Create a series of between six and ten photographs from one of the following options, or a subject of your own choosing:
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.
“The crowd- The mass or multitude of ordinary people”
Oxford English Dictionary
“If it has to choose who is to be crucified, the crowd will always save Barabbas” – Jean Cocteau
“Be yourself; everyone else is taken” – Oscar Wilde
“One of the first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take the medicine” William Osler
“If you want to hold a crowd, just mystify it.” Ernest Vincent Wright
“If you wait for opportunities to occur, you will be one of the crowd” Edward De Bono
“Every select man strives instinctively for a citadel and a privacy, where he is free from the crowd” Friedrich Nietzsche
“The only power deserving the name is that of the masses” John Stuart Mill
“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 Street, 15mm at f11
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 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 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 Station 27mm at f11
Liverpool Street Station 27mm at f11
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 215mm at f16
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.
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.
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.
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