Prints of the images are included in the assessment submission pack.
Click on first image for full-sized gallery
This work is an exploration of a community about which I previously knew nothing; the internationally renowned Steeton Male Voice Choir (Steeton MVC). What I discovered was a dedication to and passion for music among men who were not professional musicians but love what they do. There is a spirituality about their rehearsals and it is this that I wanted to reflect something of in my work. The relaxed concentration of men lost in their moment.
Following an initial email request and discussion with the chair of the choir’s committee, the committee agreed that I could attend a number of their rehearsals to take photographs. I attended three of their rehearsals (and post-rehearsal pub stops) – my initial approach and discussions with them are recorded here. No performances were scheduled during my project – it was ‘off-season’.
I found very little in contemporary photographic practice that dealt specifically with choirs and most of the vernacular photographs of choirs by choir members or press photographers deal with capturing the choir in colour as a corporate body, rather than the emotion conveyed through their music; I examined this here. However, I did find inspiration from the study of the Group Portraiture of Holland (see here) and the observations and techniques used to add interest to group portraits and making individuals stand out within the group. Later in my process, I also looked at Klaus Pichler’s Golden day and how he edited to create images with variety, while working within a theme and single location.
I chose to work with monochrome for the series as an echo of the tradition of male voice choirs and a signifier of distance to emphasise their spirituality and other-worldliness as they sang. In selecting the series I considered Alec Soth’s advice (here) on finding an interplay between the images, rather than looking for discrete single selections. I also obtained feedback from peers and the choir itself, which is detailed for an initial cut here, and a second cut, including a colour option here. During the course of the three rehearsals I attended, I worked with and without flash in what were challenging lighting conditions in an old Methodist hall. The photos were shot using a DSLR and the monochrome conversion of RAW files done in Photoshop.
The experience of working with the choir was rewarding and I felt I developed a good relationship with them – in the end politely declining and invitation to attend an audition to join them! The images capture something of the experience of being close to, or perhaps even part of a choir.
Submission to tutor and report
The original submission to my tutor along with introductory, process and concluding text is here.
My tutor’s report and my response is here. Details of the rework are here. I re-edited the images based on my tutor’s feedback and referral to the work of Klaus Pichler – this helped me arrive at a stronger edit with more variety than the initial submission. Editing my own work is not something that I find easy and I’m conscious of the need for more experience and more patience in doing this.
maybe the series could have had a little more diversity of image. Looking through your contacts I think that you may have some stronger shots, shots that also give more of an impression of the men, community and location. (Tutor feedback extract. For complete feedback see here).
My tutor’s comments on the potential for more diversity of image, giving more of an impression of the people and place were spot on. During the edit, I was perhaps subconsciously focusing on consistency of visual content (something I am learning to let go of, but not yet there). The example provided of Klaus Pichler’s work, Golden Days before they End, helped me to reflect upon this. Pichler uses ten images to tell the story of a traditional Austrian bar and the characters frequenting it. The work shows varied activities within the bar – there is only one of someone drinking (the obvious activity for a bar), with the other photos telling us about other things that happen in the bar. The variety makes compelling and varied viewing.
I revisited my edit, including shots not previously included, some suggested by my tutor for consideration (from the small contacts), and I worked to achieve a greater variety and broader narrative. I replaced seven of the original twelve photos in the final edit, which suggests a very different perspective on pulling together the choir series; just because bars are for drinking one shouldn’t focus only on the beer, or the individual portraits one is attracted to. It is how the whole story works that is important!
The final series is included in the submission for assessment here.
Revisit some of the other stronger images in the contacts to explore the possibility of an edit that tells more of a narrative about the community spirit. I will look at this separately and update the final submission if the edit is stronger.
I believe that you should be making a decision over b/w or colour before you shoot a project and not shooting in colour and then converting to b/w at a later stage. I don’t fully understand this comment – with digital RAW it is shot in colour (even if one is thinking in black and white) and of necessity converted to b/w later. I will explore this point through the OCA forum.
I’m familiar with this work and own a facsimile copy of the original book. I reference the work as part of the IAP course in the context of the text and image (see post here). The style of shooting is close-up and intimate and I appreciate how this type of approach would have given a very different feel to my choir shots. It was a deliberate decision to shoot from more of a distance to not disturb the choir practice unduly and also to avoid the men becoming too self-conscious before the camera. However, noted as something to experiment with in future shoots – a range of POVs and approaches.
This work shows the locals in an old-style Austrian bar through a variety of shots. The work is very effective in capturing the atmosphere in the bar and the characters of the customers. It shows what can be done with a variety of POV, while maintaining a consistency in the edit.
Use this opportunity to find out about a community that you don’t know much about and tell their story. Get to know them and talk to them; learn by listening and understanding.
