Clare Strand – Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time- Grimaldi Gavin Gallery, London

Study Visit May 2015

The second part of my recent study visit was to an exhibition by the artist Clare Strand.

Pre reading about the exhibition describes Strand’s exploration of the ‘promise and the limitations’ of the photographic medium, although as I looked at the exhibition in person I took this to mean the medium of the photograph.

In contrast to Barthes (1980) assertion that the photograph (as a medium) is invisible to the viewer, Strand’s work sets out to make the focus the medium itself.

In reading about the exhibition the week before I visited, I didn’t expect to like the work, but I have to say I found it strangely engaging. Illustrating the point that no end of description can be a substitute for seeing things in the flesh.

Key exhibits included a number of ‘kinetic’ machines of the artist’s own design that create effects using original or found images. In these works the artist uses energy to impact on images, fundamentally changing them though the actions of the machine.

The Entropy Pendulum for example, slowly abrades the surface of a new photographs (taken from Strand’s archive of original and collected images) each day of the exhibition. At the end of each day the damaged image is then framed on the wall and a new image is inserted into the machine. The work accelerates the natural processes that damage a photograph, changing their nature and appearance. Time is accelerated and the finite life of the medium is simulated with all the connotations of what that might mean?

Strand 1 (1 of 1)

The Happenstance Generator is a strangely compelling device that I found myself drawn to more than any of the other exhibits. A large Perspex sphere fitted with a fan and containing many cut up images taken from Strand’s personal image archive. At timed intervals the fans drive the images around the sphere. The machine then rests leaving the images in a temporary alignment before the machine starts again. The transitory juxtaposition of the images in the machine creates short lived relationships. These were really quite interesting as just as you get a sense of the relationships the fan fires up and the images are all in motion again.

Strand 2 (1 of 1)

The exhibition was very thought provoking an I liked it emphasis on the ephemeral nature of the photograph as a medium, it challenged my thinking about photography and I will look further at the work of this artist.

References

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage UK

Advertisements

Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize Exhibition, Photographers’ Gallery, London

Study Visit

Some reflections on the event, the work and my learning.

I recently attended my first OCA study visit to the above exhibition. As a very new OCA student I was keen to take part in one of these visits, in part to see what they entailed and in part to meet other students. Distance learning works well for me in fitting study around a busy work and family life, but it can be a solitary and somewhat lonely journey.

I will comment on the wider experience of the study visit later in the blog entry but at this stage I want to comment on the learning experience of the gallery visit and comment on the work.

The Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize is run by the Photographers’ Gallery and sponsored by German Stock exchange organiser Deutsche Borse. The prize is intended to:

‘reward a living photographer for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format, within Europe, which significantly contributed to photography’

This study visit was to view and consider the four shortlisted finalists for this year’s award. I will comment on and consider their work in turn.

Nikolai Bakharev (b. 1946, Russia)
Relationship

I first looked at the photographs of Nikolai Bakharev, a Russian photographer whose body of work at the exhibition documented a range of family and group portraits taken around public beaches in the former Soviet Union. His subjects, who were almost all dressed in swimwear, reveal an interesting mix of candour and intimacy but also a sense of privacy and the hidden.

Most of the images seem to be taken amongst bushes and trees, out of sight perhaps of the others enjoying he beach and leisure time. The exhibition information talks about public nudity being forbidden in Soviet Russia. A wider search on the internet of Bakharev’s work shows that he has made many studies of nudes in private and public spaces, although there where none in this exhibit. Perhaps for the subjects of the images, being photographed they had a sense of the risqué in the attire they were wearing?

The images, predominately in a square format were taken with the sitter’s permission as they relaxed at public beaches in the former Soviet Union. Bakharev, himself a trained mechanic was, perhaps like his subjects, escaping the trials of daily life and he captures moments of peace and pleasures in lives that might be otherwise quite different. The Soviet Union in its final years was a deeply unsettled place. The images look to be composed and staged to an extent and some could be confused for formal family photographs, with the photographer being more intimate with the sitter than perhaps Bakharev was? A measure of his skill as a photographer in achieving his level of intimacy with what must have been complete strangers.

Whether by association and knowledge of the eastern block (I travelled there a lot in my youth and during communist times) there is for me a hint of the end of an era, of things changing and of uncertainty. There is a defiant confidence in the faces of some of those photographed, particularly in the intimate moments of some of the work featuring younger people.

It is true that there are some very poignant moments of genuine enjoyment, affection and association in this collected work. It is also a very strong, almost social anthropological record of a time now gone when the collective consciousness of a nation was driven by a strict and imposed socio-political system that limited individual freedoms. To me the strength of these images is that they capture moments when the collective communist will was at its lowest. I could of course be reading too much into the work but I found it coherent and engaging.

I do have to say however that in spite of enjoying the work I was confused at its inclusion in the short list. In spite of some very strong images I could not see how it met the remit of the prize in that it was unclear to me that it significantly contributed to photography?

Zanele Muholi (b1972 South Africa)
Faces and phases

I visited this work next and was taken a back by the strength of the wall of black and white portraits that for me dominated the exhibition space. Although made up of many posed images of LGBT individuals, it presented to me as a single connected and coherent image.

Muholi 1 (1 of 1)

Although the portraits had been posed, there was simultaneously a mix of pride and defiance in the faces of the subjects. The exhibition text and Muholi’s book tell something of the oppression, persecution and sometimes death of the LGBT community in South Africa and the context in which the images were made is clearly a complex one.

