Sunday, July 22, 2012

Assignment 1: 10 photographs

Since having the first idea around this assignment I have rapidly assembled a set of photographs that look like a good start and perhaps even an end to this assignment.  I mulled over what a "day" would be and what day to capture.  A weekend, a day out to somewhere cool, a composite day that illustrated the many elements of my life?  In the end I became very introspective and started to consider what is a typical day for me, how do I live what do I do and how do I reveal myself to others, the viewers of these photographs.  As part of the research for this study I took a look at some of Nan Goldin's self portraits and studies of friends, plus a brief look at some of Richard Billingham's "Rays a Laugh" photographs.  WHat struck me was that some of the most powerful photographs were often very ordinary moments, but ones in which the subject revealed their inner self.  My life is not as dramatic as Nan's or as sad as that of Ray, but it is my life so how to tell the story?

First off, a single day would be hard to document, so I have worked over several days, taking advantage of a predication towards black t-shirts to ensure continuity.  I wanted to describe a normal day, a working day. I work from home and so this did not present any access issues with the camera.  On a typical day I spend about 15 hours out of bed, of which 12 hours will be spent in front of my computer working.  As 10 photos of me working are not going to be terribly interesting, I am more interested in the 3 hours when I am not working.  I have gone with a high contrast B&W style, somehow suiting the depressing days I sometimes endure.  This was also driven in part by a need for continuity in the imagery and the need to therefore shoot at ISO 3200, noise was going to be a factor (a welcome one in this case).  Unlike landscape I am not too worried about technical excellence in the images, what I want is representation and conveyance of mood.

I start the day with my camera on a tripod in the bathroom, carefully positioned to preserve my modesty, but reveal myself.  The first shot in the shower captures a moment when I am trying to wash away the fatigue of the previous day.  I am currently working 12 or more hours a day and I am beginning to feel it.  The reflected light obscures my face and somehow emphasizes the sense of vulnerability and tiredness:

Next stop is the mirror to put in my contact lenses, this was an ouch moment when a bit of grit got under the lens.  I am not sure about including both of these images, but they do work into the day and how I am going to spend it.

This is how I spend most of the day, sitting propped in front of my work computer on a conference call.  The phone is a speaker phone and I am engaged in a conversation with someone in Asia or Europe at this time of day.

Coffee, is a must and with this photo I show a little more of the environment I occupy and the processes that support the day

Although the day is long, I try to take a break and work on my course a little.  I guess I am not the type of person that can simply laze away a day in front of the TV.  I am averaging 60 hours working each week and on top of that a good 15 hours dedicated to my OCA studies.  Here I am starting work on my paper logbook, gluing in a Steidl brochure advertising the works of Robert Frank.  I like the movement in the frame.  I have adjusted the lighting a little, reducing the strong shadow that was obscuring my face.

Lunchtime brings with it a few chores, one is getting rid of the piles of cardboard that accumulate due to my Amazon addiction.  This also brings a chance to illustrate some of the aspects of living in Germany and to portray the world outside my locked in life.

Oddly therapeutic, I do the days washing up at luchtime

OK, this is kind of odd, but I like it.  This is me shooting this assignment, so this is the only photograph not taken with my 5D2.  A typical day in my life always includes some photography, even if just looking at it on the web.

Back to a work shot, this is now the end of the day and fatigue has really kicked in, it is after 7pm and I am still sitting in on conference calls...

Finally I leave myself out of shot.  This is taken in the morning, showing the remains of a bowl of soup, a beer and empty ice cream wrapper, my treats at the end of a long day and not tidied up because I was knackerd and just wanted to head to bed.

I think this is a revealing and interesting set, speaking about the hum drum life of an office worker (even if a home office worker).  The photos are not representative if they were they would be very dull indeed.  To illustrate how unrepresentative they are I embarked on a supplementary piece of work.  On a day that I knew would be long, I mounted my 5D2 on a table facing my desk, set it to shoot 1 frame every 30s and left it running for 15 hours.  The 1,660 photos that resulted really show how I spend my life.  I am thinking about making this the 11th image in the submission or as a replacement for one of the photos.  It tells the story in a way a single image cannot and yet is still a work of photography not cinematography.

