Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A year ends...

And what a year, zero progress as a student with the OCA, getting preciously close to giving it all in.  The death of someone very close to me at the end of 2012 was followed by a dramatic change in my working circumstances.  Somehow these combined to knock me off my photographic feet and I never managed to get up again.

In this blog I have documented a few plans, false dawns that ultimately led nowhere, I could never gather the necessary momentum to restart my work.  The fundamental challenge is time, through 2013 worked an average 60 hour week, 12 hours a day sitting opposite a computer keyboard - I start around 7am and work until 7pm, or later if I am foolish enough to take a lunch break.  The work is highly pressured and intellectually demanding, there is little left in me at the end of the day and the weekends have become an alcohol assisted recovery (assuming I am not working over the weekend to catch up on something).  In December work finally eased off and I was able to plan a 3 week break over Christmas, time to catch up (and consume unused vacation time).  A trapped nerve in my neck ended any hope of using the time for photography - my work still had the last laugh, with the parting gift of an RSI typical for a keyboard based worker.  The steroid injection in my spine was less painful than the condition, grrr....  I have to be careful not to complain too much, it is a good job and well paid, there is simply too much of it.

The net is that once again I am writing a blog entry trying to make sense of where I am and where to go next.  My blog is becoming a diary of angst and stress rather than a celebration of my learning, however, it is therapeutic and writing this stuff down helps me to organize my thoughts. So, with the end of the year and the start of a new one I arrive at a decision point, I must find a way to re-incorporate the OCA into my life or be honest with myself and accept that my attempt at an arts degree has failed.  This is within my control, it is my choice.

As I reflect on 2013, it was not all bad, I have had two photos published in the Big Issue in the North,this was in the 1-7 July issue:

I also photographed two weddings, one in the North of Ireland, another in Denmark (not blogged yet), plus the engagement of a Turkish couple here in Munich.  Note to self - start asking for money:)

A super trip to the Philippines yielded some great underwater imagery.

What came as more of a surprise was the use by the OCA of two of my photographs.  I came across these by accident, browsing the new OCA web site and spotting them.  Both are images from my final assignment for People and Place and show scenes of Munich subway stations.  The first adorns the cover of the newly rewritten DPP course:

The other is an illustration on a web page outlining the Writing Skills course in the Creative Writing degree pathway on Oca-uk.com

It might have been nice to be informed of their use, but no problem really, I am just delighted that my work is held in high enough regard to be used by the OCA in their own material.  This cheered me up immensely and reinforced the link that I feel to the college.

This brings me back to where I am and where I am going.

I have written to the OCA office to ask about my options.  I have two years to complete Social Documentary, that time runs out in June.  I asked for extra time, answer was no, my reasons are not good enough. I also have until Sept 2016 to complete my year 2 studies.  This leaves me with three options:

  1. Quit the OCA
  2. Complete Soc Doc in the next 6 months.  I have 3 assignments to complete, although most of the photographic work is done, so not an impossible hurdle.
  3. Quit Soc Doc and start a new course - Documentary. 
OK, I am not going to quit OCA, it might happen by default if I run out of time, but I will not consciously make that decision.  That leaves options 2 and 3.  The new course is attractive as it would provide a good stepping stone to Level 3.  I am concerned that I have recently gone backwards rather than progressing.  However, I have some good material for the current course and I feel I should try and complete.  If I fail to make the deadline then I will have to do option 3.  So my decision is to continue with SD and try and make the June deadline for the 3 remaining assignments - going to need to start on the essay pretty soon...

All of this can only happen if I get my life in order and find a way to get out from under my current workload.  the good thing is that my managers are all aware that we cannot keep up this workload without something breaking (in my case my neck was the indicator that the break was coming).  I also need to start getting out of the house more often and reduce my reliance on alcohol to relax on the weekends.  

3 weeks ago I had my 50th birthday, so now is a time to start thinking about the rest of my life, what I want to do with it, and most importantly how long it is going to be.  Changes are needed and I plan to use the OCA as a vehicle to make those changes.  I must make time for my course and that can only come from a reduction in my working week, so here is where I must start.  Will not be easy even with the law in Germany making a working week of more than 48 hours illegal.  However, I must find a way to say no and work smarter to avoid our perennial fire drill exercises.  Alcohol, well that one is easy enough to manage, just needs some will power and the realization that I am no longer 20. Exercise, camera in hand a long walk can be a journey of discovery.

