Exercise 5.3 -Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare

Unfortunately, this photograph is no longer on permanent display at the V&A. It is in a study collection, available by appointment only, so I was unable to view it on a recent visit. However, there are numerous reproductions in print and online. This is one of the better examples.

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source: pinterest

This is a curious image, not one of HCB’s best – I prefer the keen observation and humour of his 1937 photos from of the crowds at the coronation of George VI that were exhibited in Strange and Familiar. It is not even that good technically, with its motion blur, clogged-up shadows and heavy grain. However it is pretty much the image that defines ‘the decisive moment’.

Look at the action. The man is crossing a large puddle or flooded yard. He is the first to have come that way for a while – the water is almost entirely unrippled – and has taken two or three rapid steps (we know they were rapid because the water has not rippled far yet) along the makeshift ladder and launched himself off the end.

HCB catches the action with the man’s foot about a centimetre above the water – only a few milliseconds before touching down and causing another ripple or a big splash to destroy the pristine surface. What happens next? Will he keep his feet dry or will the water overtop his shoes? We don’t know how deep it is. Sometimes I imagine a ‘Vicar of Dibley’ chest-deep puddle.

If that were all there is to the image it would be interesting enough, but there is a Barthesian ‘punctum’, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. Not immediately obvious until one has spent a bit of time viewing the image is the figure in the background poster mirroring the man’s leap. Was he conscious of it? Probably not. Was HCB conscious of it at the time of taking the shot, waiting for the man to poise himself in imitation? We don’t know, but he would have seen it when examining his contacts – and had the genius to print it.

HCB tells us (in L’amour tout court) that this was a lucky shot, grabbed blind through the railings. To some extent that is true (he cannot have timed his shutter release to the millisecond) but I am reminded of the great golfing put-down (variously attributed to Gary Player, Tom Watson or Ben Hogan) ‘Yes, it was a lucky shot, and the more I practice the luckier I get.’

Exercise 5.2 -Homage

I was intrigued by the Victor Burgin quotation in the course notes, I am referring to the universally familiar phenomenon of looking at one image and having another image spontaneously come to mind.’  because it happened to me when I first saw the Karsh portrait of Georgia O’Keefe.

I had no idea at the time why images of Antelope Canyon came to mind so strongly, so it is worth taking a couple of sentences to explore. I think the first connection was with textures, the texture of the canyon wall is reflected in the adobe wall behind the subject. There is also the slender grace of her pose, small in frame, which reflects the space between the canyon walls. The lighting in both images is strong and directional. Finally, there may be a subliminal message in the skull and antlers high on the wall. If I did not know the name of the canyon, would I have made the same connection?

You may already have taken some homage photography where you’ve not tried to hide the original inspiration but rather celebrated it. Refer back to your personal archive and add one or two to your learning log together with a short caption to provide a context for the shot.  (EYV course notes p108)

The mono image of the girl with a Voigtländer Brillant connected with me because it is an unusual sort of portrait and because I like old cameras. This is one of the few times that I have made a conscious attempt to emulate a photograph I have seen. With my image of Victoria we used a Rolleicord and went for an informal pose; the lotus position fills the frame better when the background is bland. The early shots from the sequence had her looking down into the viewfinder, but I prefer this one where I asked her to glance up at me. The judge at my camera club liked it as well, and it won the portrait competition that year.

During the EYV course I have attempted to emulate photographers in two of the assignments. Assignment 2 was a blatant tip of the hat to the Bechers. In Assignment 4, I was influenced by Rut Blees Luxemburg’s night-time intimate cityscapes.

Exercise 5.2 – Listen to the band

The picture I have selected is probably the best-known of Astrid Kirchherr’s early photographs of The Beatles, taken in Hamburg in October or November 1960 while they were still a pub-and-club rock band and before the iconic line-up coalesced.

This image works equally well as a group portrait or a set of individual portraits of late-teens lads showing some attitude. George, Pete and Stu are looking at the camera; John and Paul slightly away from it. We know they are musicians because they are all carrying their instruments (or part of the drumset). They are wearing a sort of uniform, or at least the standard youth costume of leather jacket and jeans. Posing is directed in principle but not choreographed; each band member strikes his own pose.

The group are posed on a road trailer in an industrial setting, suggesting their own working class origin and that of their target audience. This is a monochrome image, typical of its age, and high-contrast giving a gritty, rock’n’roll feel. This is a rock band on the eve of ‘discovery’ (and the success of three of them is the stuff of modern legend)

Apart from the historic interest, I am attracted to the image by its simplicity and directness. It shows us a band and tells us something about the type of music they play and the kind of people likely to enjoy it.

I recently found myself taking photographs of a couple of local ‘pub gig’ bands, and one of them asked me to take some publicity photographs for their website and Facebook pages. I wanted to emulate Kirchherr’s semi-posed style and use of a vehicle as background and support.

The circumstances are different from the early Beatles, so that affects the way the photograph is set up. Ocean Blue are a cover band playing 1950s to 1990s music, mainly  blues and ska, whose target audience is weddings and corporate functions. Their corporate look is ‘Blues Brothers’. We did not have an industrial background available (and it would not have been appropriate anyway) but one band member had a neighbour with a classic American car (1964 Packard Clipper), which was ideal for our purposes.

Following Kirchherr, I wanted the band posing with their instruments. As a bit of fun, we also filled the boot of the car with instrument cases to ‘tell a story’ that they just arrived at a venue and were unpacking. I used the car as background (Clive and Dawn also used it as a seat), roughly arranged the subjects and left posing and expression to them. This image is a pick from a dozen similar ones of this arrangement.

