People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 5 research: cataloguing, memory, past, present, future

The subject I chose for Assignment 5 is “Disappearing Britain” and is in part an exploration of photography as a tool for cataloguing, and as a proxy (or aide) for memory. My intention is to record some specific objects that are at risk of becoming obsolete by the march of progress. The whole exercise made me think about who I was making the images for: contemporary viewers, future viewers, or both?

I revisited some of the core theoretical texts – Sontag [1], Barthes [2], Benjamin [3] and Berger [4] – for their analysis of the nature of memory in relation to photography, but by and large they look at it from the other end of the telescope – photographs from the past being viewed in the present, and the associations with memory, e.g. from Sontag:

“A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie.”

Barthes’ Camera Lucida in particular discusses the essential ‘past-ness’ of photographs and the melancholy that can accompany this:

“Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”

Capturing now, for future viewers

What I was interested in doing was kind of the other way around; photographing things in order to remember them later. It’s a form of cataloging these items, quite deliberately, before they are gone. I kept coming back to the premise that what I’m trying to do here is capture things before they become extinct. I can think of a number of projects that did this successfully for people-centric subjects (communities, tribes, enthusiasts, war veterans etc) and for places (towns and villages, city neighbourhoods), but not many for objects.

One of the contemporary bodies of work that I was pointed towards by my tutor was Julian Germain’s “Useful Photography” project [5], which catalogues specific categories of contemporary objects for future viewing. The description of the work is as follows:

“Useful Photography is a magazine which gives a platform to imagery that is part of our everyday lives but which is rarely studied or appreciated; for example pictures from catalogues, instruction manuals, text books, medical and scientific journals, packaging, CCTV, etc. Images that have been made for a practical purpose, whose makers remain completely anonymous.”

However, this is different again from my intent with this series; those images are collected and curated after the event, not taken for the specific purpose of cataloguing.

I went back to some reading I did last year in the early years of photography, specifically the ‘Photography and the Nineteenth Century” chapter in Clarke’s The Photograph [6], when one of the trends was for photography as cataloguing. Practitioners of what Clarke calls ‘mechanical photography’ would methodically record images of objects:

“The drive to collect and classify the world of objects and structures […] is reflected in such images as Daguerre’s famous Shells and Fossils of 1839, suggestive of an entire tradition and placing photographs in the context of this larger process of classification. It reflects both the developing museum culture, and the way in which the photograph was seen as an analogue of the real”

One interpretation of this is that it was the novelty of the medium that spurred this type of work, rather than the objective being the recording of the items themselves. Giving them the historical benefit of the doubt – that they were recording objects for posterity not novelty – I can see that this may be closest precedent to what I’m trying to achieve with my project.

Such ‘classification’ at the heart of photography is no longer an identifiable trend. Now that photography is not novel but ubiquitous, for what reason might one deliberately record an image of, say, a phone box? Aren’t there enough accidental (or incidental) images of such objects already in existence?

What I think is distinctive (and I’m not claiming “unique”) about this set of images is that I chose to photograph the specific objects; they are not incidental, they are the main attraction. Their impending obsolescence (and accompanying rarity) is reason enough to want to stop and capture them. I am curating – in advance – what I believe will be of interest to future generations.

Triggering memories of the past in contemporary viewers

Though this ‘future retrospection’ is my intention, I can see that there is simultaneously the nostalgic pull that reflects the theories of photography and memory outlined by Sontag, Barthes et al. Put simply, though my intention is to capture objects in 2014 for future viewers to see facsimiles of things that they can no longer see in real life, at the same time the reaction of seeing these images in 2014 will be, to some viewers, to take them back to a past time. So even though I may show a photo of a milk bottle in 2014, the image is – to the viewer of a certain generation – an incitement to reverie, an invitation to reminisce about the 1970s or 1980s. It is, in this sense, both contemporary record and ‘fake nostalgia’.