Together I think this eloquently speaks of my real life, not one that I have exaggerated, but how it really is.  In many ways it has been a frightening experience, until I really studied myself objectively I did not know quite how I spent my days.  I am now going to leave this alone for a time and see how the concept sits with me before writing up and sending in, however, I really think I am close.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

P6: direction of movement

Once again the CSD parade provided a rich source of material for working these projects.  However, although at first glance a parade moving past would be an obvious candidate for a study of movement with a frame, it proved more difficult than I expected.  The essential issue was that it was very difficult to isolate an individual in a way that allowed me to explore the visual impact of a figure moving into or out of a frame.

Fortunately there were one or two subjects that stood out.  This guy attends every CSD event and is always very flamboyantly dressed, as a result wanting to be the standout.  This meant he wanted to have space between him and the rest of the participants.  I have caught him just as he crossed a major road junction, closed off by the police.  There is a sense of movement here and the empty space beckons for him to walk into.

Conversely a few seconds earlier, I captured this shot, as he led the following vehicles.  He is still an individual in the frame, but on the exit side.  This balances because he is pulling the rest of the content with him, he is the lead figure ion a balanced composition.

The following image once again places the principal on the right.  The fact that he and his friend are out of focus works for this image as it throws attention to the rear of the frame and the people standing watching - just wish they could have been doing something a little more interesting.

Conversely as they exit the frame, I have again tried to balance the image with content to the right.  Here the street sweepers watch in bemusement as the flamboyantly dressed parade passes by.  Without the background figures this would not work.  Visual interest is provided by the sense that the two guys have just walked across the frame and generated the interest behind them.

On a more conventional note this lady is walking into the frame to capture the people coming in the parade, out of picture to the right.Her posture and the camera she carries indicate that something is coming.

Finally away from the parade here is an image that works at one level, but not at another.  The motion is wrong, but is rescued by the look I am receiving from the lady, almost providing a sense that she wants to escape from the frame.

I think the creation of interesting or challenging  photographs, versus simply satisfying ones, comes from bending the rules.  The best photograph in this sequence is the 4th with the two guys exiting the frame being watched from the other side of the frame.  The sense of movement is from their having been there and created an impact on the viewers.  It asks questions and yet still contains clear movement.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

P5: eye-lines

Yesterday was the annual; Christopher Street Day parade through Munich, an event that brings incredible  colour and noise to the city center.  Sadly as I am doing this course in B&W, I cannot portray the full impact of the costumes, however, such an event is a golden opportunity for a little people watching.

I used the parade as my material for this project and the next.  With this project in mind my primary goal was to observe the spectators, but I was open to any interactivity that would serve to illustrate the impact that eye lines can have on an image.

The first photo catches a juxtaposition between authority and anarchy, the parade goers interacting strongly whilst the police almost seem to try and look anywhere but at the parade.

The crowd offered a chance to get in close to groups of people, here the lady on the right is clearly emphatically making her point to her two companions. The man at the back adds an extra eye line, probably looking at me taking his photo.

Couldn't resist it, rare these days to see a large format camera, especially one operated by a man in lederhosen.  The key eye line here is the loving look that the man on the right is giving to his companion as their photograph is taken.

A fairly standard photo of two people in conversation, waiting for the parade to go by.

These three guys led the parade and I think must have had some kind of official role, perhaps to liaise with the police.  Here the eye lines are emphasized by the fist holding the rolled up paper.

Well, obvious what has drawn these eye-line...

This is a modern take on the conversation, although all were talking together, their attention is almost totally consumed by the smart phones they are using.  Once upon a time we looked at each other to have a conversation, now we glare at a tiny screen, our relationships driven by technology rather than companionship.

The couple on the left argue whilst the man in the middle stares into space.  Here the eye lines are divergent and the photograph lacks a focal point - still like the composition though.

My final image has an implied eye line, this seller of Biss (a German magazine sold by the unemployed or homeles, similar to the Big Issue) reads a book hidden behind the magazine she is advertising.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reading: How to Read a Photograph by Ian Jeffrey

I first came across Ian Jeffrey as the author of Photography: A Concise History, a year or so ago whilst I was studying DPP.  I found his writing informative and accessible especially when compared to many of the so called introductory volumes on theory or history I had bounced off in disgust.  I was quite surprised to find that the above book was the course book for Social Documentary - a pleasant surprise.

This led me back to my book shelf and another of those books bought with great intent at the start of TAOP.  When I first looked at Ian Jeffrey's "How to Read a Photograph" I was really disappointed.  I was expecting something quite prescriptive that would tell me how to actually read a photograph and also was disappointed that the photographers featured were mostly from a long time ago and that almost all the content was in B&W.

