the solar farm
  • Talis – closing services – outside the library with a placard
  • Dave – youth sport – at the Saturday football club
  • Steve – in the Parish office, with the staff

At last, I have a plan that I feel will work, and about which I have a sense of enthusiasm to put into action.