Sunday, April 27, 2014

Assignment 5: Out and About with Camera

I have still only completed a little work for Assignment 5, well excepting the 8 foot long photo I printed last week.  As discussed in my last post I have made a decision to step back and away from people as the subject and start thinking in terms of the social landscape.  I am not succeeding at any level as a people photographer and think it is time to move on and think about where I am going overall.

When I think back on the courses I have completed thus far, People-and-Place and Landscape were the standouts, I enjoyed the subjects and the process.  Social Documentary has for me been a nightmare, I dislike the over-emphasis on people as the only subject and cannot find an angle that let's my own views come out in my work.  I have lost any spark of me.  Assignment 4 was disappointing, good learning, but clearly a suggestion that I am not getting along with the course direction

So I now make the decision to reverse direction and return to the comfort of landscape, but I hope using this as a way to document society.  On Saturday I got out with my camera and started once again the process of documenting Richard-Strauss Strasse:

This first image is still very much street, hang around for long enough and something strange will come along, in this case a bed on a bike.

 However, I prefer this view.  The reflection is a problem in the first shot, but not fatal.  This shot, brings out more, the bike is part of a larger scene, the photo serves to define the structure of the street, but also illustrates that personal transport, i.e. bikes are central to our way of life here. This photo has a green message.

It is election time once again,in fact it is always one election or another, either the city council, the Bundestag, or the EU.  Anyway, this amused me.  The UK has Mr Farage and his little band of proto-fascists.  Germany tried that, it didn't work out well.  Oddly, neither did communism, yet Karl-Marz and Lenin are still potent political symbols. I think I prefer the close up.

This is another landscape shot, too similar to the bed, but showing the careful layout of the street environment and the care to make the world green.  personally, I get more about Germany from this photograph than any personal close up could ever deliver.  To me this kind of shot is documentary, it documents a place in time and one day might be a valuable record.  The risk, of course, is that it is a record shot and then so what.

Contradictions.  This is a Bio supermarket, everything has been produced at the highest ethical level, natural and non-poluting, expect of course for the lump of BMW that is used to go shopping for these natrual producst.

It is beer festival season again, this time the Spring Beer Festival, one of  three 2 week long festivals that occupy the calendar.  The festivals bring out the traditional, although slightly jazzed up in this case.  each year there is a colour fashion for Dirndls, Pink was last year, Green is in this year.  Not sure if this is a good photo or not, but it does say a lot about German society.


My problem is going to be the essay element, making the photographs hang together.  I am not telling a temporal story, I am trying to paint a picture of a culture.  I understand that as an essay, I hope my tutor does too?

Anyway, clock is ticking I now have 3 weeks left to finish this...

Assignment 4: Tutor Feedback

"I think that you have made a good effort to produce a portrait of Munchen. You have decided not to follow slavishly Frank’s style in favour of developing your own. This is a stiffer more formal style that perhaps suits the subject well, but I feel that while you have good technical skills that have developed during the project and have produced a good set of images, you have concentrated on images of things - the rather stereo-typical portrayal of different types of people - rather than produced images that convey feelings; feelings about the people of Munich or the feelings, emotions that the people have and their situation. This is the biggest difference between your work and that of Frank’s Americans."
Damned with faint praise!  And fair comment, but one that I struggle to respond to.  I have a growing realization that in my heart I am a landscape photographer, or rather someone who seeks meaning through the photography of things rather than people.  The images are stiff and formally composed, but I am rather stiff and formal.  My work is as a business analyst, I spend my days collating data and trying to establish trends and discover opportunity.  I am very much not a people person, well not without some help.  I think this reflects in my photography.  Unless I am specifically invited to engage with my subjects through a formal request such as a wedding or an event, I am not comfortable getting into people's faces.  I can do this, but it is not a part of my person.