  • Viewers looking at these images now will experience memories of the past
  • Viewers in the future will be experiencing “now” as a (different) past, one which they may or may not remember

I found the whole thought process and research around this area fascinating. Considering the ‘lifespan’ of a photograph – how it can encapsulate both past and present, and how it may be viewed in the future looking back on both ‘pasts’ – was something that slightly made my brain hurt, but in a good way!

Forgive me the pretentious interlude, but a line from a 2014 Damon Albarn song “Photographs” [7] kept coming back to me:

“When the photographs you’re taking now / Are taken down again”.

To me this implies a potentially huge span of time: you take a photo now; you print and hang it; at some indeterminate point in the future you take the photo down, as it no longer holds enough meaning for you to keep it on display.

When you press the shutter, how far ahead are you thinking?

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  2. Barthes, R. (1980) Camera lucida: reflections on photography. London: Random House Vintage
  3. Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
  4. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
  5. http://www.usefulphotography.com (accessed 19/12/2014)
  6. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  7. Albarn, D. (2014) Photographs (you’re taking now). London: Chrysalis Music

 


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Assignment 5: revisiting the longlist

I’ve been looking back at the 300+ shots I’ve taken so far on this assignment in the light of my wobble and rethink following chats with various folk online.

Two points are at the forefront of my mind in this revised version of the selection:

  1. Does the subject meet the criteria I set myself? (criteria stated in the brief and other criteria that I’ve added in my interpretation of the brief)
  2. Is the image successful at implying my intended message? (meaning, context, narrative, juxtaposition)

1. The criteria

The brief I set myself was as follows:

Provide 8-10 images (4-5 will be selected) that meet the following criteria:

  • Common 10-20 years ago, rare now
  • Particular (though not necessarily unique) to Britain
  • Reason for obsolescence is one of following factors:
    • Technological progress (engineering, IT etc)
    • Economic progress (capitalism, globalisation, infrastructural etc)
    • Social progress (behavioural norms, demographic shifts etc)
  • A combination of subject types, such as (not limited to):
    • Public objects
    • Private objects
    • Professions

Produce images that are creative and visually engaging in composition and style – otherwise we could just go to a stock library! The article is as much about the images as the words.

To this I have been adding more layers of suitability; subconsciously at first, based on looking at objects and images and deciding which were ‘right’ and which were ‘wrong’. I began to form these judgements into the additional parameters I was giving myself for the subjects:

  • Recognisable by any British adult
  • Evoke some kind of response – whether that be missing it, glad to see the back of it, pondering the reasons for its obsolescence etc

This was a very useful filter – it made me ditch a few images I’d shortlisted. For example, I had a (photographically) good image of a concrete GPO post, but who remembers / misses / thinks fondly of a GPO post?! Similarly the coal bunker had to go as it also failed both the above tests.

2. The message

The main insight from engaging with a few people on the OCA Flickr forum was that to be successful the images will need to evoke some kind of response from the viewer. Plain close-ups of the objects in question are unlikely to do that. My original thinking was a little purist with regard to the fictional brief: that the images could be quite close-up, almost bordering on abstract in some cases, as the words would provide the context. However, I must remember above all else that this is a photography assignment! The brief is simply the construct. I must produce images that stand alone without the context of the hypothetical magazine feature.

The ‘message’ (or meaning, or emotion) I wish to impart is simply: for the viewer to consider the subject and how/why it became obsolete. I want people to think about ‘the unstoppable march of progress’.

With this new-found enlightenment I came to realise that I need to think much more about what else is in the frame in each shot. What is the context? Are there other elements I can include in the shot that:

  • Show it in use by people?
  • Show it in its current state of disuse?
  • Juxtapose it with its ‘successor’?

One commenter used the phrase ‘mise-en scene’ and this stuck with me. Can I arrange a ‘tableau’ that carries the context and maybe even has some inherent narrative about the relationship between elements? Obviously this is easier with still life / posed setups than with found objects in public (I’m not about to move around the milk bottle I see on someone’s doorstep. for example).

