Saturday, February 22, 2014

Assignment 4: City and Park

My current challenge with this assignment is finding the correct context within which to present the photographs that I am developing.  The subject has always been clear, the people of Munich, the problem I am grappling with is how to bring that into a framework that will capture the essence of Robert Frank's influence on my work.  I learned during the Landscape course that the objective is not to simply copy my chosen influencer's style but to channel their work through mine.  What can I learn from Robert Frank that helps with the development of my own visual style.

I think I have made it pretty clear that I am not comfortable in the photography of people, I prefer things, landscape, structures, stuff that can be solved using a camera.  The reason I am doing this course is because I do not like it, this is a stronger learning experience because I am struggling with it.  The problem with that statement is that my visual style conflicts with the demands of social documentary.  I continually look for precision in my work, I like high contrast and strongly defined photographs.  Frank was very different, his images are often "hazy" and the subject obscured - they require a reading.  He reacted rapidly to situations, took a photo and moved on, I like to linger and try to work out what it is I want to say with a photo.

Where this brings me is the challenge of finding a linking theme to this assignment and then tying it back to Frank.  A while ago I rejected the idea of creating my own "The Americans", but styling it "Die Muenchener", a study of the people of my city.  I find myself drifting back to this idea, but in a shorter form, 12 photographs that illustrate the people of the city.  There is a risk in such an approach of creating an August Sanders does Robert Frank.  My goal is not a typography, what I want to create is a social statement about the people of Munich, each photograph revealing different aspects of the city that go beyond a set of interesting photos of people.  They need to speak of the social issues, politics, and concerns of the people, perhaps subtly, perhaps overtly.  The influence of Frank is the twofold, first his approach to creating the photographs, an extended study imply exploring and photographing stuff that interests me.  The second is the comment,  the statement made by the photographs on what I see around me, they need to contain within them a narrative.  One of my challenges is that I look for simplicity in my imagery, I try solve the geometry of what I observe, that might not be the correct approach for photographs that need a complex internal narrative.

Visually I have chosen B&W for these photographs.  This is not inspired by Frank, but is a personal response to the material I am creating, I simply find that mono works better for these subjects.  I initially considered completing the whole course in mono as a learning experience, that is no longer my goal and for sure assignment 5 will be colour.

Since reconnecting with this course I have once more picked up my camera on a regular basis, trying to get out every weekend and take a few photographs.  The last two weekends were no different.  We continue to enjoy a warm sunny and very dry winter, in my 20 years in Munich this is the first winter that has not been characterized by fierce cold and heavy snow.  Last weekend the temperature in the shade hot 17 degrees, people were sunbathing in swim suits, on the 15th February, Mad!  I captured some interesting images, one or two that have possibles written on them, others that simply said something to me.  All are a study of the people of Munich and I hope all say something.

Heading into twon I took the bus to Muenchener Freiheit, just north of the city center, giving me a good 2km walk into the city.  I sat on the back seat and looked down along the interior.  I think this is too complex visually, but it is a record of a space that many ordinary people find themselves in and the girl to the right working away at her smart phone is very characteristic of modern life.  Not a keeper, but it interests me and might be part of a wider study.

Getting closer to the city I passed the Tambosi cafe, a great sun trap and well they simply obliged.  Like this a lot, it contains many elements of city culture and has a dynamic created by the kissing couple.

A group of tourists, possibly exchange students camp out in the center of Odeons Platz, Americans I think (German students wouldn't hang out here, it is not cool).  This is a photo better defined by its structure than its narrative, so not very strong.  There would need to be more movement to make it work.

This on the other hand is also very static, but full of elements that talk to where we are.  There are technical issues with the image, a shallower depth of field would have yielded a better separation of the foreground, but I think I can cope with that.  There are a lot of beggars in Munich these days, but this guy is not one of them.  He has a profession of sorts,  collecting used bottles discarded by tourists who do not realize that we recycle almost everything here and that those bottles have quite a high deposit (as much as 20p).  Collect 10-15 and he can buy a beer and watch the world go by from his perch in the winter sun.  Within the frame is also a Bavarian flag (hints at Frank's inclusion of flags) as well as a reference to the cities main newspaper.  I think this has a good internal narrative as well as capturing an element of Munich life.

OK, not terribly sophisticated, but half the world seems to have given up with actually looking at stuff.  It seems that it is more important to record something to show to friends rather than to actually experience it.  Kind of odd to go home and show people what your telephone did on it's holiday.  Not a keeper for this assignment, but a possible for a more extended presentation.