Your aim here is to become an insider … Be clear about your intentions and involve your subjects in the process … What window into this world can you access through your role as photographer?
This work shows the rehearsals of the internationally renowned Steeton Male Voice Choir (Steeton MVC), which are held weekly in a Methodist hall.
Identifying a suitable group to spend time with and photograph with the constraints of my travelling job and home location, presented some interesting challenges, which I discuss this here. I was pleased to obtain the agreement of the choir for the project and detail my initial approach and discussions with them here.
I found very little in contemporary photographic practice that dealt specifically with choirs and most of the vernacular photographs of choirs by choir members or press photographers deal with capturing the choir in colour as a corporate body, rather than the emotion conveyed through their music; I examined this here. However, I did find inspiration from the study of the Group Portraiture of Holland (see here) and the observations and techniques used to add interest to group portraits and making individuals stand out within the group.
Selecting and editing a series of photographs would be an important aspect of this assignment and this aspect has also been an area previously highlighted for me to spend more time on. I completed some general research on this here, and looked specifically at Alec Soth’s advice here. I also obtained feedback from peers and the choir itself, which is detailed for an initial cut here, and a second cut, including a colour option here.
Click to view larger size in gallery
In one way, this work is unfinished as a document of the choir; it shows their rehearsal only and not a performance. However, their first performance of the year is over one month away, when the assignment was already initiated in the last months of 2016. In another way, the work is a document of the hard work that goes in behind the scenes and drawing a line at this point allows me to move on in the context of an OCA level 1 course. I hope to continue working with the choir to photograph a performance and turn this assignment into an ongoing personal project.
It was the range of emotions and concentration of the choir that I found mesmerising, etched on the singers’ faces. I saw this as the visual expression of their wonderful music and their commitment to the choir as a group. I had moments where I needed to remind myself I was there to take photos, not just listen to the music!
To capture the emotions while showing individuals as part of group, much of the most effective framing was of individuals isolated in the context of a group (referencing Group Portraiture of Holland, mentioned in the introduction). I consider that monochrome images better capture the emotional content of the rehearsals, while accepting that colour rendition gives more of a sense of place. It is the emotion of the choir and the music that I considered to be the core of their identity, rather than the place in which they rehearse, and this is my reason for using monochrome. I took over 300 shots and seriously considered around 40 for the final selection (contact sheets here). In editing to arrive at the final selects there were a number of aspects:
A narrative flow from the anticipation at the start of rehearsals or new songs, through the tuned-in performance, to the sense of pleasure in creating music that is great to hear.
Quality of individual images – a number of interesting moments captured were edited out when images were blurred beyond a tolerance that made them inconsistent with other images.
A sense of rhythm in the ordering of images – I considered the placement of landscape and portrait, the number and direction of subjects in the frame (much like musical notes on the page) and the size of the subjects in the frame.
Against the OCA assessment criteria, I conclude:
Demonstration of technical and visual skills (40%) – materials, techniques, observational – skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.
Good observational skills to capture story telling moments in the context of rehearsals and the use of inspiration from Group Portraiture of Holland in composition and the use of chiaroscuro.
Quality of outcome (20%) – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.
I believe the closer attention to the editing process and allowing myself more time to reflect on the photographs has resulted in a stronger final edit than in the previous assignment, showing the emotion of making music in a choir above the simple representation of a choir as a corporate body.
Demonstration of creativity (20%) – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice.
Interaction with a new group of people was an important aspect of this assignment – there was a level of creative thought in succeeding in gaining the engagement of a choir who are well-known in their field and tour internationally. I’m developing a personal voice for expressing human emotions through black and white photography.
Following the useful feedback I received on my previous draft series for this assignment (see here for previous photos and brief explanation of assignment), I’ve put in a few more hours in the virtual editing room.
The purpose of this post is to request and then summarise feedback on two potential series for the assignment submission; one is in colour, following a feedback suggestion, and another is updated in black and white – still my preference as my intention is to show emotional content above visual information.
Please leave any comments in the OCA forum and I will update this post with an anonymised summary. If you are not using the OCA forum, comments on the blog below are also appreciated.
Please note that the jpegs here are not at full resolution.
Series 1 (colour) – click to open larger slideshow.
Series 2 (monochrome) – click to open larger slideshow.
I showed the photos to the choir on an iPad during after rehearsal beers – the monochrome was a clear favourite, with a feeling that it better captured the mood and intensity of the rehearsals. However, the colour version was also enjoyed for its ‘warmth’. The process of talking through the photos, also helped me gain a fresh perspective on the sequencing and content, which I have made some adjustments to in the final submission.