Describing herself as a ‘Visual Activist’ her work sets out to present a story to the wider world about oppression and prejudice in her home country of South Africa. The wall of portraits was augmented with a drawn wall hanging telling the stories, some cases from a parent’s perspective, of the sad fate that had befallen some LGBT people. I had mixed views about how well this artefact supported the work. The words where very powerful, but to my eyes it looked like the it had been created to look like it had been written in many different hands. This didn’t quite work and its message was slightly lost in the artifice of the wall hangings creation.

In addition to these dominant works there was also some large colour images of LGBT wedding ceremonies that were all together more celebratory of diversity than the rest of the work. There was also some video work that in all honesty I didn’t have time to appreciate fully.

I was left with a sense of a multi-media approach to documentary story telling that gave me a genuine sense of Muholi’s activism and her search for notions of identity in a society where there is clearly an orthodox and archaic view about sexuality and gender. The work resonated with the artist’s intention to say something about prejudice being ‘alive and well’ in a nation racked with inequality for generations. Now there are just new forms of inequality. The work appealed to the social psychologist in me and I felt this exhibit did push the boundaries of photography in a way that the prize judges would be seeking in coming to a final decision about a winner. This was a cohort and strong body of work that had deep impact on me as the viewer.

Mikhael Subotsky (b 1981 South Africa) and Patrick Waterhouse (b.1981 UK)
Ponte City

This was the third exhibit I visited and for me the most powerful. The artists had created a mix of large-scale photographs, collected artefacts, light towers of transparencies and 18 slim photobooks all on the theme of ‘Pont City’.

Pont City, a city centre tower block in central Johannesburg was built in a concrete ‘Brutalist’ style as accommodation for the aspirational middle classes in apartheid South Africa. The 54 storey block never fufilled its ambition and became a dilapidated home to drug dealers and the poor. Pont City is to me a study of the urban poor in its extreme. Some of the large images, particularly the one of the three robed priest praying in the open air and refuse with Pont City towering behind has an almost biblical quality harking back to renaissance painting.

The large image of the concrete and rotting interior of the building ‘Clearing the Core’ is like a vision of an imaginary dystopian future, but is actually in the here and now! This image for met set the scene for the whole exhibit.

4936-09_V2_Adobe_Final

Clearing the Core-Copyright Subotsky and Whitehouse

In addition to the large images there are some collected artefacts that form part of the exhibition, immigration papers and poignant letters to loved ones all displayed as a collage around a large picture of an immigrant boat. Above this collection of work is a sheet from a church newsletter saying ’Gods Plan for Humanity’. A saw much of the exhibition through the lens of this statement.

A further dimension of the work were the tall light boxes containing rows of transparencies, some looking out of tower block windows, others were of the hundreds of doors in the building, behind which many drug dealers appear to operate. The light boxes were very evocative and as well as being visually beautiful, also mimicked the tower block in stature, making for a strong and enduring sense of the place.

Point Cenre2 (1 of 1)

For me however the strongest part of the work were a series of ‘found image’ collages. These were pictures that had been found in the rubbish and detritus of the building that the Subotsky and Whitehouse had then located the original places in Pont City where the found photographs had been taken. They then re photographed the scene pasting in the found image. As well as been visually engaging, there was a poignancy about where the original people who had taken these photographs now might be? The collages said much about the transient nature of the inhabitants of Pont City and how far removed they were from the original intended occupants.

The photobooks were very powerful too. I only had tome to look a two in detail. Both told different stories, fictions about the place using a mix of text and pictures to imagine different futures for the location and the inhabitants. They augmented the work creating a rich sense of research and activity by the artists. To an extent, this work is in part what Cotton (2004) refer to as Aftermath Photography (pp10), in that it looks at the impact of previous events on the contemporary, in both a journalistic but also artistic manner.

The overall effect of the exhibition was to present a detailed, multi media study of a decaying edifice in which a dystopian future exists in the here and now for many of the inhabitants. The work is eclectic but coherent and for me created a link between documentary and art photography. Indeed this is work to aspire to and it had a profound influence on my thinking about practice.

Viviane Sassen (b. 1972 Netherlands)
Umbra

This was by far the most visually experimental work amongst the shortlisted finalists. There was a real mix of media ranging from pure pictorial photography, the abstract very conceptual images with a mix of colour and black and white video too.

Sassen who I believe has a background in fashion and art photography has explored the use of shadows in other works but in this body of work looks at shadow and reflection in both a pictorial and abstract manner. At the risk of being contentious (I am merely a new student to this world of conceptual and abstract art photography) I was uncertain about the title,
Umbra. Whilst shadows did play a feature in a number of the images I was left with a sense that the work looked into more detail around the notion of reflection and reflections and ‘Relexionem’ was a better title (retaining the Latin reference!) I also found it far more difficult to make the links between different works in the exhibit, I hunted for a coherence, a connection between the work but failed to make connections that were easily visible in the other three artists work.

I do recognise that this was photography at the boundaries of the art, to my limited knowledge anyway, and I would acknowledge this work perhaps most strongly met the brief of the competition organisers. There is therefore a tension for me in considering all four artists. I found Sassen’s work the least accessible and perhaps did not give it the time I gave to the others. I was also that last part of the exhibition and I recognise that I already had much buzzing in my head from the previous works. I have to ask the question would I have viewed it differently if I had visited it first. I am unsure, but it does raise questions about capacity to take in work and to do it justice. Whist I did not find this work the most interesting or appealing, it did make me think (far more than any of the other works) about my own image making, what I am trying to achieve and how I can create coherent bodies of work. In this sense it was perhaps the most influential from my visit to this gallery! There is a message here; you don’t have to like something for it to have significant influence!

