People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 5: tutor feedback

I’ve had the tutor report on this for a couple of weeks now but have been getting stuck deep into Context & Narrative and neglected to close this one off properly until now.

Given that I felt this was the most difficult assignment to date I was very keen to get an objective perspective on it. I was half-expecting a more critical response but thankfully it’s come across as more of a ‘qualified success’ than a ‘noble failure’…!

A few extracts from the Overall Comments section (and the opening and closing comments from the main analysis):

“I can see the dedicated work that you have gone into, to take these images and the result demonstrates this as a body of work exploring your idea. You have done some good research into a large variety of photographers and this has informed your approach. […] The reflection you provided is honest and searching and you are developing your own personal style.”

“You have engaged in the idea of exploring a theme and were experimental in the assignment task. […] You have really challenged yourself and been disciplined in the techniques you explored and your attention to detail shows as this body of work has a good harmony with the consistent lighting and colour palette.”

“The work presented hangs together well as a body of work.”

“Keep having fun when taking your images, as there is a becoming a real sense of that humor and irony in your work.”

I’m very pleased with this feedback – especially the opinion that it hangs together well (I was concerned about this) and the emerging sense of humour (something I don’t consciously aim for but admire in others). I do wonder whether the assessor/s will be quite as understanding…!?

Now follows brief comments per image and my reaction to them:

1. Sweet Shop

Sweet Shop

Sweet Shop

  • “A simple typographical study of the sweet jars provides a visual rhythm that is pleasing. There is a slight reflection in the glass and as it is white and falls across a dark jar it is slightly noticeable. I don’t think it greatly detracts from the image though. The colors work well here with the gentle lighting.”
  • I hadn’t noticed the reflection before but see it now; I’m happy to leave the image as-is

2. Charity Box

Charity Box

Charity Box

  • “This image does make you smile and the passing dog wandering in behind makes it. This is quite closely cropped top and bottom and depending on the outcome this might limit the usability. I mean in the sense of layout options as it becomes a format that is less usual.”
  • Glad the passing dog worked – I needed a juxtaposition to make this image sufficiently interesting
  • Hadn’t considered the tight crop being a problem; from memory I cropped so tight due to distractions at the edge of the original framing

3. Phone Box

Phone Box

Phone Box

  • “This image has quite a different feel to the previous two as the other images are quite timeless and yet this one really demonstrates a changing environment. The stark colours work well and the person wandering out of the frame further implies being left behind. The print is very crisp and clear and the detail of the graffiti and stickers shows how unused this box is. The print does become slightly blown out on the far right.”
  • Very pleased that the composition of this worked and got across the intended message; my ideal composition was to have someone passing using a mobile phone, but that didn’t happen in the time I had available… the ‘walking away’ image is a good second best
  • I was aware of the blown highlights and tried to rescue them as best I can

 4. Phone

Phone

Phone

  • “I like your intent with this image, the more active idea of it being in use. I do find the angle a little unusual. All your other images are measured and very straight vertically and horizontally so this does look out of kilter with them. The image does have a nice colour and as you say the brown atmosphere fits that time.”
  • This comment on the angle presents an interesting dilemma; I started with a very straight-on shot of the phone but it looked too static so I changed to this shot in use. I do see the point about inconsistency but remain unsure whether to select a different shot (or reshoot) in this instance

5. Milk Float

Milk Float

Milk Float

  • “Again a measured observation, the print is very clear and in focus. I didn’t see it instantly as a milk float but the number plate and Dairy Farmers of Britain logo gives the hint and also parked in a weedy yard speaks about its abandonment.”
  • I thought it was evident it was a milk float but the feedback is a good reminder that not everyone immediately sees what you want them to see!

6. Milk Bottle

Milk Bottle

Milk Bottle

  • “The milk bottle is very subtle in this image! The whole scene does give the impression of disrepair and neglect. I would suggest it is closely cropped and not quite straight so it looks a little forced. The print looks almost painterly with the paint texture on the door.”
  • I was OK with the bottle being subtle, although I do have an alternative shot with a different viewpoint and tighter framing so that the bottle is more prominent
  • I thought I’d got it straight so will revisit the master file to see what I can tweak – or may swap it out for the alternative shot mentioned above