Post-processing in Lightroom, partly desaturated and increased the contrast of the image for a modern ‘cool’ look.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Exercise 5.1 – ‘the distance between us’

The exercise brief is found on p104 of the course notes:

Use your camera as a measuring device. This doesn’t refer to the distance scale on the focus ring(!). Rather, find a subject that you have an empathy with and take a sequence of shots to ‘explore the distance between you’. Add the sequence to your learning log, indicating which is your ‘select’ – your best shot.

At this point I have to admit that I do not understand the brief. These are all everyday English words, all of which I understand, but put together in this way they become mysterious. I have particular difficulty with ‘explore the distance between you’ and, consequently, a secondary problem with ‘Use your camera as a measuring device’. This might be because in my day job as a surveyor, the words ‘measure’ and ‘distance’ have particular defined, literal meanings so I am uncomfortable using them as metaphors.

However, “there are no right or wrong answers …” so I will work with the parts which I can understand. I am looking for a subject that (not ‘who’; this does not have to be a person) I have empathy with, to take a sequence of shots and select my favourite.

When you review the set to decide upon a ‘select’, don’t evaluate the shots just according to the idea you had when you took the photographs; instead evaluate it by what you discover within the frame (you’ve already done this in Exercise 1.4). In other words, be open to the unexpected. In conversation with the author, the photographer Alexia Clorinda expressed this idea in the following way: 

Look critically at the work you did by including what you didn’t mean to do. Include the mistake, or your unconscious, or whatever you want to call it, and analyse it not from the point of view of your intention, but because it is there.

These images were made in the kitchen garden at Chartwell, Churchill’s house in Westerham, now in the care of the NT. I entered the garden in a foul temper; the house was hidden by scaffolding on three sides and the gardens were full of loud half-term kids on a treasure hunt (I know; I can be a real misanthrope sometimes) and started shooting close-ups of flowers [technical note: Pentax K-1, 100mm f/2.8 macro lens]. Without particularly selecting subjects, I found that I was going for “flowers past their best” and also that I was mellowing and enjoying myself.

I found an empathy with this particular subject matter because there is a combination of melancholy (death of something beautiful) and renewed hope (after the flowers come the fruits, seeds and next year’s new life)

All of these images are presented uncropped, with overall exposure and contrast work done in Lightroom but no vignettes, grads or other local adjustments. The framing is a bit ‘loose’ because I was working with a prime lens and sticking to the paths rather than wandering onto the flower beds and getting in close.

The shallow depth of field simplifies, but does not eliminate the backgrounds, and also blurs secondary elements of the subject plant. The crowded beds mean that the foreground shapes and colours get repeated in the backgrounds. There are also the occasional surprises, such as the large pink rose in the background of IMG7156.

It is only when viewing the images on screen that I really appreciate some of the details, such as the ‘3-shaped’ orange bits (sorry about the terminology – I’m a surveyor not a botanist) in IMG7131.

I am only allowed one ‘select’, which is difficult because my opinion changes each time I run through the image set. However, the one I return to most often is IMG7205, which is a slightly longer shot than the others, having a more interesting background as a result.

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If working it up for competition, or a gallery wall, I would desaturate the yellows and greens, crop slightly from the bottom left and tone down the intruding flower head on the right-hand edge. There is still work to be done, but the image below is a good start.

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Thoughts at the start of Part five

You’ve now reached the final part of Expressing Your Vision and this is a good place to reflect on your progress through the course so far. (EYV course notes P100)

If you aren’t looking back at your old photos and cringing a little bit … you’re doing it wrong (CLICKittyCAT 2016)

Looking back at my first posting, in February, I see that I expected to be well outside my comfort zone. Certainly, I have been outside my comfort zone at times, but not ‘well outside’ – that may come with Part five and the final assignment (a brief that loose is scary).

The course has two threads, the exercises and the collateral research. It has to be said that the exercises of Parts one to three are distinctly mechanical and so was my response to them; ‘Camera Controls 101’ is not going to be a mystery to somebody who has been using cameras for about 45 years, but there were a few nice twists and it is useful to test for myself something that I have ‘always known’. Part four, where we start to look outside the camera and consider the light, is much more interesting and I think that shows in the way that I engaged with the exercises (several blog posts for each). Part five appears to be more critical, and I am looking forward to that.

I think I see a difference in approach to the assignments as I have progressed. My Assignment one ‘Square Mile’ was as safe and uncreative as it gets. By Part four, I am deliberately saying, ‘That is the usual way to do it, so that’s what I am not going to shoot’

The collateral research has pushed me into doing things that are foreign to me, such as visiting exhibitions and reading photography art books (as opposed to technique books), which has been partly self-directed and partly responding to the tangential questions that Matthew, my tutor, throws into the mix with his comments on coursework. At first, I was reticent in expressing opinions for fear of treading on some received orthodoxies and getting marked down. However, I have now taken on board the advice, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’ (EYV course notes P72) I have started to express my opinions more confidently.

The final part of this course … turns the focus back to you, the photographer, and your point of view (EYV course notes P101)

Bring it on …

References

CLICKittyCAT (2016) Instagram photo by CLICKittyCAT.com(ic)  [Online] at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BFWxTcbxmXr/?taken-by=clickittycat (Accessed: 23 October 2016).