As noted in my ‘first thoughts‘ prep post, I decided on using Vieux Nice (the old town) as the subject of Assignment 4: A sense of place.
A photo I took a few years ago kept springing to mind, of a resident of a first floor apartment painting his window frame. It’s become my muse for the assignment, for reasons that weren’t immediately obvious but revealed themselves over my research and reflection. I’ll touch upon these reasons below.
Having spent some time looking at the work of others and thinking about how best to communicate the distinctive character of a place, I came to the conclusion that there are a few techniques that can help me to do this:
- Outsider’s eye
- Symbols and running motifs
- Focusing on the small differences
In thinking about Vieux Nice under these headings I came up with a long list of brainstormed notes
Like the Swiss national Robert Frank in America, like the returning ex-pat Tony Ray-Jones in 1960s England, like southerner Martin Parr in a north-west seaside resort – I am an outsider in Vieux Nice. We bought a flat there in 2002 and have visited 6-7 times a year ever since, for holidays ranging from three days to three weeks. But we’re still very much regular visitors rather than residents. I can see the place for its distinctive character, more than I imagine a lifetime resident would be able to. The people you see in Vieux Nice broadly fall into three categories:
- Workers: locals who work in tourist-focused businesses (cafes, bars, restaurants, gift shops etc)
- Residents: the people who just happen to live there and coexist with 1 and 2
So in a way I am an odd combination of 1 and 3; I can see the place for its flaws as well as its charms. We know our neighbours and pop round for drinks. We take the bins out. We moan about how many flights of stairs we have to walk up in our lift-free apartment building. We ‘live’ there for short periods and then we lock up and come back to England.
Thinking about this made me realise that I want to focus on the life of a Vieux Nice resident. So no overly touristy shots. I want the viewer to see life in the neighbourhood through the eyes of a local, just going about their business (like painting their windows).
Symbols and motifs
There’s quite lot of visual iconography I associate with the old town:
- Colours: the warm mediterranean colour palette: reds, oranges, yellows, greens
- Tall buildings and narrow streets
- Wall-mounted street lamps
- Tiny local restaurants with one table and a chalkboard outside
- Artists and artisans
The nature of the architecture – old, tall, buildings on very narrow streets – leads to some quirky aspects of old town life that I might be able to pick up on:
- People hang their washing out of their front windows
- You get some very elaborate balcony gardens in lieu of real gardens
- Everyone has to carry their rubbish to local waste stations as there’s no household bin collection
- Very few cars, lots of motorbikes and scooters, some tiny old Piaggio three-wheeler vans
In addition, the neighbourhood has some distinctive sights purely due to its heritage:
- Nice has an old traditional local language, Nissart, and the street signs in the old town are in both French and Nissart
- The traditional local snack is a chickpea pancake called ‘socca’ and a regular sight is a very French looking chap on a tricycle towing a trailer with a huge covered socca pan from kitchen to market stall
In assimilating all of the above and working out how best to get over the character of the neighbourhood I needed to distill down the essence of the place into a few key messages that I wish to get across to the viewer. I can then use these keywords to judge whether the images selected are successful in communicating the messages.
The three adjectives that I kept coming back to were:
- Cramped – the density of the population and the closeness of neighbours
- Characterful – in both senses of the word: the place itself has a distinct personality, and it is also full of specific individual characters who you see around the place, that add to its general ambience/feel
- Historic – the place is steeped in history that is very well-protected; there is definitely a sense of very local pride about the neighbourhood and the residents do well defending the personality of the place
If I can get these three sentiments over in the final set of images I will be happy.
I revisited some of the preparation I did for Art of Photography assignment 5, which was a photo essay in a similar structural vein to the brief here. The basic structure of a successful photo essay suggests that some combination of particular types of shot should be included:
- Hook / lead shot
- To be confirmed – I’ll select once I have a shortlist
- Establishing shot
- Side street
- Medium shot
- Wine shop / baker’s or similar
- Detail shot
- Aerials / balconies / shutters
- Portrait shot
- Cafe patron
- Action shot
- Socca tricycle man
- Gesture / interaction shot
- Antiques market customers
- Closing shot
- Shutter / lamp
This time around I also tried to apply the technique suggested in Hurn & Jay’s ‘On Being A Photographer’  of creating a checklist of pre-visualised shots and methodically returning to the subject scene until each one has been ticked off. This is in contrast to what I call the Erwitt/Friedlander approach of shooting whatever looks good and curating it into a cohesive collection after the event… an approach that I have taken before with mixed success, I have to say! In the end [I write this retrospectively after all photography has taken place] it was a hybrid of both approaches; for maybe two-thirds of the shots I knew what ‘type’ of picture I was aiming for, but there was still an element of shooting whatever caught my eye and not worrying in situ how it would fit into the narrative. So the shooting was semi-structured.
Outside of all of the above I need to keep in mind a few other factors:
- A good blend of people and place, given the title of this section of the course (‘People Interacting With Place’)
- Examples of the techniques practiced in the exercises – single figure small, making figures anonymous, balance etc
- Variety in subject matter, scale, angle and so on
- All the general good practice that should be second nature by now! Paying attention to framing, leading lines, geometry, the direction and quality of the light, colour combinations, technical quality (sharpness etc)
- Hurn, D; Jay, B. (1996) On being a photographer. USA: Lenswork