People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 3: tutor feedback

I’ve had my tutor’s report on Assignment 3 for about a week and while I’ve absorbed it and decided what to do with the feedback, I’ve only just found time to write this up.

As ever it’s a very thorough report, taking time to comment not only on the assignment but my wider learning log including the exercises in this section. It’s generally positive and encouraging, with a few pointers on where to improve and what to rework before final submission time.

The ‘Overall Comments’ section is reproduced below, after which I will summarise the comments per picture and my response to them.

“An energetic submission and you have practiced and considered the images taken. You are thoughtful and questioning in your journal entries, and you are honest in your initial reflection.

Exploring the assignment with the concept of illustrating stages in your own life is interesting. This gives a sense of the story unfolding and the places you chose begin to reflect this well. Some of the images could have been more sensitive to the ideas and I understand the challenge of this as the idea came after the images were taken.

The prints are clean and sharp.”

The comment on some images suiting the ‘life stages’ idea better than others is bang on – I admitted that the over-arching construct only occurred to me after I’d taken most of the photos and was struggling a little with how they could hang together as a cohesive whole (something that I am particularly interested in when it comes to assignments, for better or worse – I think it’s important that the images work not just individually but as a series that adds up to more than the sum of the parts).

On a practical note, I’m glad the prints came out well as I’ve had comments from both my tutors on my prints before now. I think I’ve finally got the hang of colour calibration to make sure what I see on my monitor matches what ends up on the photo paper. I invested in a decent display calibration tool and that seems to have made the difference.

Comments per set:

1. Promenade du Paillon Fountains – ‘Play’

  • “Your personal caption is fun and the images illustrate the idea. I do wonder if you have made the weakest image the largest? The leaping boy is really energetic and I think with some more careful and sensitive cropping this could be better as it looks a little unbalanced. Consider also the other images seem to be taken from a greater height. Is this you looking back as an adult height or do you hunker down to child eye view? With the strong reflections there are some potentially exciting images here, you have taken simple landscapes of the area. Think about what the children see when they are in this place? They will probably have no notion of the wide vistas as their view would be the water and the most immediate surroundings.”
  • Fair point on the layout – I took a standard approach throughout to make the first and largest image the widest view of the whole space, but with hindsight Sam is right, I should select the best image
  • The crop of the leaping boy image – for most of my prep this was a tighter portrait crop but at the last minute I bottled it as the other 17 images were landscape ratio and I went for full consistency; I will rework this back to the original crop idea and see if the layout works better
  • The comments about the child’s-eye point of view are interesting, and yes maybe I should have taken this more into consideration when shooting; at the time I was shooting as I normally do, full-height, camera to my eye… now I see it could have been more interesting to shoot from low down, from a child’s point of view – luckily I am back in Nice this week and could do some reshoots

2. Giessereihalle – ‘Friends’

  • “Again your caption is very reminiscent, and actually rather sad. This brings the images together and makes them make sense. The big industrial hall is interesting, the point of this time is that it actually didn’t matter what the space was, it was the social group that made it. So the magnificent and striking surrounds become insignificant to the social event. Just look at groups of young people today, some stand around in the most uninspiring places but that doesn’t matter. The space photographed here has lots of potential for bold geometric compositions. (Look at the work by Candida Hofer).”
  • In terms of the ‘life stages’ theme, this was a little more of a stretch than some of the others… if I hadn’t chosen the narrative format, I’d have featured more of the building itself, as the roof structure in particular was magnificent in its industrial design… but once I’d committed to the life stages construct I had to select images that fit the narrative of young people meeting up
  • My favourite of this set is definitely the first one, and that’s the one that most makes sense in the context of Sam’s recommendation of Candida Hofer – I see the genre similarities

3. King’s Cross – ‘Commuting’

  • “The caption is the key again to this set. You have hinted at some very profound ideas here. The image of the man alone in the crowd is the most obvious portrayal of this and I think could be the main image. Also think about the people in that space, all that rushing around and the space having a function but also being nowhere. I wonder if a long exposure with the movement a blur could have been a development?”
  • Again I concur on the choice of main image and will rework the layout
  • I have taken long exposures of the same space since the assignment and may insert one into the set to replace one of the first two images

4. Negresco Royal Lounge – ‘Culture’

  • “This is rather a beautiful space but could also been seen as a simple interpretation of the idea. I think it is very valid to consider that a time comes when you start to think about the rushing around and striving and what it means, it also has to do with mortality issues which leads us further into ideas about memory and celebration of understanding creative legacies. I like the detail image here. The main image is pleasing and has an interesting composition. The other interior architectural image looks rather cramped and either needs to be closer in or further out or more visually challenging.”
  • I agree on the second image looking cramped, and as per the leaping boy image from set 1, I had tried a portrait crop before settling on this framing – I will rework along the lines of Sam’s recommendation

