Any consideration of depth of field might as well start with Ansel Adams as much of his work offers examples of depth pushed to its limits. The very idea now of an f-stop of 64 I find quite remarkable. None of my current lenses will go beyond f/22 and even at that level one of them has a tendency to produce distortions and aberrations, somewhat mitigating the effect of deep depth of field. I understand that this sort of extreme was, and presumably still is, achievable only on the likes of large format cameras, or other expensive kit.
For examples of his work I have looked at a couple of books in my own collection, concentrating on his landscapes: Ian Jeffrey’s “How to Read a Photograph”; and a little book picked up second hand in the US years ago, “Anselm Adams: The National Park Service Photographs”.
What remains most striking for me about Adams’ work is that while dealing with the natural the results are often unnatural, or hyper-real. There are two factors in particular that lead me to this conclusion. One is that the depth of field achievable by a camera can exceed that achievable by the human eye. We focus on different points throughout the depth of any view rather than the whole view. Adams’ photos though are in focus all over. Everything, everywhere you look is in sharp focus, and all at the same time. What you therefore see is quite unnatural. The other is that his approach often tends to dramatically foreshorten the view. The effect, paradoxically, is to make it harder to judge just how deep the view you are confronted with is in reality. A particularly striking example of this, to my eye at least, is Monolith – The Face of Half Dome (Jeffrey, 2008, p.275). Some years ago I saw an exhibition of Adams photos at a gallery attached to the Mumm winery at Carneros in California. Their large scale, sharp focus, flat picture plane caused by the foreshortening made them look anything but natural, but rather overwhelming in the amount of information and detail they contained and conveyed. Magnificent but slightly unsettling.
Fay Godwin was not a name that was particularly familiar to me until in response to my Square Mile project my tutor suggested that I have a look at her work and in particular in her landscapes how she uses leading lines and other compositional elements to create depth. I have in particular been looking at her book “Landmarks”. So far as I can tell, she achieved depth of field not so much in the way that Adams did but but by careful composition. The eye is drawn into the view, sometimes a long way in, rather than running up against detail in the picture plane, the true distance away of which might otherwise be hard to judge.
There are other differences I find striking. Although both were “just” taking photos of landscapes they both had particular purposes in mind. Adams was concerned (in the National Park Service pictures specifically) to record and celebrate America’s national, and natural, heritage. As such the landscape itself is paramount and it is noticeable that there are few, if indeed any, signs of human intrusion (though obviously that does not apply to the “Native Americans and their Lands” pictures which were concerned with recoding indigenous culture rather than their landscape itself). For Godwin though the chief focus is on the impact of mankind on the landscape: what Simon Ermitage in his introduction terms “the clash of man and nature” (Godwin, 2001, p.11). In that sense her work was more political, addressing sociological and environmental issues, man’s desire to impose reason and order on the landscape. Therefore her work, rather than simply memorialising or recording, was more actively engaged and campaigning, as was evidently the case with “Our Forbidden Land” mentioned in the course material. In that context it is interesting to note that Godwin apparently referred to herself as a documentary photographer and Roger Taylor in his essay in the book suggests she should be regarded as a “topographer”: “someone who went into the landscape to report back …what they had encountered” (Godwin, 2001, p.17).
Gianluca Cosci is another photographer who is new to me so it was interesting to look at his website. I see that in fact the example of his work in the course material is not in fact from “Panem et Circuses” but from “Fragments”, and that this approach of using very shallow depth of field and low camera angle, focusing on some otherwise trivial or easily overlooked detail leaving the background and rest of the scene inchoate and insubstantial is common throughout all of his photographic work. However, whilst interesting in its own right I do not feel particularly drawn to or inspired by his work and I am, I confess, more than a little put off by what strikes me as an overstated political significance in his work. I certainly do not see “the effect of corporate power on the experience of urban space” as the course material would have it, if only because there are so few signs discernible in the work of such power. Yes, I understand that many of these pictures were taken at Canary Wharf but it does not seem to that there is anything in the images themselves that would help to identify the location or send such a message. Cosci’s own “statement” on his website, so long as construed metaphorically rather than literally – I have an uncomfortable image of people grovelling on the ground under public benches – makes more sense to me:
“I am interested in the point of view of the loser, the marginalised. Often we are forced to have only restricted views, uncomfortable to maintain. In spite of this, I believe that one can take advantage of this apparent fault and use it to observe and understand things in a different, unexpected way.”
Mona Kuhn is also new to me. I was though frustrated to find that the link in the course material is bad and that very little of her work appears on her website, and indeed so far as I can see nothing from “Evidence”. As a result I have not been able to form any views on her work for now.
