Saturday, June 30, 2012


A key question that I have been asking myself for the past 3 years studying with the OCA, is what makes a photograph art?  More recently I have started to question what makes anything art and have been investigating a little art history and philosophy.  Recently, however, I returned to the history of Photography and a book that arrived with my TAOP course materials.  A recent student debate over how readable "The Photograph" by Graham Clarke is sparked my interest.  I got about half way through this first time around and simply got bored, how would I take to it with the hindsight of 3 years of reading photographic texts.

The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History (Oxford History of Art)

I can confirm that it is rather badly written, but provides a very concise and interesting review of both historical and contemporary photography.  Clarke, like many academics, takes great joy in using 100 words where 10 might have done.  He also makes allusions that are not easily understood by a beginner to the world of photographic art at whom this book is targeted.  Reading the book was like a journey through all the key photographers whose names and images appear again and again in historical or critical texts.  The scope and coverage makes the book worthwhile, he really does address most key practitioners and movements.

Of more interest to me right now was a short volume by Cynthia Freeland, "But is it Art?", an introduction to the theories behind what makes an object a work of art.

But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory

Freeland considers the essential properties of an object defined as art, from the religious through to the highly theoretical.  A key part of the text is a discussion of how different cultures elevate objects to a status of art, even if technically art is perhaps not what they have in mind for what is frequently a spiritual object.  She also addresses controversial works such as "Piss Christ" a very large photo of a crucifix in a vat of urine.  Why is this art, it is visually interesting, but most of all it provokes thought and introspection.  The more the religious right railed against it in the US the greater it's status grew as an art form, the work created controversy and asked real questions - given that Christianity already has a body fluid obsession why so much outrage .

The concepts are well described, but still difficult to grasp, I guess I am struggling still to understand why something is art, it clearly is not a purely aesthetic consideration.  My key take away from the book is this idea that a work of art must engage the viewer and ask questions, something that I think photography can do very well.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Every course is different in approach, subject, and complexity; each brings with it a new challenge.   Stepping up to Level 2 during the Landscape course I discovered that my best work was done over an extended period of time enabling progressive development of ideas and simply access to a much wider variety of conditions than would be possible in a short time period.  Assignment 3 needed 25 separate shoots over 3-4 months, whilst the Portfolio kept me busy for the better part of a year.  At times I cursed the complexity of creating the portfolio, however,  the prolonged photographic engagement with the Olympiagelande led to an empathy with the land and how it changed over the seasons.

With Social Documentary I am embarking on yet another prolonged photographic study, but this time one that should last for the duration of the course and beyond.  The removal of the need to do a Portfolio for this course does not change the fact that creating such a study is an invaluable exercise in developing as a photographer.  However, I want to go beyond the Portfolio, in a sense I plan to turn the whole course into a single body of study.  Since starting with TAOP, 3 years ago, the content of my work has progressively become Munich, landscape and people.  With Social Documentary, Munich will be the subject, for projects and for assignments, although in contrast to Landscape it will be the people rather than the place that drive the study.

My proposed working model will be to plan in advance weekend photographic studies of the city driven by a number of themes:

  • Districts: Capture the essence of the different quarters of the city, from rich to poor
  • Events & Festivals: Every weekend in Munich something is happening somewhere
  • Public Spaces: the civic buildings, places of worship, parks and museums that are the heart of the city
Each "location" shoot will have two goals, firstly to complete the requirements of the ongoing project structure in the course, secondly to slowly accumulate a body of work that will become Assignment 4 of the course, a study of Munich that channels the work of Robert Frank.  Assignment 2 should also fit into this framework, but will depend on whether I can capture a coherent body of work.  I leave open the thought of using Assignment 2 to document the Oktoberfest.

