People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 5: the brief – “Disappearing Britain”

I’ve decided on the subject of my Assignment 5 project and have given myself the following (entirely fictional) brief to work to:

Client

The Guardian Weekend Magazine

Summary

This is an exciting opportunity to collaborate with a Guardian journalist on a medium-length (approx 4,000 words) article to be published in early 2015.

The article will be on the theme of “Disappearing Britain” and will be illustrated with an agreed number of appropriate photographs delivered as the outcome of this brief.

Subject

How aspects of life in Britain are becoming obsolete for reasons of progress, and how this is a part of the continual, gradual and vital change in national identity.

It is an exploration of the phenomenon of such progress making certain aspects of life obsolete within an observable timespan i.e. within a generation.

Working title

“Disappearing Britain” (alternatives: “Last Chance to See”; “The March of Progress”)

Tone

The article is intended to be (a) an analytical, thoughtful examination of how progress impacts on national identity, and (b) a celebration of iconic British design.

The article should evoke an overall sense of a changing ‘Britishness’.

However: it is NOT to be overly nostalgic, introspective and certainly not xenophobic.

Structure

Introduction: concept of progress naturally being both additive and subtractive; examples from earlier periods

Main body: 4-5 case studies of approx 500 words each, examining brief history of one item, reasons for obsolescence, how it’s being preserved, and so on

Conclusion: predictions for next wave of ‘disappearances’

Approach

The actual subjects have not been set in stone; you as photographer will produce a number of options to the following brief and you will collaborate with the writer to agree which 4-5 subjects are examined in the text.

Whilst the overall theme and messages of the article have been drafted in advance, the subjects themselves will to a large degree be determined by the images you provide.

Brief

Provide 8-10 images (4-5 will be selected) that meet the following criteria:

  • Common 10-20 years ago, rare now
  • Particular (though not necessarily unique) to Britain
  • Reason for obsolescence is one of following factors:
    • Technological progress (engineering, IT etc)
    • Economic progress (capitalism, globalisation, infrastructural etc)
    • Social progress (behavioural norms, demographic shifts etc)
  • A combination of subject types, such as (not limited to):
    • Public objects
    • Private objects
    • Professions

Produce images that are creative and visually engaging in composition and style – otherwise we could just go to a stock library! The article is as much about the images as the words.

Technical

High quality JPG or TIFF images, at least 3000px on long side

Will be used in print magazine and online

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Assignment 5: (in)decision time

Hmmm… I’ve been mulling over the subject for Assignment 5 for a few weeks now and I need to make a decision and crack on! I came up with a long list a while ago and narrowed it down to a handful of candidate ideas. I think I’ve since got it down to two options: one centred around People and one around Place. My problem is that I am completely flitting between these two totally different ideas on a daily basis! I can quite clearly visualise what the outputs should look like, and each of them attracts in its own way. But I need to settle on one and get shooting! So I decided to write up a list of pros and cons and stare at it for a while…

1. People idea: “The Act of Observation”

Background:

I want to explore one aspect of portraiture that fascinates me: the fact that the sitter is inherently self-conscious of the portrait being taken, and the difficulty in achieving a natural and ‘honest’ depiction of the person (‘the act of observation changes that which is observed’ and all that).

Premise:

The concept here is that I will get portrait subjects to sit for me in a simple home studio setup (white background, simple lighting, headshot only – that kind of thing). I will take two or three different types of portrait of each, in a combination of the following techniques (to be confirmed):

  • Subject keep eyes closed and relaxes, thus doesn’t know when the photo is being taken
  • Subject is in darkness and sits very still, and a long exposure photo is taken
  • Subject sees self in mirror positioned by camera and chooses when the shutter clicks themselves, by way of a remote shutter release (taking the ‘self-consciousness’ aspect to its logical conclusion)

I’ll then show the subject the three portraits and get their opinion on which they believe is the truest depiction of them.

Why I should do this:

  • Portraiture really isn’t my strong suit – but I sometimes feel the need to push myself out of my comfort zone – unfinished business
  • It’s more creative than idea #2 and my Art of Photography feedback gave me a low score for creativity – so I know I need to work on this
  • It’s potentially quite interesting and insightful for me on a learning level

Why I shouldn’t do this:

  • Portraiture really isn’t my strong suit – so I should work more closely in line with my own developing style – the final P&P assignment might not be the best place for experimentation outside my comfort zone!
  • Generally I’m less enthused about ‘posed’ photography vs ‘found’ photography
  • I’m not sure how many subjects I can gather for this
  • I’m not sure I’ve got (or am able to invest in) the right kind of lighting equipment to do this well
  • I can’t quite make it fit the assignment requirement that a ‘notional client’ could commission someone to do this! Who or why would anyone want images like this? Apart from a curious photographer doing it as an objective in itself…

