Category Archives: Part 2

Exercise 2.4: Same background, different model

For this exercise I decided to return to the pub theme for a second time (last time I promise!).  I had the idea that a pub has a steady procession of people coming in and out all with different stories to tell.  But most of them come and go with the company they arrived with, often not engaging wider apart from withe the landlord.

I often visit my local on Saturday lunchtime so decided to carry my camera with me and place it on the table in front of me.  I would then start a conversation with whoever came to sit next to me with a view to taking their picture.  The aim was to make that particular seat becoming a focal piont, a podium, for whoever passed through.

Andy

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I’d never met Andy before and he presents a rather intimiading character.  He is a lifelong fan of the Manchester City football team, evidenced through numerous tatoos, a beard in time colours and tshirts.  Apparently Andy always dresses like this – he was not on his way to watch a football match.  He had stories to tell, many of which involved getting into scuffles.  By day he is a bus driver and expressed annoyance that the bus he drives is in the opposing team colours.

John

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John is a retired potter and school teacher.  He is also the Green Man of the local Morris Dancing team and often gets asked to impersonate Santa over the winter season.  Turning slightly to one side makes it easier to hear when the pub is noisy, apparently due to his new hearing aid.   Afterwards I wished I had put his hands in shot as a link to his trade since this would have made for a more interesting final image.

Tony

Tony has befriended an injured jackdaw that was found by the pub landlady.  At home Tony is a also full time carer for his enderly mother.

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With hindsight I can see that I broke the rules with this last photo, having rotated my chair and taken it from a different angle.  While still recognisable as the same venue, it is clear that this breaks the uniformity of the overall set in the way the Irving Penn did: https://wordpress.com/post/ian513626photography1iandp.wordpress.com/1106.  Suddently this background seems more important because it is different, so confuses the eye as it looks for the meaning to the set.

This is an exercise I could do a lot more with.  The context of a pub is clear in the background and a 35mm lens gives a sense of environment without being uncomfortably close to the subjects and introducing distortion.  Almost like speed-dating – there is a sense of a procession taking place before me, people coming and going.

The key learning from this exercise was how you don’t get a second chance.  I could have made a better image of John to contextualise his hands as a potter but the thought occurred to me too late.  That’s a valuable lesson in pre-visualising the shot and directing the subject to attain what is in my mind.

Corner Portraits – Irving Penn

Kozloff draws a distinction between the ‘detached yet stringent’ portraiture of August Sander (Kozloff, 2007, p:191 ) who was discussed in Part 1 and the portraits of indigenous peoples shot by Penn for Vogue magazine between 1950 and 1970.

Penn started ou by taking the portraits in local dress and occasionally masks set against a faded backdrop from a commercial studio.  However this soon evolved to using a backdrop with a ‘vague, shifting tonality'(ibid. p192) as explored in the course test for Part two and Exercise 2.4 Different Subject, same background.  By taking these people out of their natural environment he created a sort of theatrical ‘stage’ to display them on to ‘set off their picturesque shabbiness to graphic effect’ (ibid. p.192).

Many of the portraits have something quite incongruous and amusing about them while at the same time being stark and austere.

This theme can be traced back to his earlier work, for example Corner Portraits (1948).  Instead of a plain, dingy backdrop cloth Penn here placed two plain walls and an acute angle to create an effect of a ‘corner of a room’.  Again there are no props or ecourtrements, just the subject and the bare corner backdrop.

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=irving+penn+corner&client=safari&hl=en-gb&prmd=imsvn&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj5xrXW5sLSAhWoAMAKHeuRBuIQ_AUIBygB&biw=768&bih=928

The portraits are fascinating for the way in which each subject makes the space his/her own in some way and engages with it differently.  Some lean against it defiantly separate.  Lots of others appear to quite literally back themselves into a corner, contorting their limbs and bodies into the recess of the corner.  We can’t help but read meanings into this even though we know nothing of the subjects: shy, timid, gregarious or whatever, based on little more than their clothing and how they place themselves in a corner before the unforgiving lens of the photographer.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/22/irving-penn-portraits-photography?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Penn leaves us in no doubt that the portrait photographer can gain a lot from placing his subjects in a simple environment which they can relate to in their own way.  When this relationship is established, the background becomes an amplifier, or reflector for the subject’s personality, revealing more than just the face ever could.

 

References

Kozloff, M. (2007) The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.

Clare Strand – Gone Astray

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

http://www.clarestrand.co.uk/works/?id=100

http://www.clarestrand.co.uk/works/?id=101

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.

Exercise 2.2: Covert

This assignment comes with a ‘health warning’, reminding students that they are responsible for themselves and to think carefully before attempting the exercise.

I certainly felt quite apprehensive about it so decided to take a less stressful approach by photographing a joint NewYear’s Eve and Birthday party.  Having been invited to bring a camera along this removed any safety concerns allowing me to concentrate on the photography.