With this comes a challenge and that is one of workflow, how do I plan to manage and sort the photographs that I capture across the coming year.  My tool set for this will be Adobe Lightroom, however, I need to start building a structure and process that enables me to capture and sort the images in a meaningful way.  
  1. When completing a shoot download all images into a folder labeled with the location and date of capture
  2. Sort the images into keepers for the 3 tasks I am trying to complete, the current project, Assignment 2 and Assignment 4.
  3. Process the images with a consistent strategy to enable the sets to hang together.
  4. For the assignments limit the number of new images to no more than 10 per shoot and carefully label with the date, location and some notes about what went on that day - keywords might help here
  5. For the project follow my usual process of keeping a set of collections, labeled "P1 Name of Project" and so on
  6. When writing up the project also post images and a description of the event from which they came, whether they comply with the project or not - in this way my blog will become a gradual documentation of the development of my assignments.
  7. Periodically sort through the assignment images to select the best as an ongoing straw horse for the assignments
  8. Back everything up as often as possible.
I guess this is the digital parallel of creating contact sheets and marking up the images of interest.

Normally I would not document this activity, but wanted to think it through in a logical manner and produce a record of what was planned to see if I do follow my own advice on this.

Black & White

Yesterday I had my introductory call with my new tutor for Social Documentary.  Whilst the call addressed a number of topics one comment gave me pause for thought, "What processing style do I want to adopt?".  This was in response to my initial posting on this blog in which I have a number of B&W images that were processed fairly neutrally, I had no particular visual style in mind, just simple adjustments to contrast.  

This is a question that I am familiar with and have asked myself before when working with landscape photography.  Is the set going to be high contrast, strong/soft colour, low key/high key, will I print on glossy, stain or matte paper, etc.?  To date this has been a decision that I have made as I close in on assembling an initial set of images as a straw horse.  It does affect how I shoot as clearly a soft image set is not going to emerge easily from a highly contrasting capture with an extreme dynamic range, but, is more of an influence on processing.  Each assignment in Landscape had a different processing target depending on subject. 

With this course I may need a different approach as I plan to build a coherent body of work investigating the people of Munich, a set of photographs that will need consistency when placed together in a book.  I guess this is akin to selecting a film type for a project and then sticking to that decision to ensure consistent tonality, grain, and colour cast.  Fortunately with digital capture these decisions can be made later in the process, however, a processing goal can influence how I shoot and even what I shoot. Exposure compensation decisions can influence whether I go down the high or low key route, time of day might influence whether I end up with a noisy grainy look or a clean smooth tonal range.

To test some of these ideas I have selected a photo taken on the weekend and worked through a number of slightly different processing strategies.  This group of ladies were sitting opposite Munich's shrine to Michael Jackson, a rather bizarre collection of memorabilia arranged around a statue opposite a hotel that he once stayed in.  The statue is some civic dignitary from the 18th or 19th century, nothing do to do with Michael.  This was 2 days before the 3rd anniversary of his death and several groupies had gathered for a vigil, planning a long stay by the amount of stuff they had brought with them.  It is not a great photo, could have been better framed, need to think more about opportunity and execution, however, I kind of like it and it is good for this purpose.

The first image is a straight conversion to B&W with no other modifications, fine, but not very interesting.

If I was to simply process the image with no specific target in mind, I would increase the overall and local contrast, sharpen a little and reduce the highlights to manage the overexposed background.

An alternate route would be to reduce the contrast and soften the overall look of the photograph, something that I might do with a landscape, but not a good idea for a street image such as this one

If I was to go for the B&W look that I like it is to boost the contrast a long way and accept some black areas together with a few blown out highlights.  I like this almost glossy very black and very white look.  It is still not extreme and preserves most of the data in the image.  The girls all wore black and this makes that much more obvious.  There is far better separation to the background and if it is overexposed so what, this is not the information that I want this photo to convey.

Another possibility is to introduce a little colour into the photo through half-toning, I quite like B&W images with a faint blue cast.  The problem is that this almost an affectation and I think would look false over a large body of work, versus a single print.

Finally another strategy is to emulate film grain.  I honestly do not like this, again it seems very false.  I work in digital so should embrace what it can do, not ape film.  If I want to have film grain I can go buy some ISO1600 B&W film and use my film camera.  However, that is not my goal here.

A clear benefit of Digital photography is that there is huge latitude in processing, the drawback of Digital photography is that there is huge latitude in processing.  Visual style is a choice with a great many degrees of freedom, it is very much in the hands of the photographer to decide where the final print ends up.  In my case, I think strong contrast, deep blacks and bright highlights are my personal style.  Did I mention that one of my favorite photographers is WeeGee?  OK I am not a fan of strong strobe light, but his graphical imagery of New York are an influence on my own visual style.

