People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Photographer: Elliott Erwitt

Ways of seeing

It took me a few readings of Susan Sontag’s On Photography  [1] before I really started thinking differently about photography, but the single biggest revelation for me was this: Sontag points out that when you admire the work of a particular photographer, you’re admiring the way they see the world, and the photos themselves are simply the physical manifestation of that way of seeing.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

The photographer whose ‘way of seeing’ I have come to admire the most in recent months – in particular since starting on People & Place – is Elliott Erwitt. Although I was aware of one or two of his most famous images, my interest was actually piqued earlier this year when in a short space of time I read some of his comments on photography that accompanied a project he did on Scotland [2] and then heard an interview with him on my favourite podcast, The Candid Frame [3]. Some of the things he said struck a chord with me, and in the audio interview he came across as very modest, affable and an all-round nice guy. These things made me curious to see more of his work – hoping his personality and viewpoint would translate into his photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed at all.

‘Snaps’

Elliott Erwitt, 'Snaps'

Elliott Erwitt, ‘Snaps’

After a little research I bought ‘Snaps’ [4], a 500+ page retrospective of Erwitt’s work, mostly his personal rather than professional photography. It’s probably the best £22 I’ve spent since I got into photography – it’s amazing value for the quality and the quantity of photographs.

As a career-spanning retrospective there is always the risk that there is a lack of cohesion – it’s the Greatest Hits, not that one Classic Album. It spans several decades and is rather loosely organised into single-word verb titles – Read, Rest, Touch, Move, Tell, Point, Stand, Look, Play – making it seem very eclectic, disjointed even, on first reading. But looking at a chapter at a time you do start to see the connections, the rhythms in what he sees and how he sees it. My understanding of Erwitt’s personal work is that he doesn’t work to self-imposed projects, he just shoots what he sees that will make a good photo. His themed collections are in fact the results of his poring over his ‘inventory’ after the event, often many years after.

While his style remains distinctive, one of the lasting observations is of the sheer variety of his subjects; there are a handful of what you might consider classic (or cliché) ‘city street photography’ shots but they are outnumbered massively by a bewildering variety of subjects that he has managed to not just point his camera at, but make a great photo out of.

He’s rightly well-known for the humour in his work; the most common response I had as a pored over the images was a smile, occasionally an out-loud laugh. He has a knack of isolating the absurd moments that permeate life, and does so without judgement but with warmth and empathy. He spots visual puns, moments of interaction between people, gestures and stances of blissfully unaware individuals – and positions himself perfectly to frame the moment.

The other admirable skill of his is the ability to imply a whole narrative with a single shot. In his best storytelling shots you can see the past and the future, all embedded in the one frozen moment. The best example of both the humour and the storytelling – and probably my favourite photo in the book – is of the wedding party in Bratsk, Siberia in 1967. The self-satisfied contemplation of the bad lad on the left, the leaning-away stance of the hapless-looking groom, the daggers in the eyes of the furious bride, the concerned friend leaning in… it’s easy to imagine the whole story that wraps around this one picture.

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

There’s only one discordant note in the whole book – a few pages of commissioned portraits: white background, Avedon/Bailey-style. While Erwitt does excellent portraits, his best ones are natural, environmental portraits with a real informal quality to them. The posed portrait series sticks out like a sore thumb and serves to remind how his naturalistic style is what’s great about him and rightly dominates 99% of the book.

The wisdom of Elliott Erwitt

A few of the things he’s said that have really resonated with me, and sum up pretty well why I like the way he sees:-

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

“You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

“The work I care about is terribly simple. I observe. I try to entertain. But above all I want my pictures to be emotional. Little else interests me in photography.”

“All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.”

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

“I don’t believe that photography can change the world, but it can show the world changing.”

“It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.”

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin
  2. Masters of Photography. http://www.themastersofphotography.com/the-project/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  3. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  4. Erwitt, E. (2010) Snaps. London: Phaidon
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Exercise: Exploring function

Brief

This exercise will help teach, first, a way of approaching a space and thinking about it that focuses on how it was intended to be used and whether or not its design was successful, and second, translating this thought process into an image. Choose any interior space, either domestic or public, and consider it from the point of view of its function. Who uses it or will use it? What is it intended to be used for? And how many different aspects are there to that activity? You are analysing the purpose of the room/space, and the process of doing this is the same for a dining room as for a more complex large area such as a public library.

First note what you think the space ought to be doing — a short list. Then consider how well you think it succeeds. This is all before attempting photography, and it hinges on your own, personal point of view. Forming a point of view is important, because it will influence how you decide to photograph the space.

