Saturday, January 12, 2013

Assignment 2: Rethink

Well, it has taken a long time and a great deal of thought before beginning a response to my tutor's comments on assignment 2. Essentially the feedback was that I had produced a good set of photographs, but that I had missed the point.  I don't normally include the feedback in my blog, but this time I think it is important to add context to how I plan to respond.  These are the first 3 paragraphs in the comments:

  • You have continued to develop your own voice well with this assignment. I get the feeling that you are reconciling two different motivators - the need to meet the brief and following your own inclination concerning a particular photographic project connected with your own maturation.
  • You have succeeded in satisfying both aspects, but have been held back from following your natural inclination to fulfill the brief and in so doing have perhaps not succeeded with the brief as well as you are able. However, you have progressed very well in terms of progressing your own particular photographic development.
  • As before there is clearly a good deal of thought behind your work - including what you want to say and best to express this. You show good creativity and imagination in your execution of the work but your submissions lack a clarity in execution that I feel is born out of the split motivations referred to above.
This is not bad feedback, but it is quite critical and also valuable.  The key is the final sentence, a lack of clarity caused by split motivations.  It has taken me 6 weeks to work through my thoughts about this and get to the point where I feel comfortable enough to work a response.  I also had a long and useful conversation with my tutor around the assignment which helped me to understand where I had gone wrong.

The first and most fundamental problem was that I put all of my energies into developing the book concept and then created a set of images for the assignment submission as an afterthought.  In doing so I failed to editorialize my work and essentially presented a synopsis of the book with a nod toward human interaction.  I tried to be non-committal, objective, to avoid forming and presenting an opinion about the event I was documenting.  

I explored this theme in a previous blog entry, that asked questions about truth and objectivity in photography.  I considered a number of "opinions" that I could drive through my photographs of the Fest and was rather critical of Walker Evans' own editorialization of the photographs that illustrated "Let us Now Praise Famous Men".  This generated more comments on a blog entry than I have ever experienced, I think my choice of a sacred cow for a rather flippant critique touched a nerve - fair enough, with hindsight I now get it.  

Documentary photography need not be objective, indeed, it works better when the photographer has a statement that they want to make.  As with written journalism (thanks to Les Johnstone for making this point) photojournalism can have a viewpoint and project the political or social stance of the photographer.  This may seem obvious to some, but it was not to me.  I was laboring under the impression that I needed to avoid my own opinion of the event creeping into my images.

In summary, I presented a set of photographs that met the brief, but did little else.  What is worse is that the book contained material that could have produced a far more powerful assignment submission. My job now is to rework the assignment with this knowledge, taking on board the input from my tutor and adding something of myself into the set.  

My first decision must be where to take the assignment, what stance to adopt and why.  This is an easier decision than I thought it would be.  Whilst working at the Fest I progressively became overwhelmed by the excessive drunkenness and sense of impending violence that I observed as I walked around.  I was exploring the dark side of the event, both figuratively and literally, poking my camera into places the organizers would prefer to remain hidden.  What I was seeing was the impact of colossal drinking and the wreckage it left behind, an image of the Fest directly at odds with the jovial merriment the marketing wonks like to project.  I want my photographs to counter this image and convey that sense of menace and grime that is the other side of the Oktoberfest.  When I first set out with this project that was where I thought I would go, I chickened out.

The next step is to reassess the original assignment material, decide what to keep, what to adjust, and what to discard.  I then need to add new material to the set.  Waiting so long has allowed me to detach from the original material and approach it with a new mind.  Here are the 13 images submitted to my tutor marked up for edit:

In essence I am removing the more anodyne images, then editing the remainder for greater impact:

Although I am planning something dark, I still need one or two images that contrast that point, so not all of these are so gloomy.  However, all contain drink and most a degree of threat or collapse.  My next task having removed 6 images is to think about how to replace them.  That will be the next step and a process that might also result in changes to the above images.  I have 24 images (including the above) from which to select, once again I have produced a set of contact sheets to illustrate:


I have direction now, but still a large task ahead of me, getting down to 12 or so photographs is still a major task, but I feel a lot more positive about the set now.  A key will be to keep in mind the original brief, that this is a set about human interaction, which illustrates the dark side of the worlds biggest drinking competition!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

P16: urban Life

A simple and yet challenging project, urban life encompasses so much and is all around me, yet how to capture and present it.  My entire course is intended to be a study of urban life, how people interact with the artificial environment of the city, at home, during festivals, or simply carrying out the day to day activities that make up modern German society.

