Monday, 4 June 2012

Some final thoughts

With everything now ready for assessment submission, this seems like a good time to record some final thoughts about ‘People & Place’ & my own state of development.  The ‘learning outcomes’ listed at the beginning of the module would seem like a good place to start. They define what we should be able to do by the end of the course and looking at them now, in overall terms, I’m comfortable that I have demonstrated that I can do all of them.  However, there are areas worthy of a bit more discussion and thought.

·         The first says ‘Use technical and interpersonal skills to capture images which reflect your ideas’.  I would particularly like to home in on the ‘... and interpersonal skills ...’ aspect.  I’m sure that this is primarily about the photographing of strangers or relative strangers, with their knowledge, agreement and involvement.  I’ve certainly done that – especially in the final two assignments.  I have done it and, I think, had satisfactory outcomes from it.  But it is only a start.  I’ve drawn comparisons a few times between making portraits and conducting interviews.  I have vast experience of the latter but6 still very limited experience of the former – but I reckon that, with practice, I can use what I know from 20+ years of drawing out peoples’ experience, personality etc to inform and enhance my approach to making portraits.  I would, perhaps, be critical of myself for not making better use of that skill in Assignment Five.

·         The second learning outcome is to ‘Demonstrate the importance of note taking, research, ideas and concepts to the process of developing a story’.  In the course of studying this module, I have certainly done quite a bit of researching & planning – maybe a bit too much at times.  I have a feeling that my interpretation of ‘research’ in a traditional and even dogmatic fashion might have contributed to the frustratingly ‘blinkered’ view of the brief that caused me trouble early in the course.  One of my next books for study is ‘Behind the Image’ by Anna Fox and Natasha Caruana, published by AVA, in the Creative Photography Basics series; and this will hopefully help me develop the way I go about this aspect of my work.

·         And then we come to ‘Demonstrate a good level of ability in the effective selection and editing of images to achieve objectives’.  Once again, I feel reasonably comfortable with that side – though I have made a few changes to my selections between submission to my tutor and submission for assessment. One aspect of this process that I’m not sure I have quite got balanced in my own mind is the potential dilemma/conflict around presenting ‘variety’ (which is often asked for an encouraged in assignment briefs) and ensuring ‘focus’ (which is often important in trying to get across a particular view or message).  It came up, for me, in Assignment 4. In seeking to select a variety of images that would offer choice for a magazine editor, I end up failing to present a focused, personalised view of my subject.  I’m not sure I’ve quite worked out how to resolve that, yet.

·         Finally, there is ‘Show that you can reflect perceptively on your learning experience’ and I have to say that I think I’ve done plenty of that, too.  I was a bit nervous about how I would handle it in the ‘public’ environment of this blog, but I’ve just gone for it in the end.  I might have bored the pants of anybody that chose to read my thoughts, but at least I’ve reflected – and hopefully with a touch of perception at times!

And that almost brings me to the end; but not quite.  Putting things together for assessment has led me to think about one or two other aspects of my approach.

This is a familiar sight to OCA students – and probably to tutors/assessors, too.

This notebook is where most of my thoughts, ideas, plans, reflections etc have started out whilst studying this module.  There have been a few examples on WeAreOCA and elsewhere, recently, of students presenting very ‘visual’ note/sketch books; and this approach seems to have been praised by the tutors/assessors.  Now, I’m not sure that I work that way.  I sit down and scribble notes ... and the ideas get developed that way.

And this is about as ‘visual’ as my own approach gets, judging by my final notebook.

Is that bad/wrong?  Should I be more ‘visual’ in my research, planning and reflection? Does it say something about me, potentially, as a photographic artist, if I pursue my thoughts that way?  I know that I ‘soak up' everything that I see – in magazines, on the Internet, at exhibitions.  But ought I to do more cutting and sticking?  I certainly don’t want or intend to do it because it’s what seems to be catching the eye of the assessors.  This process has to be about what works positively in my own creative activity.  But it has set me thinking about a very, very fundamental principle.  I think in words not images.  Right now, after 62 years, that’s where I am.  But should the development of an effective creative process be encouraging me to change?  That’s a tough one and I don’t know the answer.

Another thought at present is that this course has taken me a long time to complete – longer than any of the previous modules, even though I’m only working part-time now.  There are three main reasons.

·         I have, for the last twelve months, had the time-consuming ‘distraction’ of being OCA’s Student Association President; and that has impacted on time available, without a doubt.