Having made your analysis, make a carefully considered photograph of the space in order to put across the way it works — or should work — for the people who use it.

Results

The space:

After much head-scratching I landed on a subject for the exercise: an area of the open-plan office that I’m currently working in that is known as “The Library”. It’s not an actual library, rather a space that people can use if they need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just one type (albeit the most quirky one) of working space in a very modern office environment that has, in addition to the more traditional desks and meeting rooms, a variety of ‘breakout spaces’ of various sizes – single-person ‘phone boxes’ for conference calls, sofas for informal chats, and acoustically cushioned booths for more intimate conversations.

Overall purpose:

The stated purpose of “The Library” is to provide individuals (not groups) with a space to work quietly and without distraction, for example to read something, to concentrate on a particular task, or to think through a problem. It is available to anyone in the office, without prior booking; you just turn up and use it. It is laid out as a mock library, with fake bookshelves and other library paraphernalia to ‘dress’ the space in such a way that heavily emphasises its purpose.

Layout:

Its layout is dominated by a central table with 6-8 chairs around it – note however that this is specifically NOT a meeting table; there are desk-mounted dividers about 6” tall to delineate the space of each table setting. The objective here is to emulate the experience of a real library, where individuals will sit in silence and focus on their own work, even if they are elbow-to-elbow with another person – it is specifically a shared space for multiple individual use… you are NOT supposed to use The Library for meetings!

There are also two armchairs in the corners, high-backed and with exaggerated ‘wings’ to help with soundproofing. These are where one would sit to peruse a document, for example, rather than work on a laptop.

Finally, the other distinguishing feature of The Library is that, although open to the rest of the office, it has a full-width floor-length curtain, heavy and lined, to allow occupants to really cut themselves off from the rest of the office and get some proper quiet time.

Requirements shortlist:

  • Quiet (acoustically)
  • Calming (ambience)
  • Detached from main office environment (physically, visually)
  • Soft lighting
  • Clear identification of personal space
  • Comfortable

Is it successful?

An interesting question; yes, it is functionally successful for those that use it for its intended purpose. It is quiet and calm, softly lit, identifiably different to the surrounding area and promotes individual concentration with its use of furniture. The mock library stylings are an excellent visual cue to signify its intended use, so bravo to the interior designer.

However, I don’t see it being used for its intended purpose very much. It’s probably the least-used non-desk space in the office. I see what the workspace designer intended, but I fear that they over-estimated the need for such quiet contemplation. It’s almost as if people are embarrassed about being seen to be sitting quietly thinking or reading rather than *doing stuff*. I think this is an example where the real culture of the workplace is slightly at odds with the assumptions by HR of how they should work.

So in summary it is unsuccessful in as much as it under-used (rather than misused or unfit for purpose). It’s a bit of a white elephant. It wouldn’t surprise me if at some point they ripped it out and stuck in another meeting room or a few normal desks instead…

Photograph:

I took pictures of the space in use by one person, and of it empty. I thought for a while about which was a ‘truer’ description of whether the space is successful at its intended purpose. In the end I landed on depicting it empty. It’s clear from this picture what it should be used for – the layout and décor do that – but the fact that it is unoccupied tells the true story.

Library

If you really want to analyse it, there is evidence that someone has used it recently – the chair pulled out – so it’s clearly not wholly unused, just under-utilised. This is exactly the intention of my capture.

What I’ve learned

Wow, that’s the most time I’ve ever spent analysing a section of an office! Very useful though – it’s an insightful exercise to really think properly about what a space is supposed to do (or what people are supposed to do with it) as making a judgement on whether it ‘works’ or not makes a difference to how you then try to capture it in a photograph.

I found myself trying to work out how you compose a picture to make a point about the usage. I hadn’t really thought about this kind of thing before!


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People unaware: photographers roundup

Before starting on People & Place, my first OCA photography course was Art of Photography. During my time on that course I looked at a number of photographers whose work I admired, mainly in the form of exhibition and book reviews. I’ve been looking back on my notes and blog posts from the time and revisiting some of the work in the context of my ongoing People & Place learning, as it became apparent that a lot of the photographers I’d admired over the last year or so are relevant to this section of the course. So here I’ve noted what I’ve picked up from some of them by revisiting them in context of this course.

Vivian Maier

The unique aspect of Maier’s body of work is of course that it lay undiscovered until after her death. Never seen, her work remained un-critiqued in her lifetime and so whatever changes are evident in her style and subject matter is down to her own decisions. Although she dabbled in posed portraits and people-less urban photography, the majority of her released work is classic candid street photography.

