Wednesday, August 29, 2012

P9: suggesting more with less

Two distinct thoughts drove selection of subject for this Project.  The first is an extension of the self study that I started a month or so ago.  What does the fabric of our lives say about ourselves, if a stranger entered my house what would they infer about me (and Heidi of course).  

The second thought was that as photographers we spend a lot of time trying to capture images of the unusual, looking for that shot that somehow conveys something unique and special.  In doing this we pass by the ordinary and the obvious.  Contemplating Robert Frank and my most recent acquisition, Walker Evans' "American Photographs" I am often thinking, wow, I wish I could have photographed such cool 1930's or 50's scenes.  However, this is stupid, when Frank and Evans made these photographs the facades and advertising were no more strange than WHSmiths on a modern UK high street.  

With these two thoughts in mind I turned my camera inwards to look at the boring and the ordinary in my house.  These photographs are not special, but I can be sure that in 30 years I will look back and wish I had taken more like this.  In these very simple images is the world I now inhabit, a world that in a few years will no longer exist as I gradually change my environment.  Indeed, some details will be gone next week.  Whether these images are truly suggesting more with less, I am not sure, some do, some don't but all use a simple photograph of a collection of objects to say something about me.

A bookshelf containing nearly every Discworld book lined up in the order they were published, with a wireless repeater sitting in front.  This guy grew up with fantasy fiction, but perhaps has a sense of humour, coupled with some OCD tendencies.  He also has a technical background.

Downstairs the bookshelves are far neater, and again very ordered, clearly likes to place things in little boxes and be sure that all is orderly.

Back upstairs in his office, a large collection of CDs points to a love of music, with a mix of old and new.  Once again, though, the alphabetical ordering should warn the unwary.  A large remote controlled Dalek tells of a British childhood.

Not all CDs are in order, a bunch of newer disks wait to be filed, hmmm still likes to buy music - mixture of collection completers and contemporary rock.

Well we knew about this, photography is clearly a passion.  The white lenses point to a Canon groupie and someone with a disposable income, perhaps a DINKY.  In fact the complete absence of kids toys around the house point further to a "no children" Status.

However, these books on photographic theory suggest a little more than a casual snapper, this guy takes photography very seriously perhaps a student.  Wonder if he has read them all somehow I doubt it.

Office door seals the deal, a student of photography, who is currently living in Germany.

More evidence downstairs as most pictures on the wall are photographs of one form or another.  He evidently never figured out how to hang pictures and gave up in despair.

Turning now to the kitchen, a cappuccino machine suggests he likes a good cup of coffee, whilst the knives and olive oil point to a love of cooking.

Coupled with a dislike for washing up more than once a day...

Well he drinks beer and is a thief, these glasses are never sold, only stolen.  And all the Munich breweries are here, so also drinks a lot but likes to complete a collection.

In the bathroom a hair trimmer suggests short hair and the glasses and contact lens stuff point to shortsightedness.  Lack of any smelly stuff suggests an old fashioned Brit.

Wardrobe is spartan, lots of similar T-shirts and long-sleeves.  Clearly has no style whatsoever and works for a pretty laid back company.

Back downstairs, the TV is being controlled by an iPad, well we knew he was technical.  Looking closer the BBC Player again points to a Brit.

Upstairs a wireless repeater blinks away next to an Xbox surrounded by photography books and magazines.   All we have seen so far is reinforced

And the Guardian, must be a little left wing in politics, even if happy to live the good life.

And finally a cat tree, so no kids, but a substitute.

OK, a rather frivolous look at the evidence of myself, but also for me an interesting exercise in self analysis.  What I now need to do is to look at how I can use a similar almost forensic approach to photography to capture clues about the people of Munich.  What is it in the street furniture or building facades that speaks to the character of the people.  In my final assignment for the landscape course I studied the interior space of apartment blocks, the Innenhof, looking at how the landscape reflects on the people who live in the buildings.  In a sense this was a bridge to this course.  So far I am too focused on the people, I need to step back a little, still include the people, but place them in subordinate positions in the frame.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Preparation for Leeds Residential

In a few days time I'll be jumping on a plane to head for Manchester and then onwards to Leeds for the OCA Photography course residential weekend.  This will be an interesting visit in so many ways, almost exactly 30 years ago I made a journey to Leeds aged 18 to start the first year of my undergraduate life.  It is a special parallel that I go once again to this city as an undergraduate student.  I suspect I will drink less beer this coming weekend than I did on my first visit so many years ago!

