A1 – tutor feedback

My tutor’s feedback on assignment one is below, with my responses and reflection recorded in red italicised text.

Overall Comments

You have successfully completed the first assignment. You have produced the required amount of images and demonstrated a solid approach. You have submitted a sound and informative evaluation to accompany your images. It’s clear that you are enthusiastic and engaging with all aspects of the course. Your blog is coherent and easy to access. Continue to work through the course exercises. Your final images demonstrate your technical abilities and also show that you have good communication skills. It’s great that you have produced various portraits and a contact sheet with the relevant technical information. In future, be prepared to push your creativity and experiment. Overall, this is a very good submission, well done.

‘Push creativity and experiment’ – I need to think more about creativity in the context of photography; A1 set a specific task of taking portraits of strangers. My focus was more on how and where I might approach the task, rather than how I might approach it in an experimental or creative way. What I could have done differently:

a) The camera as machine – I shot the assignment in low light and made a conventional choice for settings to achieve clear images (i.e. wide aperture to maximize light to the sensor, high ISO, and a shutter speed that would avoid blur). I could have made other choices that would have resulted in a less conventional image. For example, deliberately underexposed to reflect the darkness, or a slow shutter speed to allow image blur, reflecting the movement in the night market (re Egyptian photographer).

b) POV – the images were all shot with the camera at the same level as the face and with the face framed. This was a deliberate choice but a different approach could have been used. For example, full-body in the frame with image blur to create an anonymous portrait, reflecting the unknown strangers.

Assignment 1 Assessment potential

You may want to get credit for your hard work and achievements with the OCA by formally submitting your work for assessment at the end of the module. More and more people are taking the idea of lifelong learning seriously by submitting their work for assessment but it is entirely up to you. We are just as keen to support you whether you study for pleasure or to gain qualifications. Please consider whether you want to put your work forward for assessment and let me know your decision when you submit Assignment 2. I can then give you feedback on how well your work meets the assessment requirements.

Yes, I intent to submit my work for formal assessment.

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

You have produced the required amount of images and successfully completed the assignment. This is a very good submission and one that will stand you in good stead for future submissions. Your reflection that accompanies your submission is very good and contains lots of relevant information. It’s clear, concise and provides a good evaluation of your thinking and practice. It’s clear that you have been looking at relevant references and these have inspired you and expanded your knowledge.

Producing portraits on the street with unknown people is difficult. The exercise will help progress your confidence and communication skills. The images all appear to be competently produced, technically they look fine. It’s also great that you have included technical information re the shoot; this gives an indication as to your knowledge and skills in this area.

I wasn’t sure whether to continue including EXIF data in my contact sheets as I was increasingly reaching the conclusion that technical considerations were not too important in this course. However, if a creative approach to exposure is used (as opposed to a conventional one), including EXIF data would provide an indication of how the creative effect was achieved.

As I said this is a solid submission and one that I cannot constructively criticise too much at the moment. The first submission is more of a diagnostic exercise that allows us to take stock of your skills, both contextual and technical. You have fulfilled both of these requirements but do make sure that you continue to push your practice and thinking. The area to concentrate upon now and during your progression through the course is to apply more of yourself to your projects. Often we (tutors/OCA) talk about the importance of having a ‘personal voice’. Obviously this takes time but do try and produce projects that interest you and carefully think about the context and concept of a project.

Yes, I understand and am aware that I’ve not yet found a personal voice, as I continue to develop and try out different approach to photography and post-processing. I need to reflect more on the components that signal a personal voice and make it recognisable. There is a parallel with music and the ‘sound’ of a particular guitarist, but unlike with photographers, I am more used to articulating a personal ‘sound’. I think it would be helpful to consider this aspect as I look at the work of other photographers.

Another point I would make is not to get too bogged down you’re your technical output. Photography is about being creative, it’s about having something to say, and it’s about communicating with an audience. Sometimes overly concentrating upon the technical outcome of a photograph can kill an image. An image may not be technically perfect but may be able to convey a feeling, emotion and narrative to the viewer. Do bear this in mind as my initial reaction to your process is that you may concentrate too much on technical details which is understandable at this stage but don’t let it dominate your practice. In future assignments be prepared to experiment and push your ideas/creativity, this is the time to do it!

I agree that I do currently have a significant degree of focus on technical aspects of photography. My thinking has been to master and absorb these before letting go of them. A bit like I would learn musical scales on the guitar and then forget them when improvising. There is perhaps a similarity that I should use in photography – there is a time to practice technical aspects and a time to let go and just go with it.

Coursework

It’s great to see that you are working through the exercises with enthusiasm. Make sure that you continue to apply yourself here. Use the exercises to experiment and push your creativity. Input here will certainly help your confidence and personal approach.