I have opted to work to a theme for this project, a brief study of the Munich Christmas markets.  At this time of year almost every neighbourhood attracts a cluster of huts selling decorations and handworked Christmas presents.  At the heart of each will be a Gluewein stand and a collection of huts selling grilled bratwurst, flammkuechen, and other delights that simply taste so much better for being consumed in the open air. This is an intrinsic element of Munich's calendar, the opening of the stands on the first weekend of advent is greatly looked forward to, it represents the start of the festive season.

As well as being a chance to capture the spirit of the season a crowded Christmas market provided an opportunity to practice some candid photographs and practice my street skills.  The following photos are from just two Christmas markets, the main one in the center of Munich and the market in the middle of the Englischer Garten, Munich's principal park.  The latter is a magical place, far from the busy streets, so quiet and with no overhead street lighting.  My camera of choice was my Fuji X100, small, discreet and with very good low light abilities.  These are places that need to be photographed at dusk to get the best out of the lighting.  I used the cameras tiny flash as a fill light to pull up the lighting on peoples faces.  It also created some interested effects in the falling snow.

My first image is of one of the Gluewein stands just in front of the town hall.  Christmas markets are a very inclusive tradition, young and old, the cool and not so cool, all enjoy a glass or two and an opportunity to shop.  These guys posed for me and somehow this captures the old and the new.

A rather simple shot, but one that tells the story, people shopping or simply enjoying looking at the myriad of colourful decorations in the stand.

When taking this set it was important for me to try and capture the interaction of the people with the stands, but also in a candid manner.  I found that positioning myself at the end of the stands shooting along them took me out of peoples eye lines, but still provided the opportunity to capture interaction, whether a simple glance or a more involved transaction.

I particularly like the next image, it captures the spirit of the market, it is very hard not to smile at a Christmas market.  In this and the latter image I have cropped to a square format, eliminating unneeded background and bring the focus of the viewer to the subject.  A lesson learned from my assignment 2 debacle is to vary the framing.

Now moving to photographs taken in the park and in the snow.  The following photograph uses a long shutter speed with the risk of blurring (1/10s), but the detail is still good enough.  I do find that my ability to hand hold the smaller X100 is far better than with DSLRs, even though the X100 lacks image stabilization.  Here the longer exposure has caused the falling snow to streak across the frame, adding to the sense of cold.

Even though it was bitterly cold, the market was packed - this was a Sunday evening, most popular day of the week for the markets as the advent Sundays are very symbolic here as part of the Christmas count down.  This show needed dusk lighting to work, flash was not going to help for such a wide image.  This is an illustrative shot.

On a similar vein the following is also an illustrative shot, an attempt to capture the falling snow in the lights and the crowds flocking through the market.  With this and all of the other shots I have exposed for ambient light and then used flash for fill in.  ISO is almost always 3200, I leave this on an auto setting, telling the camera to try and give me 1/100s for the shutter speed.  The Fuji image quality is fine at  ISO 3200, but falls over a cliff at 6400 and beyond.

 My parting show is of the people who make the market work, the Bratwurst grillers, without them the markets would be far less fun.  Here the fill flash has lit up the snow and created the specks at the bottom of the frame.  Underwater I try so hard to avoid this effect, here it adds to the atmosphere.

Well, that was Christmas in Munich, each year is the same, and thank goodness for that.  The tradition of the Christmas markets is many hundreds of years old and very treasured by the citizens of Munich, a true urban tradition and a key to enjoying this time of year.  Perhaps this is not the urban photography the project had in mind, but I am almost entirely shooting in the city so will get plenty of practice over the coming year.

That completes the compulsory projects for Chapter 1.  I missed the two optional ones, I may return to them time permitting, but neither are of particular interest to me.  I have much work to catch up on, I am already working on my thoughts for Assignment 3, which should be at the end of Chapter 3.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Up & Down

A new year, but no resolutions!  I don't need a change in the date to think about how to live better or start new things, this is something that should be part of each and every new day.  However, it does mark the end of December, a month during which I very deliberately put my OCA studies on hold. I needed a break, both from work and from studying.  Christmas is a hectic time with many conflicting demands on time, adding my course into this mix would just have created additional unwanted stress.  So I took a break!

