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!

Unposed

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) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  2. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues


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Photographer: Elliott Erwitt

Ways of seeing

It took me a few readings of Susan Sontag’s On Photography  [1] before I really started thinking differently about photography, but the single biggest revelation for me was this: Sontag points out that when you admire the work of a particular photographer, you’re admiring the way they see the world, and the photos themselves are simply the physical manifestation of that way of seeing.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

The photographer whose ‘way of seeing’ I have come to admire the most in recent months – in particular since starting on People & Place – is Elliott Erwitt. Although I was aware of one or two of his most famous images, my interest was actually piqued earlier this year when in a short space of time I read some of his comments on photography that accompanied a project he did on Scotland [2] and then heard an interview with him on my favourite podcast, The Candid Frame [3]. Some of the things he said struck a chord with me, and in the audio interview he came across as very modest, affable and an all-round nice guy. These things made me curious to see more of his work – hoping his personality and viewpoint would translate into his photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed at all.

‘Snaps’

Elliott Erwitt, 'Snaps'

Elliott Erwitt, ‘Snaps’

After a little research I bought ‘Snaps’ [4], a 500+ page retrospective of Erwitt’s work, mostly his personal rather than professional photography. It’s probably the best £22 I’ve spent since I got into photography – it’s amazing value for the quality and the quantity of photographs.

As a career-spanning retrospective there is always the risk that there is a lack of cohesion – it’s the Greatest Hits, not that one Classic Album. It spans several decades and is rather loosely organised into single-word verb titles – Read, Rest, Touch, Move, Tell, Point, Stand, Look, Play – making it seem very eclectic, disjointed even, on first reading. But looking at a chapter at a time you do start to see the connections, the rhythms in what he sees and how he sees it. My understanding of Erwitt’s personal work is that he doesn’t work to self-imposed projects, he just shoots what he sees that will make a good photo. His themed collections are in fact the results of his poring over his ‘inventory’ after the event, often many years after.

While his style remains distinctive, one of the lasting observations is of the sheer variety of his subjects; there are a handful of what you might consider classic (or cliché) ‘city street photography’ shots but they are outnumbered massively by a bewildering variety of subjects that he has managed to not just point his camera at, but make a great photo out of.

He’s rightly well-known for the humour in his work; the most common response I had as a pored over the images was a smile, occasionally an out-loud laugh. He has a knack of isolating the absurd moments that permeate life, and does so without judgement but with warmth and empathy. He spots visual puns, moments of interaction between people, gestures and stances of blissfully unaware individuals – and positions himself perfectly to frame the moment.

The other admirable skill of his is the ability to imply a whole narrative with a single shot. In his best storytelling shots you can see the past and the future, all embedded in the one frozen moment. The best example of both the humour and the storytelling – and probably my favourite photo in the book – is of the wedding party in Bratsk, Siberia in 1967. The self-satisfied contemplation of the bad lad on the left, the leaning-away stance of the hapless-looking groom, the daggers in the eyes of the furious bride, the concerned friend leaning in… it’s easy to imagine the whole story that wraps around this one picture.

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

There’s only one discordant note in the whole book – a few pages of commissioned portraits: white background, Avedon/Bailey-style. While Erwitt does excellent portraits, his best ones are natural, environmental portraits with a real informal quality to them. The posed portrait series sticks out like a sore thumb and serves to remind how his naturalistic style is what’s great about him and rightly dominates 99% of the book.

The wisdom of Elliott Erwitt

A few of the things he’s said that have really resonated with me, and sum up pretty well why I like the way he sees:-

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

“You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

“The work I care about is terribly simple. I observe. I try to entertain. But above all I want my pictures to be emotional. Little else interests me in photography.”

“All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.”

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

“I don’t believe that photography can change the world, but it can show the world changing.”

“It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.”

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin
  2. Masters of Photography. http://www.themastersofphotography.com/the-project/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  3. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  4. Erwitt, E. (2010) Snaps. London: Phaidon


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Exercise: Standing back (take 2)

Brief

Depending on your choice of lenses, select a medium-long focal length, ideally between 80 mm and 200 mm full-frame equivalent. What practical difficulties do you note? Because of the extra distance between you and your subject, you may have found that passers-by and traffic sometimes block your view. And what special creative opportunities do you find that a long focal length and distant position have given you?

