Thursday, 21 April 2011

Assignment Two – Tutor Feedback

I got some very detailed feedback from my tutor on my Assignment Two submission last week.  My first reaction was a degree of concern.  Whilst he was very positive about the process that I’d gone through and the way I’d written that up in the Log, there seemed to be a few significant criticisms that made me worry that either I’d got it ‘wrong’ (not that there is a ‘wrong’, of course!) or that he hadn’t ‘got’ what I was trying to do.  We agreed that I would respond to his points and then we would speak on the telephone, which we have now done at some length.  It is really, really, useful to have someone devote time to discussing my work with me, especially to have a verbal dialogue about it.  There can still be differences of opinion and there is always bound to be a degree of tension, but I’m beginning to learn that this is part of the creative process.  To be questioned and challenged, and to need to respond with justification/explanation feels like a kind of privilege.  It gives the work a value.
So, to the specifics and what can be learned from Assignment Two:
·         He feels that I have taken the brief down a particularly challenging route by photographing ‘people eating in a public place’, which is not necessarily a bad thing but which was always going to make it hard to fully address some aspects – notably “telling moments” and “’explaining’ the activity”.
·         I’ve not done a bad job of it but, by choosing a relatively mundane activity, the ‘telling moments’ are subtle and often left to the viewer to interpret.  That isn’t a problem in itself, but it reduces the variety in my presentation and means that I have not given myself the chance to demonstrate that I can effectively direct the viewer.  Subtlety is something that I guess I would always value over the more obvious, but I take the point about the need to demonstrate a range of skills in the learning process.
·         The opportunities for ‘explaining’ are also limited by the fact that the activity is so simple and straightforward.  Again, I understand that it has reduced the opportunity for me to fully demonstrate what I can do, and it is certainly something I need to bear in mind in the future.  On the other hand, the series of images does do some ‘explaining’ about motivation, context, variety, commonality, behaviour etc, in relation to people eating in a public place.
·         There are areas where my notes might have gone further in explaining the options I had considered and rejected i.e. my decision-making, as well as the choices that I had actually made.  Some of that is covered elsewhere in the Log, but I probably need to make it more explicit in the notes with the images – maybe a less descriptive approach than the one I took here.
·         The timing, framing and cropping could have been improved on some of these images.  I do think I’ve made progress in trying think of all angles before pressing the shutter for ‘street’ images, but there is a lot to consider and some of these have people in the background that ‘interfere’ with the impact of the main subject.
·         I’ve still got some work to do on my printing, with a number of the images being on the light side when printed.  It has been useful to get a professional eye cast over them and I think there are a couple of key things going on here:
§  The need for practice and experience of looking at my own prints critically, comparing different versions, and making improvements.
§  The need to improve my Photoshop skills so that I can take the ‘soft proof’ version and work on it more effectively.
So, quite a bit to consider there, but chiefly I note again what a useful learning experience it is to have someone devoting time to a critical examination and discussion of my work.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Buildings and Spaces – some research

The introductory notes to Section Three of the course say, quite rightly, that ‘Non-architectural photography of buildings and man-made spaces ... is not considered a genre ...’.  So, I have been doing some research – looking at examples.

