People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 5: progress so far

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

This is a summary of my progress so far…

Subjects

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

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

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

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

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

I’d still like to find:

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

Style

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

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

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

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

Research and inspiration

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

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

Saul Leiter, for his painterly use of colour and abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Assignment 4: tutor feedback

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

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

From the Overall Comments section:

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

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

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

Comments per set:

1. Establishing shot and 2. Medium shot

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

3. Interaction shot

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

4. Detail shot

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

5. Portrait shot

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

 6. Closing shot

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

Closing comments

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

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

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


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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.


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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