Results

Note: I did this exercise once already, but with a focal length shorter than the recommended 80 mm, and I cropped the images in an attempt to emulate the effect of a longer lens (I do understand that this is flawed…). I said at the time that I’d re-run the exercise with a genuine telephoto lens, which I now have done. This time I used a 50-230 mm on a 1.5x crop factor body, giving an equivalent focal length of 75-345 mm in full-frame terms. All the selected shots are from at or close to its maximum length.

What I’ve learned

The first time I did this exercise I felt quite uncomfortable taking photos of people from a distance; it didn’t sit well with me, it felt a bit too sneaky. I felt like a paparazzo, a stalker or a private detective… Well the slightly shocking thing I picked up from doing it again was that – it didn’t feel so bad this time! I must be getting more used to it (which I suppose, in itself made me feel slightly uneasy! i.e. I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was getting comfortable with this approach…).

Anyway – the end result is that I’m sufficiently OK with the long-lens approach that I’m using it in some of the images I’ve taken for the assignment.

I suppose what I’ve really learnt by doing this exercise twice is that sometimes things might seem a bit uncomfortable, but maybe you should try again to see if it gets any easier.

From a practical learning point of view: the advantages noted previously were evident here, notably the ability to more carefully compose each frame before shooting. Similarly, the disadvantages (compression of perspective, obstacles) were equally in evidence.

At the end of the day, it’s another shooting approach I can add to my arsenal. I can see myself using it selectively rather than making it my signature style…!


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Exercise: Standard focal length

Brief

As in the previous two exercises, concentrate on shooting with one focal length. In this case, if you have a full-frame camera the focal length should be between 40 mm and 50 mm. If your camera uses the more common, smaller sensor size, it will be in the region of 27 mm to 32 mm.

Results

I took most of these at 27 mm on a 1.5x crop factor sensor, so the equivalent focal length is almost exactly 40 mm (the first image, of the benches, was at 35 mm crop sensor so 52.5 mm EFL).

 

After the last two exercises, at the extremes of long and wide focal lengths, I found this much more satisfying. The fact that the standard focal length approximates the human eye is what makes this kind of image work in my opinion – one of the defining characteristics of good ‘street photography’ is that it closely resembles real-life, without unnecessary distortion. It adds an extra layer of veracity that aids the feeling of ‘being there’. It feels more like photojournalism than creativity – taking more than making photographs.

From a personal point of view I found it much more comfortable: I neither felt like a stalker (as in the long lens shots) nor that I was unnecessarily intruding in people’s personal space (as in the wide-angle shots). As noted in an earlier exercise, one of the things that I think makes this kind of focal length ‘fairer’ is that the subject has a fighting chance of knowing that you’re there, and could object if they wanted to – it seems like a fair exchange, if that makes any sense.

What I’ve learned

Through these last three exercises I’ve come to better understand why most street photography tends to use the focal lengths that it does – namely the middle-ground, near-human-eye equivalents between 35 mm and 50 mm (full-frame equivalent). There are exceptions, of course, but these are stylistic choices that certain photographers make, and it gives their work a distinctive feel that in some cases distances their images somewhat from a true reality. If I’m going to do much more of this kind of photography in future, I believe I will do so with my 27 mm (40 mm EFL) and my 35 mm (52.5 mm EFL) lenses.


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Exercise: Close and involved

Brief

Switch lenses (or adjust focal length) to the widest angle that you have. A true wide-angle, judged from its visual effect, is around 28 mm or less. One of the uses of a wide- angle lens is to be able to cover a large subject area in one shot, but here concentrate instead on using it close to people, and try to achieve a sense of putting the viewer right inside the situation — as you will inevitably be! From the point of view of comfort and confidence, this is quite a challenging way to shoot, but try your best.

As with the previous exercise, note down both the problems and the advantages created by working with a wide-angle of view from very close to the people you are photographing.