5. Coach Restoration Workshop – ‘Labour of Love’

  • “This set of images works best in an image sense but is a little less successful with your caption. Maybe this is because you are imaging the future? This is a good selection of images what explores the space, the image you chose to print is interesting and the man framed in the curve of (whatever it is) works well. The intense concentration is really evident here.”
  • Yes, I see what she means about the caption, it does come across as a little tenuous and disconnected compared to the others; I think the concept makes sense (to me anyway!) and maybe I need to come up with a better caption to link my idea and the images better

6. Quaker Garden – ‘Tranquility’

  • “A nice idea or dream! I wonder if this could have been an occasion to interpret the images of you actually now stopping and looking at the world more because all the other ‘stages’ have been about very immediate or almost internal explorations. You suggest this is a time to sit and really look at the world and reflect on what has been? This would change your compositions and maybe also your angle of view, think of the space. (You have actually explored some of these ideas in your text, that knowledge needs to be used for your visual exploration too)”
  • I must confess, I’m still digesting the comments on this… I think I know what Sam’s suggesting but I’m not wholly sure how to rework or reshoot to get the message across… I’m still thinking about it – I reckon the key to it might be to actually sit up there for an hour in quiet contemplation (but unfortunately I’m out of the country for a week…)

Recommendations

Sam has suggested I take a look at the work of some photographers that might inform my thinking on this kind of work:

“Look at the work by Andreas Gursky for your next assignment, this work gives another scale and measured observation, which is fascinating to see.

Duane Michals, Arnold Newman, Matta Clarke, Hannah Starkey also have challenging images on people and place.

Annette Kuhn and Rosy Martin write about memory and the family album.

Read theory text by Liz Wells to explore some of the ideas you presented, ie memory/ space/ function/ buildings.”

I’m familiar with some but not all of these, so will take time this week to research them all. I confess that I started reading Wells but found it quite hard-going so put it to one side!. Maybe it’s time to try it again.

In all, I’m pleased with the feedback – it points me in directions of thinking and working that can improve my photography. I’m definitely starting to think about the possibilities of photography as a visual language – for storytelling, for communication generally – over and above the purely aesthetic. It’s exciting and scary in equal part…


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Assignment 3: A Life in Places

Brief:

Choose five or six buildings and for each produce between two and four images that describe effectively and attractively the way in which these spaces are used. You can choose to include people in the images, or not. For each building, it is important that you conduct some research beforehand, either archival or personal (or both), so that you have:

  • a good understanding of how and why it was designed in the way it is
  • an opinion on its effectiveness as a usable space

Write a short statement in your learning log demonstrating your understanding of the function of each building, the way in which it was designed to achieve that, and how well you believe it succeeds. In addition, describe briefly how you initially set about showing the important features of each building photographically, and what you learned during the course of shooting the assignment.

Submissions:

UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENTtutor report and my response are now available to view.

Larger images and a contact sheet are available as a downloadable zip file.

The images are viewable individually in full-screen slideshow format below – click a photo to start each slideshow.

Approach

I’m keen to explore the narrative potential of photography and have presented this set of photos in the form of a series of places that reflect different stages of my life. Each of the locations chosen depicts something that was / is / may be in some way important to me at different ages – fragments of a life, adding up to a loose storyline. In this way, there is an over-arching narrative that ties together what would otherwise be a disparate set of pictures.

This storytelling construct extends to the location choices, the sequencing and the captioning; for each location I do of course also address the specific points highlighted in the brief.

1. Promenade du Paillon Fountains – ‘Play’

“What I remember most about childhood is the fun times like this, just messing about and being silly with a load of other kids. I remember the summer holidays more than the school days. The sun was always shining. I had so much energy then!”

2. Giessereihalle – ‘Friends’

When I was in my teens and my twenties it was all about friends – from school, then from university, through to workmates. Meeting up, hanging out in ‘cool’ places, checking everyone out. Until we started settling down and the gang dispersed.”

3. King’s Cross – ‘Commuting’

“By my thirties work had kind of taken over. I worked away a lot, usually in London, for different clients. My abiding memory is not of a workplace but of constantly being in transit. It’s surprising how lonely you can feel surrounded by people.”

4. Negresco Royal Lounge – ‘Culture’

“In my forties I realised that there’s more to life! I stopped watching so much TV and started seeking out more cultural experiences, developing an interest in the visual arts – which in turn sparked my fascination with photography.”

5. Coach Restoration Workshop – ‘Labour of Love’

“I look ahead to my fifties and beyond and hope that I’ll be able to enjoy an early retirement with my wife. I see myself keeping busy with something that I’m really passionate about. For me it’s more likely to be taking photos than restoring old steam train carriages, but I hope I get as much satisfaction out of my later years as these chaps clearly do”

6. Quaker Garden – ‘Tranquility’

“At the tail-end of my life I’d like nothing better than to just sit quietly with Ann in a peaceful space like this, thinking back to all the people and places that have been important to us throughout our lives.”

