Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Hotshoe Magazine Oct-Nov 2010

Two interesting and relevant articles from the most recent edition of Hotshoe.

The first, 'Comfort Women', is represented on the cover that should be viewable by the link above.  Written by Bill Kouwenhoven, it illustrates and reviews the series of portraits, made in recent years, by Jan Benning, of 'Comfort Women' from Japanese Occupied Indonesia in WWII.  The subject matter is sad and disturbing, but that is not for this post.  I really wanted to comment on the portrait-making,
  • The writer's opening says 'It is the eyes that get you at first ...', which is exactly the comment I made about the portraits of Steve McCurry.  Benning's portraits, several of which are reprinted in full A4 page size in the magazine, are all head and shoulders framing; full face to the camera; looking, without any distinctive expression, deadpan in effect, straight back at the viewer.  They appear to have been lit from above and behind the camera, down onto the women's faces.
  • It is indeed the stares that get you, all different but all challenging the viewer in a similar way, and then it is the 'every detail' in the faces that expand the story - all of them with, for me, an elegance and dignity that pays tribute to their strength and stoicism, albeit the accompanying personal stories demonstrate the price they have all paid for the abuse they suffered all those years ago.
  • As portraits, they are stunning, complex, and even beautiful.  They cannot, in effect, be viewed in isolation from the background, despite what I said above, but they do, I think, deserve the use of words such as elegance and beauty.
Then there is and article about Brian Griffin, written by Miranda Gavin, in the context of the 'Face to Face: A Retrospective' exhibition in Birmingham, and some of his portraits appearing in the'Road to 2012' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  I'm not looking to pick out too much from this article, but 'Portraiture is an immensely difficult genre and hugely underrated' is worth repeating.  With 40+ years experience behind him he should know what he's talking about.  He doesn't believe that a lot of people apply themselves to portraits in a 'considered way' and with enough 'energy and interest'.  He doesn't rate the Taylor Wessing portrait competition - '.. it's pretty awful, really.'  The more recent portraits, mainly groups, illustrated in the article have a 'staged' look about them, and he describes them as 'very TV, very filmic'.  Certainly they are very different from those of Jan Benning!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Project 02: Thinking about location

The first stage of this Project is to research potential locations for interesting 'whole body or torso' portraits.  I have been carrying the compact camera with me on a few walks in and around Holmfirth, and keeping a watchful eye has proved fruitful. Reference images have been taken of a number of possibilities for suture use, but here are the six selected for the project - looking to demonstrate some variety in the selection.
Location 1

Situated on a footpath by the River Holme, this is the back of a derelict mill.  There are a number of these peeling drainpipes, which as well as providing colour and interest in their own right have the potential for marked textural contrast with human skin.  The area is shaded, so light might be a problem, and there are tall trees on a hillside opposite, so whatever sunlight does get through will be 'dappled'.  The river is behind the camera position, so stepping back to get a full length portrait might require care (or a diving suit), but torso to head and shoulders will work OK.

Location 2

This is further along the footpath from the first location and offers a good possibility for full length or torso level images.  The 'platform' is steel and solid, so safe for the subject, despite being right by the river.  This shot is taken from some steps that lead up from the river bank, offering an interesting camera angle, either for a subject looking upwards or for a view down onto a subject standing, looking into the water, for example.  There is also space to the right of this view, for a more level camera angle.  Light might again be an issue, but there is likely to be direct sun at some times of day.

Location 3

This location is close to the centre of Holmfirth and offers a number of possibilities - the corner between wall and building; the window or the wall as background; looking down at camera from the metal rail above the wall; and even some steps in the background.  Light is likely to be consistently shaded, so soft for portrait making, and there are firm surfaces where a tripod could be used, if required.

Location 4

I saw this location as having the potential for something a bit different - walking towards camera down the cobbled slope, for example, or leaning moodily against the wall on the left.  This is definitely a shady spot (by which I mean it lacks light, not that it is dangerous!), so some flash might be necessary to get light into the subject's face.

Location 5

Located in a small park close to the town centre, this location is potentially quite complex, in terms of the background, but at the right time of year, could offer good colour and framing for either ful mength or torso length images.  The light is generally good (this shot having been taken with the camera facing more or less due South), with possibiltities for shooting from either side of the archway.

Location 6

This park/play area, a little way up the valley side and overlooking Holmfirth, provides interesting possibilities for scenic background, with the metal railings on the right providing somewhere for the subject to stand, but also for sitting and even lying on the metal seats (at the right time of year!).  It might also work well for group shots.  Probably the main problem with this and the previous location is that this is a popular area at weekends and the the previous is something of a thoroughfare.  It would be important to pick the right time of day to avoid continual interruption, or creating a nuisance for other users.