Now this is an image I like.  When I took it, my mind was on the group of people approaching.  Then the guy to the right entered the frame and the girl raised her arms in joy.  Job done?  It was not until I looked at the photo on the computer that I realized that I had much more.  The reflections of the people in the ceiling add an extra depth to the photograph.  I cut the photo into a letter box to emphasize the ceiling whilst retaining the people and their dynamic.  Of course I am attracted to the geometry of the circles, reflections and the vanishing point almost at infinity.  However, this also captures the sense of the modern city and the ant like existence of the people within and yet the emotional engagement they have with each other.  Very probable!

In the same area there are a number of cafes with the high tables very typical of Munich.  This captures the ethnic diversity of the city and again could be filler, but it is not strong enough.  The man at the back confuses the foreground couple and there is not enough gesture to make the photograph speak.

A week later I switched from the city center to the parks, lapping up the warm winter sun.  This is a gentle image and speaks of loss and absence, it's narrative lies in asking who Thomas W. Schmidt was.  Looking closer we get a small clue, the brass plate reads "Fur unserer Lieben Flaneur".  For our beloved Flaneur, a French word that google tells me means Loafer, but for every photographer has the special meaning of a street photographer who ambles along waiting for the event.  Cartier Bresson springs to mind.  Here was a man who enjoyed a walk and probably spent time enjoying the view from this spot.  I am not sure about this one, it says a lot to me and I find within it a rather lovely narrative, but is that enough.  Maybe.

Another Shaun image that attempts to create distinct planes of structure, not one for the assignment, but nice...

This has potential, there are a lot of different stories within this image,  the question I would have is that it might be too structured, again I am trying to create a single dimensional flat canvas against which to portray the people.

The next two speak of the sun and the warmth, combined with the conviviality of beer garden.  In the first image it is the shadows that make the photograph interesting, not sure that photographs of people backs would be strong enough for the assignment.

I have a number of photographs like this one, it is a grab shot capturing the crowded world of the beer garden.  As a documentary shot I think it works, it captures a sense of Munich, but is probably not strong enough.  There would need to be a stronger engagement with the camera or more happening in the frame.

The last image in this entry has no chance of making my assignment, but is my personal favorite of them all.  It would not work well in B&W, the colour of the people picks them out against the background.  What makes the image for me is the absence of the leaves.  It reveals the scattered positioning of the people better, all over are small vignettes that contain within them stories that ask to be told.  I also find that the summer behavior of the people conflicts with the clearly winter landscape creating a slightly strange surreal atmosphere.

I think I am getting towards a good set of possibles for this assignment, in fact I could probably now complete this assignment and call it a day.  However, I am finding the exercise of getting out each weekend to create photographs to be an enjoyable one and want to continue a little longer.  I appreciate that every new set of photographs simply makes a final selection more difficult, but that is a problem I can happily accomodate.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Assignment 4: Nato Demo

Looking back at my last few blog entries, I can see what my tutor meant when he recently commented that I need to focus on my development as a photographer.  I am all over the place, drifting from one project to another.  I suspect this reflects my disengagement with the course and a tendency toward exploring personal interests rather than focusing on OCA work.  With this blog entry I hope to start to bring my photographic focus back to the subject of Social Documentary.

I am not by nature terribly bold and taking photographs of strangers is something I find very hard to do.  I think this reflects in my style which is rather stand-off and structural than up close and involved.  A constant dialog I have with myself is whether this is a good or a bad thing.  I have to a degree found my voice as a photographer and that voice is not street, I prefer a more studied and formal approach.  I do not think this precludes me from making a social statement, but it does mean that my work has a particular way with people; I continually find myself trying to represent people as landscape.  On the other hand, I am starting to think that I should not resist this tendency, but go with it and see where it takes me.

This conclusion, however, conflicts with my next Assignment, creating 12 photographs in the style of Robert Frank.  His style is very up close and personal, with little concern for formalism.  I suspect my approach to photography is more Stieglitz than Frank.  That means that I need to draw from Frank something of his style and approach to working that I can engage with.  For me this is possibly his critical and question eye, his need to create photographs that ask questions.  Another element could be the engagement over time with a subject, immersion into that world.  In my case the world would be Munich and it's population.  For the last 2 years I have been creating photographs that I intended would come together in a book that would parallel "The Americans", nominally caller Die Muenchener.  I am questioning this idea now and think it might be better to instead consider his earlier volume, Black White and Things and create a series of 12 photos in 3 thematic groups, as Frank did.  What I explicitly do not want to do is to try and replicate the look of Frank's photos.  What would be the point, I am not Frank.  I need to conclude this concept soon as the clock is ticking on my course.

