Ex 4.2 – same background, different model

The requirement for this exercise is to make portraits of three different subjects, keeping the background to the image consistent. Three images are to presented together as a series along with a 500 words reflection.

For sometime, I’d intended to complete this exercise using street portraits in my nearest local town, Skipton. I noticed during assignment 1, shot in the night markets of Bangkok, that a busy location makes it easier to engage with people. There is no need to close the distance between you and them before engaging. One is already in proximity. I wanted to experience the different feeling from crossing the path to approach a stranger, with a request for a photograph, offering nothing in return. No reciprocity. A very different scenario to Irving Penn, who paid strangers to sit for him – admittedly often exotic individuals on the margins of the mainstream.

The weekend prior to the shoot, I scouted the town for interesting backdrops with a reasonable footfall. My choice was a traditional red telephone box outside the town hall. An interesting piece of history that perhaps would not be in place for too much longer. The idea was to have people stand back-to-box and look sideways towards the camera. However, on the day the location did not work out. The area was in deep shade due to the position of the sun and overhead clouds – I was not prepared with flash, nor had I considered the timing of the shoot and light in advance. A couple of lessons learned before I even started shooting!

Plan B was an impromptu hunt for light and an alternative spot. I settled on a backdrop of a dark alley way. As Penn did in some of his photos, I would anonymise the background while using natural light.

The photos (click to view full screen)

Skipton Alley #1, Oct 16
Skipton Alley #1, Oct 16
Skipton alley #2, Oct 16
Skipton alley #2, Oct 16
Skipton Alley #3, Oct 16
Skipton Alley #3, Oct 16

In total, I took around 10 photos and the rate of being rejected by people I approached was about 50%. As expected, this was a more difficult location than a crowded space. There was the anxiety of whether a potential subject would accept or decline as the space was crossed towards them.

The camera used was a Fuji X-T1 with a 35mm f/1.4 lens (50mm efl). The exercise would have been more straight forward with a zoom lens – rather than shuffling back and forward for framing, but I wanted to ensure a consistent angle of view with a prime lens.

With the X-T1’s electronic view finder (set to preview the exposure) it is sometimes tricky to see shadow areas clearly; it would have been better to deactivate the exposure preview to allow a clear view of the details of subject being framed – I do this for indoor and low-light work and because the subjects were standing against shadow, I should have also done it here.

In terms of future process, I will ensure I have cards available with contact information so that the subjects contact me for a digital copy of the photos (this would make me feel more comfortable!). I intent to repeat a similar exercise to refine my process and gain more confidence in this kind of scenario.

Exercise 2.3 – same model, different background

The objective of this exercise was to first consider the work of Harry Callahan and Julian Germain, then select a subject for a series of five portraits, varying the locations and backgrounds. The work of Callahan and Germain is considered here.

Like Callahan, I chose my wife as a subject, but unlike Callahan the photos were taken during the course of 1 day, not 5 years. I was inspired by Callahan’s approach to making art from family photos – working with them as subjects in this way allows us to combine photography with family life. The other benefit of working with my wife was obtaining quality feedback on how she found the experience and the opportunity to  to refine my approach in further exercises.

The locations were were not planned in advance and followed a day as it unfolded. I decided in advance the type of photos I would like to make; up-close, in a neutral square format with some sense of abstract pattern / form, rather than traditional portrait. I’d also been inspired to experiment with the square format by a recent visit to a Vivien Maier exhibition (see here).

I took over 100 photographs during the course of the day, covering activities from sleeping and showering to eating and drinking. All were taken with a Fuji X100T with its fixed 23mm (35mm efl) lens, with the intention of using the black and white film simulation (red filter) jpgs for the exercise (though RAW was also captured as a backstop). Post processing (of jpgs) was done in Lightroom – the images were softened (reducing clarity and using curves to remove blacks), a warm shadow tone and grain was added; all to add to the sense of abstraction.

The photos

My wife is a reluctant photo subject, but was very cooperative during the day. Her feedback was that she found it difficult not to look at me / talk to me when I was taking the pictures (I’d asked her not to look at the camera or engage with me); at points she felt like she was being stalked (some photos were taken from behind while walking); and on some occasions, when I’d asked her to hold position, it felt unnatural, not in a normal position of relaxation.