7. Mini

Mini

Mini

  • “The mini does really have an iconic look and does say so much. I did wonder what the man was doing looming over the car, I wondered if he was patting it or thinking about how to break into it! I wonder if this could be cropped so the slightly distracting white pvc conservatory was not so prominent?”
  • This comment made me smile! He’s supposed to be cleaning it – to denote pride…  but as per the milk float it reminds me that the viewer doesn’t always have the reaction that matches my intent
  • Spot on re the conservatory; I was trying to keep the images to the same ratio and this framing initially felt right, but I will go back and re-crop as suggested

8. Pint Pot

Pint Pot

Pint Pot

  • “Again another icon, it does look a little on a lean? The addition of the person holding a bottle in behind also infers a change so that further supports the idea.”
  • As per the phone, the lean was deliberate… was trying to invoke the feeling of being in a pub! (it was actually staged at home, and that’s me in the background…)

9. Cobbles

Cobbles

Cobbles

  • “This image does document the cobbles and the curve and selective focus works but would suggest this image is not as interesting although in the example of a magazine article this could be useful to lay text over.”
  • I concede I did struggle with how to make cobbles more interesting

10. Flat Cap

Flat Cap

Flat Cap

  • “This is a clean and crisp portrait, I love his outfit and he does look rather dapper. It is nice to see an image with a person involved. The print for this works very well and the lighting is very gentle and a great foil against the dark background. I like to see a person as this adds to the story but I wonder if it then makes me want to know that person’s story? The other images have traces of people but they are more about the item and the environment. Just a thought.”
  • I really wanted to have more people in the set actually; one idea was to feature professions, but that faltered due to lack of material
  • With hindsight, I could have focused more on the hat and made it less of a portrait

So in all, an encouraging set of feedback for what I felt was my weakest assignment. I do think I’ll go back and tweak and/or replace a couple of the images, but will leave that until I have the big pre-assessment tidying up exercise. I think I need to put a bit of distance between me and the P&P assignments and come back with a fresh pair of eyes in a month or two.


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Assignment 5: Disappearing Britain

Brief:

The full (fictional) brief is written up here but in summary, the main points are 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.

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.

My intention with the set of images is twofold:

  • Cataloguing: to record these objects now for future viewers, as artefacts of British life in the 20th century
    • These subjects were chosen against the brief of ‘disappearing’ (or become obsolete, or extinct) and I see this series as a form of ‘virtual museum’ of impending British obsolescence. I thought of it as capturing them before they disappear – “last chance to see”
  • Remembering: to trigger memories in contemporary viewers of objects from our shared British past
    • My secondary objective is that any viewer of my generation (born in the 1970s or 1980s, raised in Britain) will not only recognise but have some association with these subjects. I’m aiming to conjure up a sense of Britishness (à la Assignment 4), but a sense of Britishness associated with a collective past, rather than a contemporary depiction

I examined the different views on these objects that could be taken by contemporary and future viewers in a research and reflection blog post. First, a gallery view showing all the images as a set.

Now follows a brief analysis per image:

1. Sweet Shop

Dedicated sweet shops stocked with shelves of jars are becoming a thing of the past, superseded by newsagents, convenience stores and supermarkets. Whilst I found local examples of deliberately retro sweet shops that have opened up to ride the wave of nostalgia, here I found an original example of the genre, still quietly plying its trade of “a quarter of…” to the local school children (but only five in the shop at any one time…!)

Sweet Shop

Sweet Shop

2. Charity Box

I may be going out on a limb here in terms of whether this is an object that many people would associate with a bygone era, but for me it holds strong connotations of 1970s/1980s Britain, as such collection boxes were certainly common in the north-west of England. I had this specific guide dog design in mind and looked for several weeks until I saw one in a farm shop yard. Getting the juxtaposition with the passing dog was a bonus.

Charity Box

Charity Box

3. Phone Box

This was the iconic British image that triggered the idea. I must have taken more photos of phone boxes than everything else put together (they are more common than I thought, which maybe undermines the conceit). However, until I found this abandoned one I didn’t have an image that actually had any context or inherent narrative. I liked the fact that this had found a new use as a kind of community notice board… so from one type of ‘communication point’ to another, albeit even more primitive! An even better juxtaposition might have been to catch someone using their mobile phone in the vicinity but unfortunately in the time I had, I wasn’t that lucky.

Phone Box

Phone Box

4. Phone

In the construct of the fictional magazine brief, I’d suggest that either the phone box or the phone should be selected for the final article, but not both. In this shot I wanted to depict a first-person viewpoint, inviting the viewer to imagine (and indeed remember) using such a device. I was pleased to find a brown example, as in my mind brown is the colour I associate with the 1970s.