Research and analysis

1. Promenade du Paillon Fountains – ‘Play’

About the place

The “Promenade du Paillon’ is a relatively new public space (opened October 2013) in Nice, France. The centrepiece is a 3000 sq.m open fountain with a series of ‘dancing jets’ of water that rhythmically pump columns of water into the air, interspersed with a fine spray that gives a plateau of mist across its surface. The whole space is built on top of an underground section of the River Paillon, and uses the river as its water source.

Design and use

The design ethos was to ‘bring the river back to the city’ – when the fountain is at rest, there is a 2cm basin of water that acts as an enormous mirror, reflecting the surrounding landscape. On a sunny day the fountain is filled with children playing, happily getting soaked and cooling down in the jets and the mist – and this is wholly intentional. The committee behind the development wanted the space to be highly interactive as well as a fantastic visual spectacle. Nice is a city of many fountains, but this is the only one designed to be played in. In my opinion it’s a huge success, as just watching the children (and sillier adults) running around getting wet is so joyful, it takes me back to my own childhood.

Photographic considerations

In terms of capturing it photographically, as in all of these spaces I started with a wide view. In particular for this space, I wanted to capture both the grand scale and the reflections, hence the deliberately symmetrical composition. In the remaining two shots I concentrated on showing it in use – in groups and individually – and the particular water features: the mist and the jets. And yes, the leaping boy shot is a deliberate nod to Cartier-Bresson!

2. Giessereihalle – ‘Friends’

About the place

Built in Zurich in 1898 as an iron foundry, the Giessereihalle closed down in 1975 and spent 30-odd years as a warehouse before being opened to the public, reinvented as a meeting, dining, leisure and retail space. The ‘refurbishment’ was minimal in that they decided to keep as much of the original fabric of the building, so it has a real ‘industrial’ feel to the space – rusted cranes, weighing equipment, chains and girders everywhere. The ‘hip’ industrial design juxtaposes knowingly with the surrounding tech industry buildings – most of its customers are young tech sector workers.

Design and use

It’s positioned right in Technopark, Zurich’s business zone, and it’s a popular spot for lunch and after-work socialising. The layout is: bars/cafes round the perimeter; tables and chairs in small groups in the centre; other businesses (including a gym) on the first floor balcony. The scale of the place – over 1500 sq.m and 12m high – lend it an airy, almost outdoor feel, helped by the glass panels in the roof that allow light to fall in stripes and patches on the interior.

In terms of whether it’s successful: design-wise it’s ‘hipster’ enough for this market. In terms of the right kind of ambience, I think it’s more successful when it has a decent-sized crowd in it; on a lunchtime or early weekday evening (when I shot) it can be a bit too vast and empty – it needs a critical mass of people in it to deliver on what it’s designed for. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to shoot on a weekend when it would have been busier – after shooting I belatedly spotted a sign saying No Photography!

Photographic considerations

I had three main visual objectives on this one: first, to get over the scale of the place; second, to show off the juxtaposition of the people and the industrial features; and third, to use the light coming in through the roof panels to good effect, e.g. to highlight the people. With this location in particular I needed to do a little distortion correction in post-processing, as the very strong horizontals and verticals in the architecture really accentuated any slight distortions in camera.

3. King’s Cross – ‘Commuting’

About the place

The western concourse at London King’s Cross station was completely renovated up to a 2012 reopening when it was separated off from the main platform hall to create an airport-style ‘departures area’. Its most impressive and iconic feature is the sweeping mesh-like structure that grows out from the ground, tree-like, and spreads up and out to form the roof. However, beyond this impressive centrepiece it becomes apparent that a huge amount of thought and design has gone into how the totality of the space is used, and how best to organise it into ‘zones’ that keep the different activities reasonably well separated.

Design and use

The ground floor of the concourse is subtly divided into three areas: looking down as in the first image: at the top, the entrance and the departure boards and gates: if you just need to run straight in and get onto your platform, you can; in the middle zone, and still closely related to the core function of the place, the ticket offices and information kiosks; then at the bottom end of the concourse (and mostly out of shot), waiting areas, shops, takeaway kiosks and a very busy Harry Potter attraction – for those that have a few more minutes to amuse themselves. Around the perimeter on the first floor are a number of sit-down cafes, for those with a longer wait. It’s really extremely well thought through. No matter how busy it’s been, however many trains have been delayed or cancelled, the overall space doesn’t feel cramped – it’s a very efficient design.