How time changes out outlook!  In a recent posting on Flickr Dewald asked what had we learned about ourselves from studying photography, a series of amusing but flippant answers rapidly gathered.  However, one major development for me personally is that I now have a completely different view of art and in particular what I enjoy in looking at photographs.  Reading this book now was another of those journeys through photographic history, but this time with an excellent and very articulate guide.

Apart from delivering a chronology of the greats of photography, this book also reveals biographical snippets about the artists that helps to understand why they did what they did.  Why did mid-20th century British and American photography develop such a social consciousness, the emigres from fascist oppression brought with them a completely new world view: Bill Brandt, Ben Shahn, and to a degree Robert Frank brought a central European outlook to the photography of the cities of the west.  What sets this book apart from other of its ilk is the quality and quantity of the accompanying photographs, the text is a minor element, this is visual history. My primary complaint is that is stops too soon, although written in 2008, contemporary photographers such as those from the German school are absent, however, this is a minor critique.

A particular takeaway for me was the inclusion of Japanese photographers; TomatsuShomei, Nakahira Takuma, and Moriyama Daido, the first real exposure I have had to their work.  Taking them together (probably inadvisable) there is a much closer engagement with the subject, often self revelatory and very gritty.  As I work through my self study I find myself using a similar approach getting in close and not worrying about the finer elements of pixel poking.

The only beef I have with this book is the general observation that I suspect Jeffrey reads far more into the photographs than was intended at the time of the shutter press.  With some photographers I am sure there is a great deal of thought given to allegory and metaphor, however, I also think even then this happened in the darkroom not necessarily the studio or street.

Alte Schwabinger Strassenfest

My ongoing study of Munich and its people is now starting to gather pace, the festival season is in full swing and the streets are full of people enjoying the summer.  Last weekend was the "Alte Schwabinger Strassenfest" a great event that closes down a couple of streets adds 3 rock band stages and cheap beer to generate a great party.  I was there early in the day when things were more mellow, to capture the more relaxed afternoon atmosphere.  On the way I bumped into a major concert being set up close to the city center and afterwards found some Japanese drummers doing their thing at another street party.

This day I set myself the goal of photographing people sitting enjoying the events and tried to be as up front and in your face as I could manage.  These are a portrait of summer in Munich.

Ultimately these images will be culled down to 80 or 90 taken during the course of a year and assembled into  a book, "Die Muenchener", a homage to Robert Frank and I think the best way to get under his skin.  I don't really want to emulate his style, I want to emulate his approach and thought processes that went towards creating  The Americans.

P4: vertical versus horizontal

Hmmm, I got this one the wrong way around, shoot vertically and then re-frame for horizontal, stated the guide and what did I do, ah well, same problem, different approach.  I guess I have been mostly shooting horizontally recently, comes from doing landscape I guess.  With people my natural choice is to add a grip and spin the camera 90 degrees.

With the first image in my 3 scenarios I picked this person reading their smartphone and obligingly stationary. The horizontal shot  makes me wnat to put her into the side of the frame, it helps to leave space to describe where she is as well as being a more dynamic composition.  Flipping to vertical with a stationary figure I still placed her naturally to the right looking into the frame.  The vertical shot also allows more of the structure of the background to enter the frame and makes for a more informative shot, even if not as visually interesting to my eye.

Moving people are another challenge.  I am using a 60mm lens on a 1.5x crop factor mirrorless compact camera, so have in effect a 90mm FFE lens. This is a short tele and very nice for working in the street, it isolates without completely disengaging the subject from the environment.  However, it is also a fixed length lens and as people approach there is a very small time within which it is still possible to frame them without being forced to crop part of the body.  Hence the benefit of starting horizontal and then switching to vertical. With a moving subject I still have the freedom with the the horizontal shot to be a little creative about where I place them in the frame.  With the vertical shot they are getting close and I have had to be quick, hence a less interesting shot.  Although neither are particularly standout.

For my final pair of images, I am in a busy street and shooting the oncoming crowds.  Here the key difference between the two shots is not the positioning of the people, but the information that each image provides.  The vertical image has allowed in more of the buildings and also eliminated the men at work sign.  We have moved from any old street to a shot clearly from central Europe.  The vertical framing has permitted far more detail of the buildings and the locale to permeate the image.  For a city, this really makes sense, in a country setting, landscape would probably be a better and more informative choice.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Assignment 1: Initial Thoughts

Assignment 1 is my bete noir of this course, it was the main barrier to my enrollment and remains the sticking point.  "a day in the life of...".  I really do not see the point.  But then that is me, I like to work alone and not be dependent on others for my progress.  My job is tough, long hours and right now a great deal of stress.  I take photographs to wind down and switch my brain to another setting.  The thought of having to coral someone over a period of a day or several days just does not fit into my idea of fun.  Whilst I do appreciate that this course is designed to expand my horizons, it also must fit into my world view and from a practical standpoint my available time.

