Having submitted and concluded the People and Place course, my tutor encouraged me to undertake a self-initiated project in the immediate period after completion. I undertook research and became interested in the Battersea / Nine Elms area of London, an area undergoing a rapid transformation in the recent burst of ‘regeneration’ hitting the former industrial wastelands of Inner London.
After shooting the area in a few times, I decided to focus on the idea of facade and what the material facades photographed tell us about the change the area is going through. These range from images of the screens developers put up to conceal construction sites, to the new frontages of recently completed luxury flats and the interiors of construction sites. I find the screens put up to conceal the construction sites perhaps the most interesting images in the set below – these temporary frontages symbolise the change the area is going through.
These are ideas that I will continue to explore as I envisage this as a long-term project to allow time for the area to change and develop.
(all images shot with Pentax 67 + 55mm F4 on Kodak Portra / Ektar)
For the final assignment of the course, I decided to investigate one of London’s rapidly changing council estates. I photographed a variety of areas, including estates in Poplar, Ladbroke Grove and Elephant and Castle. My inclination to shoot on these estates – particularly those built in the brutalist/modernist style common during the 1960s – stems from an interest in the historical and social context within which they were constructed, and also from the fact that many (if not all) are on the verge of significant regeneration or demolition. With today’s housing crisis in London and the reluctance of local authorities and the national government to take action against the vast property investment that continues to make home ownership and renting unaffordable, examining the history and ideas behind these huge mid twentieth century estates is, in my view, taking on greater and greater relevance.
Photographing these estates can at times be a sad experience, particularly those that show signs of significant neglect, vandalism and petty crime. However the ideas behind their design were certainly benign – clean, modern and affordable housing for people living in the overcrowded slums of inner London. At some point however, the urban planners appeared to forget they were designing housing for people, and soon many of these estates (despite their acclaimed architectural design) became synonymous with dystopian visions of urban collapse, alienation and crime. What went wrong and what caused this reputation? Was it the design of these estates that doomed many of them?
Initially I considered attempting to knit together images from a variety of estates, however with a 8-12 image brief in mind I decided to focus on one estate. I selected the Thamesmead area in southeast London for a number of reasons. Firstly it forms one of the most extensive estates in the Greater London area, and is therefore one of the best examples of 1960s modernist architecture. Secondly, it is somewhat different in it’s use of water (lakes and canals) and other landscape features. The Greater London Council architect Robert Rigg was inspired by housing complexes in Sweden that believed in the idea that lakes and canals reduced vandalism and crime, particularly among younger residents. Thirdly the area is known for it’s use of elevated walkways and raised ‘streets’ so that most of the residences on the estate occupy the first floor and above. The reason for this was the flooding of the area during the 1953 North Sea flood, and so resulted in quite a uniform design feature.
I researched the area and photographed a number of locations, and was immediately struck by how the design of the structure, particularly the elevated walkways and facades impacted the public space on the estate. I therefore formulated a ‘client’ brief based on this research:
A local borough council are seeking the services of a photographer to investigate the impact of architectural design on the public space in a council estate. They are currently assessing the 1960s designed council housing in Thamesmead, hoping to take this evaluation into account when the local councillors meet to propose a regeneration plan for the area. The councillors are particularly interested in the photographer finding evidence of both positive and negative design characteristics, and to show the impact of these on public space. Whilst the expectation is that the focus of the brief will be on the local architecture and urban space, the photographer may produce other findings deemed relevant for the councillors to consider when formulating a future proposal for the Thamesmead area.
Once I had settled on an idea and written the brief, I found it much easier to approach the assignment. As I walked around the Thamesmead area I was able to plan the photos effectively by referring back to the brief. During my research on the estate, I discovered that one of the first complaints by residents after moving in was rain penetration problems inside a number of the residences. Already this proved the inadequacy of concrete for large scale housing, but its flaws became even more pronounced over time. Concrete is prone to moss and lichen growth and cracks easily, and this is something very noticeable upon the estate’s material facade. Another frequent criticism was the dimly lit walkways and inadequate drainage rendering many of the residences inaccessible. In light of this research, I settled on shooting a particular stretch of one of the elevated ‘streets’ on a day of wet weather. I had considered producing a series of black and white images, but I opted for colour images to present a more objective set of images that departed from the standard portrayal of these estates by photographers. As with my previous assignment on Brixton, I chose to use my digital camera to allow for a quicker review and reflection on the images produced. The final 12 images are arranged in order below.
* All images shot on Sony A7 with 28-70mm zoom lens – using variable apertures from F3.5-F8 with ISO set to approx. 400-1600
Overall I feel the final set of images fulfils the brief and actually reveals more than expected by the ‘client’. It highlights poor design characteristics such as using concrete as a building material (evidence of moss growth and cracks in many of the images), flooded and poorly lit walkways, and also reveals how high walls block out views of the outside. The impact of these features on the public space in the images is dramatic. The viewer feels a sense of enclosure, almost as if the estate is a fortress against the outside world, and the absence of plant life or colour upon the facade does little to alleviate the barren concrete and two-tone world of the walkway. The images are effective in creating this impression of being blocked off from nature, as there are hints of trees overlooking the concrete walls and glimpses of the outside world are obstructed by barbed wire. Even upon the walkway there is little that makes the space inviting – the ‘no ball games’ signs, the barbed wire, the concrete walls and the flooded walkway deter rather than encourage the residents to use the space. Even so, there is evidence of a community. The images that show painted walls are a welcome relief from the dark, two-tone walkway. This demonstrates how even a simple splash of colour can alter a space and make it appear more inviting. It is also a sign of the individual and that within the cold, barren atmosphere of the walkway a community can still exist.
There were a number of difficulties encountered whilst I was carrying out the brief. One of the main difficulties was planning for the day of the shoot – once I had found the walkway I wanted to shoot I had to wait for a rainy day, and so waited some time (unexpectedly for England) for a weekend with bad weather forecast. Therefore shooting the assignment was perhaps not done as quick as it would have needed to be in a real life professional scenario. Another difficulty not unanticipated was the length of time it took to travel to the location. Whilst it did not impact me too much, I did realise in a professional context this would be quite impactful on the process.
I also allowed myself a period of reflection before selecting the final shots for submission. Taking the advice of my tutor, I shot mainly landscape oriented shots and I observed this made the final set feel more focused. I also decided to get some of the images printed (see previous blog posts in Assignment Five folder) and stuck them on my wall for a few days. This allowed me to see the images ‘together’ rather than individually on the computer screen, leading me to select shots with a similar style of composition – a decision I felt helped produce a more coherent final 12. I chose to include the shots of the painted wall towards the end of the set to introduce variety and to challenge the viewer’s perception of the location. Whilst the length of time I took for the process was unrealistic for a professional context, I felt I got to practice the stages of a professional assignment. The period of reflection was an especially important part of the process, and a stage I will employ in the future when discerning the final images to submit for an assignment.
With the final submission date (27th May) looming, I took my tutor’s advice and decided to get some cheap(ish) prints of the images I was considering for submission. In the event I found a very affordable giclee printer here in London, so I thought why not and went for some prints on some very nice A5 ‘platinum etching’ paper. The images in question were the Thamesmead set posted in the previous post on the blog, a set of 16 shot on one of the elevated ‘streets’ common to the design of the estates in the area.
Having the images printed is certainly beneficial, particularly in seeing how the images work together (see below) and how I will present them in terms of order, sizing, and aspect ratio. I have already noticed things in some of the images that I haven’t noticed on the computer screen, and I may go back and rework some of the editing. While I will be spending the next couple of weeks reviewing the images and may get some more images printed, the final selection is already starting to take place and I have already cut some images. At this stage I can be 100% sure all the images will be presented in the normal 35mm aspect ratio in the landscape format. I do like how the images shot at a 45 degree angle lend a consistent feel to the set and I may keep this theme in mind when I do make the final selection.
I also feel the introduction of a wider colour palette toward the end of the set is effective (see the image on the bottom right above), however I am not 100% happy with these images and may return to Thamesmead one more time. These images could be reworked slightly to bring out the colours or to tighten up the composition. It will be worth editing on Lightroom before I make the decision to return to the location.
Above is a provisional selection for the final 12 images, however there are some changes to be made with certain images and I am not 100% happy with 5-6 at least.
If you are interested in some cheap and beautiful giclee prints and you are in the UK, try Zheeklay printing: http://www.zheeklayprinting.co.uk/
‘The groundwork conducted by artists such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in teh 1960s and 1970s to establish colour photography over black and white as the main vehicle for contemporary photographic expression is very important.’
‘It was not until the 1970s that art photographers who used vibrant colour – which until then had been the preserve of commercial and vernacular photography – found a modest degree of support, and not until the 1990s that colour became the staple of photographic practice.’
‘William Eggleston began to create colour photographs in the mid 1960s, shifting in the late 1960s to colour transparency film, the kind that is used domestically and commercially for photographing family holidays, advertising and magazine imagery.’
‘The magic of these photographs was their compositional intrigue and sensitive transformation of a slight subject or observation into a compelling visual form.’
‘At that time, Eggleston’s adoption of the colour range of commonplace photography was still considered to be outside the established realms of fine art photography.’
‘But in 1976, a selection of photographers he created between 1969 and 1971 was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first solo show of a photographer working predominantly in colour.’
‘… the show was an early and timely indicator of the force that Eggleston’s alternative approach would have.’
‘In 2002, the Los Alamos Project was published as a book and as a series of portfolios of dye-transfer colour prints.’
‘The original concept for the project was grand by any standards: two thousand images, taken during road trips between 1966 and 1974 and then printed without captions or commentary in a series of twenty volumes (see Figure 1).’
Figure 1: Lost Alamos, 1966-1974, William Eggleston
‘The Project was inspired by a journey Eggleston had made with his friend the curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005), who had pointed out the gates of the Los Alamos laboratories near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the site where the atomic bomb had been developed …’
‘The timing of the publication of the Los Alamos Project, almost thirty years after it was photographed, reflects the continual growth in the appreciation of art photography’s history.’
‘Stephen shore received critical notice for his photography at a precociously young age.’
‘… in 1971, he co-curated an exhibition of photographic ephemera (such as postcards, family snaps, magazine pages) .. In the same year he photographed the main buildings and sites of public interest in a small town in Texas called Amarillo.’
‘His subtle observations on the town’s generic qualities were made apparent when the photographs were printed as ordinary postcards (see Figure 2 and 3).’
Figure 2: West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, 1974 (Stephen Shore)
‘Shore did not sell many of the 5,600 cards he had printed; so, instead, he put them in postcard racks in all the places he visited…’
‘His involvement with and interest in pop art, and a fascination with and simulation of photography’s everyday styles and functions, influenced Shore’s coming to colour photography…’
‘In 1972, he exhibited 220 photographs, made with a 35mm Instamatic camera and shown in grids, of day-to-day events and ordinary objects cropped and casually depicted (see Figures 2 and 3)…’
‘Like Eggleston’s The Los Alamos Project, Shore’s early exploration of colour photography as a vehicle for artistic ideas was not commonly known or accessible until relatively recently, when it was published in a book called American Surfaces (1999)…’
‘One of the most important influences on contemporary art photographers is the work of the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher.’
‘Their austere grids of black-and-white photographs of architectural structures such as gas tanks, water towers and blast furnaces (see Figure 2), taken since the late 1950s, may appear to stand in contrast with the sensibilities of Eggleston and Shore, but there is an important connection.’
‘Like them, the Bechers have been instrumental in rephrasing vernacular photography into highly considered artistic strategies, in part as a way of investing art photography with visual and mental connections to history and the everyday.’
‘Their photographs serve a double function: they are unromantic documents of historic structures, while their unpretentiousness and systematic recording of architecture sits within the use of taxonomies in conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s.’
‘The Bechers have also played an important role as teachers at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. Among their students were such leading practitioners as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand and Candida Hofer …’
Following on from my recent research in Poplar, I have been shooting in the Thamesmead area of south east London. The area is notable for hosting a vast 1960s housing estate – broken up into ‘sub-estates’ – built in the modernist/cubist style popular amongst architects and urban planners of the era (particularly those who worked for the Greater London Council). The estate is in diverging states of disrepair and upkeep, many of the properties are now privately owned and some parts have been demolished to make way for a long-term regeneration plan.
