Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Art of Photography: overall thoughts

I finished Art of Photography about two months ago and straight away got stuck into People & Place. I always meant to write this final AOP post to summarise and reflect on my learning experience over the course, and this week I’ve taken some time out to tidy up my AOP assignments ready for submission, and printed out the representative prints to send in the post. So it seems like a good time to sit down and get this ‘final thoughts’ post written…

Overall

My overwhelming feeling about Art of Photography is 100% positive! I’m SO glad I made the decision to get started on it. At the time I wasn’t sure if it was going to lead to continuing to the degree, I was very much taking it as a first step with no preconceptions. Now I am absolutely sure I want to take it all the way to degree, no matter how long it takes. I’ve really loved having new things to learn, and it’s re-opened a part of my mind that has lain dormant for far too long. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to find the time, but it’s never been a chore. A challenge sometimes, but never a chore.

Part 1: the Frame

It’s interesting looking back at my early photos from the start of the course. To be uncharacteristically immodest: my photography has most definitely improved! This section was very much about the real basics of composition and looking back, I was tentatively trying out new concepts without a huge amount of confidence or technical skill. It’s testament to how far I believe I’ve come that I’m actually faintly embarrassed by some of the images I published for the exercises and assignment in this section!

My favourite image from this section is the one below of the ducks on the riverboat.

Still

Still: riverboat with ducks

Part 2: Elements of Design

This is the section that had the most profound impact on my developing photographic style. From this point on I started seeing the world divided into lines, shapes, points, patterns… I saw how positioning focal points on key diagonals could make a picture more impactful, and so on. I shot the whole section black and white as suggested, in order to focus on the design elements and composition, and this too helped my visual development – I now find it easier to ‘see’ in black and white. In fact sometimes I shoot in b/w JPG in camera for compositional purposes but actually use the colour image that I can develop from the Raw file. This section also introduced me in more detail to the work of a few very significant photographers, most notably Henri Cartier-Bresson. I love how he refers to the innate geometry of the world and the role of the photographer in ordering it in the frame.

There are lots of images from this section that I am proud of, but the one that I have printed out and is hanging above my head as I type is the exterior shot of York railway station.

York, exterior

York, exterior

Part 3: Colour

After the deep immersion into b/w for section 2, seeing the world in colour again was a bit of a jolt. I enjoyed all the colour theory aspects of this part of the course, how colours work together for harmony and dissonance. I had been vaguely aware of such rules but hadn’t really investigated or understood them until this section. The big general learning point for me on this section was about pre-visualisation: particularly for the assignment, I found myself imagining what images I wanted to achieve well before I saw them in real life. This is something I have continued to do ever since.

The image that always comes to mind when I think of the colour section of the course is the most ‘experimental’ one that I included in the assignment, which was singled out for praise by my tutor: the London nightscape from OXO Tower.

15. Contrasting

OXO Tower View

Part 4: Light

I confess I found this to be hardest section for me, especially when it needed artificial (photographic) light. There were a lot of exercises too, with very specific requirements (equipment and/or weather conditions) which made this section feel like a bit of hard slog. BUT! I’m very glad I persevered, as light is of course such an important aspect of photography that one MUST study it in order to better understand and harness it. The exercises and the assignment reinforced a view that I’d held for a long time, that I much prefer natural light to photographic light.

The best image I think I took over this section is probably the ‘texture’ one from the assignment – I like the eyes…

6. Texture: natural light

Texture: Natural Light

Part 5: Narrative & Illustration

I enjoyed this part of the course a lot actually, it let me develop my creative side a little bit! And the assignment was a pure joy to work on – lots of work, much more preparation and follow-up (selection, sequencing etc) than before, but totally worth it. What really came home to me in this section was how you can evoke an emotion, or spread a message, through the photographic choices you make. Until starting this course I was unsure of to what extent the photographer’s intent was really present, and to what extent the interpretations placed on photographic works were more in the mind of the viewer than the creator… but this section is where I began to realise the power of the deliberate intent behind a photo or a series of photos. I’m not saying I’ve mastered such a ‘storytelling’ skill myself at all yet, but just to be aware of the possibilities is powerful indeed.