So here’s a partial list of subjects and how I think I can treat them to get across the context and relationships better:

  • Old Mini: pic of owner polishing it (not got)
  • Milk bottle: on doorstep of run-down house (got)
  • Milk float: abandoned in yard (got)
  • Phone box: either: an abandoned one (got), or juxtapose one with person using a mobile phone
  • Hats: men wearing old-fashioned hats (got)
  • Guide dog charity collection box: juxtaposed with real dog (got)
  • Rotary dial phone: being used by someone (not got)
  • Old barrel pint pot: someone drinking out of (not got)
  • Bingo hall: with customers (not got)
  • Cobbles: with people (got)
  • Sweet jars: ideally with someone’s hand in shot (not got; got one with just sweet jars, might have to fall back on that)

So I need to do 5-6 more based on the above shooting plan.

I think with the above framing / staging decisions I will be able to better get across the context/meaning of each object in the way I want. Just need to get the total of good images up to ten…


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Assignment 5: getting back on track

So a few days ago I started sorting through the Assignment 5 images I’ve taken so far and had a bit of a wobble on my choice of subject.

In short: it felt too far removed from what I’ve enjoyed most on the P&P course so far, and missing something – namely People! I was pondering ditching the idea and falling back on a Plan B I’d already shot in case of such a wobble.

Well, after a few days thinking about it, talking to family and friends, swapping emails with my tutor Sam and chatting with a few kind folks on the OCA Flickr forum (thanks to semiotic, CliveDoubleU, anned003, thebaroncooney, russellthepaperbag and Eileen R) I came to the realisation that I should stick with the chosen concept (“Disappearing Britain“) but rethink what kind of images I need to produce.

The most interesting piece of advice was to consider the context and relationships of elements in my images more. The sample images I posted with my request for advice were mostly very close-up detail shots of specific objects… only in a couple of instances had I pulled back for a wider context shot. I now think I need to go back and reshoot many of the subjects, this time thinking much more about how to juxtapose them with other (background) elements in order to provide a more visually interesting proposition.

In many cases I do think the missing piece is the human element – my intention is to trigger memories of the objects in question, to evoke some kind of emotion (e.g. missing it, glad to see the back of it, thinking about the reasons for its increasing obsolescence etc), and this could be through showing the objects in use by people.

In summary, my problem wasn’t really with the fundamental concept, more with the images themselves.

So I think I’m back on track – albeit with a request to my tutor for an extended deadline if I have to do so many reshoots!


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Assignment 5: progress so far

My chosen theme for assignment 5 is “Disappearing Britain”. The full brief I’ve written for myself can be found here, but the short version is: things you used to see in the past that you don’t see much any more, that are uniquely (or at least identifiably) British.

This is a summary of my progress so far…

Subjects

I had a few ideas going into the exercise. Not quite enough, mind you. I’m hoping that inspiration will strike as I go along (it has once or twice already).

So far I have taken pictures I’m happy with of:

  • Red phone boxes (LOTS of photos of these… keep seeing them everywhere I go… maybe they’re not as rare as I thought!)
  • Coal bunker
  • Milk bottle on a doorstep
  • Cobbled street
  • GPO marker post
  • Steel dustbin
  • Flat cap

I’ve found and taken pics of the following, but would like to go back and reshoot (lighting, composition):

  • Rotary dial phone
  • Milk float
  • Butcher’s shop
  • Bingo hall (stumbled upon!)
  • Sweet shop display
  • Original design Mini

I’d still like to find:

  • Pint pot with handle
  • Policeman’s helmet
  • Rag and bone man

Style

I’m very mindful that all of these objects have been photographed before! The (fictional) magazine article calls for distinctive treatments, otherwise they could just use library shots.

With this in mind I’m working on creative execution approaches – close-ups, almost abstracted yet recognisable visual cues that anyone of a certain age would recognise. I’m aiming for more interesting angles and framing that you might get in existing shots of these objects.

I’m also concentrating on the colours, where relevant (e.g. the red of the phone box) and looking for blocks of colour that typify the subject.