My shots are focused on the elevated ‘streets’ that dominate the estate. My original intention with the images was to focus on the facades of the housing, the textures, geometric shapes, the colours, and also the inevitable signs of decay. As I walked through the labyrinth of the ‘street’ and looked for these elements, I began to notice the shortcomings of the design. In many places it felt very dark despite it being the middle of the afternoon, there was flooding everywhere after heavy rain, and there were very few communal areas such as gardens, benches or even an area that felt welcoming or inviting.
As well as showing the material facade of the building, my images also show how a space can be poorly designed. The estate is essential a series of empty spaces, there is no impression of community from an outsider’s perspective. The space does not seem to have been designed with the intention of cultivating a community. It is inviting to theorise why the planners selected this design for such a massive estate, and if I decide to proceed with this idea and image set for my final submission I shall be providing more context to the political and social forces that created the Thamesmead estate.
Nevertheless, what is interesting is that there are still signs of individualisation within the ‘streets’, and that even within a design that appears to reject the idea of community, residents can provide a more welcoming space simply by painting a wall or by placing a few plants outside the front door. I will continue reflecting on these images whilst waiting for my film scans to return from the lab.
Case Study 1: Art, design, politics – Soviet Constructivism and the Bauhaus
‘For the constructivists, photography was a popular form which, through its usage in posters, magazines and publishing, could be at the forefront of taking new ideas to the people.’
‘Emphasising art’s post-Revolutionary responsibilities, Rodchenko stated that he was fed up with ‘belly button’ shots, by which he meant photographs composed conventionally shot from waist level through cameras with their viewfinder on top.’ (see below Figure 1)
‘He argued for full exploration of the geometry of the image which would, literally and metaphorically, engineer a new angle of vision.’
Figure 1: Rodchenko sequence
The integration of art and design
‘The bauhaus was a clear response to the destruction and dereliction witnessed during the First World War… Like Soviet Constructivism, the Bauhaus was multi-disciplinary, although architecture came to be the central concern.’
‘Bauhaus theorists emphasised the relation between form and function, and stressed what they saw as a potential unity of art, design and the everyday.’
‘Frankfurt School theorist, Walter Benjamin, expressed impatience with such experimentation, accusing the ‘new objectivity’ photographers of the Bauhaus of making the world artistic rather than making Art mundane.’
‘For Benjamin, emphasis on form detracted from the democratic characteristics of photography which, in his view, should be a comprehensible means of communication for everyone. He opposed formalism and abstraction because, he argued, experimentation in visual languages tends to be exclusive, and therefore elitist.’
A new instrument of vision
‘Laszlo and Lucia Moholy-Nagy were perhaps the best-known photographers associated with the Bauhaus. They stressed ways in which use of light, mechanical reproduction and the possibility of sensitive printing expressed the machine aesthetic of the Modern Age.’
‘In parallel with the Soviet emphasis upon photo-eye as the modern method of communication, Moholy-Nagy emphasised the relation between the mechanical nature of the camera, form, the use of light and visual perception, arguing that photography enhances sight in relation to time and space.’
‘Like Benjamin, their writings opposed the reification of the individual artist. Unlike Benjamin, they stressed the compositional qualities of the image, viewing this as central to the means of expression.’
Modern photography, the gallery and the archive
‘From about 1905 (towards the end of Pictorialism) photography had little visibility in the art gallery. The work of British photographers – such as Bill Brandt and George Rodgers, whom we now celebrate – was not made initially for gallery exhibition, nor was it necessarily widely known.’
Late Twentieth-century perspectives
“The American and European Avant-grade art movements of the 1960s emphasised idea and process over the conventions of painting and sculpture. The war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement in America, the development of feminist politics and theory, and the student protests of 1968, were reflected in works that were challenging to the status quo, to ideas about the artist as apolitical and working alone, and to art institutions.’ (Comment and Commitment: Art and Society 1975-1990, Tate Gallery, London 1995)
Conceptual art and the photographic
‘Photography in the 1960s was centrally implicated in the expansion of the mass media, including fashion shots, album covers for long playing records, photojournalism..’
‘First, pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Richard Hamilton started to use the photographic in order to reference and comment on lifestyles and consumerism.’
‘To echo Roland Barthes, many elements within their pictures were deja-lu (‘already read’).’
‘Raymond Williams has suggested that in the 1960s the two dimensions of the modern, radical aesthetics and technological change, came together in the pictures of artists whose work engaged with the revolution in mass culture..’
‘Modernist theory had focussed on the medium. By contrast, Conceptual Art stressed ideas. Artists were concerned to draw attention to the manner or vocabulary of expression…’
‘Indeed, in a number of instances artists placed a statement about an art object in the gallery, thereby focusing attention on the idea, rather than the object (which might never have been actually made).’
‘Conceptual Art, especially in its more critical or political forms, constituted a challenge to the Art establishment…’
‘In conceptual photography the characteristics of the medium could be used as a part of the means of expression of an idea.’
‘Thus, for instance, Keith Arnatt’s sequence of digging himself into a hole in the ground (see Figure 2) is obviously, at one level, a metaphoric reference to the well-known phrase. But the documentary idiom secures a sense that this event literally did take place through demonstrating the sequence of moments in time.’
‘The humour of the piece of work emanates from the realism attributed to photography. One way of testing the implication of choice of specific medium, and therefore the implied comment on the nature of the medium, is to imagine what interpretational shift might occur if the sequence had been, say, painted.’
‘Conceptualism challenged the dominance of abstract Formalism.’
‘It was not that it denied the significance of form. Rather, form was brought into play differently with a view to social, political, metaphysical, or simply humorous, comment.’
‘However, as photography became accepted within Conceptual Art, so attention came to be paid to photographs (pictorialist, formalist and documentary) and to photography history. In effect, Conceptual Art offered a bridge into the gallery.’
‘This era featured other challenges which, although incorporating some of the aesthetic characteristics of formalism, took for their starting point ideas which were anchored socially (rather than aesthetically).’
‘For instance, the “new topographics” photographers, including Lewis Baltz and Bernd and Hilla Becher, explored the act of looking through the detailed mapping of industrial edifices or locations.’
‘Similar images are blocked next to one another, thereby bringing into question the degree of detailed discrimination involved in day-to-day perceptions.’
‘… the new topographics, in charting the industrial landscape, implied a social and environmental questioning which did not figure in American Formalism.’
Following on from the black and white set of Poplar that I shared in the previous post, I opted to focus on the Robin Hood Gardens council estate.
The estate was designed in the late 1960s by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. The design, similar to the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, was founded on the concept of ‘streets in the sky’. However there were serious shortcomings on the design as the architects had to compromise on a lot of aspects. Residents would often complain about structural failings such as the persistent breakdown of the lifts and that the ‘streets’ encouraged criminal activity.
Attempts by campaigners and architects – who value the estate’s architecture as a prime example of 1960s British brutalism – to get the building listed have failed repeatedly, and so the estate has long been earmarked for demolition. My photos represent possibly some of the last taken on the estate (by an outsider), and there is a detectable sense of anticipation when walking around the estate. It is tempting to frame the photos primarily against the backdrop of the failure and subsequent demolition of Robin Hood Gardens. It could perhaps be taken as a microcosm for the failure of the ideas of the 1960s planners who sought to reshape the British urban landscape.
What I found more interesting and something that you could only observe by being at the estate, is that there is still community that clings on. It is easy to forget about the people who live there when caught up in the furore of listing applications, regeneration plans and demolition rumours. My photos show the minor arts of daily life still occurring against the backdrop of a 1960s designed council estate that now sits half empty and almost completely abandoned by the local authority.
I think these photos contain more of a focus than the previous series taken around Poplar – which was a general look at the area rather than narrowing down to a theme or idea. Also I feel these photos show much more about the people who live there (they contain people for one thing) but also show signs of normal, everyday life, despite the reputation and high level murmurings that surround the estate. I may therefore revisit RHG a couple more times (shot with a 6×7 camera, 55mm lens and colour film) to shoot with this theme/idea in mind. I like the control and limitations of 6×7 film with the wide 55mm – the slow considered approach to this area feels appropriate. Most of the images feel well composed in the landscape format although some could do with some tweaking and/or returning to shoot.
(Technique: Pentax 6×7 with 55mm lens and Kodak Portra 400 / Fuji Pro 400h mostly shot at 1/125-1/250th at F/4-F/8)
As part of my research for the final assignment, I have been taking my camera around areas of London and taking the observational approach I adopted for Brixton in the previous assignment. I have opted to research around Poplar in the East End, Elephant and Castle, Ladbroke Grove and areas in the City. These areas all contain modernist housing estates, the majority built in the post-war period in order to house those made homeless from bombing.
What is interesting about these estates are the ideas of community they represent, ideas that drove the 1960s urban planners to completely reimagine British cities. Prestige projects such as the Golden Lane estate in the City divide opinion but are popular enough to have listed status. The less refined architecture of inner city estates, such as Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, are derided and often dismissed as ‘sink estates’.
What is unclear is why these places began to be perceived as harsh places of social collapse. One idea that I have been interested in pursuing is reimagining these places through a set of images that examine an estate in London (or a number of estates). I am not sure if I will be focusing on one estate, although it would perhaps provide more focus to the project if I focused on a single estate and its surrounding area. Linking back to my research on ‘deadpan’ and the ‘new topographics’ (see previous posts), I would like to present detached, observational images of these areas/estates that are an appraisal of their meaning to the people who inhabit them, and also to some degree the wider city. What my images may show is at this stage not completely determined and hinges in part on what I may observe, but the images of Poplar (see below) hopefully give some idea of what the final set may look like.
So far I have shot at Robin Hood Gardens and the Balfron estate in Poplar, the Golden Lane Estate in the City, and also at Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove. I have both colour and monochrome images, which I will subsequently edit and post in sets when completed. I also plan to have a look at the Brunswick centre near Russell Square and perhaps if I have time have a walk around the Thamesmead area, so I will be adding further sets over the next 2-3 weeks. I also have some images shot in Elephant and Castle, particularly around the regeneration project going on at Elephant Park and the Goldfinger designed modernist housing on the roundabout.
The set below has been shot over a period of 1-2 months in Poplar at Balfron tower and Robin Hood Gardens. The former is listed and the latter has been earmarked for demolition. It has been interesting to walk around Poplar as it is a very diverse area culturally and in terms of its architecture, however I feel including both estates in a set and focusing on the area as a whole lacks focus. I have therefore focused more on the Robin Hood Gardens estate (see next post) and have decided it is better to focus on a smaller area for a series of 12 images.
The images have potential, and the square format and Ilford film certainly convey a sense of the architectural facade and general grittiness of the area. My main doubt though is how much the images reveal to the viewer of the people who live in Poplar? Are they architecture photos? This is something to bare in mind when shooting and cutting the photos into a set.
(Technique: TLR camera and Ilford PanF film, mostly shot at 1/125 – 1/500 from F/3.5 – F/8)
As a follow up to the previous post on the ‘New Topographics’, my reading has led me to explore the ideas of ‘deadpan’ in photography. Although this is a term thrown around quite loosely for a wide variety of work, I would like to focus on certain artists who have attracted the moniker.
In her book ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Charlotte Cotton focuses on ‘deadpan’ and examines a fascinating series of images. One immediate reaction of the viewer is to perceive an emotional detachment on the part of the photographers – it is as if they want to convey to their audience an objective reality, devoid of the photographer’s personal interpretation. Cotton maintains that ‘the adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective’ (Cotton, P.81). In other words, interpreting the subjects and understanding meaning is left to the audience and ‘our sense of what the photographers’ emotions might be is not the obvious guide to understanding the meaning of the images’ (Cotton, P.81).
