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.


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.


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.

Assignment five – “Photography is simple”

I have decided to effectively take photography itself as the subject for this assignment and also, in line with my recent musings on film photography, to make the subject an example of photography at its simplest.  I have therefore decided to focus on (literally) my large format 4×5 camera.  Paradoxically, although it is a very simple piece of apparatus, it is quite complicated to use, or at least is involved in the sense that there are various steps that need to be taken in a particular sequence in order to create an image, with which the camera itself, unlike a digital one, does not help.

Bearing in mind the limits set by the brief I have chosen a sequence of pictures of those parts of the camera that each have a particular function, or which give a specific piece of information.  To keep the view narrowly focused on each element I have used a macro lens (Canon EF 100mm 1:2.8) set throughout at f/2.8 to keep the depth of field as shallow as possible.  All were shot in natural light, ISO 100.  Exposures varied between 1/6s and 2s.

Taking some inspiration from Rinko Kawauchi, to further limit the information contained in each shot, to decontextualise them as much as possible, and also to bring a little more artistic effect to what otherwise might be quite a dry subject, I have overexposed each shot using the camera’s Exposure Compensation function, increasing exposure by between one and three stops.  I also wanted to emphasise, in a literal way, the importance and central role in photography of light. In my initial experiments I found that going beyond that washed out the image too much, producing something more akin to Sugimoto’s  “nothingness”, which is not what I wanted to achieve.  I had thought about using flash to achieve overexposure but because of the choice of a macro lens, which was focused down to about a foot, I did not think this would work, without an off camera flash (the facility for which I still do not have). 

It is also ‘about’, in a way, what Flusser has to say in his book about trying to make something new, something that has not been seen before.

Contact Sheets

Here are the contact sheets.  They show all but one of the shots taken.  As the sheets show I played around with a few different sequences and it was only at the end that I realised I needed an extra picture, which is now the last photo in the final sequence.

Final Sequence

The sequence of the final set is itself determined by the steps taken to take a picture, each function of the camera involved, and the progression of light through the apparatus from lens to film.

As indicated on the contact sheets this is my chosen final sequence:

Assessment Criteria

So far as the assessment criteria are concerned, I do feel with this assignment that I have made progress on all fronts.  There were certainly technical issues that needed to be addressed and I feel the approach I adopted has worked quite well.  I also think the final outcome represents progress with, in particular, conceptualisation, contextualisation, and a more creative approach to the subject.

Postscript – prints for assessment

When producing the physical prints of this final set for assessment it became apparent that I needed to adjust the aspect ratio of the images slightly to male them better fit into an A4 format.  I therefore hard to make some adjustments to the cropping so that the prints differ very slightly from the pictures posted above, most notably in the final image where the dark band to the bottom right has now all but been removed, apart from a faint, thin shadow that serves to mark the right hand edge of the picture.


Flusser, V, (2000).  Towards a Philosophy of Photography.  London: Reaktion Books.

Assignment four – Reflection on feedback

Although it was a struggle, and even at the end I was not entirely confident about the outcome of this assignment, it seems the effort was worthwhile as my tutor has given some very positive and supportive feedback.  As ever though there are some challenging questions that I now need to reflect upon.

Despite my own misgivings it seems there might still be potential in the images that I took as the first attempt at this assignment, that they have some narrative potential, and that this might be enhanced by taking a lead from Christopher Doyle and experimenting with different coloured lights.  This is something that I am going to have to think about as it is not immediately clear to me what that narrative might be or where it might go.  I had not approached this shoot with any sense of narrative as such in mind, although I was interested in atmosphere and ideas of concealment and only partial exposure of each scene, so I am going to have to completely change my mindset when looking again at these images.  Because I have enough else on my plate at the moment this is not going to be very high on my list of priorities but maybe once I have got the next assignment out of the way, and worked out the practicalities of producing different coloured light, I will have another go and see what comes out.

A major issue that needs to be addressed is the framing of the final images and why I have presented them in this way, with irregular dark borders.  I have had to go back to the original, pre-processing pictures to work out what has gone on here and must now admit that it is the result of little more than carelessness on my part.  I was clearly in such a hurry to get this finished and posted before I went away on holiday – I would have struggled to finalise the assignment in time for the date I had agreed with my tutor if I had waited until my return – that I simply did not pay enough attention to such details.  Indeed, looking back, it is not clear that I actually processed them at all.  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

This is annoying as it does relate to an issue that was very important to me when approaching this final set.  Clearly I had got myself into quite a state about it as although I had thought a lot about approaches to presentation of the final images, and spent a good deal of time composing explanations in my head, it is now clear that I did not in fact write anything down!  The blog post for the final submission went through so many changes and tweaks that I obviously lost sight of the ball and did not realise that I had not actually addressed what for me is a very important question.