·         Photographing people involves more organisation and diary planning around availability; and that has certainly contributed.

·         But I also think that it is a reflection of my own wish to be serious about what I’m doing.  These days, I have a better understanding of what standard to aim for in the work I produce and a stronger desire to achieve and maintain those standards.  Whilst I might, from time to time, say ‘enough; I cannot afford to spend any more time on this, even if I want to make it better still’; but I don’t ever say ‘that’ll do; it’s good enough’ – and there is a difference, I reckon.

And then one last thought of all; this module has, without a doubt, given me the confidence to make images of people.  I may still have a lot to learn, but my appetite is ‘whetted’ and, whereas I might once have felt that portrait making was not for me, I now feel that I may do more; and might yet come back to it as a significant part of my photographic practice.  Time will tell!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Assignment Five – Two comparisons found recently

Two interesting pieces of work have become known to me over the weekend, both of which offer some comparison with my work for Assignment Five.

The first arose when I received my copy of ‘Behind the Image’ by Anna Fox & Natasha Caruana, the next in the Basics of Creative Photography Series published by AVA Publishing. I havn’t looked at the book in any detail at all yet but, flicking through, my eye was caught on Page 127 by a Karen Knorr image – ‘Those who fear ...’ from the ‘Gentlemen’ series, made in the 80s.  What caught my eye was the square format portrait of a man, with centre-justified text below; text that was clearly more than a caption but part of the ‘art’ she was creating.  A bit of internet research revealed that she had produced two other series, ‘Belgravia’ and ‘Country Life’, both of which are made up of images in a similar format.  This is a link to the ‘Belgravia’ series - 'Belgravia' - Karen Knorr.  Her arrangement of text and image is very similar to my original arrangement; and the principle of the combination is also interesting, especially when I note what she says about it in the notes accompanying ‘Belgravia’.  She says:

“The meaning of the work can be found in the space between the image and text: neither the text nor the image illustrate each other, but create a ‘third meaning’ to be completed by the spectator.  The text slows down the viewing process as we study the text and return to re-evaluate the image in light of what we have read.”

Karen Knorr, in notes accompanying her series ‘Belgravia’,

I wish I’d read that before or during the work I was doing.  It both informs and articulates what I have been attempting to do with the image/text combination.  I also note what she says about her subjects performing their identities “... in a collaborative fashion ...” with her; and that there is “... real complicity between us.”  I don’t think I got as far as being able to claim that of my series, but it was true in a number of cases; partially true in most; and with a bit more practice and development, might be true of other work in the future.  I certainly like the principle.

In contrast, and related to the principle behind my own series, is a more recent piece of work from Italian photographer, Gabriele Galimberti, which appeared in The Times Magazine last Saturday 26th May 2012.  This is Galimberti’s website - Gabriele Galimberti – and this is the series that was featured - Toy Stories.  The series shows children from all over the world, photographed with their toys.  The accompanying notes on the site say “Who doesn’t remember a favourite childhood toy?” – and there is the obvious comparison to my own images of mature adults with items, often toys, that they still retain from their childhood.  The notes are written by Arianna Rinaldo, and she goes on to say of one’s favourite toy – “The one that sometime, dozens of years later, we find at the bottom of the closet.  And we let a tear drop.”  A touch of sentimentality creeping in there, perhaps – but we’re into the same emotional area at least – memory of childhood; the links between childhood experience and the adult; the feelings evoked by the physical manifestation of a childhood experience in the form of a toy/possession still there in adulthood.

I am a little puzzled by one aspect of Galimberti’s work.  He does, it seems from the notes and from the article in The Times Magazine, collaborate with both parents and child in creating the image.  It would be hard not to when photographing young children, of course.  But it seems that he seeks to organise the ‘set’ into what are perhaps best described as ‘formal’ patterns.  This one of a boy with his Lego is a good example - example.  The formality of that presentation seems to be more about the photographer than about boy, which puzzles me, as I say.  Would Niko, aged 5, choose to lay out his Lego in that way?  And what does the portrait tell us if that order and formality is, presumably, being imposed on him and his favourite toy?  I’m not sure.  Still, an interesting series and it makes for a useful comparison to the work that I have been doing for Assignment Five.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Preparing for Assessment – Assignment Four

This is another assignment that I felt less than satisfied with when submitted & the reasons are documented earlier in this blog.  Going back to the notes, feedback and images over the last week or so, I find it a bit of a mixed bag – some work and some don’t.  Paying particular attention to the tutor feedback on individual images, I have decided to make some changes for the assessment submission.  Three images were part of the original submission but have now been replaced and I have also changed the order.