Through a combination of these approaches, I’m hoping that each image will evoke a memory of the subject in question.

Research and inspiration

To get ‘in the zone’ for this project I’ve been revisiting a few books of mine: ‘Portrait Of An Era: An Illustrated History of Britain’ [1], ‘Britain’s First Photo Album’ [2] and ‘Retronaut’ [3]. These broadly cover, in their own ways, photographic histories of Britain, and gave me some pointers on subject matter. I’ve also been a frequent visitor to the local flea market, antique shops and charity shops! And finally (perhaps least obviously) while I’ve been out shooting, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes From A Small Island’ [4] as this is kind of a love letter to a changing Britain as seen through the eyes of an outsider.

In terms of photographic inspiration, there are four particular photographers that keep coming back to mind:

Saul Leiter, for his painterly use of colour and abstraction

Robin Maddock, in particular his latest project ‘III’ [5], which is what you might call ‘street abstract’ in style… it’s very different to what I’m aiming to achieve in some ways – it’s US cities, black and white, bordering on abstract and with a specific thematic quirk (all images have a while ball, sheet of paper of milk in them… makes more sense when you see it). The reason it’s inspiring is that he’s reducing a place down to small finite slices and still manages to evoke a sense of the place, which is something I want to achieve – albeit with a different aesthetic

Robert Frank, specifically ‘The Americans’ [6], for his ability to get over the character of an entire, vast nation with a small number of well-selected images; in a similar way I am aiming to capture a ‘dying’ (or at least changing) national character

Martin Parr, in particular ‘The Last Resort’ [7], for his eye for peculiarly British details

As a side note, I’m finding that I can be inspired by photographers without wishing to emulate their style; increasingly it’s an understanding of what they were trying to achieve rather than specifically how they did it.

  1. Gardiner, J et al (2011) Portrait of an era: an illustrated history of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest
  2. Sackett, T. (2012) Britain’s first photo album. London: BBC Books
  3. Wild, C (2014) Retronaut. Washington: National Geographic
  4. Bryson, B (1996) Notes from a small island. London: Corgi
  5. Maddock, R (2014) III. London: Trolley Books
  6. Frank, R (2008) The Americans: special edition. Gottingen: Steidl
  7. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

 


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Assignment 5: (in)decision time

Hmmm… I’ve been mulling over the subject for Assignment 5 for a few weeks now and I need to make a decision and crack on! I came up with a long list a while ago and narrowed it down to a handful of candidate ideas. I think I’ve since got it down to two options: one centred around People and one around Place. My problem is that I am completely flitting between these two totally different ideas on a daily basis! I can quite clearly visualise what the outputs should look like, and each of them attracts in its own way. But I need to settle on one and get shooting! So I decided to write up a list of pros and cons and stare at it for a while…

1. People idea: “The Act of Observation”

Background:

I want to explore one aspect of portraiture that fascinates me: the fact that the sitter is inherently self-conscious of the portrait being taken, and the difficulty in achieving a natural and ‘honest’ depiction of the person (‘the act of observation changes that which is observed’ and all that).

Premise:

The concept here is that I will get portrait subjects to sit for me in a simple home studio setup (white background, simple lighting, headshot only – that kind of thing). I will take two or three different types of portrait of each, in a combination of the following techniques (to be confirmed):

  • Subject keep eyes closed and relaxes, thus doesn’t know when the photo is being taken
  • Subject is in darkness and sits very still, and a long exposure photo is taken
  • Subject sees self in mirror positioned by camera and chooses when the shutter clicks themselves, by way of a remote shutter release (taking the ‘self-consciousness’ aspect to its logical conclusion)

I’ll then show the subject the three portraits and get their opinion on which they believe is the truest depiction of them.

