People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Assignment 3: A Life in Places

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Brief:

Choose five or six buildings and for each produce between two and four images that describe effectively and attractively the way in which these spaces are used. You can choose to include people in the images, or not. 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

Write a short statement in your learning log demonstrating your understanding of the function of each building, the way in which it was designed to achieve that, and how well you believe it succeeds. In addition, describe briefly how you initially set about showing the important features of each building photographically, and what you learned during the course of shooting the assignment.

Submissions:

UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENTtutor report and my response are now available to view.

Larger images and a contact sheet are available as a downloadable zip file.

The images are viewable individually in full-screen slideshow format below – click a photo to start each slideshow.

Approach

I’m keen to explore the narrative potential of photography and have presented this set of photos in the form of a series of places that reflect different stages of my life. Each of the locations chosen depicts something that was / is / may be in some way important to me at different ages – fragments of a life, adding up to a loose storyline. In this way, there is an over-arching narrative that ties together what would otherwise be a disparate set of pictures.

This storytelling construct extends to the location choices, the sequencing and the captioning; for each location I do of course also address the specific points highlighted in the brief.

1. Promenade du Paillon Fountains – ‘Play’

“What I remember most about childhood is the fun times like this, just messing about and being silly with a load of other kids. I remember the summer holidays more than the school days. The sun was always shining. I had so much energy then!”

2. Giessereihalle – ‘Friends’

When I was in my teens and my twenties it was all about friends – from school, then from university, through to workmates. Meeting up, hanging out in ‘cool’ places, checking everyone out. Until we started settling down and the gang dispersed.”

3. King’s Cross – ‘Commuting’

“By my thirties work had kind of taken over. I worked away a lot, usually in London, for different clients. My abiding memory is not of a workplace but of constantly being in transit. It’s surprising how lonely you can feel surrounded by people.”

4. Negresco Royal Lounge – ‘Culture’

“In my forties I realised that there’s more to life! I stopped watching so much TV and started seeking out more cultural experiences, developing an interest in the visual arts – which in turn sparked my fascination with photography.”

5. Coach Restoration Workshop – ‘Labour of Love’

“I look ahead to my fifties and beyond and hope that I’ll be able to enjoy an early retirement with my wife. I see myself keeping busy with something that I’m really passionate about. For me it’s more likely to be taking photos than restoring old steam train carriages, but I hope I get as much satisfaction out of my later years as these chaps clearly do”

6. Quaker Garden – ‘Tranquility’

“At the tail-end of my life I’d like nothing better than to just sit quietly with Ann in a peaceful space like this, thinking back to all the people and places that have been important to us throughout our lives.”

Research and analysis

1. Promenade du Paillon Fountains – ‘Play’

About the place

The “Promenade du Paillon’ is a relatively new public space (opened October 2013) in Nice, France. The centrepiece is a 3000 sq.m open fountain with a series of ‘dancing jets’ of water that rhythmically pump columns of water into the air, interspersed with a fine spray that gives a plateau of mist across its surface. The whole space is built on top of an underground section of the River Paillon, and uses the river as its water source.

Design and use

The design ethos was to ‘bring the river back to the city’ – when the fountain is at rest, there is a 2cm basin of water that acts as an enormous mirror, reflecting the surrounding landscape. On a sunny day the fountain is filled with children playing, happily getting soaked and cooling down in the jets and the mist – and this is wholly intentional. The committee behind the development wanted the space to be highly interactive as well as a fantastic visual spectacle. Nice is a city of many fountains, but this is the only one designed to be played in. In my opinion it’s a huge success, as just watching the children (and sillier adults) running around getting wet is so joyful, it takes me back to my own childhood.

Photographic considerations

In terms of capturing it photographically, as in all of these spaces I started with a wide view. In particular for this space, I wanted to capture both the grand scale and the reflections, hence the deliberately symmetrical composition. In the remaining two shots I concentrated on showing it in use – in groups and individually – and the particular water features: the mist and the jets. And yes, the leaping boy shot is a deliberate nod to Cartier-Bresson!

2. Giessereihalle – ‘Friends’

About the place

Built in Zurich in 1898 as an iron foundry, the Giessereihalle closed down in 1975 and spent 30-odd years as a warehouse before being opened to the public, reinvented as a meeting, dining, leisure and retail space. The ‘refurbishment’ was minimal in that they decided to keep as much of the original fabric of the building, so it has a real ‘industrial’ feel to the space – rusted cranes, weighing equipment, chains and girders everywhere. The ‘hip’ industrial design juxtaposes knowingly with the surrounding tech industry buildings – most of its customers are young tech sector workers.