One very practical lesson I took from Maier was the way she shot (down to her choice of equipment)… she used a Rollei twin-lens reflex camera, chest-mounted and with a top-down viewing screen. This allowed her to shoot relatively unnoticed, as she wasn’t lifting a camera to her eye. The 21st century equivalent is the digital camera with an articulated screen – which is exactly what I used to get the vast majority of images on People Unaware. Coupled with a remote shutter release, it allowed me to compose on the screen and shoot without drawing attention to myself.

Tony Ray-Jones

I came across Ray-Jones for the first time as part of the double-header ‘Only in England’ exhibition with Martin Parr at the Media Space in London, featuring images from his ‘A Day Off’ series based on the English at leisure, mostly at seaside resorts (so a spiritual predecessor to Parr’s The Last Resort!).

What I like about Ray-Jones’ work is its humour; he was great at picking out quirky details and catching facial expressions. He was also gifted in composition, not easy in candid photography, getting the right elements in the frame to tell a self-contained narrative. While I couldn’t emulate this in my assignment, one thing I did take on board was to choose as subjects people doing something enjoyable – much ‘classic’ street photography often focuses on sadder, seedier (or maybe just neutral/non-emotive) moments, and what I saw in Ray-Jones’ work was a warmth and an empathy that came across well in the pictures. He’s testament to a theory that I really subscribe to, that you make a connection with some photographers because you appreciate the way they see the world – the pictures themselves are merely the physical evidence of what you like about them.

Martin Parr

The early Parr work that I saw as part of the above double-bill wasn’t in his signature style; it was more Ray-Jones influenced in its aesthetic and approach. What I’m talking about here is the more recognisable Parr style, in particular his seminal ‘The Last Resort’ project. He opened up a whole world of public photography – not really street photography, that name doesn’t seem to fit – by choosing garish colour over moody black and white, and working-class seaside resorts over mean city streets.

I wouldn’t want to emulate his way of working – for a start I’m much too unassuming to shoot with flash in daylight – but one thing I did take from Parr is that colour can work just as well for people unaware photography as black-and-white. In the assignment I started thinking that the subject matter lent itself well to black-and-white, but on seeing the contact sheets from the first couple of shoots, totally switched that round. The colours on display seemed to me to be an important part of capturing the images.

I guess a similar inspiration on the use of colour was my appreciation for the work of Saul Leiter.

Others

I’ve looked again at the work of number of other photographers in the last couple of months, and without identifying such specific points of inspiration as noted above, what I have been doing is looking at their work with a slightly different eye, if that makes sense. I’ve been mentally putting myself in their shoes and behind their viewfinders… looking at the resultant pictures and thinking: what attracted them to this image? what was going through their mind? why did they choose this moment? what’s the message/story…?

The names that spring to mind here are Robert Frank, Humphrey Spender (of the Mass Observation project), W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson.

One of the pleasant surprises about studying photography is how you can go back to pictures you’ve seen before and enjoy them anew, seeing different aspects and finding new depths. I’ve certainly felt this during the last couple of months on People Unaware.

 


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Documentary: Everybody Street

I subscribe to an excellent podcast called The Candid Frame [1] that features hour-long interviews with photographers, and recently listened to an episode dedicated to photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn, who has directed a fantastic documentary on New York street photography called ‘Everybody Street’ [2]. It inspired me to seek out the film itself, which I’ve just finished watching.

Everybody Street

Everybody Street

It’s made up of interviews with contemporary photographers, plus some old hands from years gone by (including a sprightly 98-year-old, Rebecca Lepkoff, active since the 1940s), mixed in with art historians waxing lyrical about legendary practitioners no longer with us.

It serves to illustrate the extremely broad church that is “street photography”, even in a city like New York where the cliché of the gritty black-and-white street aesthetic was made famous. Yes, there’s a lot of the ‘classic’ (/cliché) street style but looking closer you see much variation and originality:

  • From very broad ‘anything goes’ subject matter – whatever was happening on the street (Joel Meyerowitz, Elliott Erwitt, Jeff Mermelstein)…
  • … to very specific projects (Bruce Davidson and subways; Boogie and gangs; Jill Freedman and cops/firemen; Martha Cooper and graffiti artists)
  • From very serious subject matter (social injustice – Clayton Patterson, Helen Levitt, Jamel Shabazz)…
  • … to very humorous (Erwitt I was already a fan of, but the revelation here was Mermelstein – some really lovely work)
  • From deliberately requested and posed portraits (Patterson, Shabazz, Mary Ellen Mark)…
  • … to the frankly obnoxious in-your-face style of Bruce Gilden

I warmed to some photographers much more than others – just seeing his photos beforehand had made me think that Gilden’s style wasn’t for me, but to see him in practice confirmed my worst suspicions – he really does stick the camera and flash right up in people’s faces without warning. I’m not surprised he gets into altercations now and again – he deserves it! Ricky Powell came across as a bit of a loud character, a bit stereotypical Noo Yawk for my liking, and his portfolio was a bit celebrity-heavy for what is supposed to be a street photography film.