Why I should do this:

  • Portraiture really isn’t my strong suit – but I sometimes feel the need to push myself out of my comfort zone – unfinished business
  • It’s more creative than idea #2 and my Art of Photography feedback gave me a low score for creativity – so I know I need to work on this
  • It’s potentially quite interesting and insightful for me on a learning level

Why I shouldn’t do this:

  • Portraiture really isn’t my strong suit – so I should work more closely in line with my own developing style – the final P&P assignment might not be the best place for experimentation outside my comfort zone!
  • Generally I’m less enthused about ‘posed’ photography vs ‘found’ photography
  • I’m not sure how many subjects I can gather for this
  • I’m not sure I’ve got (or am able to invest in) the right kind of lighting equipment to do this well
  • I can’t quite make it fit the assignment requirement that a ‘notional client’ could commission someone to do this! Who or why would anyone want images like this? Apart from a curious photographer doing it as an objective in itself…

2. Place idea: “Disappearing Britain”

Background:

This came to mind from the bringing together of a few thoughts from the last two assignments and general research. First, the idea of photography as a proxy for memory – capturing things now to remember later. Second, the idea of trying to capture a whole, quite diverse nation in images (à la Robert Frank with The Americans). Third, the notion that it’s possible to give a sense of a place with quite impressionistic, almost abstract images (partly inspired by Saul Leiter’s 1950s New York work [1] and Robin Maddock’s recent project ‘III’ shot in California [2]). These strands coalesced into a coherent idea when I snapped a row of red telephone boxes in central London a couple of weeks ago.

Premise:

This would be a series of images capturing ‘icons of Britishness’ that were around when I was growing up, that for reasons of progress (technological, economic, societal) are becoming obsolete. The set would form a kind of virtual museum capturing exhibits before extinction. The fragments would build to up to a whole picture that evokes a Britain just disappearing in our lifetime. Examples are:

  • Street furniture: notably the red telephone box, but also old-fashioned wooden litter bins, big free-standing charity collection boxes (guide dogs etc, you know the kind of thing), coal bunkers outside houses
  • Professions/shops: milkman, coal delivery man, rag and bone man, old-style butcher’s, barbers, traditional sweet shop (jars in window)
  • Vehicles: old-style Mini, milk float, coal lorry
  • Objects: milk bottles, pint pots with handles, flat cap

Why I should do this:

  • All my assignments so far have had people in them and this would be an interesting exercise in evoking the sense of place with objects alone
  • It plays to some of my strengths (or at least my preferences) in terms of composition/geometry and use of strong colours
  • As mentioned above, I much prefer ‘found’ subjects to ‘posed’ subjects
  • I can easily imagine the notional client and the brief (magazine article, book illustrations, calendar etc)

Why I shouldn’t do this:

  • Not particularly inherently creative – I’d have to bring the creativity in each shot
  • I might not be able to find the examples in real life to match the visualisations in my head

Decision time

At the moment I’m leaning towards number 2. Well, I am today anyway. I think I’ll email my tutor for her input…

  1. Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag
  2. Maddock, R. (2012). III. London: Trolley Books


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Assignment 5: brainstorming with myself

Assignment 5 is the ‘design your own assignment’ assignment…

First decide on a notional client. Choose the kind of client (newspaper, magazine, text book publisher, advertising agency, television graphics, etc.), the purpose of the assignment (educational, informational, promotional) and how the images will be used (to illustrate a story, to sell a product etc). You choose.

You then need to imagine what the basic brief would be, which will mean thinking from the other side of the fence — what someone commissioning a photographer might want. Write yourself the brief so that you can refer back to it.

Having assigned yourself the brief, you now need to complete it. You need to submit between 8– 12 photographs. Accompany the final images with a short written assessment. This should include:

  • the ‘client briefing’ that you gave yourself
  • a statement of how you set about planning the photography
  • how well you succeeded, including the difficulties and opportunities you encountered that you had not anticipated at the outset.

I read ahead to Assignment 5 a while ago, so I’ve been mulling it over in the back of my mind for several weeks now. Whilst working through the latter stages of Assignment 4 I started jotting down ideas. I’ve previously struggled with the keeping of physical notes, as I tend to work digitally for almost everything I do… but I bit the bullet and invested in a pocket notebook for the specific purpose of capturing ideas.

