Study Visit – Dayanita Singh

MCXC wee

Beneath the Southbank.

I saw a lot of photography on Saturday.

I went to London for my second study visit with the OCA, to see ‘Go Away Closer’ by Dayanita Singh at the Southbank’s Hayward Gallery. Making the most of the trip, and feeling like the wide-eyed boy from the sticks, I planned to see the Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity shows at the Photographer’s Gallery and the Foundling Museum, and Leicestershire by Mitra Tabrizian at Bankside. I’ll write more about each as I read, reflect and understand more about them. Five days later though, one particular artist’s work has stayed with me, above all others. In fact, it’s not so much the photographs themselves as the feelings and emotions that they generated.

Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus‘s Annunciation series formed a small part of the motherhood show at the Photographer’s Gallery. The title is an ironic play on the Christian idea of the Annunciation, where the virgin was visited by angels and informed that she would be giving birth to the son of God(!). Brotherus’ version catalogues her own repeated attempts to conceive through IVF. It shows a collection of self-portraits and images of the drugs and processes involved, revealing some of the mystery and taboo that only those that have been through the highs and lows of the process know about. The sharps bin, the broken vial of white powder, the blood in the toilet bowl; most strikingly, the calendars, with dates hopefully pencilled onto them. Images that without that appreciation of the work as a whole, mean much less.

In contrast, Dayanita Singh’s work was presented without context, title or caption. Singh explains that labelling reduces the image from what she wants it to be. “…the when and the where are a burden on photography” and “if people know why and where it was taken, they think they understand the image and can move on”. My feeling however, is that unless the work is deliberately abstract, this deprives the viewer who may not understand the artist’s idea and may misinterpret it, or pass over the work even more quickly. Dates, locations and subject matter are not necessarily required, but generally, some context is essential.

In his essay ‘The Art of Missing Information’ (the introduction to Will Steacy’s book ‘Photographs Not Taken’), Lyle Rexer writes that

…an image stands mute before the inexpressible delicacy, horror and associative complexity of our experience.

Brotherus’s ‘Annunciations’ are not offering us the experience, other than by a distant proxy. We are not experiencing what she has been through, but we’re sure that, after spending time with the photographs, we certainly don’t want to be where she has been and if we know someone that has, we’ll hug them tightly at the first opportunity.

The Brotherus backstory elevates her straightforward and simply shot photographs to another level. Trying to relate this to my practice, this level of exploration of the subject matter is something that I absolutely aspire to. The technical skills are far easier to learn than the subtle art of storytelling through images in such a powerful way.

References

Singh, D (2013) Go away closer. London, Hayward Publishing

Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. USA; Daylight Community Arts Foundation

The British Journal of Photography, October 2013

Assignment 1 – Contrast: Tutor Feedback

Myjnia TIR

Myjnia TIR

Last night I received my tutor’s feedback on my first assignment. It had taken a while, but was worth the wait.

The opening sentence said: ‘you have submitted an excellent first assignment’. I was tempted to close the email at that point but I read on and was happy with the very positive feedback on the work I had submitted for the assignment and associated exercises.

I’ve written previously about how I enjoy blogging and so I was pleased to see that he also complimented the layout and content of this learning log. While I believe that I’m getting better at it, I still feel that I need to get a little more descriptive and analytical when discussing my own photography and that work which inspires or instructs me. However, it was good to see my efforts were appreciated by my tutor in his comments that I was demonstrating ‘good independent research and an ability to analyse and apply good self-reflection’.

I feel that I can improve on this and as he suggests, will look to include further information on my thought processes, what I did and why to explain my methodology and evidence my decision making.

I was concerned when I submitted the first assignment that the images were taken across a couple of weeks, in different locations and had little to relate them to each other. However, the feedback was that the demonstration of contrast within the pairs was enough to hold the set together when viewed as a whole. My plan for assignment 2 is that all of the images will be shot within a couple of hours, be processed identically and look very similar – further exploring the effect of such variation (or not) to a project. My tutor encourages this suggesting that for the next assignment I ‘could start to consider your projects as series, make work around themes and related ideas, and consider the coherency of working in particular genres.’

