People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 5: revisiting the longlist

I’ve been looking back at the 300+ shots I’ve taken so far on this assignment in the light of my wobble and rethink following chats with various folk online.

Two points are at the forefront of my mind in this revised version of the selection:

  1. Does the subject meet the criteria I set myself? (criteria stated in the brief and other criteria that I’ve added in my interpretation of the brief)
  2. Is the image successful at implying my intended message? (meaning, context, narrative, juxtaposition)

1. The criteria

The brief I set myself was as follows:

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.

To this I have been adding more layers of suitability; subconsciously at first, based on looking at objects and images and deciding which were ‘right’ and which were ‘wrong’. I began to form these judgements into the additional parameters I was giving myself for the subjects:

  • Recognisable by any British adult
  • Evoke some kind of response – whether that be missing it, glad to see the back of it, pondering the reasons for its obsolescence etc

This was a very useful filter – it made me ditch a few images I’d shortlisted. For example, I had a (photographically) good image of a concrete GPO post, but who remembers / misses / thinks fondly of a GPO post?! Similarly the coal bunker had to go as it also failed both the above tests.

2. The message

The main insight from engaging with a few people on the OCA Flickr forum was that to be successful the images will need to evoke some kind of response from the viewer. Plain close-ups of the objects in question are unlikely to do that. My original thinking was a little purist with regard to the fictional brief: that the images could be quite close-up, almost bordering on abstract in some cases, as the words would provide the context. However, I must remember above all else that this is a photography assignment! The brief is simply the construct. I must produce images that stand alone without the context of the hypothetical magazine feature.

The ‘message’ (or meaning, or emotion) I wish to impart is simply: for the viewer to consider the subject and how/why it became obsolete. I want people to think about ‘the unstoppable march of progress’.

With this new-found enlightenment I came to realise that I need to think much more about what else is in the frame in each shot. What is the context? Are there other elements I can include in the shot that:

  • Show it in use by people?
  • Show it in its current state of disuse?
  • Juxtapose it with its ‘successor’?

One commenter used the phrase ‘mise-en scene’ and this stuck with me. Can I arrange a ‘tableau’ that carries the context and maybe even has some inherent narrative about the relationship between elements? Obviously this is easier with still life / posed setups than with found objects in public (I’m not about to move around the milk bottle I see on someone’s doorstep. for example).

So here’s a partial list of subjects and how I think I can treat them to get across the context and relationships better:

  • Old Mini: pic of owner polishing it (not got)
  • Milk bottle: on doorstep of run-down house (got)
  • Milk float: abandoned in yard (got)
  • Phone box: either: an abandoned one (got), or juxtapose one with person using a mobile phone
  • Hats: men wearing old-fashioned hats (got)
  • Guide dog charity collection box: juxtaposed with real dog (got)
  • Rotary dial phone: being used by someone (not got)
  • Old barrel pint pot: someone drinking out of (not got)
  • Bingo hall: with customers (not got)
  • Cobbles: with people (got)
  • Sweet jars: ideally with someone’s hand in shot (not got; got one with just sweet jars, might have to fall back on that)

So I need to do 5-6 more based on the above shooting plan.

I think with the above framing / staging decisions I will be able to better get across the context/meaning of each object in the way I want. Just need to get the total of good images up to ten…

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Assignment 5: getting back on track

So a few days ago I started sorting through the Assignment 5 images I’ve taken so far and had a bit of a wobble on my choice of subject.

In short: it felt too far removed from what I’ve enjoyed most on the P&P course so far, and missing something – namely People! I was pondering ditching the idea and falling back on a Plan B I’d already shot in case of such a wobble.

Well, after a few days thinking about it, talking to family and friends, swapping emails with my tutor Sam and chatting with a few kind folks on the OCA Flickr forum (thanks to semiotic, CliveDoubleU, anned003, thebaroncooney, russellthepaperbag and Eileen R) I came to the realisation that I should stick with the chosen concept (“Disappearing Britain“) but rethink what kind of images I need to produce.

The most interesting piece of advice was to consider the context and relationships of elements in my images more. The sample images I posted with my request for advice were mostly very close-up detail shots of specific objects… only in a couple of instances had I pulled back for a wider context shot. I now think I need to go back and reshoot many of the subjects, this time thinking much more about how to juxtapose them with other (background) elements in order to provide a more visually interesting proposition.

In many cases I do think the missing piece is the human element – my intention is to trigger memories of the objects in question, to evoke some kind of emotion (e.g. missing it, glad to see the back of it, thinking about the reasons for its increasing obsolescence etc), and this could be through showing the objects in use by people.