Photographic considerations

I had to steer clear of the temptation to just shoot the roof structure, as it’s very photogenic but doesn’t tell the whole story of the space. Again I started with a wide shot to show the scale. For the second shot I was aiming to highlight the busy-ness of the place, with lots of people moving back and forth, so this needed to be taken at eye-level – I wanted to give the viewer a feeling of being in the crowd. The particular point I wanted to get across in the third shot is the loneliness of the traveller, while the world rushes around him. This is how I often feel when travelling! As well-designed as the space is, I find train stations and airports in particular to have an ‘unsettled’ undercurrent to them, a ‘neither-here-nor-there’ sensation.

4. Negresco Royal Lounge – ‘Culture’

About the place

The Hotel Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice was opened in 1913, designed by a popular architect of the age, Edouard-Jean Niermans. The centrepiece of the hotel is the Royal Lounge, an impressive circular ‘grande salle’ originally designed for hosting society balls. The 16,000-crystal chandelier in the domed ceiling was originally commissioned by Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Now the Royal Lounge doesn’t host society balls so has been reinvented as a spectacular art gallery, a showcase for some of the owner’s huge collection of classical and contemporary art. One of the most impressive works is the big yellow ‘Nana’ sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle – it pirouettes on a rotating base and so subtly reminds you of the original purpose of the lounge as a ballroom.

Design and use

In its contemporary form it has two main uses: it is effectively a fantastically impressive art gallery that just happens to be in a hotel; and as a secondary consideration it’s a meeting place and somewhere to take tea and chat with family and friends, if you happen to be lucky or rich enough to be a hotel guest – dotted around the perimeter are colour-coded arrangements of rugs, tables and chairs for this purpose. As to whether it’s successful: for the primary use: absolutely, it’s a place that we (and many other people) visit often just to appreciate the artworks, as our interest in the visual arts deepens over the years. As to its secondary use: not so much; we hardly ever see people using the chairs for their intended purpose – maybe they just look too much like exhibits and to use them would spoil the aesthetic of the place!

Photographic considerations

Again the first shot is the wide angle to show scale and set context. As I see the space primarily as an art showcase I wanted to pick out a couple of example works, first the ‘Nana’ sculpture, in a wider context that also showed off the chandelier and the glass roof, and secondly a smaller-scale work that to me signified my interest in art, especially photography: the gaze and the reflected reality. Whilst I did take some shots with visitors viewing the artworks, I decided not to actually depict people doing so, rather to put the viewer in the position of looking at the art themselves.

5. Coach Restoration Workshop – ‘Labour of Love’

About the place

The Atkins Building was purpose-built in 2008 at Pickering steam railway station as a workshop for the restoration of old train carriages and wagons for use on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, and it’s named after its major benefactor, John Atkins. Here a handful of rail enthusiasts with specialist skills and knowledge painstakingly bring decades-old carriages and coaches in various states of disrepair back to their former glory. The carriage seen here is nearing the end of a 10-year restoration project.

Design and use

The restoration engineers had a big say in designing the workshop. The important factors in the design were: the specific dimensions – it needs to be able to house two standard-sized restoration projects simultaneously; the amount of space available around the carriages for various workbenches and equipment; and the light to work by, a mix of the translucent roof panels and the strategically-placed large doors that open to the full height of the workshop.

An important additional design factor was that the space was designed from the start to be visitor-friendly – the railway is very keen to get people understanding, and interested in, all the restoration work that goes into keeping the railway running. So whilst it is a working space first and foremost, it had to take into consideration that members of the public would be wandering around in small groups while the work was carried out. The workshop crew love to stop and talk to visitors, they’re incredibly proud of their work.

In terms of whether it’s successful as a working space, according to the chaps I spoke to, yes it absolutely is; it does exactly what they need. From a point of few of it being a pseudo-visitor attraction – yes, it’s kept pretty clean and tidy and hazard-free and has enough space that you can watch the restorations being done without unnecessarily disrupting the work.

Photographic considerations

It was challenging to depict the space as it’s dominated by the huge coaches themselves, and there was no question of asking if they could be moved out of the way! I aimed to use leading lines and perspective to draw the eye down the length of the workshop, to give the sense of size and how the space is being used. I particularly wanted to include shots of people, as it’s not so much the space itself that I found interesting, more the fact that it provides an outlet for the diligent and painstaking craftsmanship of the workers. It’s a subtle blend of engineering and art – the workshop is their studio, the carriages their canvas. For this reason, in the third image here I framed the engineer through the window of one of his own ‘creations’, which I thought was appropriate.

6. Quaker Garden – ‘Tranquility’

About the place

There’s been a Quaker Meeting House in Pickering since 1793, as the area has links with the famous Rowntree family (of York chocolate-maker fame). Like many Quaker houses it has a garden attached that is for the use of anyone, not just members, who seek a little peace and quiet. It’s accessible off one of the streets up by Pickering Castle but manages to be very quiet and secluded, just far enough from the road and shaded with enough trees that it’s a real haven of tranquility.

