Assignment two – an alternative approach?

Right from the beginning I was not entirely happy with either the approach that I found myself having to adopt to this assignment, nor indeed with the eventual outcome.  However, I have nevertheless reworked the set considerably as described in an earlier post and I now feel much more comfortable with the eventual result.

Nevertheless, with the encouragement of my tutor I have gone back to the brief with a view to reshooting an entirely different subject. What I have been working on is a set of portrait shots of real people.

Over a number of occasions I have photographed subjects at markets in Hexham. In doing so I have returned to a project that I first started in early 2016, a documentary shoot of a day in the life of our local farmers’ market, of which portrait shots formed an important part.  I therefore already had some experience of taking portraits.  So far I have not produced enough new work that I am happy enough with to produce a useable final set.  Obviously I cannot resume any of that earlier work now – frustrating though that might be as some of the early work is better, or at least I am happier with it, than what I have achieved more recently.  If I am to produce an alternative I will need to do some more work and it remains to be seen whether I will be able to do so before the time comes to submit my entire body of work for assessment.  If I cannot do so I will keep the reworked sculpture pictures as the final set.  Nevertheless, whatever the outcome, the experience to date has been useful if nothing else to highlight the differences between photographing inanimate objects and people.

I have already identified the main constraints I faced when photographing the statues, principally poor light, inability to use a tripod, and lack of space.  There are though some very different  considerations that apply when photographing people.

The first issue that I have had to address has been consent.  All of the subjects that I have shot to date have agreed to being photographed, though some more willingly than others!  When I carried out my original market project I even obtained a formal written Release from the market manager.  From a purely practical point of view it was not then nor is it now realistic to obtain individual releases from each subject.  Nevertheless all of those shot then, and more recently, at least have given verbal consent.  Fortunately, having attended these markets regularly over the last ten years or so I now know some of the stall-holders quite well so the approach to them to be subjects was quite easy.

Some people are of course quite uncomfortable about having their photograph taken, indeed I am far from keen myself!  I have therefore had to work as discretely as possible.  Mostly I have able to catch my subjects candidly without them posing – some have been very uncomfortable with the idea of posing though still happy to help out by taking part in the shoot.   A few though have posed but I have been keen to keep proceedings as informal as possible.

I have also had to be careful to keep out of the way.  This is a working market and it is important not to get in the way between the stall-holders and their customers.  It has also been important to be sensitive to the views of those customers about being photographed themselves or caught up in a shot.  Again consent has been the key.

From a technical point of view, taking these considerations into account, I have been using a Canon EF 85mm 1:1.8 lens that I like to use for such work as this. It has the advantage that you can step back a bit from the subject and not be right in their face.  It also captures light really nicely even when, as over the course of a number of shoots, conditions can prove to be quite variable.

Because the market can be quite busy, and as space is at a premium, it is not practical to use a tripod and so, as with the sculptures, it has been necessary to keep shutter speeds no slower than 1/60s, and keeping the depth of field shallow.  As I have tried to avoid posing it has indeed been necessary to keep shutter speeds as high as possible in the prevailing circumstances in order to capture subjects who are not necessarily standing still without movement blur.  Because it can sometimes come across as a little confrontational or intrusive I do not use flash.

It now just remains to be seen whether I can put together an alternative set that I am sufficiently happy with to substitute for the sculpture set.  If I can that will be the subject of a further post.

Postscript

Since posting this it has become apparent that I am not going to be able to take advantage of the possible opportunities that I had in mind to shoot an alternative set for this assignment.  I fear therefore that I am simply going to run out of time.  As it is, with the holiday season approaching, I suspect I am going to be hard pressed to get everything ready for assessment in time.  I am therefore going to go with the revised set of sculptural heads.  At least I have had a go at a portrait set in the past (quite successfully!) and have had some experience of the issues involved so I do not feel that I am now short-changing myself.

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Prints for Assessment

As I am now ready to submit my work to date for assessment I need to give some thought to size and finish.  This is a subject that I touched on in connection with Assignment 3 for which I submitted physical prints.  In that case I settled on a lustre rather than fully matte or glossy finish and was pleased with the outcome.  I must now apply the same sort of thought process to the prints for the other four assignments.

Given the subject matter and approaches I adopted for Assignments 4 and 5 I am happy that a gloss finish would work well and would indeed add to the end result.  A bit of shine and reflected light will help to emphasise the sense of light in both cases.  I have made a couple of trial prints on  my own printer on a Fujifilm paper that have come out quite well.  Professionally printed ones should come out even better.

So far as size is concerned I am thinking about A4, again with a border.  The prints for Assignment 4 though present something of a problem as these are based on movie images that have rather different aspect ratios to A4 – they also differ amongst themselves.  Having discussed this with my printers we have settled on “gallery hanging” with each print having the same height but different widths according to the different aspect ratios.  Cropping these down to a uniform A4 format would entail losing far to much information

For the final version of Assignment 2 I feel lustre will again work well and for size, 7 x 7 inches with a 1 inch border.  Whilst I am still working on a possible alternative final set of photos for this particular assignment I have now accepted that I do not have the time or opportunity to complete one in time before the middle of January so for the time being the set of sculptural heads will stand.

Assignment 1 though had me in a bit of a quandary.  One thought is that treating the set as a series of postcards, so fairly small and glossy, would work.  This would go with the sense of the set being a sort of travel guide, something that you might carry in your pocket to help you follow the route.  On the other hand there is a lot of detail and texture in each shot so something larger might do them better justice, and a lustre finish would give them a warmth and avoid reflected light knocking out some of the detail.  Again to do them justice I have decided to go for A4.

