Monthly Archives: June 2014

initial contrasted pairs

I have taken all the photos (I think – I leave space for indecision or panic to prove otherwise) for the “Pairs” Assignment, but have not done any writing up on the getting there. This -four contrasting pairs I had taken before I started this course – is a start…

Busy & Quiet
busy

london underground, 2010 – zorki-s

quiet

london underground, 2010 – olympus xa

Young & Old
young

moldova, 2006 – nikon d50

old

moldova, 2006 – nikon d50

straight & curved
straight

liverpool street station, 2007 – pentax espio 120mi

curved

kibble palace, glasgow 2007 – pentax espio 120mi

night & day
StB-night

moscow, 2003 – fujifilm finepix s304

StB-day

moscow, 2003 – fujifilm finepix s304

My first thought about these, is that they were all taken quite a long time ago. Possibly, I have stopped taking things that distil down to an opposable quality, but I doubt it. A better way would be perhaps to make other connections between the two photos in each pair: the London Underground; people in Moldova; glass roofs with iron framework; a tourist cliche in Moscow. And this then suggests that a contrast is only a contrast if it is seen in conjunction with its corresponding opposite. This seems a good place to start.

And then, there is the question of other contrasts and oppositions between the two pictures. The two pictures taken on the underground are very different by way of “feel”: one feels cramped and crushed (taken with a 50mm lens) one open and spacious (taken with a 35mm lens, which isn’t that much shorter, but I am much further away from the nearest thing you can focus on). “Young” is seen from a distance, but “Old” is a big close up. “Straight” is – just – colour and the main lines run vertically; “Curved” is black and white and the lines run through the frame horizontally.

The two shots of St Basil’s are probably the most one dimensional – what makes them interesting is that they are taken from a high viewpoint (out of the window of my room in the – now demolished – Hotel Rossiya) that is not normally available to people with cameras; I don’t think that is enough for their equivalent to be included in the assessment. Equally, Young and Old would work better as a pair, if they both weren’t standing on the right side of the frame.

So, for the assignment, where do I start? I will accept that the contrast will need more than just the subject matter to be activated, although the abstract state will not necessarily need to be obvious from just one of the pictures. Beyond this, one or more technical oppositions – long lens v short lens; portrait v landscape – will help in expressing the contrast. I will try and introduce formal contrasts to highlight the differences between each photo in a pair.

Other things that may not be necessarily obvious – each photograph in the pair being taken in a place with different connotations, say – can also help with this. I shall take one photograph of each pair in one of two locations. I shall try and ‘rhyme’ elements of various pictures, giving some idea of a series of connections greater than just the contrasting states depicted. I hope overall there will be some unity that ties the whole assignment together.

Let’s see shall we…

deutsche börse photography prize 2014

photographers' gallery, london

5th floor, photographers’ gallery, london

Last week I made my second and third visits to the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize showing at the Photographers’ Gallery. I was able to do multiple visits (my first had been the week before) because the gallery is about 10 minutes walk from my work, so a quick lunchtime visit is easily made. This is perfect when the exhibition is free and you can layer impression upon impression over the show’s run, which ended on Sunday.

4 artists were in contention for the prize, 2 on each of the top two floors the gallery.  On the fifth floor were photos by Lorna Simpson and Richard Mosse; on the fourth, photos by Jochen Lempert and Alberto Garcia Alix.

Mosse won overall, so I will start there with him:

Richard Mosse – The Enclave:

Photos taken using infrared stock (the effect of which can be seen on the header, on the left) of landscapes and people on the border between The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Various groups have been fighting over this territory since the end of the Rwandan genocide, a brutal fact which contrasts strongly with the strange beauty of the large infrared prints where the green of foliage is shifted into a brilliant magenta and water and the sky are turquoise as lapis luzali. For me, the aestheticisation of the warzone certainly supplied a punctum to add distance between me and what was portrayed, the effect being to render the scenes strange and not of this world, creating a space where I could think about “war” and “africa”; but they also echoed psychedelic and prog rock album sleeves, which at least partially collapsed the political intent. That said, they were lovely to look at – and very large indeed – but I think the looking was primary, with the connotations of war – explicitly stated in the captions – coming a poor second, even in pictures of people in colour-shifted red-brown uniforms with guns; in some ways they seemed as created as last years’ fictional series telling the story of a 1960s Zambian space programme by Christina de Middel. But they were ravishing to look at.

