People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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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.

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Assignment 4: Old Town Glory

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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Assignment 4: image selection

After a few days of thinking vaguely about, but not doing any actual work on, the assignment, I come back to it tonight with the intention of chopping down my longlist (92 images).

I thought it prudent to re-read the brief to make sure I understood its salient points. I know by now that the briefs on assignments can be interpreted creatively, but I also know that deliberately veering off a properly understood brief is quite different to simply misinterpreting it in the first place!

The re-reading did lead to a spark of clarity on how to approach the brief.

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.

I’ve taken a look at examples of this kind of location-centric photo article, mostly in National Geographic Traveller magazine [1], which seemed to fit the hypothetical publication for the assignment quite well. What became apparent is that a good photo feature (clear, informative, attractive) does indeed use some of the advice I’ve previously seen and applied on similar exercises and assignments – namely a narrative flow incorporating a variety of shot types, angles, subjects and so on. So the shooting list that I’d already been working to so far is a good starting point.

Matching this advice and Nat Geo example to the brief led me to a refinement of the shooting list. What I decided to focus on in the shot selection is the point that I am being advised to produce twice as many shots as will actually be used. I’m interpreting this as: I don’t get final say on image selection and layout.

This gave me parameters to work within (I like parameters; I find them paradoxically freeing):

  • I should identify a shooting list of no more than six types of shot
  • I should provide two photographs under each of the shot type headings (three if there are very strong contenders) – but one should be my stated preference and others should be alternative options
  • I will provide both the ‘preferred’ set of six and all alternative options as part of the assignment submission
  • Any combination of images under the headings should work together – images that only work well in specific juxtapositions are a risk to the overall narrative if they don’t get chosen together

Whilst I understand that I didn’t *need* to interpret the brief in this specific way, I genuinely find it useful at this stage to have a structure for my image selection decisions (if the structured approach generates a set of images that just doesn’t feel right, I’ll change it; but the structure is my starting point).

So, pulling all of this together: my image selection will generate a shortlist of at least 12 images under the following (guideline) headings:

  • Establishing shot
    • Wide, generic, showing overall context
  • Medium shot
    • People interacting with place
  • Detail shot
    • Small but identifiable feature
  • Portrait shot
    • Single person
  • Interaction shot
    • Two or more people
  • Closing shot
    • Imagery of leaving / closing / end of day?

The images need to use a combination of the techniques/concepts:

  • Outsider’s eye
  • Symbols and running motifs
  • Focusing on the small differences

And the messages to be conveyed are based around the following keywords:

  • “Cramped”
  • “Historic”
  • “Characterful”

With ALL of this in mind, I am now going in to make some in/out decisions…

  1. National Geographic Traveller UK, October 2014: Absolute Publishing


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Assignment 4: prep – finding the character of the place

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.

Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice

Techniques

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

Outsider’s eye

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:

  1. Tourists
  2. Workers: locals who work in tourist-focused businesses (cafes, bars, restaurants, gift shops etc)
  3. 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
  • Shutters
  • Balconies
  • Wall-mounted street lamps
  • Canopies
  • Tiny local restaurants with one table and a chalkboard outside
  • Fountains
  • Churches
  • Artists and artisans

Small differences

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

Key messages

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.

Shooting list

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’ [1] 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.

Final considerations

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)

  1. Hurn, D; Jay, B. (1996) On being a photographer. USA: Lenswork


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Assignment 4: prep – revisiting previous studies

I’ve done a lot of thinking, reading and researching on how one might be able to evoke a ‘sense of place’ as a photographer. I realised early on that a lot of the exhibitions, books and photographers that I’d enjoyed and blogged about last year as part of the Art of Photography course were very much about places, and to varying degrees of success they managed to communicate a strong sense of the place being examined. I’ve revisited these and can summarise what I’ve learned in this research.

Robert Frank: The Americans [1]

Parade, Hoboken NJ © Robert Frank 1955

Parade, Hoboken NJ © Robert Frank 1955

Perhaps the most famous place-centric photo collection of the 20th century, The Americans takes the unenviable task of trying to depict one of the biggest and most populated places on earth. Whilst it’s difficult to encapsulate what defines such a vast and varied country – east and west coasts are very different, the midwest is something else again, specific cities have very distinctive identities – Frank did it very successfully, by identifying what is common to the multitude of cities and towns he visited.