But these are minor gripes for sure. In all, I found it to be an invigorating, educational and insightful film, and one that I’ll watch again.

I thought it might have been too focused on New York the city and therefore not really connect with me, but thankfully I was  wrong – it’s very much about the photographers and their work, with NYC as their canvas. What they all do with it is actually quite different.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in street photography – or even just photography in general. It’s an insight into the minds of an eclectic bunch of photographers. And one of the things about great photographers is that you’re not just admiring the end results of their work – you’re admiring the way they see the world. This film really brought that home to me.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 16/06/2014]
  2. Everybody Street (film): Dir. Cheryl Dunn http://everybodystreet.com [accessed 16/06/2014]

 


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Assignment 2: Railway Volunteers

Brief:

The object of this assignment is to plan and execute a set of images of people in some form of meaningful activity. This could be work, sport, a stage performance (music, drama), or at a social event. You should produce a set of approximately 10 final, selected images, and you can choose between depicting the same person (or small group) at different kinds of activity, or different people at the same single activity or event.

Concentrate especially on two aspects: on telling moments, and on ‘explaining’ the activity (which means choosing viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible).

In your learning log:

  • Critically assess your finished work. Consider each piece individually
  • Identify what has worked well and what has been less successful and analyse the reasons for this

Submissions:

UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENTtutor 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 chose as my theme the volunteers changing over the steam trains at Pickering railway station terminus. The staff on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway line are predominately part-time volunteers, so it was an interesting opportunity to observe people working at a job that is also their hobby.

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

Approach

I worked out the step-by-step process that the train and station crew followed each time a train came in. However, in selecting the final images, I didn’t slavishly follow the whole process and have a picture for each step – partly because this isn’t an instructional manual, and partly because I felt that the series should be about the people and not the trains or the station. So I selected the images that I felt best depicted the volunteer staff as individuals and teams, engaging in the key activities of their job/hobby.

The images are from a few different shooting sessions. As well as being of practical help (to get the variety of images needed), this gave me a wider set of faces to work with – as the railway has a large set of part-time volunteers and you rarely see the same team week to week. I decided that as this isn’t photo-journalism that a set of images collated over a period of time would be acceptable. The end result is that each image features different people. While there’s a wide variety of ages, it’s notable that the volunteers I saw were all male!

1. Driver coming in

I got several shots of the train arriving but most featured the train itself too prominently and didn’t catch the driver’s face. This is a slight cheat as this was taken just after the train had come to a stop, and I got a chance to zoom in on the driver’s face. I noticed that the driver’s face is often glowing red as they arrive, having been in front of a steamy furnace for over an hour!

1. Driver coming in

1. Driver coming in

It was this photo that inspired me to do the series in colour, after initially planning it all in black and white. Aside from the colours, what attracted me to this in the edit was the framing by the window, and the calm expression on the driver’s face, seemingly deep in concentration on some important gauge or other.

2. Driver

This chap isn’t doing anything particularly interesting apart from walking down the platform but I confess I included it simply because I liked his face – he exudes character. He reminds me of George Formby!

2. Driver

2. Driver

While I like the expression I caught here, the image isn’t technically very good if you look closely. The lighting behind made it difficult to get a very clear shot of his face (and I didn’t think fill-in flash was appropriate), and there’s a little too much noise in the face. This is one where a b/w conversion may have suited it better.

3. Decoupling the engine

The next key step is the decoupling of the engine from the first carriage, where a crew member squeezes between the two. It’s quite difficult to capture this successfully as the specific decoupling action is hidden behind the person doing it, so getting a viewpoint on the hands themselves proved too difficult. Once I’d accepted that focusing on the hands wasn’t an option, I instead looked for shots where I caught the face of the volunteer.

3. Decoupling the engine

3. Decoupling the engine

In this I believe I successfully caught the subject at the right moment for a good capture. I’m pleased with the geometry of this one, with the perspective and the strong diagonal emphasising the cramped space. Again I felt that the strong colour was a good reason to present the set in colour not b/w.