The Experience of the Study Visit

So what did I make of the study visit in general? It was excellent to meet other OCA students and have the opportunity to look at work as a collective. I had the opportunity to share and reflect thoughts about the work with others and there was a genuine sense of some shared analysis.

The group work activity set by tutor Sharon Boothroyd in the gallery the café for us all to consider our favourite work and to justify our choice was very good and made for a very interactive experience. It was also good to hear alternative viewpoints. Critically reviewing art is not an exact science and a range of influences come into play, not least the context of any exhibition and the prior knowledge of an artist’s wider body of work. It was good to be put on the spot about committing to some conclusions about work.

I was part of a small group that felt the Subotsky and Whitehouse ‘Pont City’ was the strongest and most engaging of all the exhibits. We felt it deserved to win. Closely followed by the Muholi work coming a close second. For me there was a coherence to the Pont City exhibition that met the competition brief in strong mix of media, thought provoking imagery and wider message about life in post apartheid South Africa. It was worth the trip just to see this exceptional work.

On a final note, the study visit proved very valuable and I will make every effort, time permitting to attend as many of these as possible!

References

Cotton, C. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art-Thames and Hudson

STOP PRESS

I have just learned that the Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize judges have awarded the prize to Mikhael Subotsky and Patrick Waterhouse for Pont City! I am delighted.

New Order by Kevin Cummins-Proud Gallery Camden, London

Exhibition Visit – May 2015

New order Exhibition (1 of 1)

Kevin Cummins work in this exhibition documents members of the band New Order in a very close and personal manner. Captured on film, the band is pictured in a variety of contexts ranging from very evocative live concert images through to candid tour pictures. Cummins I believe was trusted confidant of the band and as a result he must have had significant access to bend members allowing him to create such an intimate body of work documenting members of the band from the formation in 1980 to their eventual split in the late 1980’s.

The images of candid moments are very engaging but I was particularly drawn to another dimension of the work. These where the clearly staged and posed photographs, perhaps intended for album covers or promotional material, This work had a classical quality that stood out in the body of work and perhaps says far more about the photographers style, motive and intent than the rest of the exhibition.

There is a variety of images in the exhibition, but it is held together through the predominant use of monochrome, Cummins use of quite high contrast exposure also adds to the coherence of the work. The exhibition links to the publication by Rizolli of Cummins new book, New Order.

The prints are a mix of formats predominately on 6×6 with some 35mm and they have all been printed at 16”x16 or 16”x20”. Almost all of the images were printed showing the edge of the negative, thus identifying the film stock. Most were printed on Silver Gelatin and with a smaller number of C type prints. The print quality was exceptional as was the overall presentation and framing. The prints were also for sale at the exhibition and started at about £1800, Cummins work obviously commands a high value.

There are a small number of colour prints, mostly 35mm. The quality of the printing is impressive given the small negative and large prints. In almost all cases the prints show the edge of the film allowing the viewer to see what format and film stock was used.

New Order (1 of 1)

What did I learn from this exhibition?

Well, I was impressed with how well the 35mm shots printed to a large scale, the use of ‘spot on’ exposure and slow colour film stock really demonstrated high quality use of this medium. It would be good to see some of the contact sheets (there were only two in the exhibition) to get a sense of how many shots were taken to achieve the finished results. Also there were some great examples of staged band shots. There we some ideas that I will try and incorporate into my own work. The candid shots also caught some pensive moments suggesting the photographer was able to capture moments on film without overly influence the environment be recorded. Again much to learn from this.

Project 3 Surface and Depth

Research Point- Campany and Colberg

IMG_0702

Thomas Ruff’s ‘Jpegs’ & the aesthetic of the pixel-Some personal thoughts

This is new work to me and I read the reviews by company and Colbert with interest although not before I had searched out some of Ruff’s jpeg images on the internet. Little did I know I was replicating Ruff’s own processes that led to his found image series in his book Jpegs and the exhibitions of this work.

Campany’s review I found a hard article to assimilate, he covers the themes of the photograph as an object of contradiction and he places Ruff as ‘trail blazer’ pushing the boundaries of the medium to new limits and pointing out the Ruff’s work is:

‘at once cliches and estranged visions of our collective photographic order’

I remain uncertain about Company’s reference to layers of photographic archives, which range from the formal archive that an original image may be located to the virtual archives that digital copies of the same image inhabit allowing me to see and screen grab the Ruff image below. To this he adds the notion of the archive individual viewers that retained memory of images seen and observed, a sort of cerebral personal archive. Whilst not fully understanding this , Colbersg forces us to think about photographs and images existing as a wide range of ‘objects’, some real, some virtual and some highly personal.

I did understand his description of the importance of the pixel in Ruff’s work, these ‘grid like mechinic’ elements are at the heart of the giant images Ruff produced. Ruff looked closely at the fundamental building blocks of digital image construction and viewed the artefacts produced by compression algorithms as a thing of interest in itself. The ‘found’ (found in that it was found through an internet search and not taken by Ruff) image below is an example of Ruff’s work where he makes the pixelation an intrinsic element in his art. What I found fascinating is that he took this approach to making art before the software we all take for granted was routinely available. Ruff’s exhibition prints of ‘Jpegs ‘ are giant in scale which I imagine means the artefacts of compression central to his intent in this work will be exceptionally prominent.