From my own perspective, the exercise presented a number of challenges:

  • Reaching a level of not being too intrusive to get the shots, both to keep the subject onside and to ensure the shots appeared authentic.
  • Maintaining a consistency of framing throughout the day; I was aiming for closely framed shots and at various points there was a temptation to work with more distant shots. Within the short timeframe of this exercise, I think that would have created difficulties when it came to editing later. However, for a longer-term project, featuring a larger number of photos, I think more flexibility would have also worked.
  • A slight discomfort at intruding on the same subject for a sustained period. It was only slight as I spend a great deal of time with my wife in any case. However, this made me mindful of how the experience could be with a subject I do not know so well; a series of shorter shoots might well be a sensible approach!

Project 2 – the aware

This post considers the work of two photographers working with ‘the aware’, so subjects that are aware that they are being photographed, in contrast to ‘the unaware’ considered here. The two photographers are Harry Callahan and Julian Germain, with both works involving long-term, personal projects.

Harry Callahan (1912–99). Lens Culture says of Callahan’s work, ‘It’s impossible to imagine Callahan without Eleanor, his wife. He photographed her repeatedly, indoors and out, nude and clothed, over about 15 years. These images, whose true subject is married love, rank among the most moving photographs ever made.’ It is the photographs of Eleanor that are considered in the context of ‘the aware’. MoMA shares a generous collection of Callahan’s photos online.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 19.36.23
source: moma.com

Most of the photos of Eleanor shown do not reveal her face, or she is placed in the distance so her features cannot be perceived. They are all shot in black and white. The awareness of the subject is implied as the photos are carefully composed or in private locations. In ASX’s extensive interview with Callahan, he is asked why he started to photograph his wife; he explains that it was after the birth of their daughter, saying ‘So it was a very exciting thing. I thought that I would really like to photograph her and I photographed them both. I photographed them an awful lot, for about five years. But I didn’t get very many good pictures. I got a few…’

Callahan who, as a young photographer, enjoyed both Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz as mentors, and had a long career as an academic reflects on quality in photography:

“The difference between the casual impression and the intensified image is about as great as that separating the average business letter from a poem,” said Harry Callahan in 1964. “If you choose your subject selectively — intuitively — the camera can write poetry.” (quoted in Lensculture)

Julian Germain‘s (b 1962) 8 year project focuses on Charles Snelling, who was an inspiration to Germain  for how life can be lived.

source: juliangermain.com
source: juliangermain.com

The text accompanying the project on Germain’s website includes the following quote, which reflects Snelling’s way of living:

‘For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness’ is a template model for what critical engagement should try to achieve in our day and age: forget the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and provide examples of people who operate in a different forcefield…’

They are photos of Snelling’s everyday life, in subdued colour tones. The project also includes photos of Snelling’s own photo albums, mixing found photos with the artist’s photos in the book of the project. In the interview with Photo-eye, Germain’s intention is explained:

His visits with Snelling were initiated more out of companionship than photographic goals. “Photography was undoubtedly part of it because I always took my camera,” Germain says, “but it was a relatively small part with no end product in mind, no deadline and no pressure to ‘succeed’.”

What happens behind the lens, in the photographers’ minds, is important to appreciating these two works. Both photographers explain that they respond intuitively to what they see, implying that there is no pre-determined intention. The projects are put together as an afterward to the photography. This is somewhat different to the discipline of ‘intention’ frequently referred to in the OCA’s level 1 course.

Above all both works are a response to subjects that move the photographers personally; one a wife, and the other a wise old man.


Art Institute Chicago [website]. Callahan, Harry. Available from: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/artist/Callahan,+Harry [accessed 30.8.16]

ASX [website]. Harry M. Callahan Interviewed on February 13, 1975. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/12/theory-harry-m-callahan-interview-feb.html [accessed 30.8.16]

Julian Germain [website]. For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness, 2005. Available from: http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php [accessed 30.8.16]

Lensculture [website]. Harry Callahan:
The Photographer at Work. Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/harry-callahan-harry-callahan-the-photographer-at-work#slide-1 [accessed 30.8.16]

MoMA [website]. Harry Callahan. Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/924 [accessed 30.8.16]

Photo Eye [website]. For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Available from: http://www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2012/03_12_For_Every_Minute_You_Are_Angry_You_Lose_Sixty_Seconds_of_Happiness.cfm [accessed 30.8.16]


Exercise 2.2 – Covert

The purpose of this exercise was to shoot a series of five portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed, having examined other practitioners working with covert images. My study of other photographers on ‘the unaware’ is posted here. There is a strong psychological aspect at work for the photographer in this type of work – the fear of being caught-out, taking something without permission, with the potential for confrontation. This addresses our inherent territorial instincts, so it is something that the majority of people will feel nervous about to some extent. There is something predatory in the behaviour; which explains why personalities like Bruce Gilden feel comfortable, or even enjoy this approach to photography.

