People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

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Photographer: Craig Semetko

I discovered Craig Semetko through an interview on my favourite photography podcast ‘The Candid Frame’ [1]. An audio podcast might seem a strange way to discover new photographers, as you spend about an hour listening to them talking about their work before you see any of their pictures! But actually in many cases (this one included) my reaction on listening was a good indication of whether I liked the photographer’s work. He came across as very likeable, affable, humble, curious and very interested in people and in the world around him. One particular aspect of his story that resonated with me was that he picked up photography quite late in life – late 30s / early 40s I think – after a successful career as a writer and comedian. An inspiration to all us late starters!


Most of my knowledge of his work is through his debut collection ‘Unposed’ [1], shot between 2000 and 2010. As the title suggests, his milieu is very much street photography. He quotes his biggest inspirations as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt – and he even got the stamp of approval from Erwitt who wrote the introduction to Unposed.

In his style and subject matter he is closest to Erwitt by far. He shares a sense of humour and an ability to spot the absurdities of life unfolding in front of his camera. And as Elliott Erwitt is most likely my favourite photographer, I was hoping very much that I’d like Semetko’s work as well.

There is a danger of dismissing Semetko as derivative, kind of an Erwitt tribute act. But he has enough of his own ‘eye’ that this isn’t the case. There’s one aspect of Semetko’s work in particular that stands out to me – he is a master of juxtaposition. Many great photos work so well because of the incongruity of the elements brought together, and he knows this (or does it instinctively). Sometimes the elements are of equal prominence, like the cleaner and the chained angel, and the effect is of a clear allegory. Other times, like the Vietnam shot of the couples looking over the lake and the single men behind them, the balance is so perfect that it helps to convey a whole narrative in a split-second.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Another common type of Semetko juxtaposition is what you might call the double-take shot; the ones where there’s a primary point of interest that would, in itself, constitute an interesting shot… then you spot something else in the background, or in the corner, and the image takes on a new meaning. Or sometimes, raises new questions – for example, there is a great character portrait of a smiling woman in a fringed bikini swinging an SLR camera, then after a few seconds your eye moves to the background… wait, what’s that man doing up the ladder…?

Probably my favourite such double-take shot is this one of the fountain monument in Paris… at first glance you think maybe it’s all a part of there sculpture, but then you realise what the lads are doing up there. It’s a great visual punchline.

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

There are numerous other examples of great juxtapositions, both serious and frivolous, in the book. He has a real eye for these moments. I like the way he sees the world.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) [accessed 23/06/2014]
  2. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues

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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.


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Assignment 2: planning stage

As per my last post, I’ve decided on a subject for the ‘People & Activity’ assignment:

  • The changeover of steam trains at Pickering station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Although I’m not a trainspotter by any means, I do like living in a town that has a working steam railway station as it gives me lots of opportunities for striking and interesting photographs. I’ve previously used the station as one of the subjects of an earlier Art of Photography assignment, but that was focusing more on the architecture (it was for Elements of Design) and included other railway stations as well. This will be much more focused, first on Pickering station, secondly on people and thirdly and most specifically on the activities they undertake when a train comes in then leaves the station.

The process

A little explanation: Pickering station is a terminus, and the end of the line is a dead stop, not a turntable or anything fancy. So when a train comes in, it needs to follow a particular process to be able to go out again:

  1. Driver brings train in, stopping a couple of engine-lengths short of the end of the line
  2. Guards open doors, passengers disembark
  3. Driver’s mate gets down between engine and first carriage, decouples the two to free the engine
  4. Driver moves engine down to the very end of the line then manoeuvres it across to the other track
  5. Driver brings engine past all carriages to rejoin the main line just past the far end of the train
  6. (optional step) if needed, driver moves down to water pump at end of platform to fill up with water
  7. Driver moves engine back onto far end of train
  8. Driver’s mate gets down between engine and end carriage, connects the two together
  9. Guards let new passengers onto train
  10. Platform guard blows whistle
  11. Train guard usually hangs his head out of the window as the train departs
  12. Platform guard retires to his office to complete the paperwork

Shooting list

While on the last assignment (A portrait) I prepared a detailed shooting list, and sketched out what I had pre-visualised, for this assignment it seemed to me that this would be more challenging to be very prescriptive as I would be unable to pose or direct any of the proceedings. So in this instance I had a general framework in mind (based on the overall process observed above) and only a few specific shots that I was keen on capturing – related to the ‘moment’ and ‘explaining’ points in the brief:-

  • The driver’s mate between the engine and the carriage doing the coupling/decoupling itself
  • The platform guard, arm raised, blowing the whistle
  • The train guard’s head poking out of the end carriage window as the train sets off again
Train driver (2013)

Train driver (2013)

Beyond these shots I decided to just capture what I thought was interesting and weave the narrative out of it from the library of shots that I collected.

More important to me than specific shots is the desire to capture good shots of people! That’s the real point of this section and therefore this assignment.

One of the reasons I chose the subject is that the people who work on the railway are mostly volunteers, and do this because they’re passionate about it. There’s something in their faces, in their eyes when you see them working. It’s quite inspiring, even if you don’t share their exact passion, to see people doing something they love. This is what I want to capture!


As noted in the post on my choice of subject, one of the advantages of shooting the train changeover is the multiple opportunities to get images – there are a normally about half a dozen trains a day on early summer weekends. So I have made shooting expeditions down to the station I think 5 or 6 times over a period of a few weekends. It’s important to have this opportunity to re-run the session as getting all the shots needed, to the right kind of quality, would be very difficult if it was a genuine one-off, as the whole turnaround window is only 10-15 minutes.