Another key question is how I plan to produce my final output, in my case it will be ink jet prints on matte archival paper.  This delivers deep deep blacks and again support the idea of going for high contrast.

Ultimately it is the subject that drives the treatment.  A city is built around right angles and edges, artificial light is always present, and during the summer the natural sunlight here in the South is very strong and contrasty.  I do not need to make a final decision now, but I do need to remember when considering what and where to photograph that subject and treatment go hand in hand.

Monday, June 25, 2012

P2: framing - a single figure

The key question that I posed myself whilst taking these photographs was essentially what is a single person, is it the only person in the frame or the person in the frame about which the photograph is made.  Is one person standing in front of a crowd a single person, or perhaps the question is how to photograph a person in a crowd and leave them looking alone.

Another question concerned scale and invasion of personal space.  I am using small discreet cameras for these projects and in the case of these shots a fixed 35mm lens.  This focal length is fabulous for what I would describe as environmental portraits, i.e. when the goal is to show the person in the context of where they are.  However, it is verging on a wide angle focal length and not a good choice for situations that tightly frame an individual.  A single person is potentially very small in the frame, unless I get extremely close.  When photographing weddings I find this focal length to be ideal for full body portraits of the couple, switching to a 135mm for tight head and shoulders shots. 

35mm focal length in hand, I walked in the center of Munich through the Englischer Garten, the cities central park.  This is a very popular place, containing beer gardens, running/riding tracks, stream, lakes, and most importantly plenty of open space for the mostly apartment dwelling citizens to chill and get some sun.  

My first two images look at people moving, placing them very deliberately in the frame such that they have a path to follow into the space.  Each of these shots provide a sense of where they are and clearly what they are doing.  The chap in the first image casually walks whilst reading his book, suggesting a calm tranquil spot, whilst the slightly blurry runner contrasts with his motion and focus.

At the center of the park a large beergarden seating up to 5,000 does a brisk trade in liter glasses of beer.  This guys job was to ensure that whenever anybody came up to the beer supply there was always a full glass ready for them.  The groups of glasses divide into Radler (Shandy for cyclists) and Helles (the regular blond Munich lager).  A person working is a good target for candid photography, being busy they are unlikely to register me and also provide a sense of purpose in the image.

I was there early and so the tables were just filling up enabling this photo of someone having a lunchtime Mass (Liter of beer).  He is too small in the frame, although I do like the pattern the tables make as they lead to him.

Further into the city this guy make a better subject at this scale.  The side of the cathedral is simple and unfussy enabling the eye to more easily pick him out of the image.  As with most other images in this sequence I find I am more comfortable with his presence over to one side of the frame.

Back in the park, an easy shot is someone lying on the grass relaxing.  I could have got much closer, but that would have lost the sense of scale and space that this image delivers.  He really has the place to himself, although not for long.  It was in the high twenties and the crowds were on their way.

I am still rather nervous taking photographs of people who are clearly aware of me and so often opt for situations where the person is already focused on some activity, in this case reading in a cafe.  The problem that this image brings is that the photograph has no presence, it is quite lifeless. Eye contact or at least a lower perspective would have helped that.

Similar case of a single person outside a bierkeller, however in this case two people are in the frame as I am reflected in the window taking the shot.

At the beginning of this project I asked the question about whether a person alone in a crowd constituted a single person.  In a sense it is a pointless question as this is clearly an artificial exercise, however, it does beg the question of how to frame a person in a busy place in such a way that they appear alone.  The old lady below is an easy case, she is well separated from the crowd.

This is a little more difficult, this speaker making a political statement was surrounded by people to his front, but not in a way that I could not crouch down and shoot.  The shot does not have enough separation between him and the people in the background to work very well.

This one is the best of the set.  The musician is clearly alone and yet surrounded by people in this very busy shopping street.