Kim Kirkpatrick’s work struck me very positively, even though only a few of the ‘Early Work’ images appear on his website. I am impressed but he way he can take a simple, small detail and by using shallow depth of field, and use of colour, make that detail stand out and stand for the whole view, as he puts it so “the viewer is directed to that which is important”.
“The subject, as it always has been, is color and our daily environment – the result of searching for unnoticed elements of beauty and hidden subtle significance in our surroundings.”
Although at least from a political perspective Kirkpatrick is doing something quite different from Cosci it does seem to me that there are parallels in the pictorial results that they achieve, though the former’s are more visually appealing.
Lastly there is Guy Bourdin. I am already aware of some of his work and know that he was, indeed still is, influential in the field of fashion photography in particular. I have to say though that I do not feel I have derived any particular benefit from looking at his work in the context of depth of field. The images on his website, are at least the site dedicated to him, do not really show very well how depth of field plays a role in the effect he strove to achieve. I also have to say I simply do not like his work. I do have a problem with it being “gloss” rather than “reality” – simply a matter of personal taste – and have an unease that I can pin down not to the formal composition of many of his pictures but t o the fact I find them tatseless, exploitative, and even offensive.
What do I get from this research and the exercises that have preceded it?
Just as with the formal elements of composition depth of field is clearly important not just from an aesthetic point of view but is also significant in giving meaning to the image. Both shallow and deep can do so, it is a matter of identifying which is more appropriate to the subject and intention in question. For example, in my square Mile sequences, deep depth of field was clearly appropriate for showing the route and drawing the viewer through it. Shallow depth of field was though more appropriate for the alternative dog’s eye view sequence.
From a practical point of view, and thinking about the exercises that I have completed, I need to do more work on shallow depth of field as it does strike me that it can be harder to manage and pull off successfully, and I want to explore more its effect on emotional intensity.
Re-imaging an earlier work
This shot formed part of the original sequence for my Square Mile. It was shot in Aperture Priority at f/16 to give depth and the leading line of the road was important to draw the eye onwards to the next point in the walk. It is part of a narrative, with no particular message, other than “this is the way to go”.
However I do now feel it can be read in a different way, and one that does not require it to be seen as part of a longer sequence. It can be read in a different way on its own. In particular what I have in mind is the approach of Fay godwin. This is not deliberately a political image but it does carry certain overtones once the wider context of the location is know. It is difficult though for me to some up this alternative reading in a short caption and a longer commentary is required.
Firstly it can be seen, as with much of Godwin’s landscape work, simply as a representation of human intervention over time in the landscape. There has been a track running along the route of the present day road, cutting across the burn, for centuries, forming part of a pack horse trail from the city of Newcastle to the east, westward along the Tyne valley. In more recent times (though still probably a couple of hundred years ago) stone setts were put in place to make the ford and the road has been metalled. More recently the present steel and concrete bridge was put in place, presumably replacing an earlier structure, that itself probably superseded a set of stepping stones. The depth gauge and road sign are more recent still.
Secondly there is the political element. Though not immediately clear as is the case, for example, with Godwin’s “Night Guard, Stonehenge”, this can be seen as a image about exclusion (though by no means as its primary subject). The images in the Square Mile set show more clearly the fence that runs alongside the road from the Batt House Road sign until the upper ford. It is there in this image but not so clear. What is though clearly to be seen, and is on reflection quite a strong element within the composition, is the wooden fencing underneath the footbridge creating a physical barrier over the burn. The fence generally and this barrier (there are a couple more similar ones at the upper ford) form a strong demarcation between the public space of the road and the privately owned wood beyond it. Physical deterrent is significant locally as for years, possibly even generations, locals used an informal path that cut through the wood. The present owner took umbrage and after what I understand to have been a not inconsiderable battle forced the closure of the path and the enclosure of his wood, to the exclusion of all others. Granted this was not public land and I understand there was no clear right of way, but in its own way this local act of exclusion has some parallels with the fencing of Stonehenge. I seriously doubt though whether a photo such as mine would ever have the effect that Godwin’s did!
Since posting this I have looked at again at my archive of photos and found one that makes a more succinct statement than the one above:
“Private – Keep Out”
f/5.6, 1/60s, 50mm
This is part of the same boundary fence. The sign on the gate says it all. The shallow depth of field itself acts as a visual barrier preventing further progress into the private wood.
Dexter, J (ed), (1994). Ansel Adams: The National Park Service Photographs. New York: Abbeville Press
Jeffery, I, (2008). How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. London:Thames & Hudson
Godwin, F, (2001). Landmarks. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing