Sunday, February 3, 2013

Assignment 2: Final Revision

In my original commentary on this assignment, I made the following comment in the notes on learning:
“I consider this to be the most complete project I have yet to undertake as a photographer, it stretched me in so many different ways, physically and intellectually.  I hope that the assignment set works as well as the book, 13 photographs is a tough ask for such a diverse event.”
This comment was prescient.  The assignment essentially failed as a body of work, due in large part to the fact that I put too much of my energy into the creation of the book.  The book became the assignment, but this is not what was asked for.  The result was that I created the assignment as a summary of the photobook, rather than the other way around.  I each of my past 3 courses I expanded one of the assignments into a broader based study which then became a photobook.  However, as this was after the fact it did not interfere with the assignment.

Photobooks are an important part of how I think about and practise photography.  I find a narrative sequence of images far more satisfying than a single work of art.  I enjoy a monumental photograph, I much admire Andreas Gursky, but I find the photobooks of Martin Parr much more engaging as an art form.  My direction is pages in a book, not pictures on a gallery wall.  This is creating conflict in my studies, OCA assignments are on the whole a small set of images, generally fewer than 12.  I find this very hard to achieve; my comfort zone is 30-80 images. Perhaps I am copping out from making the hard decisions that a commercial photo editor might make.  I feel that the current courses are set up to drive towards the ability to satisfy a commercial brief, rather than for the artistic goal of an individual.  As I am engaged in this course to expand my photographic sensibilities as an artist, with no intent towards a career as a photographer, I have recently started to question whether I really want to continue with the OCA – there, I finally said it.

In effect this assignment has pushed me into a crisis of confidence and commitment, it has forced me to take a hard look at myself and my motivations.  For 3 years I have spent an average of 10-15 hours a week engaged in the pursuit of a degree.  I work 50-60 hours a week in a very demanding job, photography is the antidote to the long hours and stress, but now my photography is generating even more stress.  Why do I do it?  Vanity, maybe, I want to still prove my mind is capable of advanced study? Relaxation, well that went out the window a while ago?  Qualification, I already have 2 degrees and another postgraduate qualification? So why?

It is because I really enjoy the process of making pictures. I love the intellectual challenge of solving a pictorial puzzle and creating a photograph that entertains and challenges the viewer.

So the real question I must answer is how to pull myself back to a place where I am once again enjoying what I do and expressing how I see the world through photography.  I have an opinion about the world and a need to express it visually.  This is where I failed in this assignment, I dropped the opinion and tried to create an objective balanced piece of work.  As I did this I stopped relating to my subject and stepped into the position of an observer, even worse a voyeur.  I took too many photographs trying to document every aspect of the Fest and then present that in a book as a balanced view of the event.  As a book this worked well enough and I am very pleased with the outcome.  However, there was no practical way to reduce this to 12 or so images and retain the objective overview without resulting in a bland set of images.

In essence, by attempting to balance the set, I removed the more cutting images, afraid of projecting my opinion into the set of photographs – the net result a bland bunch of colourful snaps.  When I worked on my Landscape photographs I placed my personality directly into the images.  I am a geometry obsessed picture straightener and I used this to create a specific look to the photographs that conveyed a sense of Shaun.  With the subject of the Fest this was more difficult, I did not have the time to plan each and every frame, and I got lost in the chaos of the event.

Now the question, what am I going to make of this.  It is over 10 weeks since I submitted the original assignment. During that time I have taken a very deliberate break from my studies, giving myself a chance to clear my head and rethink my approach.  The answer is to return to where I was with Landscape.  I am not a disinterested observer, I have a strong viewpoint that I want to get across in my work.  Secondly I need to get back to my core interest in photography, the urban environment and the existence of people within the spaces they have created.  I find that my Landscape photographs have more Social Documentary in them than the images I have created for this course.

Assingment 2: Rework

When I started out with this study of the Oktoberfest my original plan was to document the seedy side of the event, to lift the carpet and show what is swept beneath.  The Fest has a very carefully constructed public image, one that the city is very keen to preserve, 100’s of millions of Euros flow from the event into Munich every year.  The newspapers always comment on the darker side, but the picture they portray is almost universally one of jolly lads in Lederhosen swigging gigantic beers and young ladies keen to make the most of their cleavage.  I rarely see the negative, even the shots of drunks tend to be humorous; this is one of mine, similar shots are frequently shown in the press:

The crutches add to the comic element, a bunch of lads sleeping it off.  What is never shown, however, are the fights, the people lying in sick and piss, the urgency of paramedics racing through the crowd to someone asphyxiating on their own vomit.  Worse still is the sense of sexual menace that permeates an event in which almost everyone gets seriously drunk.  Leering grabby men are everywhere, few women will get through an evening without some form of harassment, although many give as good as they get.  Sadly, sexual assault, even rape is not uncommon common at the Fest.  Many visitors have little recollection of where or what they did the night before.  Informed consent, no chance, although again it works both ways.

When I originally set out to illustrate this side of the event, this was the side that I wanted to portray, for a variety of reasons I bottled it.  I have now revisited those photographs and constructed an alternate narrative of the event, visiting on the darker side.  This is how I see the Oktoberfest, away from the picture postcards.  I have taken the 13 images that I submitted for the assignment and made a severe edit.  6 of the 13 remain, to which I have added 7 new photographs.  Of the 6 that I have kept all have been edited for framing.   In the new set I have freely cropped the photos without any limit of aspect ratio.  