2. Place idea: “Disappearing Britain”

Background:

This came to mind from the bringing together of a few thoughts from the last two assignments and general research. First, the idea of photography as a proxy for memory – capturing things now to remember later. Second, the idea of trying to capture a whole, quite diverse nation in images (à la Robert Frank with The Americans). Third, the notion that it’s possible to give a sense of a place with quite impressionistic, almost abstract images (partly inspired by Saul Leiter’s 1950s New York work [1] and Robin Maddock’s recent project ‘III’ shot in California [2]). These strands coalesced into a coherent idea when I snapped a row of red telephone boxes in central London a couple of weeks ago.

Premise:

This would be a series of images capturing ‘icons of Britishness’ that were around when I was growing up, that for reasons of progress (technological, economic, societal) are becoming obsolete. The set would form a kind of virtual museum capturing exhibits before extinction. The fragments would build to up to a whole picture that evokes a Britain just disappearing in our lifetime. Examples are:

  • Street furniture: notably the red telephone box, but also old-fashioned wooden litter bins, big free-standing charity collection boxes (guide dogs etc, you know the kind of thing), coal bunkers outside houses
  • Professions/shops: milkman, coal delivery man, rag and bone man, old-style butcher’s, barbers, traditional sweet shop (jars in window)
  • Vehicles: old-style Mini, milk float, coal lorry
  • Objects: milk bottles, pint pots with handles, flat cap

Why I should do this:

  • All my assignments so far have had people in them and this would be an interesting exercise in evoking the sense of place with objects alone
  • It plays to some of my strengths (or at least my preferences) in terms of composition/geometry and use of strong colours
  • As mentioned above, I much prefer ‘found’ subjects to ‘posed’ subjects
  • I can easily imagine the notional client and the brief (magazine article, book illustrations, calendar etc)

Why I shouldn’t do this:

  • Not particularly inherently creative – I’d have to bring the creativity in each shot
  • I might not be able to find the examples in real life to match the visualisations in my head

Decision time

At the moment I’m leaning towards number 2. Well, I am today anyway. I think I’ll email my tutor for her input…

  1. Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag
  2. Maddock, R. (2012). III. London: Trolley Books


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Photographer: Saul Leiter

This post is a companion piece to my review of the Saul Leiter documentary I saw a week or so ago, as it inspired me to get a decent book of his work so that I could find out out a bit more about his style. I got the simply-titled ‘Saul Leiter’ [1] book which is a combination of photos, paintings and essays on the great but publicity-shy man.

Whereas the film was a great portrait of Leiter the man – immensely talented, ramshackle and charming yet very self-effacing, humble to a fault – the book digs a little deeper and analyses both his work and his influences.

Leiter as pioneer

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

My first response to seeing Leiter’s work a year or so ago was that he was a master of using colour. The book illuminates his place in art history somewhat, as conventional wisdom until about 20 years ago had that colour photography as art really took off at the turn of the 1970s with William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Yet in the 1990s Leiter unearthed a vast collection of his previously unseen work going four decades, using colour as primary element and subsequently rewriting the history of colour in art photography. He denies he was a pioneer, of course, as it doesn’t fit with his ‘aw-shucks-me?’ humble demeanour. The fact that he was overlooked for so long means that he was very much an unsung pioneer, so one can hardly accuse those that came later as jumping on a bandwagon… but it’s interesting in retrospect to learn that these colour techniques weren’t new to everyone by 1970…

What others saw as the limitations of colour film of the day – slower, softer, less precise than black/white – were the aspects that he embraced and turned to his advantage. It allowed his work to be more impressionistic, more experimental, tending towards the abstract and not obsessing about technical perfection. I like the fact that he often used out-of-date film stock as it added interesting unpredictable effects to the resultant photos.

A painter with a camera

Beyond the obvious predominance of colour, dig a little deeper and you realise that Leiter’s style wasn’t simply down to the fact that that he liked to shoot nice colours. Rather, his work demonstrates the depth of knowledge in, and undoubted influence of, much more traditional forms of visual arts, especially painting. Indeed, he painted alongside his photography work for most of his life. He even merged the two disciplines in his over-paintings of photographic prints. He wasn’t just a practitioner of these more traditional arts, he was a (self-taught) lifelong student of artists. With the help of the critical essays in the book (as my own knowledge of traditional art history is somewhat limited) it becomes easier to see how his work is informed variously by Vermeer, Degas and Rothko in his mastery of colour palettes, abstract expressionism in his compositions and even cubism is the graphical structure of some of his fashion work using mirrors to create fragmented images. Put simply, his work is what you get when you give a painter a camera and he sees it as another kind of brush.

