The first things to say about this assignment was that I approached it with mixed feelings. On one hand I was actually quite anxious about it. I had two attempts at going out to shoot it but failed to pluck up the courage to ask people, returning home with empty memory cards. Equally, I knew it was a psychological bridge that I needed to cross with my photography and I was very keen to overcome it. It felt very much like my first assignment right at the beginning of my OCA studies again – venturing into something new with trepidation, not sure whether I was making the mark or not. Throughout Context and Narrative my confidence had grown significantly but now I was suddenly thrown back to square one.
Analysing per personal anxiety around this, I’m very conscious of all the adverse media publicity nowadays associated with middle-aged men with less than savoury intentions. For this reason I immediately ruled out approaching any children or females that appeared younger than myself. I hoped that this would reduce my changes of verbal abuse or worse. This narrowed my pool of people to choose from to men and older ladies. I also discounted younger men on the basis that they would be more likely to respond aggressively if they didn’t like the approach.
I rationalised that I would not meet the people again and so it did not matter if they refused to be photographed. But as I considered this further I identified that part of my fear was more to do with the risk that I could in fact meet these local people again at some point. Presumably that is why the assignment specifically asks for local people in order to allow students to experience and overcome this fear.
Having selected my target subject type, I then looked to other practitioners for inspiration on how to photograph them.
Bruce Gilden is one street photographer I have always admired for his ability ability to overcome all the fears I outlined in the previous section in an audacious way. His style can be very confrontational. However it is also very candid street photography and this is not what I wanted to achieve for this assignment, instead I wanted to deliver a series of posed, considered portraits where the subjects are very aware that they are being photographed.
However Gilden’s latest project, Faces, does take a more traditional approach to portraiture in many respects.
The more ‘characterful’ aspects of his subjects are still accentuated through the use of extreme colour saturation and Clarity in post processing, but fundamentally these are mostly tightly cropped head and shoulder portraits. Although I could not expect to meet such interesting people as Gilden, I was inspired to follow a similar head and shoulders approach towards making a small typology of local people.
My tutor encouraged me to explore the methods and work of Diane Arbus. Magazine Work contains almost as much text as images within its pages since Arbus goes to great lengths to explain how she really got to know her subjects before photographing them. For example, of Mae West she says she was ‘imperious, adorable, magnanimous, genteel and girlish‘ (Arbus, p58). These personal attributes are then accentuated in the accompanying portrait of West on page 59.
At the other end of the scale to the street photography of Gilden, I also explored the genre of Deadpan. Typically taken on large format cameras and blown up to poster-sized prints, this style invites the viewer to read the subject’s personality as a blank canvas, much like the enigmatic portrait of the Mona Lisa. Without the distraction of any obvious personal expressions such as a grin or grimace, the viewer can easily to project their own reflective feelings and judgments onto the person, almost like looking in a mirror. There is also an unnerving intimate experience of viewing such photographs – as though we are being invited to see the person for who they really are without any mask put on for society and to study them closely for as long as we desire. I determined to ask my subjects not to smile for the camera in an effort to capture some of this natural persona within the portraits.
On a smaller scale to August Sander’s ambitious project to photograph the people of Germany, the contemporary work by Estonian photographer Birgit Püve ‘Estonian Documents: Portrait of A Nation‘ reminds us that ‘The human face is the best record of time.’ (Püve, 2016). My intention was to create a similar record of the people from my local area.
Due to the practical issue of nervousness outlined above, I was keen to work with simple equipment so that I could focus on the subjects rather than my gear and move about easily.
Equipment was selected to be a DSLR with an f/2.8 24-70 zoom lens. This combination was selected since it offered the option of both head-and-shoulder and three-quarter/full-length shots in one relatively light and portable setup. The f/2.8 aperture offered shallow depth of field throughout the range. Carrying multiple primes was ruled out for speed, as was the use of a longer lens as I felt this may allow too big a gap between me and the subject, potentially allowing people to walk between us in a place and ruin the shot.
The weather conditions were overcast with occasional hazy sun. This gave very few shadows and was flattering for most subjects. Given the conditions I opted not to use fill in flash as there were no significant shadows to be careful of and it made the shooting faster and easier.
In practice, it quickly became clear that a 70mm focal length at f/2.8 provided a very good combination of distance from subject, lack of distortion and depth of field. I immediately decided to keep to this setting for all the shots to provide consistency to the set. Shutter speed was set to 160th/second to freeze movement and I allowed the camera to select an ISO to suit (I was not concerned about high ISO noise given the fair conditions and full frame sensor). The camera was set to single shot as I didn’t want to startle people with ‘paparazzi’ style camera clicks. This also forced me to pay attention to their facial expressions – hopefully selecting the right moments. The camera was set to use Centre Weighted metering to ensure the face was correctly exposed.
As I wanted the subject to be the main element of the image, I could concentrate on getting to know what I could about their personality in a short space of time. Seeking to accentuate clothing and environmental context felt like a potential distraction from the main challenge I was attempting to overcome – that of approaching complete strangers and photographing them face to face. That said, I considered background in each case and often asked subjects to move slightly to make the best use of this. Typically 3-5 images of each person were taken. I note that in most cases the selected images are the earlier ones.
