Category: Notes

Assignment three – The Decisive Moment – Feedback and further reflection

Having completed this assignment I have now had feedback from my tutor.  One of the suggestions she has made is that I should look again at the original colour versions of the final set of images that I have chosen to analyse in a little more detail why I feel they work better in black and white.  Here they are again, in their original unedited and uncropped versions:

I do not think there is anything wrong (subject to a bit of editing and cropping) with any of these pictures as stand alone images in their original form.  One problem that I do see though from the point of view of them as a set is that I simply do not feel they hang together as well in cloud.  There is no colour or range of colours that is common to them all that is sufficiently strong or noticeable to act as a link.  Paradoxically I think the problem is that there are some common colours, in particular a sort of pale sandstone colour, but that it is in fact to subtle to act as a unifying element.

One of the things that does hold them together as a group, which I think is brought out better in black and white, is the framing of the subjects in each shot, the geometry, and contrast and silhouettes.  They all lose their impact in these unedited versions.  The colours are, as I wrote in the original post, more of a distraction than a help.  To take just a couple of examples.  In the first image above the really important thing for me is the contrast between the underside of the arch and the white car and pale pavement.  The green of the tree and the reddish brown of the market square clock puncture that middle section and detract from the contrast.  The same sort of issue applies to the fourth one.  The most important element is the figures and their reflection on the wet steps.  The colour, particularly the green on the far bank of the river, draws the eye away from that central scene.

What about an alternative set where colour is one of the important and cohering elements?  I think I can put forward a set that works to an extent at this level, though I still do not feel it works as well as the final set in black and white.  A couple of the images I have chosen for this alternative set I have already commented on in previous posts and I still think these work from a geometrical/compositional point of view.  Some of them I am not so sure about, apart from the impact in them of elements of colour.  They do at least though all share a similar sense of framing and in all of them the sudden stabs of colour, predominantly red, blue and orange (each scene has at least two of these three, though the sixth one is pushing this a bit!).

Ultimately though I just do not think they enough of a sense of coherence to be an effective set.  I therefore remain comfortable with the idea that the final set in black and white is probably the strongest that I could put together from all of the pictures I took for this assignment.

Assignment three – The Decisive Moment – Choice of prints for the final set

As this is a print assignment a number of questions arise and need to be considered about the production of those prints: who is to produce them,on what type of paper, with what sort of finish, with or without a border, and so on?

With regard to the first question, whilst I have a decent all round printer, it is not a dedicated photo printer.  Although from previous experience the results are not bad I feel I would be better served by having the prints made commercially.  I have had a few prints made professionally in the past and the results have been noticeably better, not to mention consistent, than anything I can produce at home.  There is also the practical issue that my printer uses up ink like there is no tomorrow – which itself means that home produced prints are a false economy – and I do not presently have access to an adequate range of good quality papers.  So, who will I use?  There have been a number of companies recommended by fellow students, none of whom I have tried so far.  There is a decent printer locally in the Tyne Valley who has done some decent work for me before.  For now though I am going to use LumeJet.  I have had good prints from them before and I now want to try their new process, L.Type, and updated approach to silver halide printing.  (it helps that they have a special offer on at the moment!)

Whilst for present purposes I expect that the paper I do have at home, made by Fuji, would be more than adequate given that I understand there is no requirement at this stage that prints be of gallery/museum quality, given that physical prints are called for I want them to be of the best quality that I can manage at the moment.  I have recently had some prints made professionally on Fujicolour Professional paper and have been very pleased with the results.

Finish is a tricky one.  At the end of the day does this just come down to a matter of personal taste?  My prints are going to be in black and white.  From experience, and having run a couple of test prints at home on some glossy paper, I can see that you can get some nice ‘contrasty’ effects and rich, dark blacks.  On the down side though I find the reflections that you can get with glossy paper distracting and even counterproductive; there is no point having a nice rich black if a reflection then turns it into a grey.  My taste inclines more towards a “lustre” finish, not completely matt but not too shiny.  For me this keeps the richness of the tone without the distracting reflections.  The prints I have had made recently have been on matt paper and have worked nicely.  I am also influenced by the fact that Magnum (who know  thing or two about these things!), from whom I bought a couple of prints recently,  use a fairly flat paper.

Border or no border?  It seems to me that if prints are going to be mounted or framed it does not make a great deal of difference as any mount board will form a border.  However, as these prints are going to be seen without any mount my feeling is that a border will be useful to give the image something of a frame.  I have a couple of prints that do not have borders (they have not yet been mounted or framed) and to an extent the images look a little bit lost or adrift.