Reading the essays, three adjectives stand out, recurring as motifs throughout the analysis: painterly, lyrical, poetic. While the first one of these is visually quite evident, it’s interesting that Leiter’s images are also compared to musical lyrics or poetry, but I understand what they mean. He had the gift of being able to tame photography to elicit a mood, a state of mind, an almost dream-like quality that is quite different to his contemporaries of the New York School, who were all about black/white documentary style, showing real life on the streets. Leiter used his camera on these same streets to produce something much more subtle and non-specific than capturing ‘things happening’. One quote in the book that stood out for me was from Ingo Tabhorn, describing Leiter’s best images as “[having] a non-linear and non-narrative structure that conveys a sound to be heard all around rather than a story.

What and how he shot

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

Outside of a foray into fashion magazine work for a little while (bringing his own style to the genre) his body of work is predominantly US city street scenes, mainly New York, and much of it within a few blocks of his home. He had the kind of eye that could see beauty everywhere. He used recurring visual motifs that clearly fascinated him: umbrellas, hats, steamed-up windows, rain, mist, snow, people in cars, trucks, buses, people in reflections – always some veil or barrier between the camera and the subject. Even in his fashion work he had a fascination with concealing his subjects’ faces – maybe he was self-conscious about shooting people head-on? Or he liked the mysterious aspect of the end result.

I went through the photos in the book quickly writing down short notes per image. The recurring words that came to mind were:

geometry – contrast – colour block – shape – simplicity – framing – secondary point of interest – impressionistic – mist – reflection – unusual focus – sense of mystery – abstract

This is quite an intriguing set of words bearing in mind that they are virtually all street scenes. It’s hard to think of another photographer who could have woven a comparable set images from the same material.

Summary

My respect for the man and his work have only increased as I find out more about him and see more of his output. I’ve said this before about other photographers that I admire, but it bears repeating as it most definitely applies to Leiter: I like the way he saw the world.

Without wishing to be derivative, there are some key aspects of Leiter’s work that I can see working as elements of my own developing style: his compositional (geometrical) decisions are impeccable; his confidence in using swathes of colour as a primary component of the image; his use of windows, reflections and other types of ‘veil’ that the viewer/camera sees through – these are all techniques that fascinate me.

  1. Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag


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Assignment 5: brainstorming with myself

Assignment 5 is the ‘design your own assignment’ assignment…

First decide on a notional client. Choose the kind of client (newspaper, magazine, text book publisher, advertising agency, television graphics, etc.), the purpose of the assignment (educational, informational, promotional) and how the images will be used (to illustrate a story, to sell a product etc). You choose.

You then need to imagine what the basic brief would be, which will mean thinking from the other side of the fence — what someone commissioning a photographer might want. Write yourself the brief so that you can refer back to it.

Having assigned yourself the brief, you now need to complete it. You need to submit between 8– 12 photographs. Accompany the final images with a short written assessment. This should include:

  • the ‘client briefing’ that you gave yourself
  • a statement of how you set about planning the photography
  • how well you succeeded, including the difficulties and opportunities you encountered that you had not anticipated at the outset.

I read ahead to Assignment 5 a while ago, so I’ve been mulling it over in the back of my mind for several weeks now. Whilst working through the latter stages of Assignment 4 I started jotting down ideas. I’ve previously struggled with the keeping of physical notes, as I tend to work digitally for almost everything I do… but I bit the bullet and invested in a pocket notebook for the specific purpose of capturing ideas.

Notes

Notes

The long list of ideas is as follows; this was freeform thinking and at this stage unencumbered by any kind of selection criteria or even rationalisation – this came afterwards. I also didn’t really think about the format/brief upfront; I figured that if a concept was strong enough, I could post-justify that someone would commission me to do it!

To start with, in no particular order (broadly the order they came to mind):-

  • My old bosses
  • Second World War enthusiasts
  • Local people in my home town
  • People who’ve moved to the UK for a job
  • Local artists in their studios
  • Eyes closed portraits
  • Portraits where subject sees themselves in a mirror
  • Composite portraits (same face, different expressions, merged image)
  • Richmond Riverside boat sheds
  • Illustrate local newspaper headlines
  • Disappearing icons of Britishness (phone boxes etc)

Some time after having each idea I thought about why I was attracted to it; it wasn’t always immediately obvious, but over time I spotted some threads emerging. The more detailed musings below are grouped into three broad categories:

  1. Thematic portraits
  2. Conceptual portraits
  3. Place as subject

First, a note on portraits generally:

It’s interesting that the majority of ideas I’ve had so far are portrait-based – I didn’t actually enjoy the portrait section of the course much! It was very much outside my comfort zone, and not what I’d really consider to a core part of my evolving personal style. However, part of me thinks I should go back and push myself again – unfinished business?