I have chosen to present some images at Location 2 for this project.

The location has worked well for both full length and torso images, and has provided two different camera angles.  The background works successfully in providing context, contrast and interest, without detracting from the main focus of the portrait.  We also tried a few variations of stance, hand positions etc.

Thanks to Isobel for modelling so well.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Project 01: Portrait, scale and setting

Project 01 was completed, 19/10/10, and these are the four images selected are below.

 Face, cropped in close
Project 01-1

 Head and shoulders
Project 01-2

Project 01-3

 Full figure
Project 01-4

In the close cropped image, the viewer's attention is very much focused on the features of the face, particularly the eyes.  We deliberately tried to go for a 'blank' expression, trying not to direct a viewer's reaction one way or another, but there is an inevitable tendency to try to 'read' the eyes, and also the mouth.  In this example, the lack of deliberate expression could easily be read negatively.  There is a 'coldness' about the stare and tight lips, which doesn't quite 'fit' with a 'softness' in the eyes.  I feel that the casual viewer would find him/herself flitting between eyes and mouth, looking for 'signals'.

The head & shoulders image still focusses the viewer on the facial features, primarily, and on the eye/mouth combination, but in this image, the angle of the head (though essentially the same as in the cropped image) comes into play to some degree.  The viewer senses the subject leaning back, head slightly cocked, which when combined with the tiniest hint of a smile, creates a more 'wry' and 'laid back' feeling.

Moving back for the torso image brings the background into view so that we can tell that the subject is on stairs, but that doesn't necessarily play a big part in the viewer's reading of the image.  The dark top means that the upper torso doesn't 'say' much either, and the hands are (deliberately, because we didn't see them having a natural position in this framing) out of sight.  The arms at the subject's side, and the more 'deliberate' smile, combined with this particular framing, give this version a more 'formal' look, and perhaps more sense that the subject is 'posing'.

Finally, the full figure image does confirm that the subject is sitting casually on a staircase, apparently in a domestic setting.  His 'expression' (or lack of it) is not dissimilar to that in the first image, apart from the angle of the head, and there could be the same feeling of 'coldness', but the domestic context, his casual dress, casual body stance, relaxed hands, and bare feet all confirm the casualness and informality of the portrait.

I have a few comments to add, relating to the portrait making process, which is very new, for me.
  • Careful communication with the subject needs practice.  I had done a fair amount of 'technical' preparation so as not to waste time during the session, but I could have been better prepared in terms of my 'directions'.
  • No amount of technical preparation will exclude the need to think on your feet e.g. getting light into my subject's eyes was harder than expected following the practice sessions because of the (inevitable) difference in facial structure.
  • I very deliberately went for a 'simple' lighting situation - chiefly from a single 'tungsten' source above and left of frame - but it led to some constraints on options for posing.
  • My intention was to take a studied approach, trying to visualise the shot before pressing the shutter, but one can easily get drawn into 'snapping' in the hope of capturing something.  I was certainly conscious of potentially been drawn in those two different directions.  The low light level meant that I couldn't have gone too 'happy snappy' though - fortunately!
A satisfactory start - and much learned - 'Many thanks' to Ed for his patience as my first 'victim'.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Pearls from Parr

At the weekend, I attended a Royal Photographic Society Event, called 'Getting Personal', at which the presenters were Martin Parr & John Darwell.  In general, I would have to say that the programme did not strictly address its title in a very direct or structured manner, but that did not detract from the enjoyment.  Martin Parr, in particular, is great value for money and listening to him talk about his career, his work and his approach, was a joy.  I have pulled out a few interesting points from the notes I took on the day:
  • Parr says that he photographs his prejudices (and hinted that he has a few; and that they are often strongly held).  You can see why such an approach would lead to strong images.
  • Specifically, he said that he likes to photograph the inherent vulnerability and ambiguity of British pomposity.  (I gained the feeling that he is, in the end, a subversive - though, I suppose, now part of the photographic establishment, perhaps.)
  • To be a photographer, he said, you have to be an obsessive.
  • Photography is inherently subjective and is always exploitative.
  • He mentioned two particular influences - American photographer Roger Minick and John Hinde's postcard photography (especially the Butlins postcards).
  • Says he does 'serious photography disguised as entertainment'.
  • He stresses the importance of 'throwing yourself' into the connection with your subject; also that many people spend too much time theorising rather than getting out an taking photographs.
  • He has a collection of more than 12,000 photo books (I think that was the right figure) - and it struck me that this is also his own 'output', the photobook as a work of art, compared with, say, Gursky, Wall and the like, who will produce a single, monumental piece of art in a single structured image.
Whilst not necessarily specifically about 'People and Place', there is some useful material here.  I like the notion of photographing you prejudices.  I can't instantly think how I would apply that; perhaps I don't have enough prejudices!

