People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Assignment 4: Old Town Glory

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Brief:

Imagine that you are on an assignment for an intelligent, thoughtful travel publication (not tourism promotion) that is demanding a considered, in-depth treatment.

Aim to produce sufficient images on a specific location to fill, say, six pages. This would mean about six final images as chosen, but at least twice this number of good, publishable images from which to make the final selection.

Decide on a place that you know well, or are prepared to take the time to know well, and have sufficient access to in order to complete a strong selection of a dozen images. It could be a town, a village, the borough of a city, or any area that you can define well enough. Aim to show the character of the place and of the people who live there with as much visual variety as possible.

Submissions:

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

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

The submission is in two parts:

  • My six preferred images laid out in the style of a magazine article below – please click on the first image to start a full-screen slideshow (alternatively a PDF version is available)
  • 1-2 alternative options for each placement – as the way I interpret the brief is that my photo editor wished to see alternative options

Subject

I chose Vieux Nice, the ‘Old Town’ neighbourhood of the city of Nice in the south of France. It’s a very compact collection of very old, tall buildings on narrow streets, preserved for the last few centuries. For the last dozen years my wife and I have owned a little ‘pied à terre’ apartment in Vieux Nice and so can see it from a resident’s point of view, yet with an outsider’s eye.

Analysis and alternatives

1. Establishing shot

Having studied the conventions of travel photography articles I felt that a good start would be a wide and high shot depicting the overall neighbourhood, to set the context. This introduces a few of the distinctive aspects of Vieux Nice: the narrow streets, the old red roof tiles, and the distinct visual separation from the surrounding area. The visual appeal of this image to me is that it appears almost as if gravity has taken hold in the focal plane, and the buildings at the bottom of the picture have ended up too squashed together. The geometry of the horizon, the slight diagonal of the border with the new town and the curved road that cuts through the old town all help the eye navigate around the scene. From a practical layout point of view, the solid colour of the sky lends itself to text addition.

1a Establishing

1a Establishing – preferred

Alternative shots

I considered this to be a contender for an opening shot. Obviously not as wide as the first option, this is more about picking up on the architecture and the cramped high-rise living conditions. The white-haired head at the window adds both scale and a touch of human interest. Colour-wise it’s fairly clean and simple. I shot this in horizontal format before cropping to vertical to emphasise the tall/thin nature of the building style.

1b Establishing

1b Establishing – alternative

This could just have easily been an alternative option for the second placement as well, but I felt that it could have worked as the lead shot. It gets over the cramped living concept well, although with hindsight I could have chosen a more creative angle. The perspective pushes the eye to the centre of the image and I could have played around with that a little more. The space bottom right lends itself to a title and subtitle.

1c Establishing

1c Establishing – alternative

2. Medium shot

At ground level now, and the main message I wanted to communicate here was the tall, narrow, old-fashioned streets that typify a mediterranean old town district. I selected this image as it has two visual elements that support this intent: the architecture itself, looming up and narrowing into the distance, and the tiny three-wheeler van, itself a symbol of both a bygone age and the cramped conditions. Certain visual motifs such as the paint colours, the shutters and the lamplights are subtly introduced here. A ‘single figure small’ helps to communicate the scale of the street. I had a few versions of this to choose from, with people at varying positions and sizes; this is the one that felt most balanced.

2a Medium

2a Medium – preferred

Alternative shot

The intent here was to focus on a particular symbol of the cramped living style, namely the balcony gardens – it’s symbolic of people making the best of what they have. I wouldn’t juxtapose this with 1b (too similar) but it would work in conjunction with 1c.

2b Medium

2b Medium – alternative

3. Interaction shot

For the whole of the second double-page spread I wanted very much to focus on the people of Vieux Nice, and how they are an essential part of its character. I waited patiently opposite this street artist (the old town is full of artists) until I got the juxtaposition I wanted – someone of ‘model-like’ appearance to pass his ‘Top Models Wanted’ sign. The warm yellow of the wall behind is very typical of the mediterranean colour palette.

3a Interaction

3a Interaction – preferred

Alternative shot

The antique market is a big part of the old town experience so I wanted to get some shots of the people interacting there. The main reason I didn’t choose this as first option is that it looked a little more cluttered than my first choice. I do like the reflection though.