The flipside is that this final P&P assignment might not be the place to revisit what I know is a weakness of mine… that instead I should play to my strengths / my developing style…?

1. Thematic portraits

Most of my initial ideas were centred around a thematically-linked series of subjects. In almost all cases (all bar the WW2 reenactors) there is an element of me and my own identity playing a part in my choice of subject. This may seem egotistical but by the same token, I think it’s important to have a connection with the subject, a point of view, and indeed a message one is trying to convey.

  • Old bosses:
    • Pure self-obsession! I think I wanted to show them all how I’ve changed since I worked for them, however many years ago
    • This one fails the test of: who would commission me to do this?
    • So I ruled this one out
  • Local artists:
    • This seemed to be a good potential crossover between People and Place, on two levels: (a) studio as place; and (b) artists who choose the local area as their subject matter
    • Thinking about this and visualising how the sessions might go, I realised that I was particularly looking forward to asking the artists about their inspirations, their working approach, what they get out of creating their art…
    • In other words, I was curious about my own developing creative experience and looking to artists (albeit in different fields) for insights
    • Downside: I don’t know that many artists! I know a few but would mostly be relying on strangers as subjects – and I’m not wholly comfortable with that
    • Also, any insights I gain from them won’t be inherently depicted in the photos – I’m not writing an interview-based feature, it’s a photo assignment
    • Potential format: magazine article?
  • People who’ve moved to the UK:
    • This occurred to me as I’m currently working onsite for a global business that has a very multi-national workforce; based in London, I work with people from all over Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Asia
    • My thinking was that I’d get each subject to pose with a possession that reminds them of home
    • This would be exploring the concept of identity and to what extent it is related to where you come from / where you live now
    • The underlying attraction of this was that I’ve been in their shoes – I’ve worked abroad for long stretches (and I’ve worked away from home, albeit mostly within the UK, for almost the last three years) – so there’s a sense of dislocation that I identify with, and I’m interested in how other people cope with that
    • Potential downsides: whether I can be creative enough in the execution; whether the people and their possessions are inherently interesting photographically
    • Potential format: internal comms campaign for my client, to encourage people moving between countries
  • Local people in my home town:
    • Here I had the format idea first: a calendar, aimed at residents of the town (Pickering)
    • A selection of ages from kids to OAPs, pictured in their home, workplace or their favourite part of town
    • I guess here I was thinking (quite unimaginatively) of shooting portraits of people I already know!
    • The idea encompasses both People and Place, so it has that in its favour
    • But I think I’ve ruled it out as being too uncreative
  • Second World War enthusiasts:
    • This sprung to mind largely as a coincidence in timing – Pickering has an annual ‘Wartime Weekend’ festival in min-October, and the town fills up with enthusiasts and re-enactors in period costume
    • Could be a mix of posed portraits and candid shots of individuals and groups
    • The format could be a ‘subculture’-type magazine article on the phenomenon of wartime nostalgia enthusiasts
    • I reckon I’ll shoot the weekend anyway (weather permitting) and maybe consider it a fallback option, depending on the quality of the images

2. Conceptual portraits

In my attempts to be more creative (a theme in my AOP feedback) I started thinking about portrait projects where the link isn’t the subject matter but the approach/technique employed. In all of these ideas I was exploring the concept of self-identity (or rather the projection of identity) in portraiture, in one way or another. The tricky aspects of all three of these ideas: technical ability (especially re lighting); and how to work backwards into a brief! i.e. who would commission me to do one of these, and why…

  • Eyes closed portraits:
    • My experience is that portrait sitters put on a pose when they know you’re taking their photo, so you never get a ‘true’ and honest depiction of their ‘normal self’… by removing the visual cue of the camera shutter action, the subject won’t know when you’re taking the picture, and my theory is that you would get a more natural-looking result!
    • … albeit without the main expressive feature of the facial portrait, the eyes
    • So a bit of a gamble, this one
  • Mirror portraits:
    • Opposite idea to the last one: portraits where the sitter sees themselves in a mirror mounted in same focal place as camera lens – and they say when they want you to take the picture
    • This way I would be exploring the flip side of the eyes-closed idea – the most ‘artificial’ poses may result here
    • Could combine with the above, to produce pairs of portraits, compare-and-contrast style?
  • Composite portraits:
    • This is born of the observation that people’s faces can actually look different from photo to photo – the split-second capture of an expression that may not bear much resemblance to how the subject normally looks (the “that doesn’t look like me!” reaction you sometimes get)
    • The – admittedly high concept – idea is to take a series of headshots per subject, with differing facial expressions (mainly around the eyes and the mouth) and merge them in post-processing into a single image with different expressions on
    • I can visualise this really well – but can I execute?! I need to do a practice shoot

3. Place as subject

A few of the ideas were much more centred around a place as the subject. This may be too much of an overlap with the last two assignments, so if I go down this road I need to make sure it’s taking a different angle.

