People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assessment Result

I passed! And with a better score than I got for Art of Photography too. I got 71% for People & Place, and to say I’m chuffed would be a very great understatement.

The overall comments were encouraging:

“The whole impression is one of crisp lucidity; in the imagery, the presentation and the writing.

I was particularly impressed by the creative leap that you made to represent yourself metaphorically in the work. This augurs the beginnings of a sophisticated conceptualisation of your practice and Context and Narrative will provide a fertile environment to develop this in.”

Very happy with this!

“Make sure you thoroughly engage with the C&N reading list to boost your critical reading and write critically in response to your reading. This will aid you to contextualise your work with in contemporary culture and progress your understanding of your own practice’s potential.”

This is my weakness; Ive been called out on it already on C&N. Must do more critical reading and more importantly writing.

“On a slight technical point I think some of the prints would have benefited from having a touch more shadow detail revealed.”

Interesting! Will take that on board.

Breakdown and comments

  • Demonstration of Technical & Visual Skills:
    • “Complete fluency of technical and visual skills”
    • 29/40
    • Pleased with that, one less thing to worry about
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • “Highly effective work presented in a professional way, showing strong judgement. Highly effective grasp of ideas and communication of visual ideas.”
    • 15/20
    • Very pleased with that, as I’m not always certain of the quality of my work; I get too close and find it hard to judge sometimes
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • “Creative, takes risks with imaginative and successful outcomes, evidence of a developing personal voice”
    • 14/20
    • Most pleased with this, as it was my weak spot on AOP and I was disappointed by that feedback – and have made more of an effort to experiment since then
  • Context:
    • “Articulate and self aware, good range of research, demonstrating a developing intellectual understanding.”
    • 13/20
    • My lowest score this time, and as per notes above I accept the criticism implied by the low score, and endeavour to improve my critical reading and writing

 

In summary, in case it’s not obvious – I’m very happy with the overall result!

Right, I’d better try to finish off Context & Narrative at some point…

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Portfolio website

I’ve finally become sufficiently confident in my ability as a photographer to put together a portfolio website.

It contains a selection of images from OCA exercises and assignments, my daily photo journal (Blipfoto) and some other pictures that I’m particularly proud of.

Portfolio

Portfolio

 

 

I’ve also set up a Facebook page for my photography.

Wish me luck!


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It’s not about the camera

I used to be a real gadget fanatic. I tried to count up how many cameras I’ve had over the years and seriously lost count after 20. BUT! over the last few months it gradually dawned on me that I was shaking off this gear acquisition addiction and was actually happy with the kit that I own. I even sold off a couple of cameras that I wasn’t using very much. I got down to one ‘serious’ camera (a Fuji X-E1) with a few prime lenses plus one zoom, that I use mainly for OCA exercises and assignments, and one good quality compact for everyday use (a Fuji X100).

I’d decided after years of trying (deep breath) Sony, Olympus, Canon, Pentax, Nikon and even Leica, that I’d finally found ‘my brand’… I just love the design, handling and most importantly image quality of the Fuji products of the last few years… it’s good to get to know one system so well that it just ‘gets out of the way’ and you can concentrate on making pictures. The real epiphany came when Fuji announced the X-T1 – better! faster! bigger LCD! more pixels! better firmware! exciting! – and I realised that I wasn’t actually that bothered. I’d finally come to believe what I’d read and heard from wiser people, that better kit doesn’t make you a better photographer. Master what you’ve got, until you can’t do what you need to with it.

The theory is tested!

So, I’ve been comfortable with this principle – it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts – for a while now. And today was a real ‘put your money where your mouth is’ moment… DISASTER STRUCK! my beloved X-E1 conked out.

Stone dead. Bricked. And I’m in France for a week. And I didn’t bring the X100 as backup. And I’m partway through shooting for Assignment 4: A Sense of Place, as I’d already decided to use Vieux Nice as my subject.