When I embarked on this final set I felt that there were three possible ways of presenting the images that would relate to and have an impact on what I was trying to achieve.  One approach would have been to do what Sugimoto did and include not just the screen but also the wider context of the movie theatres and drive-ins.  This approach I rejected because Sugimoto was shooting different locations and those locations were as much the subjects as the films that were showing.  I on the other hand was shooting in the same place for each film so the context and surroundings would have been the same in each picture.  That would not have been very interesting in its own right and would also not have added anything to what I was trying to say about light.

Another approach, which is the one that I ended up with by default of not having done anything different, was to keep some element of framing.  The intention while actually making the pictures was to give an element of context and to acknowledge, if that is the right word, that these images are made from moving pictures shown on a screen.  It seemed important to me at the time to recognise the artificiality of the light, of the images, and their presentation, by including at least hints of the fact that they were being shot while displayed on a TV screen.  In a way I think I wanted to make it explicit that whilst making something new with my photos my raw material was the work of others.  What I failed to do though was to ensure that in the final set this element was consistent throughout.  As a result this initial intention has not been properly fulfilled.

The appearance in some shots of a control menu on screen is also part of this approach.  It is also partly serendipitous as for some reason the menu showed up only on some of the films but not all and was difficult, if not impossible, to turn off so that it did not appear.  This is something else that needs to be consistent to work properly and unfortunately it does not and as such those that remain should probably be cropped out.

The third approach, which I was not keen on at the time, would have been to crop out everything that was extraneous to the main part of each image.  At the time I was perhaps more influenced by something like Sugimoto’s approach and felt that some limited element of context and framing was desirable.  Now I am not so sure, not least because of the need to make the final set more consistent.  Also, I can now see that what is more important to me than all else in this set is the light rather than any sense of physical context.  I have therefore now cropped the pictures properly to create a more coherent, not to mention neater, set below:

This not only looks neater and more coherent but I think also works better at getting towards what I was trying to achieve.  In retrospect I can now see that the elements in the original set that hinted at the physical medium of the television were actually a distraction (if only because of the lack of consistency).

Another question relates to the appearance of subtitles in some of the pictures.  Again I ummed and aahed about these, whether to keep them, their possible significance and what they bring, if anything, to the final set.  This is a tricky one but I decided to keep them despite the fact that they do not appear in all of the shots – not all of the films were subtitled and not all of the sequences that I photographed had subtitles.  The primary focus and point of interest in the assignment was of course light.  The subtitles appear quite by chance.  I had no idea that they would show up as clearly as they do and I was more interested in the particular sequences in which the appear from a purely visual point of view.  They do though reflect the fact that these film sequences also included sound, specifically speech.  (I was struck by how important music was in the Wong Kar Wai films in particular – it was a while since I had seen any of them and I had forgotten what a significant role music plays in each of those that I chose for this assignment.  Apocalypse Now also of course starts with a sequence where the music, “The End” by The Doors, is every bit as important as the visual imagery. Music is famously central to 2001. Oddly though, apart from The Sacrifice (and even then not a great deal), music plays much less of a role in the Tarkovsky films.)  At one level that fact is not relevant when viewed strictly from the point of view of light.  However it might also be said that the subtitles are also a product of light and are simply part of the image and as such are also worthy of consideration and inclusion.  

In truth I am not sure what the subtitles really add to this specific set in so far as it deals with light.  Nevertheless I decided to include them as they offer a hint of a potential alternative set of images – it would be possible to put together a different set where the text is the more important element and construct a new narrative across scenes from the various films, though that would need a lot more thought to identify chunks of appropriate dialogue.

More than that though I feel that the first two captions, “Call me what you decide” and “I have a secret to tell you” add an extra layer of mystery to what are already quite enigmatic images.  They emphasise that the images are open to interpretation, and are not easy to decipher.  They are an invitation to find in the pictures whatever you can.  The third one, “Just love me”, might be said to work in a similar way, though inviting acceptance of what you see without having to interpret too much.

Or is it a cry from my own unconscious reflecting my struggles with this assignment and an anxiety that the outcome be found to be acceptable?  No, let us not go there!

Could the subtitles themselves act a captions of the images?  Yes, but I do not think that really works here when not all of the pictures include text. Otherwise I am not sure the set really needs captions at all.  The names of the films appear throughout the final set more to simply identify where the image has come from rather than for any other purpose.

I explained in the last post why I chose the order in which the final set appears.  In so far as the focus is on light I remain happy with this sequence and do not feel any strong urge to revise it.  I can though see that other arrangements could also work.  One would be to order the images by reference to where they appear in each film.  I think this is an interesting possibility that opens up the chance to create a new, different dialogue or narrative across the sequence as a whole.  I do not feel this really fits where the brief is concerned with light but would certainly be valid if the temporal elements were more important.  Just for the sake of argument though I have had a go at reordering them on this basis to see what such a set might look like.


The effect is very different.  I do not immediately get a sense of a new narrative nor a visual logic to this sequence.  Thinking about the events in the individual films at these points does not help me much either.  On balance therefore I think I prefer the straightforward chromatic approach that I chose originally.