Notes

Notes

The long list of ideas is as follows; this was freeform thinking and at this stage unencumbered by any kind of selection criteria or even rationalisation – this came afterwards. I also didn’t really think about the format/brief upfront; I figured that if a concept was strong enough, I could post-justify that someone would commission me to do it!

To start with, in no particular order (broadly the order they came to mind):-

  • My old bosses
  • Second World War enthusiasts
  • Local people in my home town
  • People who’ve moved to the UK for a job
  • Local artists in their studios
  • Eyes closed portraits
  • Portraits where subject sees themselves in a mirror
  • Composite portraits (same face, different expressions, merged image)
  • Richmond Riverside boat sheds
  • Illustrate local newspaper headlines
  • Disappearing icons of Britishness (phone boxes etc)

Some time after having each idea I thought about why I was attracted to it; it wasn’t always immediately obvious, but over time I spotted some threads emerging. The more detailed musings below are grouped into three broad categories:

  1. Thematic portraits
  2. Conceptual portraits
  3. Place as subject

First, a note on portraits generally:

It’s interesting that the majority of ideas I’ve had so far are portrait-based – I didn’t actually enjoy the portrait section of the course much! It was very much outside my comfort zone, and not what I’d really consider to a core part of my evolving personal style. However, part of me thinks I should go back and push myself again – unfinished business?

The flipside is that this final P&P assignment might not be the place to revisit what I know is a weakness of mine… that instead I should play to my strengths / my developing style…?

1. Thematic portraits

Most of my initial ideas were centred around a thematically-linked series of subjects. In almost all cases (all bar the WW2 reenactors) there is an element of me and my own identity playing a part in my choice of subject. This may seem egotistical but by the same token, I think it’s important to have a connection with the subject, a point of view, and indeed a message one is trying to convey.

  • Old bosses:
    • Pure self-obsession! I think I wanted to show them all how I’ve changed since I worked for them, however many years ago
    • This one fails the test of: who would commission me to do this?
    • So I ruled this one out
  • Local artists:
    • This seemed to be a good potential crossover between People and Place, on two levels: (a) studio as place; and (b) artists who choose the local area as their subject matter
    • Thinking about this and visualising how the sessions might go, I realised that I was particularly looking forward to asking the artists about their inspirations, their working approach, what they get out of creating their art…
    • In other words, I was curious about my own developing creative experience and looking to artists (albeit in different fields) for insights
    • Downside: I don’t know that many artists! I know a few but would mostly be relying on strangers as subjects – and I’m not wholly comfortable with that
    • Also, any insights I gain from them won’t be inherently depicted in the photos – I’m not writing an interview-based feature, it’s a photo assignment
    • Potential format: magazine article?
  • People who’ve moved to the UK:
    • This occurred to me as I’m currently working onsite for a global business that has a very multi-national workforce; based in London, I work with people from all over Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Asia
    • My thinking was that I’d get each subject to pose with a possession that reminds them of home
    • This would be exploring the concept of identity and to what extent it is related to where you come from / where you live now
    • The underlying attraction of this was that I’ve been in their shoes – I’ve worked abroad for long stretches (and I’ve worked away from home, albeit mostly within the UK, for almost the last three years) – so there’s a sense of dislocation that I identify with, and I’m interested in how other people cope with that
    • Potential downsides: whether I can be creative enough in the execution; whether the people and their possessions are inherently interesting photographically
    • Potential format: internal comms campaign for my client, to encourage people moving between countries
  • Local people in my home town:
    • Here I had the format idea first: a calendar, aimed at residents of the town (Pickering)
    • A selection of ages from kids to OAPs, pictured in their home, workplace or their favourite part of town
    • I guess here I was thinking (quite unimaginatively) of shooting portraits of people I already know!
    • The idea encompasses both People and Place, so it has that in its favour
    • But I think I’ve ruled it out as being too uncreative
  • Second World War enthusiasts:
    • This sprung to mind largely as a coincidence in timing – Pickering has an annual ‘Wartime Weekend’ festival in min-October, and the town fills up with enthusiasts and re-enactors in period costume
    • Could be a mix of posed portraits and candid shots of individuals and groups
    • The format could be a ‘subculture’-type magazine article on the phenomenon of wartime nostalgia enthusiasts
    • I reckon I’ll shoot the weekend anyway (weather permitting) and maybe consider it a fallback option, depending on the quality of the images