The biggest challenge I faced with these photographs was the focal length that I had chosen to use.  As I previously mentioned 35mm is an excellent focal length for groups of people or for showing an individual against a landscape, but it does not isolate in the way that a mid to long lens could.  I think for this type of framing either a normal lens in the 50mm range or a medium tele such as an  85mm would be a better.  The 85mm would provide much better separation of subject from background especially at a wide aperture and also would distance me from the subject creating a more comfortable shooting experience.  However, this comfort would show and the images would lose some of the engagement that getting in clode should provide.  That is assuming that I do get in close.  This is going to need some thought.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

P1: a friend in a public place

A nice simple and none threatening beginning, lunch with Heidi, a little shopping and a few photographs! I used my Fuji X100 with a fixed 35mm (FFE) lens, aperture mode and let the ISO float up to 1600. Very relaxing easy photography. The locations were not the easiest, mostly indoor and often away from any natural light. The camera managed it well, even at ISO 1600 the noise was pretty minimal.

This was a lot like wedding photography, following a person closely and looking for either angles or opportunities to bring out their character. Unlike wedding photography there was a limited degree of stress and we pretty much took it easy for an hour or so

Not a great deal I can really say about this other than that it was a fun day.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Starting Out

It's been a week or two now and I am starting to get to grips with the course and the first few projects. My first impressions are not too great, like many OCA courses there does not seem to be an appreciation fact that this is likely to be the 4th or 5th course that students take. Many of the initial exercises are warm ups for later work, however, that is what PaP and DPP are designed to do. This course is showing it's age and much in need of the upcoming refresh. This does not mean that the course is going to be unenjoyable or a waste of time, I just wish it would address the student at the level that they should now have attained. How many times do I need to do a vertical versus horizontal framing exercise?

I will do my best to turn these initial exercises into something more than they are, or alternatively just grin and bear it until I can start work on the assignments which are the guts of the course. Looking forward to going to the zoo, though. Fun place for people photography, unless of course you accidentally photograph a child and get accused of being a pervert - strange world we now live in. Henry Cartier-Bresson would have been on the sex offender list within weeks of doing any decisive moments.

As the title of this post suggests, this is my "just started a new course" statement, a place to summarize what I hope to get out of the course and where I want to be in a years time. It was a toss up between this and PWDP, a decision influenced by my Landscape course tutor and his observation that my work perhaps needs more of a human presence and that my digital skills are pretty much where they need to be for the time being.

So what do I expect to get out of this course and what do I plan to change in my current working practice:

1. The core reason for doing the course is to learn how to deal with the unwilling human subject, i.e. to photograph strangers confidently and to a degree fearlessly. We all start out with this sense of intrusion into other peoples lives and the worry that not all people will react with either a smile or indifference. By the time I finish I want to be far more comfortable getting into people's comfort zone and taking their photograph willing or not.

2. Develop a deeper understanding of how photography fits into the contemporary art world and how my work then aligns. By contemporarary I am thinking 20th/21st century, so perhaps not too contemporary. To create compelling work that other people want to look at it needs to at least address the issues of the modern art world not simply my personal aesthetic.

3. Start to look critically at other photographers work. I collect and study photo books, they are a source of inspiration and angst, however, I rarely look at a single image and really try to dissect it's meaning. I have bought a "paper" log book, something I have actively resisted so far. My aim is once a week or so to take a photograph from a book or the web, print it and then write a critique of what it means for me. I am using a log book to avoid copyright issues and also to permit me to scribble on the image. Let's see how this goes. I am realistic and it will probably last a week or two and then like many other similar ideas get swept away by my work load.

4. Spend some time understanding the philosophy of art and photography. I do not intend to start reading original works of philosophy, but at least spend some time on the books about books that are gathering dust on my shelves.

5. Improve the narrative content of my work, start stitching photographs into meaningful dialogs with the reader. This is the second key rationale for studying this particular course, to develop this element in my work under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.

6. Create a book of photographs, taken throughout the course, documenting the people of Munich and the city they live in, the reverse of my strategy for Landscape.

7. Treat the course with respect and get a decent grade. I need to avoid falling into the trap of belittling the subject matter, even if I think the projects and some of the assignments seem a little naive at first glance. They have been designed by smarter people than I, to get idiots like me to think...


