Category: ASSIGNMENT 2

Assignment two Collecting – Revisited

Some further reflections on this assignment having received feedback from my tutor.

Contact sheet

First, I forgot to include a contact sheet of the various images that I took and from which the final choices were made.  Doh!

There are not that many images on this sheet because this was all that I could usefully take at the time.  Camera angles were so restricted that for most there was only one available viewpoint and any adjustments were just to try to get framing and background right.  The first frame was rejected because of the presence of the picture frame in the background and because i thought the second was a more dramatic angel, even though the lighting was not as arresting.  I was though able to adjust this when converting to black and white. the third frame was rejected because there was too much background and on this occasion I could crop in camera.

The fifth and sixth was the only subject I rejected outright because his costume did not fit with the classical theme of all of the other subjects. Frame eight was chosen over seven because I felt the profile view was stronger.

Twelve to fifteen I struggled with and could not get right and chose the final frame in preference because of the more striking low camera angle (which was not easy to achieve in the circumstances!)  For some reason this was the only frame that I included in the contact sheet after it had been processed – not now sure why – but it does serve to highlight the difference in quality compared with the previous four.  I evidently also failed to mention that these shots were taken elsewhere, not at Bowes.  I wanted to include this particular head to introduce a little more variety among the female heads and felt this would fit.  There were though similar restrictions on accessibility, hence the struggle to get it right.

Gender balance

I had originally wanted an equal number of male and female subjects but the decision to exclude the fellow in the brocaded collar upset that balance.  I nevertheless stand by that decision, even though upsetting the balance, because I remain of the view his ornate uniform would have upset the otherwise classical theme.

Images two and three of the final set

These two are admittedly very similar.  Indeed, at one point I did wonder if I had taken two different views of the same subject.  The hairstyles are though different so they are not the same.  Unfortunately it was not possible to shoot either of these two from different angles, which is why only the two frames appear in the contact sheet.  It was physically difficult to approach them from a different angle and to the extent that I could I could see in camera that the light then became a problem and the indicated shutter speed became far too low for a successful handheld shot so I did not even attempt it.  In retrospect what I should perhaps have done, which would also have addressed the gender imbalance was to reject one of them, in which case I would let go of the third image in the final set (frame ten in the contact sheet).

Lee Friedlander image

Could I have included a suggestion of a human presence/shadow in the image?  Practically speaking no just because of the way the natural light fell.  Would I want to anyway?  Do I feel it would have added anything?  Again I think no, although it is a valid and interesting question.  I think that what gives the Friedlander such impact is that the photographer’s shadow head falls upon and within the subject’s head.  It was that coincidence that attracted me to that example in the first place and is something that I would have wanted to achieve.  As the final approach that I adopted was in a more traditional portrait mode I am not sure that the effect would have been as successful.


Having suggested that further cropping might enhance the set or at least give it a different feel why did I not try it?  Good question! Let’s have a go now (also leaving out image three to see how the set looks with more equal balance).  At the same time I want to have anther look at the rejected male head; if cropped in tight his collar should disappear. or at least be less obvious.  I also want to try replacing his head for the young man’s head (frame nine on the contact sheet) which is not sufficiently different from the following two female heads:

On reflection I feel this set is a little more balanced having removed that one image.  Cropping could be played around with ad infinitum but I think this closer crop for all of them adds some further impact by focusing attention even more tightly on just a part of the subject’s head.  Still not sure about the Second Empire collar but it does fit better than I thought it might.  Indeed, it now suggests to me that the set is in some ways more coherent and that it is now the second female head that does not fit so well!

Assignment two Collecting – Reflection

How do I feel this assignment meets the Assessment Criteria?  There is always going to be room for improvement and how I might rate each of the four criteria will no doubt vary to some extent from assignment to assignment.  In the present case though I feel fairly comfortable  about the first, Demonstration of technical and visual skills.  I feel I can handle the camera appropriately and make informed choices about the technical options available, and I have at least thought about the design and compositional elements (which could nevertheless perhaps be improved here but for the physical constraints on the shoot itself).

I am also comfortable with the Quality of outcome.  The images themselves are, I feel, not bad, and am happy with the way I have presented the assignment in my blog and that this is logical and clear.