Thomas Ruff, jpeg ny02, 2004

Copyright Thomas Ruff (http://i1.wp.com/www.foto8.com/live/wpcontent/uploads/2009/10/ruff_nyc.jpg?w=1200)

It is interesting to note when considering the image above that Ruff was in New York on 9/11 and although he took photographs he discovered none came out when he had the film processed back at home in german. It was this event, the failed pictures which appears to have spurred him on to make the image above.

Colbergs article although brief does set out with some clarity Ruff’s motivation and an the goes so far as to suggest that some will not see Ruff’s work as photography in the accepted sense. Given he is using the images of others, the work is certainly a different take on the image as art. Colburg clearly struggles with the work:

‘The tremendous beauty of the images notwithstanding, the concept itselfesems to rely a bit too much on the technique itself. What else is there?’

So what does all this work mean for me? Certainly reading about Ruff’s work has made me consider the wide range of art practice encompassed in photography as a medium. I have to say however I was drawn to Campany’s comments about grain in film. Whilst he’s state that:

‘The pixel has replaced the grain of photographic film”

he does concede they are fundementally different and not before he suggest that in documentary photography of the 20 century graininess took on the :

‘connotations of authenticity’

I am very interested in this concept and although a tangent to this commentary this is a theme I will pick up at another time!

Ruff does appear to be exploring images in different ways, central to his work is the hidden world of compression algorithms that under most circumstances the photography ould want to remain hidden. Making that the creative feature of the work would suggest hidden layers of meaning. At this stage however I can’t in all honesty say i am able to decode that meaning behind the purely aesthetic.

On a concluding note I found a helpful overview of Ruff’s work in this review from the Photo8 website and I have to say looking at this helped me to make more sense of the Company’s and then Colberg’s articles.

In addition to the material referred to in the course and I found a very helpful segment of a lecture delivered by Ruff. It provides a valuable insight into the artists thinking behind his work and why he was motivated to produce the ‘Jpeg’ series.

As suggested in the materials I produced a very low resolution copies of one of my own images , saved at zero quality to experiment with this approach. Clearly the compression artefacts are not hard to see!!!

Brand 244 copy

References

Campany, D. (2008) Aesthetic of the Pixelhttp://davidcampany.com/thomas-ruff-the-aesthetics-of-the-pixel/

Colberg, J. (2009) Jpegs-Book Reviews April 17 2009 http://jmcolberg.com/photography/2009/04/review_jpegs_by_thomas_ruff/

FOTO8-The Home of Photojournalsim– Thomas Ruff Interveiw- http://www.foto8.com/live/thomas-ruff-interview/

Exercise 2.7

Use a combination of small apertures and wide lens to take a number of photographs exploring deep depth of field. Because of the small apertures you’ll be working with slow shutter speeds and may need to use a tripod or rest the camera on a stable surface to prevent ‘camera shake’ at low ISOs. Add one or two unedited sequences, together with relevant shooting data and an indication of your selects, to your learning log. Achieving deep depth of field might appear easy compared to the difficulties of managing shallow depth of field. We’re surrounded by images made with devices rather than cameras whose short focal lengths and small sensors make it hard to achieve anything other than deep depth of field. The trick is to include close foreground elements in focus for an effective deep depth of field image. Foreground detail also helps to balance the frame, which can easily appear empty in wide shots, especially in the lower half. When successful, a close viewpoint together with the dynamic perspective of a wide-angle lens gives the viewer the feeling that they’re almost inside the scene.
Liverpool Street Station at f16
It would have been very easy to choose a rural vistas for this exercise as I live in the east Anglian Country side. I purposely choose to do something different I am exploring the idea of documenting parts of my life and this presents opportunities, indeed challenges to me to think and shot differently as part of this course.

In looking at this exercise I chose an 18mm (27mm equivalent on a 35mm format camera) wide angle lens and set its aperture to f16, its slowest f ratio. Even with the cameras ISO set to 2200, this still yielded shutter speeds of between 1/4 and 1/12 of a second. Using the hand rail on the upper balcony rail of the arrival and departure hall at Liverpool Street station as a makeshift support for the cameras I was able to record the scene. tripods are forbidden in this space so I was improvising! whilst there is some movement as subjects moved during the exposure , the station building and furniture are sharply frozen in time form the front to the back of the sen

The scene had the appropriate level of depth as required in the exercise and I thought it would be a test for the lenses resolving power at it narrowest aperture.. The images show the effect of a wide lens and narrow aperture, there is a wealth of detail and depth in the foreground, mid ground and in the distance. My choice of subject did throw in some interesting effects though. With the relatively long exposures some of the people in the images have been frozen because they remained still, but those that were walking are blurred. The overall effect  creates a kinetic sense of movement and action of people in motion within the the scene, whilst still freezing the station. These are deep depth of field images, showing the effect of the smallest prepare on the lens. I was reminded of the photographers of the Group f64*  seeking to capture the maximum level of detail in images, trying to capture a new perspective on reality, using photography to make a statement about a new art.

At f16 I was not quite eligible for the group!

