People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 3: Progress

In the end I took photos of all of the places in the shortlist I posted about previously:

  • King’s Cross departures concourse
  • Pickering station coach-building shed
  • Beadlam Grange farm shop
  • Quaker tranquility garden
  • Giessereihalle – converted steel foundry / shopping mall
  • Hotel Negresco ballroom
  • Promenade de Paillon fountain
  • Pickering Castle

I then sat down with 500+ candidate photos and did a couple of editing rounds until I was reasonably happy that I had at least four decent shots of each.

Something missing…

What I struggled with for a while was that I felt very strongly that there was something… missing. This feeling was brought on, if I’m very honest, from the feedback I recently got as part of my Art of Photography final assessment that I need to be more creative/experimental. I spent a good while dwelling on this, particularly in the context of this assignment. How to be creative on an assignment about buildings was something that I had to think about. And being very pragmatic, I reckoned that I had little or no opportunity for reshoots (partly down to time, partly down to the fact that three out of the shortlisted locations are out of the country!)… so I was trying to work within the parameters of what I’d already shot, maybe looking at them differently.

How to connect the places…?

The nature of the brief is that you’re meant to choose a variety of different spaces. However, I always prefer working with some kind of cohesive connection across a set of images, as I think it helps build up an overall message (idea/emotion) that is greater than the sum of the parts. Maybe the context / overarching narrative might be something that I could be more creative with?

So I spent a little time trying to work out at least a sequence of how to present five or six buildings/spaces that had some sort of logic or narrative to it, however tenuous.

A narrative concept emerges!

After a couple of days thinking about the shortlisted image sets, a few thoughts started forming and connecting in my head:

  • What attracted me to the locations? why did I think they’d make interesting images? the space itself, or how it was being used?
  • Who were the building/spaces aimed at, if anyone?
  • Interaction between places and people using them
  • The pics with people in – what were the people like? what did they have in common?
  • Spaces – space and time – time of life – life stages

Walking down the street on a lunchtime a potential narrative thread struck me. It seemed a little tenuous at first but as I though the concept through it increasingly appealed to me.

I realised that the spaces can be partly defined by the age group that I associate with them. And extending that idea a little, I could articulate a sequence of ‘stages of life’ where each of the spaces would be more meaningful or memorable, certainly to me anyway.

EDIT: only after writing all this down did I realise, I’ve been inspired by a book that I’m reading, a novel called ‘With A Zero At Its Heart” [1] that is written in a very unusual structure: it has 24 chapters, each focusing on ten different fragmented memories in the life of an unnamed protagonist, linked by a particular theme, e.g. Work, Love, Objects, Fear etc. The fragments build up into an overall picture of a life remembered. I realised that my ‘storytelling’ approach to this assignment was akin to imagining a chapter called ‘Places’ and deciding which places fitted where in my own personal timeline.

Once I had this thought I briefly considered a much more literal application of this idea, e.g. a primary school, a workplace etc, leading up to an old folk’s home. But that seemed too literal so I went back to the idea that had already formed, of using a subset of my shortlisted locations to tell a story in life stages. “A life in places” or maybe “Places in a life”?

So bear with me, as this sounds pretentious even as I type it, but my thinking is:

  1. The fountains in Nice – playing in the water spray reminds me of being a carefree kid
  2. Giessereihalle – twenty-somethings meeting their friends
  3. Kings Cross – thirties, dominated by work/commuting
  4. Negresco – getting older, starting to appreciate the finer things in life like art
  5. Coach-building shed – easing into retirement, still working but at a labour of love
  6. Tranquility garden – sitting quietly on my own, reminiscing

The farm shop and the castle have been rejected as I couldn’t associate them with any particular stage in my life!

Next steps

What I do need to do is go back through my selected images and confirm my final choices from the point of view of this new ‘lens’ as I think my original selections per location may not relay the overall narrative arc that I’m aiming for now.

Wish me luck…

  1. Lambert, C. (2014) With a zero at its heart. London: Friday Project
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Assignment 3: Ideas

As there are only a few exercises in the Buildings & Spaces section, I’ve been thinking about potential subjects for the assignment pretty much since I started it. At the beginning I was worryingly short of inspiration, and couldn’t initially see how I could find enough subjects for the exercises and the assignment.

Longlist

So I started a list of ideas that I’ve been adding to and sorting for the last couple of weeks. I started the list in rough draft form even before I’d properly read and absorbed the details of each exercise and the assignment in detail – I think it’s better to at least start with a long list and then refine over time, than to restrict your thinking early on.

  • Summer house (in our garden – now used for the light exercise)
  • Airport departure lounge
  • Train station – but done too many times?!
  • King’s Cross departures concourse specifically?
  • Pickering station coach-building shed?
  • Pickering Castle (specific part – old courtroom?)
  • Newbridge Park (cycle park up in woods near where I live)
  • Castle Howard – courtyard
  • Farm (friend runs a chicken farm nearby)
  • Farm shop? a few nearby
  • Local museum: Beck Isle? Ryedale Folk Museum? Eden Camp?
  • Quaker garden – enclosed ‘tranquility’ garden attached to local Quaker meeting house
  • Converted steel foundry (shopping mall) next door to Zurich office
  • Shopping centre
  • A lighthouse – Whitby nearest?
  • Library
  • Hotel Negresco in Nice – the ‘grande salle’ / ballroom
  • The new ‘promenade de paillon’ square / fountains in Nice
  • Church – Nice cathedral?
  • Pickering Memorial Hall
  • Visitors Centre (Dalby Forest?)
  • Warehouse (friends run an e-commerce business from a huge warehouse)
  • Cafe / bar (White Swan lounge?)
  • London landmarks – Covent Garden?
  • Kew Gardens? I stay not far away during the week – NB can only get there on an evening?
  • Client’s office? (bit intrusive, may have to ask permission?)

I took lots of images at several of these locations as test shots and reviewed them to see how successfully they met the brief. The points in the brief that I particularly want to do justice are:

  • For each building, it is important that you conduct some research beforehand, either archival or personal (or both), so that you have:
    • a good understanding of how and why it was designed in the way it is
    • an opinion on its effectiveness as a usable space.
  • Try to encompass variety in your choice of buildings, including in size and purpose.
  • In addition, describe briefly how you initially set about showing the important features of each building photographically

Shortlist

With these points in mind, and some test shots in the bag, I whittled the shortlist down to:

  • King’s Cross departures concourse
  • Pickering station coach-building shed
  • Beadlam Grange farm shop
  • Quaker tranquility garden
  • Giessereihalle – converted steel foundry / shopping mall
  • Hotel Negresco ballroom
  • Promenade de Paillon fountain
  • Pickering Castle

In all cases I either already know a little of the place’s history or know where to look for research.

All of them have got some distinctive features related to their usage.

I think I have enough variety (size, purpose) in the shortlist. The first two are tenuously linked (trains) but one is vast and teeming with people while the other is small and is a workplace for 2-3 people. Most are public whereas one (the coach-building shed) is a private workspace, albeit accessible to visitors, so ‘semi-public’. Two of them (the garden, the fountain) are outside spaces rather than ‘buildings’ per se but they were ‘built’ for a purpose so I am accepting them into the list.

I’ll get this down to five or six when I’ve got enough shots and I’m at the editing stage.


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Exercise: How space changes with light

Brief

Take one or two locations where you can conveniently return a number of times in different lighting, and photograph on each occasion. To get full value from this exercise, consider making two variations of photograph. In one, set the camera up in exactly the same position each time. In the second, see how the different lighting conditions suggest different viewpoints and compositions. The way the shadows fall, for instance, will create different masses of dark and light.

Results

I had a space in mind for this straight away: the summer house we had installed in our garden last year. We positioned it exactly where it sits, with the doors and windows where they are, specifically to catch the late afternoon sunlight. So it was interesting to methodically go through an exercise of photographing it at different times of day to see how it changed in different lighting conditions.

09:00 and 11:30

I actually took several shots at different times on different days and to be honest up until early evening they all looked very similar, as the light was fairly even and flat throughout the day at the position in the garden. Here I simply chose two representative shots of the summer house in fairly plain sunlight.

18:30

The location really starts to come alive early evening, when the sun starts lowering in the sky to the west. Strong slanted shadows appear in parts of the space.

19:00 and 19:30

The first one here, ’19:00 back wall’ was taken at the same time as the next one ’19:00 chair detail’, and I included both here to show how localised the light effect was that evening… a few metres apart and one looks as flat and even as the daytime shots and the other bathes in a shaft of sunlight throwing a strong shadow onto the wall. ’19:00 sunny’ was a different day and the sunlight is permeating a much broader spread of the room this time. ’19:30 armchair detail’ shows the light coming through the side window and illuminating one specific chair.

20:00

On this particular day the golden hour sun was particularly warm, making parts of the room glow. I included an outside shot too, to show the warmth of the sun on the outside wood.

What I’ve learned

In some ways this was similar to exercises I’ve done before, on the Art of Photography course. This time around I decided not to do it in such a structured way (shooting on the hour all day from exactly the same spot) but rather to use the differences in light to pick out the aspects of the space that support its use as the light changes. It’s a relaxing space anyway, but when the sunlight bathes it in the evening it takes on a  specific glow that makes the place feel warm and calm.

The combination of the location, its usage and the light is something that I hadn’t necessarily thought about consciously before, but the exercise has taught me to consider lighting as one of the factors in being able to effectively ‘tell the story’ of a particular space.


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“Photography Is A Language”

There’s an excellent blog post [1] on the Magnum Photos website from November 2008, entitled “Wear Good Shoes: Advice to young photographers”. It was collated by Alec Soth, and essentially asks 35 Magnum photographers to answer the same few simple questions, the most interesting one being:

What advice would you give young photographers?

The variety of responses is fascinating, and the whole article (it runs to the equivalent of about 10 pages of print) is a treasure trove of good advice.

David Alan Harvey

David Alan Harvey

There’s one answer from David Alan Harvey that really resonated with me, and has had me thinking about photography in a slightly different way ever since. For that reason I’m going to reproduce it here and explain what it means to me.

“You must have something to ‘say’. You must be brutally honest with yourself about this. Think about history, politics, science, literature, music, film and anthropology. What effects does one discipline have over another? What makes ‘man’ tick?

Today, with everyone being able to easily make technically perfect photographs with a cell phone, you need to be an ‘author’. It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship. Many young photographers come to me and tell me their motivation for being a photographer is to “travel the world” or to “make a name” for themselves. Wrong answers in my opinion. Those are collateral incidentals or perhaps even the disadvantages of being a photographer.

Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings, and something almost ‘literary’ to contribute to ‘the discussion’, today’s photographer will become lost in the sea of mediocrity.

Photography is now clearly a language. As with any language, knowing how to spell and write a grammatically correct ‘sentence’ is, of course, necessary. But, more importantly, today’s emerging photographers now must be ‘visual wordsmiths’ with either a clear didactic or an esoteric imperitive. Be a poet, not a technical ‘writer’. Perhaps more simply put, find a heartfelt personal project. Give yourself the ‘assignment’ you might dream someone would give you.

Please remember, you and only you will control your destiny. Believe it, know it, say it.”

– David Alan Harvey

 

The phrase that jumped out at me was “Photography is now clearly a language“. When I read this, something clicked (pardon the pun). Anyone with a camera might think they’re a ‘photographer’, but did everyone with a pen (or a typewriter, or a word processor) think they were a ‘writer’, with a command over the language such that they could get across stories, ideas, emotions? Written language can be used as a very simple tool: signs, notices, product descriptions, Facebook status updates – and photographs can be used as a simple tool as well, as anyone with a smartphone knows. But both written and visual languages can be used for a far more interesting purpose: to make people think, to evoke an emotion, to carry a message, an idea.

So you can use the language to say something as simple and visual as: “Doesn’t this sunset/flower/person look pretty/interesting?” or you can use the language to say something about the human condition, generically or specifically. You can make people think about things they may not have previously wanted to, or been able to, think about. That’s potentially quite powerful.

Once I started thinking of photography as a language, two things happened in my head:

  1. The possibilities of using photography for capturing something beyond ‘pretty pictures’ opened up in front of me, and this is quite exciting;
  2. The realisation that I’m not yet sure that I have much interesting to ‘say’, and this is quite dispiriting!

 

I am however focusing on the former point as much as I can!

I recently saw a quote in a blog post [2] about street photography that is applicable here:

“Embrace disappointment in your photography. Don’t let disappointment discourage you from creating great work. Rather, let your disappointment be an affirmation that you have great taste in photography – and it shows that you are knowledgeable and capable of creating great work. Because if you see the gap between your work and the work of the masters, you can strive to bridge that gap– and hopefully become great one day too.”