My final and perhaps very risky move is a decision to switch the set to B&W.  When I first designed this assignment, it was the offshoot of a book project that had at its core, the colour of the Fest.  Changing the emphasis of the assignment to a darker view demands a rethink.  Visually B&W drives a graphical approach that places emphasis on the structure of the image.  The colour of the Fest that so dominated my earlier set is removed as a consideration, making the images less confusing and more focused.  It also enables better use of more marginal images, many of the seedier images were taken at or after nightfall under mixed lighting.  
However, this is not just about the picture qualities, the use of B&W has an effect on the viewer of the image that is outside the simple aesthetic impact.  B&W photographs are perceived as serious objects, they are reports not simply pictures.  By using B&W I can further emphasize that this is a documentary set that investigates and reveals, not simply illustrates.  

When I started out on this course I set out to shoot the whole thing in B&W, a direction that my tutor quite rightly questioned.  My reasons for using this medium were simply one of desiring to explore B&W across an extended period of time, not a bad thing, but also not terribly convincing.  He rightly pointed out that any decision regarding the qualities of my work should be for well thought out reasons.  With the Fest book, I used colour to portray the gaudy madness of this huge sprawling drinking event, it worked as intended.  Now that I am bringing focus to just a part of the event I have good reasons for using B&W.  During my Landscape course I shot 3 assignments and the portfolio in colour, the only assignment I shot in B&W was about the modern day presence of the Jewish synagogue in Munich, a subject that suited the darker tones of B&W.  


  • Technically there was little wrong with the original set of images, just an unwillingness to freely crop and frame the images to maximize the impact.  I think this stems from wanting tidiness in my work, something that worked in Landscape, but not here.  I need to always think about how the frame interacts with the image and treat the frame as a flexible tool.
  • Documentary photography is not science it is an art and as such permits opinions and the introduction of the practitioner’s personality and viewpoints into the work. In fact without doing so the risk is a bland set of images that merely record but do not engage.
  • The creation of Photobooks is central to how I want to develop as a photographer and is something I still see as the ultimate expression of my art.  However, I need to prioritize the demands of the course first.  I have a renewed commitment to what I am doing with the OCA and perhaps after this “crisis” I can get back into it with greater vigor and enthusiasm.

Reworked Photographs

This is how the world wants you to see the Oktoberfest, drunken of course, but happy.  The camaraderie of two revellers set against girls wearing Drindls and a sign welcoming all to the “Augustiner Garten”.  OK, that really is a great place to drink some really fine beer.

Among the broken glass, cigarette butts, and detritus of a day at the Fest a young couple find somewhere to escape from the chaos of the event.  By mid-afternoon the event is full and finding somewhere to sit and have a beer becomes a challenge. This is a rare departure from the horizontal for me, tilting the frame adds a dynamic to an otherwise static image.  I also want to convey the sense of disorientation that the Fest engenders after spending any time there.

As the light falls the Wiesn becomes more intense, the crowds thicken and the music gets louder.  Everywhere you go there is drink. I have cropped this image much tighter to bring the emphasis to the tattooed man.  In my first submission I allowed much more of the background into this and several other photographs, the goal being to illustrate the event as well as the interaction.  This took the point of focus away from what I was trying to say.

Drunks lurch around the fairground, I become part of the game of jumping in front of cameras for a laugh.  In this case he made the photograph. Once again I have heavily cropped the original image to tighten the sense of his interacting with me and emphasizing the repetition of face in the billboard behind. 

This is a gently humorous look at the effect drinking 6% alcohol beer in 1 litre glasses, often with a Schnapps to chase it down.  I have tightened the crop to focus on the trio, removing the Hofbräu logo that was in the far left corner of the original.  The logo makes sense if you know something about the Fest, but without that knowledge it adds nothing whilst unbalancing the frame.

Forget the jolly opening image, this is how the Fest ends for many; wandering drunkenly soaked to the skin.  These two lads staggered across my viewfinder barely able to stand and utterly confused about who or where they were.

A frequent sight at the Fest, he just lost whatever it was he had for lunch. Equally frequent, though, is that people are rarely alone when drunk, there is a great deal of tenderness on display.  I have again cropped tightly to bring the centre of attention to the couple, but retained the boots in the background to suggest that they are part of a larger world.

There were a few chuckles, but these lads were taking good care of their comatose friend.  They had even taken their shirts off to help to keep him warm, hypothermia is a real risk for seriously drunk people at the Fest.  The Autumn air can be very cold and when coupled with rain can kill if someone escapes attention.

All too often the Fest ends badly for someone, alcohol poisoning or violence require attention from the emergency services.  They race through the crowd blowing whistles to alert people to make a path.

A sudden increase in the volume accompanied by crashing benches and breaking glass signifies that another fight has broken out.  Here we have one of the most primal of human interactions, violent confrontation.  This photograph nearly resulted in my joining the violence, the security guards were very aggressive about photo taking, something I reacted to badly.  That altercation, neatly illustrates the way that the Fest management want to control the message. 

Fest security is very efficient, start a fight and you will lose.  As with the previous image one or two of the bouncers took up position specifically to drive away photographers.  We call them the Black Sheriffs, they are known for their violence and I suspect a part of not wanting to be photographed is not wanting to be identified.  In a democratic world, when those in a position of power avoid being pictured as they go about their duties it is time to ratchet up the paranoia a little.

The come on! As night falls people start to pair off, the Fest is a major place for casual hook-ups.  Many go with the express intent of finding some casual sex, others simply take it.  Free condoms are distributed to try to manage disease transmission.  Conversely at least 3 couples we know first got it together at the Fest and are now happily married.  The Fest is a strange mix of contradictions.

The Fest is hard work, dancing drinking, shouting, many find a quiet place to chill a little before either heading back into the maelstrom or heading for the train home.  Others wake up in the room behind the wall they are leaning on and wish they hadn’t – the Wiesn Police Station.