Monthly Archives: February 2017

Assignment 1: Formative feedback

I feel pleased with the feedback from this assignment.  It is clear that I’ve engaged successfully with it, meeting the intention of the brief and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.  A very encouraging start to what I feel will be the most challenging OCA course so far.

My tutor encouraged me to take a wider view with my learning log, using it not just to formally record exercises and assignments but as a reflective repository for thoughts and ideas as I go along.  Hopefully it can be seen that I’ve already engaged with this idea and finding it to be an excellent prompt to become more reflective about what i see and read.  I quickly found however that my ‘Research and Reflection’ section in the blog became quite messy and unstructured.  As suggested by my tutor, I subcategorised menus further by named practitioner, exhibitions, books, etc. in order to restore a logical indexing to it.

A ‘strong aesthetic coherence’ and consistent approach was noteSuggested d by my tutor, well controlled and showing consideration towards background choice.  My tutor felt that they were engaging and it was clear that I’d put my subjects at ease – noting that some photographers find this to be a huge challenge.

A couple of the shots were about 1/3 stop over exposed – perhaps most notably as far as I’m concerned on Hilary’s hair.  I have to agree, having properly calibrated my monitor again since and, I admit, trusted the Auto button on Lightroom to have got it right at the time. A salutary lesson learned!!!!  I have reprinted these since at a slightly reduced exposure ready for Assessment in due course.

There was debate about how well one of the images worked – John and Unknown.  I noted in my submission that I knew i was taking a bit of a risk with this, by including two people and one of them being intentionally out of focus.  But my tutor noted that ‘the text supported the image well’.  I  take on board my tutor’s point that it disrupts the rest of the set, making it the oddball in comparison.

A suggestion was made to deepen my research around the observation that smokers and cyclists appeared to be the most approachable subjects.  I’ve added this to my personal list of ‘potential future project ideas’ as it is well worth exploring, both to simply understand better but also to stay close to what might well be a lucrative sector of society when it comes to finding volunteer subjects!

That said, my tutor provided some sound advice that really resonated with me – to be choosy and go for subjects that you genuinely find interesting, not just whoever might say ‘yes’.  Along with keeping contact cards readily to hand, flattery and conviviality and – last but not least – to remember that being a photography student is actually a great justification in the first place.

Suggested reading/viewing

  • Street & Studio, Ute Eskildsen (ed.), Tate Publishing, 2008
  • Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes (Vintage Classics), 1993 – particularly the sections on being photographed, and on the relationship between photography and theatre.
  • Irving Penn’s Corner Portraits make a fascinating study into the completely individual ways in which people compose themselves for the camera.
  • Think about this short account by Alec Soth talking about how the use of a large format camera changes the encounter between subject and photographer entirely (in fact he uses a similar (slow) approach – with tripod – when shooting commercial work with his digital SLR)

These items will be followed-up on in separate blog posts.

My tutor’s feedback report can be found here.

Assignment 2: Final submission to tutor


Inspired by the work of Tillmans and Goldin – who both became part of a social circle so that it could be photographed with insight and sensitivity – I eventually opted to take a series of photographs of a close friend who is a shamanic practitioner.

The shaman has his roots in the oldest religious practices on earth.  He attunes to the natural spirits of life and nature in order to live harmoniously and in balance.  He sees himself very much as carrying a responsibility to contribute to his local community and offer help and healing where possible.

Nevertheless, it is a very practical spiritual path too.  The shamanic practitioner has his feet grounded in the real world of bills, work and feeding the family.  As the great Native American teacher, Sun Bear, once said “if your philosophy does not grow corn I don’t want to know about it”.  I wanted to explore through portraiture how the modern shaman lives in the real world.

We all separate our lives into compartments or boxes depending on the role we are expected to perform.  For example we wear different clothes and behaviours at work compared to those we adopt at the pub.  We wear masks to fit in to the various boxes, or backgrounds, to our lives.  So which is the authentic ‘me’?  Ironically these masks are never seen (except when we interchange them) because everyone else wears the same mask in each separate social ‘box’. How many of us harbour a fear of being invited to a fancy dress party only to discover that we are the only one in a costume?  We only feel out of place when we actually arrive at the party.