This is the first that has been replaced.

I have to agree with the comments from my tutor – particularly about the man facing the camera mid-frame.  He looks uncomfortable and it detracts from the notion that this is a bunch of people having a good time in Holmfirth.  At the time, I felt that some of the alternatives were a bit generic, but I have replaced it with this one.

At least here there is some interaction going on; it confirms the notion of Holmfirth as a busy market town; and there is a little bit of colour & narrative.  The fact that it is generic is less of a problem since it would be appearing in an article about Holmfirth.

Next one for the ‘chop’ was this one.

It was doing its job in the original selection – illustrating tour guide Gary about his business – but shot quickly through the door of a coach it lacks any formal qualities and is technically suspect.  I guess the ideal would have been to go back and do more work on a Gary image – but I already had this one from the original shoot.  Properly caption, (i.e. explaining that this is Gary the tour guide, waiting for coaches to arrive at the bus station, something that he does every day, making this a familiar site in Holmfirth centre) this would also work effectively, and it has better formal and technical qualities – in my opinion.

Thirdly – again responding to tutor feedback, but this time a little more reluctantly – I have decided that this one can go.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with the image itself, but the question raised was whether images of old stone buildings were being overdone and whether this actually adds anything.  Might there be another image that would introduce other aspects of the town that are not covered here?  It’s actually pretty hard to overdo the old stone bit in Holmfirth – it’s everywhere around you and creeps into most images.  However, I take the point.  One bit of Holmfirth history/culture not covered in the original images is the Picturedrome.  It’s an old cinema, that still performs that function as well as acting as a venue on the gigs circuit.  (Worth also mentioning that short silent comedy/feature films were being made in Holmfirth before they were made in Hollywood!)  So I have replaced the above with a similar image, but one that shows the Picturedrome and signifies its history – as well as its dual function as a rock band venue.

Making these replacements had impacted on the order of the images, both from a narrative and a ‘visual pattern’ viewpoint, so I will be presenting the order differently – but that will be clear from the prints submitted, so I’m not repeating all the images here.  As with the other assignments, several of the prints have also had a ‘tweak’ before submission and I have ‘rationalised’ sizes to two crop ratios.  There were several variations in the original submission and I recognise that this is an area where I need to be more consistent.
Another concern for both me and my tutor was that this series lacked any clear direction.  What was I actually saying about Holmfirth?  Where was the emotional expression?  I might have needed to completely reshoot in order to address that one, but I have recently had another opportunity to make a series of images about the neighbourhood, as my first assignment on Progressing with Digital Photography.  I deliberately made it a more personal view and the outcome is here.
Even more stone – must say something about me, perhaps?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Preparing for Assessment – Assignment Three

This assignment gave me a lot of trouble, as I’ve already recorded earlier in this blog and elsewhere in notes exchanged with my tutor.  I don’t intend to revisit those struggles – partly of my own making, I think, but also partly related to the nature of the brief itself.  What matters here is how I have looked at the assignment for my assessment submission and the changes that I have made – and why.

·         All the images have been reprinted, with small adjustments to just about all of them as my Photoshop and printing skills have improved since they were first done.

·         I have taken note of some specific suggestions from my tutor, resulting in:

·         The replacement of one of the interior images of Huddersfield’s Queensgate Market, which seemed to add little – this one.

The new image is an external view that includes the ‘iconic’ external artwork referred to in my original notes and also shows the external extension of the concrete curves into the external structure.  It is questionable whether it strictly meets the brief, which focuses on function, but it does add variety – and I guess one of the buildings functions would be to act as an iconic reference point in the town’s architectural landscape.  It certainly does that, as this images shows –and with a strong reference back to its 1970’s origins.

·         There is also a change in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park Visitor Centre group; this time an additional image.  My notes referred to the fact that this building acted as a bridge through formal gardens, but there were no images that confirmed that.  The closest I could get was this image, which confirms the busy, transient nature of the space’s function, but also demonstrates, to a degree, how it uses the large window space to involve the visitor in the external aspects of the park as well.