3b Interaction

3b Interaction – alternative

4. Detail shot

Whilst not technically as good as the others, I wanted to include this as it features something highly specific to old Nice. The local snack food ‘socca’ is a chickpea pancake, made on large, shallow pans. This man’s job is to move around the freshly made socca from the kitchen on a side-street round to the market stall a few blocks away. His customised ‘socca-cycle’ is a daily sight.

4a Detail

4a Detail – preferred

Alternative shots

With this I intended to imply the ‘cramped living’ concept in a symbolic rather than literal way, showing the evidence of lots of separate residences in a small space. The blue and yellow work well together. However, my preference on images 3, 4 and 5 was to include people so they hung together as a double-page spread. A photo editor may prefer this more oblique approach.

4b Detail

4b Detail – alternative

I confess on this one I just really like the colours and the composition. It does imply something about the neighbourhood, similar to the three-wheeler van photo, but it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s a nice, clean image though, and on visual appeal alone it might fit into the article structure.

4c Detail

4c Detail – alternative

5. Portrait shot

Some of the most interesting-looking characters you see in old Nice are the old chaps who just sit outside a cafe, smoking, reading, sometimes talking with friends, sometimes just watching the world go by. To me it speaks of tradition and unchanging values, a resistance to the pace of the modern world. In this way I see people like him as Vieux Nice personified.

5a Portrait

5a Portrait – preferred

Alternative shot

So this doesn’t really scream ‘old Nice’ like some of the others but I found it an interesting enough image that I consider it to be a contender for inclusion. The subject personifies some of the more eccentric characters you see around the town, although I concede that while this might remind me of Vieux Nice, it may not be at all evocative for the casual viewer. It doesn’t necessarily support the overall narrative as strongly as other images here, but it has a certain charm in my (biased) opinion.

5b Portrait

5b Portrait – alternative

6. Closing shot

After alluding to them in the medium shot, for this closing image I decided to focus fully on a few visual icons that are heavily associated with the old town: the colours, the shutters and the lamps. Whilst it could be interpreted as something of a cliché, I felt it the most visually appealing of my closing shot options. There’s an ‘early evening’ feel to it that made me think it suitable to signal the end of the feature. In shooting so close to the window, I’m trying to get over the idea of a resident settling back into their (small) home at the end of the day. The open shutters imply the life going on inside.

6a Closing

6a Closing – preferred

Alternative shots

This is similar in theme and content to the preferred shot above, but in a different colour combination, and the lamp is depicted in shadow only. The shutters being closed makes this a less ‘homely’ image than the original selection. The one major aspect in its favour is that it shows the street signs written in two languages: French and Nissart, the local dialect preserved pretty much in Vieux Nice and nowhere else. This speaks to the local pride and distinctive heritage of the place. It was a close-run decision between the yellow version above and this one, but in the end I decided to forego the Nissart language reference and stick to the simplicity of the yellow one.

6b Closing

6b Closing – alternative

Less obvious as a closing image, and needs a little explaining… this is a tiny motorbike garage on a narrow street, owned by one of our neighbours. The text top left is in Nissart and we’ve been told (though can’t validate!) that it translates as “You block my doorstep, I’ll crap on yours”…! If the intention of the feature is to show a little more of the earthier side of the old town character then this might just do that. But it’s not as aesthetically pleasing as the shutters!

6c Closing

6c Closing – alternative

Additional notes:

The brief also asks for comments on the following three points:

When you have completed the photography, write a short assessment in your learning log of:

  • what you set out to achieve, including a description of how you see the essential character of the place
  • how well you think you succeeded, including opportunities that were not available to you because of lack of time or access
  • how you might have approached the assignment if you had simply been taking photographs with no end-result in mind (meaning an article to be published)

In turn, my thinking on these points is:

  • As noted above and in the preparation blog post, I set out to depict the neighbourhood from the point of view of a resident rather than a fleeting tourist. The essential character of Vieux Nice can, in my mind, be distilled down to:
    • 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
  • I think I succeeded to a significant degree actually, although as noted in the self-evaluation below, with hindsight I wish I’d also taken some night-time shots; I only came to this realisation after leaving France
  • I found having the article constraint hugely useful actually; it made me think about the variety of shots needed, the flow, the potential juxtapositions and how they helped to support my underlying narrative/intent. Without the construct of the article, I think I would have taken too many shots of similar style (angle, viewpoint, framing etc) and probably ended up with a set of images that didn’t achieve the objective of the exercise

Self-evaluation:

Once I’d decided on the place, and more importantly my particular ‘angle’ on the place, I really enjoyed this assignment. Not just the shooting but the research, preparation and pre-visualisation that preceded it, and the selection and layout that followed it.