Phone

Phone

5. Milk Float

The milk float was a peculiarly British invention: the practice of having milk delivered was more common in Britain than anywhere else, and the specific battery-operated vehicle designed for the purpose was unique to us; in 1967 Britain apparently had more electric vehicles than the rest of the world put together. Ironically, electric vehicles are now seen as a symbol of innovation and the future, so Britain was ahead of its time (albeit limited to 16mph…). Along the lines of the phone box shot, here I wished to depict the milk float in a state of disuse; abandoned and unloved in a yard on an industrial estate. This is intended to evoke a connection with the independent dairy industry being made obsolete by the supermarkets.

Milk Float

Milk Float

6. Milk Bottle

As with the phone / phone box, I’d suggest that either this or the milk float be used as a subject in the magazine article, but not both. Like many of these items, the milk bottle is an iconic design its own right, and one that is increasingly rare. In this image I wanted the bottle to be a secondary focal point after the viewer has taken in the general scene of the door. The state of disrepair of the door holds some kind of analogy of neglect that it shares with the milk bottle design; they both belong to another age.

Milk Bottle

Milk Bottle

7. Mini

Another personal connection, as my first car was a Mini. The original Mini was recently voted the greatest British car design ever, and its BMW replacement is a pale (oversized) imitation of the design classic. Here I wanted to get over two things: firstly, the diminutive scale of the thing (striking in real life but not sure how well it translates here), and secondly, the care the owner takes of it, like he’s preserving a little piece of British history.

Mini

Mini

8. Pint Pot

There was a time when every pint of beer in Britain was served in such a sturdy container, but I guess for reasons of cost (or maybe health and safety) they had to die out. I was pleased to find one that had branding from an old London establishment, even though I spotted this in Yorkshire. Maybe they are in such short supply that people seek them out.

Pint Pot

Pint Pot

9. Cobbles

Cobbles were commonplace in my (northern England) childhood, on every back alley and a surprising number of residential streets. Now they are anachronistic, usually only seen on Coronation Street on television. At the seaside I spotted a stretch of cobbles that curved nicely to form a pleasing compostion. Of the many options I had on this shot, I chose the one with the old man at the peak of the shape, so that your eye is drawn to him. It seems to me to be analogous to looking back to the past.

Cobbles

Cobbles

10. Flat Cap

The wearing of flat caps by men is something that I’ve seen die out in my lifetime. This is subtly different to the practice of hat-wearing in Britain generally, which has been in decline since the 1950s; the flat cap specifically has northern English and/or working class connotations, and was a common sight even on working men in their twenties in my youth. I was delighted to see this chap wearing his very proudly in my home town.

Flat Cap

Flat Cap

Self-evaluation:

This assignment pushed me out of my comfort zone far more than any of the others. I deliberated (both before and after making the decision on the brief) as to whether to make the final assignment a continuation of my style/preference (put simply, candid portraiture) or a departure. I chose to make it a departure and wrestled with this decision throughout. During the assignment I went from being unhappy with my work, to being uncertain, to eventually being sufficiently content. I’m still not wholly sure to be honest – I see this end result as somewhere between a flawed success and a noble failure! Specifically, I struggled somewhat with making the images match my visualisations. I had what I thought were good subject ideas but in the limited time available to do the assignment I did have issues aligning the following:

  • finding the subjects themselves
  • finding them in locations where I could revisit at the time of my choosing
  • finding them in the right weather and lighting conditions
  • being able to get the distinctive compositions I wanted – specifically, to incorporate the subjects in a wider setting that helped get over the message I was aiming for (juxtaposition with other elements, objects in use by people etc)

This is not to say that the concept itself was fundamentally flawed, rather that I overestimated my ability to find and capture the subjects I wanted in the eight weeks or so I gave myself for the assignment. For example, I wanted originally to include disappearing professions (e.g. coal man, rag and bone man etc) but did not find such subjects in the time available. I may actually continue on the project beyond the assignment deadline, as I feel it may work better if I allow myself the time to find the most interesting subjects and settings.