Design and use

It’s positioned right in Technopark, Zurich’s business zone, and it’s a popular spot for lunch and after-work socialising. The layout is: bars/cafes round the perimeter; tables and chairs in small groups in the centre; other businesses (including a gym) on the first floor balcony. The scale of the place – over 1500 sq.m and 12m high – lend it an airy, almost outdoor feel, helped by the glass panels in the roof that allow light to fall in stripes and patches on the interior.

In terms of whether it’s successful: design-wise it’s ‘hipster’ enough for this market. In terms of the right kind of ambience, I think it’s more successful when it has a decent-sized crowd in it; on a lunchtime or early weekday evening (when I shot) it can be a bit too vast and empty – it needs a critical mass of people in it to deliver on what it’s designed for. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to shoot on a weekend when it would have been busier – after shooting I belatedly spotted a sign saying No Photography!

Photographic considerations

I had three main visual objectives on this one: first, to get over the scale of the place; second, to show off the juxtaposition of the people and the industrial features; and third, to use the light coming in through the roof panels to good effect, e.g. to highlight the people. With this location in particular I needed to do a little distortion correction in post-processing, as the very strong horizontals and verticals in the architecture really accentuated any slight distortions in camera.

3. King’s Cross – ‘Commuting’

About the place

The western concourse at London King’s Cross station was completely renovated up to a 2012 reopening when it was separated off from the main platform hall to create an airport-style ‘departures area’. Its most impressive and iconic feature is the sweeping mesh-like structure that grows out from the ground, tree-like, and spreads up and out to form the roof. However, beyond this impressive centrepiece it becomes apparent that a huge amount of thought and design has gone into how the totality of the space is used, and how best to organise it into ‘zones’ that keep the different activities reasonably well separated.

Design and use

The ground floor of the concourse is subtly divided into three areas: looking down as in the first image: at the top, the entrance and the departure boards and gates: if you just need to run straight in and get onto your platform, you can; in the middle zone, and still closely related to the core function of the place, the ticket offices and information kiosks; then at the bottom end of the concourse (and mostly out of shot), waiting areas, shops, takeaway kiosks and a very busy Harry Potter attraction – for those that have a few more minutes to amuse themselves. Around the perimeter on the first floor are a number of sit-down cafes, for those with a longer wait. It’s really extremely well thought through. No matter how busy it’s been, however many trains have been delayed or cancelled, the overall space doesn’t feel cramped – it’s a very efficient design.

Photographic considerations

I had to steer clear of the temptation to just shoot the roof structure, as it’s very photogenic but doesn’t tell the whole story of the space. Again I started with a wide shot to show the scale. For the second shot I was aiming to highlight the busy-ness of the place, with lots of people moving back and forth, so this needed to be taken at eye-level – I wanted to give the viewer a feeling of being in the crowd. The particular point I wanted to get across in the third shot is the loneliness of the traveller, while the world rushes around him. This is how I often feel when travelling! As well-designed as the space is, I find train stations and airports in particular to have an ‘unsettled’ undercurrent to them, a ‘neither-here-nor-there’ sensation.

4. Negresco Royal Lounge – ‘Culture’

About the place

The Hotel Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice was opened in 1913, designed by a popular architect of the age, Edouard-Jean Niermans. The centrepiece of the hotel is the Royal Lounge, an impressive circular ‘grande salle’ originally designed for hosting society balls. The 16,000-crystal chandelier in the domed ceiling was originally commissioned by Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Now the Royal Lounge doesn’t host society balls so has been reinvented as a spectacular art gallery, a showcase for some of the owner’s huge collection of classical and contemporary art. One of the most impressive works is the big yellow ‘Nana’ sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle – it pirouettes on a rotating base and so subtly reminds you of the original purpose of the lounge as a ballroom.

Design and use

In its contemporary form it has two main uses: it is effectively a fantastically impressive art gallery that just happens to be in a hotel; and as a secondary consideration it’s a meeting place and somewhere to take tea and chat with family and friends, if you happen to be lucky or rich enough to be a hotel guest – dotted around the perimeter are colour-coded arrangements of rugs, tables and chairs for this purpose. As to whether it’s successful: for the primary use: absolutely, it’s a place that we (and many other people) visit often just to appreciate the artworks, as our interest in the visual arts deepens over the years. As to its secondary use: not so much; we hardly ever see people using the chairs for their intended purpose – maybe they just look too much like exhibits and to use them would spoil the aesthetic of the place!