In another comment Simon makes the following observation:
"You have used your visual skills well to work within the ‘no photography on the street’ culture of Munich. The set presents a somewhat distant, detached observer’s view - rather like the ‘outsider’ viewpoint that Frank has in the Americans. I’m not sure if this was a reflection of your discomfort of working close up to people or a matter of necessity given the prevailing attitude to photography in the street. Whichever, you might want to think about working on your skills in a more close up environment using a wide angle lens and getting in close. This will present quite a different feel to your images and involve much more engagement with your subjects."
Sadly a little of both.  At events I am happy to work in close, especially when dealing with someone who is in effect modeling for me, but on the street, no!  There is a very good reason that I have alluded to before that there is no street photography in Germany.  It is illegal! And what is more people know it is.  I took the following photograph yesterday, nothing special just working some ideas around Assignment 5.  However, the reaction of the man is very obvious, he saw the camera.  I can only take photographs of people if they are genuinely unaware of the camera and remain that way.  Even posting this image now and the others on my blog means I have in effect broken the law.  It makes for a very difficult challenge in working this specific course.  I am nervous about this, I am invading people's personal space in a manner that Germans find extremely intrusive and even aggressive.

Overall, there was no challenge to any of the photographs and I do think that I have met the brief acceptably, just not in as emotionally engaging a manner as I could have done.  Frank was indeed much closer to his subjects and certainly less risk averse than I am.  The odd thing about this is that I enjoy street photography, and in a different country might make this more part of my work, however, I simply cannot in Germany.  I fee that I have stretched things as far as I can before getting into serious trouble, either a violent reaction or the Police.

Technically the photos were fine this time and I did learn a lot from Simon's input on assignment 2 in terms of the crop and the framing.  The B&W conversions worked well.  In terms of image quality or rather quality of outcome, I succeeded, but the comment was clear that perhaps the images are too refined too sharp, they lack any emotion.  Again I buy this and accept my limitations.  Finally on the topic of creativity, there is some good feedback
"You have obviously given a lot of thought, time and effort to this portrayal of the people of Munich. Your images have an air of subtlety in their rendition of such a varied mix - I like the book ending images with their inclusion of “Munchen”, the deft humour of the “no photography” signs in ‘artist’, the timing of ‘transvestite’ with the broom making contact with the hand adding depth to the image beyond the more obvious allusion to the differences between the protagonists in the image."
However, the final paragraph again hints at the lack of engagement
"Your work seems to be more a drawing of a stereotypical image of the ‘types of Munchener’ rather more in the way that Di Corcia does in his staged imagery. So a question for you is consider is how much you want your style to become consciously an amalgam of the styles of Frank and others like Di Corcia."
Simon also suggests that I look at Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewsden, ironic as I got a similar comment from a previous tutor when doing People and Place.  Guess I am in a certain grove, for good or bad.

Unlike the previous 2 photographic assignments, where there was substantial commentary around each image, there was no suggestion to change or replace any of the images in this set.  I will take that as a sign that I was not so far from the mark, at least in the sense of presenting a set of cohesive well thought out photographs.

I am now left with the final question, what do I learn from this assignment and where next.  I guess the most obvious learning point is that I am not a people person and that photography of humanity is not for me,  I started this course with trepidation about whether it was the right thing to do.  This assignment reinforced the conclusion that it was the right thing to do, but the learning is negative rather than positive.  I can do this, but my heart is not in it.  Thinking back on Landscape and the commitment I made to that course, I just do not get the same vibe here.  Landscape was a pure joy and continual learning process and a feeling of self expression that I have never achieved in any other work I have done, including my Ph.D. in Physics.  I did this course on the advice of my tutor for Landscape, he felt I needed to broaden my experience and that the alternate, PWDP would not teach me much that I do not already know.  The advice was sound, but it has been a painful process.

I now need to make a decision about the final assignment.  I think the suggestion that I should get closer and more personal with my subjects is not going to happen. I plan the opposite, to go with my intuition and step away from the person and consider the environment, i.e. to work the final assignment as an exercise in Social Landscape, to take what I have learned from Social Documentary and Landscape and combine them in a single piece of work that investigates the German street.

