People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 4: first thoughts

I admit that I’ve actually taken the pictures for the assignment! I did however do lots of thinking, reading, researching, note-writing and shot-planning before I took them. I am now very belatedly typing up all this preparation before getting on with the challenges of editing, processing and sequencing.

Choice of place

Before I took any pictures at all, I had a shortlist of places that I could have used. The brief asks for the following:

Decide on a place that you know well, or are prepared to take the time to know well, and have sufficient access to in order to complete a strong selection of a dozen images. It could be a town, a village, the borough of a city, or any area that you can define well enough. Aim to show the character of the place and of the people who live there with as much visual variety as possible. ‘Variety’ should include a variety of subject matter and of scale.

Pulling out the key criteria here, and adding a few of my own, I realised that I needed to find a place that had most or all of the following features:

  • Accessible: for long enough to take photos, on different days, at different times, busy and quiet
  • Distinctive: has a character of its own that can be depicted or implied photographically
  • Attractive: visually interesting in its own right (individual photos need to be engaging, as well as the cohesive set)
  • Variety: provides the diversity of subject matter and scale – buildings, spaces, architectural features, close-up/detail, people aware/unaware
  • Populated: has points of interest that involve people engaging with the place

There were three very different places that sprang to mind: where I live, where I work and where I holiday.

1. Pickering

Pickering

Pickering

I live in Pickering, a smallish market town in North Yorkshire. We’ve lived here for six years and although we have settled here very well (we love it), to a certain degree we can still see it through the eyes of an outsider – in a good way. It’s a place with a low level of tourism all year round, with attractions such as the steam railway station, the castle and a number of annual festivities such as the Sixties Festival and the Wartime Weekend.

  • It’s definitely accessible at least three days per week including weekends
  • It’s reasonably distinctive, but in a way that might be very difficult to pin down visually; it’s more to do with the people themselves and their traditional values, and I’m not sure how to best depict that
  • It has some very attractive features such as the aforementioned steam railway station and castle
  • The visual variety is pretty good
  • I’m not wholly certain that there are a lot of situations where you would see people interacting with the place?

2. Richmond Riverside

Richmond Riverside

Richmond Riverside

At the moment I’m working Monday to Thursday in Richmond-upon-Thames, in an office right on the river’s edge. There is a stretch of river path centred around an area branded as ‘Richmond Riverside’ that is potentially a good subject.

  • It’s accessible for the next couple of months at least, albeit in the mornings, lunchtimes and evenings only, which limits the lighting conditions a bit
  • Taking the Riverside locale rather then the whole town, I do consider it to have its own distinctive character
  • Visually very interesting and attractive, with boats, bridges, parkland etc
  • A reasonable amount of variety but inherently constrained to the corridor of the river so maybe a little limiting
  • Lots of people-interaction possibilities – walkers, cyclists, rowers, boatbuilders, cafe patrons and so on

3. Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice

For the last 12 years my wife and I have had a flat in the old town in Nice, France (known locally as Vieux Nice). We go there 6-7 times a year for up to a fortnight at a time and have got to know the place very well. Although in one sense we’re really just very frequent visitors, in a way we can experience the place as a resident does.

  • It’s accessible for about a week at a time, given our holiday schedule for this year – but once there, no limitations on timings
  • It’s very distinctive in both its architecture and its ambience; it does feel quite different to the rest of the city
  • In purely visual terms it’s by far the most interesting of the three
  • There’s enough variety in the subject matter – people, architecture, colours, shops, cafes, public squares etc
  • The people interactions are there, although there may be a little repetition in the nature of the depictions

Decision

Having gone through the thought process and judging the three against the criteria, I came down firmly on the idea of using Vieux Nice!

The next prep blog post will be about how I decided what aspects of Vieux Nice to focus on, and how I planned out (most of) the types of shot I sought.

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Exercise: Selective processing and prominence

Brief

Select one image that you have already taken for an earlier project, an image in which the issue is the visual prominence of a figure in a setting. For this exercise you will use the digital processing methods that you have available on your computer to make two new versions of this image.

In one, make the figure less prominent, so that it recedes into the setting. In the second, do the opposite, by making it stand out more.

Results

I chose an unused shot from earlier in this section that seemed to fit the bill in terms of balance of figure and place in the original.

1. Place more prominent

This is closer to the original in terms of the balance of light and shade in the scene as shot. For this the tweaks required were centred on the figure, using Lightroom’s adjustment brush feature. The whole figure was lowered in brightness and sharpness, and I adjusted the highlight and shadows to ‘flatten’ out the contrast as much as possible; also the red shirt was desaturated. I slightly increased the brightness of the end of the wall behind the figure such that more of the detail of the whole left wall is visible. Lastly, I adjusted the highlights in the sky and the canopy to try to better balance the light in the whole scene.