·         As well as these small changes, I have introduced a new location into the series.  Whilst working on the assignment last year, I had photographed a house that we stayed in on holiday in France, and its gardens.  Working under my restricted interpretation of the brief, I had originally decided not to include it, but having been encouraged to take a less restrictive approach, I have now added it in.  One of my key reasons for doing this is because I felt that the images I took then represented something closer to a personal response to a ‘place’ and less of a mechanical response to a brief.  To my mind that gives them a little more merit and value than some of the others.  It also adds another dimension of variety to the overall submission.  These are the images.

I am, overall, still left with a feeling of dissatisfaction about the outcomes on the assignment.  Whilst I have produced, in the end, a large set of images covering a variety of places and spaces, which meet the requirements of the original brief, I find them largely uninspiring and uninspired.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Preparing for Assessment – Assignment Two

It has occurred to me that, as I review and amend assignments prior to submission for Assessment, it makes good sense to record what I’m doing here and tag it to the assignment so that the assessors can complete the ‘story’ of each assignment’s development.  I will just record one thing here, first, though.  The course notes clearly state that ‘Assignment One: a portrait’ is “... not submitted for formal assessment.”  I am following that instruction and not making it part of my review or my assessment submission.

For Assignment Two I worked on a street photography series, looking at people eating in a public space i.e. all engaged in a similar activity.  I submitted twelve images and received what at the time seemed like mixed feedback.  Actually, the gist of it was probably that I had tried something difficult (matching the brief for the assignment with my own interest in doing a street project) and perhaps not quite succeeded in doing much more than making ‘a good fist of it’.  Looking back, and considering that I have subsequently, at times, made life difficult for myself by trying to follow a brief too closely, I feel that the criticism was perhaps a bit harsh – though I recognise that it wasn’t directed in any negative sense.  I think I aimed at something quite subtle, and that was perhaps, above all, where I made the task difficult.  I had researched the subject and found very little in ‘classic’ street work that didn’t take a negative angle on what is, after all, a decidedly common activity (in the sense of being frequent and normal, not ‘common’ in the pejorative sense!).  Had I set out to capture images of people with their mouths wide open at the ‘decisive moment’ when the food entered, perhaps the images would have been more obviously a match for the brief.  Looking back at a distance of more than a year since I took them, I still quite like the series; though I do accept that it is subtle and so, perhaps, lacking in impact.

There were some practical comments on individual images, which I have largely taken on board, and there was certainly room for improvement in some of the prints.  I have reworked a reprinted all of the images for submission purposes – some with quite small changes and others more significant.  One important step that I have taken is to re-crop several.  I submitted the originals in a whole range of sizes and ratios, cropping each to what I believed worked best for that individual image.  I recognise that this isn’t good practice in a series and so have essentially reduced the variants to just two – either a 3:2 ratio or square – with just one ‘portrait’ orientation amongst the 3:2s.  This is certainly an improvement.

The other significant change is to alter one of the images – the original Image 11.  I have changed this ...

... for this.

Not a particularly radical alteration, but it perhaps works better as an illustration of small groups creating their individual spaces than the previous one did.  I had a notion that the statue of Queen Victoria added some historical perspective, but I think my tutor was right in saying that it didn’t work especially well in that respect.

Street photography with a light touch may be an accurate summary of this piece of work.  It demonstrates that I have been able to find a way to create decent images of people who are, largely, unaware that they are being photographed; that I have been able to do that within the context of a particular theme; and hopefully, that I have been able to make some sensible decisions about what works best in the series.  I learned a lot, at least, and feel reasonably comfortable with the outcome.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Assignment Five: Some post-feedback reflections & the final images

This assignment has, as mentioned above, been to my tutor and I’ve had his feedback & made a few amendments as a result.  This note is to pull together my experience and record some reflections.

·         The tutor feedback is good, with positive comments on the time and care I’ve taken to plan, make images, write up etc, plus the development that this assignment demonstrates compared with where I started out on the module.

·         There were some comments and questions for consideration.

