Thursday, November 29, 2012

P12: a natural portrait

Once again I feel that this is a project that orientates more towards learning wedding photography than social documentary, although that is no bad thing.  A wedding is an ideal environment in which to take natural portraits, moments frozen in time.  After several hours of being the center of attention the bride is very relaxed and there is the opportunity to take some really beautiful shots.  These two are example from Tina & Manuel's wedding last year.  OK the first is not really a portrait but ir has the properties of one.

The approach is essentially to find the angle from which I can shoot with being too obvious, use a long lens and a shallow aperture.  I have processed to B&W as that is what the bride wanted.  This year has been wedding free, no complaints there, although we already have a booking for next May.

Without a bride to play with Heidi was my chosen victim, she gets to suffer many of my photographic experiments.  I chose my Samsung NX20 and new 85mm f/1.4 prime.  My 5D and 135mm f/2 would have been a better choice, but I wanted something light to carry and unobtrusive, plus I am keen to work more with the 85 and learn it,s capabilities.  The lenses large aperture creates dreamy images which still contain good detail.  I am beginning to really love the Samsung kit, small and yet very capable.  They get overlooked by the photographic press, but there is a lot to say about a lens manufacturer that makes more primes than zooms, especially in the mirrorless category.

I asked Heidi if should would go for a walk with me and permit me every so often to stop and take a few shots.  As expected she was very self conscious to start with, something that was hard to shake off.  The problem was that it was just her and I, a 3rd person would have meant she would have had someone to talk to and forget about the husband with the camera.

These photographs were taken over a period of about an hour, and although she progressively relaxed it was not really working as every time I took a shot we had to stop and wait for a while.  The final shot is the one that I think worked the best.  We were leaving the park and I stepped onto a pathway with a car coming.  When warned I said I thought the photo was more important and she laughed.  Technically not a great image, but it is the most representative of the Heidi that I know.  I am not an Avedon that can stare down a subject and reduce them to their inner core.  I feel sorry for my subjects and tend to let go too soon.

As I mentioned in the preamble, this was for me an exercise in wedding photography, I am far more interested these days in working street photography in the city.  Once again I used my 85 and NX20.  This small and discrete system enables me to be almost invisible in the crowd, whilst the wide aperture means that I can pick people out against the chaos of the city streets.  These are a few from a week ago

This is much more my scene at the moment.  My take on Social Documentary is that the photographer should not impact upon the scene, the subject should be unaware of the photographer.  To an extent that means that I taking their photograph in a very literal sense, I am not asking for permission.  When I was working on my Oktoberfest photography I found that once people became aware of me the situation changed completely, not always badly, but never to what I wanted to capture.  I may change my stance as time passes, let's see.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

P13: Hands

Portraiture and portraits of hands.  Seems an odd subject for Social Documentary and in particular in the context of this course.  I understand the value of detail shots and the fact that hands can be highly expressive,  but what is to be learned from photographing hands without the context of a broader study.  I could simply have knocked on a few doors and asked my neighbours and friends to submit for a rather strange studio session, but that again would be kind of pointless.  This would be a treatment of hands as a still life, sculptures of human experience.  Technically interesting, but essentially no different to photographing a series of flowers.  

What interests me about hands is what they do and what they express.  At rest they say something about age and perhaps profession, but moving they become a gesture and begin to tell a story about that person.  When I worked on my self portrait for assignment 1 I spent quite some time thinking about how to photograph my hands

In each case I looked at what I was doing, my hands have no interest in a portrait other than as signifiers of myself, in this case showing that whilst I am a camera nut I also do the washing up.  Mundane, of course, but a part of the story of me.

With this in mind I went out into the city looking to creating some portraits that just show hands.  As with much of my recent photography I wanted to be candid and discrete which meant a small camera system that would not attract notice.  In this case I have used my Samsung NX20 with it's APS-C sensor and an 85mm lens, so equating to around 130mm in real money.  I knew that this would not get me very close, but that was OK, I wanted these portraits to be environmental, to make the hands a part of the world.  I could equally have grabbed my Canon 7D and 100-400mm lens providing a 640mm equivalent focal length.  I would have stood out like a sore thumb and the shots would be literally just hands.