Thinking back on my photographic work, I think this year long break might actually help, it has allowed me to reflect on what I am interested in.  While I have done little real work, I have spent many nights awake thinking about it.  The corporate world and its collision with society is a theme that I would like to explore further.  

Next stop a pile of books about Robert Frank.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Assignment 4: First Thoughts

Assignment 4 belongs with Assignment 3, indeed it should follow on from 3, but I seem to have developed a phobia towards essay writing, I am sure I am not unusual in that sense.  This is down to simple laziness, essay writing is too much like work, I take photos because it is fun, essay writing isn't...

Ah well, I will fix that soon, however, in the mean time here is some musing on Assignment 4.  Although, this is my first formal post on the topic of Assignment 4, I have been working the material for the assignment since the day I started the course.  The subject for my essay is Robert Frank and although I do not plan to place my focus on "The Americans", that book is the motivation for the subject of this assignment.  When I started the year I though about creating a book from this assignment, however, my struggle with the Fest book for assignment 2 showed me that I need to take care not to be led astray from the primary goal of creating 12 photographs.  I still believe that the photobook is my ultimate expression as a photographer, the gallery wall does not appeal (yet).  However, books are complex things that take considerable time to develop.  Whilst I found creating Fest completely exhausting it was also a great learning experience, but one that I do not need to repeat now.  I probably will create a book from this and other material, but after I finish this assignment.  I still need Christmas presents for friends.

So what is it about Frank and the Americans that I want to "be in the style of".  First of all, I have no intent to try and replicate his visual style or content.  That has been done, it was his great contribution, but it is not mine.  What I want to do with this assignment is to adopt his way of looking, to place myself in his shoes, in his case a European looking at America and recording his response to the place and people through the medium of photography.  In mine, a Brit looking at Germany.  I will retain the small camera and also black and white - I am still interested in the qualities of B&W and want to explore further in this assignment.  The small camera is easy, it is all I have.  However, I am not using my DSLR for this assignment, I am using a mix of different mirrorless compacts, both interchangeable and fixed lens.  But, this is not about technology it is about narrative and context.

Although I planned a year on this project it fell into the stupor of my disillusionment.  6 months passed without any new material.  I am back and am now adding new material to what I captured a year ago.My subject is also more constrained, I don't have the time or money to span the country shooting 80 or more photos a day for a year.  Currently I am thinking about the following, the people of Munich is the subject and their leisure the narrative.  Subsequently this will be about people and what they do in their spare time, although I will also look at those tasked to service their leisure.  Conceptually this is not as well developed as Assignment 5, but is more mature in terms of material.  I probably have what I need for a sound response to the brief, but am not yet ready to say stop.  I plan a few more shoots in and around the city, hopefully later today which will yield another post with new material.

This post is designed to present my current visual thinking and establish a start point.  There are a few more than 12 images here so this is not intended to act as a candidate set.  

I start with people sitting down, nicely arranged in rows for my camera.  The first is a favorite, I simply like Joe Cool in the center, totally relaxed and confident, surrounded by a group of girls who look anything but relaxed. Not quite sure what the narrative is, but it has potential

I like layers and reflections

This is all about being grumpy

Michael Jackson fans hang out at the memorial to his life.  Weird, they are always there on the weekend and it is a while now since he passed.  Like this one a lot...

Back to people in boxes

It is all in the expression, group of American tourists, Muencheners for the day


More cool in the city

Listening to a political rally - the mayor is just off camera to the left

Another favorite, I am drawn to people taking photographs.

As with most societies, isn't it odd that most sponsorship for healthy living and sports comes from the companies whose products make us fat in the first place.  More layers and straight lines...

Echoing my work at the Oktoberfest

Bavaria is one of the most conservative parts of Germany, but Munich the state capital is the exact opposite, reveling in it's alternative lifestyles.  This is the annual Christopher Street parade when the gay community celebrate in a mad explosion of sound and colour (well B&W colour).  This photo is made by the people watching.

A visual puzzle for a rainy Saturday afternoon in the center of the city.  Munich is gradually improving the underground railway system, these hoardings hide building works.

