Reflection point: absence and signs of life

IAP, p94 discusses with work of William Eggleston and John Szarkowski’s introduction to Eggleston’s work in the catalogue accompanying a 1976 MOMA show. In essence, the point made is that it is not the photographed things that are the works of art, but the photographs of the things transformed through the view of the photographer and camera. They become fictionalised in an alternative space, ‘one balanced loosely between recognition and art’.

We are asked to reflect upon:

  • Where does that leave the photographer? As storyteller or history writer?

It is sometimes difficult for us to tell the difference between stories and histories – the political and cultural forces shaping the presentation of history can distort it to the point of becoming a story-like. So, I would generally treat ‘history’ with some care, but do not doubt that there are some histories that do their best to present an impartial and balanced view of past events. However, there must always be a selective view or frame from reality – it is not possible or desirable to consider every aspect when making a history; we would never be done writing or reading. So, in some ways it is similar to a photograph being a slice from time and space selected by the photographer as a visual author. I therefore think that perhaps photographers are a little of both storytellers and history writers – moving along a continuum depending on the work, but never purely one thing or the other.

  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?

I tend toward fiction with my photography. I’m not so much interested in documenting things as they are but creating a story or an emotional response based on my subjective reading of an objective. I work in a day-job that is supposedly strictly concerned with facts and my photography provides a release from that.

  • How could you blend your approach?

My approach is already largely blended, representing objects and people as parts of narratives they are not intentionally telling – an oak tree representing the story told in the letter of a survivor – a real place representing a fictional place, based loosely on a different real place. Truth is used as a point of departure into a world of fictional narrative that touches reality at some points.

  • Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?

I feel no want or need to depict reality, but to show my interpretation of a person, object or place. Being a photograph, it will have an indexical relationship to reality, but it is not the same thing. Often there is a fictional narrative pieced together from tiny disjointed fragments of time / space. Not reality.

Lightroom for online photo books (flip books)

I invested considerable time in working out how to present a photo book on this blog, without paying for a third-party flip book  service, which seem to come in at around $15 per month. Here are notes for future reference, or any one else who might find them of use.

Lightroom book module

  • This is geared up for printing paper books, either through a connected online service (Blurb) or by generating jpgs or pdfs (perhaps for proof of concept only) to be sent to printers. To make it work for online flipbooks, a different approach needs to be used:
    • Cover page (front and back) – LR generates as a wrap-around, so it is of no use for a digital book – set up book without cover page.
    • As we will work with no cover page, there is a need to insert a blank page before any inside cover text (automatically created when cover pages are used) so that the page spreads are kept intact.
    • When exporting to jpg files for online use, LR will export a single image whether a double page spread or a single page spread is used. LR’s double-page spreads therefore display small, in the space of a single page. Do not use double-page spreads for online flip-book preparation.
    • For the front and back cover, set up a normal page spread, using one page for the front cover and the other for the back. These will then print as separate jpgs to be inserted at the beginning and the end of the flipbook.

In WordPress (org) – plugins

Various plug-ins are available. On this site I use Photo Book Gallery, with free features that are sufficient for simple flipbooks and with a degree of control over its configuration in the settings panel. The only thing I needed to adjust was the book sizing so it was in a consistent dimension to the size of the jpg files being used.

A big upside of this approach is that the flipbook uses jpgs uploaded to the WordPress media library, so the images can be reused elsewhere in posts related to the same project.

My first flip-book was made for the first edit of assignment 4, here.

OCA study visit – Les Monaghan’s Aspirations

Source: www.aspirationsdoncaster.blogspot.co.uk by Les Monaghan

Les Monaghan, a practicing photographer and OCA tutor hosted an OCA study visit covering his own work Aspirations (Stockport Gallery, 11.2.17). I was lucky to enjoy what turned out to be a four hour discussion of Monaghan’s work, his aspirations and the practicalities of obtaining funding for projects.

Monaghan is passionate about his subject matter; he is a photographer with a cause. The theme of his work could be described as the social inequalities and limited life opportunities experienced in the relatively poor areas of the UK, including his home town, Doncaster. I’m not sure whether he would describe himself as a humanist photographer, but his practice seems very much concerned with giving a voice to his subjects, with their collaboration and permission. There is a real sense of ‘being on the inside’ in the work; in the community, of the community, for the community.