My options:

  1. Buy a replacement camera body (I tried – no luck)
  2. Pick from the shots already in the bag (not happy with that, there’s definitely some shots I wanted that I haven’t got yet)
  3. Give up on Vieux Nice as the subject and start afresh when back in the UK (nah – really enthused about this place, don’t want to change tack now)
  4. Fly back out here later when the camera’s fixed/replaced (I’m not made of money!)
  5. Borrow my wife Ann’s compact camera and finish the assignment with that (this is of course what I’m doing!)

My emergency backup camera

To be fair, it’s a pretty decent compact camera (it should be, I chose it!). It’s a Canon S110, it shoots RAW as well as JPG, it has a larger-than-average sensor for a compact camera and the image quality is surprisingly good. The light in the south of France is remarkably good so low-light quality isn’t of the utmost importance. So I’m satisfied that it meets the minimum requirements to produce images of sufficient quality.

I’ve just come back from my first shooting session with it. Things I don’t like: fiddly controls, no viewfinder, menu system confusing (although I’m sure a Canon user would say about the Fuji system, it’s just what you’re used to, I guess). Things I do like: it’s light, it has a great zoom range (goes both wider and longer than the primes I brought for the Fuji), it’s less obtrusive and a bit easier to shoot candid images.

Here’s one image from the ‘serious’ camera and one from the emergency compact. Is it obvious which is which?

So the assignment is going to feature a mix of images from the X-E1 and the S110… probably in favour of the X-E1 but you never know until the editing stage, and we have a couple more days here so it’s still all to play for. I accept the challenge of demonstrating that it’s not about the camera!

 


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“Photography Is A Language”

There’s an excellent blog post [1] on the Magnum Photos website from November 2008, entitled “Wear Good Shoes: Advice to young photographers”. It was collated by Alec Soth, and essentially asks 35 Magnum photographers to answer the same few simple questions, the most interesting one being:

What advice would you give young photographers?

The variety of responses is fascinating, and the whole article (it runs to the equivalent of about 10 pages of print) is a treasure trove of good advice.

David Alan Harvey

David Alan Harvey

There’s one answer from David Alan Harvey that really resonated with me, and has had me thinking about photography in a slightly different way ever since. For that reason I’m going to reproduce it here and explain what it means to me.

“You must have something to ‘say’. You must be brutally honest with yourself about this. Think about history, politics, science, literature, music, film and anthropology. What effects does one discipline have over another? What makes ‘man’ tick?

Today, with everyone being able to easily make technically perfect photographs with a cell phone, you need to be an ‘author’. It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship. Many young photographers come to me and tell me their motivation for being a photographer is to “travel the world” or to “make a name” for themselves. Wrong answers in my opinion. Those are collateral incidentals or perhaps even the disadvantages of being a photographer.

Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings, and something almost ‘literary’ to contribute to ‘the discussion’, today’s photographer will become lost in the sea of mediocrity.

Photography is now clearly a language. As with any language, knowing how to spell and write a grammatically correct ‘sentence’ is, of course, necessary. But, more importantly, today’s emerging photographers now must be ‘visual wordsmiths’ with either a clear didactic or an esoteric imperitive. Be a poet, not a technical ‘writer’. Perhaps more simply put, find a heartfelt personal project. Give yourself the ‘assignment’ you might dream someone would give you.

Please remember, you and only you will control your destiny. Believe it, know it, say it.”

– David Alan Harvey

 

The phrase that jumped out at me was “Photography is now clearly a language“. When I read this, something clicked (pardon the pun). Anyone with a camera might think they’re a ‘photographer’, but did everyone with a pen (or a typewriter, or a word processor) think they were a ‘writer’, with a command over the language such that they could get across stories, ideas, emotions? Written language can be used as a very simple tool: signs, notices, product descriptions, Facebook status updates – and photographs can be used as a simple tool as well, as anyone with a smartphone knows. But both written and visual languages can be used for a far more interesting purpose: to make people think, to evoke an emotion, to carry a message, an idea.

So you can use the language to say something as simple and visual as: “Doesn’t this sunset/flower/person look pretty/interesting?” or you can use the language to say something about the human condition, generically or specifically. You can make people think about things they may not have previously wanted to, or been able to, think about. That’s potentially quite powerful.