  • Richmond Riverside boat sheds:
    • A fairly straightforward (boring?) idea that actually could just have easily been done for the last assignment
    • I think in writing this up I’ve ruled this one out as being too unimaginative
  • Illustrate local newspaper headlines:
    • The idea here was to see if I could evoke the feel of a place simply by taking a random copy of the local newspaper and coming up with images (staged? randomly spotted?) that matched the headlines
    • The idea has been tested briefly by buying local paper… and to be honest the headlines were far too dull/specific to work for this concept
    • So I’ve ruled this out as well… it might have worked if I lived somewhere more interesting!
  • Disappearing icons of Britishness:
    • This was inspired by a recent pic I took of a row of red phone boxes in central London
    • I was thinking about the things that I used to see more of when I was younger, that I’m realising are becoming obsolete
    • Other examples: milk bottles, coal bunkers, drinking fountains, pint pots etc
    • This one appeals to me as I’d be attempting to capture the spirit a whole country in a dozen pics (à la Martin Parr / Robert Frank)
    • Also it would be an exploration of memory through photography; kind of a “last chance to see” / capture it now so I can remember it later feeling, if that makes sense
    • This, of all the ideas, could lend itself to a more creative execution – close-ups, almost abstracted yet recognisable visual cues that anyone of a certain age would recognise
    • I can imagine the kind of magazine feature that these images could accompany

 

That’s all I’m going to write up for now. Just pouring my thoughts out on my long list has been quite tiring!

Next I need to narrow the ideas down a bit (my current front-runners are in green), then maybe try some test shots.

I also need to read up on photographic research techniques, make sure I’m not missing any tricks.


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Film: In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

I first heard of Saul Leiter when I was studying the Colour section of Art of Photography about a year ago, and I heard about this film “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter” [1] at about the same time. Sadly, just as I was discovering his work, the great man passed away. He’d reached the grand old age of 89 so he had a fair old crack at life, you must admit. I made a mental note to track the film down, and only came back to this mental note quite recently, I confess!

In No Great Hurry

In No Great Hurry

This 2012 documentary, produced and directed by filmmaker Tomas Leach, is a respectful and fitting tribute to the man. Leiter could have been one of the most famous photographers of his era, and is rightly feted as a pioneer of colour photography. His best work is street photography with a lyrical twist, painterly almost to the point of being abstract in some cases.

I have a Saul Leiter book on order, and when it arrives I hope I’ll find time to write more about the photography itself. In the meantime, I guess this post is more about the film, and by extension about Leiter the person as well as the photographer. It’s not so odd to watch a documentary about a photographer and get some interesting insights from the segments between the photographs shown – you can (within the constraints of the editing process…) get a good feel for the person, how they think, how they act, how they see the world.

They’re not really ‘lessons in life’ at all, it’s a thin construct around which to hang an interview that took place over a period of time when the ageing but still sparky Leiter was sorting through a very messy apartment that housed his photographic archive. The photos he found only occasionally enter the narrative – for the most part it’s simply a gently-paced character portrait. He was a very friendly, peaceful, softly-spoken and most of all modest man. Modest to a fault – he could have, if he wished, been much more well-known than he was. He was very content to be ‘uncelebrated’ for most of his life. Not that he was truly ‘undiscovered’ in Vivian Maier style – he did commercial work in the 1950s, including Harpers and Esquire. But he chose not to pursue the fame and fortune.

He comes across as dismissive of the attention he received at the very end of his life, but you get little glimpses that he secretly enjoyed it – his face when Leach plays back some rough footage says as much.

So what did I learn, from a photographic point of view? That being a painter as well as a photographer gives you a different view on the world; that more subjects suit the vertical format than I thought (he shot almost exclusively in portrait ratio, something I subsequently found he has in common with Ralph Gibson); and that you can find abstract beauty in the most unexpected places.

My favourite quote of the whole film:

“My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear. Very lightly.”

(I think I actually know what he meant, too)

  1. http://watch.innogreathurry.com (accessed 06/10/2014)