Monday, 31 October 2011

“Photography & the City” – RPS Event at NMM

On Saturday, I attended a Royal Photographic Society organised event at the National Media Museum, entitled “Photography & the City”.  Fellow OCA student, Rob, was also there.  There were four speakers through the day:
Ian Beesley – Social documentary photographer and course leader on the MA in Photography at the University of Bolton;
Roger Hargreaves – photography writer & curator;
John Davies – contemporary documentary photographer;
Colin Harding – Curator of Photographic Technology at the NMM.
Ian Beesley presented images that he has shot in Bradford from late 70s to today.  They were almost exclusively black and white and mainly of architecture or urban detail; though there were some portraits or groups, mainly shot in a deadpan, posed manner in front of buildings, and at least one shot of children playing in the street.  I would have included a link here to some of his images but there seems to be nothing on the web.  Most of these photographs had been made in the late 70s and early 80s, when Beesley was in his late twenties or early thirties, and he said in his presentation that looking back at them made him realise that they had been about recreating his past, revisiting his childhood.  He was born in Bradford and grew up there.  The images were mainly high contrast, quite grainy, reflecting a gritty documentary style – he acknowledged Bill Brandt as an influence, including quoting him as having said that ‘photography is not a sport; there are no rules, I can do what I want’.
A confident and entertaining presenter, he adorned his images with some enjoyable tales of their creation and of the characters who peopled the Bradford of his youth – not least the fight between two blind piano players in a pub car park!  That said, there was some content that I found useful and informative – not least the images themselves, which reminded me also of the early Don McCullen photographs of Finsbury Park, London.  Those were earlier than Beesley’s, and showed bombed out streets peopled by gangs and down-and-outs rather than demolished mills and streets where only the pub or fish shop had been left standing – but they had some common ground, and not just the high contrast grainy black & white presentation.
He said that he sees that he has been photographing change, and he had even been back to some of the locations specifically for this presentation, to try and photograph what, if anything remained from his images of thirty years before.  In most cases, the answer was nothing, and he had even struggled to identify the exact location.  I think he was trying to avoid suggesting that the changes hadn’t been for the better, but that feeling did come through anyway.  Reflecting again on the style of the images, the grainy black and white, which he also used for the updated ‘today’ images, I find that I cannot avoid reading them as nostalgic and, as Beesley himself said, seeking to recreate and revisit the past.  What if all these images had been in colour?  Which they clearly could have been.  How would the narrative have looked then?
John Davies, with an international reputation ( had a high level of credibility, for me, not least because I have already looked at some of his work during my Landscape course.  That said, he struggled a little as a presenter and, at times, seemed to find it difficult to talk expressively about his work.  It was interesting to note that he identified his early direction and inspiration as surrealism.  He suggested that photography was more effective that painting in expressing a surreal aesthetic because of its connotations of reality, which gives it a strong potential to undermine.  His early work was chiefly landscape in the more rural and traditional sense ‘tackling’ a scene from a high vantage point, looking down and exploring the topography, using changes in weather and light quality; but he then went on to ‘look at cities’ through their industries.  We saw many of his characteristic high detail city landscapes, often exploring particularly ‘quirky’ architectural aspects.  He said that he often finds it difficult to explain why a particular location appeals to him, but he just sees some conflict, some edge, which ‘creates a sense of meaning’ for him – back to the surrealism and making people question the world and the tradition around them.  When talking about this image of Ladbroke Grove, London, taken in 1985, he noted the queue of people at the phone box, and then remarked that he is sometimes surprised to realise that his photographs have become historical documents.  That’s an interesting one; his website describes him as a contemporary documentary photographer, so I interpret the remark to mean that the images are made now, for now, to reflect the particular conflict or edge that he has seen and to encourage the viewer to see today differently.  25 years on, inevitably, some aspects of that edginess look dated.
I was particularly interested in something he had to say about his creative process.  It was said in the context of a current or planned project about Britain as a warmongering nation.  He said that he begins with a concept, with something to say, and then looks for strong graphic images that demonstrate that concept or message.  Of course, he was referring to his personal work rather than his commissioned work (I think), and he is well enough established to be able to take that approach, but I think that is something which could usefully inform my own work.  My images of Holmfirth in Assignment Four, were made to a plan, to a brief, but not in relation to any overarching concept or message.  As I said in my previous post, and as will be clear when I write up my tutor feedback, the resulting series does its job and satisfies the brief, but it doesn’t have much emotion or obvious message in it.
The other two presentations comprised an examination of Trafalgar Square as a recurring photographic subject and location, from a very early daguerretype from before Nelson’s Column was built to mobile phone images of today; and an illustration & description of the work of the street ‘smudgers’ (‘stop me and have one taken’ photographers)..  Of passing interest, there wasn’t too much in either to inform one’s image making, but I did reflect on the comparison between the ‘unchanging architectural backdrop’ of Trafalgar Square and the very definitely ‘changing architectural backdrop’ of Beesley’s picture of Bradford.
A useful day; good to have the opportunity to talk with a fellow student again as well; and I got the chance for a very quick look at the Donovan Wylie exhibition at the NMM, which I want to back to in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Assignment 4 - Submission