In summary, my problem wasn’t really with the fundamental concept, more with the images themselves.

So I think I’m back on track – albeit with a request to my tutor for an extended deadline if I have to do so many reshoots!


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Assignment 5: second thoughts?!

I’ve started shortlisting pics from the 300+ that I’ve taken since deciding on the Assignment 5 theme of ‘Disappearing Britain’, and I’m having a huge rethink on whether I’m doing the right thing here…

I’m reasonably happy with individual images (to varying degrees) but there’s something missing, something that’s stopping me being happy with the collection of images as a set.

Work in progress

Work in progress

I think I might have put my finger on it:

It doesn’t feel like ME…!

It doesn’t feel like a continuation of my other work to date, it feels like a little too much of a departure. The missing ingredient? PEOPLE.

My other assignments have featured people fairly heavily. With the exception of the first one (set of different portraits of same person) the assignments have all, to some degree, featured candid portraiture.

So I’m now on the horns of a dilemma:

  • Persevere and push myself out of my comfort zone; or:
  • Revert to a fallback idea based on candid portraiture?*

* Full disclosure: I shot 200+ images back in October on such a fallback idea: candid portraits of 1940s re-enactors at a wartime weekend festival. I kept these shots ‘in the bag’ in case of emergency…

I guess what this comes down to is the tension between pushing myself creatively and being true to myself and my preferences/strengths.

I have about two weeks to the target date for this assignment, so I’d better make my mind up!!

I’ll email my tutor now…


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Assignment 5: progress so far

My chosen theme for assignment 5 is “Disappearing Britain”. The full brief I’ve written for myself can be found here, but the short version is: things you used to see in the past that you don’t see much any more, that are uniquely (or at least identifiably) British.

This is a summary of my progress so far…

Subjects

I had a few ideas going into the exercise. Not quite enough, mind you. I’m hoping that inspiration will strike as I go along (it has once or twice already).

So far I have taken pictures I’m happy with of:

  • Red phone boxes (LOTS of photos of these… keep seeing them everywhere I go… maybe they’re not as rare as I thought!)
  • Coal bunker
  • Milk bottle on a doorstep
  • Cobbled street
  • GPO marker post
  • Steel dustbin
  • Flat cap

I’ve found and taken pics of the following, but would like to go back and reshoot (lighting, composition):

  • Rotary dial phone
  • Milk float
  • Butcher’s shop
  • Bingo hall (stumbled upon!)
  • Sweet shop display
  • Original design Mini

I’d still like to find:

  • Pint pot with handle
  • Policeman’s helmet
  • Rag and bone man

Style

I’m very mindful that all of these objects have been photographed before! The (fictional) magazine article calls for distinctive treatments, otherwise they could just use library shots.

With this in mind I’m working on creative execution approaches – close-ups, almost abstracted yet recognisable visual cues that anyone of a certain age would recognise. I’m aiming for more interesting angles and framing that you might get in existing shots of these objects.

I’m also concentrating on the colours, where relevant (e.g. the red of the phone box) and looking for blocks of colour that typify the subject.

Through a combination of these approaches, I’m hoping that each image will evoke a memory of the subject in question.

Research and inspiration

To get ‘in the zone’ for this project I’ve been revisiting a few books of mine: ‘Portrait Of An Era: An Illustrated History of Britain’ [1], ‘Britain’s First Photo Album’ [2] and ‘Retronaut’ [3]. These broadly cover, in their own ways, photographic histories of Britain, and gave me some pointers on subject matter. I’ve also been a frequent visitor to the local flea market, antique shops and charity shops! And finally (perhaps least obviously) while I’ve been out shooting, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes From A Small Island’ [4] as this is kind of a love letter to a changing Britain as seen through the eyes of an outsider.

In terms of photographic inspiration, there are four particular photographers that keep coming back to mind:

Saul Leiter, for his painterly use of colour and abstraction

Robin Maddock, in particular his latest project ‘III’ [5], which is what you might call ‘street abstract’ in style… it’s very different to what I’m aiming to achieve in some ways – it’s US cities, black and white, bordering on abstract and with a specific thematic quirk (all images have a while ball, sheet of paper of milk in them… makes more sense when you see it). The reason it’s inspiring is that he’s reducing a place down to small finite slices and still manages to evoke a sense of the place, which is something I want to achieve – albeit with a different aesthetic

Robert Frank, specifically ‘The Americans’ [6], for his ability to get over the character of an entire, vast nation with a small number of well-selected images; in a similar way I am aiming to capture a ‘dying’ (or at least changing) national character

Martin Parr, in particular ‘The Last Resort’ [7], for his eye for peculiarly British details

As a side note, I’m finding that I can be inspired by photographers without wishing to emulate their style; increasingly it’s an understanding of what they were trying to achieve rather than specifically how they did it.