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Technically I’m happy with the quality of the images; one (Milk Bottle) I took with a ‘non-serious’ (small sensor) camera with the intention of returning with better equipment, but every time I’ve been back there’s been no milk bottle, so I ended up using what was meant to be a test shot; looking closely you can tell the quality difference
    • From a stylistic point of view, I chose early on not to use black and white, sepia or any other vintage effect, as I am depicting these subjects in the contemporary age, at this (late) point in their lifespans. I wanted to depict the subjects strongly and clearly, in good light wherever possible – to make them look as ‘real’ as possible
    • Shooting over a long period of time, in different conditions, with different types of subject, I feared that the set might not hang together as a coherent whole; I’ve arrived at the conclusion that whilst the set is eclectic, the commonality in the underlying story of the subject matter dying out is (just about) enough to hold the set together conceptually
    • I used a range of shooting angles and focal lengths in order to inject some visual variety; where possible I tried to incorporate other elements in the frame to provide context, or a juxtaposition/counterpoint
    • As I find myself doing increasingly these days, I tried to pay attention to the geometry of my pictures – leading lines, shapes, giving the eye a path around the image etc
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • As noted in the summary text above, I’m less satisfied with the quality of the outcome of this assignment than previous ones
    • Some individual images I am very happy with, others I know in my heart of hearts don’t represent my best work, but I took the pragmatic decision to complete the assignment rather than agonise for weeks or months
    • My indecision and lack of confidence in the work in progress possibly tainted my view on the work, and maybe I’ll never be totally happy with it so should just move on!
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • This is an area where I believe I set myself something of a challenge from the start (some of my rejected Assignment 5 ideas were much more ‘conceptual’ in nature, but I ended up backing away from these ideas)
    • Given the everyday nature of the subjects, I tried to be creative in execution: choice of composition etc – but am not wholly convinced that this is really the case
  • Context:
    • A few books that I’ve owned for a while were revisited as part of my subject matter research: ‘Portrait Of An Era: An Illustrated History of Britain’ [1], ‘Britain’s First Photo Album’ [2] and ‘Retronaut’ [3]
    • I’ve also been a frequent visitor to the local flea market, antique shops and charity shops
    • While I was out shooting, I listened 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; it gave me a few subject ideas
    • In terms of photographic inspiration, there are four particular photographers that keep coming back to mind: Saul Leiter, Robin Maddock, Robert Frank and Martin Parr; I covered this in more detail in this prep post
    • 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
    • In terms of the conceptual side of the assignment, as noted in the introduction, I undertook this brief with two parallel viewing timelines in mind:
      • Future viewers seeing these images as ‘catalogued specimens’ of lost British icons
      • Contemporary viewers seeing these images as ‘memory triggers’ from a generation’s shared past
    • I wrote about my research into this area in more detail in a separate blog post, touching on some of the theories and observations of Sontag [8], Barthes [9] and Clarke [10], along with the contemporary project Useful Photography [11]
    • The compendium Street Photography Now [12] and specifically the essay ‘No Ideas But In Things’ was useful as background; the essay is about the use of ‘found still life’ in street photography, which has parallels with this work
    • Last but not least, I researched how to do research (!) with the help of the Anna Fox / Natasha Caruana book Behind the Image [13]; this gave me some precedents and frameworks in which to carry out my subject research

To summarise: This has been the most challenging assignment on People & Place by far, possibly because of the choice of subject I gave myself. However, in a way it’s been the most fulfilling journey, as I made a decision to get out of my comfort zone, experienced the discomfort and came out the other side! Also, the more ‘conceptual’ side of the assignment – the examination of photography as cataloguing, as a proxy for memory, along a continuum of viewing on a timeline – I found to be genuinely fascinating to research and reflect upon.

  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
  8. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  9. Barthes, R. (1980) Camera lucida: reflections on photography. London: Random House Vintage
  10. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  11. http://www.usefulphotography.com (accessed 19/12/2014)
  12. Howard S. & McClaren S. (2010) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  13. Fox, A. & Caruana, N. (2012) Behind the image. Lausanne: AVA


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Assignment 5 research: cataloguing, memory, past, present, future

The subject I chose for Assignment 5 is “Disappearing Britain” and is in part an exploration of photography as a tool for cataloguing, and as a proxy (or aide) for memory. My intention is to record some specific objects that are at risk of becoming obsolete by the march of progress. The whole exercise made me think about who I was making the images for: contemporary viewers, future viewers, or both?

I revisited some of the core theoretical texts – Sontag [1], Barthes [2], Benjamin [3] and Berger [4] – for their analysis of the nature of memory in relation to photography, but by and large they look at it from the other end of the telescope – photographs from the past being viewed in the present, and the associations with memory, e.g. from Sontag:

“A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie.”