The most interesting part of the feedback was the following:

I think what I’m saying is that I can see that you are obviously a competent technician but don’t let technical issues get in the way of your creativity, if you can evaluate and justify your images then that’s closer to the notion of contemporary photography. Personally I like to see ideas, after all photography is about the maker and how they communicate their ideas to their audience, we share a little bit of ourselves every time me show our work!

This idea is exactly why I began the course in the first place. I know that I can take ‘pretty’ pictures, but want to learn how to share my ideas, my vision and my message (whatever that might be) with people. Most of the photographers and photographs that I like best are not necessarily technically excellent. The composition, exposure and sometimes content is not always ideal, but the story is there, between the lines (or pixels perhaps). The photographer has found a way to communicate the story or idea through less obvious methods.

At times I feel a little daunted at the size of the subject. By way of example, yesterday, I posted my first couple of pictures onto the OCA Student Flickr Group and shortly afterwards received a comment on one, suggesting I investigate the work of George Tice, and particularly this photograph. I was blown away – another photographer that I wasn’t familiar with, but exactly the type of image I love and aspire to take. Just when you think you know where you’re taking your learning and practice, more inspiration comes along and makes you consider other ideas and direction.

As I’ve said before, I’m enjoying this…

Reflection – The course so far

Over the last week or so, it feels like I’ve begun to make improved progress with the course. I’ve particularly enjoyed the study of lines in composition for a couple of reasons. Firstly, having had time off in Poland, spending Christmas with my wife’s family, has mean that I’ve had the time, and importantly daylight to get out and take pictures. I also see more things to take pictures of when I’m away from the familiar surroundings of home. This is of course only my perception and something I’ll need to work on if I want to maintain this current rate of progress. There’s plenty of subject matter in Leicestershire, I just need to identify it in the same way that I would here.

The first section of the course that dealt with the frame, and at times did feel a little basic, not helping to encourage my engagement with it. Learning more about composition, particularly the analysis of the composition of ‘classic’ photographs has been fascinating. It is a huge subject and I look forward to a lifetime of learning about it. This study has already begun to influence and improve my pictures.

This enthusiasm for the subject matter obviously helps motivate me further and I hope to be able to continue this momentum when I’m back home, at work, and not seeing much daylight because of work and other commitments. In the last couple of days of my holiday, I’ll be taking the opportunity to begin thinking about my next assignment.

The course also helps us learn in other more subtle ways. I am experimenting more. I’m taking pictures of things that I wouldn’t usually and seeing subjects in a new way. A couple of examples from this week are below.

Tool

The scythe picture needed the identification of a suitable subject, the creation of an interesting composition and lighting in a way that enhanced both. Such still-life photography is new to me but I’m pleased with the result and will try more in the future, perhaps in the next section of the course when we study shape.

Most Grundwaldski

The picture of the bridge, also from the ‘curves’ exercise is more standard fare, but thinking to include the shadowy figure in the shot is another example of this newfound experimentalism. It’s hardly revolutionary, but for me it’s something new.
Another interesting learning point from this week away has been the change to my workflow. I usually use Aperture, Photoshop Elements, Silver Efex etc. Here, I’ve been limited to importing the pictures onto my mother-in-law’s creaky laptop, saving them to Dropbox before carrying out very limited editing in Snapseed on my iPad Mini. What I’ve learned is that despite this apparent restriction, the pictures are still good. It has shown me that the time I spend working on my pictures after they’re shot is less ‘value-adding’ than the time spent taking decent photographs in the first place. Better spending a couple of hours reading about composition and then practicing it than tweaking the mid-tone structure of an average image.

