People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: An organised event

Brief

For this exercise you will need to research and prepare in advance. Look for an organised event at which there will be plenty of people and in which you can confidently expect to be able to photograph freely and with some variety. An event at which spectators are in seats will not do; one in which people move around will be more useful. There are many other possibilities, and an important part of the exercise is to find a suitable one for yourself.

Results

I decided to take pictures at the annual Pickering Game & Country Fair, more specifically the UK Tractor Show that is incorporated into the overall event. I figured that I could get some good shots of ‘characters’ in this kind of environment.

What I’ve learned

I’m not sure I learned a huge amount new in this one, but it was certainly good practice. It is similar thematically to the assignment so maybe I’ll consider it a dry run for that. I felt quite comfortable shooting in this kind of environment (although some of the ‘characters’ did look like they could do me a bit of damage if they objected to me taking their picture…) and I think this helped my general level of confidence with ‘people unaware’ photography generally.

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Exercise: Standard focal length

Brief

As in the previous two exercises, concentrate on shooting with one focal length. In this case, if you have a full-frame camera the focal length should be between 40 mm and 50 mm. If your camera uses the more common, smaller sensor size, it will be in the region of 27 mm to 32 mm.

Results

I took most of these at 27 mm on a 1.5x crop factor sensor, so the equivalent focal length is almost exactly 40 mm (the first image, of the benches, was at 35 mm crop sensor so 52.5 mm EFL).

 

After the last two exercises, at the extremes of long and wide focal lengths, I found this much more satisfying. The fact that the standard focal length approximates the human eye is what makes this kind of image work in my opinion – one of the defining characteristics of good ‘street photography’ is that it closely resembles real-life, without unnecessary distortion. It adds an extra layer of veracity that aids the feeling of ‘being there’. It feels more like photojournalism than creativity – taking more than making photographs.

From a personal point of view I found it much more comfortable: I neither felt like a stalker (as in the long lens shots) nor that I was unnecessarily intruding in people’s personal space (as in the wide-angle shots). As noted in an earlier exercise, one of the things that I think makes this kind of focal length ‘fairer’ is that the subject has a fighting chance of knowing that you’re there, and could object if they wanted to – it seems like a fair exchange, if that makes any sense.

What I’ve learned

Through these last three exercises I’ve come to better understand why most street photography tends to use the focal lengths that it does – namely the middle-ground, near-human-eye equivalents between 35 mm and 50 mm (full-frame equivalent). There are exceptions, of course, but these are stylistic choices that certain photographers make, and it gives their work a distinctive feel that in some cases distances their images somewhat from a true reality. If I’m going to do much more of this kind of photography in future, I believe I will do so with my 27 mm (40 mm EFL) and my 35 mm (52.5 mm EFL) lenses.


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Book: Train Your Gaze, Roswell Angier

Train Your Gaze

Train Your Gaze

The big question that this book made me (still makes me) think about is: What is a portrait? (spoiler: I’m still not sure).

I was originally going to write about this book when I was doing the People Aware action of the course, as it is a book about portraiture – indeed, its full title is ‘Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography’ [1]. However, on thinking about it after reading, and once I’d started on People Unaware, it became more apparent to me that a lot of the new insights I gained from this book weren’t just about (what I consider to be the core definition of) portraiture per se – namely the genre of photography concerned with images of people that are aware they are being photographed – but more generally to images of people. This in turn led me to check my own understanding on the meaning of the word ‘portrait’! And the true definition of the word merely means a depiction or likeness of a person, and does not specifically signify that the person is aware of, or posing for, the likeness to be recorded.

However, the book does muddy the waters somewhat by first of all referring to a portrait as “the result of a consensual process… [that] depends on the subject’s agreement to be photographed” (fitting my pre-existing understanding), then going on to include a chapter on voyeurism and a discussion of what most people would call ‘street photography’. So it’s not wholly clear on where ‘portraiture’ ends and ‘taking pictures of people’ begins.

Before getting into the content, I must say: it’s by far the best-looking book on photography I’ve seen, as a physical artefact: thick paper stock, nice matt finish, clear layout, beautiful graphic design and typography; I’m used to this from photobooks but it made me realise that most photography textbooks are aesthetically quite disappointing in comparison.

For the most part, it’s very well-written and easy to digest, even when dealing with quite esoteric themes underlying portraiture. The author has a knack of simply describing and illustrating the concepts under discussion. The one incongruous element of the book is the content of the exercises included in each chapter, which vary from slightly challenging to qualifying the author to be Mayor of Crazytown. It starts off with an hour-long portrait session in complete silence (strange but achievable) and soon tumbles into ‘take friends with you to recreate a street photograph’ and ‘be a voyeur’ with the helpful hint “You can hide in a closet”!). These seemed to be at the outer edges of what I’d expect most readers to be comfortable with.

Exercises aside, its core content is very enlightening. It starts with an assertion that the portrait isn’t just the result of the sitter being in front of the camera, it’s the outcome of the interaction with the photographer – “the presence of the photographer’s thoughtful regard” as a key ingredient. It talks straight away of “cultivating this presence, this way of looking”, hence the title.

Angier dives straight into challenging norms of portraiture in the second chapter, with its examination of the non-facial portrait. Shadows, reflections, other body parts, covered faces – all of these can form a portrait, albeit a non-traditional one. The following chapter is where the consensual element of portraiture starts to be questioned, as he discusses the street work of Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson, particularly from the point of view of compositional decisions. This expansion of the definition of portraiture continues in the chapter on ‘active portraits’; who would have considered Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Attack” image to be a portrait? By the chapter on voyeurism and surveillance the notion of a portrait of consensual has been discarded. Then in an ironic twist, or going full-circle maybe, the image used for the front cover of the book is explained: one of the ‘Stranger’ series by Shizuka Yokomizo, where the stranger is shot in their window with the photographer hidden from view outside. The twist is that while this uses the techniques of voyeurism, the stranger has agreed to stand in the window for precisely this purpose. So it’s definitely a ‘portrait’ by anyone’s definition.

The later chapters cover portraiture in the context of its relationship with identity – interesting, but veers into the overly contrived end of the genre that normally leaves me cold – and challenging the norms of more technical (or rather technique-driven) aspects of portraits, from blurriness to darkness to the use of flash. The chapter on people in the context of places is something that I will certainly return to as part of the ‘People interacting With Place’ part of this course.

This book widened the subject out and made me aware of the possibilities – the ways of looking, the different perspectives, the opportunities to pick apart, challenge or entirely subvert the generally-held norms of what a good portrait is. It made me think, a lot. I don’t wholly agree with every word, but I think that’s what makes it such a good book – one of the best I’ve read in all my photography studies so far.

  1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA