People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exhibition: Steve McCurry Retrospective

The Théatre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice is running an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work until the end of September 2014, and I was fortunate to be in Nice at the right time to visit.

Like most people I knew McCurry first and foremost for the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ image, so famous that I don’t need to include it here. Beyond that, I knew he had worked a lot in Asia and in war zones throughout the world – but I didn’t know much else. It turned out to be one of the best exhibitions of photography that I’ve seen in a long time. Given that I am studying a degree module called ‘People & Place’, his work is hugely relevant and an excellent source of inspiration.

People

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

At the heart of McCurry’s work are people, and the first hall in the gallery is dominated by head-and-shoulders shots that are reminiscent of Afghan Girl, with the subject staring deep into the viewer’s eyes. The technique of getting the subject to stare intently at the lens looks deceptively simple, but I can’t imagine that every time you do so, you produce work as powerful and affecting as this. Whether through empathy, patience or some other interpersonal skill, McCurry has the knack of drawing the gaze of his subjects in such a way that you feel they are revealing something of themselves to the camera/viewer.

Pure portraiture isn’t the whole story though – in fact it’s a fairly small proportion of the 127 images on show here. The greater part of the body of work is concerned with placing people in the wider context of their place in the world – their community, their traditions and sometimes the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

For me, some of these are more interesting than others. The images of war zones – and they are not overly graphic, they are not scenes of combat but rather of the effects of war on the people and their environment – were surprisingly less affecting to me than I expected. Similarly, the images of the aftermath of natural disasters didn’t really resonate with me. This is a subjective view, of course, but a certain amount of ‘disaster fatigue’ kicks in after a while and as a viewer I became somewhat desensitised.

On the other hand, the images depicting specific traditions of peoples from around the world, I found genuinely impressive. The ones chosen here really lend themselves to being captured photographically, from a point of view of colour, composition or both. The Indian festivals where they paint their faces and bodies bright colours, the Shaolin monks hanging upside down, the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen – they make amazing photographs. They make you think about the wonders the world has to offer, the unusual rituals and sights that most people will never see in person – the variety of human life. Put cynically from a visual interest point of view: misery tends to look the same the world over, but people find a limitless number of ways to celebrate and be happy.

A sense of place

I was particularly interested in seeing how McCurry conjured up the sense of place in his images, as this is the brief for my next assignment. For the most part he does this with people in the context of the place – sometimes posed environmental portraits, often candid moments. The light, the architecture, the clothing, the landscapes. After a while, looking at photos before reading the captions, I became pretty good at guessing where in the world the picture was taken, and this is testament to his ability to distill a place down to its essence. With regard to the balance between people and place in his images, on the evidence of the work here he concentrates very much on the people, with the place as a secondary character.

One of the best examples of this, as well as demonstrating his love of vibrant colours and his eye for composition, is ‘Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India’.

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Verdict

My overwhelming first impression was that I was in the presence of a photographic master, the kind of annoyingly brilliant genius that makes me disappointed in my own shortcomings! Once I got past the general sense of awe I looked more closely and saw that what I really admired were two quite distinct aspects of his work: first, on a purely aesthetic level he captures some beautiful images, full of colour and with a careful eye for composition; secondly, he has a rare skill of highlighting the human elements, making you feel like the subject has shared something of themselves with the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

One simple sign that I’ve been impressed with a photographer is whether I subsequently seek out more of their work. Straight after getting back from the exhibition I ordered ‘Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs’ [1], which seems to be a comprehensive source of more great McCurry images to feast upon after having this show whet my appetite.

One of the things I find myself thinking with regard to certain photographers is “I like the way s/he sees the world”… and with McCurry the emphasis is more on the last word. He brings to life amazing, exotic aspects of global culture, opening windows onto parts of the world I’ll most likely never see in person. If anything, the fact that he is so associated with one iconic image is something of a shame – it overshadows what is a consistently excellent body of work.

  1. Purcell, K.W. (2012). Steve McCurry: the iconic photographs. London: Phaidon
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It’s not about the camera

I used to be a real gadget fanatic. I tried to count up how many cameras I’ve had over the years and seriously lost count after 20. BUT! over the last few months it gradually dawned on me that I was shaking off this gear acquisition addiction and was actually happy with the kit that I own. I even sold off a couple of cameras that I wasn’t using very much. I got down to one ‘serious’ camera (a Fuji X-E1) with a few prime lenses plus one zoom, that I use mainly for OCA exercises and assignments, and one good quality compact for everyday use (a Fuji X100).

I’d decided after years of trying (deep breath) Sony, Olympus, Canon, Pentax, Nikon and even Leica, that I’d finally found ‘my brand’… I just love the design, handling and most importantly image quality of the Fuji products of the last few years… it’s good to get to know one system so well that it just ‘gets out of the way’ and you can concentrate on making pictures. The real epiphany came when Fuji announced the X-T1 – better! faster! bigger LCD! more pixels! better firmware! exciting! – and I realised that I wasn’t actually that bothered. I’d finally come to believe what I’d read and heard from wiser people, that better kit doesn’t make you a better photographer. Master what you’ve got, until you can’t do what you need to with it.

The theory is tested!

So, I’ve been comfortable with this principle – it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts – for a while now. And today was a real ‘put your money where your mouth is’ moment… DISASTER STRUCK! my beloved X-E1 conked out.

Stone dead. Bricked. And I’m in France for a week. And I didn’t bring the X100 as backup. And I’m partway through shooting for Assignment 4: A Sense of Place, as I’d already decided to use Vieux Nice as my subject.

My options:

  1. Buy a replacement camera body (I tried – no luck)
  2. Pick from the shots already in the bag (not happy with that, there’s definitely some shots I wanted that I haven’t got yet)
  3. Give up on Vieux Nice as the subject and start afresh when back in the UK (nah – really enthused about this place, don’t want to change tack now)
  4. Fly back out here later when the camera’s fixed/replaced (I’m not made of money!)
  5. Borrow my wife Ann’s compact camera and finish the assignment with that (this is of course what I’m doing!)

My emergency backup camera

To be fair, it’s a pretty decent compact camera (it should be, I chose it!). It’s a Canon S110, it shoots RAW as well as JPG, it has a larger-than-average sensor for a compact camera and the image quality is surprisingly good. The light in the south of France is remarkably good so low-light quality isn’t of the utmost importance. So I’m satisfied that it meets the minimum requirements to produce images of sufficient quality.

I’ve just come back from my first shooting session with it. Things I don’t like: fiddly controls, no viewfinder, menu system confusing (although I’m sure a Canon user would say about the Fuji system, it’s just what you’re used to, I guess). Things I do like: it’s light, it has a great zoom range (goes both wider and longer than the primes I brought for the Fuji), it’s less obtrusive and a bit easier to shoot candid images.

Here’s one image from the ‘serious’ camera and one from the emergency compact. Is it obvious which is which?

So the assignment is going to feature a mix of images from the X-E1 and the S110… probably in favour of the X-E1 but you never know until the editing stage, and we have a couple more days here so it’s still all to play for. I accept the challenge of demonstrating that it’s not about the camera!

 


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Exercise: Balancing figure and space

Brief

Draw on your photography so far in this course and on the techniques you have learned, to vary the balance in any one picture situation. Aim to produce two images, using the same general viewpoint and composition, varying the balance of attention between the person (or people) and the setting they are in.

Results

At the risk of being unimaginative, what immediately sprang to mind here was to find a space that a figure could walk into, in the general direction of the camera, and take shots at different distances as they fill more of the frame.

I used two shots that immediately followed the ‘side streets‘ shot from the exercise ‘single figure made small’ as they fit the criteria.

1. Person not emphasised

At its simplest interpretation, this is a scene of a side street in an old mediterranean town, that happens to have a man walking down it. The old-fashioned three-wheeler van is more of a focal point than the person. The man is sufficiently far away as to be relatively anonymous, and this allows the viewer a certain feeling of immersion, potentially imagining themselves in the location.