Personal Work
Aside from the coursework, I have begun a collaboration with a fellow Leicestershire photographer to explore the issues raised by Don McCullin in this article in The Independent. Through our photography, we’re hoping to investigate the experiences and motivations of, and prejudices against, migrant workers in Leicestershire. I hope that we can expose the social division that is often exacerbated by the ignorance and fear of the unknown that some British people can be known for.
It promises to be an interesting project – I’ll keep you informed.

References

Clark, N (2013) ‘Forget foreign conflicts, chronicle Britain’ says war photographer Don McCullin (Online). The Independent. Avaialable from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/forget-foreign-conflicts-chronicle-britain-says-war-photographer-don-mccullin-8947692.html?origin=internalSearch [27 December 2013]

Assignment 1 – Contrast

The first assignment in the Art of Photography course is designed to explore ‘one of the most fundamental principals in design: Contrast’. After the dry-run of choosing our own previously shot pictures and placing them into contrasting pairs, the assignment required that we shoot eight more pairs that ‘best express the extremes of different qualities’ and one final image that ‘demonstrates contrast in one picture’. (Quotations from the course notes).

The exercise of pairing pre-shot pictures was useful and made me think not only about the contrasts, but also the post-processing and black and white conversions that I’d included. As a result, I’ve decided to present all of the photographs for the assignment in colour, with one exception. They still could not be called garish, that just isn’t my style, but there are certainly a couple that I’d normally have converted.

These pictures were taken during the first 8 weeks of the course as I’ve worked on this assignment concurrently with the exercises. Many of them were taken on a trip to Edinburgh, during which I spent much of the time clutching a crumpled piece of A4 with the contrasts listed on it. All pictures were taken in RAW before being converted and post-processed using Aperture.

Blunt/Pointed

Blunt Canon 5D2, f14, 40mm, 30s, 10 stop neutral density filter

Blunt
Canon 5D2, f14, 40mm, 30s, 10 stop neutral density filter

Pointed Fuji x100, f2, 23 (37)mm, 1/200s

Pointed
Fuji x100, f2, 23 (37)mm, 1/200s

‘Pointed’ and ‘Blunt’ were taken on the trip to Edinburgh. It was a flying visit with my wife and mother-in-law during which I spent the time ferrying them to the busy parts of the city and leaving them there, before wandering into the quieter areas to take pictures. ‘Blunt’ shows a mooring point in Newhaven Harbour. The blunt feel is reinforced by the heavy, rusting chain, the muted colours and the sea that has been averaged by the long exposure. ‘Pointed’ shows the fence between Princes Street and its gardens. The points seemed unnecessarily pointy for such a low fence that contained so many open gates. I selected a large aperture to concentrate the narrow depth of field on the fence and waited for interesting characters to pass by. These guys and the opposing buses provided the best arrangement of the half-dozen shots that I took.

Opaque/Transparent

Opaque Fuji x100, f2.8, 23 (37)mm, 1/200s

Opaque
Fuji x100, f2.8, 23 (37)mm, 1/200s

Transparent Canon 5D2, f2.8, 27mm, 1/250s

Transparent
Canon 5D2, f2.8, 27mm, 1/250s, slight crop

Back in Leicester for ‘Opaque’ and ‘Transparent’ and both images share a balding man with a camera, framed in a window. ‘Opaque’ is a self-portrait (or selfie if you must) and shows not only me and a camera, but also a bike, my other passion. I am reflected in the mirrored finish applied to a ground-floor office in the city. I was interested in the depth that could be added to a picture by shooting what was behind me, myself and what was beyond the building in the same frame. A black and white version of this picture was previously included in my write up of the balance exercise. ‘Transparent’ was taken during a visit to the Leicester City Council offices in the New Walk Centre. An ongoing arts project allows photographers, painters, video artists etc to spend the afternoon on the 12th floor of the building, recording the city below. My images from the day will be included in a future exhibition of these works. I cropped the picture slightly and used the reflection in the whiteboard to inform the viewer what is being photographed by my subject; it does result in him being a little central. Large apertures were chosen for both pictures to focus attention on the subject and to make available the natural light.

