Sleeping by the Mississippi – Book

Once again, without really thinking about it, I find myself drawn back to and influenced by American photographers.  In this case it is Alec Soth and his book “Sleeping by the Mississippi” which has just been republished in a new edition by Mack.

It had not really occurred to me before when I first became aware of his work (I think as a result of a mention in Charlotte Cotton’s book) but it is now obvious to me the debt he owes to Robert Frank and Walker Evans.  Their books, particularly Frank’s, record road trips.  What is strikingly different about Soth’s road trip is though that rather than moving along an East/West axis, he travelled from North to South through the MidWest  which is, for me at least, a very different way of looking at the country.  It is also a part of the country with which I am not at all familiar having never been to that part of the world before, apart from an enforced layover in Minneapolis once as a result of Hurricane Bob many years ago.

Another thing that really appealed to me was the fact that Soth shot this using a large format, 8 x 10, camera – not the sort of kit you would normally associate with a road trip and such subtle and intimate pictures as he took.  As I have ranted on elsewhere, there is clearly still an artistic role to be played by film!

Although many of his images are unsettling, uncomfortable, and occasionally even ugly, and though there is a lot of pain in them, loss and loneliness, this is nevertheless beautiful book and a joy to flip through.  And despite the apparent simplicity of many of the scenes has has depicted there is below the surface a lot of complexity and each time I go back to some of his pictures I find more and more new things.

Soth, A, (2017).  Sleeping by the Mississippi.  London:  Mack.

Assignment four: Languages of light

After the disappointing first two attempts at this assignment I decided on a complete change of tack.  I have been encouraged to be more adventurous and to take more risks when shooting so that is exactly what I have done this time; perhaps not so much of an artistic risk but a risk of pushing the brief a bit too far?

What I have been brought round to thinking about is the nature of light and its physical properties.  The white light that we see is made up of different frequencies of light and we see those colours because the white light is refracted, reflected, diffused, and so on, in various ways.  What I have therefore decided to explore is light, particularly artificial light, effectively put through a prism in reverse to take those refracted frequencies of coloured light back towards white.  That reverse prism is achieved by seeing light in the context of a particular period of time.  Time itself becomes a sort of prism.  What we see from moment to moment is coloured light.  Over time, rather than in the moment, what we see tends back towards white.

I have already mentioned the work of Michael Wesely and what appeals to me particularly about his work is the extended periods of time over which he exposes shots.  It is the changing of light over time that he records.  To an extent a similar influence is also to be found in the early work of Niépce and Daguerre in so far as their exposures were very long.

There are though two particular artists who have influenced my choice this time, one mentioned in the course material, Christopher Doyle, and one I mentioned in my own research, Hiroshi Sugimoto, specifically his movie theatre and drive-in pictures.

Doyle is a master of lighting and his cinematography is largely responsible for the very particular look of Wong’s films.  Here though it is not so much his mastery of lighting that caught my imagination but what he did with time in the opening sequence of ‘Chungking Express’ which featured in Part Three of the course and how that affected the look of the light.  I decided to take long exposures of certain sequences from a number of my favourite films, starting with ‘Chungking Express’ and ‘In the mood for love’ to see the effect of time on light and its tendency back towards white.

It is not realistic for me to emulate Sugimoto and his exposures that span the entire length of the film.  His photographs though are in any event more about the cinemas and drive-ins in which he shot rather than the films that they were showing.  For me though it is the film that is the key but I can at least use a similar approach to capture part of the film and see how the passage of time affects the light.  What I do not want is simply to capture a screen of white but in the changing of the light to find an image that is itself interesting and, hopefully, has some aesthetic merit.  To that extent the idea is not simply to record in a single shot a sequence from a film but to create a new, fresh image that can stand in its own right, but one more abstract.

Otherwise I did not feel any great affinity for any of the other artists mentioned in the course material for this particular project but in fairness I think I am exploring something quite different from them.  I can though see that if I had, for example, gone down a more conventional night-time street scene approach there might have been more of a link to Sato Shintaro and Ruth Blees Luxembourg in particular.

In each case, apart from ‘In the mood for love’ which I chose because it is referred to in the course material and is in its own right a masterclass in film lighting, and from which I have taken just one short sequence from the opening for its colour if nothing else,  I have chosen films, or sequences in them, that play around with time, either by speeding it up, slowing it down, or as part of the story play around with and distort time itself or how it is experienced by the characters.  I could easily have chosen a number of different films, almost at random, that would have suited my purpose in this assignment.  However, to give the choices a degree of coherence and to give an extra layer of philosophical complexity to the project (if that is not too pompous a way of putting it) I thought it would be useful, or at least interesting, if time, its effects and distortions were also relevant elements.

All pictures were naturally taken using a tripod.  I used my trusty 50mm lens and set the camera to Shutter priority, using its maximum exposure time of 30s.  I could have taken longer exposures by using Bulb mode and a remote shutter release but it proved too difficult to control exposure times properly and keep them consistent.  In any event longer exposures simply resulted in a blank image of just white light, as with Sugimoto, and I wanted to try to capture something of the film in question and the qualities of its light.  With 30s exposures the camera defaulted to an aperture of f/22.  The  room was darkened so that the primary source of light was only from the film itself.

For the sake of completeness I will mention that there were three films (Minority Report, Arrival, A Zed and Two Noughts) that I included in this shoot that nevertheless do not appear in the final set for the simple reason that they just did not work in the way that I wanted!  All that I got for each of them was a series of completely blank, white frames.  Paradoxically, to this extent these might be said to be the most successful shots as they amply illustrate the reverse prism effect and the reversion to plain white light.  This is though, as I have already explained, while linked to Sugimoto’s work, not what I wanted.  They are though still there in the contact sheets though it is by now hard to tell which shot is from which film!