In preparation for the workshop I have been assembling and printing a portfolio of 10 prints for discussion.  There are many different ways I could have done this, I have elected to bring 10 of the shots that I am working together into my "Die Muenchener" Assignment 4 and book concept.  Although still early days it would be very useful for me to get feedback on the image selection, printing technique, and in particular to have a discussion about the conceptual basis for the set.

These are the 10 images, a varied group from many individual shoots.  Whether they are the best I cannot say yet, but I think they are representative of my most recent style and approach.

P8: thinking about the way you work

This is another of those odd exercises that crop up in the OCA courses that make me wonder about the flow of the courses and the passage of time.  Essentially the project deals with workflow, how we appraoch taking a photograph and the decisions that surround that act, something that is extensively covered in both TAOP and DPP, precursors to this course.  Secondly the text talks about prism boxes, but not about rangefinders or composing on a screen rather than a viewfinder.  I would hope that the upcoming refresh of this course will take care of these anachronisms.

However, this is a good time in development to stand back and think about how I take photographs, the strategy I use and the techniques I apply.  The project proposes that I do not think much about this and take photographs intuitively.  This is partly true some of the time, but now into my 5th course at the OCA it is really rather unfair.  I think hard about what I do, where I do it, and when.  In fact considerations of technique often get in the way of a more instinctive approach to photography, I am more worried about preoccupation with composition getting in the way of artistic expression.

As proposed in the text I went out and shot 20-40 photos (and a further 68 - digital provides this freedom) and then went through them considering how I approached the task.  Conclusion, I did what I pretty much always do, a mixture of careful planning and spontaneity, but always thinking about what each photo sets out to achieve.  I will come back to the photos at the end of this entry, but first want to step through my current workflow for SocDoc, which is quite different to what I have used in the past.  The discreet photography of people requires a different approach to Landscape.  My workflow falls into the following rough groups:

The basis of good photography is careful preparation, ensuring that I know the site I am visiting and what my subject really is.  I use the web a lot, Google maps helps me plan routes, on line research helps with timing of events or access limits.  To that I have a small library of Munich guide books and architectural reviews.  The latter are very handy to get a good understanding of the layout of an area and to choose between a classical or modernist backdrop, for example.  The question of subject is also key, shoppers means a Saturday afternoon, people playing sports Sunday, rushing for the tube weekday morning, and so on.  I am always very conscious of what project I am working on when I head out of the door, but also open to a little serendipity.

Equipment Choice
Whilst working on the precursor to this course, People and Place, I became very aware that a modern DSLR and fast lenses are both bulky and very visible, neither attribute is particularly good for discreet shooting.  Simply lifting the camera to my eye would lead to people turning away.  What I needed was the equivalent of a Leica (at 5,000 Euro plus lens, the real thing was not a viable option).  I turned to the latest generation of mirrorless compact system cameras.  I already had the excellent Fuji X100, but with a fixed focal length of 35mm (Full Frame Equivalent) this was a little too limited.  I decided to buy a Samsung NX20 as I already had an earlier model Samsung and a set of very useful primes lenses, a 20mm (30mm FFE), 30mm (45mm) and 60mm (90mm).

The NX20 has a number of major advantages over a DSLR in that it is tiny, but has an EVF, meaning the camera can be brought up to the face for stability.  To this is added the greatest invention in photography, the flip out rotating screen.  This means I can shoot the camera from waste level looking into the screen.  To this is added the tiny but good quality prime lenses, meaning I can put the camera around my neck and carry spare lenses in my pockets.  The downside is lack of a useable zoom lens, rumor suggest that will be fixed before Christmas.