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

Down by the tracks at each end of the platform are old-fashioned telephones that the crews use to communicate during the changeover. I managed to catch this very ‘Dad’s Army’-looking volunteer on the line to his colleagues.

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

I think two aspects of this make this a good shot: the stance/expression of the subject, and the composition that places him in the context of the huge engine behind. On the downside, the highlights are a bit harsh, despite a little post-processing to tame them.

5. Filling the water tank

Once decoupled, the engine moves past the carriages, down to the other end of the platform. As the engines run on steam, they need to fill up with water from a giant pump.

5. Filling the water tank

5. Filling the water tank

Once again the strong colours appealed to me, in particular the contrast between the very traditional deep green of the engine and the vibrant orange of the more modern hi-visibility vests. I took lots of shots of this sequence but this one stood out from a graphical point of view as the man top left is framed rather nicely by the bend in the pump; also there’s an implied triangle between the men and the reflection. Where this shot could have been improved a little was in the lighting; it was taken down the end of the platform that isn’t covered by the station roof and the sunlight makes the sky look a little washed out.

6. Checking the engine

I often observed the train crew get out of the cab and take a look at the engine itself. In this instance the driver was joined by a member of the platform staff, as evidenced by suit jacket and shirt under the safety vest.

6. Checking the engine

6. Checking the engine

This was the one shot where I used shallow depth of field to focus on one person, made possible as I was shooting down the length of the platform. The lighting on the central character is reasonably good, it brings out his features. In terms of storytelling, the image somehow conjures up a sense of ‘us and them’ rivalry – I like to imagine that the driver is giving the station chap a withering look for commenting on the engine.

7. Train crew waiting

There’s a little more waiting before the engine gets re-coupled to the other end of the carriage set. Some of the engine crews looked very jolly, some very serious. This is one of the more serious-looking groups.

7. Train crew waiting

7. Train crew waiting

For me what makes this work is the positioning of the main main, framed by his engine, leaning confidently in what he evidently considers his domain – his stance is a mixture of proud and territorial. The man on the left looking over at him reinforces his ‘top dog’ status.

8. Waving the engine back in

Now it’s time to bring the engine back to the far end of the train, so it’s pointing in the right direction to go back out again.

8. Waving the engine back in

8. Waving the engine back in

On the plus side, I caught the exact moment of the guard guiding the engine to a halt. However, the background is a lot messier than I’d like. Unfortunately I’m rarely the only spectator on the platform.

9. Recoupling the engine

The engine is now moved to meet the other end of the carriages it had passed a few minutes ago, and the recoupling takes place. In a still photo this would look in effect identical to the de-coupling, so I had to take a different angle (metaphorically and literally). So I chose to use this young chap climbing back out from under the train.

9. Recoupling the engine

9. Recoupling the engine

What I think I captured well here is the look of concentration on the face of the crew member, who is clearly intent on doing the job properly – he was one of the younger volunteers I observed. From a graphical point of view the colours work well for me, again vindicating the choice of an overall colour aesthetic. There is a strong diagonal element to the image that helps give an impression of movement.

10. Train guards ready to go

We’re nearing the end of the process now and the passengers will have filed onto the train to take their seats. Here we see the ticket inspector about to board, just taking a look down the platform to see whether any stragglers are still boarding.

10. Train guards ready to go

10. Train guards ready to go

The lighting generally, and in particular the edge lighting around the hair of the main subject, is the reason that this image stood out for me. In comparison to the more vibrant colours of the engines, here are the warmer, more autumnal wood tones of the carriages themselves.

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

This was one of the few shots that I had pre-visualised at the planning stage. It’s very much a key moment in the process and one that I thought lent itself to being captured. I took several shots at various times with different guards and from different viewpoints before I caught a shot I was happy with.

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

Like some of the others, the lighting was slightly harsh, which provided a challenge with highlights. The other thing that would have improved this would have been a shallower depth of field, to throw the background out a bit softer and bring more emphasis on the subject. However, from a composition point of view I think this works best of all the options I had – framed between the bridge arch and the train, and with his hand exactly in line with the platform 1 sign.

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

Another shot that I had pre-visualised before starting; the train guard always hangs his head out of the last carriage window as the train sets off. As it sets off rather slowly, I found it relatively easy to focus on the face in the window of the moving carriage and wait for a good expression. I got several variants of this shot with a number of different guards, but this chap was by far the jolliest. He also reminds me somewhat of my brother (although he won’t thank me for saying that…).