Place prominent

Place prominent

 

2. Figure more prominent

For this version I lightened the ground such that the figure stands out against the background more. I also specifically increased exposure setting on the face and arms, and tweaked the saturation of the shirt up slightly.

Figure more prominent

Figure more prominent

What I’ve learned

I must confess that I think both of these look slightly unnatural to me, so maybe I’ve been a bit heavy-handed. Or maybe it’s because I’ve placed the extreme variants together and the differences are more obvious? So what I’ve learned is to test such adjustments on other viewers to see whether I’ve gone too far!


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Exhibition: Steve McCurry Retrospective

The Théatre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice is running an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work until the end of September 2014, and I was fortunate to be in Nice at the right time to visit.

Like most people I knew McCurry first and foremost for the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ image, so famous that I don’t need to include it here. Beyond that, I knew he had worked a lot in Asia and in war zones throughout the world – but I didn’t know much else. It turned out to be one of the best exhibitions of photography that I’ve seen in a long time. Given that I am studying a degree module called ‘People & Place’, his work is hugely relevant and an excellent source of inspiration.

People

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

At the heart of McCurry’s work are people, and the first hall in the gallery is dominated by head-and-shoulders shots that are reminiscent of Afghan Girl, with the subject staring deep into the viewer’s eyes. The technique of getting the subject to stare intently at the lens looks deceptively simple, but I can’t imagine that every time you do so, you produce work as powerful and affecting as this. Whether through empathy, patience or some other interpersonal skill, McCurry has the knack of drawing the gaze of his subjects in such a way that you feel they are revealing something of themselves to the camera/viewer.

Pure portraiture isn’t the whole story though – in fact it’s a fairly small proportion of the 127 images on show here. The greater part of the body of work is concerned with placing people in the wider context of their place in the world – their community, their traditions and sometimes the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

For me, some of these are more interesting than others. The images of war zones – and they are not overly graphic, they are not scenes of combat but rather of the effects of war on the people and their environment – were surprisingly less affecting to me than I expected. Similarly, the images of the aftermath of natural disasters didn’t really resonate with me. This is a subjective view, of course, but a certain amount of ‘disaster fatigue’ kicks in after a while and as a viewer I became somewhat desensitised.

On the other hand, the images depicting specific traditions of peoples from around the world, I found genuinely impressive. The ones chosen here really lend themselves to being captured photographically, from a point of view of colour, composition or both. The Indian festivals where they paint their faces and bodies bright colours, the Shaolin monks hanging upside down, the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen – they make amazing photographs. They make you think about the wonders the world has to offer, the unusual rituals and sights that most people will never see in person – the variety of human life. Put cynically from a visual interest point of view: misery tends to look the same the world over, but people find a limitless number of ways to celebrate and be happy.

A sense of place

I was particularly interested in seeing how McCurry conjured up the sense of place in his images, as this is the brief for my next assignment. For the most part he does this with people in the context of the place – sometimes posed environmental portraits, often candid moments. The light, the architecture, the clothing, the landscapes. After a while, looking at photos before reading the captions, I became pretty good at guessing where in the world the picture was taken, and this is testament to his ability to distill a place down to its essence. With regard to the balance between people and place in his images, on the evidence of the work here he concentrates very much on the people, with the place as a secondary character.

One of the best examples of this, as well as demonstrating his love of vibrant colours and his eye for composition, is ‘Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India’.

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Verdict

My overwhelming first impression was that I was in the presence of a photographic master, the kind of annoyingly brilliant genius that makes me disappointed in my own shortcomings! Once I got past the general sense of awe I looked more closely and saw that what I really admired were two quite distinct aspects of his work: first, on a purely aesthetic level he captures some beautiful images, full of colour and with a careful eye for composition; secondly, he has a rare skill of highlighting the human elements, making you feel like the subject has shared something of themselves with the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

One simple sign that I’ve been impressed with a photographer is whether I subsequently seek out more of their work. Straight after getting back from the exhibition I ordered ‘Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs’ [1], which seems to be a comprehensive source of more great McCurry images to feast upon after having this show whet my appetite.

One of the things I find myself thinking with regard to certain photographers is “I like the way s/he sees the world”… and with McCurry the emphasis is more on the last word. He brings to life amazing, exotic aspects of global culture, opening windows onto parts of the world I’ll most likely never see in person. If anything, the fact that he is so associated with one iconic image is something of a shame – it overshadows what is a consistently excellent body of work.

  1. Purcell, K.W. (2012). Steve McCurry: the iconic photographs. London: Phaidon


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Exercise: Balancing figure and space

Brief

Draw on your photography so far in this course and on the techniques you have learned, to vary the balance in any one picture situation. Aim to produce two images, using the same general viewpoint and composition, varying the balance of attention between the person (or people) and the setting they are in.

