My original submission is here, including details of my process, and my tutor’s feedback, along with my reflections on it are here. I have re-engaged with the selection of photographs and reconsidered the selects following the feedback received. The gist of the feedback was that not all of the photographs encouraged curiosity about the subject – some were a little predictable and more time reflecting on the selections could have improved the series.
In retrospect, there are a couple of lessons:
The final selections were a little rushed as I was keen to submit the assignment prior to a two-week business trip to Africa when I’d only have poor internet access. I will avoid this self-generated pressure in future.
As well as preparing images for the assignment, I’d promised my volunteer model a selection of photographs as a ‘thank you’. While I intended to keep the two selections completely separate, considering both aspects in parallel muddled my choices for the assignment.
Apart from the reselected photographs, all other information relating to this assignment remains unchanged – please refer to original post here.
Two of the original photographs remain and three have been replaced.
Click on images to open larger versions in separate window.
A pdf of feedback on assignment 2 (here) is attached below. Overall it was positive and encouraging, but also provided some useful food for thought. In this post I focus on the areas for development, rather than on what went well.
Some extracts of feedback taken out of context, but reflecting the areas to be addressed:
A more considered review of the final work and a development of your visual strategy could have resulted in a more coherent and successful series … feel that you could have maybe used more time to have reflected and responded to your critical analysis of your final work … It feels to me that presently, judging by the submission, you are struggling to transfer what you know into the final images. To put it into simple terms, I think that you should be engaging further with the actual assignment.
It is a ‘unique aspect of my personality’ (as I explain in the exercise here) that my strength does not lie in finishing things and dealing with details – I am naturally interested in the big picture and debating ideas and concepts, rather than implementing them. I would rather move onto the next challenge. While I’m not often required to deal personally with the details in my day-job, it is something that I have had to make a conscious effort to focus on when necessary, although I find little pleasure in it. In retrospect, I think I am succumbing to the same pitfall with my assignment work – full of enthusiasm for exploring the ideas and concepts during the coursework and when initiating the assignments, but running out of enthusiasm when it comes to the finishing touches. I need to be mindful of my natural preferences when completing assignment work. In future, I will leave a space between completing the shoot for the assignment and dealing with the editing and the final selection process. Allowing some refresh time. My tutor provides the following advice:
As photographers and artists we need time to reflect and review our work, stand back and critically engage with it. Then after a period of reflection try and analyse the pros and cons and then go and produce more work, the period of engagement obviously depends upon the timeframe but it’s a strategy that you should be applying to your work.
For A2, I will revisit the series of photographs and consider alternative selections and post-processing.
It was suggested to look at these portrait photographers:
Steve Pyke (b1957), Philosophers.
Pyke’s work is in square format, shot in high contrast black and white. His subjects are tightly framed and the borders on the photos emphasise this. It is almost as if they have been squeezed into a box.
The high contrast adds drama and grit – something that would have occurred naturally in black and white film but not with digital images converted to black and white. They do not flatter his subjects by softening the lines of age, but the give a well-lived-in characterful appearance. Post-processing of black and white in digital requires some work to recreate this appearance – mimicking the traditional qualities of film.
Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Portraits. Unfortunately the link suggested (http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw71450/Bill- Brandt?LinkID=mp05099&role=sit&rNo=8) is a link to a Cecil Beaton portrait of Brandt and Brandt’s own portrait work is not shared online by the National Portrait Gallery (‘for copyright reasons’). However, I used sources from my look into Brandt during the OCA C&N course and the book Photographs 1928 – 1983, which includes a section on his portraits.
The portraits by Brandt show sitters in context, unlike Pyke’s philosophers, who are extracted into boxes. But the framing is visually dense with busy details.We see the same high-contrast black and white characteristics of film, but Brandt’s work is softer on textures of the skin as it is not shot in extreme close-up.
Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002). Karsh’s website provide generous access to his portraiture and to some short video-clips of him being interviewed. He was a photographer of celebrity who states that his aim was for his work to compliment his subjects, not to show ‘worts and all’, but to provide a record for the many people interested in celebrities and for history.The portraits appear carefully staged. Again there is high contrast black and white, but not the grittiness of Pyke’s work or contextual interest of Brandt’s.