Research

Continue to apply both independent and course initiated research. You are clearly engaging and offering reflections upon the course material. Your reflections accompanying your assignment images are really important; the final assessment team will read these. Continue to apply critical analysis here, reflect upon your input, influences and practical input.

Learning Log

Your learning log/blog is coherent and easy to navigate. The separate folders easily identify your different outputs. Continue to add to your folders including research and reading.

One point I would make is that your final assignment images should open up larger. Presently they are too small. The assessment team and I will want them to open up to a larger size when clicked upon. This is possible, please look at how to do so this, you can get advice from OCA.

Noted – I know how to do this and will re-upload the images to assignment 1 (same images, without changes, just available to open larger) and note the post-feedback change in the blog. See adjust post here.

Suggested reading/viewing

Have a look at these photographers:

Typologies:

Bettina Von Zwehl: http://www.bettinavonzwehl.com/alina.html

This work shows 12 young women, who look to be around the same age – they are all dressed in similar white vest tops, the photos are shot against empty backgrounds (white / grey), and none of the women are engaged with the gaze of the camera, but look to be in quiet contemplative moments. The series makes us wonder why the different women are contextualised in the same minimal way, all contemplating something. No explanation is offered. It is the fact that the work is a series attracts interest; I don’t believe any of the images on their own would be of much interest. For me, it is the uniformity of the subjects’ gazes that adds interest.

James Mollinson (James and other Apes): http://jamesmollison.com/books/james-other-apes/

These are portraits of 50 apes, taken over 4 years and published in a book. There is an artists statement on the work (see – http://aphelis.net/james-mollison-photography-james-other-apes-2004/), in which he states ‘I traveled to Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia to meet orphans of the bush meat trade and live pet trade’.  The project may have been supported by Benetton as it also features on their corporate website (http://www.benettongroup.com/media-press/image-gallery/institutional-campaigns/james-and-other-apes/). Mollison identified with a specific cause and this appears to have driven his project – whereas each photo has a similar aesthetic of closely cropped head-shots, it is the clear cause that is central to the series. This can be contrasted with Von Zwhel’s work, the reason for which is unclear, so we are left to come construct our own narrative (if we have the inclination to do so).

For Assignment two:

See separate post here

Joel Sternfeld, Passing Stanger: http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfield

sternfeld/artworks/stranger-passing, 
Katy Grannan: http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/feature/grannan.html

Phillip Lorca diCorcia: http://www.vice.com/read/richard-kern-on-philip-lorca-dicorcias-hustlers

 

A1: The Non-Familiar (submission to tutor)

[Note – this post was updated after tutor feedback. Only change was to allow images to be opened at large size in separate tab by clicking on them.]

Introduction

This assignment was to make ‘five portraits of five different people from your local area who were previously unknown to you’. I chose to take photos of strangers on the street in Patpong Night Market, Bangkok, after asking their permission and finding out a little about them. A full explanation of the rationale for this choice is here. I was interested in discovering the different ‘types’ I might find in this area given its reputation as a market for locals and tourists and its infamous Go-Go Bars.

While the work of August Sander has influenced me (see post here), Emil Hoppé’s photographic style and his interest in the psychology of interactions with subjects as well as types is a greater influence (see post here). Hoppé’s work stems from an interest in individuals and showing something of their character and then what that might say about the type of person they are and what general type they belong to. I admire his flexible approach to composing portraits – as if he is surveying a landscape for the best point of view to express his idea of the subject. I’d also done some research on street photographers working with street portraits, but only came up with suggestions as to why they might not do this (see post here).

My approach to the subjects was like an interview with a camera; some rapport building, expressing a genuine interest in something about the individual, finding out a little about them (language permitting), and then asking for the photograph. I had only one near rejection from the street seller with the tattooed arm; this was over-come by asking to photograph his tattoo, rather than him. I showed the photos on the camera screen afterwards; the French traveller (not in final selects) requested a copy, which I emailed the next day.

The photos

The full set of 21 potential images are in a separate post here,  as well as information about equipment used. Here are my final 5 selects, based on my intention to show the different types in the night market, and a consistent portrait orientation. Below the last of the images, I explain a little about the people photographed.

Click on images to open as large files

Portrait #18
Portrait #18
Portrait #6
Portrait #6
Portrait #7
Portrait #7
Portrait #10
Portrait #5
Portrait #5
Notes

#18 – Street stall owner, selling CDs and small electricals. His brother made the tattoo. He did not want his photo taking, but agreed to have a photo of tattoo. Perhaps he did not value his own photogenicity but did value that of his tattoo.