The single greatest gift the OCA has given me so far has been the development of an avid interest in the aesthetics of the photograph and how photography sits within the broader context of 20th and 21st century art. I am progressively reading through a pile of books on modern art and doing my best to visit Munich's excellent contemporary art exhibits as well as photographic ones. 

However, for all my reading and viewing, one of the aspects of this great art that drew me into it in the first place still remains,  I am a gear head and love the technology of photography. I grew up with digital technology, we had a computer at home in 1980, although one that came in a bag with instructions on how to use a soldering iron.  Today we have 3 desktops powering various things in the house, 3 or 4 laptops, 2 iPads, 4 or 5 Internet radios, and the list goes on.  This is largely driven by living abroad, but needing a regular BBC fix, the computers do service as TV's most of the time. 

When I was younger I was prodded in the direction of photography with a Russian manual SLR followed by a Cosina with built in exposure metering (miracle at the time), however, I simply did not have the patience with the process as it was then.  When digital cameras came along, that was a new beginning, wedding a camera to a computer, brilliant.  I started with a 640x480 Minolta and things simply escalated from there.  With the advent of my first DSLR, a Canon 20D, bought 6 or 7 years ago to use underwater, a new element emerged, GLASS.  I started collecting Canon lenses adding a new one every now and then extending my capabilities and broadening the range of subjects I could tackle.  I now have a good range of prime and zoom lenses to turn to.  During last years 2 wedding shoots, I carries a 16-35 f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, 35 f/1.4, 135 f/2, and 70-200 f/2.8, plus two bodies, 2 flash units, tripod and a plethora of spare batteries and the junk that fills a camera bag.  Needless to say, whilst I got some very good photos and put both brides in tears with the subsequent book (acid test for wedding photography), I also ended up with a strained shoulder and extreme fatigue.

During my landscape course I routinely hauled my Canon 5D2 and a bunch of prime lenses around, again resulting in a variety of neck problems.  As time progressed I found myself devolving to a single zoom lens, my 24-105 f/4, and my yet my work continued to improve.  Finally for Assignment 5, I have shot the whole assignment using a Fuji X100, a tiny (by comparison to the 5D2) camera with a fixed focal length of 35mm (Full Frame Equivalent).  Each time I downsized it changed how I used the camera and ultimately how I looked at my subjects, the Fuji forces me to work the space, rather than simply turn the zoom ring.  I have learned a couple of key lessons.  The first is that the photographers vision makes the image, not the camera.  Secondly a small camera is discreet and non-threatening.  My final assignment for Landscape took me into communal but private spaces, the inner courtyard of blocks of flats.  A large conspicuous camera could have led to confrontation or at least suspicion.

As I now embark on a new course it is a time to assess how I take photographs and what I use to take them. The lessons from Landscape are very much relevant to this course.  A large black heavy camera with a substantial lens hanging off the front, especially a white zoom telephoto, will signal to everyone that a photographer is on the prowl.  Germans, in particular, have a distaste towards being photographed without their permission.  The country has a long and disturbing history of the use of surveillance photography to incriminate and then ultimately destroy people.  It is actually illegal here to take photographs and publish them without the explicit permission of anyone "featured" in the photograph.  In the age of Facebook this is largely ignored, but is a signal to the sensitivity of people to photography.  Discretion will be a key to my success or failure with this course.

Here is the equipment I used for Landscape Assignment 3 and next to it what I used for Assignment 3:

The small silver lens next to the Fuji is a brand new WA converter that takes the lens from 35mm FFE to 28mm.  The Fuji is just as capable as the DSLR in creating photographs and in fact at higher ISOs is substantially better.  The loss of weight and tiny size make this a superb camera to work a crowd.  It does have a singular downside, whilst 35mm is my favored focal length for many uses, it is quite short.  To go longer I need a different camera.  That's where the latest addition to the family signs in:

Before receiving the Fuji X100 as a very surprising Christmas gift from my wife (love has no bounds) I had invested in small and very cheap Samsung mirrorless system camera and a set of pancake prime lenses.  The NX100, whilst capable was not a great camera, so I have added the new NX20 to the system and an image stabilized 60mm. With a fold out screen and decent Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) this is a far better camera, effectively a tiny DSLR.  The whole system, with 20-50 zoom, 16, 20, 30, and 60mm primes, is still half the weight of the full frame DSLR sitting next to it.  I admit straight away that the DSLR is a better camera, but I suspect that with the Fuji and the Samsung I can go places and take shots that would simply never happen with the heavier conspicuous DSLR.