The images exported from Lightroom in the following format:
- 1,500 pixels longest edge
- Converted to sRGB .jpg from Adobe (98) DNG RAW.
Tom was by far the most positive and chatty subject of the session. I think the bus station background suited his character well.
When I approached this couple to ask if I could photograph them for an art project the lady said ‘yes but don’t ask me my name’. I noted that John (not his real name) then immediately manoeuvred himself in front of her as though acting as some sort of protection. I started to close down the aperture from f/2.8 thinking that I needed to compensate for this distance between them with a larger depth of field. But I stopped at f/5.6 as I think that this sums up how she is a bit of an enigma – we are not quite clear who she is in any sense, partially hidden behind John. The trees behind seem to mimic John’s hair.
I saw Steve rolling a cigarette near to the local hostel. He didn’t seem to have any place to get to in a hurry and was happy to be photographed.
Jules had just parked her cycle and was lighting a cigarette before going into work when I met her. I liked how invigorated and ready for the day she seemed, framed by her impressive hat.
I ran out of time of the first shoot and so went out the following weekend to complete the assignment. I soon met Hillary out walking her dog and collecting litter left by passers by to ensure the neighbourhood looked nice. I liked her juxtaposed style of outdoor gear and wayward hair mixed with lipstick, earrings and large necklace. I felt these matched her style of local conscience and strong personality. As soon as she heard that I was shooting local people for an art project she said ‘let me stand over there so the lovely trees are in the background’.
This was, by some measure, the toughest challenge I have undertaken so far in my OCA studies.
I find the reason for this hard to fathom in some ways as I’m a very personable individual who frequently talks to strangers in daily life, so why should it be so difficult when I have a camera in my hand? I used to be a wedding photographer until around ten years ago so have some experience shooting people. But this was very different to anything I’ve done before because the subjects were not expecting to be photographed. I had no idea how they might respond to me – a ‘no’ could take the form of anything from a dismissive word to violence.
The ratio of people that said no to yes was approximately 3:1 and I quickly learned to become more resilient over the course of the session. I did this by focussing on the last person who had agreed, not the most recent person if they had refused. I did form some very interesting generalisations of people as time went on:
- Smokers were more likely to say ‘yes’
- Well dressed people generally said ‘no’
- Asking people who were walking along never succeeded – better to ask people who were already stood doing something such as attending to a cycle, waiting for a bus or lighting a cigarette.
Some people said yes then squirmed in front of the camera leaving me to wonder why they agreed in the first place. Here is ‘Pam’:
After two shots I realised this was not going to work and released her from her apparent torture, claiming to have already got a great shot and thanking her for her time.
Reflecting on my work through the four OCA assessment criteria:
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills
Having now completed what I think of as a ‘challenge’ rather than a photographic assignment, I’ve learned a lot. Firstly, I’ve proved that I can do it. I did not get arrested, beaten up or abused and some people actually did say ‘yes’!
Against this personal context, I’m satisfied that the images are well exposed and composed with accurate focussing and appropriate use of depth of field. I could strengthen this in the future by using a reflector or fill flash to add catchlights and soften lighting in some of the portraits, but for this initial assignment I wanted to keep things fuss- free.
Quality of Outcome
For what felt like such a stressful situation I’m happy with the outcome here. There is an aesthetic and compositional consistency to the set which, like a typology, makes the less obvious aspects of these individual Derby characters stand out amongst their peers.
The eyes are the main point of sharpness in each image, inviting the viewer to look at the individual and engage with them on some emotional level. While not executed to the same extreme level as the Deadpan genre of portrait photography, this triggers a slightly unnerving feeling to the viewer-subject relationship. It is rare to be able to look so intently at other person without knowing anything about them. For this reason I think this images are engaging.
Demonstration of Creativity
I feel this is the least evidenced area of the assignment.
I have selected backgrounds to complement the subject’s character, social disposition or as an amusing simile for a hairstyle. For the latter, this is technically two portraits but I saw the opportunity to use selective depth of field to tell something about their relationship with me, the photographer.
Inspired by Arbus, I have made an effort to try and gain an insight into who my subjects were as individuals. Clearly this is difficult to achieve in a meaningful way in a short street encounter. But with a smile and open questions I found that people agreeable to having their photograph taken quickly opened up and talked about themselves.
Whilst taken around 70 years apart, the work of Sander and Püve have a similar goal of using photography to provide some context of what it means to be a group of people from a certain geographical area. Whilst restricted to a very small typology of five images for this assignment, I have attempted to provide a similar insight into the people local to me.
Gilden, B. (2016) Faces. Available at: http://www.brucegilden.com (Accessed: 14 December 2016).
Püve, B. and LensCulture (2016) Estonian documents: Portrait of A nation – photographs and text by Birgit Püve. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/birgit-puve-estonian-documents-portrait-of-a-nation (Accessed: 14 December 2016).
Southall, T.W. and Israel, M. (1997) Diane Arbus: Magazine work. Edited by Doon Arbus. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation.
On seeing this assignment a friend pointed me to the work of Niall McDiarmid with whom I wasn’t already familiar.
I can see how the approach is similar although he often takes a full body crop of his subjects. The method of approach is like the one I took for the assignment. McDiarmid does not use names of his subjects, instead leaving them anonymous and borrowing the place name instead such as ‘Poole’, or High Street.