Balance 1

Balance 1

[Admittedly, this potential for self-identification could be even more prevalent when the figure is even further away, as in the original use of the precursor image. I considered using this first image as part of this exercise, but concluded that in that version the figure was so small that the image essentially shifted balance too far and became a picture of ‘a green van on a side street’ and the figure would be too small to be considered a significant part of the visual balance.]

2. Person emphasised more

In this version the figure takes up more of the frame and is more identifiable as an individual. The coincidence of green across the shirt, the van and the door balance out the prominence – but the person is much more of a focal point now. This alters the weight of the image, as it is now less likely that the viewer could self-identify and more likely that they might think about this specific individual and what he is doing in the context of the scene. It makes the viewing more of an external experience.

Balance 2

Balance 2

It may not seem like a massive difference but I do think the distance walked by the subject fundamentally changes the nature of the image:

  • The first image is of a street (with a green van, and a big green door), that also has a man walking down it
  • The second image is of a specific individual, who is walking down a street that has a green van and a door

What I’ve learned

This was one of those exercises that gives me another technique of directing the intended message or narrative of an image. The subtle difference between emphasis on the location (with figure as secondary character) and emphasis on the person (with location as backdrop) can be an important clue as to the intent of the image. If one of these variants were presented as part of a set, any surrounding images could help to provide the necessary context of whether this is a study of the person, the place or both.


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Exercise: Making figures anonymous

Brief

Take some photographs that include a person or people in a particular place, but deliberately make them unrecognisable and, as a result, less prominent. Consider the techniques listed above [small and many, facing away, in silhouette, partly obscured, motion blur], but also feel free to use any other method you can think of.

Make between two and four photographs which use different techniques to achieve this. To reiterate, a successful image will be one that is primarily about the place, but in which one or more figures play a subsidiary role to show scale and give life — to show that it is in use.

Results

I tried a few different techniques and these are the ones I felt worked best.

1. Shadow

In this you get the sense of the place, a narrow side street in the old town in Nice, with just a hint of a figure turning the corner into the shade. The leading line of the shaft of light, and to a lesser extent the blue arrow, help you to find the figure.

Shadow

Shadow

2. Angle

Shooting downwards from a high vantage point helps to anonymise the figure whilst still taking in enough of the surroundings to give a clue as to the type of place. This is probably the weakest in terms of showing the space – the balance is more in favour of the figure than the other three.

Angle

Angle

3. Scale

I almost used this for the ‘single figure small’ exercise but felt that it also suited this concept. The rhythm of the shutters is established, then broken with the white-haired figure in one of the windows. It’s the scale that makes the figure anonymous here.

Scale

Scale

4. Silhouette

Subtly different to the shadow one… in this instance there is strong, low light behind the camera and the figure is walking into the darkness, with edge lighting through the hair allowing the viewer to make out the figure, and providing a focal point. I think with this one the viewer can get an idea of the space, albeit a vague one. The inherent darkness of the backdrop makes this a more atmospheric and less literal depiction of the space.

Silhouette

Silhouette

5. Selective framing

By electing not to include the head in the frame, it becomes easier to focus on the context (the antiques stall) rather than the person.

Antique shopping

Antique shopping

What I’ve learned

I found this quite a puzzling challenge initially… it took me a few goes before I got into the idea, and many of my early attempts were equally applicable to ‘single figure small’ (as per 3 above) as I evidently fell back on size/scale as my default technique. Once I’d loosened up a bit, photographically speaking, I found other ways of expressing the same idea. It stretched my brain a little bit, but that’s undoubtedly a very good thing. I’m not completely sure I got the right balance between figure and environment in all of them, but I’ll work on that for the next exercise.

What’s fascinating looking back on these images, and the works of others with a similar visual intent, is that making the subject anonymous it makes it so much more likely that the viewer can imagine themselves in the space. By not identifying with a specific individual, it allows the viewing to be more of an ‘internalised’ experience. The more recognisable the subject, potentially the more ‘externalised’ the viewing experience becomes. This is something I hadn’t thought about at all before now.