Once I started thinking of photography as a language, two things happened in my head:

  1. The possibilities of using photography for capturing something beyond ‘pretty pictures’ opened up in front of me, and this is quite exciting;
  2. The realisation that I’m not yet sure that I have much interesting to ‘say’, and this is quite dispiriting!

 

I am however focusing on the former point as much as I can!

I recently saw a quote in a blog post [2] about street photography that is applicable here:

“Embrace disappointment in your photography. Don’t let disappointment discourage you from creating great work. Rather, let your disappointment be an affirmation that you have great taste in photography – and it shows that you are knowledgeable and capable of creating great work. Because if you see the gap between your work and the work of the masters, you can strive to bridge that gap– and hopefully become great one day too.”

– Eric Kim

That’s enough being pretentious, I need a lie down now…

  1. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3105959/Photography/Downloads/Magnum_Blog_Article_Wear_Good_Shoes_Advice_to_young_photographers.pdf – accessed 13/07/2014
  2. http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/07/01/on-bridging-the-gap-in-street-photography – accessed 13/07/2014


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Documentary: Everybody Street

I subscribe to an excellent podcast called The Candid Frame [1] that features hour-long interviews with photographers, and recently listened to an episode dedicated to photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn, who has directed a fantastic documentary on New York street photography called ‘Everybody Street’ [2]. It inspired me to seek out the film itself, which I’ve just finished watching.

Everybody Street

Everybody Street

It’s made up of interviews with contemporary photographers, plus some old hands from years gone by (including a sprightly 98-year-old, Rebecca Lepkoff, active since the 1940s), mixed in with art historians waxing lyrical about legendary practitioners no longer with us.

It serves to illustrate the extremely broad church that is “street photography”, even in a city like New York where the cliché of the gritty black-and-white street aesthetic was made famous. Yes, there’s a lot of the ‘classic’ (/cliché) street style but looking closer you see much variation and originality:

  • From very broad ‘anything goes’ subject matter – whatever was happening on the street (Joel Meyerowitz, Elliott Erwitt, Jeff Mermelstein)…
  • … to very specific projects (Bruce Davidson and subways; Boogie and gangs; Jill Freedman and cops/firemen; Martha Cooper and graffiti artists)
  • From very serious subject matter (social injustice – Clayton Patterson, Helen Levitt, Jamel Shabazz)…
  • … to very humorous (Erwitt I was already a fan of, but the revelation here was Mermelstein – some really lovely work)
  • From deliberately requested and posed portraits (Patterson, Shabazz, Mary Ellen Mark)…
  • … to the frankly obnoxious in-your-face style of Bruce Gilden

I warmed to some photographers much more than others – just seeing his photos beforehand had made me think that Gilden’s style wasn’t for me, but to see him in practice confirmed my worst suspicions – he really does stick the camera and flash right up in people’s faces without warning. I’m not surprised he gets into altercations now and again – he deserves it! Ricky Powell came across as a bit of a loud character, a bit stereotypical Noo Yawk for my liking, and his portfolio was a bit celebrity-heavy for what is supposed to be a street photography film.

But these are minor gripes for sure. In all, I found it to be an invigorating, educational and insightful film, and one that I’ll watch again.

I thought it might have been too focused on New York the city and therefore not really connect with me, but thankfully I was  wrong – it’s very much about the photographers and their work, with NYC as their canvas. What they all do with it is actually quite different.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in street photography – or even just photography in general. It’s an insight into the minds of an eclectic bunch of photographers. And one of the things about great photographers is that you’re not just admiring the end results of their work – you’re admiring the way they see the world. This film really brought that home to me.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 16/06/2014]
  2. Everybody Street (film): Dir. Cheryl Dunn http://everybodystreet.com [accessed 16/06/2014]

 


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Photographing Strangers, Lessons Learned

Unrelated to the People & Place course, I made a new year’s resolution to complete a photographic challenge known as ‘100 Strangers‘. The idea is self-explanatory and more detail is on the linked page, but the important thing about the challenge is that it is a learning project – to help people develop their photographic and social skills by shooting portraits of strangers – rather than a race to collect 100 faces.