Barthes’ Camera Lucida in particular discusses the essential ‘past-ness’ of photographs and the melancholy that can accompany this:

“Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”

Capturing now, for future viewers

What I was interested in doing was kind of the other way around; photographing things in order to remember them later. It’s a form of cataloging these items, quite deliberately, before they are gone. I kept coming back to the premise that what I’m trying to do here is capture things before they become extinct. I can think of a number of projects that did this successfully for people-centric subjects (communities, tribes, enthusiasts, war veterans etc) and for places (towns and villages, city neighbourhoods), but not many for objects.

One of the contemporary bodies of work that I was pointed towards by my tutor was Julian Germain’s “Useful Photography” project [5], which catalogues specific categories of contemporary objects for future viewing. The description of the work is as follows:

“Useful Photography is a magazine which gives a platform to imagery that is part of our everyday lives but which is rarely studied or appreciated; for example pictures from catalogues, instruction manuals, text books, medical and scientific journals, packaging, CCTV, etc. Images that have been made for a practical purpose, whose makers remain completely anonymous.”

However, this is different again from my intent with this series; those images are collected and curated after the event, not taken for the specific purpose of cataloguing.

I went back to some reading I did last year in the early years of photography, specifically the ‘Photography and the Nineteenth Century” chapter in Clarke’s The Photograph [6], when one of the trends was for photography as cataloguing. Practitioners of what Clarke calls ‘mechanical photography’ would methodically record images of objects:

“The drive to collect and classify the world of objects and structures […] is reflected in such images as Daguerre’s famous Shells and Fossils of 1839, suggestive of an entire tradition and placing photographs in the context of this larger process of classification. It reflects both the developing museum culture, and the way in which the photograph was seen as an analogue of the real”

One interpretation of this is that it was the novelty of the medium that spurred this type of work, rather than the objective being the recording of the items themselves. Giving them the historical benefit of the doubt – that they were recording objects for posterity not novelty – I can see that this may be closest precedent to what I’m trying to achieve with my project.

Such ‘classification’ at the heart of photography is no longer an identifiable trend. Now that photography is not novel but ubiquitous, for what reason might one deliberately record an image of, say, a phone box? Aren’t there enough accidental (or incidental) images of such objects already in existence?

What I think is distinctive (and I’m not claiming “unique”) about this set of images is that I chose to photograph the specific objects; they are not incidental, they are the main attraction. Their impending obsolescence (and accompanying rarity) is reason enough to want to stop and capture them. I am curating – in advance – what I believe will be of interest to future generations.

Triggering memories of the past in contemporary viewers

Though this ‘future retrospection’ is my intention, I can see that there is simultaneously the nostalgic pull that reflects the theories of photography and memory outlined by Sontag, Barthes et al. Put simply, though my intention is to capture objects in 2014 for future viewers to see facsimiles of things that they can no longer see in real life, at the same time the reaction of seeing these images in 2014 will be, to some viewers, to take them back to a past time. So even though I may show a photo of a milk bottle in 2014, the image is – to the viewer of a certain generation – an incitement to reverie, an invitation to reminisce about the 1970s or 1980s. It is, in this sense, both contemporary record and ‘fake nostalgia’.

  • Viewers looking at these images now will experience memories of the past
  • Viewers in the future will be experiencing “now” as a (different) past, one which they may or may not remember

I found the whole thought process and research around this area fascinating. Considering the ‘lifespan’ of a photograph – how it can encapsulate both past and present, and how it may be viewed in the future looking back on both ‘pasts’ – was something that slightly made my brain hurt, but in a good way!

Forgive me the pretentious interlude, but a line from a 2014 Damon Albarn song “Photographs” [7] kept coming back to me:

“When the photographs you’re taking now / Are taken down again”.

To me this implies a potentially huge span of time: you take a photo now; you print and hang it; at some indeterminate point in the future you take the photo down, as it no longer holds enough meaning for you to keep it on display.

When you press the shutter, how far ahead are you thinking?

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  2. Barthes, R. (1980) Camera lucida: reflections on photography. London: Random House Vintage
  3. Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
  4. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
  5. http://www.usefulphotography.com (accessed 19/12/2014)
  6. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  7. Albarn, D. (2014) Photographs (you’re taking now). London: Chrysalis Music

 


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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 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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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.