§  He suggests, rightly, that the rationale for the ‘front-facing’ pose was probably not as fully explained in my supporting notes as it might have been.  For me, in the context of this assignment, it is about presenting my subjects to the viewer in a natural and collaborative manner that acknowledges what we are doing and their involvement in it.  My subjects look the viewer in the eye; they acknowledge that they are being viewed with their childhood possession; they present themselves openly and directly to the viewers’ gaze.  The question of ‘the pose’ is a complex one, of course.  I have done some reading on it here and there, which I’m not going to attempt to analyse here; but I did not want to go down the (what I feel is) unnatural route of asking them to look at some imaginary point off-camera.  Why would they be doing that with these objects in their hands?  Creating a sort of ‘narrative’ was one option that I considered – have them pose as if preoccupied with the object in some way.  On the one hand, that would, I believe, have been harder for the subjects to achieve successfully, but more importantly, we are then, as viewers, seeming to observe them occupied in some task, absorbed in their activity, when we all know, in the context of this project, that they are posing for a photograph.  Of course, these images are, in the end, no more honest or real than any others, but they do at least, to my mind, present open collaboration and involvement, which adds a ‘layer of reality’ to the outcome that makes them more accessible to the viewer.

§  Another, related factor, again raised quite rightly by my tutor, is that some of my subjects don’t look entirely comfortable in front of the camera.  Since the brief I was working to suggested that these images were to be used in the context of a promotional campaign by a children’s charity, might that slight air of discomfiture work against the objectives of the campaign.  I think that the truth is that it might indeed have that effect.  I don’t suppose I’m the first person to have become more interested in capturing something about my subjects than in perfectly fulfilling the brief.  In a commercial context, that would have been a dangerous route to go; but hopefully, in the context of a creative arts course, the exploration of something subtle in these subjects’ character through my portraits is a little more acceptable.

§  There were some technical comments, notably that I might need to consider some slight adjustments to the skin tones in some of the images – again, valid points that I have taken on board.

§  My tutor agreed that the landscape format works better than the portrait format, with text below the image.  Consequently, I have changed them all to that arrangement.  I think it evens the balance between the image and the text.  Text placed below felt too much like a caption, a subsidiary add-on; and moving the eye up and down between image and text feels less comfortable than the natural side to side moves that we make, when reading a book, for example.  I have also looked at the font and its size.  This is an area where one might seek design input if following the project through; but I’ve chosen to keep it simple for now – though I have changed from Arial to Tahoma and reduced the font size a little.

The final versions are here.

·         One thing my tutor commented on that has also been in my mind is the size and resolution on these images in the context they would be used if this were a real advertising campaign.  The original 10 megapixel D80 images, cropped to this square format, would not be good enough, I suspect, for a large poster campaign, for example.  I have experimented with one of them at A3, which works fine, but I suspect going much beyond that would be difficult – and one of the images was quite a tight crop from the original – something I had already acknowledged in my notes.  Clearly, in a true commercial assignment, one might be using medium format or some other higher resolution equipment.
So, looking back, what have I got out of this assignment?
·         A much better understanding of, and confidence with, some basic principles in makig portrait images with photography;
·         A small set of images that demonstrate I can take a concept; research, plan, prepare, execute, and follow through to a conclusion that hangs together as apersonal expression/exploration of that concept;
·         A starting point for something that I can continue to explore;
·         Some further sound practice in processing images and photo-editing; these are nowhere near perfect but I’ve done things in the context of this assignment that I could never have done before. (Need to learn more about the use of Curves in Photoshop.)
·         Some enjoyable, productive and creative interaction with people – especially my subjects, of course, to whom I’m indebted, but it has also been interesting to pick up feedback from other people – fellow students (thanks!); tutor(s) (thanks!); and then almost everyone with whom I’ve discussed the project ... it gets very positive interest from everyone.
I have only scratched the surface of people photography, and I don’t know whether or not it is something I’ll do much more of.  Certainly the first assignment of my new module, Progressing with Digital Photography - here – has no people in it at all!  So, maybe not!  But, I would like to follow through with the concept underlying this assignment so, truth is, I’d be very disappointed if I don’t end up exploring people photography quite a bit more.
Now – there’s an outcome from this module!  I would never have said that eighteen months ago when I started out!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Assignment Five – Submission & Feedback

Assignment Five has been completed; sent to my tutor; and feedback received.  The feedback is positive, with some useful suggestions for improvements, which I will take on board, more or less without exception.  This is the set of images that I submitted, with the text incorporated.

I did make one change after sending off the submission to my tutor.  It suddenly dawned on me that there was an alternative and perhaps better way of combining the image and the text.  I can’t work out why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but a landscape presentation, with the text beside the image rather than below it, seems to work better.  I’m sure it has to do with ‘reading’ the relationship side-to-side as more equal.  Below the image, it’s hard not to see the text as a caption, whereas the arrangement below is more ‘democratic’.  I send this to my tutor after the initial submission, and he agreed that it works better.  Actually, this also uses a different font.