Design and use

The garden is so subtly ‘designed’ that it’s tempting to think it’s just accidental how well it suits its purpose, but I suspect that the owners just instinctively knew what was going to make the place successful, or maybe it evolved over the years. Its design supports the concept of tranquillity and solitary thought. It has four benches all strategically placed such that none faces any of the others – so even if you were sharing the garden with other people, you could still enjoy a bit of alone time.

There are no tables or picnic bench-style seating that would encourage much face-to-face interaction; it seems to be made for individuals or maybe couples to sit quietly and reflect. The trees make for a good sound barrier to the town below, and the elevated position on the hill up to the castle gives some magnificent views. From a personal point of view I believe it’s very successful at its purpose; I only discovered it fairly recently, but I like to wander up with the dog and just sit peacefully pondering things.

Photographic considerations

As per the others, I felt it best to start with a wide shot to show scale and context. The other shots were trickier: the only real features in the garden are the benches, so I had to think of a couple of different ways of depicting them. In the third shot in particular I felt that the shallow depth of field helped to isolate the bench to make the surrounding area melt into the background, to reflect how my mind ‘softens’ and tunes out the outside world when I’m in the zone.

Self-evaluation:

I approached this with some trepidation; photographing buildings but focusing on their use rather than their architecture is a new experience for me. The lack of content and exercises in this section meant that I had to do more of my own thinking than for previous assignments (not a bad thing).

I felt a lot happier about it once I decided to structure the whole thing around an overarching theme. Whether this theme is successful with the viewer remains to be seen, but for the simple purpose of unlocking my ‘photographer’s block’ I consider it a success.

The assignment surfaced a few recurring challenges:

  • Shooting in public: I often thought about the ethics of photographing people without consent; in particular I need to be mindful of national differences, be they legal or purely cultural – I included two locations in France and one in Switzerland, and the latter in particular has a lower tolerance for public photography, I discovered
  • Timing: as with the last assignment, I found that for the shots with ‘unposed’ people in, it’s a combination of luck and timing to get the subjects to be in the right place in the frame and appropriately depicting the message I intend to get across – this issue was exacerbated by my brave/foolhardy decision to shoot half of the locations out of the country and so giving myself little or no opportunity for reshoots
  • Distortion: shooting buildings with very strong horizontals and verticals in their architecture meant that small distortions in camera were very noticeable; so I am now much more familiar with Lightroom’s correction tools!

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Technically I believe the images are good, once I had mastered the art of correcting some distortion as noted above
    • I mostly used a combination of wide angle lenses (18 mm / 27 mm EFL) for the opening ‘scale’ shots, and more standard focal length lenses (23 mm / 35 mm EFL and 35 mm / 52 mm EFL) for the shots where I wanted the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of a user
    • For the first four locations in particular I wanted quite a vivid colour palette, as I think this suited the subjects; for this reason I shot in Fujifilm’s ‘Velvia’ film simulation mode as this renders rich colours really well
    • For the latter two I used slightly more muted/natural colour tones to reflect the calmer, slower, ‘older’ nature of the subjects
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • Whilst overall I am reasonably happy with the quality of the outcome, a small (perfectionist) part of me would like to go back and redo chunks of it!
    • The reason I say this is that I only really worked out how the whole series of images could hang together in a coherent way (something that is very important to me, for better or worse) after I had done virtually all of the principal photography… and so to work within the construct of the ‘invented narrative’ I had to – for the most part – select from images that I’d already taken
    • I believe that the series works much better in the context of the ‘life stages’ narrative arc than simply as a set of standalone images; I think this is one of the instances where the context (specifically, the captions) add a layer of meaning that elevates the images somewhat
    • In terms of meeting the main aspects of the brief, I’m satisfied that my analysis in each case does this effectively
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • I did a lot of soul-searching on this point actually – because I got the results of my Art of Photography assessment whilst working on this assignment, and the lowest mark and most affecting feedback was on my level of creativity and experimentation
    • I don’t think I’ve been particularly creative in a pure photographic sense with this assignment; I accept that I need to work on this going forward
    • I do think that in applying a narrative arc to the disparate set of subjects, I have applied a certain amount of creativity in a storytelling sense, if not an aesthetic one
  • Context:
    • As with the other assignments I looked for inspiration from other photographers, although in this instance I found a lot less material than I did for portraiture and street photography – the vast majority of photography I found on the subject of buildings and places were either predominantly architectural in nature, or around very vague outside spaces (streets, parks etc) rather than the more specifically ‘designed’ locations that this section is really about. Finding photography more particularly centred around how people use buildings and spaces was a little more challenging
    • The best and most inspiring source I found – and one that really ‘kick-started’ my thinking – was a box-set of booklets called ‘Foto/Industria‘ [1] that was published to accompany a series of 17 exhibitions in Bologna, Italy in 2013, all themed around business and industrial photography… this really opened my eyes to the possibilities of photographing places for the express purpose of illustrating their use. In the actual assignment I only chose one workplace, the workshop, and one former workplace, the converted iron foundry, but I found the set of booklets to be sufficiently inspiring on the wider subject of photographing places to get me going on the assignment
    • If I’m honest, I found the experiences and outputs of other OCA students to be mostly lacking and uninspiring for this particular assignment – very few submissions really inspired me or set standards that I wished to meet