What I found striking about the way Monaghan talked about his work was the way his subjects and their social and environmental conditions dominated the air-time; photography seemed to be purely a means of record, with visual aesthetics not a significant factor. At one point it was mentioned that sociologists might be interested in the work, but considered photography insufficiently objective to be useful.

I reflected on this afterwards and wondered if photography on its own, with its flexible meaning, can ever be an adequate vehicle to do justice to serious social issues. Perhaps, this type of work might be more effective as joint project or at least with the input of a sociologist / concerned writer, which might give it broader traction. But that would of course create an addition set of challenges around the collaboration process.

Reference

Aspirations Doncaster [blog]. Available from: http://aspirationsdoncaster.blogspot.co.uk [accessed 8.3.17]

The Art of Printing Workshop with Mark Wood

Source: Wilkinson.co.uk, by Mark Wood

To satisfy my continuing interest in the technical aspects of photography, so I can make an informed choice of what to bring to my work and what to discard, I recently attended a day-long printing workshop. It was run by Mark Wood (who has some impressive credentials) and hosted by Wilkinson Cameras in their Liverpool training suite.

I feel I make reasonable prints, but you never know what you don’t know until you know – my main motivation for attending the workshop, which covered:

  • The Theory & Practice Of Colour Management
  • Setting System and Application Colour Preferences
  • Calibrating Monitors and Printers
  • Exploring the qualities and requirements for a great print
  • Soft-proofing and Printing for inkjet printers and photo-labs
  • Benchmarking Colour Management

I learned more than I expected, and note here a few points that will be introduced to my practice:

  1. I’ve never used Photoshop for printing – Wood demonstrated how much more control over prints there is in PS above LR – for example in the more realistic rendering of the soft proofing it generates.
  2. I learned the differences between rendering intents: – Perceptual rendering retains colour relationships ie good for portraits, Relative – just brings out-of -gamut colours into line. I can now used this in an informed way.
  3. We explored the use of colour spaces and why Pro RGB is standard in LR and preferred for master copies of images; the most detail / information is retained for future use – even if current screen technologies cannot use the information, future ones may be able to do so.
  4. Screen calibration was discussed at length and how anything other than a reference monitor (showing full Adobe RGB colour) was going to be a compromise on quality – no guarantee that you will be seeing what others with properly calibrated reference monitors are seeing when viewing your work. But, the technology, would most likely do a reasonable job in rendering. Also, with a reference monitor more reliable soft-proofing of prints is possible.
  5. Wood recommended testing accuracy of calibration by printing an sRGB image, letting the printer manage the colours, before moving on to paper specific printer-profiles. Is the printed image close to the on-screen soft-proof? If not calibration needs to be revisited before continuing.
  6. Another suggestion was to obtain a colour reference print and compare that to your own print of the jpg file of the reference print (I found that Marrutt.com provide a print free of charge!).
  7. Wood showed some powerful examples of how the human visual system reacts to colours and even can create phantom colours – to emphasise that despite all the efforts made during the printing process, the context in which a print is displayed can undo the effort.

Reference

Adobe [website]. Print with color management. Available from: https://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/using/printing-color-management-photoshop1.html [accessed 8.3.17]

Mark Wood Photography [website]. Available from: http://www.markwoodphotography.com/index.html [accessed 8.3.17]

Wilkinson Cameras [website]. Advert for workshop – printing master class. Available from: http://www.wilkinson.co.uk/printing-masterclass/ [accessed 7.3.17]

 

iPad portfolio

I’d used my iPad to show some photos to members of the choir who were the subject of my previous assignment, using Lightroom mobile. This was okay for the purpose but not really suitable for an iPad portfolio showing –  not a clean presentation with the LR edit functionality visible.

Screen grab from Foliobook on iPad, by Andrew Fitzgibbon

I looked for other options suitable for a iPad portfolio presentation (so I am prepared for any potential projects) and found it surprisingly not straightforward, with the obvious apps being flawed:

  • Photos, offers no possibility of manual sorting the order of photographs
  • Behance (an Adobe offering), while well integrated with LR, bizarrely shows the clock, wireless status and battery status of the iPad when in portfolio view.

After some online research, I selected Foliobook (http://www.rocketgardenlabs.com) as a reasonably straightforward but customisable solution with Dropbox integration and syncing for updates to the portfolio content.