Lorna Simpson – Summer ’57/Summer ’09:

A huge array of 5×5 black and white pictures (to the right in the header), shot, by the look of things, on a twin lens reflex. Some were a publicity portfolio taken in the 50’s and bought by Simpson from ebay; some were Simpson’s recreations of them, with her as a model in similar poses and locations. This was fascinating to look at, trying to work out which were original and which were the copies, although this was made easier (I think) by the differences in finish of the two sets of pictures. I’m not sure how much they comment on issues of race in the USA, but the interest to me centred around how the 50’s model seemed utterly comfortable with the cheesecake poses she was striking while Simpson achieved a degree of separation between who she was and what she was doing; in the sense that the early pictures were natural and so hugely denotive, the recreations managed to call the whole set’s authenticity into question. I probably spent more time looking at these, with my mind whirring, than any of the others apart from:

Alberto Garcia Alix – Selfportrait:

Like Chris Killip’s nominated work for last year’s prize, these pictures of Garcia Alix and his circle taken between the late 70s and a couple of years ago seemed quite old fashioned – black and white, documentary images shot over a period of time in a specific location. Also the subject matter – the photographer and his friends shoot up, get tattoos and get progressively more leathery and drawn over time – doesn’t seem particularly groundbreaking (I was thinking of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark as comparisons) but over the three lunchtimes – during which time I managed to see the whole of the 37 minute film that linked sequences of stills with ghostly black and white video footage of (I think) Beijing – I found I was more and more impressed by the way he seemed to view his move from handsome 22 year-old to Spanish-Keith-Richard-alike with distance and a lack of editing out the unpleasant. Also, like Simpson, he seemed to be dealing with poses from an earlier age – they were insider pictures of the other, but an other that was aware of its antecedents. Another example of photographs plus time equaling an increasing degree of meaning.

Jochen Lempert – Jochen Lempert:

The exhibition leaflet said:

Originally trained as a biologist, Lempert has been using photography since the early 1990s to study humans and the natural world. With an eye for subtle contrasts within subject matter – moss growing over a metal fence; a butterfly and its shadow on the grey concrete of the street – his use of repetition, pattern and abstraction creates connections between otherwise distinct subjects. His approach is scientific and poetic as well as humorous.

But this was the one I didn’t get. I tried. And I tried again. And again. But I did not get it. My fault, not his, I’m sure…

More generally, it was interesting that everyone was using film, albeit in very different ways, making it quite a traditional set of nominees. All four in some way created some distance between subject matter and the pictures themselves (although, for me, Lempert created so much distance, I switched off). Mosse’s pictures won, but – aside for being glad that I saw them blown up to such huge proportions – I think I could have got the idea from reading about them; it was Garcia-Alix and Simpson’s pictures that I found myself going back to, analysing the performances, the distance between the old poses and the later recreations and enjoying the experience. Not sure how I would apply any of this to my work. But I’ll keep on thinking.

 

the frame # 5 – different focal lengths & changing viewpoint

Taken on the way back to work after lunch one day, as I passed Oxford Circus tube and then walked up to the front of All Souls’ Church.

nikon d50; nikkor af-g 70-300mm len @ 70mm/105mm equiv; ISO 200; f8; 1/320th sec

nikon d50; nikkor af-g 70-300mm lens @ 70mm (105mm equiv); ISO 200; f8; 1/320th sec

nikon d50; kaleinar 16mm/24mm equiv lens; ISO 200; f8; 1/320th sec

nikon d50; kaleinar 16mm (24mm equiv) lens; ISO 200; f8; 1/320th sec

Again, while I knew what to expect, I hadn’t actually done this systematically before. And while some of the difference between the two pictures can be put down to the first being taken with the lens pointing fairly close to straight ahead, while the second was pointing seriously up (it would have been nice to have been able to float 20 feet or so up, but levitation wasn’t possible that day and I don’t know anyone who owns a tilt/shift lens) the difference in the sense of space is still quite remarkable! The openness of the second contrasts strongly with the flatness of the first; claustrophobia gives way to a sense of space dominated by the sky behind the church.

the frame # 4 – different focal lengths

Shot during my walk in Glasgow necropolis 3 weeks ago and described in that post. To recap, I was using a Pentax Spotmatic F loaded with Fuji Superia 400 asa. The negatives were scanned at Snappy Snaps on Byres Road and aren’t that high resolution, but are adequate for on-screen use or making 6 x 4 prints. I have not spent too long trying to get the colour balance the same across all 6 prints, as this is not what the exercise was about (said he, by way of excuse).

Here are the pictures:

In all cases (apart from the last which was shot a couple of stops more open, to allow for the teleconverter) the pictures were all taken at f11 to keep everything in focus from the foreground to the far distance.

I don’t think I have ever actually done this  before (unless you count the first of the introductory exercises which involved a much smaller difference of focal length) and, although I knew in theory what would happen, it’s good to have that confirmed in practice. The things that leap out at me are both the way that detail in the background becomes ever clearer and the way the perspective flattens as the focal length gets longer. Also, the usefulness of carrying a tripod was hammered home here – it made both composition and eliminating camera shake with old heavy equipment much, much easier. And for the record, I think I like the 85mm shot best…

the frame # 3 – sequence of composition

The Indecisive Moment

oca-1.3-header

Shot on a Sunday when the Walthamstow farmer’s market was taking place in the open space off the high street, by the library.