These photographers create different moods and impressions of their subjects. In my own practice, I prefer a gritty approach, but have a concern how that might be received by my volunteer subjects. I suppose that I’ll just have to get over that, or offer them something to their own taste also in return for sitting!
Brandt B (1993). Bill Brandt – Photographs 1928 – 1983. Thames and Hudson, London.
The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits … develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio). You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. (OCA IAP, p55)
Thank you to Rachel, my extremely patient model.
The development of my concept is detailed here. In summary, I wanted to experiment with the psychological impact of how one interacts with a subject to allow them to show something of their deeper self to the camera, as opposed to acting for the camera in a more superficial way. Also, I wanted to shoot in monochrome to allow focus on the essence of the subject without the distraction of colour. The work of Jane Bown in particular influenced me in my approach to the subject and to the use of natural light in many of the photos.
Part of my process was a preliminary meeting with my volunteer, without a camera to set the scene and general direction to the project (see here). My aim was to give the project a collaborative informal feel, rather than one that was directed and staged.
For the assignment, there were two shoots with over 200 photographs; one shoot was indoors and the other outdoors. Details along with contact sheets are here. Making the final selections was an interesting process as there were an number of possibilities for creating a final thematic response to the brief. Combining different photos to create different storylines was a reminder that images have a flexible meaning that can change with the contextualisation with other photographs or text, often with little relationship to actuality.
In the end, I chose not to include any of the outdoor shots in the final selection; there were issues with the quality of light and framing that made it difficult to combine them with the indoor photos into a consistent series. Instead, I used a combination of indoor shots that used available natural light (on location) and indoor shots that used flash and a shoot-through umbrella diffuser to control light quality and depth (in the studio). I also made use of the digital studio, Photoshop, to remove distracting background elements for the ‘studio’ shots; specifically a white radiator panel and and light switch. Katy Grannan’s work that includes subjects contextualised in their everyday surroundings, doing everyday things influenced me in my choice of final selects (see here for more on Grannan).
All images were shot with a Fuji X-T1 and Fujinon xf 35mm f/1.2 lens (efl 50mm). Black and white conversion was done in Nik Silver Efex Pro, with additional post-processing in Lightroom (mostly dodging and burning).
Each photo says something different about the subject; what it says is down to the reader of the photograph; and the photos have no inherent truthfulness – they are just pictures open to a range of interpretations. The studio-style photos are decontextualised, so the reader is just left to interpret the face as a reflection of personality and thoughts.
Click on images to open as large images in separate window.
Against the OCA assessment criteria, I conclude:
Demonstration of technical and visual skills (40%) – materials, techniques, observational – skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.
Technically sound images with natural and flash light, with effective conversion into black and white, optimising tonal ranges. Use of Photoshop to remove unwanted elements in ‘studio’ image (radiator panel and light switch in image #5). Careful observation of the changing face of the subject to capture a range of expressions and emotions.
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 ‘on location’ and ‘in the studio’ techniques. It also reflects concept of vice versa through subject’s change of dress from casual to dinner dress. 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 shooting the same subject in different locations – outdoor, indoor with natural light, and indoor with studio light. Used different point of views, while aim for consistency of framing. Continued to develop my practice of treating portraiture as a discussion with a camera.
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.
I decided to shoot this part first as I thought I would have less control over the outcome and it would therefore be easier to later fit a sequence of indoor photos that would work as a series with the outdoor photos. In retrospect, this was a mistake – the indoor photos within a contained space and environment came much easier with some clear choices for selects. It would have been better to use the context of these selects to shape the outdoor shoot and photos that would work in series.
The route we’d agreed upon is on high ground (a pinnacle) overlooking the surrounding landscape. In theory, this sounded like a good idea – dramatic backdrop to provide context for the portraits. However, in practice, it proved to be less than ideal for monochrome portraiture; on high ground there was little light and shade and contrast in light to shape monochrome images, particularly as it was an overcast day with cloud spreading light evenly all around. Also, the objectives of creating a portrait and including a distant dramatic landscape within the same shot were a little at odds (which is really the subject?). I would have been better to choose a landscape where the subject could have been part of it, rather than standing above it. Still, it is a valuable lesson that sometimes one has to take care of reaching a balance between no directing and considering the details during the planning of shoots.