Results

At the risk of being unimaginative, what immediately sprang to mind here was to find a space that a figure could walk into, in the general direction of the camera, and take shots at different distances as they fill more of the frame.

I used two shots that immediately followed the ‘side streets‘ shot from the exercise ‘single figure made small’ as they fit the criteria.

1. Person not emphasised

At its simplest interpretation, this is a scene of a side street in an old mediterranean town, that happens to have a man walking down it. The old-fashioned three-wheeler van is more of a focal point than the person. The man is sufficiently far away as to be relatively anonymous, and this allows the viewer a certain feeling of immersion, potentially imagining themselves in the location.

Balance 1

Balance 1

[Admittedly, this potential for self-identification could be even more prevalent when the figure is even further away, as in the original use of the precursor image. I considered using this first image as part of this exercise, but concluded that in that version the figure was so small that the image essentially shifted balance too far and became a picture of ‘a green van on a side street’ and the figure would be too small to be considered a significant part of the visual balance.]

2. Person emphasised more

In this version the figure takes up more of the frame and is more identifiable as an individual. The coincidence of green across the shirt, the van and the door balance out the prominence – but the person is much more of a focal point now. This alters the weight of the image, as it is now less likely that the viewer could self-identify and more likely that they might think about this specific individual and what he is doing in the context of the scene. It makes the viewing more of an external experience.

Balance 2

Balance 2

It may not seem like a massive difference but I do think the distance walked by the subject fundamentally changes the nature of the image:

  • The first image is of a street (with a green van, and a big green door), that also has a man walking down it
  • The second image is of a specific individual, who is walking down a street that has a green van and a door

What I’ve learned

This was one of those exercises that gives me another technique of directing the intended message or narrative of an image. The subtle difference between emphasis on the location (with figure as secondary character) and emphasis on the person (with location as backdrop) can be an important clue as to the intent of the image. If one of these variants were presented as part of a set, any surrounding images could help to provide the necessary context of whether this is a study of the person, the place or both.


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Exercise: Making figures anonymous

Brief

Take some photographs that include a person or people in a particular place, but deliberately make them unrecognisable and, as a result, less prominent. Consider the techniques listed above [small and many, facing away, in silhouette, partly obscured, motion blur], but also feel free to use any other method you can think of.

Make between two and four photographs which use different techniques to achieve this. To reiterate, a successful image will be one that is primarily about the place, but in which one or more figures play a subsidiary role to show scale and give life — to show that it is in use.

Results

I tried a few different techniques and these are the ones I felt worked best.

1. Shadow

In this you get the sense of the place, a narrow side street in the old town in Nice, with just a hint of a figure turning the corner into the shade. The leading line of the shaft of light, and to a lesser extent the blue arrow, help you to find the figure.

Shadow

Shadow

2. Angle

Shooting downwards from a high vantage point helps to anonymise the figure whilst still taking in enough of the surroundings to give a clue as to the type of place. This is probably the weakest in terms of showing the space – the balance is more in favour of the figure than the other three.

Angle

Angle

3. Scale

I almost used this for the ‘single figure small’ exercise but felt that it also suited this concept. The rhythm of the shutters is established, then broken with the white-haired figure in one of the windows. It’s the scale that makes the figure anonymous here.

Scale

Scale

4. Silhouette

Subtly different to the shadow one… in this instance there is strong, low light behind the camera and the figure is walking into the darkness, with edge lighting through the hair allowing the viewer to make out the figure, and providing a focal point. I think with this one the viewer can get an idea of the space, albeit a vague one. The inherent darkness of the backdrop makes this a more atmospheric and less literal depiction of the space.

Silhouette

Silhouette

5. Selective framing

By electing not to include the head in the frame, it becomes easier to focus on the context (the antiques stall) rather than the person.

Antique shopping

Antique shopping

What I’ve learned

I found this quite a puzzling challenge initially… it took me a few goes before I got into the idea, and many of my early attempts were equally applicable to ‘single figure small’ (as per 3 above) as I evidently fell back on size/scale as my default technique. Once I’d loosened up a bit, photographically speaking, I found other ways of expressing the same idea. It stretched my brain a little bit, but that’s undoubtedly a very good thing. I’m not completely sure I got the right balance between figure and environment in all of them, but I’ll work on that for the next exercise.

What’s fascinating looking back on these images, and the works of others with a similar visual intent, is that making the subject anonymous it makes it so much more likely that the viewer can imagine themselves in the space. By not identifying with a specific individual, it allows the viewing to be more of an ‘internalised’ experience. The more recognisable the subject, potentially the more ‘externalised’ the viewing experience becomes. This is something I hadn’t thought about at all before now.