– Eric Kim

That’s enough being pretentious, I need a lie down now…

  1. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3105959/Photography/Downloads/Magnum_Blog_Article_Wear_Good_Shoes_Advice_to_young_photographers.pdf – accessed 13/07/2014
  2. http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/07/01/on-bridging-the-gap-in-street-photography – accessed 13/07/2014


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Exercise: The user’s viewpoint

Brief

Choose two or three buildings or spaces designed for a particular activity that is undertaken from a specific, distinctive, position. For each location, take one or more photographs that attempt to capture the user’s point of view. Consider height, orientation and lens focal length (which controls the angle of view).

Results

1. Terrace at Promenade de Paillon, Nice

Terrace, taken from outside

Terrace, taken from outside

Promenade de Paillon is a huge public space in the centre of the city of Nice. It’s main attraction is a vast open fountain with water jet displays throughout the day (which may be one of the subjects of my assignment) but here I am focusing on the covered terraces off to the sides of the space. To the right is a photo of one of the terraces from the outside, just to set the context for the photos that follow.

The interesting aspect of the design of the space is the seating: rather than have fixed benches or individual seats, they have taken a rather novel approach and fixed chairs by one leg to the ground and a swivel mechanism allows each chair to be rotated on tracks in a 360º circle. this allows people to create their own seating combinations, within reason: you can be alone and face whatever direction you want; you can face one another; you can have up to four people facing each other in a square.

So in effect, the user has a choice of viewpoint, as can be seen in the examples below.

2. Picnic area

I was trying to think of an activity that one performs low to the ground and after a while the idea of a picnic came to me. You could define the ‘space’ as either the picnic area broadly, or the picnic blanket specifically – either way, I think it meets the criteria of an activity performed from a distinctive position.

I took pictures from two slightly different viewpoints: sitting on the ground, looking down slightly; and flat to the ground, lying down (as that’s how I like to relax on a picnic, personally…).

3. Viewing platform

For the final user viewpoint I chose a viewing platform at the highest point on the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) in Nice. I was in two minds as to whether to use this, as it’s potentially just a cliché of a tourist shot. However, I did take it specifically from the platform designed for viewing the panorama (I even stood on the step of the coin-operated telescope put there for exactly that purpose) so I felt it did meet the brief. I deliberately left in the pointing hand of the tourist explaining the view to his son, as I reckon it helps to demonstrate the user-centric view a little more.

What I’ve learned

I found this exercise a little tough to get into. It took me a while to think of ‘distinctive viewpoints’ linked to specific activities. As ever when short of inspiration, I researched what other students had done. However, for once I found this largely unhelpful and frustrating as very few students seem to have correctly grasped the brief in my opinion, instead taking pictures from a particular viewpoint of their choosing but not one designed for a particular activity. I was determined to find locations that better fit the subtleties of the brief than (for example) looking out of a particular window in a generic room. On a short break in France my mind relaxed somewhat and a few ideas came to mind, thankfully.

Anyway – what did I learn in the exercise itself? This is probably the first time I’ve consciously put the camera in a distinctive position (height, distance, focal length) in order to capture a specific vantage point, although maybe I do that naturally in most situations when I lift the camera up to my eye. In doing this exercise I came to better understand how choosing a very specific viewpoint can enhance the viewer’s engagement with the image – seeing it though the eyes of another. It should help form a connection between viewer and image. Whether I’ve succeeded with my attempts here is another story.

One thing that I wish I had done more of is to consider the effect of the focal length on the viewpoint; I took all of these with an 18 mm lens (27 mm EFL) as I was trying to capture a wide sweep of a view in most cases. However, with hindsight I should have tried some of these subjects with my 35 mm (53 mm EFL) as this is more like a normal human field of vision – which could further help the approximation of the user viewpoint. However, I now don’t have the opportunity to reshoot for several weeks, so I’m going to leave them as they are!


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Book: On Being A Photographer, David Hurn & Bill Jay

This is widely regarded as a seminal text for photographers, and garners high praise in both critic and reader reviews. Unfortunately I must be in the minority as I failed to see what the fuss was about!

Style

On Being A Photographer

On Being A Photographer

Part of the problem for me is in the writing style. It’s mostly based on transcribed conversations between the two authors, which strikes me as an incredibly lazy way to write a ‘book’. I put ‘book’ in inverted commas as it reads more like a long magazine interview, albeit one between two close friends who are so unchallenging with one another that it comes across like eavesdropping on two old mates having a chat. Some may like this (literally) conversational style but I found it quite maddening, and wished one of them (or an editor) had insisted on structuring the whole thing a little more like a traditional book.