Perhaps one of the more interesting facts Cotton touches on is what the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic has done for photography within the art world. It can perhaps be traced back to the emergence of the Bernd Becher as an artist and those that studied under his tutelage:
‘The “deadpan aesthetic” we see today is often characterised as “Germanic”. This moniker refers not only to the nationality of many of the key figures but also to the fact that a significant number were educated, under the tutelage of Bernd Becher, at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany.’ (Cotton, P.82)
This school was the catalyst that broke photography education and learning away from the emphasis on it as a vocational and professional pursuit – for example with photojournalism or commercial photography – to that of ‘artistically led pictures’. The Bechers’ collaborative series of black and white photos of German industrial architecture, obsessive in its formalism and rigorous in its approach, employed large format cameras and plate negatives on which were captured industrial buildings such as cooling towers (see below).
Bernd and Hilla Becher; study of concrete cooling towers; 1972
Each of the towers ‘… is photographed from the same perspective, notes on each are taken, and a typology is systematically created.’ (Cotton, P.83) The Bechers photographed the industrial landscapes of Germany and Europe at a time when it was disappearing as societies of western Europe shifted to a post-industrial world.
The influence of the Bechers’ work can be seen on their students as well, particularly with that of Andreas Gursky. He works on a large scale, using large format cameras for maximum clarity and digital post-production to refine, and exhibits hard-hitting prints that are often up to 2 metres high and 5 metres wide. What is quite unique about Gursky however is that he often creates images that are not ‘primarily contingent on being viewed as part of a series’ (Cotton, P.83). He works more like a painter than a photographer, refining a single work rather than hingeing on a set of images. His signature high vantage points leaving the viewer feeling remote from the subjects (see below), typical of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’.
Andreas Gursky; Chicago, Board of Trade II; 1999
In the same vain as Gurksy and the Bechers, Ed Burtynsky’s work focuses on the man-made landscape. His 12-year work on the topography of oil, perhaps best evidenced by the image below of the Californian oilfield. Cotton makes an intriguing observation concerning Burtynsky’s work:
‘While social, political, and ecological issues are embedded into his subjects, they are visualised as objective evidence of the consequences of contemporary life.’ (Cotton, P.86)
Cotton highlights that the underpinning principle of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ is that the photographer is relaying information impartially, despite what the viewer may interpret about the artist’s intention.
Consequently the deadpan photographer brings personal politics into play by selecting the subject matter and ‘anticipating the viewer’s reaction to it” (Cotton, P.86) rather than through any explicit political statement through style or text.
The deadpan aesthetic is a huge field and there are a lot of artists with a wide range of subject matter. However looking at these three photographers work – quite similar in subject matter – has been fruitful in terms of informing my understanding of the ideas behind deadpan and the context artists such as Andreas Gursky learned their craft in.
Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson 2004
In 1975 an important exhibition called ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ appeared. In retrospective art criticism, this exhibition is ascribed as initiating a turning point in the history of photography, particularly as it was in some ways the antithesis of traditional portrayals of landscape. Photographers Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke were commissioned to reimagine ‘the genres of topographical and architectural photography with the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry’. (Cotton, P.83). In some ways the most significant aspect of the exhibition was that these social and political agents were for the first time considered on the art gallery wall. Within this context ‘what at the time were seen as individual styles” were abandoned in favour of a detached objective style, somewhat similar in style to John Davies (see previous post) but greater in their rejection of the idealised interpretation of landscape.
At the time the exhibition was not well received by an audience that was used to the traditional landscape photography of the time. The exhibition presented 168 black and white prints of suburbia, industrial warehouses, city centres, wastelands and even seemingly banal car parks. I have selected a couple of photographs (see below) by Frank Gohlke and Lewis Baltz that are good examples of the artists presenting the aesthetic beauty of the banal, whilst revealing interesting narratives below the strict formalism in each photo. While the ‘New Topographics’ was disparaged at the time, it was crucial in opening up new opportunities for later artists. A good example of this Catherine Opie who published series called ‘Masterplan’ and ‘Mini-malls’, the inspiration for which she attributes back to the original 1975 exhibition while crafting her own interpretation of the suburbanised landscape. An example of her work is posted below as is an interesting video I came across online in which she talks about the representation of the ‘Man-Altered Landscape’ in photography.
Frank Gohlke; Grain Elevator and Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas; 1975; Gelatin silver print, 1996; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Lewis Baltz; The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, Element No. 5; California, 1977
The link to the interview with Catherine Opie can be found here.
The ‘New Topographics’ was certainly a revolutionary exhibit at the time, and it’s influence on practising artist up to the present day is clear to see. The idea of finding beauty in the banal and challenging the audience to look closely for historical narrative is something that will inform research for the final assignment. Depth and experimenting with formalised composition is something that I will be challenging myself to practice in an observational approach.
Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom 2004; New edition
Catherine Opie; Catherine Opie on New Topographics; Los Angeles County Museum of Art 2009; Youtube video
This post will continue my examination of Davies’ work, particularly honing in on his long-term series ‘The British Landscape’, shot over a period of 30 years starting in the late 1970s.
Davies’ series shows the topography of the British Isles as a dynamic landscape in a constant state of change. His images range from conventional – but masterful in execution – images of the Lake District and Isle of Skye, to panoramas of the post-industrial landscape in the north of England. The above shot of the Stockport viaduct (built 1839) is somewhat typical of the series in showing the diverse layers of the landscape in this area of the canal. The reflections in the water show widely diverging architecture, the columns of the viaduct, the linear building of the 1970s tower block and the shadows of the Victorian warehouses on either bank.
The images divulge a sense of calm amid the changing post-industrial landscapes, perhaps best exemplified by the photograph above of the bowling greens. The choice to work in black and white also lends the series a sense of permanence, in conflict with the signs of inevitable change on view.
Perhaps the signature image in the series is the one shown above of the Agecroft Power Station in Salford. The viewer can discern a football pitch below the towering chimneys of the power station, and on the pitch humans are reduced to mere specks. This shows something of manmade scale and the human figure, and how a landscape can be shaped by human endeavour – in this image by both leisure and the need for energy. Despite the narratives that his images convey to the viewer, Davies retains a deadpan detachment in his images in a style that is reminiscent of the ‘New Topographics’. Davies states that he is not interested in ‘providing vehicles for escape but in delivering a highly crafted detailed image conveying a sense of reality’ (Davies, 2011).
What is also interesting about the series is Davies’ signature composition from elevated positions, an approach he applies to both cityscapes (as above of New Street Station) and the rural-industrial landscape. What is interesting about the images is how they show landscapes that are neither wholly urban or rural, and are tainted by the signs of change that are inevitable in a post-industrial society.
As part of the post-assignment reflection, I reworked the images I shot for the assignment into a new series. One of the suggestions my tutor made for future assignments is reviewing how images work together in a set, as well as how things like format and aspect ratio can affect this.
I chose the 11 images below as I think they present a set of images that flow better together than the set I submitted. One of my tutor’s points was that the landscape images appear to have stronger compositions – in hindsight, the stronger images do appear to be the landscape shots as they make better use of their elements, and it might have been preferable to submit shots in the same format to maintain uniformity within the set. However it must be said this is not something to be assumed with every set of images, but keeping the same format is worth considering for future projects. See the reworked set of images below.
Looking ahead to the final assignment, one of the underlying points from my tutor’s feedback is to play to my strengths. With that in mind I will most likely be composing with the landscape format, unless I go for square crop images. Also points to takeaway from this and put into the process for the next assignment as I start my research are:
continue with the observational ‘flaneur’ approach
consider printing images (even cheap inkjet prints) when considering what to include in a final set
make the brief for the final assignment fit the images, not the other way around
consider using a tripod when composing landscapes
refine composition and think carefully about how the elements fit together within the frame
I expect my research for the final assignment to continue for at least the next month or so. I will post the results of my research on here as I go along, along with the results of my research from reading the course books and online materials.
I have recently become interested in the work of John Davies, which sparked my research into the Cities on the Edge exhibition. Davies curated the exhibit and his own contribution to the exhibition is worth some discussion along with my own reflections as I embark on the research for the final assignment.
Davies’ style is recognisable and quite unique in its approach to capturing the urban landscape. His long term project ‘The British Landscape’ aims to show the upheavals Britain has undergone from a highly industrialised society to a post industrial society. The project focuses on the industrial heartlands of the country. His way of portraying these landscapes is subtle and understated, he states that he aims to “avoid imposing my own view of urban change” (Davies, 2012) and his visual style is distinguished by its almost panoramic views of the British landscape.
Frustratingly I found it quite difficult to source any images Davies contributed to the exhibition (I did not resort to finding a copy of the book). I did find one image of what I am assuming is Ropewalks in Liverpool, one of the areas Davies chose to document. The photo is somewhat typical of Davies’ style, especially in terms of finding a high vantage point to give the viewer a sense of the layout of the urban landscape. This choice of composition is important in giving the viewer a different way of looking at a public area, and one that most people would not get to see. Whilst this works very well with Davies’ images of very well known areas of Britain (New Street Station, Edgware Road, Elephant and Castle etc.) it is perhaps not as integral to this particular image. Even so it is important in understanding the context of the exhibit and many of those who would viewed it (in Liverpool) would perhaps be familiar with the Ropewalks area. Giving us these unusual and ‘birds eye’ style vantage points allow us to consider urban landscapes we are familiar with in a different way.
The image itself is useful in showing the viewer how an urban landscape can change. We can see evidence of industrial and economic decline in the form of the run down warehouses in the background and the gutted Victorian house. The builder (?) in the florescent jacket and the development on the left hand side could perhaps be considered as agents of change. The typical working class pub on the right hand side is evidence of how some aspects of a city can be constant and show how some social mores are maintained through the generations, even in the face of industrial decline and social upheaval.
Whilst this image is a useful one to analyse and compare with other contributors to the exhibit, it is perhaps only a taster. I will try and source the rest of his images and do another post that examines the rest of his commission in the near future, and perhaps also look at Davies’ portfolio in greater depth. However, taking into account my research into the work of Taptik and Volz for the Cities on the Edge exhibit, I have outlined some points to be mindful of as I conduct the visual research for the final assignment:
Over the last two assignments, the focus of my photography has shifted heavily towards documenting the urban landscape. I will therefore be looking at how I can channel this focus towards a well-considered commercial or professional brief that examines an aspect of the urban landscape, considering carefully the nature of the client.
I will also need to decide whether I will include human subjects in my final images, and what sort of visual style I will be going for. Consulting with my tutor and gauging what the expectations are from the examiner will be vital in my final decision. Considerations about technique can also be factored into this.
Finally it is worth noting here some inspirations or ideas I have had concerning the final assignment. I have noted on John Davies’ website commissions (the ‘monographs’) that range from sets about French motorways (‘Autoroute A26’) to sets covering major construction projects (‘Phase 11’). Deciding upon a brief that fits similar parameters could make for an interesting project, however I will need to be mindful of time and logistical constraints.
Examining the Cities on the Edge project has been a worthwhile process and has informed the early stages of my visual research for the final assignment. I will be examining the images I have captured so far in depth and posting them on here as soon as possible, whilst continuing with my research into other artists simultaneously.
As part of the “Cities on the Edge” exhibition, designed to contrast various European port cities with Liverpool, Bremen based photographer Sandy Volz was tasked with contributing a set of images. In two cities struggling from declining commercial spheres and hard economic times, Volz chose to focus on photographing the interiors of pubs. Both Bremen and Liverpool have a long tradition of pub culture and so Volz contrasted the interior design of various establishments in both cities.
The set is a 20 image series that utilises the 35mm aspect ratio with a portrait orientation. Shot in colour with what looks like a standard focal length, Volz focuses the attention of the camera onto the design of the space and the wall decorations. Volz states in the artist statement that the “individual aspects of these pubs’ interior styles are analysed as social and cultural signifiers” (Volz, 2008). In other words Volz reduces the elements of the frame to symbolic devices for the viewer to read – for instance the viewer could take the Beatles memorabilia as a cultural “signifier” that gives away the pub’s location. Likewise the German flags decorating the walls of the establishment are an obvious sign of location.