2. Conceptual portraits

In my attempts to be more creative (a theme in my AOP feedback) I started thinking about portrait projects where the link isn’t the subject matter but the approach/technique employed. In all of these ideas I was exploring the concept of self-identity (or rather the projection of identity) in portraiture, in one way or another. The tricky aspects of all three of these ideas: technical ability (especially re lighting); and how to work backwards into a brief! i.e. who would commission me to do one of these, and why…

  • Eyes closed portraits:
    • My experience is that portrait sitters put on a pose when they know you’re taking their photo, so you never get a ‘true’ and honest depiction of their ‘normal self’… by removing the visual cue of the camera shutter action, the subject won’t know when you’re taking the picture, and my theory is that you would get a more natural-looking result!
    • … albeit without the main expressive feature of the facial portrait, the eyes
    • So a bit of a gamble, this one
  • Mirror portraits:
    • Opposite idea to the last one: portraits where the sitter sees themselves in a mirror mounted in same focal place as camera lens – and they say when they want you to take the picture
    • This way I would be exploring the flip side of the eyes-closed idea – the most ‘artificial’ poses may result here
    • Could combine with the above, to produce pairs of portraits, compare-and-contrast style?
  • Composite portraits:
    • This is born of the observation that people’s faces can actually look different from photo to photo – the split-second capture of an expression that may not bear much resemblance to how the subject normally looks (the “that doesn’t look like me!” reaction you sometimes get)
    • The – admittedly high concept – idea is to take a series of headshots per subject, with differing facial expressions (mainly around the eyes and the mouth) and merge them in post-processing into a single image with different expressions on
    • I can visualise this really well – but can I execute?! I need to do a practice shoot

3. Place as subject

A few of the ideas were much more centred around a place as the subject. This may be too much of an overlap with the last two assignments, so if I go down this road I need to make sure it’s taking a different angle.

  • Richmond Riverside boat sheds:
    • A fairly straightforward (boring?) idea that actually could just have easily been done for the last assignment
    • I think in writing this up I’ve ruled this one out as being too unimaginative
  • Illustrate local newspaper headlines:
    • The idea here was to see if I could evoke the feel of a place simply by taking a random copy of the local newspaper and coming up with images (staged? randomly spotted?) that matched the headlines
    • The idea has been tested briefly by buying local paper… and to be honest the headlines were far too dull/specific to work for this concept
    • So I’ve ruled this out as well… it might have worked if I lived somewhere more interesting!
  • Disappearing icons of Britishness:
    • This was inspired by a recent pic I took of a row of red phone boxes in central London
    • I was thinking about the things that I used to see more of when I was younger, that I’m realising are becoming obsolete
    • Other examples: milk bottles, coal bunkers, drinking fountains, pint pots etc
    • This one appeals to me as I’d be attempting to capture the spirit a whole country in a dozen pics (à la Martin Parr / Robert Frank)
    • Also it would be an exploration of memory through photography; kind of a “last chance to see” / capture it now so I can remember it later feeling, if that makes sense
    • This, of all the ideas, could lend itself to a more creative execution – close-ups, almost abstracted yet recognisable visual cues that anyone of a certain age would recognise
    • I can imagine the kind of magazine feature that these images could accompany

 

That’s all I’m going to write up for now. Just pouring my thoughts out on my long list has been quite tiring!

Next I need to narrow the ideas down a bit (my current front-runners are in green), then maybe try some test shots.

I also need to read up on photographic research techniques, make sure I’m not missing any tricks.