There was some very interesting feedback and discussion on the OCA Discuss forum, particularly around the choice of colour or monochrome and the importance of sequencing. There was no consensus about the colour vs monochrome, but I am mindful that two very experienced contributors strongly favoured colour. However, I have chosen to use monochrome and explained my choice in the final submission.
Below are the draft selects for A3, Windows. The project’s objective was to photograph a group that was not previously known to me (through a ‘window’), gaining their confidence to allow the photographs to appear as if I were an insider of the group. Note that the jpegs are reduced resolution for this purpose.
This post collects feedback from peers in the comments on the sequencing of the series and the photographs included (shared on OCA student website and OCA Level 1 Facebook page).
Click to view as large-size gallery
Summary of feedback
As well as the direct feedback, noted in the comments below, I enjoyed some interaction through the OCA student forum on this version of the selects. I summarise the anonymised suggestions here:
Within the existing series check photos for out of focus background highlights that draw the eye away from the subject.
Don’t be worried about cropping images in further to aid composition – if pixels are lost, lost detail in large prints is made up for in the distance of the viewer from the picture.
Try a completely different edit using colour and a broader range of subjects (eg frames without people at all) – using colour as an aesthetic choice rather than being too concerned about the accuracy of colour in this context.
Based on this feedback, I will experiment with an alternative series and offer that for critique.
As part of the process for assignment 3, I am keeping a journal of my meetings with the Steeton MVC. I hope that when it comes to editing the final images, the journal will help support the selection process.
22.12.16 – The Airedale Heifer, Keighley
My first meeting with the choir, who were fund-raising for a local cancer charity – a group of 20 members were performing. Notes:
An entertaining and lively evening of Christmas songs and stories. The landlady and customers I spoke with all commented on how impressed they were by the choir.
Met my main contact, Ian McDonald, at the break. Very welcoming and we had a short chat about the choir and photography. Ian talked about some of the challenges of maintaining choir numbers in general and the struggle to survive that some other choirs were facing. Rehearsals proper would restart on 16.1.17.
Chatted to a couple of other members at the break (two of the 1st tenors – who I joked were like gold-dust in choirs); I explained that I’d be working with them on the photo project (they were aware of it and enthusiastic) and I asked them about the choir; mentioned that they were currently recruiting for a new MD (musical director), which is a significant event as there have only been a handful in the choir’s 100 year history.
Joined in with the choir when they asked for male volunteers from the pub – it was great to experience standing in the middle of them. Somehow reminded me of being part of a sports team. At the same time, a little nerve-racking for someone without a great voice.
Took some photos during the second half of the performance. It apparently wasn’t yet known by all members that I’d be working with them, as some were checking that I wasn’t from the Press and would just be using the photos for my own purposes. However, it was easily explained and I was welcomed as their ‘resident photographer’.
16.1.17 – Rehearsal at Steeton Methodist Hall
My first meeting with the full choir – I was introduced and made to feel welcome. Rehearsals last two hours, so there is plenty of time for photography!
I decided to shoot without flash light on the first meeting as I didn’t want to be too intrusive during the rehearsal and would bring up the question of using flash for the following week’s meeting.
The room was crowded with little space for moving among the seated choir and there were problems with the lighting in the hall – a couple of lights were out and one large fluorescent tube was flicking on and off. My intention was to shoot at a distance from choir members this week, using a Fujinon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 (with OIS). However, the lens struggled in the poor light so I swapped to an old Nikkor 135mm f/2.8, using it manually with my Fuji X-T1.
I spent as much time watching and listening to the choir as photographing. The wall of sound created by around 100 well-trained voices was magnificent and the quiet songs moving. The emotions and concentration written on the faces of the men while they sang was captivating. This is what it means to be in a choir and why many have been members for over 20 years.
At the end of the session, I asked about using flash light the next week as a was concerned about it distracting from the rehearsal. However, the choir was not in the least concerned. And then, we visited the pub and I had the chance to talk a little more to some of the choir about what I was doing and about the choir.
23.1.17 – Rehearsal at Steeton Methodist Hall
This week, I was equipped with a single flash (with a diffuser), wireless transmitter and a light stand for the flash – there would be little room for much else in the crowded space and I wanted to be able easily to move around the choir along with the light. I wanted to focus mainly on portraits of individuals or small groups to capture the emotion of the choir in my photos. Therefore, I worked with a Fujinon 60mm f/2.4 and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4. I found the Fujinon to bright enough along with the flash, so ended up mostly using that with back-button focus combined with manual tweaking.
The lighting in the rehearsal hall had been fixed from the previous week – it was all together a brighter place. It would have made my flash-less photography in the previous week much easier!
Throughout the session, I moved between the different sections of the choir – using breaks between songs to move my light stand around and photograph different sections of the choir. There were practical constraints on fitting the light stand in gaps between seats and I had no intention of asking people to move around in the middle of their rehearsal (especially as the various voices are grouped)!