His use of recurring motifs is key to communicating the mood: specific icons of Americana – the stars and stripes, diners, jukeboxes, big automobiles – repeat throughout the book like a chorus, bringing a backbone of unity to what could otherwise have been a disparate collection of images. He shows both the breadth of the country and what unites its people beneath the surface.

He is holding a mirror up to an entire nation, seeing it as only an outsider can (he was Swiss). He captured a mood, and it wasn’t wholly positive. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.

Martin Parr: The Last Resort [2]

New Brighton, © Martin Parr 1985

New Brighton, © Martin Parr 1985

Much of what has been said and written about The Last Resort centres on the style, the use of strong colours and daytime flash, quite unusual at a time when ‘documentary photography’ was predominantly black and white. However, what I was particularly looking for when revisiting the book was how Parr gets over the ambience of New Brighton as a place.

The colour aesthetic is a big part of it – it’s a garish place and saturated colours help to get that across. But I think the way he really gets across the feel of the place is through his selection of subjects and shots – he may deny this was his intent, but it feels like he chose to emphasise (stopping short of exaggeration, I think) details that showed the place in a certain way – downmarket, scruffy yet an improvement to the regular lives of visitors (it’s almost as if he’s saying “imagine what their lives are like the rest of the year if THIS is considered a holiday!”).

An unkind interpretation would be that this is a kind of ‘class tourism’, or even treating the subjects as some kind of anthropological study. However, coming from the class and generation that had holidays like this in places like this, I’d hope that he recognised the warmth and happiness with which families did genuinely enjoy holidays like this in places like New Brighton.

Like Frank, he has an outsider’s eye that simplifies and symbolises. It’s unfortunate that the lingering motif for me was overflowing litter – but he chose this final selection of images for a reason: this is how he saw New Brighton. He makes the place come alive on the page by focusing on images that matched his vision.

Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr: Only In England exhibition

Blackpool © Tony Ray-Jones 1968

Blackpool © Tony Ray-Jones 1968

This show at the Media Space in London was in three parts: a selection of images from Ray-Jones from his collection on English seaside resorts in the 1960s, posthumously published as ‘A Day Off’; a revival of Parr’s early b/w work on the Methodist community in Hebden Bridge, clearly influenced by Ray-Jones; and a Parr-curated new selection of rarely-seen images from the Ray-Jones archive.

The Ray-Jones shots in the first and third sections are fantastic examples of evoking a place and in particular a time. The seaside holidays enjoyed in the 1960s seemed to be a world away from the garish 1980s of The Last Resort – he employed more humour than Parr, gave over more of a sense of mild eccentricity – what one online reviewer called “the gentle madness that overtakes people when they feel they can relax and be their true selves”. Once again, a key aspect of Ray-Jones’ way of seeing the place and the people is that of the (in his case, semi-) outsider; though English himself, he’d spent many years in New York before coming back to see the old place with a NYC street photographer’s eye.

Parr’s series on the Methodist communities in West Yorkshire in the 1970s (published as The Non-Confirmists) takes on a more targeted subject and focuses more on little peculiarities that make these people stand out slightly from the norms of mainstream society. It’s this focus on the small differences that helps to evoke the nature of the community. Once again (there’s a pattern here) Parr was an incomer to the community and so could see it in a way that long-term resident might not have been able to.

Mark Neville: Deeds Not Words exhibition

Irn Bru Display, Corby © Mark Neville, 2010

Irn Bru Display, Corby © Mark Neville 2010

An interesting project: photography as activism. Whilst the real story Neville was telling was about the legacy of deformity from contaminated land, the backdrop is of Corby as a community. The two aspects of the collection didn’t sit together that well for me, I found it a little jarring (maybe that’s the intention). With its strong Scottish heritage and culture, Corby is sufficiently interesting in its own right to have been the subject of a photo essay, and the activism narrative that overlaid it moved it into a different direction.

Like Parr in his Hebden Bridge series, Neville is good at picking out the slightly incongruous details that mark out the place as distinctive: the child in front of a huge supermarket display of Irn Bru for example.

Mass Observation exhibition

The fundamental point of the Mass Observation initiative was to record life in Britain – a broad remit indeed. Photography wasn’t considered a key aspect of the ongoing experiment though, merely a form of visual note-taking to validate the written reporting. What emerges in the photography (much of it by Humphrey Spender) is more of an evocation of time than place; it’s a time-capsule of post-war Britain that illustrates the maxim that ‘the past is a foreign country’. It’s recognisable as Britain, but not the one we live in now.