Over time the shaman or spiritual warrior develops his mind to seek to ‘live impeccably’ (while recognising that nobody is perfect, making this a lifelong work).  He is therefore always trying to be the same authentic person, but we may actually perceive him quite differently.  Just like us, he also wears a different mask depending which social box he is in at the time, but his values and aims are consistently the same.  And he is very conscious that it is a mask.

So the gentleman helping you to choose wine in the supermarket is wearing such mask because he doesn’t want to startle you.  He genuinely wants to help your day go better and not be labelled as weird.  But what happens if the shamanic ceremonial mask is made invisible and the supermarket mask vice-versa?

The photographs presented in this assignment are an attempt to show the shamanic practitioner first as the stereotype, in ceremonial costume with hide drum, then as his authentic self working in harmony with nature.  These images are punctuated by images of a normal working day in the supermarket, as the working day punctuates his life.

From this alternative viewpoint the masks are not where we expect them to be as he goes about his business, serving his community in his quest to ‘live impeccably’.

Technical notes.

Studio shots were taken using a softbox placed at 45 degrees to the subject and a reflector placed opposite.  I felt that this gave a good balance between being flattering and even while still having enough modelling to suggest two sides to his character- light/dark, visible/hidden, masked/unmasked.

I deliberated over the use of a supermarket background as I did not want to risk getting my subject into trouble by not seeking permission at his workplace.  We discussed taking them in a ‘real’ setting felt that permission was unlikely to be granted and so I took the images in front of a white background then added a separate background in afterwards.  My intention was to have a background that suggested actually being present in the supermarket (although the viewer would not know it was technically not the same one he works in).

All images are cropped to be square format and a physical wine box is included in one of the images to reinforce the concept of living in various social ‘boxes’.

The outdoor shots were taken on an overcast day to contrast with the indoor shots while offering flattering, naturally soft lighting to emphasise the idea of being in harmony with nature with no harshness. Shutter speeds were chosen to give a hint of movement in the drum beater.

The Final images

The images have been selected to be viewed in a specific sequence as follows:


1. The Ceremonial Shaman.  Here the shamanic practitioner is the person people want to see – the robe, the drum, the drama – at fairs, gatherings and other events.  He wears no mask in the image although would be in real life, for effect, to complete the costume.  But the background is plain as there’s little real substance to the facade, nothing behind the ceremony. He’s pleasing the crowd but he’s not healing the land.


2. Boxed.  Life is punctated by duty.


3. Wth Nature.  He finds time to regain his authentic self in nature.  The Y-stick represents duality of life (Yin and Yang, male and female) stemming from the same earth source.  This oak tree knows his innermost thoughts, his confidante and friend right there behind him giving him power.


4. Gift. Puctuated again by having to wear the mask in the ‘real world’ he acts with duty in his community.


5. Work.  The same image as the first but without the ceremony.  The tree can be seen in the background as he works to heal the land and inspire his life work.


Sun Bear et al.  The Path of Power (1987) New York, Fireside.  Available on line at: [Last accessed 26/2/17].

(Also see previous post for references to photographic practitioners who were influential in the planning of this assignment).

Self-Evaluation against Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In this assignment I’ve tried to capture the essence of the shamanic practitioner both at a physical and personal level, gained through a sincere insight into his ways and beliefs.

In addition to achieving this personal reflection into the life of the subject, I am satisfied that the work portrays something about my own life too – the juggling of personas, the frustration of having to fulfil multiple roles in society and the idea of wearing a ‘mask’ to be accepted as normal.

Nature plays a large part of the shamanic practitioner’s belief system and the outdoor backgrounds were specifically chosen to augment the visual interpretation of his spiritual path.  These are alternated with indoor shots to emphasise the conflicts he lives with.  They are real places of significance made to work photographically, rather than places with aesthetic value with an imaginary story behind them.