Having made the final selection of twelve images, they have now gone off to my tutor, with accompanying notes.  The twelve are as follows & then I have included my 'Summary & Assessment', which went with the detailed notes in the submission.

My twelve images do, I believe, fulfil the brief, with enough range and variety to show the character of Holmfirth & its people and sufficient scope for a selection of twelve images to illustrate an ‘intelligent, thoughtful’ article in a travel magazine.

·         There is variety in terms of subject, scale and type.  I think there might, on reflection, have been more ‘detail’ type images but, as indicated in the notes, some do offer scope for cropping.

·         There is, I think, a good range of signs and indicators as to the nature of Holmfirth & the people that one encounters – not a comprehensive range necessarily, but then that would be very difficult to achieve in any circumstances.

·         Some of the characteristics I came up with in my planning, those that I particularly wanted to demonstrate, were rugged, busy, rather quirky, complicated, quite eclectic; and my images have a sort of ‘no frills’ feel about them, which fits with those characteristics.  My meaning here is that they don’t show a great deal of creativity in, for example, use of focus and focal length, camera angle, etc but this, for me, is a natural reaction to a rugged, no-nonsense, Pennine town.

·         Despite the variety of subject and style, I feel that they hang together successfully, and it is possibly the common theme of stone and stone buildings that supplies a visual link throughout.

·         If there is one characteristic from my list above that could perhaps have been illustrated more effectively it would be the ‘busy’ nature of Holmfirth.  It is there, in one or two, but there might have been ‘people on the move’ type images that would have given another dimension.

·         There are some aspects of the town that have not been illustrated.  Holmfirth has a historic link with cinema – both production and showing – which doesn’t appear; but I think a more important one is the river.  Water has been significant as a driver of the industrial revolution, as a source of destruction & death (three floods), and as a characteristic of the towns visual attraction today.  Water appears in one image, but there might have been more.

·         One positive worth mentioning is that people appear in nine of the twelve images selected, which is genuine progress for me and a direct reflection of the way my photography has developed during this course.  And I have already referred to the specific progress in creating arranged, posed portraits.

·         I wonder whether a picture editor would feel that there were enough eye-catching images; maybe the choice of ‘openers’ is limited to just two or three – perhaps relates to my comment above about use of creative techniques.

·         In reflecting on the series, I find myself making a comparison with some work that has featured a few times in my blog discussions – the ‘From Back Home’ works of Anders Petersen & J H Engstrom.  My blog of 23rd March 2011 contains some thoughts on this work and the reason I mention it here is that the series is all about a ‘place’ that is familiar to both of them.  In their case, they were producing a personal piece of work, reflecting an emotional expression of the part of Sweden in which they both grew up.  The key word I want to bring up is in that sentence – ‘emotional’.  I don’t think there is much sign of an emotional response in my images of Holmfirth.  The series reflects more of an objective, stand back and observe attitude.  That is, perhaps, appropriate for a magazine article, but could be a legitimate criticism of the series from an aesthetic or creative viewpoint.  As a general observation, and one I have made elsewhere, I think ‘emotion’ is often lacking in the work I produce – something to be aware of and to reflect on again.