Certain aspects such as the images of workers in Bolton do carry some sense of the community and the place but in the end its the overall historical interest that lingers rather than a sense of place. It’s kind of strange to make the comparison, but thinking about this alongside The Americans it becomes apparent how important it is to have a coherent message in the photographs; otherwise they are just a bunch of historical artefacts. This speaks to the importance of intent in the photographer’s mind when shooting and selecting.

Summary

So, what have I learned by looking back over these bodies of work? There are some useful techniques that successful photo essays have adopted to help generate a ‘sense of place’ in a collection of images:

  • An outsider’s eye: it’s useful to be able to see a place objectively, maybe in a subtly (or radically) different way to the way its residents see it
  • Symbols and motifs: can help to evoke the mood of a place and reinforce the message without overtly depicting that which you’re trying to communicate
  • Focus on the small differences: the kind of images that make you look twice, or look for longer, are the ones that show something recognisable as normal life but with some kind of twist that gives an impression of the place being depicted

  1. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  2. Parr, M. 2012. The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis


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Assignment 4: first thoughts

I admit that I’ve actually taken the pictures for the assignment! I did however do lots of thinking, reading, researching, note-writing and shot-planning before I took them. I am now very belatedly typing up all this preparation before getting on with the challenges of editing, processing and sequencing.

Choice of place

Before I took any pictures at all, I had a shortlist of places that I could have used. The brief asks for the following:

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. ‘Variety’ should include a variety of subject matter and of scale.

Pulling out the key criteria here, and adding a few of my own, I realised that I needed to find a place that had most or all of the following features:

  • Accessible: for long enough to take photos, on different days, at different times, busy and quiet
  • Distinctive: has a character of its own that can be depicted or implied photographically
  • Attractive: visually interesting in its own right (individual photos need to be engaging, as well as the cohesive set)
  • Variety: provides the diversity of subject matter and scale – buildings, spaces, architectural features, close-up/detail, people aware/unaware
  • Populated: has points of interest that involve people engaging with the place

There were three very different places that sprang to mind: where I live, where I work and where I holiday.

1. Pickering

Pickering

Pickering

I live in Pickering, a smallish market town in North Yorkshire. We’ve lived here for six years and although we have settled here very well (we love it), to a certain degree we can still see it through the eyes of an outsider – in a good way. It’s a place with a low level of tourism all year round, with attractions such as the steam railway station, the castle and a number of annual festivities such as the Sixties Festival and the Wartime Weekend.

  • It’s definitely accessible at least three days per week including weekends
  • It’s reasonably distinctive, but in a way that might be very difficult to pin down visually; it’s more to do with the people themselves and their traditional values, and I’m not sure how to best depict that
  • It has some very attractive features such as the aforementioned steam railway station and castle
  • The visual variety is pretty good
  • I’m not wholly certain that there are a lot of situations where you would see people interacting with the place?

2. Richmond Riverside

Richmond Riverside

Richmond Riverside

At the moment I’m working Monday to Thursday in Richmond-upon-Thames, in an office right on the river’s edge. There is a stretch of river path centred around an area branded as ‘Richmond Riverside’ that is potentially a good subject.

  • It’s accessible for the next couple of months at least, albeit in the mornings, lunchtimes and evenings only, which limits the lighting conditions a bit
  • Taking the Riverside locale rather then the whole town, I do consider it to have its own distinctive character
  • Visually very interesting and attractive, with boats, bridges, parkland etc
  • A reasonable amount of variety but inherently constrained to the corridor of the river so maybe a little limiting
  • Lots of people-interaction possibilities – walkers, cyclists, rowers, boatbuilders, cafe patrons and so on

3. Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice

For the last 12 years my wife and I have had a flat in the old town in Nice, France (known locally as Vieux Nice). We go there 6-7 times a year for up to a fortnight at a time and have got to know the place very well. Although in one sense we’re really just very frequent visitors, in a way we can experience the place as a resident does.

  • It’s accessible for about a week at a time, given our holiday schedule for this year – but once there, no limitations on timings
  • It’s very distinctive in both its architecture and its ambience; it does feel quite different to the rest of the city
  • In purely visual terms it’s by far the most interesting of the three
  • There’s enough variety in the subject matter – people, architecture, colours, shops, cafes, public squares etc
  • The people interactions are there, although there may be a little repetition in the nature of the depictions

Decision

Having gone through the thought process and judging the three against the criteria, I came down firmly on the idea of using Vieux Nice!

The next prep blog post will be about how I decided what aspects of Vieux Nice to focus on, and how I planned out (most of) the types of shot I sought.