Each of these photographs features hands doing something, holding food, cigarettes, or books. Each says something about the city I live in, the outdoor cafe society, the tourists looking in a guidebook and the poor living out of plastic shopping bags. In each I have as requested excluded the persons face.  This brings focus to the hands, however, I do not necessarily think that including the face distracts from the hands.  In the following two images, the hands are still very much the purpose of the images, they define the dynamic and the subject.

I find these to be more effective as documents, they say something about the larger world.  In particular the woman, head down reading her phone as she walks, a posture I see over and over again as I look around me.  In this case the bag she carries, with the logo of Munich's most popular book shop contrasts with the digital instrument she is carrying.

Again, I find myself critical of the project structure of this course, this is not a bad thing to do and I have tried to make it into something more, but it is somewhat formulaic.  Perhaps I am overly critical, my enthusiasm is lagging at present.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Assignment 2: Submission

I finally made it, finalized the images, the narrative order and the write up.  Now waiting on feedback from my tutor.  Previously I have added the complete narrative to my blog, I am not doing that this time.  It is long and in any case will be submitted in my assessment pack.

I do, however, want to reflect on the process that brought me to this point.  Normally when working on an assignment I spend a considerable amount of time developing the photo selection, working my way through a number of candidate sets prior to arriving at the final choice.  This time around the development and finalizing of the book, "FEST", replaced that process, in effect I used the book as a means to refine my narrative flow and to reduce the number of photographs to a manageable set.  With over 70 in the final volume this was still many more than the 12 or so needed for the assignment; there still remained some tough choices.

Working on the book familiarized me with the images and provided a schema for ordering and presenting them; a narrative that started positive, dipped in the middle to show the negative and then finished on a relatively high point.  I have retained this flow for the assignment.  I appreciate that the order of the images need not dictate how each is seen as an individual entity, however, I still feel that the photographs build upon each other.  There must be a logical flow, I cannot simply gather a bunch of photos and submit them randomly.

The final choice, whilst not easy, was not overly difficult.  Each photo had to fit into a narrative but also have enough strength to stand alone. Within the book I had no constraint regarding the need for the photographs to show interaction, this created a gate that eliminated many photographs.  I also decided to retain the punchy colour of the book, I did debate inclusion of B&W for the grimier elements, to emphasize the downfall some suffer.  However, I feel that this would have made for a disjoint set and I am still wanting to be upbeat, but realistic in the narrative.

I have arrived at a personal view of the Oktoberfest, capturing the colour and chaos of the event, accepting that not all is good, but ultimately that this is an enjoyable and integral part of Bavarian culture.  I have avoided a voyeuristic eye, and hope that this set is respectful of the people involved.  This is not the Oktoberfest as the Munich city government would like to project, but it is equally not condemnatory. I had imagery available to tell pretty much any story I chose, I have told my story.

There is strong influence from Martin Parr in these photographs, his use of colour and portrayal of ordinary people enjoying themselves informed the development of both the books and this final set.  My use of flash to punch some colour into the photos was inspired by Bruce Davidson's work on the New York subway.  Using flash seemed somehow to be cheating, I really thought that artificial light should not have a place in documentary photography, I was wrong.  Flash has enabled me to add colour and depth into photographs that would otherwise have been back lit and dark.  Watching Joel Meyerovitz shooting in New York was also very influential, in a sense his technique and ability to blend into the crowd gave me security to work that way.

I have learned a great deal from this assignment, more than any other so far:
  1. Selecting and editing the images provided a very clear demonstration of the ability of a photographer to craft their own message by what they include.  If this was the only view someone had of the fest I could decide how they saw it, good or bad.
  2. I was far more involved with the subjects of this project than ever before.  I could not stand back, I had to get in close and take risks. 
  3. The development of the narrative was a constant activity, before, during and after shooting.  I entered the event with a story in mind, it then morphed as opportunity and experience kicked in.
Let's see what my tutor thinks!

Another Book

I am really on a roll when it comes to book design this autumn, although in the case of "Mabul" it is now 6 months since I took the photographs, so I should avoid being too pleased with myself.  Earlier in the year Heidi, my Mother and I traveled to Malaysian Borneo for a two week dive vacation.  Our destination was the small island of Mabul, 45 minutes boat ride from the city of Semporna, and a 30 hour trip from Munich!

