People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Assignment 1: Portraits of Ann

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Brief:

Drawing together your experiences in completing the projects so far, take one person as a subject and create between five and seven different portraits. These should differ in type and style, and each be from a separate photographic session (there is no need to attempt this set all in one day, and indeed it will be more useful as an assignment if you take some time over it).

In your learning log:

  • Critically assess your finished work. Consider each portrait individually
  • Identify what has worked well and what has been less successful and analyse the reasons for this
  • Consider where you need to strengthen your own skills and understanding and explain how you hope to achieve this

Submissions:

UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENT: tutor report and my response are now available to view.

Larger images and contact sheet are available as a downloadable zip file.

The images are viewable individually in slideshow format below – click a thumbnail to start the slideshow.

I’ll briefly explain my overall approach, then I’ll comment on each image individually, including a self-critique.

Approach

My wife Ann kindly agreed to be my subject. As recommended, I took the pictures over a series of sessions, keeping in mind that they should be sufficiently different in style. I thought in advance about various facets of Ann’s character – not particularly for this to come through strongly to the viewer, but as a framework to inspire me on different treatments. I initially planned the whole series to be in black and white, but switched this after the first couple of shooting sessions as I felt the early shots worked better in colour, and I wanted to keep the same overall colour aesthetic across the set.

1. Face

To start: a simple headshot, straight on, eye contact with the camera. Window light to the (viewer’s) left and a reflector card to the right helped to give reasonably even lighting, although brighter to the left. A shallow depth of field (f/1.4) focused on the eyes kept the main features sharp while allowing the extremities to be de-emphasised. She has a friendly expression, a slight rather than a full smile.

Face

1. Face

Though I’m generally pleased with this one, with hindsight the aperture was too wide. If I shot this again I would have tried f/2.8 or f/4. Also, the light is a touch too bright on the left, so I would have moved Ann further away from the window.

2. River

As Ann loves to be outdoors, I planned to get at least one shot taken in the open. On a walk down the North Tyne I took a series of shots, of which I felt this was the best, with the glow of the golden hour sun falling on the hair and the side of the face. Colour-wise, the water and the skin-tone work well together, while the hair and the coat are closely matched and not detracting from the other colours in the image. I chose a shot where she wasn’t looking straight at the camera, and gave the image the space to the right for her gaze to fall into. I find this quite a calming image.

River

2. River

I almost didn’t include this as I thought it was – good lighting apart – a little… unremarkable? It’s better than a snapshot (I think) but it doesn’t show much creativity.

3. Laughing

The starting point here was the light falling through the window, that I thought would provide a ‘bleached-out’ backdrop if exposed in a certain way – I used spot metering for this session. I took several torso-length shots, just asking her to ‘throw shapes’ while I clicked away. I knew on shooting this one that it was a keeper – it shows her playful side. I was drawn to the motion implicit in her pose, like it’s just a frozen slice of an ongoing moment – not formally posed at all.

Laughing

3. Laughing

I like the final result, but I did have to crop it down from a larger original; I should have used a longer focal length lens and shot from further away to have framed it better in camera – as going in closer with the 35mm lens could have introduced noticeable distortion.

4. Hood

This was an example of an idea starting in one place and ending up in another. When I saw Ann had a parka-style coat with the fur-lined hood, my first idea was an ‘homage’ to the classic Bailey shot of Mick Jagger – b/w, plain white background. However, while shooting I managed to get a closely framed shot of a very calm facial expression with one eye staring at the lens and one obscured by the hood. It’s a cooler, more serious expression than I’d originally been looking for but we both agreed that it was the strongest image from that session.

Hood

4. Hood

I actually really like this one and find it hard to say what I’d have done differently, other than I wish I’d had the imagination to have pre-visualised it rather than it being a happy accident.

5. Bath

One of the ideas that I had from the start of planning was a profile shot of Ann relaxing in the bath. The irony is that she doesn’t find relaxing very easy and we have a sign in the bathroom to remind her to take it easy… The lighting here was a little remaining evening sunlight through windows behind and to the right, plus a little ‘mood lighting’ from candles.

Bath

5. Bath

While I was pleased with the lighting and overall aesthetic, I wasn’t happy with the composition. The shelves and the sign are too close to the head. Also, only one of the candles is visible and it would have looked more balanced with two. I actually tried to reshoot the whole thing on a different night, but while I could improve the composition, the lighting wasn’t as good. So I went back to version 1.

6. Book

Another one I pre-visualised in advance. I remember Ann reading this book a few years ago and how whenever she held it up to her face it resembled a half-mask. The proportions of the eye on the book are quite close to her own features, so the illusion works reasonably well. In terms of the background, while this might not mean anything to the casual viewer, I was interested in getting at least one shot in the summer house in our garden, as it’s the only place she ever really relaxes… so the background is part of the story, albeit in a way that is only relevant if you know the subject.

Book

6. Book

I did struggle a little bit on making the composition visually interesting, beyond the eye illusion. I fell back on the cliché of the ‘jaunty angle’ to make it a little less static. With hindsight maybe I should have pulled back more to include more of the background, to give the shot more location context.

7. Pale

I was inspired by the book ‘Train Your Gaze’ [1] in as much as I wanted to have at least one portrait that wasn’t overly ‘traditional’ in form, i.e. not necessarily showing the whole face, or the eyes, or being in focus. I was also drawn to the visual aesthetic of pale, almost ghostly skin against an equally pale background, so the viewer has to work just a tiny bit harder to recognize it as a face. I had in mind that the picture should have a primary focal point that was in sharp focus but wasn’t a part of the face, to further delay the viewer’s identification of the face… to achieve the effect of the face ‘emerging’ from the image as a secondary point of interest rather than being front and centre. I also wanted to have a portrait that included reference to the fact that Ann likes to dress up and has a few nice bits of jewelry for special occasions. It was her idea to focus on the earring.