I started out in the obvious place – magazines related to the ‘Home’, where there would be plenty of images of domestic spaces.  It didn’t take long to reach one (hardly surprising) conclusion.  Photographs of interiors that have been taken for use in advertisements are totally product-focused.  Since their whole purpose is to highlight and sell the kitchen, floor, furniture, or whatever, that is to be expected.  Almost without fail, the outcome is a stark, impersonal, de-humanised image of an artificial-looking space.  I found one exception – an advert for an iron bed-frame, where there was a crumpled spread on the bed, with two dogs lying on it, and a canvas bag casually pushed underneath.  This one actually did look as though the human race exists, but many didn’t!  Images designed to illustrate articles were, on the whole ‘better’ at including a sense of humanity.  They included the normal clutter of human life – tidied, perhaps, but present – usually shot in natural light.  The framing is interesting when photographing a domestic interior (as opposed to a studio set).  It becomes necessary to work around the ‘architecture’ of the space, whereas an advertising shot will frequently create that architecture to suit the image the client wants.  The result is that many shots can seem harshly and arbitrarily cropped, when viewed in their own right rather than as part of the article (with text around them, and supported by other images of the same space).  Looking at shots of a real kitchen, for example, the frame cuts through a table, a cupboard, a work-surface, a towel, and so on.  There is a door, half open, leading outside.  It works OK, partly because it includes lots of elements of the room within a small area, but also precisely because the cropping suggests a continuation beyond the frame.  We get a sense of the space that we can’t see.  A lesson here for some of the advertising photographers, perhaps – just create partial-reality, but photograph it as though there is much more that we can’t see!!

Then I thought I would move on to some of the photographic books and browse through, looking primarily for pictures of man-made spaces.  I have been surprised by how many I’ve found – and by the opportunity to make some interesting comparisons between some well-known names, for example.  What about Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, to kick things off?  I’ve written up some notes for myself elsewhere on some of the individual images, which I won’t write-up in full here, because creating links to the images would be very time-consuming but the comments won’t be much use without the images.  So, I’ll keep it general.

Looking at Meyerowitz’s ‘Cape Light’ first of all; the very first ‘Plate’ (‘Hartwig House, Truro’) is an interior shot, looking through a series of open doors but, interestingly, with the frame cropped so that we sense another room to the right and other space around us.  And there are other examples – not least, the series of ‘Porch’ images in this book.  In these, he photographs a man-made external space, the Porch, by looking through it and outwards, in different lights and under different conditions.  There is Plate 31, ‘Trompe L’Oeil Interior’, which is actually an image of a big open space inside a church.  As the title suggests, it features a trick of light and reflection, but the space itself is almost ‘hinted at’, as there are the tips of pews in the foreground/bottom of frame, and just a hint of ceiling at the top – otherwise, it’s just empty space.  There are more examples in his ‘Tuscany’ book – Plate 16 ‘Inside the Old Guard House’, which is being used to butcher wild boar, no question about ‘function’ in this case.  As usual with Meyerowitz, it is the sensitive and creative use of light that comes through, but also that framing, designed to create interest and to give a sense of what is happening around, and usually with a ‘human’ touch.

In Stephen Shore’s case, I’ve been looking through ‘Uncommon Places’, where there are, of course, countless images of hotel rooms.  I suppose there is almost a typographical thing going on – collecting these images as he does his ‘road trip’.  Shore’s pictures have a much more ‘deadpan’ feel, which matches the impersonal, dehumanised spaces of the hotel rooms very well.  Again we see the ‘selective framing’ that is unavoidable when photographing a room; and sometimes almost down to what becomes more like a still life – as in Room 28, Holiday Inn, Medicine Hat – you can almost smell that room, just from the colour and texture in the table lamp that features as the major subject.  Shore also ‘collects’ images of houses in ‘Uncommon Places’ – but very definitely not from an architectural point of view.  Colour features highly – Terrace Bay, Ontario, with its half finished blue wooden walls and bright red door; or Kimballs Lane, Moody, Maine, with red, grey, blue, yellow, green, purple, plus bags of personality and a quirky white poodle lurking behind a fence.  Then in complete contrast, there is Wilde Street and Colonization Avenue, Dryden, with a totally faceless concrete dwelling, photographed in the shade on a sunny day to enhance its facelessness, sitting at an anonymous road junction, and framed by two ubiquitous telegraph poles and a random network of wires and cables.  OK, I’ve gone on a bit about Shore – essentially, by collecting and juxtaposing, he is creating interest and character, making anonymous places and spaces into works of art.  They don’t have the humanity that I always feel is present in Meyerowitz; they are soulless places a lot of the time, but they are lifted out of anonymity by what he does with them.