Mabul offers interesting diving, white beaches, palm trees, all the usual cliches associated with a coral island just north of the equator.  However, it is it's proximity to the underwater nature reserve that surrounds the island of Siapadan that brings us so far.  Discovered by Jaques Cousteau this is undoubtedly one of the world's best dive locations, permanently featuring in anybody's top 10 best sites.  Sadly this popularity is slowly killing the place as a dive destination.  The wildlife and underwater world are being protected by the introduction of a permit system that severely limits the number of divers who can visit.  However, this has not stopped the ongoing construction of local hotels offering diving at Sipadan.  5 years ago when we first visited we could dive there everyday, now in a two week holiday, 3 or 4 visits is all that can be expected, soon it will be one. Then all Sipadan will offer to the serious diver is to say that once we dived this paradise.

I am lucky, I have experienced the best of Sipadan, but I am sad. I very much doubt I will ever see it again, it is simply not worth the cost and time to get there for so limited access.  Sipadan is where I grew up as an underwater photographer, where I first delved into macro and finally figured out how to shoot large scale wide angle.  It is truly a paradise for a photographer, I will really miss this.

As with my FEST book the problem with producing a book around a diving vacation is how to reduce the thousands of images to a manageable number and what narrative to weave.  I wanted this book to present the photographs at their best and to span all that the location has to offer, from the small "critters" of Mabul and Kapalai, to the vast schools of fish and hunting sharks of Sipadan.  I also wanted to include the world above the water, to chronicle a magical vacation as well as present scuba photos.  I adopted a similar strategy to my FEST book, limiting the page designs to 3 very clean layouts:

The first layout I only used for above water images, the second only for underwater.  The second layout uses the photographs as shot in their original aspect ratio.  The full bleed two page spreads then enable me to capture and present the scale of the locations we visited.  This is a large book, the pages are 11 x 13 inches, the full bleed spreads will be 26 inches wide!  By using different designs for the above and under water images I am attempting to drive visual cohesion in the respective sections, but also state clearly that these are different worlds.

In the underwater imagery I have also tried to balance colour and form in the spreads, again I want this to work visually and avoid one photograph distracting from another.  I did consider 1 image per two page spread, however, books this size have a high cost per page, so economy as well as aesthetics drove the design:

The highest impact photograph was saved for the cover

Early adoption of a narrative and structural design made the choice and sequencing of the photographs very much easier than in previous attempts.  This is now my 7th volume of underwater photographs, an annual creation that chronicles an individual dive trip.  I am thinking it might soon be time to create a single retrospective volume that looks at all that I have done over the 10 years.  I am currently reading about book design and this is generating some ideas that I want to play with.  I would like to create a book about the philosophy and practice of underwater photography, using my work as illustration.  There are many excellent books on this subject written by accomplished professionals, so I would need to do something other than a how to, something personal and reflective.

Monday, November 12, 2012


I have spent much time considering the challenge of the photograph as a work of art, I have pondered the question of whether photographs can represent an objective reality, and debated with myself the idea that there can or cannot be truth in a photograph.  These are worthy themes and ones that should be a part of an art undergraduates thought process, however, there is a danger that I either forget or even worse dismiss the value of a photograph as a record.  I recall two comments made in the many history books that I have read over the past few years (I paraphrase):
  • No matter the worth of all the religious paintings of the last 2000 years, a single photograph of Jesus Christ would have a greater value
  • In the 20th century, for the first time people (other than the obscenely wealthy) were able to see what their great grandparents looked like when they were young.
Photography has many values and many failings, however, it's ability to enable us to visualize the past almost as if we were present is a powerful and very rewarding quality.  Of course, these photographs might be carefully edited, chosen to present the best of those departed, but they are still a factual representation of how someone once looked who is no more.  

Recently I asked my mother to bring some of our family photographs to Munich and leave them with me.  These photographs lived in boxes and plastic bags, jumbled together in a chaos of fading tattered bits of paper.  They were without context and risked losing any meaning as the people who once remembered their faces also ceased to be with us.  

My father died 4 years ago, only 67 and the victim of a botched operation to remove a tumor.  With him was gone not only a man I loved very much, but a large part of the history of me.  Whilst we talked about many things during his time, physics, history, art, and well pretty much anything, we rarely talked about the past and his family.  I really have little knowledge of where I come from, I know my great grandparents were from coal mining families, but little else.  I am not into ancestor tracing or generating vast family trees, but I am curious and also want to ensure that my brother's sons, Joe and Ben, aged 10 and 9 will grow up with some knowledge of where they come from and who they are.

