As with Square Mile assignment, the decision what to choose as the subject for this assignment came very quickly without much conscious thought. For practical reasons I did not want to do Views, and Crowds would have been difficult given their rarity in this part of the Tyne Valley! So Heads it is. (The word count limit for this assignment does not really give scope for outline the research that I have done in thinking about what is required here and the photographers who have produced work that would fit this particular brief. I have therefore set this out separately in another post under Notes in Research & Reflection.)
I did not though want just to do a series of portraits but rather to take a more indirect approach. My first thought was inspired by a photograph by Lee Friedlander that I looked at in the context of a previous course:
What I thought might be interesting would be to create a series of photos of the backs of peoples’ heads. This would, if nothing else, for example simplify issues of consent, although effectively taking pictures ‘covertly’ raises other potentially difficult issues. Unfortunately on the day I had chosen to try this it turned out to be impractical. I therefore fell back on another idea that arose coincidentally as a result of a planned trip to the Bowes Museum to see the Only in England exhibition that I have commented on in a separate post – to take pictures of the heads of sculptures. The brief does not say that the heads have to be human heads and this would still offer scope to look at depth of field and framing.
There were two factors that determined how I approached the technical issues for these shots, one within my control, the other beyond it. Whilst the physicality of the subject matter was hard – alabaster and marble – the subject of the sculptures themselves is human flesh. I therefore wanted to produce “soft” images to emphasise that these works are about skin and blood. I therefore decided to go for a very shallow depth of field. In the event this turned out to be f1.4, the largest aperture that the lens in question (Canon EF 50mm) is capable of. This also worked round the physical constraints under which I had to shoot, in particular having to rely only on natural light (no tripod permitted) and without flash (not allowed). Only f1.4 meant that I could achieve a shutter speed of 1/60s and so avoid camera shake. ISO set at 100.
I chose the 50mm prime lens for a “natural” view (and also because I had just got it and wanted to try it out!).
Camera angles were determined by the choice of lens – to keep the heads closely cropped (which I did not want to have to deal with post production if possible) I needed to get close – but also by the physical constraints of barriers and other displays, and how the limited natural light fell on the subjects within the museum. These constraints have though produced a variety of viewpoints, some looking up, looking down on the subject, and at roughly eye level. The limits also determined whether the views were profile or three-quarters.
Serendipitously these physical constraints have forced me into taking a greater variety of viewpoints than might otherwise have been the case, giving a greater variety to the set, though the subject matter is all very similar.
I decided to present the final set as black and white images rather than in colour to create a more coherent and consistent set and to avoid the distraction of some unwelcome colour casts on the very pale stone created by the environment of the museum. I was also inspired (after already having taken these shots) by some of the black and white portrait work of Robert Mapplethorpe (which had coincidentally but entirely appropriately in the circumstances also recently been exhibited at the Bowes), in particular his photographs of statues:
http://www.mapplethorpe.org/portfolios/statuary/ and Marshall(1988).
All of the pictures were initially taken in colour but converted to black and white using Photoshop. At the same time I increased the contrast to give them more visual impact as to my eye a simply cloud to b&w conversion leaves the end result a little bland and more a series of mid-grey tones. I also indulged in a little cropping of a couple of the photos to reduce the amount of background still further.
I have chosen to sequence the set starting with the youngest subject to the oldest with females first and males second. The gender balance is not equal simply because of the limited number of subjects available. There were a number of potential subjects that I discounted. All of the final set are classical in nature (style and presentation if not age). The rejected possible subjects were in a French Second Empire style (mid 19th century) and in contemporary dress, which did not sit well with the classical simplicity of the chosen images.
From a technical point of view I feel that my choices were appropriate. The final images are softly focused, with only a small section that is sharp, mitigating the hardness of the physical materials. Black and white gives more character to the final images as such pale materials usually strike me as somewhat bland and insipid when viewed in reality. Backgrounds are as neutral as I could achieve in the circumstances given the positioning of some of the subjects, with as little background distraction as possible. I also feel that the sequence makes sense and gives a coherent structure to the set.
One thing that might do differently in future is to crop the images even more closely, even cropping into some of the heads, to make them tighter and increase their impact further.
What does hold the set back is perhaps the lack of variety in the appearance of the subjects. The first three female heads and the first male are all a little too alike. It is only the first young girl and the two mature males that stand out as having distinctive character. Ideally I would seek a greater amount of variety of heads if approaching this again. Similarly I would like to see a greater variety of viewpoints. Practically speaking to achieve this I would need to seek out a much wider range of ‘classical’ statuary outside the region – we do not have a lot locally!
Marshall, R, (1988). Robert Mapplethorpe. London: Secker & Warburg