I’m currently way behind my own target to finish it this year so I guess it will continue in 2015. I decided when I started the People Aware section of P&P that I should summarise what I’ve learned so far on the challenge, and had in my head that I’d do that at 10 Strangers, a nice round number. Well, I’m approaching the end of People Aware and stuck on 9, so I’ll have to ignore my OCD tendencies and write about the first 9% of my progress :-/

Part of the challenge is about developing the social skills i.e. the bravery to ask people if you can take their photograph! I’m still developing on that score, and won’t write about it here. Instead I want to concentrate more on the photographic lessons that I have learned so far.

Strangers 1-9

Self-critique

  1. Settings all wrong! ISO too high for the light, focal length too wide, aperture too narrow (f/9) so background not blurred out enough
  2. Background way too messy, I should have moved, or asked her to move slightly
  3. I actually really like this one and find it difficult to come up with what I should have done differently… definitely my favourite so far
  4. Indoors so I really should have used the popup flash… instead I soldiered on with high ISO and tried to keep a steady hand… this was the only salvageable shot and the composition isn’t what I’d have preferred
  5. I liked the light on this, but if I had to change anything it would be (as in 2) the background… could have come up with a backdrop that was either plainer / less distracting or more deliberately attractive
  6. Once again I could have positioned myself or her better re the background; other than that, I wish I’d rattled off a few more shots to give me a greater choice of final image (burst mode!)
  7. Again (familiar refrain) I didn’t check my settings first, and should have opened up the aperture wider to defocus the background more; also, completely wrong lens and focal length choice – too wide, distorted features
  8. I didn’t think one was too bad… my social skills were lacking in this one, as I incorrectly identified him as Australian (he’s from Essex) so my banter was a little awkward after that!
  9. I shot this in midday sunlight, and it didn’t occur to me at the time that I should totally have used fill-in flash!

 Learning summary

The first 8 of the 9 pre-date my People & Place studies, so I hope you’ll forgive my technical blunders. The main takeaways from analysing this lot are:

  • Check exposure settings! ISO and aperture in particular
  • The right lens for the job wherever possible
  • Check the background and recompose when needed
  • Fill-in flash for sunny days

Onwards and upwards to the next 91…!

 


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Exercise: Varying the pose – research

As suggested in the brief for the exercise ‘Varying the pose’, I’ve been looking at magazines to get a feel for the variations of pose that you can see in professional portraits. I quickly accumulated so many examples that I thought it was worth collating some here. This will help me with inspiration not just for this exercise but also for the forthcoming portrait assignment. It’s been something of an eye-opener: I hadn’t realised just how many variations there are on basic poses. I guess part of the skill of a portrait photographer (or a fashion photographer) is to breathe new life into what could be very simple client briefs.

Standing

The main variations here are around what to do with the hands. Most of these don’t use any props in hand so they have to go somewhere. Just letting them hang to the side looks very bland and static. Placing the hands in particular places can give real ‘body language’ signifiers: both hands on hips = defiant; hands in pockets = nonchalant; arms folded = defensive or impatient, etc. The other notable point of difference is the placement of the feet and related to this, the tilt of the hips. There’s a classic flattering pose of standing slightly side-on to the camera, hip first.

Sitting

The real variations here aren’t so much where to place the hands, although this is still a consideration, but what to do with the legs. Together, apart, crossed, raised, extended, tucked under. Again body language becomes evident to a degree, particularly how much the subject is leaning forwards (attentive, needy) versus backwards (relaxed, confident). Crossed legs is an interesting one, especially for men: it seems to try to look relaxed while still being quite defensive (literally).

Other

I actually found lots of examples of leaning – it seems to be a very fashionable pose at the moment. Leaning implies relaxed, and is easy to link with hands-in-pockets to solve the problem of what to do with hands. Walking is also reasonably common, effectively giving a slight variation on standing by incorporating the feeling of movement.

Lots of inspiration now!