The first and last shots are intentionally similar in subject matter but with different backgrounds.  This is to raise questions about how the stereotypical shaman is perceived versus the authentic work he undertakes for himself and his community.  Society would probably view the first image as the ‘real’ one whereas that it not actually the case, as I hope the work reveals.  In both images he is fundamentally doing the same thing.

Similarly, the supermarket shots are given background context despite this not being feasible without the use of a composite image to add the background in afterwards.  I have learned that it is valuable to pre-visualise how the shot needs to look then to find practical a way of achieving it.

Quality of outcome

Im pleased with the final outcome of the assignment, particularly in light of the challenges I had at the beginning with finding an approach i was happy with.  I believe the work presents as coherent, showing how the shamanic practitioner moves between the conflicting needs of a spiritual path and living in the real world.

I questioned myself as to whether it was appropriate to use photoshop to add in the background afterwards.  I’m satisfied that this is acceptable for several reasons:

  • I was clear on the required outcome but this was not possible by other means
  • It was a good opportunity to build my photoshop skills.  This was achieved through making the suportmarket shot the background layer the using a ‘layer mask’ to erase the foreground layer (with the subject) to reveal it.  I’m sure with time and experience my photoshop skills will improve but I’m happy with the result
  • The subject remains the principal element in the shot rather than the background.  The use of photoshop is merely to add in the required background not to change the essence of the shot in any material way (through distortion, filters, etc).

Demonstration of creativity

Here I’ve tried to juxtapose the shamanic practitioner’s view on life between the two realms he inhabits by moving  the visual mask from one persona to another.  Backgrounds, costume and sequencing all play a part in revealing this to the viewer.

While perhaps overused in ‘Instagram culture’ images, I feel that the square format is justified here.  It highlights the idea of being constrained in a ‘box’ by society (and further reinforced by a physical box in one of the images).  The slightly claustrophobic feel that a square format can bring underlines this further.

Although used for practical reasons, the use of photoshop for a background is acknowledged as being a risk.


In this assignment I’ve attempted to show how I’ve been inspired by a variety of contemporary practitioners of recent years (Parr, Gawain Barnard, Clare Strand).  Challenged with a block as to how to approach this assignment Also ventured outside of the course recommended reading list to find stimulating new ways to inspire my creativity (Ingledew).

I’ve found beneficial to split the assignment into multiple blog posts – one covering the research and planning, a separate one for the final submission.  This has allowed me to draw a line under the planning and present the assignment as a discrete and separate piece of work.



Clare Strand – Gone Astray

This 2002-2003 work by Strand is actually comprised of two complimentary sets, Gone Astray Portraits and Gone Away Details.

Portraits juxtaposes contemporary portrait subjects against a 19th century mural backdrop.  Each subject, on closer inspection, carries a physical imperfection of some sort – torn clothing or bandaged arms for example.

The background and title link the work back to an 1853 Charles Dickens work by the same name about the anxieties of vulnerable boy lost in London.

Strand therefore puts these modern subjects within the context  of the Dickens story.  The subjects all show a vulnerability of some sort.  The background places them in the same era as the Dickens tale.  The suggestion is that these people are also vulnerable, lost in the Shoreditch area of East London despite their otherwise normal appearances.  They lead double lives – a public ‘got it together’ one and a private, more anxious one.

It’s clear that Stand put a lot of preparation and planning into this work, engaging the services of a professional to ensure hair and wardrobe were meticulously prepared for the shoot.

Initially I found the work hard to engage with as the background raised associations with regency period portraits for me. I wonder if a backdrop of a Victorian London might have provided a stronger meaning.  But the Dickens context brings things together in a clear and coherent way, raising questions of our personal vulnerabilities- which we all have whether we admit it or not.  The work is as relevant toady as it was in 2003, in the modern fast-paced ego-driven and unforgiving corporate world.

Exercise 2.3: Same model, different background

The subject of this exercise is a close friend, experiencing her first ever visit to London as part of her 60th birthday celebrations.  The first decision to make in this exercise was whether the subject was to offer a returned gaze to the camera or not.  I decided that I wanted to capture a sense of the wonder experienced by Pat on her big day out, her gaze taking in her new surroundings rather than being bothered about the camera. I therefore chose to capture Pat unaware at key points throughout the day.