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Assignment 3: Progress

In the end I took photos of all of the places in the shortlist I posted about previously:

  • King’s Cross departures concourse
  • Pickering station coach-building shed
  • Beadlam Grange farm shop
  • Quaker tranquility garden
  • Giessereihalle – converted steel foundry / shopping mall
  • Hotel Negresco ballroom
  • Promenade de Paillon fountain
  • Pickering Castle

I then sat down with 500+ candidate photos and did a couple of editing rounds until I was reasonably happy that I had at least four decent shots of each.

Something missing…

What I struggled with for a while was that I felt very strongly that there was something… missing. This feeling was brought on, if I’m very honest, from the feedback I recently got as part of my Art of Photography final assessment that I need to be more creative/experimental. I spent a good while dwelling on this, particularly in the context of this assignment. How to be creative on an assignment about buildings was something that I had to think about. And being very pragmatic, I reckoned that I had little or no opportunity for reshoots (partly down to time, partly down to the fact that three out of the shortlisted locations are out of the country!)… so I was trying to work within the parameters of what I’d already shot, maybe looking at them differently.

How to connect the places…?

The nature of the brief is that you’re meant to choose a variety of different spaces. However, I always prefer working with some kind of cohesive connection across a set of images, as I think it helps build up an overall message (idea/emotion) that is greater than the sum of the parts. Maybe the context / overarching narrative might be something that I could be more creative with?

So I spent a little time trying to work out at least a sequence of how to present five or six buildings/spaces that had some sort of logic or narrative to it, however tenuous.

A narrative concept emerges!

After a couple of days thinking about the shortlisted image sets, a few thoughts started forming and connecting in my head:

  • What attracted me to the locations? why did I think they’d make interesting images? the space itself, or how it was being used?
  • Who were the building/spaces aimed at, if anyone?
  • Interaction between places and people using them
  • The pics with people in – what were the people like? what did they have in common?
  • Spaces – space and time – time of life – life stages

Walking down the street on a lunchtime a potential narrative thread struck me. It seemed a little tenuous at first but as I though the concept through it increasingly appealed to me.

I realised that the spaces can be partly defined by the age group that I associate with them. And extending that idea a little, I could articulate a sequence of ‘stages of life’ where each of the spaces would be more meaningful or memorable, certainly to me anyway.

EDIT: only after writing all this down did I realise, I’ve been inspired by a book that I’m reading, a novel called ‘With A Zero At Its Heart” [1] that is written in a very unusual structure: it has 24 chapters, each focusing on ten different fragmented memories in the life of an unnamed protagonist, linked by a particular theme, e.g. Work, Love, Objects, Fear etc. The fragments build up into an overall picture of a life remembered. I realised that my ‘storytelling’ approach to this assignment was akin to imagining a chapter called ‘Places’ and deciding which places fitted where in my own personal timeline.

Once I had this thought I briefly considered a much more literal application of this idea, e.g. a primary school, a workplace etc, leading up to an old folk’s home. But that seemed too literal so I went back to the idea that had already formed, of using a subset of my shortlisted locations to tell a story in life stages. “A life in places” or maybe “Places in a life”?

So bear with me, as this sounds pretentious even as I type it, but my thinking is:

  1. The fountains in Nice – playing in the water spray reminds me of being a carefree kid
  2. Giessereihalle – twenty-somethings meeting their friends
  3. Kings Cross – thirties, dominated by work/commuting
  4. Negresco – getting older, starting to appreciate the finer things in life like art
  5. Coach-building shed – easing into retirement, still working but at a labour of love
  6. Tranquility garden – sitting quietly on my own, reminiscing

The farm shop and the castle have been rejected as I couldn’t associate them with any particular stage in my life!

Next steps

What I do need to do is go back through my selected images and confirm my final choices from the point of view of this new ‘lens’ as I think my original selections per location may not relay the overall narrative arc that I’m aiming for now.

Wish me luck…

  1. Lambert, C. (2014) With a zero at its heart. London: Friday Project