I chose to shoot two separate sets of photos using different approaches to record different experiences. Set 1) is similar in psychological approach to Martin Parr’s Japonais Endormis in that the subjects could not be aware that they were being photographed since I was photographing from a balcony above a street out of their line of sight; only one person looked up during the 200 plus shots I took. Set 2) is more akin to Walker Evans’s approach transported to a modern-day environment; cameras are pervasive so there was no need to hide the tool (in itself, it no longer attracts attention), so I simply held the camera to my chest with a wide-angle lens and chose the moment to fire the shutter.

The technical approach to both sets was similar. I used a Fuji X100T, which is relatively small and unobtrusive; because of its retro appearance many people just assume it is an old camera and take little notice of it – no risk of inducing visions paparazzi in subjects as there might be with a DSLR. For both sets the camera was used in full manual mode – with reasonably constant light conditions, exposure was set to optimise depth of field (middling for set 1) and high for set 2)); focus was set to manual (on a point for set 1) and to hyper-focal for set 2)). This both speed the response time of the camera and allows me to focus only on releasing the shutter at the chosen moment.

Set 1

This is a spy-like or CCTV approach with no interaction with the subjects whatsoever. It focuses on people passing through the same square of ground. As anticipated, I did not find this approach appealed to my relatively gregarious personality. What was of some interest were the patterns of life in the small square of ground – mostly drab clothes that blended with the paving stones, with few people standing out; the care to avoid bumps with others; the various body-shapes speeds of movement. The distance allows perception of general types, without the distraction of details of individualism.

Set 2

I enjoyed this set much more – observing people close-up and a buzz from the element of risk involved. Though taking the images covertly, without engagement is again something that does not appeal to me. I prefer a candid but open approach, to make a connection with my subjects.

Putting aside personal preferences for engaging with subjects, it is clear that covert photography serves the purpose of observing behaviour that is not posed for the camera. Not necessarily unposed behaviour as it is clear that there is some social posturing within groups of individuals; I was particularly taken by the gazes in the last shot!

Exercise 2.1 Individual spaces

‘The objective [of this exercise] is to try to create a link between the two components of your image, i.e. the subject and their surroundings.’ I found the wording for the requirements of this exercise a little confusing; was it 3 different portraits of 3 different individuals in different locations (making 9 portraits in total), or 3 portraits of 3 individuals, each in a different location (making 3 portraits in total)?  In the end, for the purpose of the exercise, I used two different individuals in 3 different locations each (making a total of 6 portraits).

Subject A

A has a dislike of being photographed. Three main context in which she expresses her identity are through social events (for example eating out with friends), horse riding, and her work as a businesswoman.

In image 1, I took her aside from the group in the restaurant and photographed her sitting alone. While the context shown is a restaurant, it does not feature the social context (the other people). In retrospect, this could have been more successful showing A as part of a group in a restaurant, but with the camera focused on her.

For image 2, I opted for a photograph showing movement with and on the horse, rather than a static photo of horse and rider. This speaks to the exhilaration of horse riding as a sporting activity, rather than the love of horses, which I feel would have been the reading of a static portrait.

For image 3, I opted for a corporate-style headshot. It is the style of the image that provides the context (a non-space). In retrospect, the gaze should have been different for this type of image; perhaps looking into the camera with authority would have achieved a better effect.

Coherence within the series is assisted by a similar post-processing treatment as well as the subject being the same person throughout.

Subject B

Subject B does not mind being photographed and is interested in the photographic process. Locations that are important for him are the kitchen (both for eating and enjoyment of cooking), the games room (for X-box), and the football area.

The series was taken after series 1 and I had a chance to put into practice a few lessons learned. I’d been using a wide angle lens (35mm equivalent) to capture the context within the images but had not taken full advantage of the optical qualities of the focal length by including a foreground element close to the lens. I’d just read a book by Jane Bown on portraiture (review in separate post) and was inspired to focus simply on the quality of available light and capturing images with a minimum of fuss (important for a young subject, or an important time-constrained subject alike).

I believe the series featuring subject B is more success than that of subject A. This is partly because subject B was more cooperative and willing to engage in the process, and partly because I don’t yet have the experience to photograph reluctant subjects well. That makes it important to me to return to photograph subject A and attempt to make an improved portrait and develop a strategy for dealing with reluctant sitters!