To summarise: I found this a very difficult assignment to get started on, but I’m ultimately pretty pleased with the end result. I do wish I’d had the idea for the overall narrative arc earlier, as I might have taken different shots for some of the locations. However, in the interests of progress over perfection, I am considering this assignment done – pending my tutor’s comments of course.

  1. Various (2013) Foto/industria. Bologna: Contrasto


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Assignment 2: Railway Volunteers

Brief:

The object of this assignment is to plan and execute a set of images of people in some form of meaningful activity. This could be work, sport, a stage performance (music, drama), or at a social event. You should produce a set of approximately 10 final, selected images, and you can choose between depicting the same person (or small group) at different kinds of activity, or different people at the same single activity or event.

Concentrate especially on two aspects: on telling moments, and on ‘explaining’ the activity (which means choosing viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible).

In your learning log:

  • Critically assess your finished work. Consider each piece individually
  • Identify what has worked well and what has been less successful and analyse the reasons for this

Submissions:

UPDATE FOR ASSESSMENTtutor report and my response are now available to view.

Larger images and contact sheet are available as a downloadable zip file.

The images are viewable individually in slideshow format below – click a thumbnail to start the slideshow.

I chose as my theme the volunteers changing over the steam trains at Pickering railway station terminus. The staff on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway line are predominately part-time volunteers, so it was an interesting opportunity to observe people working at a job that is also their hobby.

I’ll briefly explain my overall approach, then I’ll comment on each image individually, including a quick critique.

Approach

I worked out the step-by-step process that the train and station crew followed each time a train came in. However, in selecting the final images, I didn’t slavishly follow the whole process and have a picture for each step – partly because this isn’t an instructional manual, and partly because I felt that the series should be about the people and not the trains or the station. So I selected the images that I felt best depicted the volunteer staff as individuals and teams, engaging in the key activities of their job/hobby.

The images are from a few different shooting sessions. As well as being of practical help (to get the variety of images needed), this gave me a wider set of faces to work with – as the railway has a large set of part-time volunteers and you rarely see the same team week to week. I decided that as this isn’t photo-journalism that a set of images collated over a period of time would be acceptable. The end result is that each image features different people. While there’s a wide variety of ages, it’s notable that the volunteers I saw were all male!

1. Driver coming in

I got several shots of the train arriving but most featured the train itself too prominently and didn’t catch the driver’s face. This is a slight cheat as this was taken just after the train had come to a stop, and I got a chance to zoom in on the driver’s face. I noticed that the driver’s face is often glowing red as they arrive, having been in front of a steamy furnace for over an hour!

1. Driver coming in

1. Driver coming in

It was this photo that inspired me to do the series in colour, after initially planning it all in black and white. Aside from the colours, what attracted me to this in the edit was the framing by the window, and the calm expression on the driver’s face, seemingly deep in concentration on some important gauge or other.

2. Driver

This chap isn’t doing anything particularly interesting apart from walking down the platform but I confess I included it simply because I liked his face – he exudes character. He reminds me of George Formby!

2. Driver

2. Driver

While I like the expression I caught here, the image isn’t technically very good if you look closely. The lighting behind made it difficult to get a very clear shot of his face (and I didn’t think fill-in flash was appropriate), and there’s a little too much noise in the face. This is one where a b/w conversion may have suited it better.

3. Decoupling the engine

The next key step is the decoupling of the engine from the first carriage, where a crew member squeezes between the two. It’s quite difficult to capture this successfully as the specific decoupling action is hidden behind the person doing it, so getting a viewpoint on the hands themselves proved too difficult. Once I’d accepted that focusing on the hands wasn’t an option, I instead looked for shots where I caught the face of the volunteer.

3. Decoupling the engine

3. Decoupling the engine

In this I believe I successfully caught the subject at the right moment for a good capture. I’m pleased with the geometry of this one, with the perspective and the strong diagonal emphasising the cramped space. Again I felt that the strong colour was a good reason to present the set in colour not b/w.

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

Down by the tracks at each end of the platform are old-fashioned telephones that the crews use to communicate during the changeover. I managed to catch this very ‘Dad’s Army’-looking volunteer on the line to his colleagues.