This version of this particular image also includes a bit of work on the skin tones, as suggested in the feedback.  There is a bit more work to do on all the images in that respect, I think, before submission for assessment; and I will adjust them all to a ‘landscape format’.  All in all, though, the feedback is that I don’t need to do a huge amount more to get this assignment ready for submission.  I will post the final versions on here when they are done.
I’ve definitely got a lot out of this assignment, as I’ve said in previous posts.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Assignment Five – The last two images

I finished the shooting for Assignment Five last weekend and have processed the two images, on and off, over the last week.  I’m happy with the outcomes, overall, though I have a ‘technical’ regret over the first one, which is below.

My concern is to do with the eyes.  It was a cloudy but bright day and, with hindsight, I might have done better to use the reflector to get more light into the eyes and therefore more of a highlight.  The basic ‘information’ is there, and I’ve done quite a bit of work in Lightroom & Photoshop to make something of it – but using the reflector would have helped.  That said, it works successfully and is another good narrative.  The trophy is the first of many that Lance won playing football, and the envelope contains an invitation for a trial with a First Division football club back in 1955 – and indeed an invitation to play for their youth team.  There’s more behind the story as well, but not relevant here.  There might be a question mark over the way I’ve framed the image, with the positioning of the goalposts behind his shoulders & neck.  The first thing to say is that Lance chose the position he stood, precisely where he would have been for the kick-off when playing at ‘left half’.  I liked that – it made him part of the process of making the image.  With that position determined, I chose to make the goalposts very much a prominent part of the background – deliberately slightly off centre from his body/head, but still boldly part of the story.  I think it works fine, but I guess some people might have made a different choice.

The second image from last week is below.

I had the same issue with light and eyes here, but to a lesser extent.  This image was made in a much more public place – a busy high street, with passing shoppers and cars.  It’s a narrow street, and we’re actually working across the road from the shop, just into the top of a narrow private alleyway that is more or less opposite.  It isn’t necessarily very comfortable for the subject to have to pose, in public, and it was somewhat chilly, too.  So, I decided not to further complicate things by having someone standing with a reflector as well.  There are some challenges in photographing a black doll with a shiny head in the open air on a day with lots of white reflected light!  However, putting all those things to one side, I’m pleased with the outcome on this one, too.  The ‘story’ is another good one – Elaine was born in the house in the background; her mother bought her the black doll when she was a little girl; and her mother crocheted the dress that it still wears.  There isn’t any significance in the house being No 13 – at least I don’t think so – but it’s another little twist to the tale, as is the bright pink signage that now publicises the shop.

With the last two images ready, I’m now at the stage of writing up the assignment for submission to my tutor.  I said I’d try and do it by the end of March; 7th April today; so not too bad.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Assignment 5 – more portraits

There has been some good progress with the assignment shoots over the last couple of weeks, with four more portraits made.  The two final ones that I need are due to be done next weekend.  I’m reasonable happy with how they are turning out.  I think my confidence in dealing with portrait sessions has developed a little.  I have continued to make a few technical mistakes but nothing that hasn’t been recoverable.  I get annoyed with myself when I forget something simple but there is a lot to think about when you put somebody ‘on the spot’ in front of your camera.  If you persuade someone to make themselves available to you for an hour or so, you have a sense of responsibility to make it come out as something decent; and these are friends, neighbours, relatives etc, not professional models, so you need to help them to be at ease.  I’ve tended to keep to the simple concept, as planned, which means I’m not asking them to do too much, but it takes a bit of care to ensure the subject looks relaxed and natural.  I’ve tried to not rush things; standing to one side of the camera, watching their facial expressions carefully, waiting for the right moment to press the remote release, and being prepared to wait quietly, just saying the odd word of encouragement/direction.  I know it feels odd for the subjects, but I think I’ve eventually got there with all of them – sometimes it’s been one of the first shots, sometimes the last, but I’m learning to be patient and relaxed myself – which helps!

These are the four most recent outcomes.

