Tag Archives: colour

What is Place?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, with regard to my own work and the different locations I visit round the world. There’s a section in the Landscape course, which asks “what makes a space a place?” and my very basic understanding is that human intervention and the creation of memories there turns a space into a place. However, that is not what has struck me on my globetrotting adventures. My own experience is that it is the colour palette of the landscapes that clearly identify them. For example, when I think about Icelandic landscapes, the pictures in my mind are black, yellow, red and white, while that of central Australia is ochre, black, soft lime green and yellow.

Taking this a little further, it is interesting to flick through my Lightroom library at high speed, over the course of the year. As the seasons change, so does the colour palette in a very clear but subtle way. Of course, we all know that the seasons are associated with different colours – black and white for winter; greens and yellows for spring; bright yellows, reds and blues for summer; and soft golds, bronzes and browns for autumn.

Alongside this, a couple of pieces of work have caught my attention online, which specifically look at the way that colour grading is used in films and TV programmes. Jason Shulman has condensed entire films into a single image, which condenses the colour grading used and which gives hints about it and also how the director filled the screen in their work.  There has been much speculation on the OCA Facebook sites about how he achieved this, and the consensus was that he merged a series of very long exposures. In a similar vein, Visually Satisfying Project Shares the Color Palettes of Iconic Film Scenes, a Twitter project, picks out the specific colours that exemplify movies and puts them together in the same way that Design Seeds uses. This has the effect of bringing together a range of colours that work together and which are reminiscent of the films concerned.

I am keen to explore the idea of working with different colour palettes as representations of a place and have decided to explore them in a couple of different ways. Firstly, I have taken the scenery out of the images for the most part and making mandalas in Photoshop which merge the colours into complex patterns. Below are my first two trials, and I am quite excited about where this might go. They are both from Australia, the first from Uluru and the second from Darwin. Alongside it is an abstract of water reflections from Katherine Gorge in the style of Peter Kenny, a photographer whose abstract work I greatly admire. This has possibilities too. Do zoom in on the mandalas – there is a lot of detail in them

The potential in Photoshop to take this further are huge, and it merges my interests in patchwork and photography in a mutually effective way. There is much to be learned here about the use of vectors in making template shapes and extending the complexity of the work to incorporate symbols and patterns appropriate to the place about which they were made.

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

Joel Sternfeld – Stranger 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.


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.


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).


William Eggleston and the snapshot aesthetic

A couple of days ago, I attended an OCA study visit at the National portrait Gallery, to see William Eggleston’s Portraits, along with about a dozen other students. It was timely, in view of my current Assignment 2 researches on Walker Evans, another photographer working at the same time in a similar style. A separate post on Evans is still in gestation, but will be published very soon.

Eggleston is a self-taught photographer, who began work around 1960. There is a fair representation of his early work, but for me the interesting images were the later colour ones. The exhibit includes 100 images, ranging from  photobooth size right up to A1+. The exhibition area was perhaps a little cramped and photography was no allowed, so I have no images of the space.

Eggleston was one of the first photographers to bring colour images into the mainstream of art photography. John Szarkowski’s promotion of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in the 1970s brought it to general attention, although much of the initial reception of his work was negative, with reviewers labelling it as banal and ordinary. However, they had failed to understand Eggleston’s concept of photographing the everyday in a democratic way, and not giving more importance to any particular element of what he saw. He says there are no pretensions towards photo-journalism; he just photographs what he sees, but has a knack of capturing composition, subject and colour that makes the ordinary interesting. Like Evans, he aims to photograph “the gaps in between everything else”.

Eggleston’s portraits are not his most famous works. Many of the images on show were taken unawares, and he is described as having a delicate, gently touch which captures something we can all relate to. I was particularly struck by the depth and tonality of the colours in the images, and his use of colour accents, particularly red and blue. Eggleston was influenced by abstract expressionism and this shows in his work. The colours themselves are very rooted in the fashions of the time of the images, and again, like Evans, one can date the images by the colour palettes he used.

I found the YouTube video below fascinating in the way it shows how Eggleston works. His images are rooted in the “Snapshot Aesthetic” (see below) and it is very clear that he embraces this idea totally. He is shown pottering round a nondescript area of his home town, literally taking single, fast snaps of whatever catches his eye. There is no sense of preparation about his method – he just responds to what he sees. “He discovers his subject within the myriad of possibilities.” As a result, the focus is often variable, and frequently emphasises odd parts of the image, but that is part of the charm of the work. At the same time, many of his works have an odd sense of foreboding and unreality, and there is often a fleeting impression of a narrative which the viewer cannot quite grasp.

Images that particularly struck me were the girl in the back of the car, for its strange composition, which forces the eye in towards the centre of the image, and the old lady on the swing seat, largely because of the sheer ugliness of the clashing colours. The lady seems to be lost within them all, but there is a strong sense of place and personality about it.

The Snapshot Aesthetic

This also appeared in the 1960s and was popular until the 1980s among art photographers. The linked article here by a student in New Zealand gives a good explanation. The fundamental basis for the aesthetic is that snapshots, with their unposed, casual feel have a sense of authentically representing the world which is absent from more formal photography. It harks back to the idea of photography being the only truthful art, capturing a moment of reality that has indisputably occurred, and something that has now been shown to be false.

Overall, the study day was interesting and it was good to meet some new students. I left after lunch and headed off to the Imperial War Museum to see Secret War and Edmund Clark’s War on Terror exhibitions. The latter was a multimedia work looking at the lives of some of the inmates who were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, and was very interesting.






Lynn Berger, “Snapshots, or: Visual Culture’s Clichés,” Photographies 4, no. 2 (2011): 175-190