The approach reminded me of the work of Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans who also operated from a position of trust within their respective social circles.

https://uk.pinterest.com/explore/nan-goldin/

https://uk.pinterest.com/nanciewinifred/wolfgang-tillmans/?q=wolfgang%20tillmans

The unexpected challenge I encountered was that as soon as people saw me raise the camera to my eye, they would pose as though for a selfie making candid shots actually quite hard to obtain, as in these two:

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I countered this by pushing up the ISO to 3,3200 or 6,400 and by using Liveview I could act more stealthily by not raising the camera to my eye.

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While this was satisfactory I wanted to push myself further in this exercise so I decided to attempt it again one week later on a trip to London with a general theme of ‘Going Places’.

Here I was quite fearful of being challenged, maybe aggressively.  I was conscious that people would pick up on it if I looked at all ‘dodgy’, secretive or uneasy with a camera, and so I was ironically creating a self-defeating spiral of worry in my head.

Transit Series:Two of the following images were inspired by Lukas Kuzma’s Transit Series:

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Here I soon learned a few things:

  • Firstly, as long as you are not too overt about it many people in London simply don’t care.  The greatest impediments to getting usable shots was my own hesitation
  • Steichen’s famous advice to Robert Frank – of getting closer to the subject – holds very true
  • The perfect ‘stealth’ camera is actually the mobile phone.  Everybody expects me to be carrying one and so it does not look at all out of place.  Perhaps this is Robert Frank’s ‘black painted Leica’ of our times.  Ali Shms makes this point persuasively through his iPhone street photography:  https://www.instagram.com/ali.shms/

In summary, I only came into conflict with one person all day: myself. Two of my favourite images taken in this session were arguably not the most flattering for the subjects – yawning on the Tube and a lady stood waiting for a train toilet.  Personal morality comes into  play. Was I humiliating or exploiting these people? “What is the photographer entitled to record and under what circumstances?” (Angier, 2015: p89)

I decided that it depended on my motive. As I was not looking to make any gain from bribery, coercion or embarrassment my conscience was clear.  Ultimately I think the test would be whether I would be embarrassed to show the photographs to the subject if they asked.  If I would not be, then it was ok to take it.

But the sense of accomplishment I found with the better images was profound. This feels a bit like an extreme sport – a sense of fear and excitement…and a desire to do it again soon.

Bibliography

Angier, R. (2015) Train your gaze: A practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. 2nd edn. New York: Fairchild Books & Visuals.

Exercise 2.1: Individual spaces

For this exercise I decided to explore the territorial aspects of the local pub and aim to portray the concept of someone’s favourite place within this micro-environment.

My local pub is full of characters and it has always interested me how people often choose to stit in the same place, even when the pub is nearly empty  We have all been in even more territorial establishments where a local would be affronted if a passing traveller happened to inadvertently sit in their place at the bar.

The subjects were already known to me as acquaintances so it was quite easy to open up a conversation about it.  I explained that I was collecting photographs as part of a university course.  However I used an iPhone rather than a proper camera because I wanted the shoot to be impromptu and quick.  In an environment where people have come out for a quiet pint I reasoned that a large camera might be intimidating.

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Roger and Sue.  Roger moved from Wales to the local area when he met Sue.  He is an avid CAMRA member and quizmaster.  They visit at quiet times armed with a collection of newspapers then proceed to work through them while sampling each of the ciders and beers on offer.  They always head for the large table in the corner so that they can lay out their paraphernalia and puzzle in peace while their dog sleeps peacefully under the table.

Ron

Ron is a jolly practical joker who has lived in the village all his life and knows everybody.  Keith is another local who insists on having his favourite chair and so Ron tries to thwart him for amusement.  This stool affords a clear view of Keith’s chair in the other room.  When poor Keith gets up to go to the bar, Ron will dash through, sit in his chair and await his return with a cheeky smile, refusing to budge.

Roger

Roger (second from the left in hat and red braces) is the owner of the pub.  But his favourite place is not behind the bar as we might expect.  He is a fan of English folk music and spent months organising an ensemble of nine musicians from around the UK to perform a 1977 classic work called The Tale of Ale by the late Willie Rushden.  Knowing in advance that he was planning this show over the Christmas period I asked in if he would mind my taking a photograph.

Following on from Assignment 1, this exercise reaffirmed in my mind that I can come up with ideas for portraits more easily that I am able to execute them.  Time is short due to a busy period in a full time job and Identity & Place is making it clear to me that the logistics around photographing people are more complex than inanimate objects (not because I spend all my time in the pub…).

Regarding the exercise itself, I am intrigued by the idea of favourite places within a small shared environment.  This is an idea I’d like to return to explore further in the future – maybe libraries, cafés.  How many people have a favourite tree they sit under or hilltop to contemplate life?  A familiar armchair can be as precious as a trip to see the Taj Mahal after a busy day…

Key Takeaways from the exercise:

  • Don’t get caught up in the idea that an assignment idea has to be grand and impressive.  The smaller aspects of life can be just as interesting and, arguably, more endearing and personal.
  • Get to know your subjects beforehand then the photography becomes an act of recording what you have in your mind already.  I’m more focused on what I want to achieve.