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Exercise: Busy traffic

Brief

In contrast to the usually-empty place from the last project, some locations are almost always busy, with a constant flow of traffic. Choose a busy location, interior or exterior, and find a viewpoint that will give you a satisfying composition as well as a good sense of the nature and function of the space.

Spend some time watching how the flow of people works — the patterns they make, any surges or lulls in movement and numbers — and how this can contribute to the composition of the shot. Aim to show the ‘busyness’ of the place, which might involve altering the composition, perhaps changing the focal length of lens, or experimenting with a slow exposure.

Results

A few shots from the archive

As per the last exercise, I was helped in my preparation for this by looking into my own archives for shots I’d already taken that met the criteria.

New shots for this exercise

I selected three shots that I felt demonstrated the idea, using different techniques and shooting angles.

1. King’s Cross

I’m not normally a big fan of long exposures to denote movement but I concede that this scene does suit the treatment. The contrast of the moving figures and the stationary ones is what makes this work for me. You can discern the differing speeds of movement and this helps to get over the effect of ‘busyness’. Shooting wide and high suited this scene and helps to achieve the desired effect.

King's Cross

King’s Cross

2. Shopping

Rather than repeating the high / wide / long exposure technique, for this I tried to get right into the thick of the crowd, to give the effect to the viewer of being there. To me this one has the feel of a river of people flowing towards the viewer.

Shopping

Shopping

3. Promenade

What intrigued me about this is that it appears that there is a queue of people walking single file, following the woman in front. In reality they were all randomly walking in their own directions individually or in couples, but in this split second I have captured the effect that implies what I imagined.

Promenade

Promenade

What I’ve learned

This was harder than it looked. I didn’t want to resort to long exposures for all my examples and so had to think of other ways to visually imply not just the people but the movement – the ‘busyness’. Although I’m not a huge fan of the technique, I think it’s more successful in the slow shutter speed example than the other two.


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Exercise: A single figure small

Brief

This kind of image is not easy to plan, simply because the conditions are so specific — a place which at the time of shooting is for the most part free of people, yet with an occasional figure passing through it.

Consider how obvious, to a viewer’s eye, the figure will be in the image. Some delayed reaction adds to the interest of looking at this kind of photograph, and there is even an element of surprise if the scale of the place (perhaps a cathedral interior) is larger than expected. On the other hand, the point of this style of image is lost if the viewer fails to notice the figure and moves on.

Pay close attention to where in the frame you place the figure — the more off-centre, the more dynamic the composition is likely to be, but only up to a point. If the figure is walking, you may want to consider the conventional treatment of placing it off-centre so that it walks into the frame.

Results

A few shots from the archive

Before really getting into this exercise, I found it useful to look back at images of my own from the past that meet the criteria, to inspire me and get me in the right visual mindset. I don’t always do this (in fact I very rarely do, I like to look forwards) but in this instance it helped.

New shots for this exercise

I took a few shots in different environments, with the figure-to-background ratio varying, to see what effect this had on the viewer’s experience.

1. Station platform

This is the one where the person is of the most significant size in proportion to the surroundings. The figure-to-ground contrast is strong, and the leading diagonals move the eye towards him. There is no danger of not noticing the figure. I liked the implied mystery in this: why’s he walking away from his luggage…?!

Station Platform

Station Platform

2. Castle

Here I went to the other extreme. The figure is very small in relation to the setting, and slightly blurred through movement. At first glance this is a simple mid-distance landscape-type shot, but after a few moments the secondary point of visual interest emerges. The size and lack of sharpness means that it takes a little visual processing to work out that it is a little girl running away, but once you see it, a potential narrative suggests itself.

Castle

Castle

3. Boats

Another one where the figure is very small in relation to the main point of interest, and one where I used the concept of setting up then breaking a rhythm. The eye starts on the most prominent boat in the foreground and steps backwards into the picture until it rests on the figure. This is, of all the submissions, the one with the greatest risk of the viewer not even seeing the figure. The contrast isn’t very strong, but hopefully the rhythm of the boats helps the eye.