It was another bright sunny morning and with me was a Nikon D50 with a Nikkor 24mm 1:2.8 manual focus lens. This gave the equivalent angle of vision to a 35mm lens on a full frame camera – plenty wide enough to get near subject in without having to back off too far in the confined spaces between stalls, but not so wide that there was a lot of distortion around the edges. My intention was to take exposure and focus out of the equation by stopping the lens down to F11 and sliding infinity focus to the point between f8 and f11 on the lens’s depth scale. At ISO 200, this gave a useable shutter speed of 1/125th sec, if I exposed to compromise between the need to not overexpose the areas lit by the sun while still getting detail in the shaded areas under the stalls’ awnings.

Also of course, this is the classic formula since the 30s for street photography – fixed focal length 35mm lens set to the hyperfocal values. forcing you to get close to your subjects. I shot 4 sequences at the market. Below are the combined results of the middle two (which in effect ran into one another) with comments.

1 - approaching the market

1 – approaching the market

A reasonable opening – cropped for the header, above – giving a fair idea of the area covered by the market, but nothing special. The two figures moving in towards the stands are ok, but would be much better if the were slightly to the left of the first row of stalls. To get this better, I could have moved off to my left and waited for another couple of people to enter the shot, but didn’t, feeling it would be better to get in closer, rather than spend time getting a more perfect establishing shot.

2: veg stall #1

2: veg stall #1

Moving straight in towards the central stall nearest me, I took this. There is a nice array of shoppers’ faces to the left and centre, but not enough of the two stall-keepers and the fact the bigger of the two is nearer the camera means there’s always the likelihood of him blocking his smaller partner. Also, there isn’t much sense of what they’re selling. I could have gone a bit to the right, but instead went left.

3: veg stall #2

3: veg stall #2

Foregrounded vegetables and almost a nice picture with the shopper making interesting shapes as he reaches for something, while not obscuring the stall-keeper’s expression. And the background is shaded enough to fit the exposure of the people under the awning. So – not bad but, annoyingly, a leaflet pinned to stall’s upright almost does obscure the stall-keeper, and the woman with the blue dress and yellow shoes is neither there nor not there. A bit closer and more angled down from slightly to the left would have cleared the shopkeeper more and removed the woman from the frame. However, it was a fluid moment and didn’t come together like this again.

4: veg stand #3

4: veg stand #3

I skirted round the back of the stand to the other side, getting more of an idea of the produce offered but moving me too far away from the action and interposing the rather annoying and soft flowers in the foreground. The two shoppers and the stall-keepers almost make a nice diamond/square, and the timing of passing over both goods and money almost comes off, but a half step to my left would have been better.

Also, the background (the north side of the High Street) is obviously much, much more strongly lit than the stalls. #3 is definitely better, I think. I took one more shot from the same angle, moving from landscape to portrait (5) but it is no better (though might work cropped square).

6 - phone man #1

6 – phone man #1

I’d been clocked by the people at the stall, and rather than get involved in some form of interaction with them, I turned away to my right and saw this where the man on the phone in the centre and the V-shape of the two angle produce racks caught my eye.

7: phone man #2

7: phone man #2

I pressed on and took 7…

8: phone man #3

8: phone man #3

…moved in closer and – having been spotted and being unable to read whether my taking pictures was viewed as good, bad or neutral because of the man’s sunglasses…

9: phone man #4

9: phone man #4

…I pulled back again. The closer shot with him looking into the lens (8) works best, I think with the awning and the stall forming a rough oval around him.

10: phone man #5

10: phone man #5

The man finished his call and began to move away; I moved closer again and quite like the abstract planes of the over-exposed background, the array of veg and the flatness of the awning in the top left and centre, framing the three people in the bottom left of the frame. If the aluminium pole wasn’t hiding the bearded man, and the woman wasn’t leaning out of the left of the frame, it might be quite a nice picture. Half a step left?

No! – I had already noticed the jam and chutney stall in the background, and had moved off to the right and gone around the stall to get closer. If the aluminium pole wasn’t hiding the bearded man, and the woman wasn’t leaning out of the left of the frame, it might be quite a nice picture. Half a step left? No! – I had already noticed the jam and chutney stall in the background, and had moved off to the right and gone around the stall to get closer.

11: chutney #1

11: chutney #1

I took this. It’s got good clean edges and the various planes as you move away from the camera are broken enough by the numerous rectangles formed by awnings, signs and other stuff to let your eye settle on the grounp of people – 2 adults, two children and the stall-keeper – with the interaction between the keeper and the boy on the right centring the group and giving the picture obvious narrative possibility. But other than squares and rectangles, there’s nothing going on in the left half of the picture. I stepped in and round…

…and someone pushed a pushchair in from the left of the frame. I tried to compensate and 16 almost works, but the hand coming in from the left holding the pushchair distracts from everyone else’s focus on the central area of the frame.