Before finishing this eulogy to my technology obsession, I would like to briefly document the other side of the shooting process, my workstation for developing digital images

As with the build out of camera systems, it is equally important to have a good quality post processing environment.  Mine is based around a Windows 7 desktop.  To this I have attached a 30 inch monitor as a prime editing space and an aging 24 inch monitor.  The second monitor is very useful when working through large numbers of images as pictured or when working in photoshop as a place for the toolbars.  Both monitors are calibrated and to the same standards!  The strong blue caste of the right hand monitor is barely noticeable to the eye and should serve as a warning that even when properly calibrated an old monitor might still be way off.  I do all colour adjustments on the primary screen and printed output is fine.  On the right is a RAID array containing 4 x 1TB drives in a striped configuration meaning that it will survive a single drive failure.  This is then backed up to a set of 1TB drives that otherwise sit on a shelf disconnected from power. The last key piece of technology attached to the computer is a graphics tablet for detailed photo editing, enabling a degree of precision and comfort impossible with a mouse.

Hanging off the computer is an Epson 9 ink R3000 A3+ printer and a V700 photo scanner.  The printer is superb and I am more than happy with the results it produces especially combined with Epson's Archival Matte paper.  I use the scanner less often than I thought, but it exists for archival work, I have a set of old family photos that I want to turn into a book for preservation purposes.

Turning to software, like many photographers I am fully bought into the Adobe view of the world.  Lightroom is my primary tool, I use it for managing my images and for RAW conversion.  Although I have Photoshop CS4, I rarely ever use it, I find that Lightroom is more than capable of the degree of processing that I want to do.  I use the word processing, rather than editing.  I change colour balance, contrast, and do apply perspective corrections where needed.  Cropping and spot removal are the only real changes to the actual pixel data that I do - I crop almost all photographs, I don't buy into the perfection of the frame as taken.  The only time I turn to Photoshop is for printing, it manages the print work flow far better than Lightroom.  For pure photographic purposes I now find that Photoshop is largely an expensive irrelevance.

In a very real sense this is my Digital darkroom, I can take images from camera to print sitting at my desk, I can also update my blog and keep in touch with my classmates -  I am sitting their right now typing on the keyboard.

All this technology is useful, a key part of my studies at the OCA, and a reflection on being 48 years old with no kids or a mortgage.  However, it is simply a means to an end and honestly not the most important part of my photographic practice.  The following image is where I really learn:

Looking at other photographers work is central to my understanding of the art and developing my own practice.  OK, Amazon are getting rich at my expense, however, living abroad I don't have access to libraries so am gradually building my own a few books at a time.  This set points to my interests and my initial naivety about photography.  The Newton book is a good example of something bought on a whim at the start of the course, not terribly informative to anything i am ever likely to do, although very impressive imagery.  My own interests at present still rest with the New Topologists and the photographers who emerged from the Duesseldorf school, however, I have a little of pretty much everything, expect perhaps Japanese photographers.

This is the one bone of contention between Heidi and I, I have been very clearly informed that when we next move house I can carry the bloody books myself.

So that is my photographic world, I am very lucky to have this, but need to continually remind myself that photographs are not made in front of a computer or in the pages of a photobook, they are waiting to be created outside my front door.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Photographing People

My key reason for embarking on this course is a realization that I am far more comfortable photographing things than people.  I am by nature a little shy and too happy in my own company.  Whilst not necessarily a bad thing this is not conducive to creating social aware engaging photography.  So in the spirit of if it doesn't kill you, it is good for you, I headed out on Sunday to do some "people" photography, i.e. specifically hunt down and photograph interesting looking people.