What I colclude is that the version of Social Documentary favored by this course, i.e. studies of people, is not my idea of how society should be documented.  This person centric view seems more orientated towards documenting the human experience of society, versus a document of society.  I am more interested in how environment shapes or reflects society rather than how people shape society - that is what makes me a Landscape photographer rather than a social photographer.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Assignment 5: Down to Work

Now that Assignment 4 is safely submitted I can move onto the final chapter in this course.  No feedback yet for the last assignment, but time is pressing and I cannot wait.  AS the OCA refused to grant me an extension I am under pressure to finish by 7th June, which as a result of a planned vacation is effectively the 18th May.  I must admit I am pretty unhappy at the decision, I completed the first 4 courses in 3 years, not the 6 allowed, so was hoping for some lenience, especially given the trauma of a close family death and extreme overwork resulting in illness.  Ah well, this is not meant to be easy!

So I have in essence 4 weeks to develop and complete this assignment.  I have the basics, location and concept.  I now need to develop these thoughts. My first task has been to revisit the East-West photographs I created last year and process them into something close to what I plan to submit.  I have essentially done what Ed Ruscha did with the Sunset Strip in 1966 and photographed both sides of Richard Strauss Strasse in completeness (well a block of it). Originally I formatted them as a pair of film strips each side on one A4 page - not very interesting.  I have now spent some time and montaged the photographs in Photoshop into two single lines of photos, with the East side on the top of the page and the West side below (as Ed Ruscha did with the sunset strip).  This can only work with one side of the street upside down, otherwise the photos are out of order on one side:

I formatted the images so that there were 3 photos per A4 page on the top and then on the bottom.  This is a test print using a laser printer.

For the final version I will use photopaper which will lend some stiffness as well as improved quality.  The biggest challenge will be joining the pages in a way that does not look tacky.  I cannot print as a single strip so must join the pages somehow.  I am guessing I need a flexible cloth based tape for this.

Individually the pages look like this:

These photographs set the stage for the study, they define the topography of the environment and now I need to look deeper at the people and the symbols that are contained within.

My goal is to capture the essence of Germany in 2014, through the mundane and the ordinary.  What are the signifiers that tell the story of modern Germany, who are the people, what motivates them, and so on.  This is not going to be easy, creating a compelling narrative will be a challenge, as will balancing the photographs of people against the objects that I find.  One thing is for sure, I am heartily fed up with taking photographs of people.  This whole course has focused on the human form as the object that defines social documentary - I rebel, I have had enough.  I want to look at society also through the shape of the environment we inhabit and the things that we place into that space.  I will include people, there are plenty in the above strip.  But not too many, enough is enough.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Assignment 4: Submission


Back on the rails after a long drought. Cannot believe that it is over 18 months since I last submitted a group of photographs for comment as part of an assignment.  Guess we all have highs and lows, creative blocks, whatever, but this has been long and drawn out.  Too Long!

Sending my photos to Simon was cathartic, a release of pent up energy.  However, I have to admit that I am more than nervous about his response, the long break has left me very unsure of myself and concerned that what critical sense I had might have left me.  A few days and I will know.

In any case here is the submission


At the beginning of this course I made several decisions that would have a long term impact on my progression and what I created. One was that Robert Frank would be the subject of my essay and thus my “in the style of”.  I also determined to pursue a long term study of the people of Munich, creating a progressive portrait of the inhabitants of the city.  The goal would be a book, “Die Münchener”, a parallel to “The Americans”.  However, when working on assignment 2 I got myself into a difficult place creating another book, “Fest”.  I invested too much time and energy in book design and too little on the actual assignment.  Subsequently, I learned a lot about book design, but turned in an assignment that could have been far better with additional work.  I learned a valuable lesson and that was to focus on the brief and not on my personal take on what I wanted to do. I still plan to produce Die Münchener, but later and in response to this assignment and my tutor’s feedback, not as a precursor.

This assignment took even more time than I anticipated, 22 months have passed since I first took photographs that contributed to this submission, my original plan was to submit this assignment in Spring 2013, not 2014.  2013 became a lost year, one in which I made little or no progress on the course; the combination of a close family bereavement and severe overwork left no energy for study.  There is good and bad in this.  I lost momentum and interest in the world of photography, but I gained time to think and re-assess both my interests and my commitment.  Entering 2014 I feel re-energized and ready to re-engage with my studies, I hope that comes out in this assignment.  These are the first photographs I have submitted for comment in nearly 18 months, have I moved forward or sunk back?.