16: chutney #5

15: chutney #5

I stepped back. Again this works, I think, with the slightly off centre grouping of red or crimson people and objects surrounded by blues and whites is quite pleasing, and would probably become more so with a slight crop to remove some of the seated people to the left and to move the main stall more off centre. I stepped back in closer, and it all fell to pieces somewhat (16).

And then – 17-20 – I moved round to the side to try and get something of everyone’s faces; it sort of worked but there was a gulf between the stall-keeper and the shoppers if the picture was portrait (although I quite like the jam-bottles) and when I tried landscape – 21 – it’s a bit better, but not lots better. Tilting down a bit might have helped here.

22: chutney #

22: chutney # 12

I went round towards the back of the stall and took this before realising the whole sequence had probably peaked somewhere between 11 and 15. Admitting this, I explained what I was doing to the stall-keeper, took a conventional portrait of the stall-keeper and left….

24: the stall-holder

24: the stall-holder

All in all then, not the best day’s shooting I’ve ever had (If I’d been Garry Winogrand, this would probably have been one of the films that wouldn’t have got developed; and I’m sure Cartier-Bresson had days when only thin boys jumped over unreflective puddles behind the Gare Saint Lazare…). Some of the results – particularly with a couple of slight crops – are ok, I suppose. I don’t think I ever came particularly close to seizing a decisive moment (and the continually changing relationships between numerous people make this harder of course), but possibly with the object of the exercise being to document the moving into position as well as the final “good” composition, that was never going to happen here.

“Good” photography was made harder by the preserve stand’s awning casting a very persistant reddish cast on everything; I’ve included some pictures as shot and some at least partially colour-corrected.

I think it is a good exercise to have done and a better one to have thought about, but the thing I always find nerve-wracking about taking pictures in public places – the spoken or unspoken negotiation that goes on between you and the strangers in your pictures – was made worse by the need to document getting into postion as this removed the ability to get in place and then take one, or two quick shots before moving away. I felt very uncomfortable and – by the time I’d gone to a nearby pub to review what I’d done over a soda and lime – I was quite drained by the experience.

the frame # 2 – object in different positions in the frame

oca-1.2-7This is the exercise where you shoot a subject that is relatively small against a fairly flat background. As Walthamstow is under several flight-paths, it seemed a good idea to  try shooting aeroplanes against a cloudless blue sky. I did this on the same day as I took the ‘movement’ pictures‘ and made the horrible mistake of forgetting that for short exposures, I didn’t need to have the ISO set at its lowest and least sensitive (which was of course needed to be able to take long exposures in bright sunlight). Ah well!

I had with me my Nikon D50 and on it I had a Nikkor AF-G 70-300mm zoom. The intention was to use the zoom at its longest, giving the equivalent of a 450mm lens on a 35mm camera; this meant that I needed to set the shutter speed to at least 1/500th sec to avoid camera shake, leaving me with little option but to have the lens wide open at f5.6. And this, if you look up the lens’ performance on line, means that your pictures will be soft, as zoomed to the max, it needs to be at about f11 before it’s acceptably sharp. this is before you add in the effect of several thousand feet of hazy air. Of course, I could have upped the ISO to 800 and got f11, but I didn’t. Dolt! Idiot! Anyway…

…here’s the results (each individual photos rather than crops of a single picture), in order of (my) preference:

I think the reasons for my ordering them like that are:

  1. Comfortably in the air, with space to fly into…
  2. A sense of ascent somehow – the angle of the fuselage to the bottom of the frame; the space above?
  3. Descending…
  4. A bit meh, but okay – would – might? – work if tighter, and sharper…
  5. Better if nearer the top of the frame
  6. Uncomfortably close to the edge; on a different day (or a different subject) I might like this…

Most of these seem to be based on the sense of narrative given to the the picture, creating a sense of before and after the moment when he picture was taken. The impact is based on how off-balance the picture is, with the “extremely off balance” version (6) and the “equilibrium” versions (4 & 5) working less well that the off-balance-but-not-too-much ones.

Also, even at 1/500th second, it was fairly hard keeping the camera steady enough for focus – 1/1000 would have been better, so I tried tracking several aircraft before I latched onto this one and managed to get more than a couple of pictures with it in the frame where I wanted it before it decreased dramatically in size as it flew off towards Heathrow.

As a last technical note, it’s worth noting that the underside of an aeroplane will be several stops lower (f4 v f16) using “sunny sixteen” exposure calculation making it very hard to get detail on the bottom of the wings, if you can see the fuselage sides and top, particularly if the plane is painted white…