My favourite shot of this last section is definitely the costumed dancing girl image from the assignment.

Dancer

Dancing girl

Summary

I loved it! I learnt loads, I really fell in love with photography (more than I already was) and as a bonus, became better at it.

Anyway, that’s my Art of Photography experience over now (until I get the Assessment result – eek!)

 

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My shooting checklist

OK, as I reach the end of Art of Photography I realise that I left myself a few loose ends to tie up… a few blog posts in my ‘Drafts’ folder that I never got around to completing. Well, as I await my course materials for People & Place I’m going to close off a few of these draft posts!

Starting with… a callback to a post I made back in October last year about the late Tony Ray-Jones and his notebooks. He carried around a note that he titled “Approach”, a list that amounted to his aide-memoire, or maybe manifesto for shooting his particular type of photography (people-focused street photography, I suppose you’d call it).

I finally got around to having a go at my own ‘rules to remember’ checklist. This being the 21st century, I put mine on my phone, and made it my lockscreen wallpaper, so I see it every time I pick up the device :-)

Image

I did nick a couple of the points from Mr Ray-Jones himself…


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Photography isn’t dying, it’s evolving

I’ve been aware of a few articles, blog posts and online discussions recently that amount to a kind of a debate on the future of photography, probably best summed up by this from the Guardian: “The death of photography: are camera phones destroying an artform?

Smartphones cameras

Smartphones cameras

I’ll resist my initial instinct to simply reply “no, don’t be ridiculous…” as I think that some of my recent reading around the history of photography has helped me to put debates like this into some kind of context, and in doing so can help me to better understand the present.

Simplifying the argument presented: the ubiquity of the equipment needed to take photographs (the mobile phone) is leading to a degradation in photography as a profession and/or as an art form (the emphasis depends on whose view you’re reading). As the Guardian subhead has it, “we’re drowning in images”.

But does this ubiquity mean that photography is “dying”? Of course not. It’s clearly changing, but it’s not dying by any means. It’s been changing since it was invented, and it will continue to do so, but it’s never going to die.

History lessons

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

This is where it’s useful to examine the present through the lens of the past. I’ve recently read Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1931 work (well, the 1972 English translation) “A Short History of Photography”[1]. At the time of his writing, photography had been in existence for less than a century. It probably felt like a very long time from that standpoint, and so maybe felt like a fairly mature art form. He refers to the “rise and fall of photography” and makes the bold statement that “the prime of photography occurred in its first decade“. And yet from the 21st century point of view, such a statement is ludicrous.

Intrigued by this notion of how change impacts photography, I got an excellent book called “100 Ideas That Changed Photography” by Mary Warner Marien [2]. The ‘ideas’ covered in the book range from technical innovations (such as the lens and the shutter – it’s pretty mind-blowing to think that these weren’t always present) to more conceptual developments in how photography is used. One can imagine that for many of these innovations, a portion of the photographic population would proclaim loudly that the end is nigh: “35mm / colour / Polaroid / digital / smartphones / Instagram* will be the death of photography!!” (* delete as applicable…)

Taking the long view, such premature death knells can be seen for what they are. Photography has survived – flourished! – after each of these seemingly cataclysmic changes in the past. The uses of the medium are expanding and evolving, but that doesn’t detract from its existing uses. How anyone can predict that the use of smartphone cameras will somehow affect photography as an art form is beyond me.

Evolving into new uses

Get beyond the doom-mongering and what is genuinely fascinating about the current phase of photographic culture is that a new category of use is evolving. Photography has a number of applications, e.g. as art; as social record; as evidence; etc. What’s emerging with the camera phone generation is that a photograph can now be communication in and of itself. The ubiquity of the tool for capturing, sending and receiving images means that an image needn’t be a cherished memory of a particular event, it can be a transient piece of (visual) information that effectively performs the function previously monopolised by text.