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

Obviously the lighting to the left is too bright, despite me reducing the highlights. Also, the face is a little soft close-up, so evidently my focusing wasn’t spot-on. But I think the expression of the guard makes this the most successful of the options I had to choose from.

Self-evaluation:

I enjoyed this more than the portrait assignment. I very much liked capturing people unposed, although in many ways it brought its own challenges.

The assignment surfaced a few recurring issues / improvement areas:

  • Freezing the moment: without the ability to direct your subjects, there is an element of luck in capturing the right expressions and gestures to help tell your story – although it became apparent to me that you can increase your ‘luck’ through preparation and patience
  • Lighting: this is specific to the nature of the station architecture – open to bright sunlight at either end but shaded by a roof structure for most of its length – which led to some interesting challenges with lighting and exposure that I had to try to alleviate in post-processing
  • Messy backgrounds: very often I got what I thought was a good photo of the main subject, but on closer inspection the background had some very distracting elements in; in some cases if the main subject was strong enough I kept these anyway, in others they were too distracting and weren’t used – but I need to be more aware of this at the time of shooting

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • I am generally happy with the technical execution with the exception of the general lighting challenges noted above
    • I used a variety of focal lengths for the full set of images shot, but noted that the final selection is predominantly in a ‘standard’ focal length of approx 35-50 mm EFL, giving a ‘normal’ view on the subjects, not overly wide or telephoto
    • As in the previous assignment I made the decision to switch from an initial proposal to shoot all in b/w to go instead for the consistency of a colour aesthetic
    • In doing so I paid attention to the colours in each image, in particular the reds, greens, blues and oranges that typify the environment and the uniforms
    • I put some thought into pre-visualisation for a few specific shots (3, 8, 11, 12) as noted in the planning post, but for the most part this was an exercise in shooting what I found interesting and curating it after the event
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am happy with the quality of the outcome, both in terms of individual images chosen, and the collated set as a cohesive whole
    • In believe that in terms of communicating the idea I wanted to get across – of an eclectic set of volunteers giving up their time for something they are passionate about – the series is reasonably successful (although wish I’d been able to capture more of them smiling)
    • In my opinion the set meets the brief, as it does feature images with telling moments (3, 4, 8, 11) and it does, when taken as a whole, visually explain the overall activity
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • Where possible I did endeavour to be creative with composition, viewpoint and colour combinations, but in general I confess that it is quite a ‘traditional’ set of images without a high degree of experimentation – in my defence I do believe that this suits the subject matter
    • In terms of development of a personal voice, this feels much more like an extension of what I’ve already liked to shoot than the portrait assignment did – I like shooting in public, I like looking for strong geometric compositions, and I have discovered I particularly like taking pictures of people who are doing something they are passionate about – so this assignment feels like a key learning experience as part of my evolving style
  • Context:
    • Although I haven’t yet written up my reviews/thoughts, I have in this section of the course immersed myself in the work of key names in candid people photography – in particular I’ve revisited and found new depths in books and exhibition notes from my Art of Photography studies: Martin Parr [1], Tony Ray-Jones, Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier [2], Humphrey Spender, Robert Frank [3], Lisette Model [4] and Henri Cartier-Bresson [5]
    • In addition I’ve discovered some other photographers whose work I really love, some old hands that I should probably know by now – I’ve acquired books of W. Eugene Smith’s [6], Elliott Erwitt’s [7] and Lee Friedlander’s [8] works – and some newer names – I’m impressed with the work of a chap called Craig Semetko [9] in particular
    • There’s a great book called Street Photography Now [10] that serves as a reminder of the variety and richness of candid urban photography – before I got this I saw ‘street photography’ as predominantly b/w New York shots, but this book opened my eyes to a whole variety of styles
    • I’ve been reading and getting a lot out of Context and Narrative [11] by Maria Short – it’s full of interesting insights, although not all of direct application to this assignment
    • I read a couple of e-books on street photography specifically: James Maher’s ‘The Essentials of Street Photography’ [12] and Anne Darling’s ‘Street Photography: A Concise Guide’ [13] — the former was more useful, as it also featured interviews with photographers
    • I found the experiences and outputs of other OCA students to be useful in helping me to tackle the challenge, and to inspire me

To summarise: I’ve hugely enjoyed this section of the course, and this assignment in particular. I’ve found it very enriching to dedicate myself to a subject like this and in particular to focus on the people aspect of it; I much prefer candid to posed portraits. I’m very much looking forward to getting my tutor’s comments.