During those intervening months I did not stop taking photographs, I kept taking pictures of the city and it’s people, sometimes landscape, sometimes street, exploring different styles, even playing with medium format film.  I always had an idea of what I wanted to achieve, but not quite how I was going to achieve it.  I tried to be open to whatever I found, traveling to different locations in the city and it’s surroundings, capturing whatever interested me.  This broad approach to imaging Munich created issues later in the process, but enabled me to sustain the project over time.  The greatest issue was what to present, how to capture the essence of a population in 12 photographs.  Clearly such a goal was impossible, hence I have tried to present 12 images that reflect upon my experience of the city, but at the same time echo the work of Robert Frank and his study of the Americans.

Munich is an eclectic place, left leaning, social democrat in it’s politics, yet surrounded by the traditionally conservative Bavarian countryside.   It is wealthy, there is little or no poverty, jobs abound, being unemployed is on the whole a personal decision. Although expensive by German standards it is not when compared to other comparable global cities.  It is a centre for finance, but balances that with a strong manufacturing base, BMW has its home here.  The cities bishop became a Pope, yet it has one of the most progressive gay communities in Europe.  The people of Munich are open minded, hardworking, full of humour and can afford to have a good time.  This assignment takes a look at those people and tries to capture something of the diversity of this amazing place I call home.

In the Style of

A key problem I had to resolve was what “In the Style of” meant and in particular how I was going to interpret the brief.  I have struggled with this since I started the course and although I have come to a view and one that informs my photography, I do wonder if this is what the designer of the course had in mind.

I have decided not to copy Frank’s visual style. I don't own a 1950's B&W film Leica and if I did I still would not use it for this work, nor do I want to replicate this in software.  I am in the process of developing my own visual style and at present that is clean sharp and ordered, very different to Frank.  I am not sure I would benefit by going against that at this stage in my development as a photographer.

However, Frank is a great influence on me and my work, but more in the sense of his subject choice and methods.  What I am trying to do in this assignment is to channel Frank's way of looking at the world, using my camera to ask questions and capture the zeitgeist of Munich. I have taken time over the assignment, paralleling Frank's months on the road, to develop ideas and narratives over time, not a few weekends.  I have tried to present within each photograph an individual narrative, each should ask questions of the reader and hopefully contain the occasional surprise.  Frank excelled at single image narratives.  I am also looking for a little humour and social commentary, again something that Frank brought to his work.

To add context to the set I am also drawing a little on a German photographer, August Sander, each photo is an illustration of a "type" of Münchener.  The goal is not a complete typography, but a set of 12 individual photographs, each examining a different aspect of what it is to be a citizen of Munich.


The extended time for this study resulted in a lot of photographs, roughly 2-3,000 taken over 30 or more separate days.  I edited as I went, after each shoot examining the “Digital” contact sheet on my screen and selecting those that I thought had some merit.  This resulted in a pool of 230 photographs that I then further refined to a final set of 48.  These I printed onto plain paper enabling me to get away from the computer screen and look at them as physical objects.  At all times I dipped back into the complete volume of photos, pulling images in and out as my thoughts evolved.

Getting this down to 12 was hard, it always is with assignments, but this time particularly challenging as I had been working on the photographs for such a long time.  A problem I have is a tendency to develop favourites, photographs that for any reason I become attached to.  I lose objectivity and can end up rejecting more effective images to keep these in the set.  At this stage I share my thoughts with friends and fellow students to try and see if any of the final set do not work for any reason.

Once I had a working set of 12 I remained open to change, but at that stage started to think about how each photograph should look as a finished object.  From the beginning the decision was to work in B&W, not necessarily to parallel Frank, but because I wanted to explore the world in this medium and chose to use this assignment for that.  Once that decision was made I was pretty much committed because it influenced what I shot, how I shot it and what photos I selected after each shoot.  I have looked at the final set as colour images, some work, many do not.

