Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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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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Assignment 3: tutor feedback

I got my tutor’s report on Assignment 3: Colour earlier this week and so it’s time to write up and reflect upon some of the key comments.

The good

Generally it was quite positive (thankfully) and included in the overall comments the phrase I was looking for: “Overall this was a good assignment and you should have no problem when it comes to assessment”.

My previous assignment report had some constructive feedback about the sharpness of my images (combination of shutter speed / ISO decisions while shooting handheld, and frankly a sub-optimal lens, since replaced). This time round “you have obviously taken on board the previous advice as the sharpness issues have all but gone” – one image out of 16 was still a little too soft; the one I shot on the day I submitted the assignment…

I was also pleased to read that I have “notably managed to maintain [my] overall clean and geometric aesthetic” – I have a clean and geometric aesthetic! This sounds like a compliment :-)

Jumping to the end, the tutor did call out one image (below) for particular comment:

I was very interested in the Contrasting colours photo, number 15, of the interactions of the reflections. The photo showed a different way of working from what I have seen from you before and it was probably the strongest photo I have seen you produce yet. Your very graphical way of seeing works well here and moves your work beyond just documenting what you see and into something more lyrical. This might be an avenue for you to explore further in later assignments/modules.

OXO Tower Inside/Out

OXO Tower Inside/Out

It’s very gratifying to get such positive feedback and reinforcement, and helps get me some direction in where my photographic style might be heading.

The not-quite-so-good

Enough of the positive stuff… what’s really useful is the constructive feedback on ‘development areas’!

The main thrust of the critique was that in a couple of cases I “may have tried a little hard to show the viewer that they should be looking at these colour relationships, rather than it just being an inherent part of the photograph.”

One such example was the padlocks. The red lock stands out well but I’m not sure if you have done something in post-processing with the saturation or if the other locks really are that yellow, but the photo ends up looking somewhat unnatural. I would probably revisit this photo and adjust the saturation a little either globally or of specific colours.

Paris Love Locks

Paris Love Locks

He got me bang to rights on that one. I totally over-processed it in my desire to make it fit the brief. Hindsight being what it is, yes I could have been much more subtle. Less is more and all that.

The Rubik’s cube is also a tricky image. The colour seems a little off to me, but it’s not an easy photograph to rework. […] I feel it is a little too red in the shadows which is giving the whole photo a more orange than yellow feeling, that appears unnatural because the blacks are no longer black, but a dark orange brown hue.

Rubik's Cube

Rubik’s Cube

Now I will confess to being initially a bit deflated by this – I genuinely thought it was one of the strongest in the set, I really liked it! But I absolutely take on board the critique – and will go back to the RAW file and see if I can get the black to be properly black and see what that does to the overall colour tones.

So for both these two images, I will return to the digital darkroom (aka Adobe Lightroom 4) and reprocess them based on the advice. I will post the results of this in a new blog post shortly.

The other note of warning was that my prints came out a good deal darker and more saturated than the screen counterparts. This could be a colour profile or settings issue, and he’s offered to review my workflow in this regard before the next assignment. I think part of it is down to me using an iMac as my primary display, and reading online they have a reputation for being difficult to calibrate (strangely, given the reputation they have for graphic design etc). So as a precaution I have got hold of a ‘regular’ Dell PC monitor that I can use to sanity-check whether my iMac is seeing things very differently to the rest of the world.

Anyway – in all, a really useful set of comments that I will take on board and act upon!


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Reflections on Part 3: Colour

As briefly mentioned in my assignment 3 write-up, I found this section of the course to be a little more difficult to get through than the previous two. This wasn’t because there was a lot to do (although lots of reading/research, only four actual exercises) or because I struggled with the concepts (I think I got these pretty quickly) but more that I found it hard to find or create the images I needed to illustrate the specific colour combinations for the exercises and assignment. So it was a failing of imagination and inspiration more than anything else.