The images are an attempt to tell the story of how her trip felt – rather than the usual tourist selfies of what it was that she saw.  London is a vast and bewildering place for a first time visitor.  Equally Pat said it was decades since she had last been on a train.  The underground was a new experience for her.  However she had a strong desire to to to the Tower of London to see the resident Ravens, this being cited as the highlight of the trip.  While seeking to ensure the set carried a clear narrative, I wanted to explore this alternative angle on ‘tourist snapshots’.

I was mindful that my existing relationship with Pat afforded me a good insight into the subject.  In For Every Minute You Are Angry, You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (German, 2005) it is clear how much effort Germain had to put into building an equivalent level of relationship with his subject over an extended period of time.


The Images

The first image is of catching the train.  Tickets grasped in hand, a bleary-eyed Pat is trying to take in the unfamiliar barrage of information from the waiting room screens: Which train? Which platform? Is it delayed?

Having arrived in London the next challenge was to defend the escalators to catch the Tube.  I would have preferredPat to have been at the head of the group here but there wasn’t an opportunity.  Making the subject small in the frame, surrounded by the metal infrastructure of the underground tunnels and escalators adds to the sense of vulnerability.

I note the expression of concern turns to happiness again at finding the correct platform. I tried to get a shot as Pat was looking at me but the others in the group weren’t.  I think this image shows Pat to be adapting to her new surroundings and starting to enjoy herself.

On emerging from the underground at Tower Hill the Tower of London is in sight.  We can’t see much of the subject’s face in this image but there is a clear relationship between her gaze and the dominant Tower on the horizon.

Finally, a hungry Pat expectantly watches the food being brought to the table.  A relaxed meal to reflect on the day and take it all in.  The decor has a brighter less oppressive feel than the others in the set, suggesting ‘mission accomplished’ and matched by the quiet satisfaction on Pat’s face.


Summary and reflection

Far from being close-cropped, these are all environmental portraits showing the subject in a wider context of her surroundings.  There is only one where the subject looks directly at the camera which provides separation from the other group members, reinforcing her role as principal subject in the image (this would otherwise be too tenuous as a ‘portrait’. I think there is a logical progression and linkage through the set with a famous national attraction being the main reason for the documented trip.

I’ve attempted to ‘get inside the subject’s head’ for this exercise and seek to show her emotions, excitement and apprehensions over the trip to London.  Others in the group took the expected tourist snapshots and selfies which invoke the typical ‘say cheese!’ mask that we all wear in these situations.

For this exercise I’ve studied the work of Harry Callahan for inspiration.  While there are similarities, Callahan was able to simplify his backgrounds far more effectively than I have been able to in the shots.  This precision makes the relationship between photographer (and viewer) more intimate and the meaning easier to pick out.  That said, a big part of the narrative here is the culture shock of taking a country dweller who has never visited London into the large metropolis while still being able to isolate the key subject.

Andy Adams

Adams has the idea of making the internet browser a virtual gallery space, making work accessible to a wider audience than might otherwise be able to visit a gallery of prints.

Whether this is a gimmick in light of the almost ubiquitous sharing and promotional posts on social media is a debatable point.  But there are some great portraits here that I wanted to retain for future inspiration.

Adams’ subjects cover Russia and the gay community, perhaps with a homage to Tillmans in some of the work. There are also gritty monochrome images of curiosly unique people, perhaps some may say freaks and oddballs.  Like Arbus, Adams has clearly built rapport and trust with his subjects before lifting the camera to his eye.

In Pictures: A Window Into The World Of London Commuters | Londonist

An interesting variant on ‘gaze’ portraits by Arnau Oriol.  He takes photographs of commuters on public transport through the glass while stood outside.

While he is physically separated from his subjects by the window, many of whom never even knew they’d been photographed, the lost gazes suggest they are detached from the present moment too, lost in their own thoughts.