Liverpool Street 1 (1 of 1)

18mm f16 at 1/4 sec

A selection of the unprocessed images

Liverpool Street 1 (1 of 1) 

 18mm f16 at 1/10 sec

Liverpool Street 3 18mm f16 1-12 (1 of 1)

18mm f16 at 1/12 sec

Liverpool Street 3 18mm f16 1-12 (1 of 1)

  18mm f16 at 1/10 sec

Liverpool Street 5 18mm f16 1-40 (1 of 1)

18mm f16 at 1/40 sec *

Group f64 where a group of American landscape photographers in the early 20th century whose style and approach was to produce very sharp well framed realist ( some times called a modernist style) landscape views of the United States. There was an epic sense of the American wilderness in their work that said something about the place beyond the mountains  and forests pictured in their images. some members of the group were also known for the outspoken views about what they saw as less authentic pictorialist images. The tensions between Adams and Key exponents of the group were Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham.

Assignment 2: Collecting – Crowds

Brief

Create a series of between six and ten photographs from one of the following options, or a subject of your own choosing:

  • Crowds
  • Views
  • Heads

Use the exercises from Part Two as a starting point to test out combinations of focal length, aperture and viewpoint for the set. Decide upon a single format, either vertical or horizontal. You should keep to the same combination throughout to lend coherence to the series.

  • Crowds make a great subject for photography, not least because they are so contemporary. A city rush hour is a good place to start but events also offer great opportunities to photograph the crowd rather than the event. The foreshortened perspective of the telephoto lens will compress a crowd, fitting more bodies into the frame, but it can also be used to pick out an individual person. A wide-angle lens can capture dynamic shots from within the action.
  • If you choose to make a collection of views you need to be prepared to do some walking so keep the weight of your equipment to a minimum – you’ll walk further and see more. A tripod will be important to allow you to select a combination of small aperture and slow shutter speed to ensure absolute sharpness throughout the frame. The weather and time of day will be crucial, whether for urban or landscape
  • views. A wide-angle lens is the usual choice but Ansel Adams also used a medium telephoto to foreshorten the perspective, bringing the sky, distance and foreground closer together.
  • Heads: Frame a‘headshot’, cropping close around the head to avoid too much variety in the backgrounds. The light will be paramount and a reflector is a useful tool (you can ask the subject to hold it), throwing light up into the face, especially the eyes. The classic headshot is buoyant but neutral which is quite difficult to achieve, but try to achieve a natural rather than an artificially posed look.

Crowds

“The crowd- The mass or multitude of ordinary people”

 Oxford English Dictionary

Covent Garden 7 230mm f8 1-700 (1 of 1)

“If it has to choose who is to be crucified, the crowd will always save Barabbas” – Jean Cocteau

Be yourself 230mm f6.7 1-600 (1 of 1)

“Be yourself; everyone else is taken” – Oscar Wilde

Covent Garden 10 230mm f8 1-900 (1 of 1)

“One of the first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take the medicine” William Osler

Youth 205mm f14 1-125 (1 of 1)

“If you want to hold a crowd, just mystify it.” Ernest Vincent Wright

Covent Garden 6 95mm f8 1-200 (1 of 1)

“If you wait for opportunities to occur, you will be one of the crowd” Edward De Bono

Solo man 230 mm f 6.7 1-680 (1 of 1)

“Every select man strives instinctively for a citadel and a privacy, where he is free from the crowd” Friedrich Nietzsche

Covent Garden side 17 216mm f9 1-300 (1 of 1)

“The only power deserving the name is that of the masses” John Stuart Mill

Covent Garden side 19 216mm f13 1-160 (1 of 1)

“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.” Philip K Dick

( click on image to enlarge)

Introduction and background to the assignment

For this assignment I selected the theme of Crowds. This was intended to be a challenging choice given that I live in a sparsely inhabited area of eastern England.

I was also aware that as well as attempting to produce a coherent set of images, I wanted to explore and demonstrate some of the techniques that had been discussed and practiced in the exercises within section two of the course. In particular the concentration on the control of aperture as a way of managing the space in an image as seen by the viewer. The course demonstrated how by controlling what the viewer sees, through for example the use of wide apertures and a directive shallow depth of filed or the viewer being left to make their own choice through the use of narrow apertures and deep focus. I also wanted to make reference to the notion of aesthetic codes and my developing understanding of this concept. In all there was a lot to try and cover in the assignment.

Early in the planning stages I decided to shoot the images in monochrome. My reasoning for this was to remove one of the variables and in trying to create a coherent theme, I felt the colour could be a distraction.

In considering the content of the images I considered ‘crowds and the masses’ as themes that have been picked up in literature and writing in general. As part of my preparations and planning I also looked at some perspectives in literary sources, homing in on a number of quotes about crowds from a range of sources. I had also been reflecting on Berger’s (2013) idea that images can take on new meaning when combined with other coded information, the most common being the addition of the written word with an image. With this in mind I decided to add a related quote with each of my images. A bit risky perhaps, but I had committed to taking more risks following the feedback from assignment one.

Technical and practical approaches

The first choice to make was the location or locations I could make my images. In the search for crowds I thought I would travel to London where I would be guaranteed significant groups of people, this proved to be an important choice. I settled on a number of locations and scheduled some shooting time in planned trips to London already in my diary. The final locations I settled on were: Liverpool Street station, Covent Garden Piazza, Oxford Street / Regent Street, Camden Market and the Underground tube system.