[I did have some external factors affecting the speed of my progress, like being knocked out by a heavy cold for a few weeks, and a lot of long days at work, but I think everyone has these from time to time so I’m not expecting any particular sympathy there…]

From b/w to colour

One of the things that I found a bit of a jarring juxtaposition at the start was that I’d spent two months shooting almost exclusively in black and white for the Elements of Design section, and actually found moving to colour slightly odd, like I was ‘cheating on’ the style that I’d learned to love. But after a week or so I got over that strange feeling and started to embrace a more colourful approach to photography.

Over time I found a similar thing happened as on the previous section: I started using strong colour combinations in my everyday (non-OCA) photography. Below are a few examples of photos from this period that were not part of the exercises or assignment (from my daily photo journal):

Also, as in the b/w experience on Elements of Design, after a while looking for colours and their inter-relationships started subconsciously affecting how I see the world; like a slight rewiring of my visual brain. In the same way as I came away from Elements of Design seeing lines, shapes and patterns in the world around me (whether I had a camera up to my eye or not), I finished the Colour assignment with a new-found (and increasingly instinctive) appreciation of the ways colours work with and against each other in everyday life. It’s not easy to describe but I do feel like it’s subtly altered the way I see the world.

Found vs arranged

One real eye-opener in the assignment itself was that I actually enjoyed the still life images, much to my surprise. Up until now I always steered clear of posed photographs, preferring to capture images of what was already there rather than staging things. However, when I spent some time on the toys and food sets in the assignment I realised it can be very satisfying to be able to finely manipulate the subject in a photograph to achieve exactly the effect you want – very different to working with the element of chance that always accompanies taking photos ‘out in the wild’. And this is related to the next learning…

Pre-visualisation

I’ve recognised in my shooting on the assignment in particular that I am taking more time to think in advance what I want the end result to look like, before I lift the camera to my eye. I had particular subjects in mind for colour combinations and sought out (or assembled) real-life examples that matched what was in my head. In some instances this worked well – the ducks, rubik’s cube, apples and carrots images in particular – and in others, mainly the outside shots where I couldn’t control all the elements of the image, more approximately.

In addition to this, I’m trying to get inside the head of the viewer and how they will read the image; in a sense I’m trying to not only second-guess how they will look at the image but increasingly trying to steer or even manipulate how they look at it. For example, with the carrots I wanted a strong focal point with the orange then move the viewer’s eyes clockwise around the plate with the curved green lines of the leaves. Obviously this kind of thing is easier with still life. In pure captured moments in the real world, there’s an element of pre-visualisation that needs to be accompanied by a little bit of luck, and plenty of shots in the bag to pick from.

Subject themes

I covered this point in my preparatory notes blog post, but it bears repeating here as it’s a key element of my self-analysis this time round. When trying to get started on the assignment I was wondering why I found it harder to get going on this one, and after a while I put my finger on it: I work best (or at least I’m more comfortable) with a subject theme that gives me some structure to the set of photographs. This is why I found assignment 2 so satisfying, and this one so much harder to get off the ground. I think this need for a theme reflects the fact that I’m generally an organised thinker rather than a true creative thinker (I work in project management, if that gives an indication of how ‘left-brained’ I am…).

This search for a theme works in two ways, one for me and one more for the viewer, I believe. For left-brained me, I simply find it easier to be inspired when there are some parameters to the brief (and if there aren’t, I will invent my own); for the viewer, I believe that a coherent set of images with a unifying theme is much more powerful in getting over a message than an unconnected set of random images.

An appreciation of colour interactions

This wasn’t covered in great depth in the course notes, but for me the most fascinating element of colour relationships was not simply how colours look together, but how they affect each other. I found it very interesting how colours can appear significantly different dependent on what other colours they are juxtaposed with. What really brought this home was an iPad app called ‘Interaction of Color’ based on the Josef Albers workbook of the same name. It allows you to see the effects of placing colours in certain combinations, producing what amounts to a series of optical illusions. It’s really quite addictive to play with.