Maybe work rather than leisure, but this works with the other images

As I have often stated elsewhere, people do not like being photographed.  This is someone who serves the beer in the beergarden, his shyness might reflect the fact that he is almost certainly not German and probably not legal.  Many people working in the service sector do so in the grey

Service at a large beerkeller.

In the Keller, wonderful place, superb beer and the rudest waiting staff in Munich, well worth a visit.

The mayor, Christoph Ude pitches to the crowd at a street beer fest.  Frank was very interested in the American political process, I am less so in that of Germany, but this is still a possible element of the narrative



Summer at the lake.  The last two photos were in the city center, this is lake Amersee, a popular day out for the population of the city.

Impromptu brass band.  They had been playing at a local church parade and then did what people in lederhosen do on a bank holiday afternoon, went for a beer or two.  The beergarden offered said beer for free in exchange for an occasional song.

A little different from the other images here, this is the dancing at a Turkish engagement party that I photographed and blogged a couple of months ago.  Not quite sure whether to include it, it certainly illustrates a great part of modern German culture

So far I have been very much focused on people as the subject for this assignment, however, not all of Frank's images included people.  Mid winter and at the time I was playing with shape and form.  However, the advert on the bus shelter is very telling of German society.  First of all it is fashionably in English providing a degree of cool, secondly it is for cigarettes, and finally the phrase seems very prophetic to me.  I am sure that "No More Maybe" is not meant to convey what I read; I read no more maybe cancer, this product really will kill you.

As an aside I am also thinking about working a project around cigarettes and the smoking culture in Germany...

A start and I think a reasonable one.  I have been working this for over a year and so should be in a reasonable position.  It needs refinement and perhaps a few new photographs.

Assignment 5: Progression

My biggest question for this assignment is finding the meat in the sandwich that I have created.  The two strip photographs that started this train of thought work and I believe are an interesting way to present a study of a street.  The problem is then creating the story, finding imagery that makes the space between the buildings come alive.  First of all this is very firmly a street photography exercise, in name, but most importantly from the standpoint of style and approach.  However, I need to be careful, this is my neighbourhood, somewhere I live, a street that I cross almost everyday, containing my pub and my cafe.  Street photography can be intrusive and prone to confrontation in today's suspicious world.  I don't want to risk becoming persona non grata in my own home.  This is already a challenge, I have had one small confrontation, not a problem, but something I need to manage carefully, especially with my dodgy German.  Although, that actually might help, officials snooping on the locals are most likely to speak the local language rather well.  Germany and in particular the immigrant community have a healthy and understandable distrust of officialdom.  Street photography is quasi-legal here, so I need to take care.

My approach so far has been to simply take a half hour every so often and walk up and down the street camera in hand.  I am relying on serendipity, I have no specific topic in mind, simply opening my eyes to the world and grabbing opportunities as they arise.  I also look for places where I can stand and observe waiting for a photo to coalesce in front of me, trying to blend into the background. Once I gather enough material to form a basis for a set, I will then need to think in terms of specific elements that might be missing.  Where I am going with this study is an illustration of modern German society in the context of where people live their lives.  The risk is that this might be bland, there is no sensational aspect, I am not digging into poverty, homelessness, abuse.  I could do this, but it would be dishonest, Germany is a real place containing real people, doing the ordinary things that make life work.  Too often Germany is painted either through the medium of the past or as a jolly knees up in leather and silk.  I want to show the Germany I know and love, a place to live.  Assignment 2 started in colour and fun, but ended in misery and grime.  This time I want to present a counter to that view.

A big change for this assignment will also be a move from B&W back to colour.  Colour is my medium, madly saturated bold hues, building on my first photographic love - the kaleidoscope of the coral reef.  With this course I wanted to explore a different approach, taking a chance to play in B&W before the more serious world of final year work.  However, a study of modern Germany needs colour, Germany is very colourful, colour are used far more boldly than in other societies. This is very visible in the buildings that make up Richard-Strausse Strasse, but also in the clothes people wear, although not in the very boring car colours popular at the moment. SO colour it is!