Another interesting aspect the photographer touches on is the idea of the pub as “places where the private and public spheres overlap” (Volz, 2008). The interior design of the pubs appears to blend the conventional design of public spaces to that of a private home – mixing the domestic with the commercial. Each pub appears to be well used, the furniture old and worn out in places, the decorations and design also somewhat dated (for 2008). The viewer could perhaps take this as a sign of the economic hardships faced by the respective cities, and perhaps hints at the age and demographic of the ownership in each place.
Similar to Taptik’s series examined in the previous post, the sense of uniformity is a key aspect to Volz’s set. The choice of subject is also very interesting, especially the aspects of the pub the photographer chose to focus on. Volz’s decision to not include human subjects in the frame perhaps gives the viewer a better understanding of the social, cultural and economic context of the establishments.
This is certainly a creative approach that prompts the viewer to question and deduce where each establishment is located. Indeed it is hard to guess the location of some especially those lacking wall decorations. Perhaps the photographer aimed to diffuse the national boundaries that separate the two cities, and to reveal the common heritage and traditions of the communities within Bremen and Liverpool.
When researching and defining the parameters for the assignment five brief, it would be useful to consider the nature of the locations I will be photographing carefully. It would also be helpful to examine what each element brings to the frame, what they could signify to the viewer and how they might be interpreted. Volz successfully analysed each scene and chose to include elements that indicated aspects such as cultural and economic contexts. This in concert with the uniformity of the presentation creates a striking set of images that are somewhat different but no less powerful than others from the “Cities on the Edge” exhibit.
See the full 20 image set on Sandy Volz’s website:
The “Cities on the Edge” series was commissioned by Liverpool Culture Company on the theme of people and place in Liverpool. A group of photographers based in European port cities including Istanbul, Marseilles and Bremen were tasked to produce a set of images that explored connections between these environments. The exhibition was curated by the British photographer John Davies, whose contribution to the exhibit and prior work I will be exploring in a subsequent post. This post will focus on the work of Istanbul based photographer, Ali Taptik, whose contribution to the exhibit caught my attention immediately.
Taptik’s commissioned work for the exhibit is a series of striking portraits taken in the host city Liverpool and in Taptik’s home city Istanbul. My initial impression of the set is how the photographer utilises a wide angle and deep depth of field to capture the surrounding environment of his subjects. From this choice of technique it is palpable Taptik intends to show the viewer the relationship between the subject and their surroundings.
Taptik alternates between showing us glimpses of life in Liverpool and Istanbul, and his photos tell us something of the circumstances in which his subjects live. The photos of Liverpool show us ageing, decrepit terraces while in Istanbul we see a variety of environments with clear signs of decay and poverty. In all the images the subjects occupy the centre of the frame, and other elements within the frame hint at a narrative concerning their relationship with the environment they inhabit. The image from Istanbul above shows us a boy in dirty clothes with a herd of sheep behind him. From this the viewer could ask questions about the circumstances of the boy – is he looking after the sheep? What are they doing in the middle of a built up area?
Likewise with the above image from Liverpool, Taptik positions his subject in the centre of the frame and other elements (the dog, the road, the physical appearance of the subject) help to create a visual narrative. Also apparent with this image and with others in the set is Taptik’s post processing. There is a latent vignette placed in the corners of the frame which helps to divert the viewer’s attention to the subject. This suggests that while Taptik wishes to show the surrounding environments his subjects inhabit, he does not wish us to be distracted by these surroundings. It is the relationship between the subject and their environments Taptik intends for us to focus on.
I selected the image above as it stands out somewhat in terms of composition and environment. The subject is off centre and positioned in front of a collection of chairs dumped on the street. Again an interesting narrative is suggested by the elements Taptik chose to incorporate in the frame – the viewer again asks questions about the subject’s relationship with the surroundings.
Taptik’s series is a powerful set of photos of people and their surroundings in Istanbul and Liverpool. I think the photographer is successful in showing a connection between the environments he captures in the two cities. In both locations we see urban decay and industrial decline evident in the environments of his subjects. There is a suggestion that the subjects don’t quite fit their environment, particular the shot of the boy with the sheep, and also the girl on the street full of decrepit and boarded up houses. This is the connection perhaps – that in both cities, Liverpool and Istanbul, people exist who struggle to fit in and have become somewhat marginalised by the decline and deprivation of the environments they inhabit.
One point to takeaway from this set is how Taptik employs a consistent visual style – his subjects appear dead centre in the frame (for the most part), the depth of field shows all the detail surrounding the subjects, and the colour and aspect ratio also help to nurture this sense of uniformity. Taptik also does not allow the the background to dominate his subjects; his subjects are positioned against background colours that contrast to the colour of their clothes. He reveals small details that do not overshadow the subject, but the details are significant enough to hint at the nature of the subject’s relationship with their surroundings. It is maintaining this balance along with a uniform visual style that has allowed Taptik to create a strong set of environmental portraits.
My tutor recently pointed me in the direction of the British photographer, John Davies. I decided to follow up with some research about Davies looking at his website and portfolio. It was during this research that I came across the “Cities on the Edge” (2008) commissioned by the Liverpool Culture Commission. Davies was invited to curate and organise the exhibit by selecting a few photographers from around the world to contribute to the project.
Davies and the host city, Liverpool, asked the contributors to explore the visual, cultural, social and political relationship between their home cities and the host city. Six photographers were invited to exhibit, including Ali Taptik, Sandy Volz and Davies himself. Out of the six contributors, these three photographers produced the images that inspired me the most although each produced very different sets – a result of their contrasting visual styles and subject matter.
Over the coming few days I will be looking at these three photographers’ contributions to the “Cities on the Edge” project, focusing on the commission brief and how each photographer interpreted it. This will be useful in preparation for creating my own client brief, and helping me to decide on what kind of client I will be serving.
For the following assignment, I selected the Brixton area in south London as my location. I visited the area over a few weeks and shot a variety of subjects, locations, and buildings. Over the period of time I ‘covered’ the area I found that I gradually developed a narrative and theme to focus on for the assignment brief. As this specified that the images would be pitched to a thoughtful travel publication, I looked for a strong visual narrative through the final images I would be making my selection from.
From the first walk around the area with my camera, I noticed immediately the juxtaposition between the old, independent businesses around the area, particularly underneath the railway arches on Atlantic Road and the markets on Electric Avenue, and the new forces of regeneration in the form of Network Rail’s apparent intent to refurbish the arches. However my subsequent walks around the area revealed a more complex narrative, and with my final selection I set out to show a greater insight into the area beyond the obvious tensions created by the regeneration initiatives. Also in keeping with the brief, I tried to incorporate a variety of images that showed the various techniques in camera handling, observation and reaction explored in the module so far.
The initial selection
I made an initial selection of 12 images from around the 50-100 frames I shot in Brixton over a period of 4-5 weeks. I thought this initial 12 best captured the narrative I was trying to convey. All images were shot with my Sony digital camera and a 28-70mm zoom lens. I found this gear choice gave me a simple but flexible approach, and is notably the first time I have used digital for an assignment on this course. The approach I chose – walking around the location a few times over a period of weeks – meant that using film would have delayed the completion of the assignment considerably, and also have interfered with the momentum I gained from each visit to the area. Whilst I find the film process useful and sometimes preferable to the instant gratification of digital, I felt that seeing the images immediately once I had arrived at home allowed me to appraise what I had captured that day, and to make notes on possible themes and narratives to focus on during my next visit.
Images were therefore shot from a variety of focal lengths; however looking at the EXIF data from the RAW files showed that I did not go wider than 35mm, and went up to the maximum 70mm my zoom lens allowed. I did not do much editing in Lightroom beyond the exposure and contrast sliders, but also did some cropping that in some cases affected the composition of the finished images. I also stuck with the traditional 35mm aspect ratio and colour palette to create a more consistent feel to the set, baring in mind that the final set would be published in a magazine. The inevitable overcast days that are typical of England at this time of year were also welcome in helping to create a consistent feel to the images, despite them being captured at various times over October-December 2015.
The first three images below were taken in residential areas of Brixton, and I feel they capture something of the essence of the community’s character. The first shot is of Loughborough Park and the Guinness Trust, which acts as an advocate for the local residents in the estate which is under threat of demolition so the developers can move in. Some development can be discerned in the background behind the Guinness Trust building and the original flats, and shows something of the conflict present in the estate. The green boards on the left hint at the development taking place, and the old man with shopping trolley could perhaps be taken to symbolise the resistance of the local residents to the developers. In terms of composition, the man on the left draws our attention and acts as an initial focal point within the frame. However the green boards, the Guinness Trust building and the new development in the background create a multi-layered image with a strong narrative that I feel sets the tone for the remainder of the series.
The second image below shows the ‘Pop Brixton’ development. The area is an initiative that uses old shipping containers and aims to encourage local residents to get involved by offering affordable rents or subsidised loans for start up businesses. The containers range from housing street food stands, restaurants, bars, clothing shops, jewellers, bakeries and even a small stage for music and stand up comedy performances. It is undoubtedly a product of the regeneration that has affected the area in recent years, but perhaps shows a more positive side to what such initiatives can do for Brixton. The image itself utilises the “anonymous” figure approach to photographing people in place. The figures entering the development form part of the overall photo which features the shipping containers and a 1960s residential tower block in the background. Along with other images of the set, I noticed that this image display an independence and ingenuity on the part of the community in Brixton – an area that is traditionally a working-class area of London, but has seen vast amount of social upheaval over the years. This theme is something that resonates throughout the set, but is a trait that can also help to explain the local community’s rejection and mistrust of initiatives from outside developers such as Network Rail.
The next image below is in the same vain as the image of ‘Pop Brixton’, and shows more of the ‘can do’ attitude of the local community that I observed. This is a clearly a communal area, and it is the recycling of materials for a public space that shows the ingenuity of the community that uses it, for instance the mannequins and wooden platforms that surround the space.
The preceding images below were taken below the railway arches on the Atlantic road. As mentioned the arches are an area of particular conflict in the area due to the stated intention of Network Rail to regenerate the arches and potentially force away the small businesses that have operated out of the shops below the railway.
The images I chose vary in camera handling, composition and subject focus. They vary from showing the type businesses that reside beneath the arches, for example the wig shop and carpet shop, to showing the people that use the space particularly the delivery man and the two people sitting in conversation in the first and second images respectively. The uniting strand in them is that they show a thriving community that still exists beneath a railway that presumably thousands of people use to commute to central London everyday, probably unaware of what exists beneath.
The final images that I chose for the initial selection are varied in location.The first in the sequence is of a church on the main road not far from the tube station and opposite the famous music venue, Electric Brixton. I chose to include it as it shows something about the community that still resides in Brixton, and the fact that the church was packed when I visited shows that many of the local residents are still very religious. The final three are shot on the famous Electric Avenue, which resonates with independent markets and butchers, and is always somewhat chaotic and dirty. I thought the image of the two butchers busy on their phones reveals a quiet moment amidst the chaos. The graffiti in the final image above also perhaps tells a story particularly when placed amongst the chosen images of this set. Is the graffiti alluding to something lost in the area? Are the authors talking about an end of an era? It is an interesting photo to finish on certainly within the context of the narrative the images reveal.
The final selection
In keeping with the assignment brief I cut the initial selection of twelve images to a final six. I would have preferred to have kept the final set to the twelve selected above and cutting those to six has been a difficult exercise, particularly as I feel the twelve photo series works so well.
Cutting the selection of twelve down to six was certainly tricky, especially when covering an area as diverse as Brixton with its vibrant and active community. The final six I felt show the essence of the local community as one of ingenuity (as evidenced by the ‘Pop Brixton’ and Loughborough park images), and of unique use of space (the use of the arches as a public and retail space). The final image ‘I miss my Brixton’ is particularly illustrative – the local residents perhaps face a near constant struggle to adapt in the face of forces of deprivation and regeneration, but the graffiti also shows that many take pride in the character of their community.