Content

Getting beyond style and into content: unlike most readers I found little in these pages that was new or inspiring. Maybe I’ve already read too many books on photography and a form of diminishing returns kicks in. Much of the book is, if not wholly instructional, at least advisory on some of the how-to aspects of photography, admittedly covering areas that other books neglect – e.g. generating ideas for, planning and executing photo projects. But even these sections, as enlightening as they were, left me frustrated as they are written (spoken!) as though they describe The Only Way – and in my view there are a number of ways of ‘being a photographer’.

For example, for a photo essay Hurn suggests a highly structured approach where you write down keyword headings of the ideas you’d like to get across and then proceed to take photos until you’ve ticked off everything on the list. Now, for OCA assignments I actually do work in a similar way to this, as I find the structure helps up to a point – but for personal projects I find such an approach severely limiting. To suggest that this checklist approach is the only, or even the best, way to work is to disregard the magnificent works of the likes of an Elliott Erwitt or a Garry Winogrand, who famously shot whatever they saw that was interesting and only later curated their archives into coherent collections.

What I’ve learned

Although I may have had a bit of a downer on the book, it’s not entirely without merit. Some nuggets did stand out and get the highlighter treatment. There’s one particular idea that really resonated with me:

“… one of their characteristics [bad photographers] is that they look at their contacts in order to discover which is the best picture, whereas a good photographer examines each frame on a contact sheet and asks: why is this one not a good picture?

This triggered something of a change in my mindset. It’s been a gradual process that started when I was studying Art of Photography and my tutor at the time suggested getting a copy of Magnum Contacts, as I wasn’t shooting enough variants per image and was assuming that I could get it right in the camera more often than not; the tutor’s advice and the book itself opened my eyes enormously to the truth that even great photographers generate multiple ‘outtakes’ for every successful photo. The insight above takes my thinking on contact sheets one stage further: I need to start using them as a self-analysis / self-education tool. It’s important, I realise, to understand why the near misses, the not-quites and the outright rejects happened, and to learn from what I discover.

So – not a total waste of time! (but I’m glad it was only a few quid on Kindle…)

Maybe I’ll re-read it at some point and I may be more kindly disposed towards it…

  1. Hurn, D; Jay, B. (1996) On being a photographer. USA: Lenswork
  2. Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson


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Book: Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs

I’ve taken to reading a few more books on photography (not photobooks) recently, having reconnected with my long-neglected Kindle. They range from simple how-to guides on particular topics (light, black & white) to examinations of genres (street photography) to more general musings and insights into what it means to be a photographer. This is probably the simplest and shortest book I’ve read on photography but in a way one of the very best.

Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs

Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs

You have to admire the audacity of someone who titles a book “Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs” [1] but that’s exactly what Henry Carroll did. It’s just a great no-nonsense, plain-speaking guide to photography. Over the years I’ve read more ‘photography for beginners’ books than I care to remember and so I wasn’t even sure why I downloaded it when it was recommended by Amazon. Probably just the audacity thing.

The book deconstructs the basics of photography in an amazingly simple way. Short chapters, one photo to illustrate each concept, plain English. Where it impressed me most is that it goes beyond the usual ‘basics’ – exposure triangle, composition, light – and moves into more creative (artistic?) ideas yet addresses them in the same jargon-free way.

For example, it has chapters on ‘seeing’ that get beyond the technicalities and into the area of photography that fascinates me most – what people see and how they capture it.

Highlights

Here are a few choice quotes that I highlighted as I read:-

“If you want to take great pictures, ones that really stand out from the crowd, you need to stop looking and start seeing.”

“See with your eyes, not the camera.”

“It’s far better to capture the right moment with the wrong settings than the wrong moment with the right settings.”

“Average photographers imitate beauty. Great photographers create their own.”

“The magic of photography, the bit that can’t quite be explained, is you.”

Summary

Did I learn anything new in reading this book? No, not really. But it’s the best articulation of the fundamentals of good photography that I’ve ever read.

  • It’s the book I wish I’d read when I first got into photography
  • It’s a book that I’ll go back to now and again just to strip away all the accumulated nonsense in my brain and remind myself of the basics
  • It’s the book I’ll recommend to anyone expressing an interest in getting started

  1. Carroll, H. (2014) Read this if you want to take great photographs. London: Laurence King