I set myself the goal to be up front and not to shy away from situations in which the subject was aware of me.  I wanted the person(s) to be the subject of the photograph, not simply incidental to the scene I was capturing, so I would have to get close in.  I took a small (and new) camera, a Samsung NX20 mirrorless compact together with a selection of pancake lenses, a 16mm, 20mm, and 30mm, plus a 60mm short telephoto.  This camera with the pancake lenses is tiny and so attracts far less attention than my 5D2 plus 24-105mm lens that would be my normal kit.

As I anticipated I found myself using the 60mm lens (90mm FFE) more than the wide to normal pancake lenses, clearly I was still not quite ready for the very close up, however, I got some interesting shots.  I benefited from walking into a large city centre event, the handworker festival.  Pretty much every weekend there is a fest somewhere in Munich that will involve the wearing of leather trousers and much bottom slapping, beer drinking merriment.  This was not different...

As I discussed in my previous entry, I plan to shoot a long documentary of Munich's people, gradually building up a portfolio of images that speak to this wonderfully diverse city and it's residents or visitors.  This is a start and illustrates the range of activity and personality that a Sunday afternoon can deliver.

As mentioned at the start I still found myself shying away a little and resorting to the telephoto, however, I was far more comfortable than I expected and quite enjoyed the process.  Perhaps it was my rather random wandering and absence of a theme, but I did find that I lacked the sense of purpose that I have with Landscape. I am used to developing a concept, shooting the concept and then delivering the concept.  With Social Documentary I expect the process to be far more serendipitous, rather than select a predefined theme, perhaps it will emerge as I gather material and experience.
I have processed this set of images to B&W.  I have not made any firm decision about this yet, but I am considering working the whole course in B&W.  I have a few reasons for this.  Firstly I simply want to explore the medium and discover what I can do without colour.  I am drawn to strong high contrast colour and this will be a chance to consider more the form and texture of images rather than the colour.  Secondly I want to make this course in part a study of Robert Frank, his work and his technique.  I do not want to copy him, but let his world view and aesthetic style influence my own.  For this B&W will be a better choice.  Finally B&W is very much more forgiving of exposure, fast moving street photography does not allow the considered careful approach that I have been taking with landscape.  The jury is still out on this one.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Photography 2: Social Documentary

Starting a new course is always a time for reflection, a point to pause and think about where I am in my studies and how I plan to move forwards.  As I come to the completion of Landscape I am leaving behind a course that I have enjoyed far more than I expected at the outset.  A major element in that enjoyment was the step up from Level 1 to Level 2, bringing with it two major changes to the way I work.

The first was the need to think far more about why I take photographs than what I take photographs of.  This required introspection and a much greater sense of how my work sat within the broader context of photography but also art in general.  Secondly, as a Level 2 student I found that I had much greater latitude in what I did, my work was my own. I was not simply following instructions.  Although the course title was Landscape and the guide was quite clear about what Landscape was, I turned it on its head and worked entirely within a city, rather than the countryside I was being pointed towards.

An outcome of the decision to focus on the urban landscape was that my work continually skirted the fine line between landscape and social documentary.  Indeed, I would argue that today almost all landscape photography contains a comment on humanities impact on the globe.  However, it is in the cities that landscape photography addresses social issues.  My take on this was that Urban Landscape photography should address where we live, perhaps now with Social Documentary the question becomes how do we live.

My final assignment for the Landscape course, a study of the "Innenhofs", (inner courtyards) of apartment buildings firmly placed my work in the domain of social documentary and provides an ideal bridge to this course.  

Looking back to the point 3 years ago when I started my first OCA course I can see a developing maturity in my work and an ability to isolate themes in the world around me.  Narrative and context have become critical to how I present my work, in particular I find a need to link my work into the city I live in, Munich.  Context is beginning to displace an obsession with technical accuracy, the idea of creating a single outstanding image seems pointless now.  I now work serially, each photograph only having meaning as a part of a whole.  Whilst the OCA usually asks for 12 images for an assignment, I generally produce 60 in a book form, from which the 12 might be extracted.  That does, however, point to a key weakness, as a true believer in the Digital revolution I take far too many photographs, still it could be worse.

Turning now to Social Documentary.  I have scanned through the course book and see a challenging  series of Assignments, although some of the accompanying projects do a look a little similar to many other courses I have done.  Perhaps that is the way of things, learning comes from repeating key exercises, refining skills through repetition, but each time in a new context.