The particulars of the brief led me to make certain photographic decisions (for example, seeking out vertical ratio images more than usual, as this suits full-page magazine layout style well). Although I don’t believe it was absolutely necessary to produce an actual magazine layout, I found this approach to be hugely helpful in my selection of shots. I recalled the challenges I faced in a similar photo-essay assignment on Art of Photography, and at the end of the experience was pleased to realise that I’d found the whole process easier and more natural the second time around. I’m learning!

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Technically I believe the images are good, with the possible exception of 4a ‘Socca Man’ – but I felt it was sufficiently good to include for the subject interest
    • It shouldn’t matter – it’s not about the camera! – but towards the end of the shooting week my main (interchangeable lens) camera broken down irreparably and I had to take the remaining shots using a much less capable compact – in the end a third of the final 15 were taken on this compact, but I’m not saying which!
    • I deliberately used a range of shooting angles and focal lengths in order to inject the variety that the brief requested – e.g. high and wide (18mm) when I wanted to show the whole place (1a), street level and more normal focal length (35mm) for most shots, and a medium tele (60mm) for the portrait and detail shots
    • I really wanted to bring out the colour palette of the place, it’s very distinctive and warm, very Mediterranean
    • I also wanted to pay attention to the geometry of my images – leading lines, shapes, colour blocking etc
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I’m satisfied of the quality of the outcome, in particular the six selected primary images – how they look individually and how they hang together as a whole
    • I tried different combinations of images in the same overall structure but landed on this as the best combination (in my opinion)
    • I have showed the set to people that (a) know Vieux Nice already and (b) don’t, to see if the ‘sense of place’ was coming over to the viewer; I’m pleased to say that they all thought it did
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • (To be self-critical, it’s possibly the sign of an uncreative type to say this, but…) I felt that the brief didn’t allow for a massive amount of what I’d call ‘pure’ creativity – there are conventions of travel magazine photography that I don’t feel suitably qualified to subvert significantly
    • I did try to be creative in the choice of image subjects; with the exception of the opening and closing shots I thought consciously about avoiding clichés
    • However, I could have gone more creative in subject matter, e.g. shooting at night, looking for the grittier side of the town (it has a thriving gay bar scene, for example) and this would have made for a very different feature
    • With hindsight (such a great self-analysis tool!) I could have injected more visual creativity by including some more extreme shooting positions/angles e.g. super-close-up macro details
  • Context:
    • I managed to do a lot more reading, research and reflection for this assignment than the last one
    • I revisited a number of exhibitions, books and photographers that I’d previously covered on Art of Photography last year, and I wrote about that here
    • I looked at a lot of other work about places and their particular character, and formulated my own short theory of the successful components of this type of project: (1) outsider’s eye; (2) symbols/motifs; (3) finding the small differences
    • I visited a fantastic exhibition, and subsequently invested in a huge photo book [1], of Steve McCurry’s best work; he is inspirational in how to get the sense of a place and its people captured in photographs
    • I also visited a couple of exhibitions at London’s Photographers’ gallery that were nominally both place-centric; their inspiration on my output was however somewhat tangental
    • I followed an approach to pre-visualisation and shot planning suggested by Hurn & Jay in ‘On Being A Photographer’ [2]
    • As usual I looked at the work of other OCA students on this assignment, but at the risk of sounding arrogant I found few that made much of an impression on me

To summarise: I found this to be a most enjoyable assignment. I am discovering that I like the whole ‘photo essay’ style, and I respond well to a well-structured brief (even if I have to make up some of the details of that brief myself). I enjoy the challenge and the rhythm of the before, during and after stages of shooting such focused assignments.

I get more of a sense of achievement out of assignments like this (and assignment 2, ‘People and Activity’) than I do from the more ‘fragmented’ assignments 1 and 3. As ever, very much looking forward to tutor feedback!

  1. Purcell, K.W. (2012). Steve McCurry: the iconic photographs. London: Phaidon
  2. Hurn, D; Jay, B. (1996) On being a photographer. USA: Lenswork
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