Overall I felt the final images I produced for this assignment were successful in capturing what I wanted to convey as the ‘essence’ of Brixton. Although I would liked to have presented the initially selected twelve as the series, the final six still work well together and succeed in presenting something of the area whilst maintaining visual variety. I would have liked more access to areas such as Loughborough Park, perhaps focusing more on the people who reside there and capturing portraits and something of their personal stories. However this assignment was more about capturing the community as a whole, and including the space in the frame was just as important as the people. In fact for some images including human subjects was almost unimportant, for example the ‘Pop Brixton’ images which makes use of the anonymous figures.
Without an end-result in mind, I might have approached photographing Brixton in a much less focused way. In fact the resulting images may have been much more cliche – including perhaps the inevitable ‘street portrait’ – and less focused on conveying a narrative. I may also not have revisited the area over a few weeks and not taken the time to walk around and to get to know the place. I found this approach very useful in forming ideas and finding a narrative to tie a finished set of images together. Having a clearly defined goal when shooting a project is a vital lesson I will takeaway from this assignment, and is certainly something I will prioritise when shooting any future project.
The results of my second photo walk in Brixton. Continuing with the “laneur” approach of the previous walk, I shot to gain a greater visual variety and with more focus on the variety of gentrification in the Brixton area.
The above image was taken in the Brixton arches where a variety of small businesses continue to run. There are proposals to refurbish the arches by network rail, and there are fears from the proprietors that they will be forced to move away. The image itself is a well executed shot, I liked the composition which shows the small retail business behind the man in the foreground, as well as the arches in the background.
The following image shows “Pop Brixton”, which contains restaurants in restored shipping containers. Whilst it is sign of Brixton’s ‘regeneration’, it is different in that it attempts to foster a community feeling by encouraging local tenants to get involved in start-ups. This will be a location that I will return to, perhaps getting some photos of the tenants and the businesses themselves. It could be an interesting point in the narrative perhaps, showing regeneration that tries to be a positive force in the community it serves.
The proceeding three images attempt to employ some of the visual approaches specified by the assignment brief. These demonstrate the ‘single figure small’ approach – keeping the distant figure anonymous and experimenting with balance by placing the figure at different points within the frame. I feel the second images works very well, there is a strong sense of movement conveyed to the viewer by the moving figure. I’m not convinced that any of these add anything to the narrative or the brief I am trying to fulfil. It would be interesting to get a similar vantage point overlooking the arches, the market on Electric Avenue or overlooking a busy part of Brixton.
The next two images attempt to show some more of the arches – perhaps businesses that have been in Brixton for much longer than areas like Pop Brixton or the rejuvenated Brixton Village. The composition is good on both, but is perhaps lacking in visual variety and it is difficult to see where they would fit into the narrative. I will also return to the market next time to document some more of the businesses and local people.
The image above is from within the rejuvenated Brixton Village, once a local fruit and veg market but now hosting a huge array of cafes, restaurants and bars. The epitome of this change I thought was encapsulated by the appearance of the French champagne bar (right opposite one of the fruit and veg sellers still clinging on). I thought a diptych or sequencing this image with the “I miss my Brixton” graffiti photo I shot on the previous post would be an interesting narrative.
Photographing some of the residential areas around the main retail and going out areas has also been an idea. Photographing some of the estates under threat of demolition – for example Loughborough Park where the Guiness Trust Housing Association is located – could be another interesting angle to introduce to the narrative. Contrasting this with recent developments containing less affordable housing could also make for an interesting contrast.
The final image in this set was taken on the Electric Avenue. I haven’t really photographed much around here so I will return again and try out some new angle perhaps focusing on the local businesses. The shot above attempts to convey some of the chaos of the street, whilst also experimenting with balance in the frame. I felt this could have been stronger without the woman encroaching on the left, but otherwise the composition feels safe despite the messy street.
I felt I was more successful in documenting the variety of gentrification going on in Brixton, and I think a couple of further ventures experimenting with composition and visual variety will produce a great workflow to select the final 12 images from. The locations I will return to (and visit for the first time) include:
Loughborough Park (and the Guinness Trust)
Shooting this assignment on digital feels like the right choice, considering the approach I have taken to documenting the Brixton area over a few visits rather than one or two. The flexibility of a zoom lens (28-70mm) with a high performing ISO camera is also very convenient. I will stick with the traditional 35mm aspect ratio, and perhaps take full advantage of the ISO flexibility by shooting a few shots of the area at night.
Today I went on a photo walk around Brixton, my local area and a location I am considering for the next assignment. I had in mind some of the techniques and exercises practised in Part Four, but the main purpose was to consider Brixton as a place to focus on for the next assignment brief. Today was something of a trial run, and I will no doubt revisit some of the locations shot today over the next few weeks.
Gentrification in Brixton
Brixton is an interesting place to photograph, particularly in light of the array of markets and shops catering to its multiethnic community. It has seen huge amounts of gentrification in recent years that has brought younger, middle class individuals to the area, attracted by the thriving arts scene and it’s proximity to central London. While the gentrification has breathed new life into the area, for example in the Brixton market which now contains independently owned cafes, bars and restaurants, it has also sparked controversy. Traders underneath the Brixton arches have been told to leave by Network Rail, or they face eviction by the end of the year. Traders are worried they will be unable to afford to return to the arches once the refurbishment is completed and that the arches will simply cater to Starbucks and Costa type establishments.
The changing face of Brixton could make for an interesting theme to run with and create a strong narrative, particularly by juxtaposing the gentrified areas of Brixton (such as the market) with locations that still continue as they have for decades (Electric Avenue). My photos today avoided shooting the gentrified areas and attempted to capture something of the essence of the original local community, that seems older and more grounded but also more vulnerable, and perhaps at risk of fading away. The first entrepreneur who opened in the market (Burnt Toast) commented:
“Compared to six years ago, we serve less than half the Afro-Caribbean and white families today than we did then. Either because they don’t live here anymore or it’s a weekend market now not a day trade market. Everyone comes here at night. We don’t get that young family folk that we used to during the day.” (Independent, 24th September 2015)
With this theme in mind, I will consider how best to communicate this narrative through a variety of images (6-12). Visual variety is an important factor to consider in the brief instructions, but I will also explore ways to present the material linking back to my earlier research on Gronsky’s presentation. For example, it might be useful to present images in diptyches or triptychs. I will also think about technique, whether I would like film (35mm or 120mm film), digital, and also aspect ratio. It will also be important to deliver a consistent style and format, and I will consider what kind of style I want and what best fits the subject matter and theme.
As the brief for this exercise specified, planning to achieve this kind of shot was difficult and I had to wait for the opportunity to appear. Since starting Part Four of the course, I have kept a camera on me more regularly and have taken to working through the exercises in the module simultaneously rather than chronologically. That being said, I did have the opportunity to grab a few shops that utilised the distant figure in the frame. I was particularly pleased with the first example (see below). The figure is distant enough to be anonymous, although the context is clear and there is a clear narrative to the image. The composition is also quite interesting in that the figure is placed off centre and the clear contrast between the white railings in the foreground and the array of greys in the background.
I concluded the images at the second location (also on a footbridge) are less successful. I aimed for a similar style and angle (black and white + looking through foreground railings) but opted for a slightly different composition.
Tilting the frame works to some extent by adding a sense of movement to the man walking, introducing some visual tension.
Whilst compositionally and stylistically the images are interesting, I don’t think they are quite as effective as the first image in fulfilling the brief. Firstly I was perhaps too close to the figure and so the sense of place is lost for the viewer. There is also no clear visual narrative – the viewer is left guessing the nature of the place and how the figure is interacting with it. As an exercise it was interesting to experiment with composition and proximity to the figure, and the conclusions reached from the resulting images are lessons I will take into the upcoming exercises and assignment.
As a follow up to my previous post on Effie Paleologou’s small exhibit in the V & A, I decided to explore the photographer’s work in greater detail.
Paleologou’s photo series of Hastings (from an exhibition entitled “the front”) immediately grabbed my attention for its gritty urban characteristics. Her images transform the familiar to something abstract and alien, challenging the viewer’s perceptions of the urban landscape at night.
A number of possibilities occurred to me. Perhaps the photographer is creating a window into an alternate timeline that exists under our very noses. Are the images suggesting that we overlook our surrounding environment? Another possibility is that the images present to us places “we do not belong. It as if we are coming to spaces that have just been left, as if the action had literally just moved on elsewhere, seconds before we arrived”. (Kent, 2000, P.5)
The latter idea certainly holds currency when observing the images. The use of artificial light (similar to her series ‘Mean City’) and deep shadows create a menacing and profound use of space. Whilst we see sand on the beach, it is really all about the possibility of space – the light and shadow simply adds tension and suggests to the viewer a feeling of “imminent danger”. (Kent, 2000, P.4)
What is most impressive about this series is the photographer’s take on simple subject matter and delivering a complex visual narrative. The images are not distinguished by their technical prowess, on the contrary, the photographer’s approach is clearly intentional. The creative use of light and shadows and the angles/perspectives used on subjects as mundane as puddles of water and lonely street lights are really what make this series stand out. These are techniques and approaches I may take forward for assignments later in the course and for further personal projects.
Whilst on a recent trip to the V & A in London, I happened on a small exhibit of photos by Effie Paleologou. I hadn’t heard of her before but the content of the exhibit really drew me in. Her “Mean City” series shows a nocturnal urban environment: streets with glimpses of figures, artificially lit urban blocks and creative compositions that make use of the available light, whether moonlight or artificial. The V & A sums up the series as “photographs (that) convey some of the sensations felt by the photographer wandering and observing alone. The result is a subtle combination of aesthetic, urban, social and personal viewpoints.”
What I really got from the images was the presentation of cold, artificial cityscapes at night. The appearance of the figures in the images gave a feeling of loneliness and vulnerability. Paleologou’s aesthetic appears to disregard technically perfect images, and instead we get grainy reproductions awash with strong artificial light and blurry figures in the distance. This contributes to the vulnerability and dark atmosphere present in the series. If anything I would have liked to have seen more images as the set was a series of 3-4 (see link below), and I thought there was great potential in exploring the concept further.
I was particularly drawn to the series as I have been thinking of shooting an urban environment at night for the final assignment (assignment five). My tutor’s feedback on the Coney Island images (shot at night) have had me considering further methods (film, long exposure etc) and concepts to explore that might meet the brief. It may be a little early to be considering this project before assignment four, but now is a good time to start exploring and experimenting with concepts and methods.
*This post forms part of my preliminary research for Part Four “People Interacting with Place”.
Linking back to my reflections on my learning experiences from Part Three, I conducted some preliminary research to maintain the momentum gained from assignment three. One of the locations I covered in this assignment to demonstrate the function of buildings in use was a fairground in Coney Island, New York. Although it was a loose interpretation of the assignment brief, I feel I was successful in showing the viewer the function of the space and temporary structures in my images. The use of place for leisure and recreation is a subject that has intrigued me, particularly in light of the brief for the upcoming assignment four.
One photographer I identified as relevant and worthy of discussion is the Russian landscape photographer Alexander Gronsky.
a) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Pastoral’ (2008-2012)
Gronsky is a former press photographer who covered events in Russia and the former USSR in the 2000s before moving into advertising and commercial photography for corporations and humanitarian organisations. He has placed more emphasis on personal projects in recent years and conducted a series of exhibitions, published a book and received awards for his work. He is known for his photographs of Russian landscapes, using a Mamiya 6×7 camera with colour film.