Almost forgot: what size?  The limit for this assignment is A4 and for now I would not want to go beyond that anyway (not to mention it starts to get expensive!).  That is a size that I think will suit most of my chosen final set anyway.  There are though a couple that are squarer, as a result of cropping, so I guess the largest I can go with them is 8″x 8″.  I will need to work out the respective costs before deciding exactly what sizes to go for.

So that is where my thinking is at the moment.  Let us see what the results are like and then think again.


The prints are here.  I decided upon four A4 sized prints, three portrait and one landscape to suit the subjects, and two 8″x 8″, in a lustre finish.  As I expected the degree of contrast is not as strong as on the trial print I made on glossy paper.  That said the range of tones is wider and more subtle, more natural.  More detail has also been preserved.  They are not as impactful but I think I still prefer them.  Certainly I do not miss the distracting reflections that afflict the very glossy finish.

By the way, although the LumeJet website can at first be a bit fiddly, once you get the hang of it it is easy to upload your chosen images and the finished prints then came back really quickly.  The prints were evidently made the day after they were uploaded last Thursday and arrived today, Monday.

Exercise 4.3 Research

This exercise is dealing with artificial light.  I understand that what is being talked about is ambient artificial light of some sort rather than light produced by a flash.  I assume that what we are therefore concerned with is light from, for example, street lamps, domestic lights, signage (as is the case with the work of Sato Shintaro referred to in the course material), and so on.

As an aside, although I looked at Shintaro’s work I did not derive much inspiration from it.  Although I can see what he was doing his work does not appeal much to megrim a compositional point of view.  My immediate impression is of random assemblages of illuminated signs with no particular form or structure to them.  I do though accept that I have perhaps not analysed them in as much depth as no doubt they warrant.

Coming from that starting point, an issue I have with this exercise from the outset so far as research is concerned is that it is not always immediately apparent whether a given photograph was taken under ambient artificial light or whether it was lit by flash.  I have focused on work that as far as I can tell has used ambient light rather than flash, but obviously cannot be certain.  Nevertheless, I am not sure whether the distinction is ultimately that important so far as what work has influenced me and my final choice of what to shoot is concerned.

The extent to which any of the work that I am going to consider below can realistically be a significant influence is tempered by the reality of where I live.  I live in a dark village – it has no street lights.  There is as a result little in the way of ambient artificial light.  What light there is  is limited to localised house lights, both internal and external.  What I therefore decide to try to capture is going very much to depend on finding what light I can locally, unless I travel further afield.  I do not propose though, for example, to travel into the centre of Newcastle, the nearest city, where there would no doubt be plenty of potential subjects, not least because of the distance involved and the need to be out late.  In any event I feel that such a subject as the Quayside in Newcastle in particular has, although quite photogenic at night, already been done to death.  Any Google or Bing Images search on the internet will bring up so many examples that the subject matter is in danger of becoming, if it has not already done so, thoroughly hackneyed and over done.  The Abbey and Market Square in Hexham, which is a good deal closer, do though offer some more practical and interesting opportunities.

The first two examples of work that has caught my eye are fairly extreme and are doing quite different things.  One is the work of Gregory Crewdson, whom I first came across in Cotton (2014, pages 67-68) and then again in Bright (2005, pages 80-83).  This really is extreme!  His work is more filmic than anything and compresses a dense and richly allusive, although not necessarily easily comprehensible or decodable, narrative into a single frame.  These pictures are very clearly artificially lit (apparently using film lights) and bring a light to the scene that is unnatural, dramatic, and even on occasion hyper-real.  The artifice is always evident and is presumably key to what Crewdson is trying to achieve.  This is one of my favourites, not least because it is so redolent of so many sci-fi movies!

The other extreme, of a different nature, is represented by the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, particularly his Theatre and Drive-In Theatre series.  Here the artificial light of the films projected onto the featured scenes is all important, and indeed pretty much all that these pictures show.  As Crewdson is perhaps compressing a longer narrative into a single frame, so Sugimoto is here compressing time into a single image, the exposure for each lasting the entire length of the film that happened to be showing.

“Union City Drive-in”

Both of these I find interesting but from a practical and technical point of view neither are really achievable, and therefore capable of being emulated with the equipment that I have (not to mention the lack of technical skills!).

Thomas Ruff’s Nachtbilder series also caught my eye, not least because of the air of unreality that he has captured (Campany, 2012, page 122).  Nevertheless his work generally is not something that inspires me and his effect are not really what I am interested in.