Results

I used my 16-50 mm zoom at its widest, so an equivalent focal length of 24 mm due to the 1.5x crop factor of my camera. In a few instances I’d most likely have cropped a little in post-processing, but in the spirit of the exercise these are all straight out of the camera, keeping in exactly what was in the frames I shot.

To me, ‘Backlight’ is the most successful shot and that has more to do with the lighting and composition than anything else. I liked the expressions on ‘Young Couple’ and this is probably the only one where I caught a ‘moment’.

‘Three Friends’ and ‘Two Friends’ are OK composition-wise but not very exciting subject-wise. ‘Angled’ I kept in as an extreme example of how hard I found it to keep the camera level when shooting like this (I seem to have accidentally managed a 45º angle and this lends the image a certain something). ‘Photoshoot’, ‘Hat Lady’ and ‘Couple’ had extraneous elements in that I would crop out.

Advantages:

Not many to be honest! More immersive for the viewer in the more successful ones; feeling of being ‘close to the action’.

Brings an element of randomness to the results – mostly unusable but occasional surprises.

Disadvantages:

Distortion towards edges of frame (fixable in post-processing). This is most noticeable in the first two images, with buildings; it’s not so obvious with wide open spaces.

Shooting like this made me feel even more uncomfortable than the long-lens shots, for a very different reason. In these cases I felt like I was really intruding in their personal space.

Much harder to compose – mostly shooting ‘on the run’ whilst passing the subject so an element of randomness to the framing (sometimes works, mostly doesn’t).

What I’ve learned

I’ve previously used a wide lens for getting shots of people in the context of their surroundings, but this was the first time I tried to get up so close and fill the frame with the subject at such a short focal length. It felt like I was really invading their space and ‘snatching’ shots, and from a practical point of view accurate framing was near impossible due to the speed I was working. I didn’t find this style of shooting comfortable.

Right now I’m thinking that one of the objectives of the last two exercises is to demonstrate why the generally-held norm for street photography is a standard focal length – not too close, not too far away. Both of the extremes didn’t sit that well with me, each in their own way somehow taking advantage of the subject more than a standard, middle-ground focal length treatment would do.


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Exercise: Standing back

Brief

Depending on your choice of lenses, select a medium-long focal length, ideally between 80 mm and 200 mm full-frame equivalent. What practical difficulties do you note? Because of the extra distance between you and your subject, you may have found that passers-by and traffic sometimes block your view. And what special creative opportunities do you find that a long focal length and distant position have given you?

Results

I’m away from home at the moment without my full set of lenses. The longest lens I have with me is a 16-50 mm zoom (crop factor 1.5x) so full-frame equivalent focal length of 75 mm, falling a little short of the suggested 80 mm starting point. I may therefore repeat this exercise when I have my longer zoom (50-230 mm / 75-345 mm EFL) and go right in close on subjects’ faces. However, for the purposes of this version of the exercise I have used the standard zoom at its 50 mm (75 mm EFL) full extent, and have cropped the results a little to give an indication of what a longer lens might have captured.

‘Monk’ worked well in this vertical crop, maybe to do with the complementary colours. ‘Bougainvillea’ was a good example of the focal length compressing the field of view, which in this case led to a good visual effect. The remaining four, though unremarkable in themselves, are good examples of having time to be more precise with the composition.

Advantages:

I got some shots that I might not have otherwise been able to, either because being further away allowed me to go unnoticed, or practicalities like being able to shoot from over the other side of the street rather than being stood in the middle of road.

I could take longer to set up the shot, didn’t feel the need to rush so much.

Notably in the Bougainvillea bush shot, the longer lens gave more visual compression that made the subjects melt into the background. Shot from closer it would have shown more separation between background and subject, and wouldn’t have achieved as strong an effect.

Disadvantages:

The main practical disadvantage was that there were often obstacles in my eye-line that I had to work around or, in the case of moving obstacles (other people, cars) wait patiently for them to move on. Examples: ‘Monk’ and ‘Paddling’.

I was lucky to shoot with good light and so could work with fast shutter speeds, but I can see that the longer the lens, the more you need to keep the camera steady as the focal length exaggerates any unwanted motion and requires a combination of fast shutter, high ISO, wide aperture and maybe even a tripod (this last one seems out of place in street photography to me).

The biggest downside, and the reason I probably won’t do much of this type of photography under my own steam, is how it made me feel! Compared to the street shots I’ve taken before now, these made me feel very furtive, unethical even. I felt like a paparazzo, a spy, a stalker! I know it may seem contradictory or hypocritical but when you shoot with a normal/wide lens, you’re in the general field of space of the subject, and while you hope they won’t notice you, it feels like a fair exchange as they have a reasonable chance of reacting to you… in comparison the longer lens shots seemed to be much more intrusive – I felt like I was just stealing shots without justification. I imagine that this sensation is further exaggerated with a genuine telephoto lens.

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned that this kind of photography makes me feel slightly uncomfortable! More so than the closer, more street-level shots I’ve done before. On one level this seems slightly contradictory – before shooting I thought it would be ‘easier’ to shoot from a distance, and from a technical point of view it is, but the vague sense of unease I felt shooting from further away soured it for me a little. I felt less ethical, less engaged, less justified in taking the shots. So it’s both ‘easy’ and ‘uneasy’ …!


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Exercise: Capturing the moment

Brief

Find, as for the last exercise, a ‘comfortable’ situation, possibly even the same location. For this exercise concentrate on bursts of activity, from which you try to capture a ‘best’ moment.

When you’ve finished shooting, review your images and pick out those that, for you, best capture a particular moment. Make notes in your learning log explaining your choice.

Results

I took shots over a couple of days as I discovered that this exercise is not as easy as it looks! Finding exactly the right moments to capture – whether you know at the point of hitting the shutter or find it in the editing stage – is something that is difficult to do ‘on demand’.

The five pictures here are the result of a few hundred that I took in various situations and locations over the last three days. For each one I will briefly explain why I felt it was worthy of capturing that particular moment.

1. Skater

I shot from low down as I wanted to capture both the movement of the skater and the sharp shadow caused by the bright sunlight. This was the one where the body shadow shape came out clearest, and the legs straddled the red cone. The sense of motion is there, with the left leg raised, but the fast shutter speed has frozen the action well.

1. Skater

1. Skater

2. Tourists

I watched people taking photos of the view down onto the sea and after a while these two gents seemed to be mimicking each other’s movements, so I rattled off a few shots. This was the one where they seemed to mirror the pose the best. I still don’t know whether they were together or just resembled each other!

2. Tourists

2. Tourists

3. Photoshoot

This chap was taking pictures of his lady friend in front of a waterfall that I happened to be at the top of. I suppose in a sense I was doing the same as him – waiting for the right pose before I hit the shutter. I hope he got the shot too.

3. Photoshoot

3. Photoshoot

4. Macarons

I think this one stood out as I’ve managed to capture the exact moment she was picking up a macaron and I caught a smiley expression on her face.

4. Macarons

4. Macarons

5. Passing

I set myself up on a bench on the prom in Nice and took lots of pictures of who was passing, on bikes and on foot. My aim was to capture a moment of interaction or alignment between two people. In this one it initially looks as though they are together but on closer inspection it becomes more obvious that they are in fact walking past each other. I think this specific image captures the lines of their limbs well.

5. Passing

5. Passing

What I’ve learned

Whilst I enjoyed this, it did take a lot of outtakes to get to a set of usable images! If I wasn’t collecting images for an exercise I’m not convinced that I’d have considered these worthy of being shared, but they met the brief and proved the point.

In some instances (pictures 1, 2 and 5) I found it useful to pre-visualise what kind of image I wanted, and to position myself where I thought people would (if I waited long enough) wander into shot and do something interesting. For the others I was shooting a bit more speculatively, and really didn’t know whether I’d captured the right ‘moment’ until I reviewed the images after the event.

I haven’t shared them here, but in almost all cases there were ‘nearly-but-not-quite-right’ shots from a fraction of a second either side, that just missed the mark. It’s not always easy to describe exactly what makes each one work better than the close alternatives, but it was clear to my eye which ones ‘worked’.

As an exercise to demonstrate the concept of the ‘decisive moment’, it kind of worked – but as I said earlier, it’s really quite difficult to produce such moments on demand. But a very interesting and useful exercise, that has taught me to be both more demanding and more patient.