Another motivation for a pause was mixed feedback from my second assignment, it was not really what I expected and I have needed some time to think about it and consider how best to respond.  I will address this in more detail in a future post, but the essence is that my tutor felt that I did not engage closely enough with the subject, that I was too impartial in judgement, and that I lost focus on the interaction element of the assignment brief.  The second point is the one that I have most difficulty with and will requires a major change in how I approach the remaining parts of this course and how I rework the images for Assignment 2.

My understanding of social documentary has missed the mark.  I am thinking about the subject as I would a scientific project, with the idea that I must document society, which with my prior education suggests an impartial and objective viewpoint.  In the work around the Fest, I attempted exactly that, to visually describe this immense social gathering, but trying not to let my own prejudice or viewpoint enter into the work.  The net result was that I described the event well, but there is little of me in the images.  I must remember, ART, not SCIENCE!  Art has a viewpoint, a statement of belief, an opinion on the world - it need not and perhaps must not be impartial.

Just after receiving the assignment 2 feedback I also got my grade for Landscape, 75%, a solid first!  Good news, but also room for improvement, although given where I am right now with Social Documentary, it is not going to be easy to do that with the current course. Looking a little more deeply, here is how the mark broke out:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills - 30/35
Quality of Outcome - 15/20
Demonstration of Creativity - 15/25
Context - 15/20

and the comments:

"Excellent, the progression is palpable through the course. Maintain that profound personal investment
into the following modules. You should continue to tune your appreciation of what makes for a
photographically fine print, there is a good development in print quality in the submission from
beginning to end but there is still a step or two to go."

As ever the feedback is cryptic and needs some thought.  My biggest issue is clearly the 15/25 for the "Demonstration of Creativity".  I think this points to my choice of relatively safe subject matter.  During the course I pushed the definition of Landscape quite far, but very firmly remained within my comfort zone, I think I need to push the envelope a little more.  Technically I have no real problems, something also stated in the SocDoc assignment feedback and I am roughly where I need to be with the quality of my finished work.

The comments are challenging,  clearly my printed work needs further refinement.  OK, but what is it that is still lacking?  I haven't a clue, however, I will in any case continue to explore what makes a good print and work to get the best out of my printing workflow.  Recently there has been much discussion on the forums about printing, with many level 1 students wanting to submit purely digital work for assessment.  I think this is mistaken, even if a photographer sees the web as their medium all will at some point need or want to print.  The photograph as a physical object in the real world remains, for me, the ultimate expression of the art.  Printing is a key skill to develop and not an easy one to master.  It is also expensive, but I think something that should be budgeted into the planning for a photographic degree course.  I am fortunate that cost is not an issue, for me it is time - printing is extremely time consuming, but so worthwhile.

So where does this leave me?  Good and not so good feedback.

I started this commentary with the clear statement that I am not doing New Years Resolutions this year, however, I do need to make some changes to what I do and how I do it.

The first clear input is that I need to make my work more personal, to allow my opinion to enter my work and use photography as a vehicle to present my view on the world.  In the real world of a working photographer this "view" might be that of the client commissioning some work, I currently have the luxury of providing that view.  I do think that I need to take care, a viewpoint can easily become a prejudice, and this can negatively impact how others see my work.  To help me to develop this further I need to spend more time with the work of other photographers and look at their work to understand what their opinions were and what the message is.  I buy a lot of photobooks and spend far too little time considering their content in a critical manner.

Secondly, I need to continue to refine and develop the quality of my final output, I do too little printing and need to be a lot more critical when I do so.  I have a carefully calibrated monitor to paper workflow, so I see on a print pretty much what I see on the monitor.  However, I do not examine the prints very carefully and still perform mostly global adjustments to my prints.  Work for assessment needs to be far more carefully prepared, each part of the print carefully produced.  I also must think more about how I balance images with the frame and where to crop.

Finally, I need to reassess what I photograph as part of social documentary.  I was successful with landscape, but am now struggling with the people orientated social documentary.  It is not that I find photographing people challenging, I am just not very interested in them.  An answer might lie in looking at the boundaries between landscape and documentary, taking the bigger picture, but still thinking about society.   The course is written with people as the subject, however, Social Documentary need not be about people, it could also be about the spaces they occupy, places that echo people.  With my Fest work this was not an option, however, as I look at Robert Frank's work I see many photos that would fit into the viewpoint.

I guess the bottom line here is that I need to spend more time thinking about what it is that I want to say and then develop techniques and practices that enable me to say it clearly and in a manner that engages and interests the viewer.