One of his series ‘Pastoral” caught my eye immediately (see image above). The series observes Muscovites at leisure around seemingly man-made lakes and industrial wastelands on the edge of Moscow in summer-winter months. What is very striking about the images is how his human subjects make use of a space – neither city nor countryside – not intended for recreational activity. We see people swimming in a river of questionable water quality, people sunbathing among dense entanglements of weeds and thorns, and families playing games next to heaps of sand dug up by industrial diggers. The series has a penchant for the surreal, we glimpse someone shooting an air rifle and someone undressing in some trees. As a kind of backdrop to these leisure activities, which seem to make up the majority of the activity, there is the ever present industrial landscape that overshadows this man-made natural landscape.
b) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Pastoral’ (2008-2012)
What this series shows is that recreational activity does not necessarily have to take place in a place intended for leisure. For the Muscovites living on the edge of Moscow, perhaps located a significant distance from the nearest park or unable to afford to travel far, this is the only space they have to make the most of their days off. Although we don’t see the people in his photos up close (often appearing as figures in the distance) we get the impression that the people are enjoying their surroundings. The full set is a long term project that consists of a final 40-50 images and can be found on Gronsky’s website here:
Linking back to my conclusions from assignment three, another of Gronsky’s projects is also worth looking at. It is interesting to note how he presents his work in the series ‘Mountains and Waters’, a set of images that examines the changing landscapes of China.
c) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ (2011)
What is interesting about the series is the presentation of the works in diptychs, that is two images set beside each other. In the exhibition notes he links the idea behind the series to the word for landscape in Chinese – a compound of two symbols for mountain (山) and water (水). This duality in his presentation is evident in the use of the diptych to exhibit the resulting images. He also links this choice of presentation to Shan Shui painting tradition, where the intention of the artist was not to represent one single place or landscape, but rather to present a ‘metaphor of a human journey through a constant shift between nothingness and form.’ (Gronsky, 2011) It is apparent that although Gronsky presents two images together, there is an element in both that creates a visual narrative (see image above) that unifies and blends the two into something resembling a panoramic landscape photograph (see image below).d) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ (2011)
While Gronsky was not primarily concerned with leisure or recreational activity in this series, his choice of presentation is something to consider for the future assignments. It is clear that Gronsky thought deeply about his presentation and researched traditional Chinese art and the philosophy behind it. This tradition influenced his choice of presentation, and it works very well in seamlessly contrasting old and new (c) and placing his distant human figures within huge environments that are neither totally man-made nor wholly natural (d). He also cleverly uses the diptych to hint at a story or narrative – has the figure on the boat in (d) become the figure in the smaller boat under the bridge? He also sometimes knits together his panoramas, often loosely as in image (e) as the two images were taken at different times. He is not bothered about disguising this and yet the images feel like they are in perfect harmony.
e) From Alexander Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ (2011)
What his presentation does is consistently ask questions of the viewer and again, as with the ‘Pastoral’ series, has a penchant for the surreal and the eccentric. The ‘Mountains and Waters’ set is again an extensive series and can be found on Gronsky’s website (follow link below):
A major point I will consider in future submissions is how my final images are to be presented – should they be presented in the same format? With the same aspect ratio? Should one image be made bigger to emphasise a subject? Could an image work better in a diptych or even in triptych? Or do the images work better in a sequential set?
It is clear that the way in which the photographer presents the final set of images could be considered before even a shot is taken, and in Gronsky’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ series the presentation was at the heart of the project. Considering whether you would like to present your images sequentially with forms of visual punctuation (such as emphasising one subject over another), or whether you would like to juxtapose your subjects in diptychs can inform the photographer’s approach to a location. This could be described as a very measured approach to photographing a place, and it could be harder to include the spontaneous event or the unexpected. It is certainly an approach I will consider for the upcoming exercises and in my research for assignment four.
Having completed assignment three and had some time for reflection, I thought it useful to write up some conclusions I had from the process and provide some more background for the choice of locations and technique. In addition, this reflection should also reveal the rationale behind the final images I chose for the submission. I have included images I chose to omit to help illustrate some of the thoughts and conclusions I had about the final submission.
*Note that all of the images below were omitted from the final submission and should not be considered as part of assignment three
Ironically I found the most challenging part of the assignment photographing the most mundane locations, i.e. the shopping centre and library interior. Whilst working through the exercises and projects, I had set on a couple of locations for the assignment with quite obvious functions – a fairground and housing estate. What was interesting with the housing estate (Barbican set) was that as I got to know the location better, I began to see more uses and functions. I was also very taken in by its form and architectural design and found myself focusing too much on these aspects rather than the functional aspect of the space. Gradually I became aware that this was pulling my focus away from the assignment brief. The four images I selected showed various uses of the space, whereas those I decided to omit were either too similar to the ones I had selected, or were overly focused on form. A selection of those I decided to leave out are posted below.
One image I might have included was the park and the person walking across it. It shows part of the residential space of the estate but demonstrates a slightly differing function – a leisure space. This is something that could have been included in a larger project or series, but I decided that it was too similar to the residential uses I had shown in the other images. Also I thought it was perhaps a bit wayward of the assignment brief and was not focused enough on ‘building’ or the idea of a structure. However the idea of a leisure space is something that I found interesting and is an idea that I will come back to later.
The images of the Coney Island fairground I chose to omit were not particularly focused on the idea of a building in use. The ones I had chosen to include were rather a loose interpretation of the brief as well, but close enough to demonstrate a functional structure (for instance the ticket office. Again exploring this location again or one that I would have access to near to where I live would be an idea worth pursuing, perhaps fitting into the idea of a leisure/recreational space. A selection of images I chose to omit for the Coney Island location are below.
I felt the images of the outdoor cinema and the people on the benches were too loose an interpretation of the brief. I chose to select one image of the ferris wheel, the two I chose to omit were perhaps again too vague but I did enjoy the rather abstract capture of the roller coaster on the left. It would be interesting to see if it could fit into a larger project or more varied series of images focusing on a leisure/recreational space. Experimenting with visual narrative and finding “visual punctuation” in a series of images is something touched upon by Maria Short in ‘Context and Narrative’:
“It can be possible to achieve a certain pace in the series by using a particular size or shape of image at a key point in the sequence, either as a recurring theme or a one-off.” (Short, 2011, P.106)
Experimenting with narrative and presentation of images is something that I will be researching and attempting to do, certainly for the part four assignment and perhaps in a retrospective presentation of the images I made for the part three assignment. It would have been interesting to present the images I made for assignment three in a less uniform way, for example increasing the prominence of one image by increasing its size or messing with its aspect ratio. Observing the presentation of work by other photographers and how this can change visual narrative is something that I will come back to and research later.
My initial approach to photographing the shopping centre in Stroud can be seen in the images I chose to omit. I had the problem of shooting the complex’s obvious function when I first approached it and the resulting images were somewhat flat and uninteresting. It was after I had walked around the entire complex and saw how it fit into the Stroud town centre that I saw a function besides the obvious use as a shopping centre. The omitted images below show this function whereas those I chose to submit in the finished set demonstrate more creativity and a more interesting visual narrative.
A takeaway point from this location (and that I considered immediately) is that it is always important to research and consider your location before approaching it. My intention when shooting Merrywalks was somewhat arbitrary, as I was thinking about its obvious function as a place to shop in. After walking around and considering its place within the town centre as a meeting point for young people, I approached the location in a more creative manner and I think the images I chose to submit possess a more engaging narrative for the observer.
This point was also very relevant with my approach to photographing the mills. It was only after I had shot a few frames and had considered how I could create a visual narrative for the audience that I approached the location in a different, more creative way. As I was shooting I found a potential narrative in juxtaposing the modern with the old. I saw the sports car parked under the Victorian railway bridge with the mill in the background, and saw the opportunity to contrast the modern office function with the traditional function of the mill as an industrial workspace. The images I omitted from the submission are presented below, and are devoid of any social/visual narrative I think is present in the set I submitted. Similar to my initial approach in photographing Merrywalks, the first frames I took at the mill are quite straightforward and only really show the original function of the buildings.
To conclude, I feel I approached this assignment in a much more thoughtful and creative way compared to assignment two. I was quite pleased with the submitted images for each of the five locations and I came away with some very useful learning experiences and ideas for future research. Although I have talked about these in the above text, I have bullet pointed the ideas below for ease of future reference.
It is important to research and walk around a location before shooting it and to consider how you would present the location in a series.
It is useful to ask yourself if there is any narrative present besides the obvious, and if you could approach photographing a location in a unique way.
Consider ways of presenting your final images in a set – are there subjects you could emphasise over others? How could you emphasise this within the set?
Could you change aspect ratio, size or bring in other visual aspects to achieve a visual punctuation within the narrative?
Taking away ideas such as leisure and recreational spaces, and how people interact with these spaces for my work/research in Part Four.
Having already done some preliminary reading for Part Four, these points are relevant learning experiences and ideas to bare in mind for work/research in Part Four. Although I am aware that the research and execution of assignment four may take a while, I am keen to keep up the momentum gained from Part Three and have already begun research for the next assignment and projects in Part Four.
For the fifth set of images in this assignment, I chose to shoot at the Barbican estate in London. I find the complex an interesting place due to it being a great example of 1970s Brutalist design and still seemingly functioning – at odds with the rejection of Brutalism by contemporary society. It is controversial for many Londoners due to its ugly aesthetic and association with 1970s urban planning. However it is the organisation of the complex and its varied use which makes it an engaging space. I therefore set out to attempt to capture the Barbican’s contemporary functions again using my Rolleiflex camera for the sake of continuity with the other sets of this assignment. I decided to use Fuji Provia slide film in order to obtain as clear scans as possible and also because I thought the muted tones of Provia would be more suitable than more saturated colours of a negative film. I was tempted to use black and white film, but I decided upon colour in order to capture accurately how it is seen by visitors and residents. In hindsight I think I should have used faster colour negative film as the Provia resulted in a lot of blocked shadows and blown highlights.
I shot a lot of images at the Barbican so deciding upon three or four was difficult. The image above shows the harshness of the concrete structure contrasting with the natural colour of the flower beds laid out by the residents. The image gives a strong sense of an overpowering urban environment, but perhaps in defiance of this the residents seek to create their own space on the balconies of their flats.
It is easy to imagine that growing flowers in an environment dominated by concrete gives residents a sense of ownership over the space. I shot the above image looking down onto an underground car park beneath the estate. I did not expect to see signs of residence when looking down upon three subterranean levels of concrete.
Despite the signs of residence and community on the estate, there were points where I was reminded of its location within a busy part of London. The above image shows part of the complex which is given over to offices and the performing arts centre. The bike path was busy and full of commuters whilst I was walking around, travelling between the estate’s offices, flats and nearby tube station.
The final shot shows an architects’ office with people busy at work. This demonstrates one of the estate’s contemporary uses alongside its original function as a residence for working class Londoners. It’s success as a space seems to be rooted in its continued occupancy by a community of residents who value the flats they reside in, its use as a performing arts centre (one of the largest in Europe) and its occupancy by private firms such as the architects’ office. This set therefore accurately shows the complex’s various functions and how the estate continues to successfully function despite the controversy and divided opinion over its aesthetic and design.
For the fourth set of images I focused on a fairground in Coney Island whilst on a trip to New York. This location is quite a loose interpretation of ‘building’, being a collection of temporary structures in use and of course mostly outdoors. However I thought it would be an interesting and challenging place to photograph, and could make for some great images. I chose to shoot at night with 120 colour negative film loaded into my Rolleiflex. I thought shooting long exposures would be an engaging approach in showing how the space and structures are used. Colour negative film is very good for long exposures due to its wide latitude and natural colour reproduction. I had to time my shutter speeds carefully to compensate for reciprocity failure, therefore I checked the Kodak Portra 400 reciprocity charts and made a note of the data before going out to shoot.
The first image shows a busy area of the fairground and some of the temporary structures. The long exposure works well here as the group of people walking past the stall on the left is blurred out enough to remove focus away from the people. Instead the viewer is left to observe the structures in the frame. The bright lights, garish decor and temporary structures show us the nature of the space and its use.
The second image shows the entrance to the fairground. I chose a slightly faster shutter speed here to capture some of the people in the frame. The structure on the right is quite obviously a ticket office and I thought retaining sharpness in the human subjects would be useful in showing the function of the building.
The image above shows a ferris wheel. I chose a much longer shutter speed for this subject as I wanted to capture the flow and movement of the structure. Whilst the resulting image is quite busy with a lot of elements I liked the addition of the family on the left who remained still long enough to appear sharp in the final image. I was quite pleased with the final images and although it was an experimental approach, I thought the results were effective in showing the use of the temporary structures within the fairground.
For the second part of the “user’s viewpoint” I opted for a similar space to the commuter set in the previous part. For those images I shot from the perspective of a commuter on a suburban train. I referenced Tom Wood’s series “Bus odyssey” which he shot over the course of the 1980s-1990s in Merseyside as providing some inspiration for these two separate sets.