I am quite heavy handed in developing my images, liking string contrast images.  I have consciously tried to dial that down with this set, looking for a smoother tonality and thinking ahead to creating final prints.  I make very few local adjustments to images, preferring the standard tool set in Lightroom to that offered by Photoshop.  The biggest processing decision was in how I cropped each photograph.  I have not standardized the aspect ratios, choosing whatever works for each individual image.  This risks disjoint between the images, however, there is no intent for a linear narrative; each photograph should present a standalone statement.  That said, sequencing is still important, the photos will be read in the order I submit them, so some care was needed.  The sequencing of images in The Americans is much commented on and is an essential element of the structure of the work.  With only 12 photographs establishing rhythm or patterns was not possible, and I did not permit sequencing to influence image choice.  However, the sequence chosen is deliberate.


What did I learn from this assignment? Patience and Stamina!  Well, those were the two qualities I needed to keep going.  I have struggled badly with this assignment, in part due to external factors, but also down to my own prevarication and unwillingness to call it a day and finish the process.  There is a risk that the time taken might lead to a disjoint in the images, I have tried to avoid this, but am still concerned.  I think I fell into that classic art trap of never being able to call something complete.  Indeed this is not complete, in a sense it never can be, but a set of 12 photographs had to be selected and presented.

I learned a lot about camera handling and the activity of street photography.  I used small cameras throughout, either fixed lens compacts or mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.  In this sense I did borrow from Frank choosing discreet cameras that limited the attention that I drew.  I found that cameras with fold out screens that could be used at waist level made me more or less invisible.  I also discovered that a cheery smile diffused most people’s look of concern about being photographed.  In short, my confidence rose considerably.

Most of all this was a lesson in developing an inquiring mind, looking at the mundane to find the marvellous, using a camera to tell the story of the people of a city.  I hope that together these photographs ask questions bit also reveal something about the people of Munich in a way that Frank’s photographs revealed 1950s America.


 Artist: The first and last photographs in this set are very different, but both contain the word München and bookend the set. Within a few of the photographs in the set I have tried to include direct or indirect references to the city.

This is an artist at a craft fair held once a year in the city centre.  The city is frequently taken over for fairs or demonstrations, most weekends there is some activity.  The city supports freedom of expression and art is central to the core values of the people.  Photography is not always so welcome.

The photo contains a very clear indication not to take photographs and hints at the struggle of engaging in street photography in a country that places huge value on privacy.  It is not perfect, when shooting a lady crossed in front of me, her handbag is still in the frame.  I could crop closer, but wanted to completely include the lady in her chair.

Worker: This is another photograph that obliquely hints at the city.  When buildings are being renovated or replaced the hoardings frequently contain large scale photographs of what will be revealed when the work is complete.  The worker in question is taking a break for that essential of modern life, sending or receiving a text message.  Once it would have been a cup of coffee or a beer break with colleagues, now we retreat to the solitude of electronic communication.

Shopper: I struggled with the crop of this photo, undecided about the left hand window that is very partially revealed.  However, with the window in place the photograph takes on the impression of a series of stills from a movie, a moment in time captured as part of a continuum.  The photograph illustrates the cleanliness of a Munich grocery shop, and the people in the queue occupy themselves with phones and even a newspaper.

Penner: A Penner is the local word for a tramp, not necessarily a homeless man, but a down and out, usually alcoholic person who hangs around the city centre.  He has been collecting bottles to return for their “Pfand” or deposit.  Tourists rarely realize that 25 cents of the cost of their coke is the bottle which can be returned once empty.  For every 10 or so bottles he collects he can earn enough for another beer, his current bottle sits next to him.  The kiosk to the left will handle the transaction meaning he can maintain his perch in the winter sun.

In this photo the flag is that of Bavaria and contains the arms of the state, again a reference to where we are.  I had to lighten the man’s face as the low winter sun was really casting deep shadows.  I could have moved in closer to drive more of a portrait view, however, this is meant to place him in a place, the photo is about the Penner, but it is also about where he is.  I am reluctant to chase down “The Other” in my photography, but many of Munich’s Penners are a part of society and tolerated, well to a point.