A street offers many different subjects, but they can be grouped into 3 essential elements, people, details, and architecture.  I am covering the architecture using the strip photos, but there are still some elements that might warrant closer attention.  Details are fairly straightforward to capture, the challenge is more around the context and making a photograph that offers more than a simple record.  People are my primary challenge.  In Germany it is illegal to publish a photograph of a person without their written permission, exceptions exist for the newsworthy, however, the general public are protected.  On the other hand you can present a photograph in which a person is incidental to the scene, not the clear subject of the photo.  The net effect is that German street photography does not exist, German photographic artists tend to be studio based or work with landscape, Helmut Newton  and Andreas Gursky are good examples of the two.  I am prepared to break the rules and have done so in the Fest series, but these were people in a very special place and often pissed out of their brains.  The gentle folk of Richard-Strauss Strasse take their privacy rather seriously and so it is unlikely that I am going to create many close up photos without carrying around a set of legal documents. Not my style. 

The result is that many of my photos involving people will be stepped back, not the in your face street style that characterizes Garry Winogrand or William Klein, perhaps more the observational style of Joel Meyerowitz.  My first example and a photograph I like very much is the following.  The two guys on the right were chatting away, but as the girls approached their attention clearly shifted and the sizing up process is clearly present.  All are probably from the Turkish community, the largest non-German ethnicity in the city.  A simple thing, but a daily part of the too and fro between the sexes.

Another large immigrant community in Munich is Asian, often Vietnamese, the former link between East Germany and communist Vietnam led to many Vietnamese coming to Germany for education and then staying on.  This family (no idea if Vietnamese or not) run a local beauty and massage business, they have a shop on the west side of the street.  Here I had my first confrontation, they were not happy with me photographing the shop, although that dissipated once they relaized that I was not German.  It is possible that all is not fully legal, many people work in the Schwarz (Black) economy, taxes not fully paid, resident status not quite as it should be.

This photo captures another element of Munich life, people here walk, run, and cycle a lot.  Although the traditional image is the jolly fat beer drinking Bavarian, they are in general a very fit people, even the overweight use their bikes for local shopping.  Cars are an obsession, but for long distance travel, anything less than a couple of miles away is accessed using leg power.  Jogging is very popular, even I have been know to go for a run,

Basic is an institution here, although a very middle class one.  The supermarket is organic, everything inside is "Bio", pronounced Bee-Oh.  This is a full service supermarket selling everything you need, not just food, soap, toilet cleaners, paper products, everything is naturally produced,or with very low environmental impact.  The downside is that it is also very expensive compared to the Rewe next door that I normally go to.  Like mos supermarkets there is a also a small seated area outside so that you an snack on what you just purchased

Another view of Basic, one that appeals more to my desire for things in boxes.

Not sure about the following photo, I like the structure and the giant Wein sign in the right.  The man is loading a Mercedes, well done to Dewald for spotting that.  It speaks to the fact that even on an ordinary street in Munich most of the cars are Mercedes, BMW, Audi, or for the poorer or young VW.  Other makes exist, but Germans buy German cars and are very proud of them.

The Wein sign is painted on the side of Garibaldi's an Italian wine importer that makes for an enjoyable visit.  Once again a few seats outside enable them to supplement their income and for customers to try their wares in a comfortable setting.  Licensing laws are not a big issue here.  Not sure that this works, but like the reflection in the window.

Turning from people to details.  We have an election in a week, with local and national seats up for grabs.  The city is pasted with posters, they are everywhere.  You see fewer billboard images here, it is mostly small signs planted into the ground like the following.  I will use one of these in the set, not sure yet which.

I like the next one, she is appealing to the traditionalists, the dirndl and the fredensengel in the background. Many politicians like to adopt a traditional stance, often pictured with a liter glass (Masskrug) in hand, "Vote for me, I like beer", absolutely!  Beer and politics are a combination still very much alive in German culture.

Although the bookends for this project are a study of the architecture of the street, I still think their might be mileage in a couple of images that study the shape and form of German businesses or dwellings.  This is an optician.  Note the bikes, people really use them as a primary transport.  Also it is very clean, very tidy.

Not all is well on the street, some business have had a harder time.  This used to be a tattooist.  Empty and vacant, but still clean and tidy.  If you rent any form of premise here you are legally obliged to leave it as you found it, which generally means painting everything white.  I have bumped the exposure a little on the Buddha.  Again a photo that appeals to my sense of orderliness, guess I am starting to go a little native.