#6 – Young Japanese tourist, wearing t-shirt celebrating old English rock band. He spoke no English, but his girlfriend did a little. They were on holiday and were great fans of the Rolling Stones. His raised hand is holding an umbrella, which I’d asked him to raise further for the shot.

#7 – ‘Pimp’ with menu card of potential sexual-options inside Go-go bar (shown in his hand). After politely declining his menu, I expressed admiration for his t-shirt design to get the photo. I think he agreed before having a chance to consider that being photographed was not in keeping with his type.

#10 – Dutch holiday maker with her mother, who appeared to be of Thai descent. A long conversation was needed about the purpose of the photo before permission was given. It helped that I am familiar enough with Amsterdam to strike up conversation about my favourite aspects of the city.

#5 – Young seller of street food. He spoke a little English, so I was able to ask about his food and listen as he explained and pointed. I offered to send him an email of the photo, but he had no email account.

Conclusion

Against the OCA assessment criteria, I conclude:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills (40%) – materials, techniques, observational – skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.

Made technically sound images while dealing with the challenge of photographing strangers. Within the restraints of the street environment, I was able to direct the subjects to achieve the compositions I wanted.

Quality of outcome (20%) – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

Final selection is consistent with objective of showing different ‘types’ in a place. Clear presentation of output, with preparatory work explained in separate posts.

Demonstration of creativity (20%) – imagination, experimentation, invention,development of a personal voice.

Experimented with a ‘local’ location that was outside of my home country and in a potentially challenging environment. Beginning to develop my own practice of treating portraiture as an interview with a camera.

Context (20%) – reflection, research, critical thinking (including learning logs).

Research for this assignment specifically is shown in separate posts in this blog section and linked above. Blog shows ongoing work and research on technical aspects of photography, photographers working with portraiture and gallery visits.

A1: process and potential photos

An explanation of the location of the shoot is here. The objective was to explore the different types of people in Patpong Night Market, Bangkok by approaching strangers and asking for their permission to make a photograph.

It was relatively  straightforward to approach people in a crowded market – the lack of space already created a sense of intimacy and necessity to communicate that would have not been felt if one needed to approach a stranger on the opposite side of the street, for example. The uncertainty was whether or not the potential subject would be able to speak English (my language ability is limited to English and poor French). In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to learn a few words in Thai to explain what I was doing, or at least say ‘please can I take your photo’. As usual, I found that a great deal can be communicated with a confident and friendly approach, the few words of English that most people understand (eg hello, please, thank you), and a good deal of pointing and signing. The Thai handshake (a prayer-like gesture) was always well-received.

Equipment for the shoot was a Fuji X-T1 and Fujinon xf 35mm f1.4 lens (approx 50mm ff equivalent). The combination is compact and does not intimidate people when pointed at them. The shots were all made with aperture open to around f/2 to allow as much as the low-light in as possible and blur the backgrounds (inspired by August Sander’s approach that focused on the subjects, not the backgrounds). A number of the shots were manually focused as the low light conditions sometimes offered insufficient contrast for autofocus to operate effectively.

Below are thumbnails of the potential shots (click to view full size), from which I’ve made the final selects. The captions briefly describe the types – information gathered when communicating with the individuals. I deliberately chose not to ask for names as this can be viewed as intrusive in what is essentially a police-state.

Click to view as slide show with large images


These 21 images needed to be narrowed down to a selection of five for the assignment. I posted them through a Facebook link to the OCA level 1 student group asking for votes of favourites in a Flickr album. Only a little feedback was received but my impression was that selections were of the photos that happened to have the best image quality and photogenic subjects. My final selects are included in the post for tutor assessment.

A1: preparation – location

The assignment, The Non-Familiar, can be summarised as follows:

‘Your first assignment is to make five portraits of five different people from your local area who were previously unknown to you.’ It is specifically required to leave one’s comfort zone. ‘The ability to concentrate on technical and aesthetic considerations whilst engaging with a complete stranger brings a plethora of difficulties. Added to the fact that most people aren’t that comfortable with having their photograph taken anyway, then you can see why this could become a minefield! ‘ (OCA)

My day-job means that I can spend up to 50% of my time travelling abroad, so I have an expanded horizon for ‘my local area’. During these business trips my evenings are mostly my own and also any weekends I am away. In anticipation of this assignment, I’d chosen a three-week trip to Bangkok as the broad area. After some research on specific areas that were reasonably accessible, I decided upon the infamous Patpong night market, situated in Bangkok’s red light district. The Lonely Planet succinctly describes, ‘you’ll be faced with the competing distractions of strip-clubbing and shopping in this infamous area. And true to the area’s illicit leanings, pirated goods (in particular watches) make a prominent appearance even amid a wholesome crowd of families and straight-laced couples.’

source: bangkok.com

The location seemed to offer up a cornucopia of types, from street sellers and tourists to sex workers. Though I was not prepared to photography the latter, considering it too hazardous, especially in the context of Thailand’s legal system.