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

4. Phoning the other end of the platform

I think two aspects of this make this a good shot: the stance/expression of the subject, and the composition that places him in the context of the huge engine behind. On the downside, the highlights are a bit harsh, despite a little post-processing to tame them.

5. Filling the water tank

Once decoupled, the engine moves past the carriages, down to the other end of the platform. As the engines run on steam, they need to fill up with water from a giant pump.

5. Filling the water tank

5. Filling the water tank

Once again the strong colours appealed to me, in particular the contrast between the very traditional deep green of the engine and the vibrant orange of the more modern hi-visibility vests. I took lots of shots of this sequence but this one stood out from a graphical point of view as the man top left is framed rather nicely by the bend in the pump; also there’s an implied triangle between the men and the reflection. Where this shot could have been improved a little was in the lighting; it was taken down the end of the platform that isn’t covered by the station roof and the sunlight makes the sky look a little washed out.

6. Checking the engine

I often observed the train crew get out of the cab and take a look at the engine itself. In this instance the driver was joined by a member of the platform staff, as evidenced by suit jacket and shirt under the safety vest.

6. Checking the engine

6. Checking the engine

This was the one shot where I used shallow depth of field to focus on one person, made possible as I was shooting down the length of the platform. The lighting on the central character is reasonably good, it brings out his features. In terms of storytelling, the image somehow conjures up a sense of ‘us and them’ rivalry – I like to imagine that the driver is giving the station chap a withering look for commenting on the engine.

7. Train crew waiting

There’s a little more waiting before the engine gets re-coupled to the other end of the carriage set. Some of the engine crews looked very jolly, some very serious. This is one of the more serious-looking groups.

7. Train crew waiting

7. Train crew waiting

For me what makes this work is the positioning of the main main, framed by his engine, leaning confidently in what he evidently considers his domain – his stance is a mixture of proud and territorial. The man on the left looking over at him reinforces his ‘top dog’ status.

8. Waving the engine back in

Now it’s time to bring the engine back to the far end of the train, so it’s pointing in the right direction to go back out again.

8. Waving the engine back in

8. Waving the engine back in

On the plus side, I caught the exact moment of the guard guiding the engine to a halt. However, the background is a lot messier than I’d like. Unfortunately I’m rarely the only spectator on the platform.

9. Recoupling the engine

The engine is now moved to meet the other end of the carriages it had passed a few minutes ago, and the recoupling takes place. In a still photo this would look in effect identical to the de-coupling, so I had to take a different angle (metaphorically and literally). So I chose to use this young chap climbing back out from under the train.

9. Recoupling the engine

9. Recoupling the engine

What I think I captured well here is the look of concentration on the face of the crew member, who is clearly intent on doing the job properly – he was one of the younger volunteers I observed. From a graphical point of view the colours work well for me, again vindicating the choice of an overall colour aesthetic. There is a strong diagonal element to the image that helps give an impression of movement.

10. Train guards ready to go

We’re nearing the end of the process now and the passengers will have filed onto the train to take their seats. Here we see the ticket inspector about to board, just taking a look down the platform to see whether any stragglers are still boarding.

10. Train guards ready to go

10. Train guards ready to go

The lighting generally, and in particular the edge lighting around the hair of the main subject, is the reason that this image stood out for me. In comparison to the more vibrant colours of the engines, here are the warmer, more autumnal wood tones of the carriages themselves.

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

This was one of the few shots that I had pre-visualised at the planning stage. It’s very much a key moment in the process and one that I thought lent itself to being captured. I took several shots at various times with different guards and from different viewpoints before I caught a shot I was happy with.

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

11. Station guard blowing his whistle

Like some of the others, the lighting was slightly harsh, which provided a challenge with highlights. The other thing that would have improved this would have been a shallower depth of field, to throw the background out a bit softer and bring more emphasis on the subject. However, from a composition point of view I think this works best of all the options I had – framed between the bridge arch and the train, and with his hand exactly in line with the platform 1 sign.

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

Another shot that I had pre-visualised before starting; the train guard always hangs his head out of the last carriage window as the train sets off. As it sets off rather slowly, I found it relatively easy to focus on the face in the window of the moving carriage and wait for a good expression. I got several variants of this shot with a number of different guards, but this chap was by far the jolliest. He also reminds me somewhat of my brother (although he won’t thank me for saying that…).

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

12. Train guard smiling as train leaves

Obviously the lighting to the left is too bright, despite me reducing the highlights. Also, the face is a little soft close-up, so evidently my focusing wasn’t spot-on. But I think the expression of the guard makes this the most successful of the options I had to choose from.

Self-evaluation:

I enjoyed this more than the portrait assignment. I very much liked capturing people unposed, although in many ways it brought its own challenges.