Pale

7. Pale

Whilst I did decide to include it in my submission, it’s probably the one that I’m least sure of. It only partly achieves what I had pre-visualised – not quite ‘ghostly’ enough, not fading into the background enough. Also, while I used flash to get the highlights sparkling off the earring, if you pixel-peek you’ll see a few unsightly artifacts around the edges. I do however like the geometry of the image, and the depth of field, so maybe I’ll consider it either a qualified success or a noble failure.

Self-evaluation:

Not being a natural portrait photographer, I did have to put a certain amount of thought and preparation into this assignment to be happy with it. The exercises in the projects leading up to the assignment certainly helped, as did my reading and research. I am generally pleased with the outcome, although I do recognise the weaknesses I still have with regard to portraiture. It helped enormously to use a subject that was patient and understanding, as I still feel that if I had to do a portrait session with someone that I knew less well, I would struggle a little more to get the images as I wanted them.

In the exercises as well as the assignment I identified a few recurring improvement areas:

  • Settings: getting the basic exposure settings most suited to portraiture nailed before shooting starts
  • Rushing: I still have a tendency to rush through photo sessions as I must feel guilty about taking up the time of the sitter! Sometimes reviewing the images afterwards I wish I’d slowed down, reviewed progress occasionally
  • Compositional elements: particularly backgrounds – deciding whether they should be de-emphasised to focus on the sitter, or be part of the story of the image… I think I got better on this as time went on

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Overall, I am happy with the execution of the images and the techniques that I adopted
    • I paid attention to the relationship between the background and the foreground – the quote from ‘Train Your Gaze’ about the two elements as “two equal parties to a visual conversation” came to mind
    • After selecting the images I realised that only two of seven were in the classic ‘portrait’ (vertical) format, and my preference in the others was for the more horizontal ratio – but I stand by this choice as being right for the images in question
    • I put a lot of thought into pre-visualisation – and for the first time, sketching out shots on paper – but the final images only matched the pre-visualisation in a few cases (1, 5, 6, 7 to a degree)… in some instances the images just plain didn’t work (the yoga pose idea) and in others I found a better shot through experimentation
    • I’m glad I made the decision to stick with either all b/w or all colour – the subject and the colour style together help the set to hang together (see more below)
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am happy with the quality of the overall outcome in terms of individual images shot and selected, and in terms of how the presented set works together as a coherent whole, despite the variety in settings and styles
    • In both the planning and editing stages I worked on referring back to the exercises to ensure I was applying the knowledge learned so far (less so while I was actually shooting, when I am too ‘in the zone’ to think too consciously about these things – which is why I feel the need to plan so much in advance)
    • The communication of ideas/moods through the images was in my mind as I planned and shot each session, as I wanted to focus on different aspects of Ann’s personality – playful, serious, bookish, glamorous etc – but I recognise that this is something personal to me and don’t necessarily expect these messages to resonate with an uninformed viewer
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • I’m pleased with the variety of styles I managed to achieve with the same subject – having looked at other students’ work I felt a major determinant to a successful set was the balance of the variety of the style with the ‘grounding’ of the consistency of subject… this was the axis along which I intended to work
    • I’m not sure that the set demonstrates a very high degree of experimentation, with only images 6 and 7 really pushing away from traditional portraiture and in relatively small ways; I toyed with the idea of a non-face portrait but this ended up being watered down to the blurry no. 7
    • In terms of development of a personal voice, from my experience, preferences and feedback during Art of Photography I believe I’m moving towards a quite geometrically-led approach, in that I like to find the lines, shapes, patterns and rhythms in front of me and capture them – and I find this inherently more difficult with portraiture; it’s been good to get outside of my comfort zone, and very insightful, but I believe this assignment represents a deliberate step outside my developing style rather than a continuation of it
  • Context:
    • As previously noted, portraiture isn’t my natural photographic preference, so I’ve made myself get out of my comfort zone – including trying a ‘100 Strangers‘ photographic challenge, which I am finding interesting
    • The one exhibition I’ve managed to get to during this section of the course was Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery – interesting, fun but fairly one-sided in the context of photographic portraiture
    • Photographers whose work I’ve come to appreciate more over this section of the course: David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Mary-Ellen Mark, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman, August Sander
    • I got a huge amount of inspiration and insight from Roswell Angier’s ‘Train Your Gaze’, which manages to be very accessible in covering some potentially quite obscure facets of portraiture… it made me think of portraits in many different ways over my reading of the book
    • I revisited relevant chapters in a few of the books I’d read for Art of Photography – Graham Clarke’s ‘The Photograph’ [2] and John Berger’s ‘Understanding a Photograph’ [3] in particular – and their insights made more sense in my new-found context of shooting portraits
    • I found the experiences and outputs of other students on this assignment to be invaluable in helping me feel more able to tackle the challenge, and to inspire me to do as well as, or in some cases better than, what has gone before me

To summarise: I believe I’ve acquitted myself to the best of my ability on an assignment that isn’t in a photographic genre that I’m naturally drawn towards. I did kind of enjoy it, but am really looking forward to getting cracking on the remaining sections of the course!

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA
  2. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  3. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
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