From the outset I decided to take two separate and distinct approaches in making the images. The first was to look at crowds from a fixed vantage point and use a long focal length lens to flatten perspective and isolate specific scenes within a crowd. Within this approach I set out to use a mix of wide and narrow apertures to create both deep and shallow depth of field images. This approach did present some specific technical challenges because using narrow aperture and long focal lengths would in an ideal world be assisted with a tripod. However this was not possible in the busy locations I selected so I needed to shoot all the images hand held. The longest focal length I used for the images was 345mm. This did require the use of relatively high ISO settings as well.

In parallel to this approach I set out to make a number of images by moving through and within a crowd. To do this I used a very wide angle lens (15mm) set to a narrow aperture. The purpose of this approach was to attempt to photograph the crowd from within and the narrow aperture was to ensure as deep a focus as possible. There were challenges with this approach given that the narrower aperture required slow shutter speeds on the dull days I took the images. Careful hand holding proved to be a must. It is worth noting that both approaches were given an equal amount of time but only one of the two approaches provided me with images that I wanted to use in the final selection.

Self review and evaluation

My final selection was 8 images from more than 200 taken with mainly long focal lengths, although there were one or two taken with a shorter focal length. In the final choice I excluded all the images taken with the ultra wide angle lens from within the crowd. The reason for this was that from a distance and using a longer focal length a real sense of the crowd as mass of people is seen, this sense of a mass of people was an element of the aesthetic code I was trying to create. A key element of this was a sense of claustrophobia and people in very close proximity.

Up close and from within a crowd, there is not the same sense of the density of people and bodies. Put simply, from within the crowd there is not the same sense of of there actually being a crowd. The rejected images below highlight this and are representative of a significant body of photographs I chose not to use. From a distance the space looked very crowded but within the crowd there simply was not the level of interest or context I was attempting to photograph.

Oxford Circus 1 (1 of 1)

Oxford Street, 15mm at f11

 

Oxford street 7 (1 of 1)

Leicester Square, 15mm at f8

I experienced the same effect on the tube train, even on very busy tube trains, where I needed to use a very wide angle lens, narrow aperture and slow shutter speed, in the confined space there is still not the sense of claustrophobia and population density I wanted to achieve. The image below demonstrates this, it was a very crowded train but it is hard to capture a real sense of the mass of people in a crowd, as I discovered from within the crowd! Being the outsider was a much better approach.This was not wasted time though, understanding this line of photographic exploration still yielded valuable learning.

Tube 5 (1 of 1)

Tube train 15mm at f5.6

Using a longer focal length I also looked at some high vantage points, but again even in some apparently very busy locations I still struggled to create a sense of people in close proximity, the images simply didn’t fit what I was trying to achieve in recording a sense of the crowd. The images below were rejected but demonstrate some of the wider experimental and exploratory approaches I tried.

Camden market 18mm f11 1-1800 (1 of 1)

Camden Market 27mm at f8

I applied the same approach at the train station and made a number of images, some included a ‘blurring’ as people rushed through the station concourse. I explored this theme for a while but just felt that the images were dull and didn’t convey what I wanted to say. I have included a few examples below for reference.

Liverpool Street 23m f811 1-105 (1 of 1)

Liverpool Street Station 27mm at f11

Liverpool Street Station 27mm at f11

Liverpool Street 35.8mm f11 1-40 (1 of 1)

Liverpool Street Station 27mm at f11

Having experimented with a number of approaches, the images below, taken with a long focal length on Regents Street gave confirmed for me that the use of long focal length to create a sense of ‘population density’ within a crowd was the approach I wanted to explore further. The images didn’t quite achieve what I was envisioning but they influenced what I was doing and how I was thinking and shaping my vision of how to respond to the assignment brief. The subsequent set of images, predominantly take around the Piazza at Covent Garden, using a 55-230mm (1.5x crop framed camera lens) gave me the direction to complete the assignment.

Regent Street Front 20 144mm f6 1-2900 (1 of 1)

Regent Street 215mm at f16

Regent Street Front 21 144mm f14 1-680 (1 of 1)

Regent Street 215mm at f14

It is important to note that I wasn’t happy with either of the above images but they opened up a different way of seeing the crowd. It occurred to me that I as creating a clear personal vision in my own mind about what I wanted to say in my crowd assignment.

In reviewing my final set of images I was reasonably happy with the technical quality of about 40% of the photographs. I feel the monochrome approach worked well and in the shallow depth of field images I was pleased with the areas of sharp focus and also the out of focus areas. I did think hard about the composition of the out of focus spaces as well as the sharp focus elements of the images.

There is plenty of room for improvement though. I would in the future use a monopod to allow for some slightly longer exposures which in turn would allow some narrower apertures to be used. Also, having undertaken this wok in monochrome and developed a personal vision in response to the brief, the next steps would be to try and move the process on and use colour too.

Summary

This was a very interesting assignment and I do feel that there is a coherence to the final set of images. I think I have created a sense of the crowd as a dense mass of people whilst also saying something of the individuals within the crowd. The literary references in the captions will shape the viewers thinking even if they do not like them.

All of that said there is much I could do to improve the work. Some of the images are not as sharp as I would like and there are several of the images there are distractions within the framing, where the final image was to some extent a compromise.

The idea of the crowd as a mass of individuals is a theme I have really only just scratched the surface in exploring. To improve the work I would like to get in even closer, make the individuals stand out more whilst still retaining the sense of a mass of people. In many respects I am far from satisfied with the final selection but they do illustrate what I was trying to communicate, they could certainly be improved through better framing and some cropping.

