People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Assignment 2: Railway Volunteers

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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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