Shooting Techniques
Having worked out my location and packed my chosen kit into a small camera back back, the final question is how I work with camera in hand.  A key to successful observation of a scene is to walk very slowly and continually evaluate for potential.  During this time my camera is always switched on and ready to go.  If an event happens I rapidly pull the camera to my eye shoot a single frame and move on.  However, this really is the exception, I rarely "capture the moment", more often I plan the shot.

If the situation is static I walk past, think about the best strategy, set the camera for that, and then return to shoot.  If the situation is dynamic, i.e. people moving, I take a different approach and find the best location from which to shoot and then wait for the action to come to me.  In both cases I now shoot from waste high using the flip out screen for framing.  This has two key advantages, firstly I think people do not associate that pose with taking a picture, they usually think I am reviewing photos on the screen and so are less conscious of me.  Secondly I can look up and watch for the right moment confident that the camera is correctly framing the subject.

In all cases I think about the framing, looking for vertical or horizontal lines and doing my best to avoid convergence.  Once again the NX20 helps me with a 2 axis level built into the camera.  If I find an interesting situation, e.g. recently I have been placing people in boxes, I will wait for a few minutes for a subject to enter the frame before shooting.  To a large extent my hunting has moved from stalking my prey to finding a location and waiting for the prey to come to me.

So back to the imagery for today.  I walked the 4 km to the Pinakothek der Moderne, people in galleries make great subjects, but also offering an opportunity on the walk to and fro.  For the exercise I limited myself to the 30mm lens, more or less a normal focal length for the NX system.

Following are the best of the 108 images I shot and some notes about how and why I took the shot:

Just before entering the park I passed this Italian restaurant, something I normally pay little attention to, however, it was the pillar in front that made me stop and think.  In England most new housing seems to hark back to the past, emulating traditional designs from the 20's and 30's or a cottagy look.  In Germany the same is true, but the look from the 20's or 30's is the Bauhaus, which looks startlingly modern and yet is equally old.  I liked the juxtaposition of the pillar with the 19th century facade behind.

Recently my attention has been on people not things, too much so.  This is a simple composition, but one that interested me for the arrangement of shapes within the frame.  To take this I used the flip out screen and held the camera very close to the ground.

Continuing the bicycle theme, I thought this was a rather irreverent group, bikes draped across the railings and statue in the foreground.  Whilst my work on the Muencheners is primarily a study of people, I also need to be aware that objects can convey social meaning as well.

People in boxes, I could not resist this one.  This was a snatched shot, I saw the potential and reacted immediately.

Passing by the Brandhorst art gallery, the door into the cafe was open and I spent a little time thinking about how to frame this.  I opted for a symmetrical approach, trying to keep the camera horizontal.  It is interesting, but not a keeper.

Arriving at the Pinakothek der Moderne, this is the ticket counter.  This made me think of Gursky's "Pfoertner" series, a study of the security men who sit in the foyer of German companies - something he completed as part of his studies.  This needed a lot of thought for framing, I walked up and down trying to figure out whether the pillars should be within or at the edge of the frame.  I would like to have made more of the writing behind the people, but also needed symmetry in the frame.

Once inside the museum I started to think about how people interact with the art, but got caught up in the minimal architecture, looking more at form than expression.  This particular spot intrigued me due to the empty space to the right.

This and the next image were both shot with the camera at waste level, waiting for the people in the frame to form an interesting pattern.  In the above case I wanted to avoid overlap with the art.  It would be better if the person to the right did not overlap the bench.  I was interested in obtaining spatial separation between all elements in the image.

My last visit to the American photography exhibit, it leaves at the beginning of September.  I spent some time just looking, how could I not.  Original prints from Eggleston, Adams (R), Shore, Winogrand, Baltz, and so many more.

This was part opportunity part planning.  I was trying to frame the architecture in an interesting manner when the two people entered the frame.  This would perhaps have been better with only one person in the frame, however, I am still happy with it.