I would also like to explore the idea of solitude in the crowd, a tricky but interesting theme that at first may sound paradoxical. I have however made several images that I think are about solitude. I will re work some of these images and thoughts when I next get the opportunity to get back to London. As mentioned earlier I will also use a monopod for some of the longer focal length images.

On a final note I want to say something about aesthetic codes. In Mona Kuhn’s work highlighted in the course materials there is a clear reference to using a shallow depth of field to create a feeling of intimacy. I do think I have used a shallow depth of field in the context of the crowd to create intimacy, but also to create a sense of solitude and even perhaps alienation. In particular I feel the image below emphasises this, there are lots people, but some of them may well be very lonely.

Solo man 230 mm f 6.7 1-680 (1 of 1)

Covent Garden Piazza 230mm at f6.7

My learning point from this, which I reflect upon my blog, is that I believe that aesthetic codes are created by the interplay of a range of factors of which depth of field is just one. Framing, subject choice , colour and in some cases captioning all contribute to an aesthetic code. I recognise that I still have some way to go in fully understanding this concept. Through some peripheral reading, I now recognise the need to look at the concept of semiotics in some detail. Still lots to learn but I feel I am making some progress.

References

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. Penguin Classics, London

Cocteau, J. (1926) Le Rappel a L’ordre. Delemain et Boutelleau, Paris

DeBono, E. (2009) Quoted in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations Oxford Press, London

Dick, P.K. (2009) Quoted in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations Oxford Press, London

Mill, J.S. (1977) The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill-Essays on Politics and Society.Rutledge Keegan and Paul, London

Nietzsche, F. (2003) Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin Classics, London

 Bliss, M. (1999) William Osler, quoted in Osler: a life in medicine. Oxford

Wilde, Oscar (2009) Quoted in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations Oxford Press, London

Wright, E. (1939) Gadsby. CreateSpace.London

Zola, E. (1999) The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories. Oxford World Classics, London

Contact Sheets for Assignment Two

John Orr Crowds Contact Sheets

Exercise 2.6

Use a combination of wide apertures, long focal lengths and close viewpoints to take a number of photographs with shallow depth of field. (Remember that smaller f numbers mean wider apertures.) Try to compose the out-of-focus parts of the picture together with the main subject. Add one or two unedited sequences, together with relevant shooting data and an indication of your selects, to your learning log.

Wide apertures create shallow depth of field, especially when combined with a long focal length and a close viewpoint. In human vision the eye registers out-of-focus areas as vague or indistinct – we can’t look directly at the blur. But in a photograph, areas of soft focus can form a large part of the image surface so they need to be handled with just as much care as the main subject.

Don’t forget that the camera’s viewfinder image is obtained at maximum aperture for maximum brightness and therefore at the shallowest depth of field. Use the depth of field preview button to see the actual depth of field at any particular aperture. (This is especially useful in film cameras where you don’t have the benefit of reviewing a shot immediately after you’ve taken it). It’s surprising to see the effect that a single f stop can have on the appearance of an image.

Still Life at f2.4

For this exercise I decided to take the images inside. In part that on the day i had some time to execute the work the English weather decided not to cooperate. I tend to shoot fairly rarely indoor so there were some added challenges to this work. 

To demonstrate and experiment with the shallow depth of field I created a simple still life scene and selected a 60mm focal length lens (90mm equivalent on a 135 full frame) I chose a reasonably fast lens with a maximum aperture of f2.4. I shot all the images with the lens wide open in order to force myself to manage the shallow depth of field that this setting would create. I was very mindful of the out of focus areas when composing the shot and I was trying to bring a commercial feel to the images. 

Interestingly in the excerice I had to take far more shots in order to get some images that I was pleased with. This was quite different to the exercise with a wide angle lens at small aperture. Logically this is because with a longer focal length at wide aperture there is a much greater chance of getting images that are out of focus or where focus is not concentrated on the part of the scene the photographer intended. A further observation is that a tripod would not really assist with this because in the focal length aperture combination the issues relating to focus are far more about where the photographer frames the ‘in focus ‘ and ‘out of focus’ elements of the image than they are about things like camera shake. I came to the view that this was very much a framing exercise. It also tested me to think about where  I wanted the emphasis in the image to be.

Rolleiflex and Ektar 100

Rolleiflex final 3 60mm f 2.4 (1 of 1)

1957 Rolleiflex 3.5E and 15 rolls of Kodak Ektar 100 at f2.5

Rolleiflex 6 60mm f 2.4 (1 of 1)

60mm f2.4  1/120sec

Rolleiflex 3  60mm f 2.4 (1 of 1)

60mm f2.4 1/110sec

Rolleiflex 1  80mm f 2.4 (1 of 1)

60mm f2.4 1/60sec

Rolleiflex 2  60mm f 2.4 (1 of 1)

60mm f2.4 1/110sec

Rolleiflex 7 60mm f 2.4 (1 of 1)

60mm f2.4 1/120sec

Rolleiflex 5 60mm f 2.4 (1 of 1)

60mm f2.4 1/60sec

Reflections and Learning

Reflecting on the exercise I was being influenced by commercial and adversing photography. this is a disciple I suspect where focus and where the eye is drawn is a vital marketing tool. I was reminded of one of the quotes in the course materials:

“The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s  eyes”      Wim Wenders*                                                                    

Controlling where people look in an image is a vital tool in image making. With  a wide angle lens and small aperture the observer is almost invited to explore the whole scene, it is all sharp and it is all available. 