We wonder what they are thinking about – travelling to or from jobs, interviews, visiting ill relatives?

The images are a solitary reminder to examine how much of our own lives we spend in the present.

Migrant Mother – the wider view

Unrelated to the course but I wanted to save this for future reference. Someone on a forum has allegedly located the other images shot by Lange alongside the Migrant Mother.

In effect this is like looking at a contact sheet, seeing the selected image within the context of the others taken at the time.  The others taken are all wider views taken further away.  On one hand they carry less impact but they do show more environmental context of where these migrants live.

Paparazzi – ethics and covert photography

Confessions of the paparazzi, Channel4 , 9pm, Monday 6 February 2017

This was a tv programme about the working life of George Bamby, paparazzi photographer.  It raised some interesting questions about the ethics of covert people photography that is relevant to the course, especially exercise 2.2.

Bamby is perhaps the most notorious of celebrity photographers, known for his questionable intrusive techniques and acting on the edge of privacy laws.

Many people would start from the viewpoint that the paparazzi occupy the less savoury end of the spectrum of photography.  His earning potential is derived from exploitative images of celebrities without makeup, in compromising positions or otherwise behaving contrary to their carefully honed public persona.  He makes special reference to Dawn French in the programme as someone who has taken court proceedings against him on previous occasions.

Surely everyone has a right to a private life?

Several times in the programme he admits to taking a photograph in an opportunist way then fabricating a story around it to invent context and narrative for a magazine editor.  For example, he photographs a Poldark actor on the set smoking a vaporiser and embellishes it with a story about the crew having an argument on set with him about his constant use it it.  His justification is that the  actor “stays in the public eye, the magazine earns money, I earn money, everyone is happy.”

But he also makes the valid point that these people are very wealthy from being in the public eye.  So surely he has the right to earn a modest income from photographing people who have chosen a career path to be in the public gaze anyway?

I’d add a further point that media photographers often get a bad name for airbrushing models to create ‘perfect’ faces and bodies.  This distorts our perception of reality.  It is argued that impressionable young girls see this as ‘normal’ then suffer mental illness, unnecessary plastic surgery and anorexia as a result.  Isn’t Bamby simply maki g the point that celebrities are just normal people too?

As photographers we must all be guilty of ‘enhanching’ the narrative behind a shot to give it stronger context and meaning at some point?

is the ethical boundary money? Is it ok to take compromising photographs for artistic purposes but not to profit at the expense of others? What about war photographers who get paid for putting dead bodies on our screens?  At the end of the programme I surprised myself by having more sympathy with him than I did at the start.

But while the images make money, can be amusing and act as a natural counterbalance to the inflating egos of the rich and famous, they can’t be said to have any meaning.  They are record shots of someone famous at a point in time but no more.

One thing I’ve already learned to appreciate from my studies is that meaning is an essential component of a successful image.

Book Review: The A-Z of Visual Ideas. By Ingledew, J

Although not listed as an official course text book I bought this on a whim and have found it to be a good read.

John Ingledew is a name I recognise from my film-shooting days.

The book itself starts with a handy 16 step guide to approaching any creative brief.  I’ve started applying the methodology to course exercises and planning for Assignment 2.  Ingledew first guides us through how to read and analyse the brief before capturing ideas on paper.  He stresses the need to write this down as ideas will often link and trigger others when on the page where they may not otherwise do.

But the real value of this book is in the main section which is divided up alphabetically.  So under ‘A’ are suggestions about Art, Hands, Happy Accidenrs, under H, Mirrors under M, etc.

I’m finding this good for thinking laterally.  It triggers new thoughts and ideas in areas I’d probably never have considered when I get stuck – a bit like a creative panic button to press in emergencies. For example, looking at ideas around ‘colour’ for portrait backgrounds it links colours to associated objects – Green Rooms, Gold, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Red Letter Days, and so on.  Just enough to kickstart the creative brain into a new direction.


Ingledew, J. (2011) The a-z of visual ideas: How to solve any creative brief. London: Laurence King Publishing.