Sunday, 17 October 2010


Progress made since my first post in here:
  • I have my course material and have read through it.  The first section, on the more 'formal' side of portrait making, looks as though it will need the greatest organisation and planning of the whole course, with eight projects, each of which requires a portrait session, and then the assignment.  Finding enough different subjects, without 'putting-on' relatives and friends too much, will be a challenge.  I have been listing possibles, and sounding a few people out.
  • Have made contact with my tutor, who seems well-suited to support on 'People and Place', judging by images and projects on his website.  I have re-negotiated the deadline on assignment one, on the basis of the amount of organisation required.  I will target mid-December to complete section one and have my assignment ready to submit.
  • I have been 'collecting' examples of 'portraits', or should I say images of people in formal and non-formal (aware and unaware) situations, from The Times.  I've simply been flicking through and picking out images that strike me, one way or another, and cutting them out; and then I figure I can spend some time trying to understand why they have made an impact.
  • I have my first session organised for Tuesday 19th October, for Project One.  I have a subject, and a probable location; plus, I have taken a few 'test shots' without a subject present.  It will be shot under 'ordinary' domestic tungsten lights, so getting the colour right will be tricky, even allowing for the chance to adjust it afterwards.  I might also have to do a little more work on planning the framing for a 'full' portrait.
So, almost under way.

Monday, 11 October 2010

At the beginning

Predictably, since this is a new course and I am new to blogging, the biggest question on my mind is 'How do I get started?'.  This post is essentially about 'setting pen to paper', if I can use an outmoded but seemingly appropriate expression; in other words, the best way to get started is 'to get started'.
This is my fourth OCA course, so I am reasonably experienced in the distance learning process.  I have completed 'The Art of Photography' and 'Introduction to Digital Photography' at Level 1, and 'Landscape' at Level 2.  The first two have been assessed formally and achieved 'B' grade.  The latter has just been submitted for formal assessment as I am starting out on this course in October 2010.  The decision to enrol on 'People & Place' has probably caused me more thought than any of the previous three.  I need another Level 1 course if I am to complete the 120 CATS points towards a degree, so that aspect wasn't hard.  But, until a few weeks ago, I had more or less discounted this particular option in favour either of a more 'theory-based' course, such as Visual Studies, or something wholly different, such as Starting to Write.  So, what changed my mind?

Firstly, I attended the Steve McCurry Retrospective exhibition in Birmingham a few weeks ago.  In all honesty, I went with a sceptical mind, having (wrongly and on limited information) associated him with travel photography and National Geographical magazine.  The famous 'Afghan Girl' portrait was used heavily in the advertising, and probably contributed to my attitude.  I came away less than impressed by the curation, signage, layout etc, but very drawn to McCurry's portraits - not just 'Afghan Girl' but several others captured in a similar manner (head & torso, looking directly into the lens, strong eye contact and definition, strong colours, often high contrast, printed large and 'sharp').  It wasn't just that they impressed me, though they certainly did, but that they set me thinking about the 'portrait-making' process. I found I wanted to know, for example, what form of communication with the subject enables McCurry to get that highly defined and distinctive look in the eyes, because I felt sure it was more than just a technical issue.

Then, I have been reading Michael Fried's 'Why Photography Matter as Art as Never Before' (Yale University Press) and happened to have reached Chapter 7, which looks at portraits by Thomas Struth, Rineke Dijkstra, amongst others.  I won't claim that I can fully understand everything in this book, but the concepts of absorption, theatricality/anti-theatricality, combined with Fried's highly detailed, insightful and challenging analysis of these portraits, and how they were made, further stimulated my thoughts about the process of portrait making.

And finally, finding myself with no focused photographic challenge/direction, having completed the 'Landscape' course, made me realise that I did actually want to continue with something that provided focus & direction; and also, stimulated by the exposure to portraiture just described, that to move outside of the comfort zone of landscape, still life etc, was exactly the challenge that I needed.

So, I have made a start.  I also have the course material now, and anumber of books 'on order'.