People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

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People unaware: photographers roundup

Before starting on People & Place, my first OCA photography course was Art of Photography. During my time on that course I looked at a number of photographers whose work I admired, mainly in the form of exhibition and book reviews. I’ve been looking back on my notes and blog posts from the time and revisiting some of the work in the context of my ongoing People & Place learning, as it became apparent that a lot of the photographers I’d admired over the last year or so are relevant to this section of the course. So here I’ve noted what I’ve picked up from some of them by revisiting them in context of this course.

Vivian Maier

The unique aspect of Maier’s body of work is of course that it lay undiscovered until after her death. Never seen, her work remained un-critiqued in her lifetime and so whatever changes are evident in her style and subject matter is down to her own decisions. Although she dabbled in posed portraits and people-less urban photography, the majority of her released work is classic candid street photography.

One very practical lesson I took from Maier was the way she shot (down to her choice of equipment)… she used a Rollei twin-lens reflex camera, chest-mounted and with a top-down viewing screen. This allowed her to shoot relatively unnoticed, as she wasn’t lifting a camera to her eye. The 21st century equivalent is the digital camera with an articulated screen – which is exactly what I used to get the vast majority of images on People Unaware. Coupled with a remote shutter release, it allowed me to compose on the screen and shoot without drawing attention to myself.

Tony Ray-Jones

I came across Ray-Jones for the first time as part of the double-header ‘Only in England’ exhibition with Martin Parr at the Media Space in London, featuring images from his ‘A Day Off’ series based on the English at leisure, mostly at seaside resorts (so a spiritual predecessor to Parr’s The Last Resort!).

What I like about Ray-Jones’ work is its humour; he was great at picking out quirky details and catching facial expressions. He was also gifted in composition, not easy in candid photography, getting the right elements in the frame to tell a self-contained narrative. While I couldn’t emulate this in my assignment, one thing I did take on board was to choose as subjects people doing something enjoyable – much ‘classic’ street photography often focuses on sadder, seedier (or maybe just neutral/non-emotive) moments, and what I saw in Ray-Jones’ work was a warmth and an empathy that came across well in the pictures. He’s testament to a theory that I really subscribe to, that you make a connection with some photographers because you appreciate the way they see the world – the pictures themselves are merely the physical evidence of what you like about them.

Martin Parr

The early Parr work that I saw as part of the above double-bill wasn’t in his signature style; it was more Ray-Jones influenced in its aesthetic and approach. What I’m talking about here is the more recognisable Parr style, in particular his seminal ‘The Last Resort’ project. He opened up a whole world of public photography – not really street photography, that name doesn’t seem to fit – by choosing garish colour over moody black and white, and working-class seaside resorts over mean city streets.

I wouldn’t want to emulate his way of working – for a start I’m much too unassuming to shoot with flash in daylight – but one thing I did take from Parr is that colour can work just as well for people unaware photography as black-and-white. In the assignment I started thinking that the subject matter lent itself well to black-and-white, but on seeing the contact sheets from the first couple of shoots, totally switched that round. The colours on display seemed to me to be an important part of capturing the images.

I guess a similar inspiration on the use of colour was my appreciation for the work of Saul Leiter.


I’ve looked again at the work of number of other photographers in the last couple of months, and without identifying such specific points of inspiration as noted above, what I have been doing is looking at their work with a slightly different eye, if that makes sense. I’ve been mentally putting myself in their shoes and behind their viewfinders… looking at the resultant pictures and thinking: what attracted them to this image? what was going through their mind? why did they choose this moment? what’s the message/story…?

The names that spring to mind here are Robert Frank, Humphrey Spender (of the Mass Observation project), W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson.

One of the pleasant surprises about studying photography is how you can go back to pictures you’ve seen before and enjoy them anew, seeing different aspects and finding new depths. I’ve certainly felt this during the last couple of months on People Unaware.