A neat solution for creating a bespoke first page, is to an create image and text composite in Photoshop (using a new page with iPad dimensions) and then in-app add transparent buttons over the text to go to the portfolio pages (eg the footer on the image shown on the image in this post).

Saving the Photoshop composite as a PSD file also makes it easy to update with a fresh image or add additional text at a later date. A good solution for a £10 app!

Pictures on a Page – Harold Evans

I was pointed towards Harold Evans’s Pictures on a Page during a discussion, which touch upon editing, on the OCA discuss forum. The context of the book is news papers and photojournalism, but it contains a wealth of advice relevant to all photographers.

iPhone shot of book page

The 1978 book is biased towards black and white photography (it was the newspaper format of the time),
but Evans offers an interesting quote in support of black and white:

you may get closer to reality with colour but the closer you get the more obvious it becomes that it is a picture not the real thing (Evans, p13)

But this is a small detail. The book includes over 500 photographs and is informed by interviews with famous photographers. Evans illustrates his advice and opinions with examples of photographs. It includes 16 chapters, covering topics from selection, composition, sequencing, editing, cropping and words with pictures. I found it an enormously useful and interesting read.

Points for own practice
  1. Evan’s discusses at length ‘three tests for selection’, dismissing the idea of pure intuition. The qualities he looks for are: animation, relevant context, and depth of meaning. How he looks for these qualities is examined in detail in the book, along with example photographs. These qualities are a strong framework, within which to apply intuition when editing.
  2. Chapter 10 discusses picture editing (Evans, p185) – ‘the photograph, once selected, has to be edited for size shape and story content … it is a pity that the neglect of judicious picture editing is being encourage by vague ideas that there is something vulgar about cropping’. Evans then discusses contrasting views, including those of Cartier-Bresson (anti-crop) and Bill Brandt (pro-crop). I had previously been convinced that cropping was generally to be avoided, but Evans convinced me this approach has little merit. A change in practice towards cropping and shaping represents a huge difference in personal practice; including revisiting edits of early photographs.
References

Evans H (1978). Pictures on a Page. London, William Heinemann Ltd.

Aspect ratios in photography & compositional theory

Part of the feedback I received when I put my assignment 3 draft up for discussion on the OCA critique format was a comment on the aspect ratio; I’d used the standard 3:2 that comes out of my Fuji X-T1 (or any 35mm inspired sensor). The suggestion was made that 5:4 looks better and the student mentioned that he crops all of his photos to this aspect ration. I’ve used square format on a few occasions as a square is an obviously a different container to a rectangle, but had not thought of cropping to a different rectangular dimension. Strangely, I tried the 5:4 crop and liked the look of it better. This got me thinking.

Source: petapixel.com by Ming Thein

Different sensors or film formats determine the native aspect ratio of the digital or film image, as Gibson explains in his online article. He also explains what he calls ‘the 35mm problem’, which is 3:2 works well in landscape orientation but can look too tall and narrow in portrait. So the longer rectangles make it difficult to fill the frame effectively and hinder composition. Several articles (various, photocomposition) discuss the ‘golden ratio’ (3:2 is an approximation to this), including studies that show this is often a naturally occurring ratio and attractive to humans – this is supported by anecdotal and historical evidence of the ratio’s use; why have we continued to use it if we don’t find it attractive? It is also thought to approximate the eye’s natural binocular field of vision (Thein M), so it is comfortable for us to view in one glance. So if you flip 3:2 vertically, to maintain the same horizontal aspect it would need to be 4.5:3 (or 5:3.3 if you want a comparison to 5:4). This is the 35mm problem – portrait viewing does not fit with our native human aspect ratio.

Most people will stick to the aspect ratio that is native to the camera, and either do nothing else, or crop to fit later. This is compositionally very, very sloppy – not only do you not get the best frame for the shape of your subject, there’s a very good chance that you probably won’t be able to fill the frame properly, either; 3:2 is a bit of a compromise aspect ratio that lacks the organic intimacy of 5:4 or 4:3 for portraits, or the drama of 16:9 for more expansive scenes. (Thein M)

I am self-confirmed ‘compositionally very, very sloppy’ – focused on maintaining available pixels for printing at expense of composition. But the times are changing. However, there is plenty of ‘purist’ thought in the photography world to discourage cropping – the same writer has a blog post entitled, ‘why cropping is bad’. Though, he does explain reasons and why he considers aspect ratio to be an exception, providing the shot is made with the aspect ratio in mind.