  1. Gardiner, J et al (2011) Portrait of an era: an illustrated history of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest
  2. Sackett, T. (2012) Britain’s first photo album. London: BBC Books
  3. Wild, C (2014) Retronaut. Washington: National Geographic
  4. Bryson, B (1996) Notes from a small island. London: Corgi
  5. Maddock, R (2014) III. London: Trolley Books
  6. Frank, R (2008) The Americans: special edition. Gottingen: Steidl
  7. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

 


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Assignment 4: tutor feedback

I got the feedback report from Sam my tutor at the end of October but then went away on a short holiday (back to Vieux Nice as it happens!), hence the delay in posting this.

It’s an insightful and thought-provoking set of feedback as usual, and is thankfully generally rather positive. There are of course pointers on how to develop and improve, and in a couple of instances preferences for my ‘alternative’ shots, but on the whole it’s pretty good feedback.

From the Overall Comments section:

“You have demonstrated a good technical approach to the capture of colour and your work on this is a real strength. The prints are of a good quality and have translated very well from digital.

The work presented has a clean and professional look and hangs together coherently. It would be easy to see this in a travel magazine environment”

The comments on the use of colour pleased me greatly, as I saw that as a significant part of the success of the assignment – and increasingly an element of my evolving ‘personal style’. I’m equally pleased with ‘clean and professional’ as this was exactly what I was aiming for and I put a lot of attention to detail into the presentation.

Comments per set:

1. Establishing shot and 2. Medium shot

  • The comments on the first and second page shots were intermingled, as the tutor feel that a stronger opening shot was what I’d considered for the second page (2a Medium)
  • “The image you chose for the second page, is very strong and visually engaging. The light on this is very beautiful, I wonder if this would be a more engaging establishing front page shot? It is very strong and next to the busier more traditional image I do think it has more impact.”
  • “The alleyway image has some impact. The yellow building front is pleasant although again is not as strong as the one you finally decided on.”
  • So I’m considering swapping around 1a and 2a

3. Interaction shot

  • “The artist at work on the street works well, I am pleased to see you including people as this also provides the suggestion that others go there and maybe I could be one of those people experiencing that space too. It gives the feeling of access.”
  • “The alternative market shot has potential and the reflection is well seen but it has disengaged feeling, so less of the idea of making the viewer be involved.”
  • I agree on both comments and will stick with 3a in the assessment version

4. Detail shot

  • “This study of the traditional seller is challenging to look at as it has some strange equipment! The cone shaped cover is interesting and I think the man with the strange black helmet on is fun to look at.”
  • “I do like the alternative image with the tangle of aerials. I wonder if this would have been stronger with a tighter crop. Your mention of using the other images as a small body of work with people as the connection, is valid and does work.”
  • “The image of the red bike is also strong and as you say the colours are amazing, this could be further emphasized with a slightly different composition? The windows to the left are a little distracting and the image does drive the viewer to look there and away from the more graphic blocks of colour.”
  • I think I will try a different crop on the scooter shot, but I’m looking back I’m not as drawn to the aerials image; I do still like the idea of keeping the connection of these images being of people though

5. Portrait shot

  • “This [5a] is a very engaging image, what lovely facial hair! His face is very expressive.”
  • “The other image is well balanced and it is pleasing but it does not have the human connection the other image has.”
  • Agreed on both counts – I really like the moustachioed gent shot, it has a nice serenity to it; the other shot is definitely less engaging in that respect

 6. Closing shot

  • “The detail and lighting in this image are strong and do evoke the idea of life and the end of the day. The bold colours work very well.”
  • “Your alternative image is strong and graphic and interesting although is a little more distanced feeling.”
  • “The doorway photo is bold but as you suggest it is a little bit of a change of pace than the other work.”
  • I concur with the comments on 6b and 6c and so intend to stick with my first choice

Closing comments

“Do read around your approaches to continue to develop your theoretical stance. Consider looking at the history and development of documentary / editorial practice in photography and where it stands in contemporary photography.

I think this work could be considered for publication rather than left as an exercise, do some further research into suitable publications?”

I’m very encouraged by this final comment! Nice to think that someone considers it worthy of publication. I’ll look into that.