Boats

Boats

4. Side street

The contrast of the figure is helped by the backlight that gives kind of a glow around his body. The shaft of light helps to lead the eye.

Side street

Side street

What I’ve learned

After an initial lack of confidence – or maybe patience – in being able to find the right situations and fortuitous passing of sole figures for this exercise, I found quite a few examples. I’m not sure they’re all wholly successful but they’re different enough that I included them all here.

Unrelated to the direct point of this exercise, I am finding that I am drawn to images that hold some kind of implied or potential narrative, an idea of a back-story that gives the image some interest over and above the purely aesthetic. This was the case in a couple of the images I chose. I’m finding myself doing this when editing my shots rather than at the time of shooting, but it’s something that I am increasingly conscious of in my own thought processes – what attracts me to certain shots. Interesting.


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Assignment 3: tutor feedback

I’ve had my tutor’s report on Assignment 3 for about a week and while I’ve absorbed it and decided what to do with the feedback, I’ve only just found time to write this up.

As ever it’s a very thorough report, taking time to comment not only on the assignment but my wider learning log including the exercises in this section. It’s generally positive and encouraging, with a few pointers on where to improve and what to rework before final submission time.

The ‘Overall Comments’ section is reproduced below, after which I will summarise the comments per picture and my response to them.

“An energetic submission and you have practiced and considered the images taken. You are thoughtful and questioning in your journal entries, and you are honest in your initial reflection.

Exploring the assignment with the concept of illustrating stages in your own life is interesting. This gives a sense of the story unfolding and the places you chose begin to reflect this well. Some of the images could have been more sensitive to the ideas and I understand the challenge of this as the idea came after the images were taken.

The prints are clean and sharp.”

The comment on some images suiting the ‘life stages’ idea better than others is bang on – I admitted that the over-arching construct only occurred to me after I’d taken most of the photos and was struggling a little with how they could hang together as a cohesive whole (something that I am particularly interested in when it comes to assignments, for better or worse – I think it’s important that the images work not just individually but as a series that adds up to more than the sum of the parts).

On a practical note, I’m glad the prints came out well as I’ve had comments from both my tutors on my prints before now. I think I’ve finally got the hang of colour calibration to make sure what I see on my monitor matches what ends up on the photo paper. I invested in a decent display calibration tool and that seems to have made the difference.

Comments per set:

1. Promenade du Paillon Fountains – ‘Play’

  • “Your personal caption is fun and the images illustrate the idea. I do wonder if you have made the weakest image the largest? The leaping boy is really energetic and I think with some more careful and sensitive cropping this could be better as it looks a little unbalanced. Consider also the other images seem to be taken from a greater height. Is this you looking back as an adult height or do you hunker down to child eye view? With the strong reflections there are some potentially exciting images here, you have taken simple landscapes of the area. Think about what the children see when they are in this place? They will probably have no notion of the wide vistas as their view would be the water and the most immediate surroundings.”
  • Fair point on the layout – I took a standard approach throughout to make the first and largest image the widest view of the whole space, but with hindsight Sam is right, I should select the best image
  • The crop of the leaping boy image – for most of my prep this was a tighter portrait crop but at the last minute I bottled it as the other 17 images were landscape ratio and I went for full consistency; I will rework this back to the original crop idea and see if the layout works better
  • The comments about the child’s-eye point of view are interesting, and yes maybe I should have taken this more into consideration when shooting; at the time I was shooting as I normally do, full-height, camera to my eye… now I see it could have been more interesting to shoot from low down, from a child’s point of view – luckily I am back in Nice this week and could do some reshoots