However, it must be done, so how?  Last night after our more than amorous neighbours woke me at 4am with a "Harry met Sally" moment of epic proportion I lay awake mulling over how to do this assignment - see, it keeps me awake at night.  Initial thoughts had been a day in the life of Mr. Niall McCorley, my best friend, next door neighbour (not that neighbour) and major mover  in the Munich Irish community.  A day in his life would be varied and could expose elements of Munich's ex-pat cultural scene.  The problem I have with this is that it is a little too obvious.  Another similar project would be to follow Heidi, my wife, on a Friday, when she balances swimming training with work and caring for her elderly mother, finishing off with a well deserved cocktail.  Interesting, but probably a well trodden path.  

I may do both of these, just for the sake of practice and getting used to this style of photography, although it is not very similar to the reportage style of wedding photography that I practice when asked:

I am also considering something related to place, a day in the life of a Munich street corner, there are some good ones, although some would get me either arrested or severely beaten.  My tutor suggested a shop, difficult in Munich unless you know the owner, it is otherwise pretty much illegal. An Irish pub could be a possibility, I get on very well with the owner of Molly Malone's and he would probably be OK with me helping out for a day in exchange for some photos.  Another possibility is simply the row of houses I live in where something is alwats going on.  This would be a chance to document the lives of ordinary (well not really) Germans as they go about their daily routine. I think too little attention is paid to the mundane in photography, we spend so much time looking for the unusual.

I will explore these ideas further.

In the mean time, another idea germinated in the dark of night, why not a day in my life, I am available and accessible.  My life is not terribly unusual, but it has it's moments.  This is also probably a cliche, but it is also a subject I have never tackled, I am not terribly fond of seeing myself in photos.  The advantage here is control, the disadvantage is that I still need to actually take the photographs.  This is possible but does bring with it a few challenges.  The first challenge, how to take the images is the easy one, I have a TC-80N3 remote control for my Canon DSLRs that effectively enables me to program the camera to take a shot on a periodic basis, I can set the interval.  The real issue is one of documentary versus portraiture,  some of the shots will need to be staged.  What I will need to do is to mount my DSLR on a tripod, place it somewhere and then carry on with my life in its vicinity.  At home, this is really not a problem, out doors, more of a challenge.  I will need an assistant to help carry the camera and then guard it from passers by.  Heidi has volunteered.

As an experiment I placed my 5D on a gorilla pod (small flexible tripod), set ISO to 3200; used my 24-105 f/4 zoom at f/4 and 24mm, and then set the timer to take an image every 30 seconds.  I placed the camera somewhere that would work with available light and just got on with my Saturday morning routine.  This essentially consists of checking for any urgent emails from my American boss and doing any work needed, making coffee (lots of it) and then working on my blog or log book.  I split Saturday into documentation and shooting, with Sunday as a backup if something does not work the way I want it.  My life is basically during the week, work 12 hours watch a movie, sleep and on the weekends OCA.

I left the camera running for nearly an hour capturing 120 frames, from which I have culled 6 for this blog to illustrate the possibilities.  I have processed the photos quite aggressively going for a gritty B&W, ISO 3200 more or less required this.   I am going to do a test print and see how they look at A4.  So this is me!

Did it work, actually much better than I expected.  I had to think carefully about the light and where to put the camera for best effect, but otherwise I just got on with my thing, which that morning was sticking stuff into my log book.  I did not switch the camera off and so got some odd shots as I carried the camera around, the 4th image is an example. The look on my face is horribly like a Cindy Sherman still...

But jeez, I need to lose some weight:)

So, next.  No commitment yet, this is and was an experiment, I will need to run it past my tutor together with some images before I actually go as far as using it as the assignment.  I like it, I like the accessibility and I also like the fact that it is forcing me to do something very new (for me) and develop a new approach to photography.  A day in the life of anyone else is going to become a wedding shoot, a day in my life, well lot's of potential for introspection and analysis of who and what I am, as well as taking some photographs.  Finally, Heidi loves the idea, she will finally get some photos of me.