OK, this is pure architecture and I spent a lot of time trying to arrive at a composition that worked for me.

This is a case where I passed by the bar and then doubled back.  I took the shot from behind a parked car, offering cover and the distance needed to obtain the framing I wanted.

With this final shot, I spent around 5 minutes working on the framing, taking several images at different settings.  The challenge with such an image is that the frame within the frame is so dominant that any divergence from true perpendiculars is very visible.  Sadly the girl to the right spotted me and hid her face, although that perhaps adds rather than subtracts from the image.

When I started this course, I discussed my approach to photography with my tutor and he suggested that I needed to slow down a think more about what I do and why.  These photographs and this project are a response to that comment.  I now think very hard about what, how, when, and in particular WHY!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Summer in the Park

As I mentioned in my last post, I am finding motivation very hard to come by at present, my lack of enthusiasm for the course and photography in general is beginning to really get me down.  This week I kind of tried to get a grip, for the last 10 weeks I have been averaging 12 hour work days together with a long haul trip to California.  I came to the realization that it was not the course, it was me, I was approaching the classic symptoms of burn out.  It is ironic, in my company we get regular emails warning of this and asking us to take care of ourselves, whilst at the same time we make people redundant and give their work to the remaining staff -  a vicious circle that never ends well.  Rather than being a relief my course was becoming yet more work, yet more pressure.  I recognize this now and whilst reducing my work load is going to be hard, I am working on an attitude adjustment and getting a full medical from my GP to make sure I make it past my 50th Birthday - OK, maybe a little melodramatic, but the stress induced chest pains I am having are going to need attention.  On the bright side, it's Saturday morning and rather than mope around I am writing up some photographic work and getting ready to head into town to visit the modern art gallery for a little inspiration and to take photos of people looking at art.

One of the added pressures has been the incessent heat, which is draining, but also limits me photographically, there is simply too much light right now and walking around doing street photography is extremely draining.  However, when the temperature heads into the mid 30's it changes the landscape.  I originally intended these photographs to be for the 8th project looking at workflow and shot selection, however, in the end the images I created were far too opportunistic and of a single type to really explore that issue. I spent Sunday afternoon in the southern end of the Englischer Garten simply walking around trying to capture the insane number of people simply lying around in the park.

This area was the subject for my 3rd assignment for Landscape.  This is a typical image of the space I was visiting, early in the morning in October/November

And last weekend

OK, different framing and B&W, but it is exactly the same space.  The question I asked myself was how to capture this multitude and express it as an image.  The photographs are so busy, perhaps that is the answer, to create some form of almost mosaic of people and bicycles.

Alternatively I also tried to focus on smaller groups or activities, but in the throng this was very hard

Getting separation of the subjects from the background was very hard and not well achieved.  The brightness limited using a very shallow aperture without an ND filter, which I do not have for my Samsung system.  One advantage of the Samsung NX20 is that it has a flip out LCD.  This enables me to shoot from the waste using the camera almost like a TLR.  This alters the perspective and for these shots of people on the ground got me closer to their plane.  It is also nicely discreet and enables me to shield the screen with my body.  Finally it also is much more stable than the stupidity of holding a camera at arms length and looking at a tiny LCD screen.

The contrast was shockingly high and I am quite pleased with how the little Samsung performed, this is a really remarkable camera, not very fashionable but so versatile and the optics are fantastic for a mirrorless system.  This is an attempt at pushing the contrast to the limit, not sure if it works or even if I like it.  I was looking for dark shadows and then people occupying the strips of light between the shade.  I have to admit I would have been sitting in the shade.

I end with a photo in a very different vein, taken from a bridge crossing the River Isar.  I have cropped the photo quite heavily to make it a study of two points in a fairly featureless space

I think more than anything else this speaks of the summer and escape from the heat.