Being a ‘night market’, this would also add to the challenge by needing to photography in low light. I decided against the use of flashlight on the assumption that the lights of the stalls and streets would offer sufficient light and because I was concerned that flash would draw too much attention to what I was planning to do.

The aspect of dealing with complete strangers is familiar to me in my professional life as an auditor (‘one who listens’) and investigator, who often needs to quickly build rapport with strangers and encourage them to talk about situations. I’ve benefited from extensive training on investigative interviewing techniques (which tend to be about ‘good cop’, rather than ‘bad cop’). In fact, I am beginning to see portraiture as an interview with a camera with a visual output rather than a written output. This struck be when reading about the approach of EO Hoppé to his portrait work. The only significant difference is that when photographing complete strangers, they have no sense of obligation to agree to the ‘interview’ , so some rejection is inevitable and adds a sense of discomfort or, for photographers not familiar with dealing with the non-familiar, it can be a sense of fear.

References

The Lonely Planet [website]. Patpong night market. Available from: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thailand/bangkok/shopping/souvenirs-gifts/patpong-night-market [accessed 28.7.16]

OCA (2015) [course document]. Boothroyd S & Roberts K. Identity and Place Course. 

A1: preparation – street portraits

As part of the preparations for assignment 1, The Non Familiar, I looked at the work of photographers working with street portraits and their methods, with the intention of using street portraiture for the assignment.

Roswell Angier refers to to the work of Harry Callahan (1912-1999) in the 1950s, influenced by Walker Evans’s subway work. Angier explains that the work featured anonymous females, shot with a telephone lens, allowing more precise framing that was possible with Evan’s work shot with a hidden camera. Nonetheless, both photographers were working covertly, in a way that is not consistent with the assignment’s brief.

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 15.06.19
Source: moma.org, by Harry Callahan

Mark Cohen is another photographer referenced by Angier as working with street portraiture, but literally shooting from the hip and not asking for permission. The Guardian explains, ‘Mark Cohen has spent decades doing hit-and-run street photography in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His pictures are always taken from waist-height, so he can keep his wits about him – and he’s taken 800,000 shots he’s never even seen.’ This is perhaps an exaggeration for the purposes of a catchy first sentence to the article, but nonetheless it says something about Cohen’s practice.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-08-57-28
Source: guardian.co.uk, by Mark Cohen

An excellent reference book for contemporary street photography (including some portraiture) is Street Photography Now, which explores 48 different artists. But this comes up short with artists working with street portraits, instead focusing mainly on happenstance. I suspect that some of these artists have taken street portraits, with permission, it just happens to be coincidental to the intention of their work, rather than the main purpose – it therefore doesn’t get mentioned.

In an earlier post, I looked at the work of Diane Arbus (see here), whose street portraits are with permission even if focused on ‘freaks’. An observation was Arbus’ comment about her subjects, ‘I’m extremely likeable with them. I think I’m kind of two-faced.’ This duplicity does not sit comfortably, but it is of course also possible to be nice and genuinely interested in strangers when approaching them for photographs.

In contrast to Arbus, Helen Levitt (1913-2009) had a humanist outlook on street photography. Though she reportedly used a right-angled view finder to allow her to capture moments surreptitiously (Telfair).

Helen Levitt
source: lensculture.com, by Helen Levitt

It seems that most street photographers prefer to work with unsuspecting subjects, rather than ask permission for portraits. Understandable for a genre based on showing the extraordinary within banal street scenes; the aim is often to show what is happening in the natural course of events, rather than intervening.

There is a doubt however in my mind that in the pursuit of the ‘decisive moment’ concept some of these photographers may have been reluctant to admit that some of their images were set up, or at least that permission was asked.

References

Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography (Required Reading Range) [Kindle iOS version]

Arbus, D. and Israel, M. eds. 2012. Diane Arbus: An aperture monograph: Fortieth-Anniversary edition. United States: Aperture.

Erik Kim [blog]. 7 Lessons Helen Levitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography. Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/06/06/7-lessons-helen-levitt-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [accessed 27.7.16]

The Guardian [online]. Mark Cohen: the photographer who literally shoots from the hip. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2013/oct/22/mark-cohen-photographer-exhibition-paris [accessed 27.7.16]

MoMA [online]. Harry Callahan. Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/924?=undefined&page=1&direction= [accessed 27.7.16]

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. 2011. Street photography now. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Telfair Museums [online]. Helen Levitt in the street. Available from: http://www.telfair.org/helen-levitt-in-the-street/ [accessed 27.7.16]