The second section of the Art of Photography course builds on the basics of the first and leads us through a series of exercises that explore the use of design elements in composition. As before, the coursework heavily references Michael Freeman’s book The Photographer’s Eye, while allowing each student to interpret the exercises in their own way.
The exercises introduce us points, lines and shapes, preparing us for this assignment that requires images featuring each. The brief lists the elements that we need to include and suggests that they need to be of a similar subject and offers plants and flowers, landscapes, street details or the raw material of food. We do have the option to choose our own.
Each day, I ride a bike to work and back. After leaving town, much of the route is along quiet country roads and this riding time is often my only opportunity for creative thinking during the day. It elbows its way between the stresses of work and the distractions of home. Between late-October and early-February, the ride is in darkness; a darkness that can feel oppressive. Rides that in the summer are through pretty countryside are reduced to a limited view of a patch of tarmac lit by my bike light, punctuated by artificially-lit, man-made objects and structures.
The first design element here is the curve. The exercise on curves showed us that they can play an important part in composition by drawing the eye along the curve and across the frame, adding dynamism to an image.
The road here passes under a couple of others at this busy junction of the central ringroad. It is a mass of concrete and retaining walls that occupies so much of the city’s space that could be used for something more beneficial. I waited for a moment with no traffic (I’m not keen on light trail photographs) as I felt that the curves of the road, curb and road markings were strong enough. I desaturated slightly to remove the strong colour cast from the sodium lamps and darkened the shadowy figure walking towards me.
During this section of the course, I’ve really begun to read and research photographers whose images have inspired me. I came across the work of Rut Blees Luxemburg in the inspirational first chapter of Charlotte Cotton’s book and spent some time researching further. Cotton says of Luxemburg’s work:
[…]when the urban night scene is illuminated in a dramatic way, the surreal and psychologically charged potential of space is emphasised. But each epoch has its own artistic concerns and particular narrative conclusions. With their uncanny qualities, Luxemburg’s pictures take something of the history of night-time photography, but imbues it with the contemporary and personal experience of the city.
Night time reflections are also explored in the wonderful ‘Retail’ by Tim Davis. Fantastically crafted night-time shots of urban America with corporate, neon signs reflected in the windows of houses. The concept of showing the way that advertising permeates and encroaches into our homes is brilliantly represented in his work.
A COMBINATION OF HORIZONTAL AND VERTICAL LINES
I took a dozen pictures under this bridge, eleven of them had the light in shot and only this one didn’t – and it’s this one I preferred. We see the effect of the light and so know that it’s there, but not the light itself. Also, I decided to shoot this view with car light trails on the road to emphasise the (almost) horizontal of the road, perpendicular to the concrete pillars.
Another view from my commute. This is the side of someone’s house and just to around the corner on the right of the frame is their kitchen window. I wrote earlier about Todd Hido, another photographer that I’ve come to know during the course, and standing outside someone’s house with a camera set on a tripod felt like the stories he tells of being challenged when doing the same. I got away with it…
I chose an exposure long enough to show detail in the wall but without revealing the extent of the pattern. This ‘pool of light’ effect that fades to black is a theme I wanted throughout this set.
My thinking for ‘two points’ was to place those points at the edge of the frame, exaggerating the black space between them, encouraging the viewer to look into the darkness and wonder what is beyond.
The shot was taken at a roundabout on the A6 near Loughborough. The road actually travels another 100m before ending abruptly. During the day it is popular with dog-walkers; at night, only with car thieves setting fires. The road is actually wider then pictured. I’ve recomposed by removing a central band and cloned out some street lights in the distance to keep the blacks black.
SEVERAL POINTS IN A DELIBERATE SHAPE
I struggled with the exercise on positioning points. When I came up with the theme for this assignment, lights heading off into the distance was an obvious choice as a series of points. Less obvious I hope is shooting them from below and allowing the last light of the gloaming to emphasise that shape. I chose a short enough exposure to eliminate any movement in the clouds. I’ve darkened the area under the bridge slightly to concentrate attention on the area where detail is present.
DISTINCT, EVEN IF IRREGULAR SHAPES
Our study of shapes in composition during this section showed us that while rectangular shapes are common, they are often changed or distorted by perspective. Here, a rectangular billboard appears triangular, mirroring the similar shaped area of light.
My favourite photographer working in this style is Sander Meisner. As he says, many of the shapes that appear at night, such as the one above, don’t exist in daylight. They need this artificial lighting surrounded by darkness to become visible to the eye (and camera). His ability to make interesting subjects of the everyday neglected and ignored areas of the city is something that I am very interested in and will study further. For me that is a key skill in presenting photography as art.