The flash was used manually throughout and set at a zoom level and brightness that worked at a distance of 2-3 meters from the subject. Any adjustments to light levels during the session were made by stopping down the lens’s aperture.
No visit to the pub this week as I had an early start for the airport the next morning.
Review of shots
Over the weekend of 28 January, I post-processed my photos and began the process of editing and seeking peer feedback. This is detailed in separate posts.
My feeling is that I have enough for the purposes of my OCA project, and it is time to move on towards the next assignment. However, I intend to continue photographing the choir as a personal project and to provide them with some images for their own publicity. It would be good to do some colour work when they are dressed smartly for a performance, rather than casually for rehearsal.
In preparation for A3, in which I will photograph Steeton Male Voice Choir (SMVC), I explored photography of male voice choirs.
A search on Google uncovers many archives from groups of MVCs, with the screen shot below typical of the photographs taken:
The images are typically concerned with posed choirs, as a record of who was in the choir or of its events; often at just sufficient distance to fit the whole choir in the frame as a documentary record.
This approach results in images that are largely similar between choirs and that are not often visually interesting; front-facing rows of people, all looking towards the camera, too distant to see emotions, too near to see the context, with a consistent uniformity. The need to capture the whole of the large group seems to preclude other approaches.
Dean Powell’s compilation of over 200 images covering the history of the Treorchy Male Choir mostly reflects a similar approach to photography as found in the online archives. However, there are some notable exceptions in the book: when the frame is closed in on a few choir members mid-song and we can see the emotion and the various directions of their gazes; where the choir is shown on a hillside, with the mine-town in the valley below; where it is marching through a Swiss town while singing; where a conductor is shown with baton in motion, gazed focused on the score.
Contemporary photographer Alicia Bruce’s work is featured on the BBC website, she explains her approach to photographing individual portraits of members of the Blaenavon Male Voice Choir:
They walked round the Workmen’s Hall singing as I photographed each member individually holding their favourite sheet of music.
Bruce’s images as a series give a sense of the choir as whole, but primarily act as portraits of individual members, joined as a group through a common uniform and the motif of a musical score held in hand.
Male Voice Choirs are rooted in a long tradition, which is respected by the choirs in their smart uniforms and in their organisation. The photography of the choirs also appears reflect the traditional. Too me, it does not quite capture the power and passion of experiencing a choir singing; the sound wraps around and effects us, but the images are distant.
During my initial preparation (see here), I identified Steeton Male Voice Choir as a community I’d like to work with (music is something important to me) and a community that meets sufficiently frequently to make the assignment achievable within a reasonable timeframe. This post provides some background on the group and details my initial approach to them.
The strap line on their website is Steeton Male Voice Choir – a hundred years of harmony, a century of song. Very catchy and reflecting their impressive centenary in 2008. The website is an excellent source of information on the choir, explaining its history, activities, how to join and list of officers. It gives the impression of a very well organised community. It sums up what the choir are about very well:
The choir is in great demand, performing about 25 times a year in venues ranging from tiny chapels and churches to magnificent cathedrals, concert halls and arenas. The choir has contributed to massed male voice choir events in the Royal Albert Hall, The National Stadium of Wales in Cardiff and the Manchester Evening News Arena, the Sheffield Arena and St George’s Hall, Bradford. Small groups from the choir also go to entertain residents in Nursing Homes and Sheltered Housing complexes. In addition to its many concerts around Britain, has travelled to the continent on a number of occasions to sing in various places in Germany, Holland and Belgium receiving tremendous applause and making many new friends there. (SMVC website)
The group has a Youtube channel sharing some of its performances (linked below). This gives a good view of how they sound and look, though I’m sure the quality of recording does not do justice to the reality. They present a refined, disciplined image. One initial visual thought is that their red blazers dominate their images – because of the intensity of colour one is drawn to the blazers above the faces and personalities of the men of the choir. A black and white treatment (also reflecting the historical roots of the choir) could be an option. See the powerful image below:
Anne Powell’s book, Treorchy Male Choir (Archive Photographs: Images of Wales), looks to be a useful visual reference, so I’ve ordered a used copy and will consider it in some detail.
My initial approach to the choir was by email, including a musical visual sign off (see pdf here). After an initial response saying that they would most likely be interested but would need to discuss in their committee, I was delighted to receive positive confirmation a few days later, including and invitation to the choir’s scaled-down pre-Christmas performance in a local pub. The choir does not then meet again for rehearsals until 17th January; there are two hours of practice every Monday, followed by ‘refreshment of their vocal chords in a local pub’.
I am absolutely thrilled that the assignment has taken this direction after what was a disappointing inception!