The key difference between the two sets is evident in the use of the space – the previous user being on the transport vs. the user waiting to embark on it. Whilst they are very similar I found the resulting images to be quite different. I noticed a lot of Tom Wood’s images had unusual and disordered compositions. I took this approach and ideas about perspective – that is shooting from the exterior environment of the transport. I chose the tube station platform and shot through the train window. The shot above and below are when the train is moving. I tilted the frame slightly to create the impression of movement and found that the blur also helped with this sense of movement.
I found the results effective in conveying the fast moving train and the function of the space – waiting for the arriving train to stop and catching glimpses of the passengers on the moving train. I quite liked some of the moments I captured, although impressionistic and blurred, they are effective in capturing the function and atmosphere of a busy tube station.
This (like the first part of the exercise) relied on luck and some guess work with composition for example I again relied on autofocus. But I found it a useful and refreshing exercise in putting into practice some approaches I liked from Tom Wood’s series. I would like to experiment with this space and perhaps use different shutter speeds, perhaps using longer exposures standing at the back of the platform, and giving myself more time to explore the possibilities and some different approaches.
For this exercise I selected two closely related locations but with different functions. As I worked on this exercise I made the conscious decision to split the exercise into two separate posts. This first part is from the point of view of a commuter on a train leaving central London. I attempted to capture the user’s view as much as possible and from a few different angles to demonstrate the function of the space. I was inspired by Tom Wood’s 20 year series on bus commuters during the 1980s and 1990s (see my last blog post), and I attempted to employ some of his creative approaches towards composition and choice of subject. I was also aware that I was not going to be able to touch on the same social commentary as he did.
Of course we know that a commuter sat on a train is likely to be sat down and they are unlikely to be standing up much. When they are not sleeping or engaged in some over distraction they are going to be looking out the window. It is these views I was most concerned with when selecting my subjects.
The first three images I chose to present are from the window of the moving carriage as it was approaching a station. I pre-selected the settings (a fast shutter speed, small aperture and high ISO to compensate) and allowed the autofocus to focus for me. Finding subjects was a lot to do with luck and waiting for the right moment, things you need to have when shooting on any street, but on a moving train the decision to shoot has to be made much faster. The results were somewhat inconsistent, but I felt I captured some interesting moments on the station platform. Some of my subjects were in clear anticipation of boarding the train while others were too deep in conversation to notice. Most importantly it is fairly apparent to the viewer that the images are shot through glass and possibly from a moving vehicle as the subjects are not sharp and appear to be moving. The location is clearly a station as well. These shots therefore hint at the function of the space the user is sitting in, and how they passively interact with the space around them.
For the next two images I opted for a slightly different composition. This time the train had stopped and passengers had alighted. This is apparent from the fact that they appear to be walking away from the train and are carrying bags, suggesting they have finished using the space. From these shots the viewer could assume the space is some kind of public transport (due to the suitcases and bags). In terms of framing, I chose to focus on the subjects’ limbs and bags to help better convey the functionality of the space and I left in some of the window frame to help the viewer.
The image below was also chosen to better convey the space. The viewer can see upright seats and a man leaning forward in the row in front of the user. From this it could also be deduced as the type of space you would find on public transport, hinted at from the design of the seats and close proximity of the layout.
The final three images in the set focus back on the exterior landscape. I noticed in Tom Wood’s “Bus Odyssey” series that he not only focused on the interior of the space but also the exterior landscape. In the first few images I had focused on the exterior, but for the final three images I chose to focus on non-human elements. We can see (in order) a lamp post with a sign on, telephone wires and a pylon. Each of the elements is vignetted – I created this effect by using the seat in front and the window frame. I felt this is a view typical to someone travelling in a moving vehicle, particularly on a train or bus. The elements also appear slightly blurred and are also things you would often see whilst travelling in the countryside.
This set of images was an attempt to practice a variety of approaches that I had decided upon in my research prior to the exercise. Rather than attempting to present a linear narrative they are ordered in such a way to show my different approaches in fulfilment of the brief. I enjoyed researching and shooting for the exercise, and I was pleased with the creativity evident in the results.
While researching possible angles for the Part 3 exercise “From the User’s Viewpoint”, I had the idea of shooting from the viewpoint of a user of public transport or a moving vehicle. My tutor pointed me in the direction of Tom Wood, a British photographer who created a series of images whilst on buses in the Merseyside area during the 1980s and 1990s.
When examining the series one of the most striking things is the changing nature of the environments, that is the interior of the buses he was shooting in, the exterior landscapes, and the changing styles and fashions of the people occupying his frames.
Another thing that I noticed was his creative approach to composition. This creates strong visual interest and there is a somewhat chaotic, busy feeling the viewer gets from the images. The above example with the tilted angle of the bus creates a sense of movement and conveys to the viewer that the bus is on the move and not a static object.
He not only shot people inside the bus but also subjects passing by outside the bus (as the last image sample demonstrates). The interplay between his subjects and the reflection in this image is something I will consider for my own set of images for the next exercise, as is the variation in composition and viewpoints. As is exemplified in Tom Wood’s series, mixing up you approaches keeps the viewer interested and demonstrates creativity and thought on the part of the photographer. Whilst I may not have the time to show changing social dynamics as Tom Wood has done through his series as he was shooting over a long period of time, I am looking forward to putting into practice some of his techniques and creative approaches for my own images.
For the first exercise of Part 3 of the course, I will be using my images from Danwon High School. I approached this shoot with this module in mind, and this fits into the first exercise brief nicely.
I had previously photographed the interview of two fathers whose children had perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, and this project followed on from the interview. Myself and one more photographer were permitted access to the school to shoot the classrooms of the students who were lost last year. Most of the 2nd Grade perished in the disaster and many of the classrooms sat completely empty of students and teachers for the remainder of the year.
The focus of my images was to be the classroom space itself, the school the students spent so much of their time learning and growing into young adults. An empty school is slightly eerie but knowing why these classrooms stood empty was harrowing and shocking. I aimed to get across the design of the space and how it is intended to be used. I found the functionality of the classroom – empty chairs and desks, unused books, lockers with students names on – takes on a new, special significance when set in the context of the terrible events of last year, and my images convey something of this meaning to the viewer.
There has been quite a lengthy gap between shooting the photos for this assignment and writing my reflection – a gap that I hadn’t planned but I’ve been happy with the time for reflection. I shot the “activity” itself two months ago in Korea, and I have been thinking over my choice of subject matter carefully.
Myself and another photographer had been asked to shoot an interview of families of the victims of the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in Korea, a tragedy that saw the loss of 300 people including over 200 school children. I shot the interview of two of the fathers of children lost in the disaster, who have been protesting since last year against the government’s handling of the accident and what they see as cover ups by the those at the top. The interview took place in Gwanghwamun square in the centre of Seoul, in close proximity to many government offices and not far from the President’s house.
I went into the shoot with some nerves as I realised the sensitive nature of the event and the fact that I may not have much time to get my shots. I was also aware that I may not have much control therefore I went in aiming to capture shots documenting the interview rather than attempting to intervene and pose the subjects. This was also in line with the requirements for Assignment two, so I looked for the “moments” that told the story and explained the event.
The interview started off quite tense for all parties, the interviewer was not a Korean speaker and the fathers could not speak English so there was a translator at the ready. I noticed immediately how tired the fathers looked and they both talked quietly and softly in response to the first set of questions.
The father above was much more animated and you could clearly see that he spoke for the pair as he was willing to give longer answers and warmed up to the interview much faster than the other.
The father above was more pensive and reserved and you could see the sense of hopelessness and desperation etched into his face over the state of the protest. It is worth noting that these two men (along with many other families of the victims of the sinking) have been living in the square for the entire time since the sinking. At the time of the interview this was 10 months. They sleep in tents in Gwanghwamun square, wash in subway station toilets, and refuse to give up their vigil until they have received a satisfactory explanation of what happened to their children.
As the interview wore on, I noticed the other father started to warm up to the questions and gave an extremely vivid and heartfelt account of the day he went to pick up his son’s body and went into the public mortuary to identify him for the police. As he gave this account the translator (see photo above) looked incredibly moved and struggled with the rest of the translation for the questions.
As the interview wrapped up we thanked the fathers who thanked us in turn and asked for our future support for the Sewol parents’ cause. We walked outside with the fathers who retreated to their tent for some lunch and we melted back into the busy Seoul crowds. The shot above shows a part of Gwanghwamun square, the ribbons tied to the benches are in support of the Sewol parents protest.
Overall it was a difficult event to shoot and I was happy with the final set of images. I shot both digital and film shots, but once again found the frames from the roll I shot on the day better captured the intensely personal moments of the interview. If I was to shoot it again I would approach with perhaps a different aim in mind, focusing not just on straight portraits of the subjects but perhaps aim to capture different gestures, a range of expressions, or focusing on different body parts such as hands or the back of the head. Not being able to control the shoot was a strange scenario for myself as I have had little experience of documenting events and journalistic scenarios such as magazine interviews. Some control over the shoot would have been welcome and I would have liked to set up portraits of the fathers rather than shooting as they talked, but for the shots I did get I was pleased with the consistency, and the fact it showed a few personal moments from a difficult interview.
For this exercise I also shot a busy area of Kathmandu. I selected a TLR medium format camera as I had such success using this for the earlier “standard focal length” exercise in this module. I find a TLR camera with a waist level viewfinder affords a certain subtlety and stealth when shooting people in public places. It is unobtrusive, people can recognise it and if they do it is often a topic of discussion since these cameras are rarely seen these days. I asked a couple of people for portraits and for the rest I shot subtly and on the move. I chose to walk around Boudhanath stupa an important pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists. It was extremely crowded but I could sense some order in the activity, there being layers of different types of people walking around the stupa – tourists, pilgrims, police, street vendors, shop owners and beggars. To help convey the colour and activity I chose medium format Velvia, a slide film known for its vivid colours and exceptional level of detail particularly in 120mm.
The above shot was taken on the move – unfortunately the TLR camera I was using is prone to light leaks and double exposures. The band of overexposed film on the right is a double exposure from not advancing the film far enough due to a faulty film counter. However I still love the colour and composition, and with the other shots in this small series conveys something of the varied activity going on at the location.
This shot was taken slightly later as is noticeable from the changing light in the frame. I also observed the location served as a meeting spot for local people, or just a place for individuals to sit in quiet contemplation. Though it is crowded with people and nearly always busy, it is a reminder of the spiritual nature of the location for many people.
For the last shot, I asked permission from an old lady sat just beneath the stupa in shadow. I surmised that she may have been a pilgrim as is evident from her clothes and religious beads in hand. I noticed that she too was sat alone and looked quite sad in her contemplation. Once I had taken the shot she did gesture and try to talk to me but unfortunately the language barrier prevented me from finding out more about her. The TLR camera here cropped for me due to the film counter problems, but I actually like how it is cropped so let’s call it a happy accident!
Boudhanath is an extremely crowded and often stressful place, but this exercise enabled me to notice the people away from the tourists and internet cafes, and my images show the diversity of people present there everyday. I hope that this activity continues after the devastating earthquake last month, as it is an important place not just for pilgrims but also for the local people in Kathmandu.
For this exercise I shot a Nepali wedding procession on a Kathmandu street. Whilst this was clearly an organised event – a procession complete with band and processional car for the bride and groom – it drew a lot of spectators so photographing it was extremely difficult. Before shooting I tried to pinpoint the most prominent players in the scene, that was the family, bride and band. The above image (from what I understood) was the father.
The image of the bride above was a difficult one to capture due to the attention she received from spectators. I shot from a variety of angles with my 35mm camera with a 35mm lens until I settled on this shot.
Things moved surprisingly fast on the busy street and before I knew it the procession was ready to move on once the bride had taken her seat back in the car. Spectators on the street were getting mixed up with those in the procession making it difficult to distinguish who was who.