My gradual work towards Assignment 4 and the "Die Muenchener" is slowly assembling.  Each week I am capturing one or two photographs that might work into the format, the last image above is, I think, a good one.  My current problem is that I have spent too much time photographing the special and not enough time on the ordinary.  I need to add some street furniture and day to day scenes to the summer/festival scenes that I am so far amassing.  What is already clear is that my view on the world is going to be brighter and more optimistic than Robert Frank's take on 1950's USA.  Munich is a city very much at peace with itself, wealthy, happy, caring, very much the opposite of what it once was.

Having said that I need to be careful to be representative and include imagery that reveals some of the cracks in the veneer, there is poverty, violence and immorality, although the last one is also quite fun, Germans are quite free about sexual expression compared to the Brits.

Dear Diary, I think I am starting to enjoy this!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

P18: life at a beach resort

On the whole I like to do the projects in the order that they are presented in the course notes, a mixture of organization and anal retention! However, at the speed I am currently going with these projects it'll be November before I get to the beach resort project and then will not be a good time for this activity unless I spend some serious money.  Martin Parr is one of my personal photographic heroes, his ironic look at the British beach resort, "The Last Resort" was one of the inspirations that brought me to this course.  Thus I do not want to treat this project as optional, but to use it as an opportunity to capture another facet of the lives of the Munich population.

About 30 kilometers south of Munich are a series of large lakes, that become an escape for the city inhabitants during the summer months.  Ammersee is roughly an hour by public transport, so very close to the city, but at the same time another world.  Reminiscent of the Italian lakes this is a place for refined relaxation in large hotels surrounded by good quality places to eat.  Heidi and I spent a day their this week, the public holiday for Mariahimmelfahrt - the Assumption of Mary.  Whilst the goal of the day was to give the two of us a break from a punishing workload and to relax the mind a little, I popped my Fuji X100 in my bag.

We took a walk along the shoreline, eat a fabulous whilst pizza overlooking the lake and then stopped at a lakeside beer garden before heading back to the city for a Lebanese evening with Heidi's sister and partner - all in all a perfect day and superb antidote to worrying about sales plans.

The town of Herrsching is a very different beach resort to the sand and sun of the project rubric, but it has all the key ingredients. First off here is a landscape shot that shows the basic geography:

A gently curving pebbly beach forms the frontage of the town hidden behind the trees.  A yacht clubs moorings dominate the middle ground and in the back a short pier provides access to the paddle steamers that ply the lake.  There are many places to choose from and so the beach is not too busy.

I have chosen to continue in B&W, sadly losing the impact of the multi-colored sun shade in the foreground of the following two shots.  With these two photographs I wanted to explore the impact of an open versus closed horizon.  The first image conveys far more information than the second, however, the second has more visual impact for me at least.In both cases we know we are at the beach, however, the ducks give away the fact that this is a lake and not the sea.

Although now a sea shore, whales do occasionally get beached.  Here I miss the versatility a telephoto would have brought to emphasize the girth of the man on the right.  The Fuji's fixed 35mm viewpoint is an excellent compromise, but it is a compromise and sometimes I would welcome a little more reach.

The next photo contrasts with the traditional beach scene, a cycle tourer is relaxing on a park bench.  The hat and tattoos indicate he is not your normal cyclist, but the quality of the bike and gear suggested he was not a tramp either.

Recently a great many of my shots show people seated in a row shot face on and often scowling at the camera.  I have continued this theme here, but this time partially silhouetting them against the strong light of the day reflecting from the lake and facing away from the camera.  These two scenes capture the sense of being away from the city and simply enjoying the view.

As with all beach resorts, it is not the beach that provides the most interest, but the surrounding business offering refreshment.  In the first image I have placed y subjects in a box once more, the interest in the photo being the expressions on the different groups of people.

Here I have tried to capture the flow of people walking up and down the promenade.

Finally, do remember that this is a beach in Bavaria and this day was a religious holiday.  In Bavaria we celebrate such days with traditional costume and music.  This scene was no more than 5 yards from the beach.  I tried the reverse angle to show the beach, but the light was so strong behind the band sitting in the shade that it could not work.  Hence this could be anywhere in Bavaria, but believe me this was a day at a beach resort!