A couple more simple architectural details, the entry to an apartment block and a small business offering driver education.

Aargh, in two weeks it is the Oktoberfest once again.  Two weeks of stinky drunken insanity, but worse a year since I worked on my last finished assignment.  What a lazy git...

Couldn't resist playing a little with reflections and perspective, probably not good for the assignment, but fun for me.

Very few Germans use satellites for TV, the city is cabled and like me most people get Sky through outlets in the house.  However, that is Sky Germany, if you want your own language TV a dish is often the only way.  Subsequently a dish is a good indicator that the people who live there are immigrants.  It is generally forbidden by the House Ordinances to mount a satellite dish, landlords think they spoil the look of the building, rightly I guess.  However, in law people have a human right to broadcast TV from their own culture and if the only way to get that is satellite then that right overrides the House rules.

This is an odd shot, it does both, reflection and perspective.  Not terribly documentary, but an alternate view of the street.  The effect is created by the fact that the building I am imaging has a triangular cross section and the buildings are not being reflected by the back windows but another window an inch or so in front of the camera.

Mix of comment and architecture.  I need somehow to portray the  obsession with the car.  Yes Germans are fit and love to ride bikes, they are green and terribly energy efficient, but they would die for the right to drive massive cars at 155mph on the Autobahn.  155 is a limit the car makers impose for safety reasons, go figure.  Not a great image, something that needs refinement, maybe a few cyclists going past in the background.

This is a beginning and I think not a bad one.  There is much work to do, and hey this is Assignment 5, I haven't started 3 yet.  But that is now my plan for the course, complete the final 3 assignments in parallel and prepare for next year.

What I hope this is beginning to convey is a picture of an orderly people, but diverse in their lifestyles, not conforming to the English stereotype, but at the same time valuing tradition .  On the whole Germans are not very wealthy, they have a median wealth lower than that of the Greeks they so famously are accused of driving into poverty.  There is a lot of money, but it is generally held by a small percentage of the population.  The split of wealth is quite similar to the US, a small number of the very rich and large number on low income.  The difference is that tax is collected and used to improve the lot of all, not bombing the crap out of the enemy de Joure.  People are not rich but also not poor, things are not too expensive and the government makes sure that stuff works.  Germany is a social and socialist place, where people get along and on the whole try to contrubute to society.  This is the story I want to tell.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The 5th Test

With the decision made to abandon the remaining projects to there own banality, I am still interested in making imagery that support s my development as a photographer and explores social documentary from different angles.  This short study is far from an in depth sociological investigation but it is an attempt to look at a conventional subject from a slightly different angle.

A week ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the 3rd day of the 5th Ashes Test between England and Australia.  Apart from being my first visit to an international cricket match, this was my first exposure to cricket beyond bashing at a tennis ball as a kid.  I enjoy watching a little cricket on the TV, dipping in and out of a test series, but am not a cricket fan in any sense of the word.  However, an Ashes Test Match was something special and I was very honored that my brother offered me one of two tickets he has managed to obtain - much to the disappointment of many of his friends.

The tickets were rather special as were provided by someone who worked at the Oval.  The result was that we were in a special section, adjacent to the members pavilion, about 10 feet from the playing field, and 3 seats away from the steps that the players used.  Just in front of us were the benches used by the substitute fielders and the big lenses of the professional photographers.  For me this was a day out, watch some cricket, drink a beer or two, and lounge in the sun.  I did not really expect it to be a photo op, but our location transformed that idea.  I took my OM-D and two lenses, a 12-35mm f/2.8 and a 45-175mm consumer telezoom.  This gave me a range of 24-350mm in real money, not wide enough to capture the whole ground and not long enough to really shoot the action, but a good compromise on weight versus quality.

If anyone reading this is a cricket fan they will know the story of the day, the slowest play in over 50 years of test match history.  Australia started with a massive total and it seemed that England had decided there was no way they were going to win and so set out to avoid losing.  This meant playing slowly and defensively, paint drying would be an apt metaphor, some of the papers suggested going to watch tin cans rust would have been more entertaining.  BUT, I still thoroughly enjoyed the day, the atmosphere was amazing and the sense of being at a major event lent an excitement that the cricket could not take away.  Jeremy and I had stayed up late the night before and so were not minded to drink too much, although that was not the case for the mostly white, male, middle-aged, and generally rather overweight crowd.  This competed with the Oktoberfest for sheer volume of alcohol put away.  