During the shoot, I didn’t feel that I was getting great images but didn’t have the experience to step out of the process and consider other possibilities at the time. Now I’ve learned.
On the positive side, Rachel was very pleased with the photo of her dog, Diesel, and chose this to be made into an A3 print by way of a thank you for giving several hours of her life to my photography project!
Rachel came with her own suggestion of doing part of the shoot dressed in everyday clothes without makeup and part dressed in a dinner dress, with makeup; a play on the ‘vice versa’ theme. I liked this suggestion and it also sparked the idea that some of the dressed-up photographs should be taken with controlled lighting with flash for a studio-like effect. This would then give the option of selecting entirely indoor shots while meeting the visa versa brief.
A couple of observations on the process:
I borrowed Rachel’s small step ladders to allow a different point of view for some of the shots – this approach worked well, it allows us to view angles we do not normally see and creates visual interest.
I generally kept conversation down and concentrated on observing Rachel’s changing expressions as she was being watched and photographed. On a couple of occasions I experiment with telling Rachel stories that might amuse her and provoke a response – what is interesting in these photos is that the whole dynamic changes; she is suddenly clearly engaged with the camera and photographer, rather being her reflective self. It was the latter I was aiming for.
Having some experience of flash photography under my belt (during CAN course), I was pleased that I was able to quickly and intuitively set up the lighting and relocate it to various positions in the house with quick re-adjustments. I was a little apprehensive about how this aspect would play out in advance of the shoot, but this experience has made me fully confident (almost anyway).
In total, I shot over 200 photos for the project. Contact sheets of potential photos are attached below (click to open larger images). The star ratings: 1 (a potential from first review of files), 3 (a select from the potentials), 5 (final selects).
A friend of my wife, Rachel, kindly volunteered to be the subject for this assignment, despite not being fond of being photographed. I arranged to visit her at her house to talk about the project and discuss potential locations for the shoot.
It was important to provide a good explanation of what I was looking to do during the project – working with a volunteer, who is not used to, or fond of being photographed was inevitably creating a little apprehension.
I took along Jane Bown’s book, Faces (see here) to explain and illustrate that I was hoping to catch something of Rachel’s personality rather than a staged look, which she perhaps would have expected through experience with family portraits. I think the sharing worked well – the visual is better explained through the visual than with words.
We discussed things that Rachel enjoyed or were important to her to decide upon potential locations. In the end we decided upon the themes of cooking (Rachel has what seems to be a library of cook books!) and walking (with her dog, Diesel). During the discussion, Rachel several time kindly volunteer that it was up to me what we photographed, but I deliberately avoided this direction as I felt it would lead to more of a staged feel. There would be two separate shoots – one outdoors, during a dog walk through a local scenic area; and the other around her house (which has large windows and a conservatory as sources of natural light) with a cooking theme or association. I also would take a flash and shoot-through umbrella along to the indoor shoot for studio-like control. Beyond this general direction, no specific details were fixed for the shots.
The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits. (OCA IAP, p55)
Further text explains that the idea is to take what has worked during part two and develop it further through interchanging the use of portraits taken inside (studio) and those taken outside (location). A series of five themed images is required. ‘There is no right answer, so experiment’.
Initial thoughts, as I reflected on this brief:
‘visa versa’ is one of those Latin phrases that survives in common use, perhaps it concisely expresses a concept with poet phrasing. In modern English the meaning is defined as, with the order changed : with the relations reversed (Merriam-Webster, online); visa versa sounds much more pleasing!
In the context of photography inside (studio) or outside (location), it is not a straightforward concept to interpret. A studio has become a flexible concept as the portability of equipment, including lighting has increased; Irving Penn and his pop-up studios is a good example – a kind of outdoor-indoors. Even outdoors, we can control the light or overpower the sun with the use of ND filters and powerful flash, rendering the background unreadable. Or indoors, we can make use of natural light, even if the term ‘studio lighting’ suggests the use of studio strobes or flashes.