In order to get in close enough to the action but remain on the safety of the platform, I had to overcome my unease with using telephoto lenses. In this circumstance though I felt fine shooting with a long lens as the participants are most likely used to people taking their photographs and so I felt less stalker-ish than I might otherwise have done.

For one of the trips, and for the first time on an assignment, I took two camera bodies with different lenses mounted. One was a long zoom (50-230 mm / 75-345 mm EFL) to get in close on the details, and on the other I alternated between a shorter zoom (16-50 mm / 24-75 mm EFL) and a prime lens, 35 mm (52 mm EFL). While the logistics of switching between cameras was a bit of a learning curve, it did afford me the opportunity to get a good variety of shots in a short space of time.

Colour or black/white?

I had this dilemma with the last assignment too… should the end results be in colour or black and white?

My initial instinct was black/white. In fact, I shot in b/w in the viewfinder (as I set the JPG style to mono, but also shot Raw to give me the choice to revert to colour if needed). I default to b/w for the vast majority of pictures I take at the railway station, it just really seems to suit it; it’s a combination of the architectural lines suiting it, and the nostalgia vibe. I was also influenced a lot by the overwhelming prevalence of b/w in the whole genre of street photography – I appreciate this isn’t street photography per se, but I do like the implied authenticity that b/w brings to candid people shots and I see the similarities.

However… as with the first assignment, looking at the early shots I’m starting to think that colour might work better? Using colour would place the series more in the modern day, without the fake nostalgia of b/w, and this might help to get over my message that these are volunteers, who do this because they love it. Using b/w would make the images look like they could have been taken any time, and that’s not really my intention – I want to focus on the volunteering aspect.

So at the moment I’m erring towards colour. Although at this stage in my last assignment I was firmly in favour of b/w and switched, so anything could happen in the edit!

I think that’s a reasonable summary of my preparation so far, albeit written up after the event.

By the time I wrote this I’d already shot 400+ images over a few weekends. The challenge now is to edit them down to a shortlist and construct the overall narrative…

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Assignment 2: initial preparation

I started thinking about Assignment 2 before I’d finished the exercises. I read ahead to the end of the section to see what the assignment was about so that I could put some thought to it. When I discovered it was about ‘People and Activity’, it first of all made me think of its similarities with some exercises and assignments I’d already done:

  • The final assignment on Art of Photography was a photo-essay that (certainly in the way I interpreted it) covered people engaging in an activity
  • An exercise in the People Aware section of this course entitled ‘An active portrait‘ which was somewhere in between posed portrait and candid photography, in as much as the subject knew I was there but I was keeping out of his way


In revisiting these previous experiences in my head I made a mental list of how this assignment needs to be similar and how it needs to be different. Some of this is in the brief, some of it is implied, some of it is me imposing my own structure on the assignment to better help me deliver it.

  • The obvious, from the section title: the pictures must be of People, and they must be Unaware of being photographed!
    • This seems self-evident, but I have seen other students flex the definition of ‘unaware’ significantly in their assignments, and I don’t want to fall into that trap
  • They need to be engaged in some kind of activity
    • This rules out general ‘street photography’ without a clear thread of activity tying the images together in a cohesive way
  • (from the brief) 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)
    • So I need to choose an activity that has such ‘telling moments’, and where it will be possible for me to see/shoot the kind of images that ‘explain’ what is going on
  • The brief suggests example activities such as: work, sport, a stage performance or a social event
    • I ruled out sport as (a) I’m not interested in it and would find it hard to get across any enthusiasm in the pictures, and (b) technical challenges of capturing the moments / explaining pics with potentially fast-moving subjects
    • I ruled out a stage performance due to lack of the right subjects happening in the timeframe I have for the assignment (although there is a Sixties Music Festival in my town in mid-June, it would be leaving it too late I think)
    • I ruled out a social event as I couldn’t think of an interesting enough one happening in the timeframe! Also most social events that might have been interesting would be most likely indoors/evenings, and that would lead to lighting challenges
    • So that left ‘work’… which did end up being the area I chose, kind of (explained below)
  • I specifically want the activity being depicted to be inherently interesting, out of the ordinary in some way
    • The pictures themselves should be interesting to look at, individually and as a set, and if the activity was very everyday (say, stall-holders at a market) then the challenge to find the interest is that much harder
  • Last but not least, based on my experience on the photo-essay assignment on AOP, I decided it would be very beneficial if I could shoot on more than once occasion
    • To allow me to review contact sheets, identify gaps, opportunities for reshoots, alternative angles etc
    • And it reduces the risk significantly – getting all the shots needed at a single one-off event is inherently trickier

Subject decision

With all of the above in mind, after a week or two of thinking about it I landed on what I believe is a good subject for the assignment:

  • The changeover of steam trains at Pickering station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

My rationale:

  • It’s an interesting visual spectacle that not many people would be familiar with
  • The people who do it are mostly volunteers, passionate about what they do, and dressed in a distinctive way – all of which I think lends character and interest to the subject matter
  • We live in Pickering so I could shoot over a few consecutive weekends to build up a decent library of shots to choose from

So that’s how I got to the choice of subject matter.

The next prep post will be more about the more specific planning and shooting at the station to build up the library of images for the assignment.