The net result was that I had far more time to take photographs than I had expected and so I started thinking about how I would document the day.  This yielded a good many photos from which I have selected 15 that tell the story of the day.

The first eye opener was taking our seats at 11am and noticing that virtually everyone was already drinking.  I generally have a rule of "sun past the yardarm" or something like that, but my brother insisted that we get into the spirit of things, so pints were duly purchased.  We had 3 during the morning session.  Which I thought was a lot, but not compared to our fellow spectators.

It was marvelous to be so close to the teams as they came and went, here the English batsmen head for the field - this is the most animated they ever appeared.

I really needed a wider lens to capture the sense of the place, but was able to capture a few iconic views, this is my favorite, the gasometer.  Note the guy on the roof line to the right. I have always loved the strange juxtapositions that city photography can generate.

At the other end of the scale, my zoom was not really long enough, most of the pros had either 500mm f/4s or 400mm f/2.8s with extenders.  The other issue I had was that at the long end I was shooting f/5.6 which on an m4/3 camera is more like an f/8 visually.  Thus it was hard to really do much action photography, so I concentrated mostly on trying to capture the sense of the place and the structure of the game.  It was also fortunate that the day was quite bright and so f/5.6 yielded a fast enough shutter speed.

I was quite impressed by what the camera could do with a cheap lens, the pros were using gear 20-30 times more expensive than I was, but I did OK - not great, but OK.

There was not much action, so a big tele probably would not have yielded very much anyway.  However, what was interesting was the periods during the 3rd umpire's decisions, the Aussies clustering together, whilst the English batsmen fretted.

Getting out does hurt, KP was not a happy bunny as he walked towards the pavilion.  It really is a long way to walk under the gaze of 18,000 people.

Aside from the actual play one thing I had not anticipated was how much time the substitutes spent on the field of play.  Both of the Aussies actually fielded for a time, toilet breaks I think.  However, they also ran onto the field frequently with drinks and other supplies.  One aspect of where we were sitting was that we could actually hear them chatting with each other and throwing gentle insults back and forth with the English bench.  Interestingly it really was a bench, a bog standard garden variety wooden bench.

Another aspect of the game that came as a surprise was how much activity there was additional to the cricket.  Every break had some form of on pitch entertainment, here Kevin Peterson is being interviewed during some form of award for scoring many runs - well not today.  Above and behind him are the corporate suites, rarely full, guess the free champagne and food was far more interesting than what was happening on the pitch.

There were a lot of cameras, I lost count of the TV crews working the event.

A rather interesting contrast was formed by an artist painting the scene, perhaps a reminder of the gentler times, when cricket was not such a media industry.

Later in the afternoon I was beginning to regret not bringing something to read as the play became progressively more tedious and the crowd turned to better things.  I suspect she was brought along by her increasingly drunk husband and brought her own entertainment.

Towards the end of the day the crowd became very bored and started to make their own fun.  This largely consisted of creating snakes.  A lady just down from me and working for Surrey, explained that this was banned and the stewards had been instructed to stop such behavior, which she seemed to think was a shame.  In the end they gave up, too many fans were involved in the game.  To a continual chant of "Feed the Snake", thousands of empty plastic beer glasses were stacked in towers and then connected into a snake.  This one is the longest I saw.  Apparently a long standing tradition at the ground.

Finally it was over and we wandered through the ground a little.  Everywhere we looked was the debris of an 8 hour drinking session.

A great day out, loads of fun, and in the end an opportunity to practice a little alternative social documentary.  Sport is not my thing, personally or photographically, but large events of this type always offer up a different view of society.  Technically I continue to be impressed with what mirrorless system cameras can do, I would have taken better photos with my DSLR, but I would never have taken it with me...

I have varied the crops on these images quite strongly, thinking not just about the subject but about the picture.  I am increasingly finding that I prefer a more square frame to the 3/2 of a DSLR, the 4/3 framing of this system is pretty close to ideal for me.

I cannot really intellectualize about these photographs, there is no hidden meaning, except perhaps a simple comment on the excessive drinking of the 40 something middle class male, and for a change not this 40 something middle class male.