As the final set for Assignment 3 that was printed some time ago when first submitted were all unmounted, for the sake of consistency of presentation all of the new prints are also unmounted.

Assignment 5 – Reflection on feedback

I have now received my tutor’s feedback on this assignment.  As ever, not only positive and supportive but also challenging and thought-provoking.

One thing that became clear very quickly during my feedback session with her is that to a degree I have too successful in decontextualising the final set of images that I chose, to the extent that it was not easy for her to identify exactly what some of the individual images showed and how they worked together as a set.  I think therefore it would be useful to talk through what each image portrays of the process of taking a photograph using my 4×5 field camera.  This then leads handily into discussion of a really interesting issue that she raised about the choice of this approach and sequence.

  1.   Remove the lens cap.
  2.   Open the shutter.
  3.   Adjust the focus using the focusing wheel.
  4.   Check focus and composition on the ground glass back.
  5.   Set aperture.
  6.   Set shutter speed.
  7.   Release the shutter.
  8.   Light passes along the length of the camera through the bellows,
  9.   reaching the back of the camera,
  10.   exposing the film.

There are of course a few other steps along the way (such as closing the shutter after focusing,  inserting a film back, and priming the shutter release mechanism before releasing the shutter) but these were omitted as they would have duplicated see of the information in other shots, would not have added anything material to the sequence, and made it too long, violating two elements of the brief.

To help with context here are a couple of shots of the camera as a whole.

The main issue that my tutor raised was the paradox that I created (or perhaps more accurately, stumbled upon) by choosing to take these images from the point of view of an observer rather than that of the photographer when using the camera and the conscious decision not to include either the photographer nor the image that the camera would have taken.  I wanted to portray the physical process and elements of taking a photograph, while keeping strictly to the terms of the brief.  To that extent it struck me when I first conceived of the idea that it would not be possible or indeed desirable for what I wanted to do to include the photographer, or part of him/her.  From a practical point of view it would have been physically difficult, if not impossible to include my self (“The Photographer”), even just hands, in the images and I did not want to use a model.  This does create a paradox in that while trying to portray the process, by removing the external agency of the photographer it becomes impossible for the photograph to be taken.  That is of course a bit of a head-scratcher and is perhaps irreconcilable.

The real focus of my intention though was to look at the technical steps of taking a photograph using this camera and what my tutor and I agree is that the end result does so in a micro sense so that, as I have already said, user and subject are of lesser importance.  Indeed, one of the shots that I included in the contact sheets was a view through the camera, with the ground glass removed and the back open, to show the circular, inverted and reversed view that was visible through the lens.   I specifically rejected this from the final set as I felt that it did not work that well as an image and also did not really fit within a set that is otherwise about technical process.  I had thought at first that it might have formed the final image in the set but replaced it instead with the view of the film holder, sticking firmly to a portrayal of process.

The above notwithstanding, for the sake of experimentation and completeness if nothing else I have decided to try a similar shot to the one referred to above, but showing the view on the ground glass itself.  One is over-exposed one stop, the other three stops.

I think this is a more interesting image and is more consistent with the overall approach.  However I am still not convinced that it fits properly in so far as it is the only image that would show the photographed subject and so I would still not include it in preference to, for example, the current tenth image.

In the context of the overall approach my tutor commented that the view of the aperture dial is taken from the side rather than above.  (The same could perhaps be said of all of the views of the lens and shutter.)  This choice was deliberate and reflects the physical practicalities of handling this camera.  Because there is no viewfinder focusing and composition have to be done using the ground glass back.  It is therefore necessary, from a purely physical point of view, to have the camera up on a tripod at eye level and this was how I arranged the subject camera and my digital camera taking the shots.  At this level, and when actually using the camera it is not possible easily to look down onto the shutter controls.  Instead they have to be viewed from the side.  Indeed, this particular lens (a Rodenstock 150mm f/5.6 Sironar N) has repeater indicators for the shutter speed and aperture dials on the underneath as well.  Therefore, to have portrayed them from above, as would be the case with a medium format or SLR camera would not have been appropriate given the micro technical approach I had decided to adopt.

Clearly this paradox and the discussion with my tutor raises some interesting, and possibly difficult, questions about such issues as the photography as a process and as a means of producing images.  At my tutor’s suggestion I am going to go back to Walter Benjamin  and his essay on “The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility” to try to develop my thinking on this.

Another thing we discussed was the decision to exclude most of the more overexposed shots.  The principal reason for doing so was that given the micro technical approach I had settled on too many of these shots contained too little information to get my message across.  In some ways I still feel that is a bit of a shame as from a purely artistic point of view I like the more washed out images.  If the intention was not to convey bits of information but rather to produce a visually interesting, if somewhat enigmatic, sequence to stand in its own right I think the more over exposed images would work quite well.  From the point of view therefore of completeness, and to present a less didactic and more purely aesthetic set I set out an alternative sequence of them below (though keeping to the same ‘narrative’ line for now).

The third image actually formed part of the original sequence and is the more washed out of the two shots I took of this part of the process.  The fourth is the only shot I took of the ground glass, and the same goes for the final image.  The extent of the overexposure is therefore unfortunately not entirely consistent throughout.  Nevertheless this does perhaps give an indication of what a more purely aesthetic approach might look like.  I do quite like it but it does not tell the story that I wanted to portray.