Curved/Straight

Curved Canon 5D2, f5.6, 59mm, 1/50s

Curved
Canon 5D2, f5.6, 59mm, 1/50s

Straight Canon 5D2, f22, 70mm, 5s

Straight
Canon 5D2, f22, 70mm, 5s, polarising filter to reduce reflections

Two more literal interpretations, ‘Curved’ is the steps down to the beach on Portobello Prom. Again, I would usually have been tempted to convert this picture to black and white and bump up the contrast to bring out the shape of the curves, but chose not to to avoid having a pair separated by their colour and lack of it. Instead, I boosted the contrasts in a black and white version and overlaid it with the original in colour and blended using the luminosity mode. ‘Straight’ was also taken from the New Walk Centre and was a natural choice – everything in the picture is straight; the floors, window frames, shadows and reflections. The sun was setting between the two buildings, causing the wonderful orange glow – another reason why this pair could not be presented in mono. ‘Straight’ is straight from the camera with no crop or processing.

Few/Many

Few Canon 5d2, f5.6, 62mm, 1/100s

Few
Canon 5d2, f5.6, 62mm, 1/100s

Many Fuji x100, f8, 23(37)mm, 1/250s

Many
Fuji x100, f8, 23(37)mm, 1/250s

This pair were taken only a short time and distance apart and are two more from the Edinburgh trip. ‘Few’ is first light on Portobello Beach and features a man and his dog enjoying the beach to themselves (apart from me of course). The sun’s first rays are caught by the dog and the wave breaking on the beach. The pair seemed happy in each other’s company. Just a short time later, I was in the city, on its busiest street and surrounded by the ‘Many’ shoppers and tourists. The man made environment filling the frame contrasts with the entirely natural view in ‘Few’. It felt like a stark contrast as I traveled between the two.

Dark/Light

Dark Canon 5d2, f4, 37mm, 3s

Dark
Canon 5d2, f4, 37mm, 3s

Light Canon 5d2, f22, 40mm, 246s

Light
Canon 5d2, f22, 40mm, 246s

‘Dark’ and ‘Light’ are the two picture styles that feel most familiar to me, being long exposures in low light. They share a 5×4 crop and minimal composition. In ‘Dark’ I’ve removed some objects from that background that distracted the eye. I’ve also dodged the white road markings to lead the eye towards the sign. ‘Light’ was also taken on Portobello Beach and is a four minute exposure capturing the pre-dawn colours in the sky. Long exposure sea-scapes, usually featuring groynes, are something of a photographic cliché, but I like to think that by keeping the colour, it is a little more interesting than the usual monochrome version. A minimum aperture size was set to lengthen the exposure and keep what little details there was in the parts of the image that weren’t moving.

Continuous/Intermittent

Continuous Fuji x100, f2, 23 (37)mm, 1/500s

Continuous
Fuji x100, f2, 23 (37)mm, 1/500s

Intermittent Canon 5d2, f22, 17mm, 311s

Intermittent
Canon 5d2, f22, 17mm, 311s

‘Continuous’ is a shot of a back street, again in Portobello. The low viewpoint and large aperture help to make the narrow street appear longer. The lines of the cobbles, walls and buildings all point to a vanishing point away in the distance. You can read about how ‘Intermittent’ came to be taken in my previous post on the cropping exercise. The post also explains why this crop was selected. I had taken pictures of landing aircraft from a similar spot previously and remembered the trails created by the flashing lights and their intermittence. What I didn’t spot until I got home and looked at the pictures was the light trails of the cars broken by the bushes, an effect I might explore further in the future.