One thing that is emerging, for me, and it isn’t a surprise, is that these are portraits of the people.  Whatever the pretext, and the presence of the items retained from childhood provides that and a narrative as well, it is something about the subject that I’m really trying to capture.  Whether or not I am succeeding is another matter, but it’s what I find myself looking for.
I’ve also been working some more on the text to go with the images.  Ideally, it should just give enough of a clue to encourage the viewer to read the image, but leave some questions hanging for the reader to think about – a bit of a tall order, but that’s what I’m trying for.  I’m going to include one example in this post, but I might put more in the OCA Flickr group, just to see whether there is any reaction to the principle.  Below is the first of the four images above, but with its text added.  If anyone views/reads this and has any comments whatsoever, I’d be very interested.  The text should be just about readable, I think; if you click on the image.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

RPS 154th International Print Exhibition – Study Visit, 9th March 2012

As an RPS member for 3 years, I have been aware of this annual competition but this is the first time I have had an opportunity to see the travelling exhibition that results each year.  There were 120 images on show, chosen from just under 3000 entries – from all over the world, as the title suggests.  I have to say, in honesty, that I approached the exhibition with some degree of scepticism, fearing, in short, that it might display more of the RPS’ tradition than a celebration of photography today.  Having seen it, I think the scepticism was misplaced and, whilst that RPS tradition was present in no small numbers, the overall reality was an extremely wide range of images representing many photographic genres, both traditional and contemporary.

The images are here and the catalogue is downloadable as a pdf on that page.

The very wide diversity of images on display has a number of implications:

·         It certainly makes for interesting comparisons.

·         It confirms, maybe even celebrates, the diversity of the photographic practice.  The RPS President in the intro to the catalogue says that it combines “contemporary cutting edge and more traditional work”.  Just how cutting are the edges on display might be open to debate – but some are certainly edgy.

·         It means that the hanging of the exhibition has its challenges.  Where there was an attempt to put together themes, it was sometimes a little forced; and the 'hanger' can end up, with ‘odds and ends’, which certainly seemed to happen here on occasions.  Going down the ‘random’ route has its merits, but it then challenges the viewer to cope with the variety that meets the eye on any particular occasion.  All-in-all, the hanging of this exhibition didn’t trouble me a great deal – other than the very practical fact that some images were hung a bit high for those of average/short stature (and those of us looking through varifocal lenses)!

·         This level of diversity in an open competition does mean that one is, on the whole, viewing individual images outside of their context and without any supporting information about the artist or their intention.  Some are very obviously part of a series.  One can always do more research afterwards, of course – see below – but it can make the ‘reading’ in the exhibition difficult and it certainly led to a large part of the discussion that took place during and after the visit.

One striking factor was the truly international nature of the exhibition with, in particular, many Asian photographers represented.  This may partly reflect the international reputation of the RPS.

There was a lot of ‘over-processing’ (in my opinion), though it wasn’t as prominent or dominant as I had feared.  It was no bad thing to be able to make direct comparisons between heavily HDR-ed landscapes/cityscapes and those images with more obvious ‘purpose’.  I don’t recall any of the former generating discussion amongst the group!

With 120 images on display, it isn’t possible to include comment on all, or even very many of them.  Indeed it isn’t even easy to spend much time looking at most of them whilst present.  I am going to focus on a few that were the subject of significant discussion, and which I have subsequently followed up with further online research.

I’ll start with the striking images – there were two in the exhibition – from Tobias Slater Hunt’s Closer to God series.  This is a classic example of how viewing just 1 or 2 images tells only a tiny fragment of the whole story.  The distinctly unglamorous and deadpan portraits of two naked women, both with, seemingly, disfigured faces, will have caught the attention of everyone visiting the exhibition.  Few will, one suspects, have taken the trouble to find out more, and many will have gone away unsure just what is going on.  As soon as I went to research further, I realised that I had seen another image from this series – at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait exhibition, which I wrote about previously here.  Having read Slater-Hunt’s statement, I admit that I am still not very clear.  ‘Closer to God’ is itself part of a wider piece of work, linking to Dante’s Inferno and Renaissance paintings, whilst also reflecting the photographers own experience of living with chronic illness.  The images are manipulated – and does that mean the ‘disfigurements’ are themselves not real?  The question is still hanging in the air for me – but I don’t feel motivated to explore the complexity of the work any further.  The images on display certainly provoke questions, but how far can those questions take the viewer without at least some of this background?