Demonstration of creativity is a more difficult issue.  Part of the problem here is that having decided on the subject and location at which the photographs would be taken, some practical considerations were effectively taken out of my hands so that my possible approaches to the subject were limited.  In particular I was severely restricted in the camera angles that I could adopt.  Certainly if it had not been for those constraints I would have approached some elements of this subject in different ways.  For a number of extraneous reasons this particular project was the most practical one for me to pursue at the moment but had circumstances been otherwise I might have been able to pursue something more creative.  Nevertheless I have at least tried to make the best of the limited possibilities available at the time.

What does it say about the development of a personal voice?  I do not know yet but the whole point of doing this course is to help that voice develop.  At least I have not gone down the perhaps all too obvious route (not that there is anything uncreative about doing so) of taking a series of stock portraits and have tried to do something a bit different whilst staying within the terms of the brief.

So far as the fourth criterion, Context, is concerned, I am happy that I have reflected on the outcome project and applied some critical thinking within the assignment itself.  The word count constraints however do not really allow much scope for illustrating the research that has been involved, apart from identifying a source for an idea that was not put into practice (Lee Friedlander’s head shot) and an influence on the final appearance of the set (Mapplethorpe).  I have therefore produced another post under Notes in Research & Reflection to identify some of the other influences that I had in mind.

Assignment two Collecting


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:

Marshall, R, (1988). Robert Mapplethorpe. London: Secker & Warburg

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!


Assignment two Collecting – Research

As often seems to be the case with my photographic projects, idea basic ideas form quite quickly and are not necessarily the result of prior research.  Rather, research tends to follow after the primary decision for the project has already been made and in some ways acts as validation of that idea or an influence on the final form of the project.  That has very much been the case with this assignment.  I knew very early on what I wanted as the subject once the initial idea of a Lee Friedlander-like series of backs of heads fell by the wayside and also what effects I wanted in terms of depth of field and focus.

As a result the photographers I have gone back to are ones that I already know and at some level probably influenced my choice without having to think about them consciously.  One thing that they have in common is that all of the work that I considered is in black and white and the subjects’ heads are closely framed with very little visible background.  There are though differences in focus and depth of field.

My starting point was the portrait work of Julia Margaret Cameron.  Shallow depth of field and soft focus (more to do with long exposures than anything else) produces pictures that are both dramatic and characterful, giving the images a real sense of life.  The lack of extraneous background detail in most of them forces the viewer to concentrate just on the subject.  There are no distractions and the gaze is held by the subject, who sometimes looks straight back out of the picture at the viewer.   (Weaver, 1989, pp. 64 – 73.)  Mostly though the subjects are looking of at an angle, or have their eyes downcast – such as Iago, Study From An Italian which I feel is one of her most atmospheric images. (Jeffrey, 2008, p.24.)

Alfred Stieglitz also came to mind.  Most of his work was very different but his portraits of Georgia O’Keefe, which are both intimate and sometimes unflinching in their gaze, struck me as being relevant to my project and embody strongly some of what I hoped to achieve.  Whereas Cameron’s view point is straightforward, what is so striking about some of Stieglitz’s pictures is the  choice of dramatic, foreshortened camera angles.  This is particularly noticeable in the photo reproduced  in Jeffrey’s book (Jeffrey, 2008, p.68).  This is the sort of view I wanted to achieve although as explained in the commentary on the assignment I was not always able to do so.

The other photographer who came strongly to mind was Alexander Rodchenko who also produced closely framed portraits, often from a dramatic low angle looking up at the subject.

There is then of course Mapplethorpe, as I have already mentioned in the commentary on the assignment photos.  In his case though it has been more his photographs of statues, most notably “Apollo” rather than his portrait work as such.

There are of course lots of other photographers whose work has also been something of an influence (Edward Weston and Paul Strand to name but two) but that I have not gone back to so far for the purposes of this assignment.

Jeffrey, I (2008). How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. London: Thames & Hudson.

Lavrentiev, A(1995). Alexander Rodchenko: Photography 1924-1954.  Köln: Könemann.

Marshall, R, (1988). Robert Mapplethorpe. London: Secker & Warburg

Weaver, M (1989) (ed).  The Art of Photography.  London: The Royal Academy of Arts.