This has been an interesting and useful exercise in which I think that I have successfully planned my approach around a brief; effectively moved forward in terms of my photography of people, including people aware and involved with the process; implemented the planning quite successfully; and produced a competent and workable set of images in the context of the assignment.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Assignment 4: progress report

I might, ideally, have blogged my progress on the assignment bit by bit over the last few weeks but, frankly, I havn’t had the time – work + OCASA + trying to progress the assignment itself.  The good news is that I am more or less there, with my 12 images chosen.  They need a little more tweaking for final print & then I have the notes to write, but I hope to complete that over the next week or so.  I’m not necessarily going to put my final choices into this note; it is more of a reflection on what I’ve done and how it has gone.  I havn’t ended up with exactly the pattern of images that I planned, but not far off.

These are the ‘overview’ images that made it to the long list.

The first two are ‘repeats’ of images that I have made before, with the first creating an attractive overview of the Holme Valley, the town nestling in the bottom of the valley and clear evidence of the textile mill history visible via the chimneys.  The second is a more intimate view from the other side of the valley, with an indication of the way the town is built onto the steep hillsides.  The ones that follow reflect an attempt to show more clearly the way the town sits at the end of a valley,  sometimes resulting in an almost claustrophobic feel.

The second of this group of three has some technical issues – not as sharp as I’d like, but it does reflect how the town centre feels closed in.  It’s interesting to note that I have often observed this sense when driving into the town from either of two directions.  When I went to take the photographs, I found that the view from the pavement was subtly different – and the middle of the road wasn’t an option!  The first and third above are both taken from a small piece of wasteland, just off one of the main roads, leaning over a temporary fence around a building site!

I planned to take some ‘people-oriented’ images and to make at least some of these portraits of shop/restaurant owners in the town centre.  I have done three such arranged images, in the end, as follows.  Firstly, the joint owners of Mezze, a town centre ‘eatery’ & bar.  I had the idea that my portraits might reflect ‘old style’ posing – the frontal, standing/leaning pose that one associates with early photography (necessitated by slow shutters, of course), which could also reflect Holmfirth’s roots in the industrial revolution.  At the same time, I wanted to make them obviously contemporary – not least by using colour.  That is exactly the approach I discussed with Adam & Sam, below, which I think they have carried off pretty well!

The building in the image below is one of the oldest in the town, dating back, almost certainly, to the fifteenth century.  It is what remains of a row of cottages that fell into the river.  It was, apparently, a pie shop back in the fifties, but its current use (and the one it has had for 40+ years) is very clearly signified in this portrait of another local tradesman.

Once again, he has followed my ‘brief’ very well, I think!

The third ‘arranged’ portrait proved a little harder to implement.  Gary is a tour guide.  He meets coach loads of visitors to the Holme Valley, by prior arrangement with the tour operators, and provides a commentary as they are driven around the local TV sites associated with ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ and ‘Where the Heart Is’, both of which have used the area extensively for location filming.  He also takes ‘on foot’ town centre tours to places like ‘Norah Batty’s House’ and ‘Sid’s Cafe’.  I was able to take a shot of him waiting, with his dog.  But, as soon as the coach pulled in, it was all action as he leapt on board to ‘sell his wares’, decked out in blonde wig, microphone in hand.  I felt a bit like the paparazzi trying to grab an image of a celebrity as he went about his business – then, the doors closed and they were away.

But I did grab this one, through the door of the coach – and it does have a ‘sense’ of place in the background, with the stone built weavers’ houses visible in the background.

I’m quite pleased with the way the ‘people’ pictures have turned out – reflects the increased confidence in asking people for portraits and then producing something reasonable.
In my planning, I also made reference to some images from this year’s Holmfirth Folk Festival; but I had another opportunity for something similar during September, with a Festival of Food & Drink.  The town has regular markets in the Market Hall on several days of the week, but this was a weekend festival, taking over large parts of the town centre.  I spent a couple of hours there on the Saturday, but was a little disappointed by the outcomes, which I felt were, on the whole, a little too ‘generic’ to be relevant to this assignment.  Here are a few of the images from the day, and I think the first, although still fundamentally ‘generic’, could work as an illustration of the fact that the town does host festivals and does, from time to time, get very busy.