2. Giessereihalle – ‘Friends’

  • “Again your caption is very reminiscent, and actually rather sad. This brings the images together and makes them make sense. The big industrial hall is interesting, the point of this time is that it actually didn’t matter what the space was, it was the social group that made it. So the magnificent and striking surrounds become insignificant to the social event. Just look at groups of young people today, some stand around in the most uninspiring places but that doesn’t matter. The space photographed here has lots of potential for bold geometric compositions. (Look at the work by Candida Hofer).”
  • In terms of the ‘life stages’ theme, this was a little more of a stretch than some of the others… if I hadn’t chosen the narrative format, I’d have featured more of the building itself, as the roof structure in particular was magnificent in its industrial design… but once I’d committed to the life stages construct I had to select images that fit the narrative of young people meeting up
  • My favourite of this set is definitely the first one, and that’s the one that most makes sense in the context of Sam’s recommendation of Candida Hofer – I see the genre similarities

3. King’s Cross – ‘Commuting’

  • “The caption is the key again to this set. You have hinted at some very profound ideas here. The image of the man alone in the crowd is the most obvious portrayal of this and I think could be the main image. Also think about the people in that space, all that rushing around and the space having a function but also being nowhere. I wonder if a long exposure with the movement a blur could have been a development?”
  • Again I concur on the choice of main image and will rework the layout
  • I have taken long exposures of the same space since the assignment and may insert one into the set to replace one of the first two images

4. Negresco Royal Lounge – ‘Culture’

  • “This is rather a beautiful space but could also been seen as a simple interpretation of the idea. I think it is very valid to consider that a time comes when you start to think about the rushing around and striving and what it means, it also has to do with mortality issues which leads us further into ideas about memory and celebration of understanding creative legacies. I like the detail image here. The main image is pleasing and has an interesting composition. The other interior architectural image looks rather cramped and either needs to be closer in or further out or more visually challenging.”
  • I agree on the second image looking cramped, and as per the leaping boy image from set 1, I had tried a portrait crop before settling on this framing – I will rework along the lines of Sam’s recommendation

5. Coach Restoration Workshop – ‘Labour of Love’

  • “This set of images works best in an image sense but is a little less successful with your caption. Maybe this is because you are imaging the future? This is a good selection of images what explores the space, the image you chose to print is interesting and the man framed in the curve of (whatever it is) works well. The intense concentration is really evident here.”
  • Yes, I see what she means about the caption, it does come across as a little tenuous and disconnected compared to the others; I think the concept makes sense (to me anyway!) and maybe I need to come up with a better caption to link my idea and the images better

6. Quaker Garden – ‘Tranquility’

  • “A nice idea or dream! I wonder if this could have been an occasion to interpret the images of you actually now stopping and looking at the world more because all the other ‘stages’ have been about very immediate or almost internal explorations. You suggest this is a time to sit and really look at the world and reflect on what has been? This would change your compositions and maybe also your angle of view, think of the space. (You have actually explored some of these ideas in your text, that knowledge needs to be used for your visual exploration too)”
  • I must confess, I’m still digesting the comments on this… I think I know what Sam’s suggesting but I’m not wholly sure how to rework or reshoot to get the message across… I’m still thinking about it – I reckon the key to it might be to actually sit up there for an hour in quiet contemplation (but unfortunately I’m out of the country for a week…)

Recommendations

Sam has suggested I take a look at the work of some photographers that might inform my thinking on this kind of work:

“Look at the work by Andreas Gursky for your next assignment, this work gives another scale and measured observation, which is fascinating to see.

Duane Michals, Arnold Newman, Matta Clarke, Hannah Starkey also have challenging images on people and place.

Annette Kuhn and Rosy Martin write about memory and the family album.

Read theory text by Liz Wells to explore some of the ideas you presented, ie memory/ space/ function/ buildings.”

I’m familiar with some but not all of these, so will take time this week to research them all. I confess that I started reading Wells but found it quite hard-going so put it to one side!. Maybe it’s time to try it again.

In all, I’m pleased with the feedback – it points me in directions of thinking and working that can improve my photography. I’m definitely starting to think about the possibilities of photography as a visual language – for storytelling, for communication generally – over and above the purely aesthetic. It’s exciting and scary in equal part…