Photographic considerations

Again the first shot is the wide angle to show scale and set context. As I see the space primarily as an art showcase I wanted to pick out a couple of example works, first the ‘Nana’ sculpture, in a wider context that also showed off the chandelier and the glass roof, and secondly a smaller-scale work that to me signified my interest in art, especially photography: the gaze and the reflected reality. Whilst I did take some shots with visitors viewing the artworks, I decided not to actually depict people doing so, rather to put the viewer in the position of looking at the art themselves.

5. Coach Restoration Workshop – ‘Labour of Love’

About the place

The Atkins Building was purpose-built in 2008 at Pickering steam railway station as a workshop for the restoration of old train carriages and wagons for use on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, and it’s named after its major benefactor, John Atkins. Here a handful of rail enthusiasts with specialist skills and knowledge painstakingly bring decades-old carriages and coaches in various states of disrepair back to their former glory. The carriage seen here is nearing the end of a 10-year restoration project.

Design and use

The restoration engineers had a big say in designing the workshop. The important factors in the design were: the specific dimensions – it needs to be able to house two standard-sized restoration projects simultaneously; the amount of space available around the carriages for various workbenches and equipment; and the light to work by, a mix of the translucent roof panels and the strategically-placed large doors that open to the full height of the workshop.

An important additional design factor was that the space was designed from the start to be visitor-friendly – the railway is very keen to get people understanding, and interested in, all the restoration work that goes into keeping the railway running. So whilst it is a working space first and foremost, it had to take into consideration that members of the public would be wandering around in small groups while the work was carried out. The workshop crew love to stop and talk to visitors, they’re incredibly proud of their work.

In terms of whether it’s successful as a working space, according to the chaps I spoke to, yes it absolutely is; it does exactly what they need. From a point of few of it being a pseudo-visitor attraction – yes, it’s kept pretty clean and tidy and hazard-free and has enough space that you can watch the restorations being done without unnecessarily disrupting the work.

Photographic considerations

It was challenging to depict the space as it’s dominated by the huge coaches themselves, and there was no question of asking if they could be moved out of the way! I aimed to use leading lines and perspective to draw the eye down the length of the workshop, to give the sense of size and how the space is being used. I particularly wanted to include shots of people, as it’s not so much the space itself that I found interesting, more the fact that it provides an outlet for the diligent and painstaking craftsmanship of the workers. It’s a subtle blend of engineering and art – the workshop is their studio, the carriages their canvas. For this reason, in the third image here I framed the engineer through the window of one of his own ‘creations’, which I thought was appropriate.

6. Quaker Garden – ‘Tranquility’

About the place

There’s been a Quaker Meeting House in Pickering since 1793, as the area has links with the famous Rowntree family (of York chocolate-maker fame). Like many Quaker houses it has a garden attached that is for the use of anyone, not just members, who seek a little peace and quiet. It’s accessible off one of the streets up by Pickering Castle but manages to be very quiet and secluded, just far enough from the road and shaded with enough trees that it’s a real haven of tranquility.

Design and use

The garden is so subtly ‘designed’ that it’s tempting to think it’s just accidental how well it suits its purpose, but I suspect that the owners just instinctively knew what was going to make the place successful, or maybe it evolved over the years. Its design supports the concept of tranquillity and solitary thought. It has four benches all strategically placed such that none faces any of the others – so even if you were sharing the garden with other people, you could still enjoy a bit of alone time.

There are no tables or picnic bench-style seating that would encourage much face-to-face interaction; it seems to be made for individuals or maybe couples to sit quietly and reflect. The trees make for a good sound barrier to the town below, and the elevated position on the hill up to the castle gives some magnificent views. From a personal point of view I believe it’s very successful at its purpose; I only discovered it fairly recently, but I like to wander up with the dog and just sit peacefully pondering things.

Photographic considerations

As per the others, I felt it best to start with a wide shot to show scale and context. The other shots were trickier: the only real features in the garden are the benches, so I had to think of a couple of different ways of depicting them. In the third shot in particular I felt that the shallow depth of field helped to isolate the bench to make the surrounding area melt into the background, to reflect how my mind ‘softens’ and tunes out the outside world when I’m in the zone.

Self-evaluation:

I approached this with some trepidation; photographing buildings but focusing on their use rather than their architecture is a new experience for me. The lack of content and exercises in this section meant that I had to do more of my own thinking than for previous assignments (not a bad thing).

I felt a lot happier about it once I decided to structure the whole thing around an overarching theme. Whether this theme is successful with the viewer remains to be seen, but for the simple purpose of unlocking my ‘photographer’s block’ I consider it a success.