Then I looked at Eggleston’s ‘Guide’, where there are also images of rooms, spaces and buildings.  As usual with Eggleston, these are rather less ‘comfortable’ images than, say, Meyerowitz – a darker side to them.  Page 20 Tallahatchie County is a well-known photograph – the living room with an unmade jigsaw on the coffee table.  Soft natural light; half-cropping of items around edge of frame; a ‘softer’ finish, less sharpness and less clarity compared with the Shore & JM (hand-held 35mm, I assume, and wider angle) – but, it’s the knee jutting crudely into the bottom of the frame, and the random scattering of the jigsaw pieces that make this feel unsettled, as though something has been interrupted – and the door is closed, unlike virtually every such interior with JM.  And there are others – the famous green-tiled shower room – a harsh, flash-lit image, overpoweringly utilitarian, not a place for refreshment and relaxation.  The same could be said for Shore’s hotel rooms (and bath/shower rooms) but Eggleston just goes a stage further – not deadpan but brash.

That has been an interesting exercise – and it has taken in some other contemporary work along the way e.g. Jeff Wall & Thomas Struth – because although it is certainly true to say that ‘man-made space’ doesn’t figure as a recognised genre, it is very clear that it is a concept that has attracted the attention of many well-known and respected photographers.  Photographic artists seek to bring the viewer’s attention to aspects of life, often mundane aspects, and since we all spend so much of our time in man-made spaces, and since those spaces differ in the way that they can impact on or reflect the mood and behaviour of human beings, it isn’t surprising that those photographers have taken the time to portray how these spaces look and feel.  My turn next – and I think I’ll play it safe with one of our own domestic spaces at home to begin with.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The “Big Issue” Issue

Last Wednesday, I received an e-mail from OCA Photography Course Leader, Jose Navarro, asking me if I would like to be the second OCA student to take part in a collaboration with ‘Big Issue in the North’.  Not fully aware of the requirements, I nonetheless said ‘Yes’, and Jose said he would send me further details in another e-mail, which I received later in the day.  The opportunity to have one of my images published in this magazine – bigissueinthenorth – felt genuinely exciting.  I have never had anything published anywhere before and, as I travelled to a business meeting that day, I was pondering which of my images might fit the bill – something from the recent street work, perhaps?
To be honest, Jose’s second e-mail caused me some trepidation.  It spelled out the brief, which was to supply 10-20 images, by Monday, on ‘one or several topics relevant to this week’.  There was more detail and supportive advice, but it was the thought of producing 10-20 topical images that alarmed me.  I certainly interpreted it as meaning new images – how else would they be topical, unless I was very lucky – and time was limited (not least because I had family commitments for most of the weekend).  The opportunity was too good to miss, though, and I’d said ‘Yes’, plus there is nothing like taking on a challenge!
On Wednesday night, I did some research, some thinking, and some consultation with family & friends.  The nearest I got to anything specific happening that I could go and photograph was a ‘Green Fest’ in Huddersfield, but it sounded as though I might already have missed the opportunity.  However, I decided that I would pursue it in the town next morning.  I woke early, still concerned as to what I had let myself in for, and whether I could deliver.  I had an idea for an image on the subject of ‘sales collapsing in the High Street’/’recession in a Northern town’/’the reputation of the banks’ – nothing fancy, but I thought there must be somewhere that I could get a shot of a bank reflected in the window of a closed High Street shop (Yes, sounds like a cliché, but I needed to start somewhere!).
My supposition about the ‘Green Fest’ turned out to be correct – no sign of anything – but I did get my shot of the bank in a shop window, plus a few other possibilities.  I began to home in on the idea of ‘Two sides of the story’ – finding other ‘recession-related’ images that showed winning and losing/ups and downs.  I didn’t have a lot of time that morning, but felt that I might not have made a bad start with these.