Moving/Still

Moving Canon 5d2, f2.8, 24mm, 1/125

Moving
Canon 5d2, f2.8, 24mm, 1/125

Still Canon 5d2, f13, 40mm, 25s, 10-stop neutral density

Still
Canon 5d2, f13, 40mm, 25s, 10-stop neutral density

When completing the Panning Exercise, I had in mind that the best resulting image might be useful for ‘Moving’, come this assignment. That exercise is all about selecting shutter speeds to capture movement and the 1/125s used here was the best compromise between introducing movement into the background, while keeping the subject sharp. At this shutter speed, the spokes are also beginning to blur as the outer edges of the wheels are moving much faster than he is. I used a wide angle to capture the spectators, some of the surroundings and the gloomy day, emphasising the challenge presented by not only riding up a hill quickly, but doing it on a cold, wet Sunday morning in October. I have pushed my self-imposed limits of post-processing with this shot too – something I’ve tried to avoid for this first assignment but again, felt it warranted to bring out the gloom. ‘Still’ was shot in Leith docks and shows some of the huge equipment used for loading ships in the Entrance Basin. During my visit the docks were deserted and the equipment redundant. Still. It symbolised the the history of the area – once a busy ship building dock employing thousands and although recently regenerated, the area receives visitors now only to the Royal Yacht moored there and the shopping centre. I chose to make the water still by shooting a 25 second exposure, using a neutral density filter.

Diagonal/Rounded

Diagonal Canon 5d2, f9, 40mm, 1/50s

Diagonal
Canon 5d2, f9, 40mm, 1/50s

Rounded Canon 5d2, f22, 20mm, 13s

Rounded
Canon 5d2, f22, 20mm, 13s

‘Diagonal’ is a view of Ullswater and the mountains beyond, framed by Oak trees on the shore. ‘Rounded’ is yet another night time long-exposure, this time of a local petrol station whose canopy, made up of ‘overlapping parasols’ has Grade 2 Listed status. It is something that I’ve been planning to photograph for a while – it’s run-down look fits with the idea that we are post peak-car, something that a friend and I have been exploring through photography for a while. I included the broken wall for a little foreground interest.

Rough/Smooth

Rough/Smooth Canon 5d2, f22, 32mm, 42s, 10-stop neutral density filter

Rough/Smooth
Canon 5d2, f22, 32mm, 42s, 10-stop neutral density filter

The final image in the set demonstrates ‘contrast in one picture’, the rough cobbles being contrasted by the smooth sea. The picture was shot at Newhaven Harbour in Edinburgh and once again was taken using a 10-stop, neutral density filter. This meant that a long exposure could be employed, ‘averaging’ the movement of the water. It also causes any movement in the clouds to be recorded. A low angle was selected to fill more of the frame with the foreground cobbles and the lighthouse has been positioned off-centre to add some tension to the composition.

Reflection.

It feel like this assignment has been a long time coming, but I’m actually a week ahead of the deadline I set with my tutor. It is exciting and at the same time, a little daunting to think that I’ll be submitting an assignment every eight weeks or so for the foreseeable. I’ll write more about my feelings on the course so far in a later post, once I’ve wrapped up the last couple of exercises in the first section.

I’ve probably read too many blog posts by students that have gone before me, talking about the mistakes they made in their first assignments and their tutor’s feedback of them. I’ve tried to not let this information affect my submission too much. I need to submit what I feel is suitable, learn from my own mistakes (and my tutor’s feedback of course).

I’m pretty pleased with the resulting photographs, although several are disappointingly literal. I blame this on my difficulty in coming to terms with ‘shooting to order’. This is something that I need to get used to of course and will be a valuable lesson, once learned. It also resulted in taking almost all of the pictures in two sessions. I read about students that have created all their shots for this assignment in one session with the same subject matter and others that have no link between any of their pictures, other than being in the same assignment and having a contrasting opposite.

Self-Assessment.

In this set, I’ve demonstrated several of the lessons learned in the preceding exercises – positioning the horizon, framing and showing movement for example. I have used both a digital SLR and a compact, fixed lens camera. The shutter and aperture settings cover the entire range available and have been altered to suit the desired end product. I realise that there are a high number of long-exposure, tripod mounted shots in this set. These have been selected because they fit the brief. This technique will not be suitable in other situations.