The assignment surfaced a few recurring challenges:

  • Shooting in public: I often thought about the ethics of photographing people without consent; in particular I need to be mindful of national differences, be they legal or purely cultural – I included two locations in France and one in Switzerland, and the latter in particular has a lower tolerance for public photography, I discovered
  • Timing: as with the last assignment, I found that for the shots with ‘unposed’ people in, it’s a combination of luck and timing to get the subjects to be in the right place in the frame and appropriately depicting the message I intend to get across – this issue was exacerbated by my brave/foolhardy decision to shoot half of the locations out of the country and so giving myself little or no opportunity for reshoots
  • Distortion: shooting buildings with very strong horizontals and verticals in their architecture meant that small distortions in camera were very noticeable; so I am now much more familiar with Lightroom’s correction tools!

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Technically I believe the images are good, once I had mastered the art of correcting some distortion as noted above
    • I mostly used a combination of wide angle lenses (18 mm / 27 mm EFL) for the opening ‘scale’ shots, and more standard focal length lenses (23 mm / 35 mm EFL and 35 mm / 52 mm EFL) for the shots where I wanted the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of a user
    • For the first four locations in particular I wanted quite a vivid colour palette, as I think this suited the subjects; for this reason I shot in Fujifilm’s ‘Velvia’ film simulation mode as this renders rich colours really well
    • For the latter two I used slightly more muted/natural colour tones to reflect the calmer, slower, ‘older’ nature of the subjects
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • Whilst overall I am reasonably happy with the quality of the outcome, a small (perfectionist) part of me would like to go back and redo chunks of it!
    • The reason I say this is that I only really worked out how the whole series of images could hang together in a coherent way (something that is very important to me, for better or worse) after I had done virtually all of the principal photography… and so to work within the construct of the ‘invented narrative’ I had to – for the most part – select from images that I’d already taken
    • I believe that the series works much better in the context of the ‘life stages’ narrative arc than simply as a set of standalone images; I think this is one of the instances where the context (specifically, the captions) add a layer of meaning that elevates the images somewhat
    • In terms of meeting the main aspects of the brief, I’m satisfied that my analysis in each case does this effectively
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • I did a lot of soul-searching on this point actually – because I got the results of my Art of Photography assessment whilst working on this assignment, and the lowest mark and most affecting feedback was on my level of creativity and experimentation
    • I don’t think I’ve been particularly creative in a pure photographic sense with this assignment; I accept that I need to work on this going forward
    • I do think that in applying a narrative arc to the disparate set of subjects, I have applied a certain amount of creativity in a storytelling sense, if not an aesthetic one
  • Context:
    • As with the other assignments I looked for inspiration from other photographers, although in this instance I found a lot less material than I did for portraiture and street photography – the vast majority of photography I found on the subject of buildings and places were either predominantly architectural in nature, or around very vague outside spaces (streets, parks etc) rather than the more specifically ‘designed’ locations that this section is really about. Finding photography more particularly centred around how people use buildings and spaces was a little more challenging
    • The best and most inspiring source I found – and one that really ‘kick-started’ my thinking – was a box-set of booklets called ‘Foto/Industria‘ [1] that was published to accompany a series of 17 exhibitions in Bologna, Italy in 2013, all themed around business and industrial photography… this really opened my eyes to the possibilities of photographing places for the express purpose of illustrating their use. In the actual assignment I only chose one workplace, the workshop, and one former workplace, the converted iron foundry, but I found the set of booklets to be sufficiently inspiring on the wider subject of photographing places to get me going on the assignment
    • If I’m honest, I found the experiences and outputs of other OCA students to be mostly lacking and uninspiring for this particular assignment – very few submissions really inspired me or set standards that I wished to meet

To summarise: I found this a very difficult assignment to get started on, but I’m ultimately pretty pleased with the end result. I do wish I’d had the idea for the overall narrative arc earlier, as I might have taken different shots for some of the locations. However, in the interests of progress over perfection, I am considering this assignment done – pending my tutor’s comments of course.

  1. Various (2013) Foto/industria. Bologna: Contrasto
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5 thoughts on “Assignment 3: A Life in Places

  1. Hi Rob very well done its clear you put a lot of thought into the assignment which is of course what it is all about. I particularly liked the fountain and kings Cross images and your narrative alongside them. Being in my fifties I am not sure I think of myself as being in my twilight years ! More like mid afternoon I think…

  2. Oy, enough about 50 and ‘later years’ Mr T! Like Teresa, I’m in my fifties and I’m not hanging up my clogs just yet either!! :-). Seriously, I really like how you’ve treated this assignment and how you’ve used a theme to link it all together – very well done.

  3. Pingback: Book: Foto/Industria | People & Place

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