In the mean time I have decided to try and get out at least once a week to do some street photography in the city.  The occasion that drew me this weekend was the annual NATO conference in Munich, now in it's 50th year.  The event invariably draws a large and loud protest accompanied by the massed presence of Munich's police force.  This is always a good opportunity to take photographs, although in a very intimidating environment. That made it a rather daunting, but also good place to try to re-engage with documentary photography.

The conference takes place at a hotel smack in the heart of the cities shopping district, creating an interesting mixture of protesters, riot police, weekend shoppers and rather bemused tourists.  Munich has a strong tradition of protest and activism, most weekends will have a group setting up in the city center to vent their anger at something, last week it was Egypt. However the NATO conference is a biggie and pulls in a lot of people and thus also a lot of security.  I went out with an open mind, with no particular agenda.  I find this works for street photography, it is impossible to predict what might happen.  The sun was shining (good and bad for me) and the crowd was in a good mood, I have sometimes wondered what would happen if they weren't.  The police had the same thought and there were cordons set up around the more expensive shopping areas and government buildings, potential targets for the more anarchic fringe.

My goal was to come away with 10 or so photographs that captured the sense of the event, portraying the people there.  It took me a while to get into the mode of street photography, i.e. becoming unafraid to point and shoot in a large crowd.  I found myself using my camera in a stealthy mode, i.e. using the pop out screen and looking down rather than bringing the camera to my eye.  This gives a sense of presence in shots, but is not so accurate.  I have divided the photographs into 3 groups.  First of all the protesters.

The first image used a tele to pick this guy out of the crowd.  His hair was bright orange and very striking.  I am processing to B&W so this is lost, but not the structure.  What I wanted with this image was the juxtaposition of the protester with the arch behind, did not really work, the framing is off.  I think it is an interesting portrait, but nothing special.

This man had found what I thought was the best protest symbol in the crowd, a rusting WW2 German helmet that with the grass looked as if it had just been dug out of a field.  It reminded the crowd of the terribly losses Germany had suffered as a result of the militarism the crowd was associating with NATO.  The turned away face leaves some information about the man, but it is the shadowed relic of war that makes this photograph for me.

This was an odd juxtaposition, the hoody and the Hammer & Sickle. Not sure if it works as a photograph, I think some part of the mans face would have helped.

Here I have tried to contrast the anti-establishment crowd with the Town Hall behind, the symbol of government in Munich.  I think this is too confused to work, I am too close or not far enough away.  Crowds work when there are thousands in the frame or when there is a close up of an individual against the mass.  This just looks jumbled.

I found that the photographs I was getting of the protesters were OK, but just OK. People with placards and long hair are good subjects, but there was nothing particularly new or different about this.  What I did find interesting were the lines of police fronting the shops.  Clearly, there was a real fear that the crowd might vent it's anger on the symbols of capitalism all around.  Everywhere I looked there were lines of highly intimidating police heavily armored and armed.  This brought out the structural in me.

The first shot was taken from inside the shopping center, entry was permitted, but maybe not if dressed wrongly. This photograph works for me, apart from the structure the lack of faces draws attention to the word Polizei and the equipment these men are carrying. In front of them Saturday afternoon shopping continues as normal.  I tried a few times to create photos that juxtaposed the shoppers with the police, but could never get the degree of separation that made a good shot.

Same group of police from the other side:

Here I have tried to place shoppers into the frame.  This is a very complex image, perhaps too many layers.  I wanted the word SALE with the police and then the shoppers.  In colour it is far too confusing, in B&W it might work, I am not sure.  There is more involvement.

Perhaps a different crop would work, removing the guy on the right. Unfortunately I did not have the feet of the police in the frame, but this is much better and may have potential.  It illustrates many aspect of Munich and whilst still confusing, perhaps the need to disentangle the image might add some engagement on the part of the viewer.

My final two photographs from the day are portraits of the police.  The first one is light the second I think darker.  In the first the light makes the scene seem airy, the hand holding couple defuse the sense of threat that might be conveyed by the police.  I think this photo may have worked better with more of the policeman's face and the presence of the second person in the couple.  The challenge of working in the street is that constellations come and go, you have to work with what happens as it happens.

I find this photograph strangely attractive, the two extremely good looking people with their almost medieval equipment creates a strong contrast.  Again I am missing their feet, but the eye contact with the female officer suggested at the time to move on and not spend time recomposing.  However, it is that firm gaze that I think elevates this photograph above the others.

In my concept of Black White and Things the above image would be Black whereas the one above would be White.  I need to think about Things.  Not really sure if this will work, but my approach is aligned to Frank.  I am accumulating a library of images of the population of Munich that explore multiple aspects of life in the city, what I need to do is to tie them together as a narrative body of work.

Yesterday got me back on track, another step in the right direction.