Pensioner: Clearly the elderly lady is not the subject of this photo, but she does create an odd juxtaposition with the immense Buddha in the background, “Made in Dresden”.  What that is about, I really have no idea.  I have cropped the photo to emphasize the position of the Buddha.  I hope this photo has a sense of humour within it.

Lover: Street photography is often simply a matter of luck, although I do wonder if the couple saw me composing the photo and decided to help me out, they laughed as they walked past me, all smiles. My plan was a photo of the Tambosi café to the right a famous Munich spot to sit in the sun and engage in people watching, note that all seats face forwards. I waited for someone to occupy the left foreground to add balance, then got lucky.  I have cropped the very heavy shadow on the right of the original photograph.  The shadows are stronger than I would have liked, however, this was taken in February and that was the light.

Photographer: I think like many photographers I am fascinated by imaging the act of making a photograph.  This was taken during the annual Christopher Street parade, the photographer was looking for couples to create portraits of.  I think this speaks of Munich’s eccentricity and tolerance of alternative lifestyles.  There is also the confluence of tradition and counter culture, the lederhosen of the photographer and one subject are fiercely traditional, contrasting with the perhaps more stereotypical leather pants of the right most man.

Transvestite: I questioned whether I should include two photographs of visibly gay men in my set, however, I think the two photographs act as a contrast.  The first illustrates acceptance, the second bemusement and perhaps hostility.  There is a risk in any set of photographs of focusing on the unusual, however that is often the source for interesting photographs.

The cleaning crew stand in stark contrast to the two guys walking past them.  I think I got the focus about right, enough background blur to make the couple stand out.  I would have liked a little space above the subjects head, but this was taken with a fixed focal length lens and there was not enough space to manoeuver.

Protestor: This is the only out and out portrait in the set and as such is a simpler photograph than many of the others, however, it still asks questions.  Although clearly a man with attitude to my eyes he still looks somehow vulnerable among the black clad heavy guys around him.

I took this at the annual protest against the NATO security conference held in Munich every year.  I stalked him for a while with a tele trying to frame him against the arch behind.  This is one of the photographs that loses something in B&W, his hair is almost the same orange as the 4 lights beside him, providing a better balanced image in colour.  However, I think is still works in B&W.

Cop: The NATO conference also brings a heavy police presence, literally thousands of cops are deployed across the city in riot gear.  This group was defending a rather smart shopping arcade, a potential target for the anarchists protesting.  Life went on as usual, the police smiled, people chatted with them, they were present but not really in the way.

They are also pretty OK about being photographed, this is one of many that I took.  I have chosen this view as it offered the best sense of the strangeness of heavily armed police lining the streets of the city.  By omitting their faces it perhaps raises the sense of threat a little, reducing them to instruments of the state not people.

Musician: A long standing tradition on “Christihimmelfahrt” (ascension day) and also father’s day in Germany.  Brass bands accompany processions to church.  The bands then go to the beer garden and provided they continue to play, beer will be on the house.  This photograph offers a contrast to some of the others, illustrating that whilst tolerant and progressive, Munich also values tradition, especially when that aligns to beer drinking.

Although liberal, Munich is still deeply Catholic at its core.  The city manages to balance these two values.

Taken with a 35mm equivalent lens this is a rare close up.  I am becoming more comfortable with street photography, but still tend to shoot from a distance, although that is in part driven by a desire to include the landscape around the subject to add context.

FanMy final photograph is the raw emotion of victory, Bayern Munich had just won the Champions League and with it a treble. There is a lot of emotion around the football team and the city is very proud of its achievements, fans are as fanatical as anywhere.

This was also a lucky shot, I was as caught up as they were, having spent the evening out on the streets watching the game on outdoor screens and consuming a fair amount of beer.  Perhaps being a participant and not simply a photographer meant that I was a part of the crowd and not a voyeur.  This definitely benefits from B&W, the colour image has serious colour problems.