So, I have spent the last couple of weeks scanning old photographs and then arranging them into a book.  My recent development of "Fest" reminded me that I owed it to myself and my family to create another book of far greater significance.  The scanning process was laborious, I scanned over 200 prints on my flat bed Epson V700.  However, it was rewarding, tiny contact prints made from 120 roll film suddenly revealed hidden detail and a little contrast adjustment and removal of the yellowing of age brought these photographs to life.  Sadly the negatives are long gone.  The photographs were often quite battered, I chose not to correct any tears or age spots, these are part of the patina of age that adds character.  My goal was to clarify not to alter. The photos spanned 70 years from the 1890's to the 1960's.  It felt odd and almost humbling to be handling such old documents and wondering who before me had placed them on a shelf or proudly pasted them into a book.

A pile of old photos was slowly becoming a story.  I started to sort them into some kind of rough order, chronicling my great grandparents, grandparents and finally my mother and father's childhood.  I chose a very simple design for the book, mimicking the look of a family photo album.  I divided it into 3 sections each separated by a blank double spread, the first my father's family, then my mother's, finishing with their 1963 wedding.  There is no writing in the book.  I had some information that could have become captions, but chose not to.  I want the book to live and so am going to ask my mother to help me to hand write notes about the people directly onto the white pages.  I also left 10 blank pages at the end so that the story may continue if we discover other old photographs.

This was a remarkably emotional project, at times I had to leave it for a while.  It taught me that photographs are far more than art.  It should be obvious, but I have been so deep in the art side that I kind of forgot that photographs are immensely emotional objects, they convey so much history.  But, that history is local and is very fragile, a photograph only has meaning with it's story attached.  My boxes of family photographs mean nothing, unless a name, a place,  a person can be attached to those slowly fading bits of paper.  Once again the learning is that without Narrative and Context photographs can be very cold lifeless things.

This is the book cover, no words, just my mother and father when they were young.  I have chosen a very simple title and not used my name as author, just Clarke | Owen, my father and mothers names.

Similarly for the pages a very simple design, these are images of my Gran when she was young in the 1910's and 20's.

And the Book:

I want to finish this commentary with a few of the more meaningful photographs from this exercise.  They mean so much to me, but only because I now know who they are, well mostly... First my Dad's family
This is one of the more obscure images.  I am pretty certain that they are a mine rescue team and by the look of the moustaches probably from before WW1 or just after.  I am guessing that one of the men is my Great Grandfather of whom this might be the only photo.

Haydock, 1923-24, almost certainly my Grandfathers school football team, again not too sure who is who.

 I am on firmer ground here, this was taken in 1911 and is my Gran and Uncle Alf.

This is Uncle Bill my Gran's brother.  He was lost at sea on a WW2 corvette, torpedoed by a U-Boat and the source of my Grans abiding hatred of the Germans.  She would not be at all happy about where I live now.  Hansom devil!

Gran and Grandad with my father, probably in Blackpool enjoying their summer holidays in that very traditional Northern fashion.  Most photos of my Fathers family come from trips to Blackpool.

My dad, probably aged 2 or 3, love this photo, only found it a few days ago.  It says so much about a working class upbringing in the 1940's.

This is very precious, not the photo, but the way my gran cut out the newspaper announcement of my parents wedding and my dad's degree.  The fact they were in the paper in the first place speaks volumes about working class pride and formalities.

Moving now to my mother's side, this is my Great Gran's wedding, around the turn of the century.  I knew her in my very early years, a very old, very gentle and loving old lady who was always a pleasure to visit.

This is my other Great Grandmother, on my mother's father's side.  I never knew her or for that matter my Grandfather, this is all I have to show that she ever existed.  She was quite pretty but also looks strong.

My mother's father died when she was 16, a great loss, she loved him very much and I suspect I would have as well.  A farmer who was tough but fair and generous.

 My Mother aged 7, now 70, amazing she seems to have hardly changed

And finally my parents wedding, very 1960's...

This project has taught me more about photography than anything I have yet done.  It has brought home the immense value and power of photographs.  They can transport us into the past and bring the dead back to life.  They remind us of who we were and why we are.  This is social documentary at its most basic, the story of a family and why ultimately I am writing this today.

I wonder how many more boxes of photographs lie under beds or in attics slowly losing any meaning, documents that could help future generations better understand themselves and value their lives.  At least two little boys will grow up knowing who their great great grandparents were and what they looked like.  That was worth a couple of weeks work.