  1. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
  2. Maier, V and Maloof, J. (2011) Street photographer. New York: Powerhouse
  3. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  4. Sussman, E. (2001) Lisette Model. Paris: Phaidon
  5. Cartier-Bresson, H (2006) Scrapbook. Paris: Thames & Hudson
  6. Stephenson, S. (2001) W. Eugene Smith. Paris: Phaidon
  7. Erwitt, E. (2003) Snaps. London: Phaidon
  8. Galassi, P. (2008) Friedlander. New York: MOMA
  9. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues
  10. Howarth, S & McLaren, S. (2011) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  11. Short, M. (2011) Context and narrative. Lausanne: AVA
  12. Maher, J. (2012) The essentials of street photography. Amazon
  13. Darling, A. (2014) Street photography: a concise guide. Amazon


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Assignment 2: planning stage

As per my last post, I’ve decided on a subject for the ‘People & Activity’ assignment:

  • The changeover of steam trains at Pickering station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Although I’m not a trainspotter by any means, I do like living in a town that has a working steam railway station as it gives me lots of opportunities for striking and interesting photographs. I’ve previously used the station as one of the subjects of an earlier Art of Photography assignment, but that was focusing more on the architecture (it was for Elements of Design) and included other railway stations as well. This will be much more focused, first on Pickering station, secondly on people and thirdly and most specifically on the activities they undertake when a train comes in then leaves the station.

The process

A little explanation: Pickering station is a terminus, and the end of the line is a dead stop, not a turntable or anything fancy. So when a train comes in, it needs to follow a particular process to be able to go out again:

  1. Driver brings train in, stopping a couple of engine-lengths short of the end of the line
  2. Guards open doors, passengers disembark
  3. Driver’s mate gets down between engine and first carriage, decouples the two to free the engine
  4. Driver moves engine down to the very end of the line then manoeuvres it across to the other track
  5. Driver brings engine past all carriages to rejoin the main line just past the far end of the train
  6. (optional step) if needed, driver moves down to water pump at end of platform to fill up with water
  7. Driver moves engine back onto far end of train
  8. Driver’s mate gets down between engine and end carriage, connects the two together
  9. Guards let new passengers onto train
  10. Platform guard blows whistle
  11. Train guard usually hangs his head out of the window as the train departs
  12. Platform guard retires to his office to complete the paperwork

Shooting list

While on the last assignment (A portrait) I prepared a detailed shooting list, and sketched out what I had pre-visualised, for this assignment it seemed to me that this would be more challenging to be very prescriptive as I would be unable to pose or direct any of the proceedings. So in this instance I had a general framework in mind (based on the overall process observed above) and only a few specific shots that I was keen on capturing – related to the ‘moment’ and ‘explaining’ points in the brief:-

  • The driver’s mate between the engine and the carriage doing the coupling/decoupling itself
  • The platform guard, arm raised, blowing the whistle
  • The train guard’s head poking out of the end carriage window as the train sets off again
Train driver (2013)

Train driver (2013)

Beyond these shots I decided to just capture what I thought was interesting and weave the narrative out of it from the library of shots that I collected.

More important to me than specific shots is the desire to capture good shots of people! That’s the real point of this section and therefore this assignment.

One of the reasons I chose the subject is that the people who work on the railway are mostly volunteers, and do this because they’re passionate about it. There’s something in their faces, in their eyes when you see them working. It’s quite inspiring, even if you don’t share their exact passion, to see people doing something they love. This is what I want to capture!

Practicalities

As noted in the post on my choice of subject, one of the advantages of shooting the train changeover is the multiple opportunities to get images – there are a normally about half a dozen trains a day on early summer weekends. So I have made shooting expeditions down to the station I think 5 or 6 times over a period of a few weekends. It’s important to have this opportunity to re-run the session as getting all the shots needed, to the right kind of quality, would be very difficult if it was a genuine one-off, as the whole turnaround window is only 10-15 minutes.

In order to get in close enough to the action but remain on the safety of the platform, I had to overcome my unease with using telephoto lenses. In this circumstance though I felt fine shooting with a long lens as the participants are most likely used to people taking their photographs and so I felt less stalker-ish than I might otherwise have done.

For one of the trips, and for the first time on an assignment, I took two camera bodies with different lenses mounted. One was a long zoom (50-230 mm / 75-345 mm EFL) to get in close on the details, and on the other I alternated between a shorter zoom (16-50 mm / 24-75 mm EFL) and a prime lens, 35 mm (52 mm EFL). While the logistics of switching between cameras was a bit of a learning curve, it did afford me the opportunity to get a good variety of shots in a short space of time.

Colour or black/white?

I had this dilemma with the last assignment too… should the end results be in colour or black and white?