Log Book

For the first time in my studies with the OCA I am keeping a paper log book in addition to this blog. Previously I have tried to do everything via an electronic record, however, I am beginning to realize that a key element I am missing from my studies is the critical assessment of other photographers work.  I have tried previously to look at photo books and then blog my view, however, this does not really dig deep enough.  The advantage of a physical log book is that I can copy and paste pretty much anything into it, without violation of copyright.  I can then add whatever comments I wish and even mark up the image.  This is more spontaneous than working on a computer keyboard and allows a more personal and critical approach.  Whether I keep this up or not is a key question, however, so far I have found that I can add notes to the paper log book in a few minutes, whilst a blog entry takes some time to create and save.  A blog entry is also a self-contained object, it is a statement, scribbles in a log book can be whatever I want them to be.

So here it is:

My first critique of a photograph is of an image from fellow student, Dewald Botha, the photograph of a pristine shirt hanging in a rather old and shabby location, is very much in tune with what I am trying to do on this course.  Dewald is documenting the emerging China, I am looking at a pretty static society, but both of us want to explore what that society is through landscape, symbols and in my case now, the people.

Learning from each other is a key part of this course and I hope an occasional critique of other students work in my log book is not amiss.

The paper log book also provides a place to stick stuff that I find at exhibitions and galleries, to retain a sense of what I have looked at and absorbed during the course.  I just hope that this does not fall victim to my usual initial enthusiasm followed by neglect...

Friday, July 6, 2012

P3: framing - 2 people

I am using this and the following exercises to further develop my approach to photographing strangers from a technical and a compositional standpoint.  Of key interest to me is to work through different approaches to camera handling and the capture of truly candid moments.  At the same time I also want to explore what I want to portray aesthetically, even to develop a style.  

During my landscape course I found myself developing a very clear style, crisp detailed imagery, with strong contrast and colour, coupled with a very keen sense of geometry.  How will this apply to social documentary, will I develop a different style?  I am consciously thinking about "The Americans" when out taking photographs, but from a subject/narrative sense, not from a stylistic sense.

Another comment made by my tutor during my introductory call has lodged in my brain, slow down and think about what you shoot.  I had started to approach this course with a street mentality, thinking that good social documentary images need the decisive  moment of Cartier-Bresson coupled with the manic energy of Garry Winogrand.  The trouble is that this isn't me, I like to take a considered approach to what I photograph and spend time thinking about framing and positioning.  I still do take too many photographs!  So I am determined to slow down and develop techniques that enable me to capture the "action" but in a more considered way.

Turning to the subject of this project, I have pulled 8 photographs from recent shoots that feature 2 people in different situations.  The first image is a simple one of 2 Chinese tourists walking through the park, an opportunistic grab shot.  I have conventionally framed the photograph to have them entering the frame.

The next photograph is an example of slowing down and thinking.  Rather than hunting my subjects I waited for them to come to me.  I found the windows with their displays interesting, so framed a shot with them as the background.  I then waited until something happened in the space between the windows, in this case a couple walking by.  In of itself this is not an interesting photo, but it does represent a key development in how I am approaching photography of strangers.  Standing in one spot until I become the background enables me to create far more candid shots.

This is only just a shot of two people, they occupy a very small part of the frame.  Oddly I was thinking about Roger Fenton when I made this photograph, there is a Boules tournament on and the scattered balls reminded me of the canon balls in his signature photograph.  At another level the scattered belongings and beer bottles have a narrative of their own.

Another comment from my tutor was in response to my own observation that photographing strangers in Munich is tough as people are very reluctant to be photographed.  There is a cultural distrust of photographs, stemming from the use of photographic evidence to condemn the innocent during the Nazi and Communist regimes.  My tutor suggested photographing people avoiding being photographed and use that as a statement in its own right.

It is summer in Munich and the city is full of tourists.  The next two shots capture some of these people enjoying the city.  In the first a couple try to pose interestingly for an off photo camera.  In the second the two guys simply look like they are having a great time.  On the whole I have tried to frame to the side of the image, however, in the second photo the central placement of the figures works because of the clear interaction between the two guys.

This was a tricky shot, they spotted me as I framed them and a hard stare was forthcoming, but I still did not get bitten, so am developing my thicker skin.

Finally I like shots that look down on people and telescope their bodies.  This has a sense of movement.

Shooting two people versus one?  It changes the dynamic as there can be interaction and the frame gets better used, however, the visual problem is fairly similar.  What I am learning is to work the streets in a more considered and less frantic, shoot, move, shoot style.