Despite the lack of detail, we can work out the familiar shapes of a shop front in the darkness. This image was inspired by another artist that I’ve come across in this section of the course, Dan Witz. His street work is entertaining, but I really enjoy his gallery work, particularly his ‘nightscapes‘. I wanted a little more black than he uses in his paintings and so after removing a couple of distractions from the darker areas, increased the canvas size with a black border to isolate the shop further. In hindsight, it could have benefited from a wet street in front of the shop to reflect the lights.
The exercises on triangles in composition was very interesting, especially the implied triangles that allow more creativity and interpretation. From my research on the topic, the master of the triangle in composition is Magnum photographer Alex Webb. A search of Google or Pinterest returns many wonderful compositions, often featuring three points, a few of which I’ve pinned here. Indeed, once you begin to see the triangles in his compositions, they’re everywhere!
This first interpretation however, is another Hido inspired image that features at least a couple of implied triangles (to my eye at least). I’d seen the weather forecast had predicted an early morning fog and so set the alarm for 4.30am. I wandered the streets and saw soft-edged triangles of light under each street light. Two large trees help to frame the triangle, darkening the edges and removing any distraction.
My second implied triangle is a little more straight-forward. Another foggy evening means dissipated street lighting and an orange glow across the city. Again, I looked for a gap in the traffic to catch a clean view of the geometry of the ring road. This image was taken in the city centre as opposed rural setting of the others – the increased level of light pollution is apparent.
The third is another view from my commute – the steps to a local underground reservoir lit by a security light. It is a real triangle rather than an implied one, but I felt that it complimented the rest of the set and decided to include it. I left the sign in the left side of the frame to add some interest to that dark area.
A SINGLE POINT DOMINATING THE COMPOSITION
To save our council tax money, our street lights are turned off overnight save for one every couple of hundred meters. I quite enjoy being up and around before the rest of the lights turn on. The town has a different feel when the light is removed. Another picture from my early start in the fog and very similar to Todd Hido’s work in Househunting (although he would have had a cool American car under the street light). I removed the milkman’s brake lights, but otherwise it’s straight from the camera – that colour cast really is so strong.
These were the final pictures that I took for the assignment. I’d had a plan to shoot a neighbour’s garage door for this picture, but those plans fell through and I desperately began adding mileage to my rides in an effort to find a picture. This gate appeared overnight on a new road on an industrial estate nearby. The road has had LED streetlights fitted that light one side of the fence. The other is lit by the older sodium lamps, giving the mixture of whites and yellows shown here. I was originally attracted by the shadows of the fence until I noticed this colour effect.
REFLECTION – THE ASSIGNMENT
The second part of the course has accelerated my learning, confidence and experimentation rapidly. I’m excited to think that I’m only 4 months into the course, this is only my second assignment (the first that counts) and yet I’ve learnt so much.
When reflecting on my first assignment, I realise that there was too much variety. While we’re yet to study narrative, I was keen to heed my tutor’s feedback from the first assignment:
In future assignments you could start to consider your projects as series, make work around themes and related ideas, and consider the coherency of working in particular genres. Make work on subjects that inspire and ones that interest you.
And so my aim here was to produce a set that were visually similar and with an apparent theme. There are no people in these pictures; everything is man-made and lit artificially (apart from a little sky in one shot). They are straight forward representations of very familiar views but I hope that they are not entirely conventional. The assignment dictates that we use the ‘rules’ of composition, but only to explore and further understand them. In ‘2 points’ for example, I used one of the elements of design to express my intent – showing nature’s darkness beyond the man-made.
While I didn’t have the final pictures in my mind before beginning, I did set out with a purpose and a theme in mind, and had to work at making the pictures rather, reacting to what I found. I hope that the work is slightly challenging in its treatment of the assignment brief and unusual enough to be interesting. I hope that while not unique, the pictures are at least uncommon.
I’m not sure about the borders, but added them for 2 reasons – the first was a response to advice from another tutor when I posted a night-time image on the OCA Flickr group. He suggested ‘you should try adding white borders to these so that the image dark tones don’t bleed into the monitor black’. Secondly, I wanted each picture to be the same shape, regardless of the crop, again helping them to feel like a set.
My tutor also stated in his feedback that he was more interested in the ideas that the technical quality of the images. That backs up what Charlotte Cotton talks about when she says that contemporary photography is not being about ‘virtuoso photographic technique’, in fact it’s often the opposite, to concentrate attention on the act being captured. At the same time nothing is left to chance. Artists will control all elements of the creation of the work leaving only the interpretation up to the viewer. I’ve tried to take this advice but the subject matter here and the fact that most were tripod-mounted, long-exposures has meant that I’ve had the time to use good technique and recreate the scene as I intended.