Snapchat

Snapchat

The democratisation of technology means that instead of texting a mate to tell them you went to a great gig last night, you can send a photo of it as it happens. The image is the message – made, sent, received, understood, discarded. Snapchat, one of the big tech success stories of 2013, is built around this premise of self-destructing images. Other online giants like Instagram and Twitter are beefing up their private messaging services, recognising that photo-as-message is a huge growth area. This evolution of the one-to-one photo message is lagging only slightly behind the phenomenon of sharing/broadcasting (think Facebook) that inspired the ‘death of photography’ debate at the top of this post.

Maybe the best analogy is that the current glut of images is like society has just invented postcards. Postcards didn’t kill off the letter, just like magazines didn’t kill off the book, just like the printing press didn’t kill off handwriting. The fact that a new type of image has been invented – throwaway, instantly made and shared – isn’t a bad thing. And it’s certainly not going to stop great photographers with a genuine mastery of their craft continuing to create beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring, shocking images. Quantity does not prevent quality. Cream rises!

1. Benjamin, W. 1931. A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
2. Warner Marien, M. 2012. 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King 


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New Year’s Resolutions

Here are my New Year’s Photographic Resolutions for 2014:

  • Complete The Art of Photography
  • Complete another OCA photography degree module – thinking People & Place at the moment
  • Do a ‘100 Strangers‘ portrait challenge
  • To print and hang more of my work around the house
  • To lead and take part in a collaborative photo project I’ve instigated with four local friends, to document a year in the life of our town – ideally with a view to some form of exhibition or photobook
  • To keep the same camera all year!

I’ll check back on these at the end of 2014…


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In Praise of Blipfoto

In August 2011 I joined an online photo community known as Blipfoto, after hearing about it on the radio. The premise is very simple: post a single photo a day, taken that day. No old shots, no photos taken by anyone else, just the one pic per day. And it’s changed the way I look at photography. In fact it’s contributed in a large part to my starting this photography degree.

Blipfoto

Blipfoto

There are a few non-photographic reasons why I love Blipfoto: it’s a great way to record your life without writing a diary; it’s a very friendly and engaging online community where I’ve made a lot of virtual friends; it’s become a hobby I can share with my wife, since I introduced her to Blipfoto last year and she’s taken to it like a duck to water; last but not least, it gives me something to focus on each day, other than the stresses and strains of work!

But here I want to focus on a few key reasons why I think Blipfoto is really helping me as a photography student – and why I’d recommend everyone with even a passing interest in photography to give it a try.

Practice makes perfect

When you’ve committed (even just to yourself) to post a photo every single day, the obvious outcome is that you take more photos than before. You always have a camera with you. The more photos you take, the better you get – especially when you augment this practice with some study and gradually work out what mistakes you’ve been making. I can’t imagine doing this photography course and only ever picking up my camera just to do coursework, or to go on a specific photographic outing, or to record a special occasion – I do these things as well, but there is always the bedrock of taking at least one photo a day.

Inspiration from others

Another side-effect of daily photo posting is that you see the always interesting, often inspiring, occasionally awesome photos that other people post. I’m exposed to dozens of interesting images every time I go to post my own photo. While I subscribe to a few photography journals, I think Blipfoto is probably where I get my most regular dose of inspiration from others.

Sometimes the inspiration is in the form of a photographer who specialises in a particular type of image; I follow Blippers who only do wildlife, or landscape, or macro, or portraits, or mono. From these photographers you start to see elements of what makes a good photo in that particular genre. Other times the inspiration is quite specific in a subject or technique and to be honest sometimes my reaction is simply: can I recreate that? The fact that the vast majority of Blipfoto members are enthusiasts not professionals means that I’m more inclined to believe that it’s within my capabilities to emulate them – often looking at pro photos in magazines can lead to a sense of inadequacy along with the awe!