With the wide aperture long focal length lens the photographer can control where the observer look long after the image was taken, indeed long after the photographer is gone!

References

Wenders , W. (1997)  Quoted in Expressing Your Vision Course Materials OCA 2015

Exercise 2.5

Find a subject in front of a background with depth. Take a close viewpoint and zoom in; you’ll need to be aware of the minimum focusing distance of your lens. Focus on the subject and take a single shot. Then, without changing the focal length, set the focus to infinity and take a second shot. The closer you are to the subject, the shallower the depth of field; the further from the subject, the deeper the depth of field. That’s why macro shots taken from very close viewpoints have extremely shallow depth of field, and if you set the focus at infinity everything beyond a certain distance will be in focus. As you review the two shots, how does the point of focus structure the composition? With a shallow depth of field the point of focus naturally draws the eye, which goes first of all to the part of the image that’s sharp. It generally feels more comfortable if the point of focus is in the foreground, although there’s nothing wrong with placing the point of focus in the background.

This was an interesting exercise considering some aspects of ‘lens work’ that I have often taken for granted. I have a solid understanding about how  lens controls (focus and aperture combination) influence depth of field and where emphasis is placed in a scene as a result of such controls. As this section of the course is about imaginative space I pondered on the lens as a tool for controlling and managing the space seen by a viewer in a final image. 

BM Railing 1 18mm f2.8 1-2700 (1 of 1)

In the first image I focused on the gate railings of the British Museum. The 18mm lens was focused on the detail of the railing bars and an aperture of f4 was used. The background was thrown out of focus. In my view the out of focus background creates a sense of emphasis forcing the viewer to look at the detail in the railings. This shallow depth of field technique is often used by photographers to manage space, forcing the viewer to look at a specific part of a scene. In effect space in the image is managed by the intent of the photographer. Portraiture is just one example of practice that uses this shallow depth of field and out of focus background to manage what the view sees. BM Railing 218mm f4 1-2700 (1 of 1) In this second image the focus was set to infinity. Now the railing bars are out of focus and the background is in focus. in this shot the areas of sharper focus and the railing bars in from ‘jar’ on the eye in my view and whilst there is nothing wrong with this there is some visual conditioning that makes this juxtaposition seem wrong. The image just does not look right. The effect I described in the previous image does not work in reverse. An out of focus foreground and sharp background only serve to create a sense that something that is not necessarily wrong, but that does feel unsatisfying ( what ever satisfying actually is??). That said I have seen photojournalists use this effect to create a sense of alienation, perhaps relying on the uncomfortable effect foreground blur creates. Something to think about in future work?

Another image to emphasise the impact that an out to focus background has on emphasising the foreground, again using a wide aperture and focusing on the object in the foreground.

Fisrt class1 18mm f2.8 1-105 (1 of 1)

Exercise 2.4

Find a location with good light for a portrait shot. Place your subject some distance in front of a simple background and select a wide aperture together with a moderately long focal length such as 100mm on a 35mm full-frame camera (about 65mm on a cropped-frame camera). Take a viewpoint about one and a half metres from your subject, allowing you to compose a headshot comfortably within the frame. Focus on the eyes and take the shot. Longer focal lengths appear to compress space, giving a shallower depth of acceptable sharpness, which is known as depth of field. This makes a short or medium telephoto lens perfect for portraiture: the slight compression of the features appears attractive while the shallow depth of field adds intensity to the eyes and ‘lifts’ the subject from the background.

Portrait

In the exercise I resisted the temptation to take the shot in portrait mode. I am trying to keep all of my images at the moment in landscape format. I chose a simple background but one in which there would be some out of focus detail that would create a space to frame the portrait and as suggested in the course materials I focused very specifically on the eyes. The image was taken with a 60mm (90mm 135 equivalent) and it was set  at its widest aperture f2.4).

Katy portrait 11 60 f2.4 (1 of 1)

As a film shooter ordinarily (this is a digital image) I tend not to take lots of pictures and try and get the shot I want on the first or second attempt. This image was one of three shots and in this one the focus on the eyes was the strongest. The image has had a hint of sharpness adjustment and other that that is straight out of the camera. With hindsight I should have reduced the aperture by one stop and that would have aided the focus upon the eyes without limiting the shallow depth of field too much.  the finished impact of the shallow depth of filed in this image does I feel lift the subject from the background and direct the viewer to focus on the subject.

Exercise 2.3

Choose a subject in front of a background with depth. Select your shortest focal length and take a close low viewpoint, below your subject. Find a natural point of focus and take the shot.

You’ll see that a very wide lens together with a close viewpoint creates extreme perspective distortion. Gently receding lines become extreme diagonals and rounded forms bulge towards the camera. Space appears to expand. The low viewpoint adds a sense of monumentality, making the subject seem larger than it is, and tilting the camera adds to the effect as vertical lines dramatically converge. Not the ideal combination for a portrait shot!

Monument!

For this exercise I took several images to try and demonstrate the point being made in this exercise. I chose a wide angle lens, an 18mm (27mm in 135 format) and used a low shooting angle to create the sense of monumentality referred to in the course materials.

The humble Victorian post box that was the subject of the shot is given the appearance of being quite grand even though in reality is is actually really quite small!

The point made in the course materials about this not being an approach for portraiture is well founded. I did take two images of my daughter using this technique which she utterly forbad me from using or sharing!!!

postbox moon118mm f2 (1 of 1)

postbox 118mm f2 (1 of 1)