Another image that provoked much discussion was Aaron Dempsey’s ‘The Dolls School’.  A young girl, dressed in a white cotton nightdress, sits on one side of a double bed, looking, without expression, into the camera (i.e. directly at the viewer).  The bedclothes are folded back and there are two pillows.  The bedroom has an ‘old-fashioned’ look and there is an open fire burning in a fireplace beside the bed.  Above the brass bed end hangs an image (could be painting or could be photo) showing a young girl ‘schooling’ her dolls.  There was discussion of the photographer’s intent, in what was clearly a carefully ‘staged’ image.  Many felt that it hinted, quite powerfully, at child abuse, in one context or another.  Further investigation reveals that Aaron Dempsey does indeed stage his (assumption here – regarding gender) images, and that this is from a sequence entitled ‘Dreams’.  This series recreates female dreams, mainly fear-related, as recounted by the dreamer.  This particular one is that of a six year old girl and can best be seen, with the rest, via Dempsey’s Facebook page, here.  Dempsey’s work feels inspired by the likes of Gregory Crewdson.  If my gender assumption is correct, the exploration of female dreams is interesting.  Another useful observation, for me, would be to note the effectiveness of the use of text/caption when the images are presented on the Facebook page as opposed to the single, uncaptioned (though titled) image in the exhibition.  As already discussed in a previous post here, I am certainly going to use text as part of the image presentation for my final assignment in People & Place.

The ‘winner’ of the informal OCA Study Visit competition for best photo went to ‘Recess’ by Feng Zhang, which I can’t reproduce here and nor can I find a link, other than to say that it is on page 70 of the catalogue.  Two young girls are sleeping, presumably in a break from their schooling because they are lying on wooden tables with their heads resting on colourful ‘Western-style’ school bags.  We are looking from directly above them, perhaps from a balcony, and can see the rough concrete floor beneath their tables, a worn and crumbling wall, plus various wooden stools around the tables.  The stools and the tables are of old, heavy rough-hewn wood, in contrast to the girls’ more modern dress and their up-to-date school bags.  The lighting is soft and natural, highlighting the two girls across the centre of the frame.  The tones, the textures, the subtle colours, the soft lighting, and the quality of the print all made it an eye-catching image, but further looking raises questions about the intent – the contrast between the old and the new, the softness of the human forms with the hardness of the wood and concrete, the anomaly of sleeping in such rough hard surroundings, and so on.  The angle of the shot – looking down on the scene, implies a captured moment, even if it is, in reality, a posed shot.  The natural light and the gentleness with which the image has been processed lends it a realistic feel, whether or not it is in fact ‘real’.

Which I find to be in sharp contrast with another image much discussed on the visit – 'Goal' by Chan Kwok Hung.  This is certainly a striking image, with young boys – Buddhist monks in training – playing football, seemingly on a hillside.  The colours and the composition, not least the captured instance, absolutely grab the viewer’s attention.  Striking as it may be, however, the image made me uncomfortable.  The heavy processing, the unnaturalness of the light (the source of which is very hard to pin down), the perfection of the composition (such as the ball in the very centre of the image and exactly positioned between the two main protagonists in the football game) all made the image feel unreal.  I found myself questioning its veracity and wondering whether it was, in fact, a manipulation.  It may not be – but if that is the case, the photographer hasn’t done himself any favours, in my view, by presenting it in this ‘other-wordly’ style. (Edit after original post - I forgot to mention that Chan Kwok Hung was winner of the CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year Award last year with this image.  Again - a stunning image, but I find myself questioning the appropriateness of the processing.  Does it detract from the messsage?  I feel it might.)

Another general reflection that has run through my mind after the event takes me back again to some previous thoughts on painting and photography.  There were a few images in the exhibition with the ‘painterly’ feel about them – ‘Mist’ by Jialiang Luo and ‘Okavango Scene with Wild Dogs’ by John Cucksey being two (very different) such images that spring to mind.  One could question the point of creating a photographic image that has the look of a painting.  But then likewise, one could question the point of painters who paint in an ultra-real, ‘photographic’ style – Gerhard Richter being one highly respected example, and I discussed others in my blog after seeing the BP Portrait Prize exhibition last year.  It’s certainly an interesting debating point and, at the very least, a challenging observation that artists from these two different mediums choose to work in this way.  Are the photographers frustrated painters and/or the painters mocking the photographers?  To my mind it is the intention and the outcome that matters, not a generic view of which is right/wrong/best/appropriate or whatever.

So, many thanks to Gareth, Jose, and Maggie (who I am tempted to refer to as Mary!) (a comment that will only be meaningful to those present!) for organising and attending another useful and interesting study visit; it has certainly provoked some useful reflection and learning for me.