The course notes suggest working in black and white for this section of the course, to emphasise the design elements. I was attracted by the simplicity of working at night because the darkness works in a similar way to using black and white, in emphasising compositional elements and in several images I removed distractions by blacking them out to enhance this. I’d like to think that my use of colour does nothing to reduce the effect of these features but also enhances the realism of the shots. I’ve tried to make sure that the blacks appear very black. At the same time, I’ve kept the unnatural orange casts from the sodium lamps that has a beauty of its own.
REFLECTION – THE COURSE
I got off to a good start with section 2 having spent a week off work in Poland. I was able to immerse myself in the exercises. I woke up thinking about the pictures, rather than what I was doing at work that day. I was able to post to this blog on five consecutive days and was enjoying it hugely. Upon returning to work in the new year, my progress through the exercises has slowed again. Partly because of work, but also because of the amount of research and reading that I’m doing at the moment. The Charlotte Cotton book particularly set me on to so many different leads that I’ve been investigating – including Meisner, Hido, Witz, Davis and Luxemburg mentioned above, but also Shizuka Yokomizo. Her work involves photographing strangers in their houses through their front window. It’s a project that I was immediately drawn to, to the extent that I have written out 20 postcards that I’ll be posting through doors in my area, inviting the residents to be photographed (but slightly differently – I’ll post the results here when it’s complete).
I’ve been very pleased with some of the photographs produced for the exercises in this section, paying close attention to the course notes and the brief for each. If anything, I have experimented more in the assignment photographs than those in the exercises. A couple of the pictures in this section have been simple shots of what was in front of the camera. Others I’ve worked at, and this effort is almost always rewarded with better results. However, this ‘effort’ isn’t to do with long exposures or carrying gear to inaccessible places. It may be the effort involved in immersing oneself in or researching a particular project, theme or idea, and that is where I’m hoping to take my photography through this year by getting involved in projects and developing my own ideas further to explore subjects more deeply.
I do need to be careful not to apply processing effects just to make the image something different for the viewer. There is some merit in treatments that make the picture stand out from the crowd, but also a danger in that style becoming predictable. I need to concentrate on interesting subject matter, timing, unexpected or challenging composition or viewpoints.
I also attended my first open slide night where photographers take along images for others to critique. I took this set and was one of only a couple of people who put their work up. The reception was reasonably good, but it was a nerve-wracking experience, but beneficial all the same. The night was also an indication that my visual language is improving along with my ability to talk about photography. We discussed the work of André Kertész and I found myself discussing design elements like leading lines and implied triangles, which impressed the photographers present, myself particularly!
I continue to enjoy writing this blog. Visitor numbers have settled again after receiving 6,000 hits in 2 days following the write-up (and subsequent hawking on social media) of the National Cyclo-Cross Championships. It was a set that I was pretty pleased with and enjoyed shooting without having to worry about satisfying an exercise brief. I guess the point will come in the course where we are free to work on narrative and interpretation rather than the ticking off shots for exercises and I can post similar work towards the course, rather than the current arrangement of keeping my ‘personal work’ separate.
Finally, it feels like I am beginning learning to see. As an example, I can be driving along and a wall will align with a street light, or I’ll see the shadow of a tree on the side of a building and I’ll appreciate the arrangement.
So far, so good…
Breton, J. (2006) Todd Hido: Art of darkness [online]. ASX. Available from:http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/09/theory-todd-hido-art-of-darkness.html [Accessed: 22 December 2013]
Cecconi, I. (2012) Shizuka Yokomizo, Dear Stranger… [online] http://theharlow.net/shizuka-yokomizo-dear-stranger/ [Accessed: 05 February 2014]
Cotton, C (2009) The photograph as contemporary art. London; Thames and Hudson
Davis, T (2001) Retail. [online]. Available from: http://www.davistim.com/retail/intro.php [Accessed: 11 February 2014]
Emer (2012) Rut Blees Luxemburg. [online] PhotoForager. Available from: http://www.photoforager.com/archives/rut-blees-luxemburg [05 February 2014]
Meisner, S. (ongoing) Geometry of nowhere. [online] Available from: http://www.sandermeisner.nl/ [Accessed: 11 February 2014]
Transport for London, (2006) Thin Cities – 100 years of the Piccadilly Line. [online]. Greater London Authority. Available from: http://thincities.tfl.gov.uk/projects/artist-further-information.php?id=3 [Accessed: 31 January 2014]
Witz, D. (2010) In plain view – 30 years of artworks illegal and otherwise. Berkeley, CA; Gingko Press