Now, I am going to work and experiment with different aspect ratios, but I cannot imagine how to envision the final aspect ratio in camera, while shooting 3:2 through my view finder (advice welcome!) and I wonder about series of photos – I’m not sure that a series containing various aspect ratios would be accepted; mixing portrait and landscape in the same aspect ratio seems to already cause controversy amongst photographers.

References

Gibson A (2011). The Art of Using Aspect Ratios in Digital Photography. Tutsplus [website]. Available from: https://photography.tutsplus.com/articles/the-art-of-using-aspect-ratios-in-digital-photography–photo-7947 [accessed 1.2.17]

Thein M (2012). Introduction to aspect ratios and compositional theory. Petapixel [website]. Available from: https://petapixel.com/2012/12/26/an-introduction-to-aspect-ratios-and-compositional-theory/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Thein M [Blog]. Why cropping is bad (January 21, 2013). Available from: https://blog.mingthein.com/2013/01/21/why-cropping-is-bad/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Various (nd). Photocomposition Articles. Photoinf [website]. Available from: http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Yorkshire Dales Grid Project

Introduction

Early in 2016, I joined a collaborative project to photograph the Yorkshire Dales National Park, using a grid-based approach. The project is the brain-child of Tom Marsh of Yorkshire Photowalks and detailed information is provided on his website, linked below. Over the Christmas break, I took the last of my shots for the project.

The project is thought to be one of the largest in the world, with projects elsewhere focused on smaller urban areas. The Dales grid project covers 134 sixteen square kilometre areas, with photographs at each of the 16 OS map grid intersects within each area. One of the early grid projects was in Portland USA, started in 1995 by Christopher Rauschenberg, dividing Portland into 98 squares. That project has continued to the present day, with new photographs showing the changes in places over time. In the UK cities with grid projects include Bradford and in Birmingham.

Aiming to photograph from points where OS map grids cross in the open countryside presented some challenges – some required long walks to reach and pin-pointing locations on open moorland is tricky! In the end, I used the ViewRanger iPhone app to guide me to the spots, which saved time compared with fumbling with a map and compass. I the process, I discovered some wonderful less often visited spots in the National Park and got some good exercise.

The photographs

Click to view larger images.

Conclusion

I initially found the constraint of having to photograph from specific points on the map limiting – it always seemed that there was a better spot 10 or so meters on! However, I came to enjoy the limitation and process of looking closely at what I could see around me, perhaps taking photos that I may not of otherwise even considered worth taking. It became a lesson in the discipline of looking.

I must now wait to see if any of my work is selected for the exhibition planned in the summer of 2017, to be hosted at the National Park’s new HQ.

References

Bradford Grid Project [website]. Available from: http://www.bradfordgrid.co.uk/intro.html [accessed ]

The Grid Project [website]. Available from: http://www.birmingham-photographic-grid.org.uk [accessed ]

Portland Grid Project [website]. Available from: http://portlandgridproject.com/content/about [accessed 3.7.16]

Available from: http://yorkshirephotowalks.com/gridproject/index.html [accessed 30.12.16]

The Group Portraiture of Holland

Alois Riegel’s work, The group portraiture of Holland, is an examination of the work of group portrait painters in Holland and the interplay between internal coherence of the group (within the paintings) and external coherence (engaging the viewer outside the frame). The theories and techniques described are of interest to me in the context of my upcoming assignment 3, which will involve photographing a male voice choir.

Source: www.rijksmuseum.nl, ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt 

I foresee a challenge in making large group portraits as being the coordination of individual gazes within the group into something other than a predictable outward gaze the camera, or even worse that, accompanied by fixed smiles! Painters have the benefit of creating their images on the canvas, whereas in photography its indexicality means it must, to a certain extent, work with the world as we see it. Nonetheless, that world can be organised or even manipulated through digital post-processing, so lessons from painters can be valuable.