The shot above was captured just before the procession moved on. I thought the red jackets of the band really made them stand out in the busy, colourful street, and whilst the procession stopped the band laughed and joked with one another, intermittently playing tunes at random, not sure whether they were required to continue playing or not. This moment encapsulated the entire sequence of events for me, confusion, colour, an overload of people and sound. My choice of a 35mm lens with 35mm colour film I thought was correct, though in such a scene in future I would have preferred to have a variety of focal lengths to choose from. A high quality zoom lens (18-50 or 18-75mm) I feel would have been the perfect gear for the scene.
As I have been travelling I haven’t had much time to update the blog. I am trying to keep up with my reading and have become interested in the informal, intimate style of photographer Ryan McGinley. There was a recent exhibition of his in Seoul but I was not able to make it.
Photographing friends, lovers and people in his crowd, his early exhibit “The Kids Are Alright” (2003) displayed an intent to make an authentic record of his life, documenting his lifestyle in a candid, playful way. Charlotte Cotton in ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, highlights an awareness of the heritage in contemporary art of McGinley’s work referencing the style of artists such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark. Coincidentally Clark and McGinley met when the latter had started studying graphic design in New York. Whilst these two proceeding artists displayed a vigor and intent in capturing their daily lives, there is an absence of ‘angst and pathos’ apparent in earlier works of intimate photography.
The ‘knowing playfulness’ of McGinley and his subjects was an apparent departure from the documentation of Clark and Goldin. His subjects are drawn from skateboard, music, graffiti and gay cultures. They perform for the camera and show a delight in showing off to it. The visual style and apparent absence of care for technical aspects – an out of focus portrait for instance – lends weight to this playful style.
McGinley’s approach to photographing human subjects is a unique and interesting visual style, and something that could be considered when approaching a subject for a formal or candid portrait. It has something of the documentary about it except because the photographer knows the subjects so intimately we are left with a more personal picture. The length of time he photographed his subjects is also a good takeaway point for approaches to photographing people.
As well as working on my course exercises, I recently helped out on a documentary project on the April 2014 Sewol disaster in Korea. Sewol was a ferry carrying nearly 500 people to the holiday island of Jeju. Amongst the passengers were over 300 students and teachers of Danwon High School. The incident has caused huge controversy in Korea, not least because of the terrible loss of 300 people including 250 students from Danwon, but also because of the captain and crew’s abandonment of the ferry. The government have also come under heavy criticism of the handling of the disaster and the rescue operation’s failure to save more lives.
This was a hugely sensitive project and I entered the school to find the classrooms as they had been left a year ago. I was moved by the flowers and sentimental tokens such as letters, photos, and snacks left on the students’ desks, but I found myself intrigued by the feeling of emptiness in the school and the fact that nothing had really been moved or touched since before the tragedy. My series became much more of a focus on the space of the school and the memories it holds for the parents of the victims, and the survivors.
For this exercise I selected my Rolleiflex camera for some street photography and walked around a busy Seoul market. I had to do this exercise before the tele and wide angle exercises to wait to borrow a long lens and wide lens (as I lack both).
The Rolleiflex has a 75mm F3.5 Schneider lens, but this in 35mm equivalent is somewhere between 40-50mm due to the 6x6cm medium format negative. The Rolleiflex is a fantastic camera for street shooting and is made to feel all the more discreet by its waist level viewfinder. To most people I’m sure it would look like you are merely fiddling with a box.
Gear aside, the standard focal length with 12 shots per roll and quite a slow lens really forces you to slow down and observe the scene. Like the last exercise I usually stand around and wait for significant moments to emerge, and a busy market place is perfect for finding these moments.
The standard focal length is also perfect as it is neither too wide nor too close – perfect for capturing small groups of people interacting, or for portraits of single subjects. I can imagine a wide angle lens in a market would be very difficult as it would perhaps capture too much whilst a telephoto lens would capture too little. The photos in this article were all from the same roll of Portra I shot in Dongmyo.
I look forward to the next two exercises and am already thinking about locations that would work with a longer focal length and a wider angle frame. As I rarely shoot beyond 35-50mm focal lengths I am anticipating a steep learning curve!
I set out to complete this exercise knowing that there would be a lot of activity in the location I had selected. The location was Gwanghwamun Plaza in central Seoul, a traditional centre of protest and anti-government activity as it is located close to the Korean president’s residence and to many government buildings and foreign embassies. The Plaza is currently dominated by activists protesting against what they see as their government’s inept and corrupt handling of the Sewol disaster in April 2014, where a ferry sank off the south coast of Korea causing the deaths of over 300 people including hundreds of school children from the same school. The activists include many parents of the student victims of the disaster, and on the day I decided to head down a group of the parents had decided to undertake a demonstration.
With the nature of the exercise in mind, I looked around for moments that told me something about the people around me, and this didn’t necessarily have to include the protesters in the Plaza. As I walked towards the centre of activity I noticed there were many people about and a few couples walking in the same direction. I had a couple of successful results in capturing revealing gestures, in these two examples the couples embrace or hold hands.
I decided to add these to this exercise as I felt these two images provide a stark contrast to the seriousness of the activities in the Plaza and add a bit of context to the city surrounds. Although perhaps “safe” gestures and commonly seen by all of us on a daily basis, I feel this is a useful demonstration of the “decisive” moment.
When I arrived at the Plaza I was immediately struck by the white boiler suits the protesters had chosen to wear, and this immediately made them stand out from the crowd. The Plaza was very chaotic when I arrived, but eventually the bystanders were asked to make room for the protesters and I finally saw the moment to begin shooting.
The protesters then proceeded to begin bowing whilst a drum beat, possibly due to their buddhist or other religious heritage, and I suddenly saw many “moments” I could capture. It was finding the moment with the strongest composition, and which told the story of the scene the best that I had to wait for. I worked the scene from a variety of angles and with different timings and finished my roll of film very quickly! The contact sheet of the negatives below shows the process I went through to find the right moment. The image below is what I selected as the defining moment of the protest.
Despite what the two previous images seem to say about the scene, it was in fact quite a chaotic location and there were a lot of people mixing with the participants of the protest before and after. I aimed to capture this chaos and waited for the right moment that demonstrated the emotionally charged nature of the event.
This was a very difficult location and event to shoot, and I felt it was a great activity to fulfil the objectives of the set exercise. I feel I was successful in capturing the moments that tell the story of the scene, and it also showed me the value of working over a scene and looking for moments from different angles and experimenting with settings to find the final image. The contact sheet below shows my progression throughout the day, and how I ended up with the final series of images.
Whilst looking through the course book ‘Train Your Gaze’ by Roswell Angier, I became interested in the chapter of photographing people in darkness. The work of Gary Schneider is particularly captivating in this style as he created a series of projects that produced long exposures of human subjects, including nudes, headshots and profile shots. What is interesting is Angier’s linking of his approach to photographing people to earlier techniques in photography, such as daguerreotype methods. Portrait photographers in these early days of photography required the subject to sit for minutes at a time before a proper exposure was achieved. Moving to a later period, she cites the French photographer Brassai, who worked around the limitations of the time such as the absence of light meters and a range of film speeds to achieve creative and thought provoking images. His night shots of Paris in the 1930s were edited into a book ‘Paris le nuit’ that was released in 1933.
These days producing photos with long exposure times is seen as a hindrance and perhaps even impractical by many. However Schneider has embraced this method as a central part of his photography, particularly after unearthing an archive of small collodion plate glass negatives in a New York flea market. The negatives contained a series of portraits of anonymous women in various locations. Intrigued Schneider enlarged them to life-size silver prints and was immediately taken by their expressions which displayed a lack of familiarity with the camera. In other words they did not know how to behave in front of the camera, and Schneider felt this showed sensitivity and less posed photos, despite the wooden postures each subject was forced to adopt as a result of the long exposure times.
For his own work, Schneider greatly amplified this method to capture what he hoped would be the essence of his subjects. Whereas the photographer who shot the flea market negative plates had left the shutter open for eight minutes, Schneider planned to increase the exposure times to an hour. For ease of pose and practicality, he had his subjects lay down on the floor of his studio and had them look into the camera suspended above their heads. Employing an 8×10-inch view camera, Schneider framed the subject and then proceeded to turn off the studio lights, opened the shutter and began the painstaking process of lighting face segments of the subject with a torch.
What is inspiring about these portraits is the amount of improvisation Schneider had to employ. Although he retained some measure of control from composition and directing the light, he also relied on the subject immensely and the unpredictability of film ensured he couldn’t know for sure how the final image would look. Looking at the photograph “Shirley” (2001) below, it is hard to define the subject, primarily as the clear lines of the torch are impressed into the glasses therefore covering the eyes. Angier considers the portrait as more of a montage, rather than a single image, almost a series of photographs of the subject compressed into one.
This effect is something that would be greatly amplified when observed as a huge print as was doubtless Schneider’s intention. As well as artifacts such as the torchlight in the glasses that are apparent even on a small reproduction, more elements would become noticeable, particularly that of motion as would be inevitable over such a long exposure time. As it is, the portrait of his subject is quite intangible and this is also paradoxical when you consider that Schneider only photographed friends, family or people who knew well.
A link to more of Schneider’s portrait work can be found below, as well as a page containing some of Brassai’s images of Paris.
I recently took the time to visit an exhibition containing a series of works by the Turkish street photographer Ara Güler in the Seoul Museum of Photography. Seeing as I moved onto Part 2 of “People and Place” which focuses on photographing people aware in public settings, I thought this would provide a useful point of reference and some inspiration for the upcoming assignments.
The collection of images spanned a number of decades from the 1940s to the early 2000s, with the majority shot from the 1950s to the 1970s in Istanbul. Reading a short biography of the photographer beforehand, I noted that he was a friend and contemporary of Cartier-Bresson and worked for magazines doing reportage assignments in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. On first glance the collection resembled Cartier-Bresson’s form and style, 35mm and 50mm lenses and grainy black and white enlargements of wide, busy scenes. However I noticed that there was quite a marked difference in their approaches. While Güler often turned his camera onto wide, busy scenes searching for visual language in a similar vein to Cartier-Bresson, many of his images displayed a different approach. It seemed his main intention in photographing Istanbul over the course of the 20th Century was searching for individual characters of humble, working class background. Miners, fishermen, steel workers, street children and drunks to name a few examples were his chosen subjects for many of the images on display in this exhibit.
There is a touch of the social documentarian about him – we can see that he liked to get in close to his subjects to portray strong characters. What also struck me was how he used nearly all parts of the frame. Whilst there is often a strong subject closest to the lens, he wanted to display a context and narrative that went beyond a straight forward portrait of an individual subject.
The above image of the miners is a good example of this approach. The man in the foreground provides a point of initial interest and we wonder who he is, but the eye passes over to the rest of the frame occupied by his peers. The stained hands and tired faces provides context and the viewer could make a good guess at their occupation and circumstances. The image tells us something about the subjects but also hints at something of the intention of the photographer. My own interpretation is that he wanted to highlight the shared experience of his subjects.
The above photograph of the shepherds is similar to the previous image of the miners in framing and the subjects are both looking in the same direction (in this instance, away from the camera). Likewise, context is provided by the sheep in the background and the clothes worn by the two subjects. Once again there is very little need to provide a caption or title for context.
Another good example are the dockyard (?) workers waiting to start their shifts. This time like the miners, the two subjects fixate the camera directly and the background is filled by their peers in apparent conversation and activity. Once again the clothing and surroundings provide some context, and the clock suggests something is approaching but also hints at routine. The strong visual narrative provided by the elements Güler chose to incorporate into this frame encapsulate his style and approach to documentary photography.
Whilst Güler was a contemporary and colleague of Cartier-Bresson, and there is indeed many similarities between them, there are also stark differences. The French master was like Güler employed as a photojournalist, and he captured some key moments in history such as the moment of Indian independence and the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination. Coincidentally I managed to see an exhibit of his work a few weeks before the Ara Güler exhibit which showcased many of his portraits of famous artists, politicians and scientists. The contrast between the two exhibits was plain in the subjects on display. Whilst it is easy and perhaps overly simplistic to draw comparisons from just two exhibits, it also possible to draw accurate conclusions about each of the photographer’s intentions when they went out to photograph.