The assignment surfaced a few recurring issues / improvement areas:

  • Freezing the moment: without the ability to direct your subjects, there is an element of luck in capturing the right expressions and gestures to help tell your story – although it became apparent to me that you can increase your ‘luck’ through preparation and patience
  • Lighting: this is specific to the nature of the station architecture – open to bright sunlight at either end but shaded by a roof structure for most of its length – which led to some interesting challenges with lighting and exposure that I had to try to alleviate in post-processing
  • Messy backgrounds: very often I got what I thought was a good photo of the main subject, but on closer inspection the background had some very distracting elements in; in some cases if the main subject was strong enough I kept these anyway, in others they were too distracting and weren’t used – but I need to be more aware of this at the time of shooting

Assessment criteria

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • I am generally happy with the technical execution with the exception of the general lighting challenges noted above
    • I used a variety of focal lengths for the full set of images shot, but noted that the final selection is predominantly in a ‘standard’ focal length of approx 35-50 mm EFL, giving a ‘normal’ view on the subjects, not overly wide or telephoto
    • As in the previous assignment I made the decision to switch from an initial proposal to shoot all in b/w to go instead for the consistency of a colour aesthetic
    • In doing so I paid attention to the colours in each image, in particular the reds, greens, blues and oranges that typify the environment and the uniforms
    • I put some thought into pre-visualisation for a few specific shots (3, 8, 11, 12) as noted in the planning post, but for the most part this was an exercise in shooting what I found interesting and curating it after the event
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am happy with the quality of the outcome, both in terms of individual images chosen, and the collated set as a cohesive whole
    • In believe that in terms of communicating the idea I wanted to get across – of an eclectic set of volunteers giving up their time for something they are passionate about – the series is reasonably successful (although wish I’d been able to capture more of them smiling)
    • In my opinion the set meets the brief, as it does feature images with telling moments (3, 4, 8, 11) and it does, when taken as a whole, visually explain the overall activity
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • Where possible I did endeavour to be creative with composition, viewpoint and colour combinations, but in general I confess that it is quite a ‘traditional’ set of images without a high degree of experimentation – in my defence I do believe that this suits the subject matter
    • In terms of development of a personal voice, this feels much more like an extension of what I’ve already liked to shoot than the portrait assignment did – I like shooting in public, I like looking for strong geometric compositions, and I have discovered I particularly like taking pictures of people who are doing something they are passionate about – so this assignment feels like a key learning experience as part of my evolving style
  • Context:
    • Although I haven’t yet written up my reviews/thoughts, I have in this section of the course immersed myself in the work of key names in candid people photography – in particular I’ve revisited and found new depths in books and exhibition notes from my Art of Photography studies: Martin Parr [1], Tony Ray-Jones, Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier [2], Humphrey Spender, Robert Frank [3], Lisette Model [4] and Henri Cartier-Bresson [5]
    • In addition I’ve discovered some other photographers whose work I really love, some old hands that I should probably know by now – I’ve acquired books of W. Eugene Smith’s [6], Elliott Erwitt’s [7] and Lee Friedlander’s [8] works – and some newer names – I’m impressed with the work of a chap called Craig Semetko [9] in particular
    • There’s a great book called Street Photography Now [10] that serves as a reminder of the variety and richness of candid urban photography – before I got this I saw ‘street photography’ as predominantly b/w New York shots, but this book opened my eyes to a whole variety of styles
    • I’ve been reading and getting a lot out of Context and Narrative [11] by Maria Short – it’s full of interesting insights, although not all of direct application to this assignment
    • I read a couple of e-books on street photography specifically: James Maher’s ‘The Essentials of Street Photography’ [12] and Anne Darling’s ‘Street Photography: A Concise Guide’ [13] — the former was more useful, as it also featured interviews with photographers
    • I found the experiences and outputs of other OCA students to be useful in helping me to tackle the challenge, and to inspire me

To summarise: I’ve hugely enjoyed this section of the course, and this assignment in particular. I’ve found it very enriching to dedicate myself to a subject like this and in particular to focus on the people aspect of it; I much prefer candid to posed portraits. I’m very much looking forward to getting my tutor’s comments.

  1. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
  2. Maier, V and Maloof, J. (2011) Street photographer. New York: Powerhouse
  3. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  4. Sussman, E. (2001) Lisette Model. Paris: Phaidon
  5. Cartier-Bresson, H (2006) Scrapbook. Paris: Thames & Hudson
  6. Stephenson, S. (2001) W. Eugene Smith. Paris: Phaidon
  7. Erwitt, E. (2003) Snaps. London: Phaidon
  8. Galassi, P. (2008) Friedlander. New York: MOMA
  9. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues
  10. Howarth, S & McLaren, S. (2011) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  11. Short, M. (2011) Context and narrative. Lausanne: AVA
  12. Maher, J. (2012) The essentials of street photography. Amazon
  13. Darling, A. (2014) Street photography: a concise guide. Amazon