Riegel talks about ‘psychological manifestations’ that can be expressed within the concept of paintings, and later goes onto to describe how these can add a sense of coherence to a group portrait. The manifestations are:

  1. Will – expressed by an action. By performing actions we express our self-determination within an environment. This makes us stand apart from the environment or from those who choose to remain passive within the environment.
  2. Emotion – this is a reflection of an internal state and is passive in relation to the environment, in contrast to the active ‘will’. Emotions are visible on people’s faces and through their body language. A skilled painter can create these, photographers need to watch for a decisive moment to catch them or rely upon subjects who are good actors.
  3. Attentiveness – is where the subject become open to the effects of the environment; either to participate with it for pleasure or to withdraw from it in pain. It is a reflection of engagement with ‘other’, unlike ‘will’, which is an expression of of engagement by ‘self’.

Riegel discusses a number of paintings in his work, including how their composition and psychological manifestations serve to unify the groups portrayed. It is a fascinating look at reading paintings and discovering the artists’ intentions. For my own purposes, the following aspects are important:

  • The group members are rarely organised uniformly – while there may be a symmetry to overall composition, the groups are never lined up facing-front, one row behind another. This lack of uniformity creates visual interest; something that cannot be said of many photographs featuring large groups, where an overriding concern of fitting people within a space, which can be captured within the frame of the camera, seems to take over compositional considerations.
  • Motifs are sometimes used to unify a group that do not at first appear to be acting as a group from their positioning – for example each group member could be holding a weapon in the case of the night guards.
  • In only one of the images considered are the subjects all gazing towards a single point at the front, outside of the frame (the artist). It immediately makes me think of a photograph, where the convention is for everyone to look at the camera. When a large group all looks to the same point, it introduces a uniformity and predictability to the image; we are deprived of visual variety. The group is all attentive to the same thing outside of the frame; the photographer – there is no ambiguity or mystery.
  • Hand gestures form an important part of many of the group portraits – like a secondary set of gazes, they point, they hold, they welcome, they show. They add another visual dimension. What someones hands are doing is instinctively an important visual cue to us; are we safe, or are we at risk from this stranger? The aspect often receives little attention group photographic portraits.

I have had little success in finding photographers working with group portraits, outside of standard corporate or wedding group photographs; perhaps because these are common gatherings of large groups and they primarily serve the purpose of recording who was present, in time constrained circumstances. This exploration of group portraits in paintings has provided useful food for thought.

Reference
Riegl, A., Kain, E.M., Britt, D. and Kemp, W. 2000. The group portraiture of Holland. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.

Alec Soth on sequencing series of images

Aaron Schuman’s interview with Alec Soth on his work The Mississippi, includes a discussion on Soth’s approach to sequencing a series of images. I’m interested in this topic, as the upcoming assignment 3 (Windows) will include a series of images, where the number of images to include is left to me to decide.

Source: alecsoth.com by Alec Soth.

Soth comments that anyone can take single great picture (if they have the luck of being in the right place at the right time), but very few people can create a collection of great pictures, which is his aim.

He talks about the art being in making the collection and in the ‘interplay of the images’. He is looking to a whole beyond an individual image. When asked about how he chose and sequenced the photos, Soth refers to the model used by Robert Frank in the Americans:

Frank found the mood and motifs, but didn’t repeat it to death.  His sequencing functions as a kind of rhythm.  It carries you through the book.  He repeats certain themes, but keeps moving.  The structure really is based on poetry.

I find these concepts easier to relate in the context of music than poetry (as I’m more familiar with music), but until reading Soth’s words had not really considered them in the context of photography. Mood is easily understood as an expression of emotion; happy, sad, tense, upbeat and so on. Motif, I think of as a small recurring fragment (a obvious and famous musical example is the introduction to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony).

Unfortunately, the interview with Soth does not go on to explicitly explore the moods and motif’s his work, but looking the images on Soth’s website, here are some of the things I see:

  • A mood of coldness through whites and blues in the images.
  • Sobriety in the gaze of photos that are in the portrait genre; no one is smiling.
  • A singularity in the framing – there is often one main subject and the space around it makes it clear what that subject is. This creates a feeling of isolation when combined with the gaze of the subjects and the mood of coldness.

The concepts of mood and motif are something I will consider when it comes to pulling together assignment 3.

References

Aaron Schuman [website]. The Mississippi: an interview with Alec Soth. Available from: http://www.aaronschuman.com/sothinterview.html [accessed 21.12.16]

Alec Soth [website]. Sleeping by the Mississippi. Available from: http://alecsoth.com/photography/?page_id=14 [accessed 21.12.16]

Literary Devices [website]. Motif. Available from: http://www.literarydevices.com/motif/ [accessed 21.12.16]