There were no ‘stars’ but I resolved to keep going on this idea.  I went back to Huddersfield for two more short visits and one longer one, fitting them between business and family commitments.  I knew, by the time I completed the last of these sessions, on Monday lunchtime, that it didn’t feel to have gone well.  I couldn’t honestly say that I had one image with which I felt confident.  I probably had almost 20 that I could have put together as a sequence, and which would have provided a good narrative – in a magazine article, on a wall, in a book – but this was about producing one ‘stand out’ image.  On top of that, when I did the rounds of internet sites that afternoon, the publicity was out on the first OCA submission for this collaboration – here – and it was clear that there had been a very different approach with Ben’s image.  It is a carefully thought through assignment image, well-constructed, well-lit, and a credit to his creativity, which has been captioned to give it topical reference.  I, on the other hand, had been looking for visually interesting, well-observed street shots.  Nothing wrong with that in principle, of course, except that I hadn't found many and didn’t feel confident about the outcome!
Unfortunately, with a deadline to meet, I didn’t have any alternative.  I captioned a selection of the images as best I could, and sent them off to Jose – the five above plus the seven below.  I have not included the captions and titles, for the sake of brevity.  I did also express my concerns in an e-mail to Jose, of course.

The eventual decision, in an e-mail this morning, is to select the second of the first batch of five above – ‘Destiny and Revival’ as I had titled it.  Its topicality will be improved by producing a caption that links it specifically to news of struggling High Street sales, and it will be cropped, as below.  This is partly to focus the message and also to make its proportions more suitable for publication (though the original image, before I tightened the crop myself, might have overcome that anyway).

So, I will have one of my pictures published in ‘Big Issue in the North’ next week commencing 11th April.  How do I feel?  In truth, (and there is little point completing a learning blog unless it contains the truth!) disappointed.  Why?  I don’t feel it does justice to me, OCA, and my fellow students.  It’s a photo of a shop front!!  OK, I know that it has an eye-catching quality and I know that it probably works, and I’m going to reflect on the 'how and why' of that in a moment – but, in the end, it’s a photo of a shop front!  I spent quite some time agonising over how I would deal with this challenge, and quite a lot of time pounding the streets of Huddersfield in the last few days taking all sorts of images, and the outcome is a photo of a shop front!
Right, I’ve got that off my chest, now to look at the learning aspects and to draw some positives from the experience.
·         The reason that this image can, potentially, work in the magazine is that it has a strong, clear message that is bound up in the unfortunate name of the shop and the uncompromising nature of the posters they have chosen to put in their windows as they face their demise.  It is what stopped me dead in the street as I passed it, and it is what can catch the eye on the page of a magazine.  I might feel the need to go all ‘artistic’ (sorry) and get upset that I’m not having the opportunity to demonstrate my creative skills, but an editor of a news publication wants images that get a message across.  Welcome to the world of journalism, Stan!
·         There are, I suggest, broadly two ways that one can approach the brief for the Big Issue collaboration – to look for/take a creative, ‘quality’ image, which has the potential to be captioned in a way that will link it to a topical news item; or go out and photograph something that you know will link to a topical news item.  I chose the latter, but on reflection, didn’t have a sharp enough idea of what I was looking for.  I think the notion of '10-20 images' intimidated me and I set out for quantity over quality.  Without a very clear idea of what I was photographing, that was always going to be difficult.  Knowing that there is an event or a demonstration, or something specific to go after is the ideal way to follow the second approach.  But ‘topicality’ is vital – and the caption can have almost as much to do with that as the image itself.
·         I have learned what it feels like to work under pressure and to a deadline – some of the pressure self-imposed, in truth.  I don’t actually mind that, and I didn’t mind it on this occasion, but I wish I could have felt more satisfied with the outcome.
·         At a more trivial level, I now know about Dropbox, and I’ve seen a few corners of Huddersfield that I hadn’t seen before!!
·         And, of course, I will have a picture in The Big Issue next week.
Thanks, Jose and OCA, for the opportunity. I really do wish I’d done a better job of it and I can’t help a sense of frustration – but there we go.  I hope these notes are helpful to others who want to take up the challenge.  Good luck, and I look forward to seeing some fantastic images.