I am currently thinking to do this course a little differently to the others I have tackled so far.  The first 3 courses I completed in a serial fashion, finishing projects and then doing assignments.  I would plan and execute each assignment individually, with limited linkage between each.  Landscape brought some changes to that practice.  The assignments were loosely bound by two themes, the city of Munich and the legacy of Munich's past.  I spent far more time on the assessed work than before, the Portfolio was completed over roughly 15-20 weekends, Assignment 3 needed 25 separate early morning trips to a local park to produce 8 photographs.  Working over long periods of time on very personal projects was the most enjoyable element of studying for the Landscape course.  Through this practice I have started to mature as a photographer engaging more closely with my subject and developing an empathy for what I do.

With Social Documentary I plan to continue and intensify this approach to photography.  I already have a plan in mind for tackling the assignments in a way that continues my engagement with the city.  Rather than treat each project and assignment separately I intend to work them into a single study.

Assignment 1, is the exception to this, it is a distinct piece of work and the one I least look forward to doing - spending a day annoying someone with a camera is not really my style, but hey needs must.  Last year I shot two weddings, this year none are planned; pity, they would make a great fly on the wall day in the life of...

The other assignments, however, have great potential to be part of a unified consistent body of work.  My subject will be the city of Munich and its people, locals, tourists, the ex-pat community, my neighbours.  My goal will be to document a year in Munich's social existence.  I have in mind as a goal a book very similar to Robert Frank's "The Americans", perhaps "Die Muenchener".  

One of the first "real" photobooks I bought when I signed onto TAOP was "The Americans".  At the time I found it very puzzling, it was my first exposure to serious photography.  As time passed I kept coming back to this little volume, the images in it gradually taking on new meaning and depth as my understanding of the medium grows.  Very much a case of how the background of the reader can affect the reading.  As a result of the recent 50th anniversary of the books original publication, many biographical reviews and reprints of his work have become newly available.  

Robert Frank changed the way we produce and look at photographs, creating a body of work that at the time was reviled, but rapidly became one of the major Canons of the art.  He revealed America in all it's grubby reality, challenging the orthodox view of a rich country built upon the equality of man.  He was ironic, witty, critical, revealing, all within a small set of images.  

My personal goal will not be to emulate his visual style, but to incorporate his world view into my photographs, I want to look at the people of Munich as he looked at the Americans, in both cases foreigners taking a new look at a familiar social landscape.  I cannot predict how this will turn out, although I already think my take will not be to bring Munich or Germany down, but rather to present a positive view of the people that perhaps contradicts the commonly held British stereotype of the Germans.  A major part of this work will be to document the seasonal fests, joyful events following a social and religious calendar that bring the people of the city onto the street to celebrate.  Every weekend, somewhere in Munich there will be a festival.  

A second element to my study will be to document the Irish community in Munich, through the Gaelic sports club, an organization for whom  I am gradually becoming the in house photographer.  This year the club wants to raise their profile and recruit new members, I am already producing publicity shots for them.

If I was to plan out the course right now, here is how the assignments would look:

  1. A day in the life of my Irish neighbour and best friend, Niall.  I will pick a day on which the Gaelic club or Irish community plans a major event then do a fly on the wall documentary shoot.
  2. Use the festivals and events of the Summer and Autumn (did anyone mention a small beer festival that we have here in Munich) to produce a series of photos of people getting together and letting their hair down.  Munich can seem like the Jubilee only repeated most weekends.
  3. Robert Frank
  4. This will be the hardest assignment, but my current goal will be to continually document Munich and it's people over a 6 month period and then pull a coherent set of images with a linking narrative from this set. As mentioned above I want to bring Frank's approach to his subjects to my set, not necessarily his visual style.  A key question will be Colour or B&W.  With colour I may end up with a Martin Parr set tather than Robert Frank, however, I see Parr's work as a natural progression from Frank.
  5. This one I will leave until the end of the course, experience will point to an appropriate subject.
OK, it probably will not work out this way, but the key point is that I start this course viewing my work as a single coherent study of the city's population, not a series of individual projects and assignments.  I plan a body of work.