I like some of Nan Goldin’s work that involves interior scenes, presumably lit with ordinary lights. To take just one example shown in Campany (2012, page 179), Self-Portrait with Brian from The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy, is striking because the warmth of the light is at odds with the uncertainty and uncomfortableness that the scene itself otherwise presents.  As so often seems to be the case with Goldin’s work all is not well nor everyone happy!

Some of the work of Rut Blees Luxembourg has a similar air of unease, and possibly lurking threat given the nature of some of the places where she has photographed, as is the case with the example shown by Campany (2012, page 108) – such a public stairwell is not somewhere that I would want to be after dark.  The examples shown by Bright on the other hand (2005, pages 202-204)  do not seem to carry that same sense of menace.  Rather, by photographing the city at night, in this case Dakar, she produces somewhere that is unreal (the predominance of green I find surprising and although it has a somewhat alien air it is nevertheless strangely comforting) but nevertheless warm and almost magical.  What impresses me most is the way she creates a different way to see the place, and this is something that I would be interested in exploring.

The one picture though that I have most in mind when thinking about this subject is this:

This is the work of Julian Germain that originally appeared in an issue of Ashington District Star, the community led photographic project that Germain helped establish in and around Ashington.  In daylight this scene (based on a painting by Fred Laidler, one of the original Pitmen Painters) is probably unremarkable.  The ambient light though, presumably from sodium street lights as well as the signs over the shop, adds a comforting and welcoming warmth to the scene.  Although the light inside the ship is harsh and cool (in contrast to what was no doubt a warm, close atmosphere within the shop) it is nevertheless also welcoming, contributing to the over all sense of community and inclusion that the picture projects.  Again I am not sure that this is something that I nevertheless want to emulate but I am sure it will still be at the back of my mind when I make my attempt.

The last work that says something to me about this exercise is Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hartford, 1979 used by Stephen Shore (2007, page 67).

Here the artificial light is inside and does not really illuminate the exterior of the buildings.  This serves to frame the subject and draw the eye and centre of focus to him.  Given that locally at least I am probably going to have to depend on light coming from inside buildings this is an effect that I intend to explore.

Bright, S, (2005).  Art Photography Now.  London: Thames & Hudson.

Campany, D, (2012).  Art and Photography.  London:  Phaidon.

Cotton, C, (2014).  The Photograph as Contemporary Art.  London:  Thames & Hudson

Shore, S, (2007).  The Nature of Photographs.  London:  Phaidon.


Part 3 The decisive moment – where do I stand?

Does one actually have to have a ‘position’ and just exactly what does having a position actually mean?  Is this something that you can be for or against?

For what it is worth I think there is a problem with the expression itself.  It is worth remembering that this is just the English title for the book whose original French title is “Images a la sauvette”.  Whilst my French is these days somewhat rusty I would translate this, literally, as “pictures in haste”.  “The Decisive Moment” has a ring to it but even though HCB himself chose the English title I do feel that something got out in translation.  I feel the French title more effectively sums up what HCB was on about; seizing a particular instant as it occurred.  Blink and you will miss it.  The English version moves off into different territory of, for example, ‘significance’ or importance that I do not believe is what HCB really meant.  It has as a result become weighed down by ideas of theory, you might say has become a ‘school’, which perhaps explains why there are so many pictures out there that in some way mimic what HCB did but are without any real sense of individuality. let alone originality.

My feeling is that it is something that describes what HCB did, what was important to him in his practice, and should remain as such and not be treated as a ‘big idea’ or theory and universally applicable technique.

While looking into the subject generally one thought that nagged at me throughout was how do we know this was truly the decisive moment?  We do not know what came before or after so how can we judge?  If HCB had taken multiple shots and then chosen the right one we might have been able to see but I am not sure I have ever seen the sort of contact sheet left by HCB that would enable us to do so.  I think therefore that we can only take it that for HCB that instant was the right one to take the shot, but that does not mean that it would necessarily be the same for anyone else in the same situation.

From this point of view the Photo-Eye Magazine article about Paul Graham’s “The Present” was interesting.  I do not necessarily agree with everything he has to say but I do like the idea of exploring a view in a multiple of moments, to see how things change, to explore other possibilities.  In a way, by concentrating on just one particular moment HCB deliberately closed down the possibility of other moments being decisive.  If however the idea is to snatch and capture a particular moment I see no reason why you not try to capture a number of moments, to open up the possibility of alternatives, without having to indulge in sociological pessimism and ennui.