Judged by your peers

The more I see other people’s efforts, the more it makes me want to raise my own game. I did a similar photo-a-day challenge for a while a few years ago, only on Facebook and so only visible to my friends. Looking back now, they are laughably mediocre. Sharing pics with your friends, you think you can get away with a snapshot of your shoes, or your lunch.

On a photographic community of thousands, where people post amazing shots every day, I’ve felt a need to take it more seriously, to make an effort to post something visually interesting. On Blipfoto people can leave comments, award stars, mark photos as ‘favourites’… this leads to an element of competition (if only with myself) where I’m always looking at how many views, comments etc I’ve had! The feedback isn’t the most important aspect of being a member, but it does help to keep driving you on. You do feel the need to maintain the standards set by your peers!

See the world differently

I recently introduced another OCA photography student to Blipfoto and she used a phrase that I will steal here: “your photographic brain is on constant alert”. This is so true! I’ve started to see things I’d never have noticed. Once you treat the world as fodder for potential blips, your photographic eye is always open. Necessity is the mother of invention: I work away from home and often arrive somewhere at about 11pm not having taken a photo all day… it’s amazing how you can then see the beauty in a plug point, a pair of cufflinks, a stairwell… So it starts by forcing you to be creative, then over time this creativity becomes more natural.

These are the reasons why I think being a Blipfoto member is helping my photographic study. Anyone reading this should give it a try!

My journal is at http://www.blipfoto.com/RobT.


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Inspirational Quotes

Before I dive into the books and course materials and start highlighting lines of interesting text, I thought I’d take a look at some quotations from celebrated photographers that have in some way inspired me to look at photography from a different perspective. These will remind me why I am interested in learning more, and will hopefully keep me going if my energy or creativity dips. Here goes:

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.
― Robert Frank

My starting point was the title of the course: The Art of Photography. Not the technique or practice, the art. What makes photography qualify as art? What is the distinction between a snapshot and ‘art‘? For me, art has to have some meaning beyond the purely aesthetic, it has to provoke some kind of response in the viewer. I know some photographs really connect with me, make we want to stare at them, while others leave me unmoved. One of the things I want to get out of the course is to understand what is driving these responses.

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson

This reminds me of the need to practice, practice, practice. That nothing comes immediately, that it is in the repetition and the mistakes that makes the learner learn. Although with the advent of digital photography, maybe this maxim requires a certain amount of inflation: more like your first 100,000…?

All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.
– Elliott Erwitt

I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.
– Diane Arbus

These two are cut from the same cloth, but I like them both. I’m already learning that just thinking like a photographer, even when I don’t have my camera with me, makes me notice details that I’d have otherwise missed. Every beautiful, inspirational, thought-provoking, informative, educational photograph captured something that’s there, naturally or through design. Not everyone would have noticed the potential, but someone did, and they clicked the shutter on it.

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.
– Dorothea Lange

On the face of it Lange seems to be saying the same as Erwitt and Arbus, but to me it’s taking the idea one step further; that not only does the camera train the photographer’s eye, it allows others – the viewers of the photograph – to see in the same way that the photographer did. It’s a form of capturing not just a real-life image, but the vision of the artist behind it.

When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.
– Garry Winogrand

This one resonated with me. The very act of pointing the camera and composing the photo is an act of editing; every photo is a crop. What you choose to exclude is often as important as what you include. I think we naturally do this anyway, but increasingly I’m doing it more consciously. Editing the world into a rectangle.

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
– Ansel Adams

This reminds me not to concentrate solely on the technical aspects of a photograph, the pure image quality. A super-sharp image that provokes no response in the viewer is not a great photograph.

That’s it for now. I’ve read this back and some of it sounds slightly pretentious! I’d better get used to that.