 

 

The Invisible Photographer

Photographers often lean on their cameras in one of two ways—as a passport, a means for entering new worlds (both geographic and emotional); but also as a shield, a way to create some distance between themselves and their surroundings“, Alexander Strecker

Alexander Strecker interviewed Gioia de Bruijn for Lensculture.  The interview explores the idea of when a photographer is actively involved in the scene before them, or whether to be detached.

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/gioia-de-bruijn-weekend-warriors-and-beyond

This struck me as very relevant to the upcoming work in Part 1 of I&P.  I’m very conscious – particularly after the first Exercise of photographing strangers – how often I use the camera as a shield.  “The camera definitely creates a barrier – once you are invested in operating the apparatus, you can’t be simultaneously invested in the situation“.  I wanted to explore this further to understand myself better and help overcome my fears.

In interview, De Bruijn takes the view that “standard documentary photography voyeuristic, even de-humanizing, preferring to throw herself fully and completely into situations that attract her interest“.   This is explored further along with looking at how the relationship between the general public and photographer might now be changing in the digital era.

Her latest documentary work, ‘Weekend Warriors’, is shot in the aftermath of various parties she attended in Amsterdam.  She explains, “I wasn’t an outsider looking in—I was part of it, and I think that’s the only way.”.  Likening the alternative to be “watching monkeys at the zoo”, De Bruijn prefers to be on the inside where the action is.  There are strong similarities in the work with that of Nan Goldin here – infiltrating a nightlife sub culture and being trusted enough to see it for all that it is.

I can see how this ‘being on the inside’ is the only really way to have absolute empathy with the situation you are photographing.

This then opens up the question of public attitudes towards the camera in this situation.  Historically the camera has been seen as a passport to gain entry to a situation, but is that now changing?

Everyone now photographs everything.  We Instagram, Facebook and Tweet our meals, movements and private experiences.  Laszlo Moholy-Nagy famously said “The illiterate of the future will be the man who does not understand photography” (Badger, 2014, inside front cover).   Surely this makes it much easier for photographers since everyone expects everyone else to be taking photographs anyway?

De Bruijn asserts that the opposite might in fact be true, saying that “anonymity almost does not exist any more”, so people are becoming more camera shy than ever.  They might end up in a compromising website, a prospective employer seeing a photo of them on social media.  You are tagged on the photo with your name to complete strangers around the world.  I certainly know several people close to me who do not want their photos on any social media.  She finishes this part of the interview with the lament that “But honestly, I think its only going to get harder.  Having a camera in the future may not afford you much additional access at all“.

Her approach to circumventing this is to shoot film with “such old and beaten up cameras that people don’t take me too seriously

This all led me to reflect on when I feel comfortable or otherwise with a camera in public.  I am happy when invited to take photographs or when I am part of a group experiencing something (a pagan festival in Glastonbury, my local pub, a party, a wedding).  But I’m very uncomfortable photographing strangers.  I think this interview goes to the heart of why: In the first set of situations I am supposed to be there with my camera.  For the latter, I am invading their personal lives, using my camera as the entrance ticket to witness it.  I’m not invited in.  Of course there’s a raised expectation then – your event photos are expected to be good because you are using a ‘proper camera’.  I guess I got used to that from my former life so view it as a lesser pressure than invading someone else’s social space.

I also reflected on De Bruijn’s use of an ‘old beat up camera’.  I came to digital very late in the day, only stopping my work as a wedding photographer when film became obsolete and the appetite in the wedding market was to join a never-ending treadmill of the most mega-pixels and fastest delivery of .jpgs on a memory stick possible.  Disillusioned, I turned to landscapes reluctantly moving to digital only a few years ago.  Since then I can see how I’ve inadvertently got sucked onto the same treadmill.  A 36 megapixel full frame body is great since in my mind it is a ‘proper’ camera without any crop factor issues and I notice that I’ve finally stopped saying ‘its not as good as Velvia 50 used to be on the Bronny’!  But I’ve only had this body for a few months. Virtually all of my work that has been sold, appreciated and hung in an exhibition was taken on a body with only half of that resolution.  Nobody complains about the quality of them.  As a Pentax user I am only too aware of the danger of ego-driven challenges from the ‘What? You don’t use Canon or Nikon!’ hobbyists.  I note that I often respond by admitting that I used to use Canon when a pro but I find Pentax is better for me – I’ve never looked back.  This is all true, but hints at a need to justify why I went a different way to the herd.  Ego.

I noted that De Bruijn describes herself as uncomfortable with groups of people, preferring the company of individuals.  I can again very much identify with this.  Here she picks up the camera  as a shield rather than a passport “in order to diffuse the anxiety for myself and my brain”.  We are probably all the same inside – the differentiator is probably nothing more than some of us, like De Bruijn, pick up the camera anyway, walk into the room and just do it.

Perhaps it is time to be the guy with a old camera and see if I get invited to more the parties – the invitation, of course, has always been there for me.  It is just that my own negative self-talk may decline it on my behalf.

References:

Badger, G. (2014) The genius of photography. London, United Kingdom: Quadrille Publishing.

de Bruijn, G. and LensCulture (2006) Weekend warriors and beyond – interview with Gioia de Bruijn. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/gioia-de-bruijn-weekend-warriors-and-beyond (Accessed: 8 January 2017).