I also planned a ‘heritage’ element to the selection.  There is some oblique reference to the industrial heritage in some of the images above, but the next few were specifically targeted in that direction.  The first is detail of a mill, including its name and date of opening – 1869 – and a terrace of cottages next door.  It is a good representative shot of the heritage architecture around the town.  The second is taken within ten minutes walk of the centre of town and shows a disused mill pond, with a brick built (unusual) chimney behind, and clear evidence of the contemporary use to which the mill pond has been put.  (I took this image with the full knowledge and involvement of the man fishing.)  Then the final one signifies the ongoing process of change in the valley – mill buildings recently demolished and the even older heritage of grazing land & dry stone walling behind.

Finally, I wanted to include other images around the town centre, some at the detail level and maybe one or two that included reference to the heavy traffic that passes through.  The first is a general image with quite familiar view that I have taken before.  It shows a familiar Holmfirth skyline, with the church tower and the cottages rising up the hillside behind it, but I have chosen to use a wide angle, which puts that view into the context of the small car park and bus station that sits immediately in front of it.  This where visitors to the town are most likely to start their visit and, on the right, is where Gary waits for his coach parties.  I quite like the way that the cloud is bursting from behind the church, on a typically blustery day.

Picking up on the car theme, the next is one that I actually took on one of my early ‘scouting’ sessions, but which I have never managed to better for an interesting image that also tells the story of Holmfirth’s battle with the internal combustion engine!  The colour makes it potentially effective for a magazine article, and I worked on quite a tight crop of the original, which makes the lorry seem to be almost upon us whilst at the same time dwarfing the people trying to drink coffee and eat ice cream at the pavement cafe behind.

Looking for detail led me to take the following two photographs, but they have turned out to have more than detail in them.

In the first, I was working on a shot of the old signpost and mileage sign on the side of one of Holmfirth’s two small bridges when these two ladies walked in front of it and then stopped to look over into the river.  One, obligingly, was wearing a striking purple coat, giving me a colourful composition with the brick wall and tree; but there is more in this image.  Notice the very narrow and uneven pavement that they are negotiating, and bear in mind that they are about 20-30 metres from where I took the previous image!  They are, by the way, typical of Gary’s customers.  In the second, below, it was the sign in the stone on the wall that I was targeting.  It indicates the height the water reached when Holmfirth was flooded after a reservoir collapsed in 1852 – and it clearly would have comfortably covered the two people who appeared in my picture.

Two more detail pictures below provide unusual views of familiar aspects of the town centre, and I could see either of these acting as useful ‘fillers’ in a magazine article.

The first looks down from the side of the church towards the old cinema, which still performs that very function from time to time and is also a highly popular venue for gigs, as demonstrated by the banner outside.  Then finally, there is this absolutely typical scene of the small cobbled streets and alleys around the town centre, which house a range of small shops that attract the visitors and which certainly provide much of the character of the town centre environment.

There are 22 images here, which is more or less in line with my guess at a 20 image long list.  They have been taken over about ten or twelve different sessions, including three for the portraits, of course.  Living close to the town and being familiar with it, I have been able to make quick, short term trips as and when I needed.  I think that, in here, I have the variety from which to make a selection that gives a ‘sense’ of the place that is Holmfirth and which would have the potential to provide some choices for a magazine picture editor looking to illustrate and article about the town.  The initial research has helped; for example, looking at the magazines made me determined to include some portrait-style images, which do usually and rightly for part of a photographic presentation of ‘place’ in its roundest sense.  Of course, knowing somewhere well and living close certainly helps – but it also makes the choices tougher.  I know that there could be a whole host of other possibilities and variants that I might have included.  Doing a similar set of images over a longer period would allow for more public events; more arranged sessions; more opportunities to demonstrate the variations that the seasons bring to a place like Holmfirth.

One of the key things I’m pleased about is that I successfully set up the ‘people’ sessions and carried them off in an OK manner.  I already knew one of the people at Mezze, but the other two were ‘cold calls’, so to speak.  That gives me a certain amount of confidence to go forward and do more of the same, which might be particularly useful for one of the ideas I have in mind for Assignment Five.

I won’t try and analyse the overall effectiveness of my set of images until I am making the submission to my tutor, but I’m reasonably happy with the way the process has gone.