Friday, 4 February 2011

Looking Back

I given it some thought and this is going to be the last post on this blog. I have to accept that the course stops somewhen. Thanks to my followers and everyone who’s visited. I’d love it if you stopped by at my People and Place blog – link at the the top of this page.

It’s been an interesting start to a degree – it’s a while since I studied anything in any really structured way.

What did I want/expect from the course?
I didn’t have any real expectations, but I’m fairly clear that what I wanted most was a structured approach that would help me develop my photography from my starting position as a technically adequate amateur.
I think I was also after a reason to take photos There comes a point where the desire to add to the 25000 shots on my hard drive is tempered by the fact that it seems to be collecting photos for the sake of it. It’s noteworthy perhaps that I started my Photo-a-day project at about the same time.
I don’t recall this being a major driver when I signed up but perhaps I simply needed a framework that gave me an excuse to take the kind of photos I like without feeling odd – my kids used to rib me about taking ‘another pointless photo of a piece of pavement’ – and in some ways they had a point. You can be as ‘artistic’ as you like but it’s all a little futile unless you understand why you’re doing it.

So – did it deliver the goods?
On the whole yes. It seems to be a course that rewards the thought you put into it. At first sight the exercises can seem a little mechanical and the assignments a little too directed – and if you have a technical background the tendency is to take the instructions literally. In truth I don’t think I really cottoned on to this until the 5th module and assignment and then only after lots of ‘chat’ with the tutors and other course members on the various forums.

I certainly didn’t find the exercises technically challenging – whether this is a function of the exercises or my original ability I’m not sure - but it’s certainly the case that there are some technical issues I’m now much more at ease with. Part of this is down to practise – I’m using my camera a lot more – and part is down to putting some time aside to think about the technicalities.

Noise is a good example. I was aware of the issue before the course but had not really thought about it in a structured way. As a photographic exercise taking exactly the same shot umpteen times at differing ISOs is a pretty dull affair. But, and it’s a big BUT, sitting down and thinking about the results was very enlightening. I have a much better appreciation of the impact on picture quality for starters. I also have a better feel for the way in which my camera behaves at high ISOs and the compromises involved in making the choice of ISO setting. I’ve even concluded that the high ISO settings which people in other forums call ‘unusable’ are perfectly valid choices in some circumstances because the noise can be managed in a way which delivers an outcome I pre-visualised. Certainly the idea of deliberately choosing a setting and equipment which forced me to use high ISO to complete an assignment (Ass. 2) would not have occurred to me before the course.
The section I found most interesting was No 4 on manipulation and ethics. Again the exercises felt fairly straightforward – they certainly didn’t involve techniques I’d not tried before – but they were put in the context of a range of ethical issues I’d not really considered before and I’m always game for a bit of intellectualising. In this context I’ve also enjoyed the interchanges on the student forums.

The one thing I thought the course lacked was some structured reading advice. There is a reading list but the course makes essentially no reference to it, and the relationship between the course and the set books is tenuous at best. I understand that at this level of education we are expected to self-direct to some degree, but not everyone has the benefit of previous higher education experience to inform this expectation. In addition the choice of literature is vast.
Perhaps a useful addition to the course would be a requirement to produce a short summary of the work of a couple of significant photographers just to encourage engagement with the development of photographic practise. For my own part I also started to do this of my own accord relatively late in the course after seeing something similar on the blog of one of the art students. Prior to this I also found it helpful to improve my understanding of the development of modern art – just to provide some context.

The acid test – has my photography progressed
Not sure this is really for me to say – I assume the assessors will come to a view on that. However, I certainly feel it has.
My familiarity with the camera has certainly increased – it’s becoming less of an obstruction between me and the image I wanted to capture. I’ve also added another creative tool to my armoury, in the form of black&white photography – something I had never tried before.

Perhaps more importantly I can feel two distinct types of photography developing in my practise. The first is the everyday stuff that I’ve always done – holidays, family, perhaps even the photo-a-day shots. The second is, for want of a better word, ‘thoughtful’ photography. I think I’m slowly understanding why I enjoy shooting the things I do and the course has given me a reason to indulge this. The contrast between Assignment 1 and Assignment 5 is the obvious example – the former is probably best classified as everyday photography, even though I have tried to tell a story, whereas the latter is clearly different. The story has emerged as I have indulged myself, and I feel I’m left with a group of shots that ask as many questions as they answer.

On this basis I feel my photography has been significantly developed by the course – I’m going to be bold and claim that it has progressed as well.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Dan Holdsworth

This guy is at the Baltic in Newcastle until the middle of February. Bit of a busy time coming up, but will have to see if I can get there.
Dan Holdsworth - Projects

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Like most keen photographers I have read more than a few photo mags, but over the years I have settled on 2-3 titles.

Professional Photographer

As its name suggests a magazine aimed at working pros. I like it because of the range of images and the fact that it avoids the extremes of gear-envy prominent in the more popular amateur titles. It tends to concentrate on interview/portfolios from working photographers and articles on the business of photography.

Of particular interest to this course was an article on the Dusseldorf School (Oct 2010 edition) which I referred to here but has yet to appear online.

Photo Pro Magazine

Aimed at a similar audience this is a slightly more ‘colourful’ title which has a lot more ‘how to’ type articles. Of particular interest during the period of this course was the Fine Art Special in June 2010 (David Chow’s flower photography stood out), and the portrait special in May 2010 – particularly the portfolio from Tony Molina. There are also a lot of lighting articles – sadly the kit is currently outside of my reach.

From time to time I buy other mags but I tend to find them rather repetitive - in fairness to them I’ve been reading them for 20 years. I have retained very little of this material but I do have an article on the language of colour from Outdoor Photography(July 2009).

British Journal of Photography

Clearly aimed at the fine art photography market, with production values to match. I have been reading the BJP since April 2010. Coming from the standard amateur mags to BJP is a bit of a shock – the pictorialism and obsession with technique is replaced by a concentration on ideas and concepts – and many of the photos seemed deliberately artless at first viewing.

The article in the July issue on Tillmans spurred this blog item. The ‘Dog’s Life’ item in the Nov 2010 was a delightful take on dog photography and by contrast the Taylor Wessing Prize item in the same issue provided some fascinating and challenging images as did the Prix Pictet item in the Jan 2011 issue.

The Brian Ulrich portfolio of empty malls – dark boxes – is the most recent item to strike a chord.

Just wish I’d discovered BJP years ago.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Robert Mapplethorpe

Summary on my People and Place blog, here.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Course Completion Certificate arrived today

So that’s more or less it – just need to get everything in order for the assessment now. I’m going to continue adding to this blog from time to time, but if you want to continue following my progress you might want to catch me here, or by following the People and Place button above.

Friday, 7 January 2011

On Photography: Susan Sonntag

Rather frustratingly I have lost my copy of this – complete with all my marginal notes – so am going to have to buy a new copy before I can put down my reactions.
23 January 2011
Have now bought another copy and reminded myself of the sections I have read so far – which is a relatively small portion of the book – although in fairness its construction means I have felt able to dip in and out of the various other sections as the fancy takes me. It is essentially a collection of essays on photography, its development and its interaction with and impact on society. The sheer density of ideas in some parts is staggering – almost throw-away lines could form the subject of whole essays themselves e.g. “Not to take pictures of one’s children,…, is a sign of parental indifference,..” and “The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust”. So, this is not a book which can be consumed at one sitting, and I have not attempted that.
The first chapter looks at the relationship between photographs and reality, touching on the reasons we take photographs, the morality of photography and its need for a reference frame if a photo is to have moral value. Her effective conclusion is that we can no longer have an ‘event’ if it has not been photographed, but that the photos will have no meaning – they will just disappear into history – if we do not name their subject as an event. One rather disturbing corollary of tis s that we are always needing more dramatic photos. The last ‘event’ is part of our culture because of the photos, so for the next one to make an impact we have to have more appalling or dramatic photos than before. To me this seems to have reached its nadir in the filming of executions and their broadcast on the internet – fortunately there is not yet a clamour for this material inn the wider public, but is difficult to imagine that this would have occurred even a few decades ago. True – some of this must result from the easy publication route provided by the internet – but there would be little point in doing it without evidence that there were significant numbers of viewers.
The second chapter is a rather more specific investigation of the development of American photography from Stieglitz and Whitmanesque philosophy through to the work of Diane Arbus. To me it felt like a journey from ‘everything is connected and of equal value’ to ‘everything is the same and of little value’.
I found the third chapter rather more difficult to follow – with its regular references to Surrealism and its underlying philosophy. This is an unknown area for me. However the comparison of the work of Sander with that of Arbus or the photographers working for the FSA was quite interesting in the context of photography as science or moralism.
The final suggestion in the chapter, that photographers are suggesting that we should not try to understand the world simply to collect it, seems to me at odds with modern practice. True, there are plenty of photographers who seem content to collect, e.g landscape, but equally there are others whose work appears to me a genuine attempt to aid our understanding of the world in which we live.
The remaining chapters I have simply dipped into at present so I can’t really make any useful comment on them. the benefit of a learning blog, of course, is that I can return and add bits at a later date.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Assignment 5: Review of Feedback–Hotel Anywhere

As with previous feedback reviews the original submission can be found here on Scribd. The overall aim of this project has been to bring together all the learning from the course into a single personal project that is carried out over an extended period of time. I have chosen a series of detail shots from the many hotel rooms I visit during the year. They are executed in black and white for reasons explained in the notes above. The notes also explain the background to this choice of project.
First up then is this picture of a toilet roll holder - the one on the left is my original. My tutor felt that the picture would be improved if the surface of the paper were also in focus – fortunately I had a version with focus on that area (but limited focus on the holder) – so I combined the two to give the version on the right. I agree with his analysis and will be going with the reworked version. Kicking myself a little here – this is the sort of fine detail I need to keep more focussed on.
My second image was this one. Peter didn’t find it as interesting as the above, but acknowledged that it added to the set when taken as a whole.

Third up was this one which I particularly like for the contrast in textures. My tutors suggestion was “To improve, trim a very small bit off the top so that you get rid of the top of the towel. This would also lift the rail slightly to bring it more on to the upper “third”.” My original version on the left as before. For the middle shot I followed Peter’s suggestion (almost – I retained the top of the towel) and for the rightmost shot I tried a crop to bring the composition into a classical ‘rule of thirds ‘ form, while removing the top of the towel. I feel this last treatment spoils the photo, with insufficient metal to balance the white of the towel. Overall I prefer the middle version and will go with that. It removes the slightly distracting  grey line along the top of my original, but still leaves the fluffy edge of the towel defined.
Hotel anywhere (3 of 12).jpg    
For the next two shots the comments were complimentary, although he felt I could perhaps have showed more of the Gideon’s Bible to provide more clue as to what it was. I’m not persuaded by this argument, as I think that making it too obviously a Gideon’s Bible would reduce its ambiguity. The Bible is quite a potent symbol, and I feel that if the shot were obviously a bible it might affect the balance of the set. In fact the comment has made me consider if it is appropriate to name the photos at all. On balance I believe it is because then a viewer has the opportunity to confirm what the object is if they really want to.
The next shot (the spyhole) was described as “for me one of the best shots in the assignment. Brilliant.” while he was comparatively unmoved by the pillow-case. Interestingly one of the comments I received on Flickr felt the pillow-case suggested a story. Perhaps one of the strengths of a series of semi-abstracts is that people can add their own meaning . This is emphasised by the final shot below – which Peter felt was more interesting because the ‘T’ of the hot tap was visible, while the person who liked the pillowcase shot felt the tap was more like an exercise in composition.
For Coat hangers (below) Peter felt I could have zoomed a little wider, or perhaps moved back slightly to incorporate more of the left hand hanger. It’s a legitimate comment but I am unsure – I have looked at other examples that I took and remain comfortable with this version largely, I think, because I would not want to significantly increase the gap between the left hand metal hanger and the edge of the photo.

Similarly in this photo below Peter feels a tighter or wider crop would have been better, rather than having the dryer cut by the frame, which he feels gives an untidy composition. Again this is a perfectly fair comment. However I have checked my files and I have three other versions of this shot – all with the hairdryer centred and slightly cropped top and bottom, which I remember thinking were unsatisfactory at the time of shooting. From my memory of the setting, I doubt a wider crop would have looked better – and while I have the option to crop smaller I think that this version has a nice balance.

As with the second image above, Peter felt that there was little of interest for the viewer in this shot of radiator fins, but that it would contribute to the overall set. For me, it is the symmetry and the dust (not visible at this scale) that makes this interesting.

Peter described my final example as ”an excellent attempt in trying to create something from nothing.” which is a nice finale, as that was part of the original intent of the set.

Overall I was very pleased with this project. There are no ‘stand-out’ pictures in the set but they work together well – I have received positive comments on the set (see Flickr here) from a number of places. In the process of putting the shots together I have made use of much of the material in the course and as I have progressed the final edit they have come together to produce a set with real meaning for me.
I’ll finish with a quote from my tutor: ”This time you have chosen an unusual subject, but you have handled it very well as usual and what appears to be mundane you have made interesting images from.”