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Exercise: Busy traffic

Brief

In contrast to the usually-empty place from the last project, some locations are almost always busy, with a constant flow of traffic. Choose a busy location, interior or exterior, and find a viewpoint that will give you a satisfying composition as well as a good sense of the nature and function of the space.

Spend some time watching how the flow of people works — the patterns they make, any surges or lulls in movement and numbers — and how this can contribute to the composition of the shot. Aim to show the ‘busyness’ of the place, which might involve altering the composition, perhaps changing the focal length of lens, or experimenting with a slow exposure.

Results

A few shots from the archive

As per the last exercise, I was helped in my preparation for this by looking into my own archives for shots I’d already taken that met the criteria.

New shots for this exercise

I selected three shots that I felt demonstrated the idea, using different techniques and shooting angles.

1. King’s Cross

I’m not normally a big fan of long exposures to denote movement but I concede that this scene does suit the treatment. The contrast of the moving figures and the stationary ones is what makes this work for me. You can discern the differing speeds of movement and this helps to get over the effect of ‘busyness’. Shooting wide and high suited this scene and helps to achieve the desired effect.

King's Cross

King’s Cross

2. Shopping

Rather than repeating the high / wide / long exposure technique, for this I tried to get right into the thick of the crowd, to give the effect to the viewer of being there. To me this one has the feel of a river of people flowing towards the viewer.

Shopping

Shopping

3. Promenade

What intrigued me about this is that it appears that there is a queue of people walking single file, following the woman in front. In reality they were all randomly walking in their own directions individually or in couples, but in this split second I have captured the effect that implies what I imagined.

Promenade

Promenade

What I’ve learned

This was harder than it looked. I didn’t want to resort to long exposures for all my examples and so had to think of other ways to visually imply not just the people but the movement – the ‘busyness’. Although I’m not a huge fan of the technique, I think it’s more successful in the slow shutter speed example than the other two.


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Exercise: A single figure small

Brief

This kind of image is not easy to plan, simply because the conditions are so specific — a place which at the time of shooting is for the most part free of people, yet with an occasional figure passing through it.

Consider how obvious, to a viewer’s eye, the figure will be in the image. Some delayed reaction adds to the interest of looking at this kind of photograph, and there is even an element of surprise if the scale of the place (perhaps a cathedral interior) is larger than expected. On the other hand, the point of this style of image is lost if the viewer fails to notice the figure and moves on.

Pay close attention to where in the frame you place the figure — the more off-centre, the more dynamic the composition is likely to be, but only up to a point. If the figure is walking, you may want to consider the conventional treatment of placing it off-centre so that it walks into the frame.

Results

A few shots from the archive

Before really getting into this exercise, I found it useful to look back at images of my own from the past that meet the criteria, to inspire me and get me in the right visual mindset. I don’t always do this (in fact I very rarely do, I like to look forwards) but in this instance it helped.

New shots for this exercise

I took a few shots in different environments, with the figure-to-background ratio varying, to see what effect this had on the viewer’s experience.

1. Station platform

This is the one where the person is of the most significant size in proportion to the surroundings. The figure-to-ground contrast is strong, and the leading diagonals move the eye towards him. There is no danger of not noticing the figure. I liked the implied mystery in this: why’s he walking away from his luggage…?!

Station Platform

Station Platform

2. Castle

Here I went to the other extreme. The figure is very small in relation to the setting, and slightly blurred through movement. At first glance this is a simple mid-distance landscape-type shot, but after a few moments the secondary point of visual interest emerges. The size and lack of sharpness means that it takes a little visual processing to work out that it is a little girl running away, but once you see it, a potential narrative suggests itself.

Castle

Castle

3. Boats

Another one where the figure is very small in relation to the main point of interest, and one where I used the concept of setting up then breaking a rhythm. The eye starts on the most prominent boat in the foreground and steps backwards into the picture until it rests on the figure. This is, of all the submissions, the one with the greatest risk of the viewer not even seeing the figure. The contrast isn’t very strong, but hopefully the rhythm of the boats helps the eye.

Boats

Boats

4. Side street

The contrast of the figure is helped by the backlight that gives kind of a glow around his body. The shaft of light helps to lead the eye.

Side street

Side street

What I’ve learned

After an initial lack of confidence – or maybe patience – in being able to find the right situations and fortuitous passing of sole figures for this exercise, I found quite a few examples. I’m not sure they’re all wholly successful but they’re different enough that I included them all here.

Unrelated to the direct point of this exercise, I am finding that I am drawn to images that hold some kind of implied or potential narrative, an idea of a back-story that gives the image some interest over and above the purely aesthetic. This was the case in a couple of the images I chose. I’m finding myself doing this when editing my shots rather than at the time of shooting, but it’s something that I am increasingly conscious of in my own thought processes – what attracts me to certain shots. Interesting.