My initial instinct was black/white. In fact, I shot in b/w in the viewfinder (as I set the JPG style to mono, but also shot Raw to give me the choice to revert to colour if needed). I default to b/w for the vast majority of pictures I take at the railway station, it just really seems to suit it; it’s a combination of the architectural lines suiting it, and the nostalgia vibe. I was also influenced a lot by the overwhelming prevalence of b/w in the whole genre of street photography – I appreciate this isn’t street photography per se, but I do like the implied authenticity that b/w brings to candid people shots and I see the similarities.

However… as with the first assignment, looking at the early shots I’m starting to think that colour might work better? Using colour would place the series more in the modern day, without the fake nostalgia of b/w, and this might help to get over my message that these are volunteers, who do this because they love it. Using b/w would make the images look like they could have been taken any time, and that’s not really my intention – I want to focus on the volunteering aspect.

So at the moment I’m erring towards colour. Although at this stage in my last assignment I was firmly in favour of b/w and switched, so anything could happen in the edit!

I think that’s a reasonable summary of my preparation so far, albeit written up after the event.

By the time I wrote this I’d already shot 400+ images over a few weekends. The challenge now is to edit them down to a shortlist and construct the overall narrative…


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Assignment 2: initial preparation

I started thinking about Assignment 2 before I’d finished the exercises. I read ahead to the end of the section to see what the assignment was about so that I could put some thought to it. When I discovered it was about ‘People and Activity’, it first of all made me think of its similarities with some exercises and assignments I’d already done:

  • The final assignment on Art of Photography was a photo-essay that (certainly in the way I interpreted it) covered people engaging in an activity
  • An exercise in the People Aware section of this course entitled ‘An active portrait‘ which was somewhere in between posed portrait and candid photography, in as much as the subject knew I was there but I was keeping out of his way

Considerations

In revisiting these previous experiences in my head I made a mental list of how this assignment needs to be similar and how it needs to be different. Some of this is in the brief, some of it is implied, some of it is me imposing my own structure on the assignment to better help me deliver it.

  • The obvious, from the section title: the pictures must be of People, and they must be Unaware of being photographed!
    • This seems self-evident, but I have seen other students flex the definition of ‘unaware’ significantly in their assignments, and I don’t want to fall into that trap
  • They need to be engaged in some kind of activity
    • This rules out general ‘street photography’ without a clear thread of activity tying the images together in a cohesive way
  • (from the brief) Concentrate especially on two aspects: on telling moments, and on ‘explaining’ the activity (which means choosing viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible)
    • So I need to choose an activity that has such ‘telling moments’, and where it will be possible for me to see/shoot the kind of images that ‘explain’ what is going on
  • The brief suggests example activities such as: work, sport, a stage performance or a social event
    • I ruled out sport as (a) I’m not interested in it and would find it hard to get across any enthusiasm in the pictures, and (b) technical challenges of capturing the moments / explaining pics with potentially fast-moving subjects
    • I ruled out a stage performance due to lack of the right subjects happening in the timeframe I have for the assignment (although there is a Sixties Music Festival in my town in mid-June, it would be leaving it too late I think)
    • I ruled out a social event as I couldn’t think of an interesting enough one happening in the timeframe! Also most social events that might have been interesting would be most likely indoors/evenings, and that would lead to lighting challenges
    • So that left ‘work’… which did end up being the area I chose, kind of (explained below)
  • I specifically want the activity being depicted to be inherently interesting, out of the ordinary in some way
    • The pictures themselves should be interesting to look at, individually and as a set, and if the activity was very everyday (say, stall-holders at a market) then the challenge to find the interest is that much harder
  • Last but not least, based on my experience on the photo-essay assignment on AOP, I decided it would be very beneficial if I could shoot on more than once occasion
    • To allow me to review contact sheets, identify gaps, opportunities for reshoots, alternative angles etc
    • And it reduces the risk significantly – getting all the shots needed at a single one-off event is inherently trickier

Subject decision

With all of the above in mind, after a week or two of thinking about it I landed on what I believe is a good subject for the assignment:

  • The changeover of steam trains at Pickering station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

My rationale:

  • It’s an interesting visual spectacle that not many people would be familiar with
  • The people who do it are mostly volunteers, passionate about what they do, and dressed in a distinctive way – all of which I think lends character and interest to the subject matter
  • We live in Pickering so I could shoot over a few consecutive weekends to build up a decent library of shots to choose from

So that’s how I got to the choice of subject matter.

The next prep post will be more about the more specific planning and shooting at the station to build up the library of images for the assignment.