It is a varied set, with a one or two pictures that I am particularly pleased with. However, I can also see one with blown highlights and some disappointing sky detail elsewhere. I’ve demonstrated some creativity in the submission, but realise that this is another area I need to improve on as the course and my skills develop.

I am enjoying using WordPress and having blogged before starting the course, feel comfortable writing up my exercises. I have received some very positive feedback from fellow students and friends alike who have commented on the interesting content and engaging style. I do worry that it is occasionally too ‘conversational’. My writing style tends to be as though I were talking to a friend and may need to become more academic. I also need to improve my use of visual language when describing photographs.

References:

Walker-Toye, S. (2012) Assignment 1: Contrasts [online]. OCA Art Of Photography. Available from: http://theartofphotographybysuzy.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/assignment-1-contrasts-2/ [1 December 2013]

Unknown. (2012) English Heritage Celebrates the Age of the Motor Car [online] Available from: www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/motoring/ [1 December 2013]

Unknown. (2013) Wikipedia – Peak Car [online] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_car [1 December 2013]

Jaques, I. (2010) PostPeakCarTastic, a Flickr Set [online] Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/iain_jaques/sets/72157625471397410/ [1 December 2013]

Freeman, M. (2011) Composition, Contrast and the Bauhaus [online]. The Freeman View. Available from:http://thefreemanview.com/observations/composition-contrast-and-the-bauhaus/ [30 November 2013]

Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos. Lewes: The Ilex Press Limited.

A Little Clarification.

I asked a question today on the OCA’s student forum, regarding the requirement (or otherwise) to write a book review as part of the course. I received two very helpful replies – one from a student and the other a tutor – that I’d like to share with anyone who, like me, is new to Higher Education and the way the student/tutor relationship works.

Firstly, from fellow student (albeit far advanced) clk55pete

[…]To help you begin the journey the courses have exercises and reading lists but when I describe the course I often say that the it provides a framework for me to build my self directed learning on. The benefit of such an approach is that you – the student – can select subject matter to research and bend the course to fit in with your interests or use it as a springboard for exploration (or both). […]

And from tutor peterjh:

[…]The learning log is a personal thing in which you should, as well as perhaps recording the exercises or at least the pertinent (to you) bits of them, continue a conversation with yourself about you and photography (painting, writing etc), life the universe and everything.  Don’t expect of find instruction in the modules materials, there will be some but in general there is suggestion for directions you might like to take, it is up to you to decide which and to find more, some will be the right roads and some wrong ones and your tutor will point out to you.  the tutor/student relationship is very different from the teacher/learner relationship in schools so beloved of our current administration.  It is collaborative and equally active for both parties, the student searches and explores, the tutor comments, offers corrective, critical and supportive comment though this support may well be in terms of adverse criticism, if the work is rubbish the most supportive comment is to point this out followed by, where possible and it isn’t always possible, suggestions as to why and how to rectify it.

My previous education, at school, college and in my working life since has been very much the one way conversation Peter mentions. I’ve listened and read until I remembered enough to pass a test at the end. The idea of a collaborative development of my understanding and gaining the confidence to take my photography where I want it to go, is extremely exciting. I just need to break some old habits…

End

OCA 2 (4)

What is the difference between a road and a street? It is not a question of size (some urban streets are wider then country roads). A road heads out of town while a street stays there, so you find roads in the country but not streets. If a street leads to a road you are heading out of town. If a road turns into a street you are heading into town. Keep on it long enough and a road will turn into a street but not, necessarily, vice versus (a street can be an end in itself). Streets must have houses on either side of them to be streets. The best streets urge you to stay; the road is an endless incentive to leave.

Dyer, Geoff 2005 The ongoing moment. Great Britain: Little, Brown.