In the run up to this assignment, I’d become interested in the concept of showing something of a person through a portrait and the psychology of the interaction between photographer and subject.
Influences in this respect are Emil Hoppé, who discusses his interactions with his sitters extensively in his autobiography (see here) and Jane Bown, who talks about moving around her sitters, trying to find their photo (see here). Both photographers worked in monochrome, which I feel gives a sculptural feel to portraits as we view line and shape without the distraction of colour. Faces are distilled to their essence. Bown’s work in particular I admire for its visualisation of personality. I would contrast this to the work of Irwin Penn, who produced arresting images but with a staged feeling, echoing his work with fashion photography. This element of stage, doesn’t allow the same intimacy visible in Bown’s work.
My tutor recommended three photographers to consider in preparing for this assignment (see here). They all work in colour with limited colour palettes and I notice that this creates something of an abstract feel; not the pure line, shape and shades of monochrome, but something without the distraction of full-on colour. The effect appears to be achieved partially through the use of colour in objects set up in the frame but also in the colour response in post-processing with certain tones muted. This is an area which I will experiment with in future exercises.
A further aspect of monochrome work is reading light and how it falls on the subject – it is the variations in light and shade that add colour to black and white. Bown relied almost entirely on natural light for her work and the location of light seemed to be the deciding factor in her contextual placement of sitters.
I want to aim to show something of the personality of the subject, through careful interaction during the shoot and avoiding direction or staging as far as possible. Almost like a discussion with a camera, rather than a scripted approach. The ‘vice versa’ objective will be dealt with through a mix of situations: one, where it is difficult to control the context and lighting of the subject (location); and two, where there is more control over the lighting and background or context for the subject.
As a part of the feedback on assignment 1 (see here), I was recommended to look at the work of 3 photographers in preparation for assignment; Joel Sternfeld (1944), Katy Grannan (1969), and Phillip Lorca diCorcia (1951).
I consider three aspects of the photographers’ work:
‘Procurement’ of subjects. An important part of the process of portraiture is finding subjects that are willing to give their time and image to a photographer. The quid pro quo. In Sternfeld’s work StrangerPassing , the approach to the work seems to be described by its title – strangers passing through seemingly random locations, photographed within the context of the moment and engaged with the camera but at a distance (the subjects are aware). The photographs were taken over a period of fourteen years (1987-2001) (Fadedandblurred). In contrast Kern explains diCorcia’s approach; ‘To find subjects for his series Hustlers, Philip-Lorca diCorcia drove around Hollywood between 1990 and 1992 looking for male prostitutes. Although many of the photos look perfectly timed, off-the-hip candid photos of street hustlers, diCorcia pre-selected the locations and did lighting tests with an assistant before searching for a subject to put in each setting’. diCorcia paid his subject the same amount that they would have charged for their trade in sex, with the project funded by a $45,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.
The style of the photographer. Eric Kim quotes Sternfeld as saying, ‘Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world. Color is the real world. The job of the color photographer is to provide some level of abstraction that can take the image out of the daily.’. This is an interesting perspective; Sternfeld’s work contains a limited colour palette, which provides a level of abstraction that is not immediately apparent as it is with black and white photographs. Grannan also works in colour, with a limited pallet; it is this that allows us to focus on the portrait subject without the distraction of noisy colours, which can quick overwhelm a subject and themselves become the focus of our gaze. diCorcia’s colour palette is subtle, with the look a classic chrome film; muted and with warm shadows.
The story or narrative of the works. Sternfeld’s Strangers Passing feature ordinary people, dressed in ordinary clothes, doing ordinary things. They are not photographed close up to reveal the expressions of their faces or hands but put at a distance in the context of their place, with Sternfeld’s large format camera showing details of both people and place. Similarly Katy Grannan uses the everyday in her work, again within the context of their environments, but with a specific message to the work, for example, the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, or teenagers serving time in adult prison facilities; there is an element of photojournalism. diCorcia stages his images and uses lighting artificial lighting in making his images; though they are staged in such away as to make them look not obviously staged.
There is careful attention to the story told by portraits in the work of these photographers, either through staging or careful inclusion of the context of place. Limited colour palettes bring an element of the abstract to the work despite it’s rendering in colour.