From these I have chosen ten images that I feel comfortable with and that are approaching what I was hoping to achieve:


In the mood for love


Apocalypse now






The sacrifice

Chungking Express

Why this order?

This is a tricky question.  There is no, to me at least, obvious sequence for the final pictures that I have chosen and I tried various combinations before settling on the order above.  In part, because of what I have written about prisms and the elements that make up white light, I thought this arrangement would not be inappropriate, and would make a degree of sense, by following the overall trajectory of refracted light from red at one end of the spectrum to violet at the other.  I do not think this works completely for every image but I feel the overall structure is right.

Why two images from Stalker?

This film is the only one represented more than once, simply because there were two sequences in particular that I wanted to capture, whereas for the others there was mostly just the one, and because I liked to two pictures that I have chosen – I did not feel I wanted to lose either of them.

Chungking Express?

One of my favourite shots from this assignment is the one that, quite by chance, shows the title frame from “Chungking Express”.  However, as it does not really capture what I was striving for I have not included it in the final sequence of ten images.  For me though it does at least warrant an honourable mention.


As I indicated at the outset of this post I feel much happier with this third iteration of the assignment.  The first two attempts were lacking in imagination or any creative spark.  In this third attempt I feel I have made much more of an effort and tried to produce something that is new for me and quite different from any of the work I have previously done for this course.  It has certainly involved experimentation and a bit more invention.

Assessment Criteria Generally

Overall I feel this makes a decent stab at all of the assessment criteria.  There other ways that I could have addressed the brief, and I might yet still try some more conventional night-time shots by way of further experiment if nothing else.  Doing so would if nothing else involve a different approach to, for example, composition and observation.  Composition, in the sense of the formal arrangement of elements in the picture, was not so much involved on this occasion, though the pictures are still “composed” in a sense in so far as I was careful and quite particular about choosing the sequences from each film that I wanted to capture.



Coppola, F.F. (2001). Apocalypse Now Redux.

Greenaway, P. (1985). A Zed and Two Noughts.

Kubrick, S. (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Spielberg, S. (2002).  Minority Report.

Tarkovsky, A. (1983).  Nostalgia.

Tarkovsky, A. (1972).  Solaris.

Tarkovsky, A. (1979).  Stalker.

Tarkovsky, A. (1986).  The Sacrifice.

Villeneuve, D. (2016).  Arrival.

Wong. Kar-Wai. (1994). Chungking Express.

Wong, Kar-Wai. (2000).  In the mood for love.

Wong, Kar-Wai. (2004).  2046.

Assignment two: Collecting – Redux

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.  With the encouragement of my tutor I have therefore gone back to the brief and reshot entirely.  This time I have gathered a set of portrait shots and I am much happier with the outcome this time.

All of the subjects were photographed at markets in Hexham.  All agreed to being photographed, though some more willingly than others!  Mostly I was able to catch my subjects candidly without them posing – a couple were very uncomfortable with the idea of posing though still happy to help out by taking part in the shoot.  A few though did pose but I tried to keep proceedings as informal as possible.

All were shot using a Canon EF 85mm 1:1.8 lens that I like to use for such work as this.  It captures light really nicely even when, as over the course of these shoots, conditions proved to be quite variable.  It also has the advantage that you can step back a bit from the subject and not be right in their faces, an important consideration given some of their misgivings.  For this reason if no other I prefer it to the equivalent 50mm lens for portraits.

For the sake of consistency and to reduce the amount of background in focus, aperture was set throughout at f/5.6.  Shutter speeds varied mostly between 1/60s and 1/500s.  ISO 100 and no flash.

All pictures have been cropped using Photoshop to cut down on background but have not otherwise undergone any processing.  Having tried a number of different crops I settled on a square format for consistency (which also made the workflow easier) and because I felt it suited most of the pictures well.

I kept the number of shots for each subject down to no more two or three to reduce the distraction and interference.  A couple of shots were poorly focused and so have been excluded from the contact sheets below.

On these sheets I have marked two sets:  one where the subject is looking off to the side so the face is shot in full or three quarter profile; the other has the subject looking directly at the camera.  I have put together this second set simply as an example of another way of selecting and presenting a set.  I have chosen these particular images as they do not feel too posed.  There is a degree of naturalness in them which I caught by waiting for the subject to look up to me .

My primary choice though is the profile set.  I particularly like that I managed to capture each of them while smiling, which creates a nice warm set!  Quite coincidentally they are all also facing in the same direction!

Much more satisfied with this further attempt compared with the first time round.

Assignment four: Languages of light – second attempt

Second attempt and still not very happy with this!  This time I tried a series of shots of a single view at different time throughout an afternoon and evening, effectively repeating the process of Exercise 4.2 but including artificial light as well, and ending with a low light shot with what little ambient light remained and no artificial light.

Some sense of the passage of time is gained by the movement of the shadows from shot to shot.  Nevertheless this still does not work for me.  The result is pedestrian, uninspiring, and still does not have anything very interesting to say to me about light.

Although I regard this attempt as a failure I nevertheless include the contact sheet below – not annotated as there does not seem to me to be much point as I am using none of the images – to show at least that I have done some more work on it and have thought about it further.  If nothing else it has forced me to think differently, in a more creative and adventurous way and deliberately move away from an obvious or easy approach or subject matter.  I do have something a bit more radical in mind now and will post again once I have experimented a bit more.

For the sake of completeness, all were shot from a tripod with a wide angle 10-18mm lens at 14mm, f/18.  Shutter speeds varied with the light.  The last shot could have benefited, as a stand alone image, by having a longer exposure than 30s but by this point it was clear to me this approach was going nowhere so I did not feel the need to experiment further.