Interaction of Color, Josef Albers

Research and reading

I confess that I haven’t spent a lot of time on this section of the course reading about the history of, or theories of, colour photography. I found the above iPad app on colour interactions hugely interesting as it was both informative and interactive, and I think my learning style needs some practical application like this. Dry textbook reading alone isn’t the most effective way for me to learn. I am however very much enjoying the journals that I now subscribe to (BJP and Hotshoe) and several photography blogs that I now follow, some suggested by my tutor and some that I discovered myself. Every single day I am absorbing something new from looking at the photographic works and thoughts of others, and I’m finding this kind of ‘research’ and learning very easy to fit into my daily life. I do however intend to return to the textbook that I have temporarily put to one side.

I have visited a couple photography exhibitions over this section of the course, one yet to write up and one detailed here. Ironically, given that I’ve been working on the colour section of the course, and Martin Parr is most famous for his colour work – the exhibition of his that I attended (and loved) was of his early black and white work!


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Assignment 3: Colour – progress!

After knuckling down and starting properly on the assignment last weekend, I’ve made some headway. I think the very act of writing my ‘preparation’ blog post hugely helped to get me in the zone.

I’ve managed to take lots of shots already and may have selected about half of the final series so far.

Toys

I think I have three good shots for this theme. It was four at one point but looking back at my attempt at photographing an orange balloon against blue for the Complementary Harmony brief, I realised that I haven’t been able to reduce the reflection enough, and it’s very distracting. But I do have a fallback idea for the same colour combination (a rubber duck!) so that will be done this weekend.

I’m quite pleased with the toy ones, as I arranged them against coloured card and I think they’ve come out really well. Especially in comparison to the food ones…

Food

I had ideas in mind – and by the end of the weekend, shots done – for the four food photos. However… I intended to shoot them all against a plain white background for consistency, and I’m really not happy with the results. Turns out there’s something of an art to getting a clean, pure white background. I do have a light tent, but the lamp I use with it isn’t terrifically strong and I’m getting very uneven light on my subjects. Also, despite custom-setting white balance with a greay card, I’m getting a bit of a pinkish tinge to the background. Hmm…

After a bit of googling I found some tips for clean white background, including exposing to the right, using a flash, setting a reasonably wide aperture, spot metering and some clever post-processing in Photoshop – I usually only use Lightroom. I think one of the four shots (carrots with their stalks on) is usable with just a touch of processing, but think I will reshoot the other three.

Outdoors

In contrast to the dedicated photo sessions I set up for the above ‘arranged’ images, I’ve been taking shots for the outdoor theme as I’ve been out and about for the last few weeks. As far as possible I’ve stuck with the same camera/lens combo (a 35mm f/1.4 prime) for consistency, but in one instance I spotted a really great red/blue sculpture while I was out with only my compact camera. I’m hoping it will still look OK as part of the final set. For other colour combinations, I’ve been trying to think fairly laterally, but I do need to sort through lots of candidate images and possibly reshoot some if I’m not happy with the image quality (after feedback on the technical flaws on assignment two). At present I have a mix of urban and more rural settings. If I have enough images I may split into two sets of four?

Flowers

I had the idea early on to do flowers for one set of four images. As for outdoors I’ve taken lots of images at different times, which may dilute the visual consistency somewhat. I’m also getting a bit concerned that flowers is a bit cliched (well so is food, so maybe I shouldn’t have both?).

Anyway – I’m getting through it now. More progress next weekend!


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Assignment 3: Colour – preparation

… or up until now, procrastination.

I confess I’ve been struggling with this assignment. Even though the Colour section of the course has the fewest exercises so far, I’ve found it’s taken me longest. This is a combination of a few things; work being very busy and my time being short (I presume everyone gets this at some point), nursing a heavy cold for about three weeks and – the only excuse that’s photographically relevant – I’ve struggled for inspiration.

I’m certain I fully understand the concepts in this part of the course, but I have found it difficult to source appropriate subject matter that demonstrates the concepts to my satisfaction. I found the exercise on specific colour combinations hard work from this point of view, and my heart sank a little when I realised that the assignment is essentially an expanded variation of that exercise.

For the first time I had to ask my tutor for an extension. He was fine with this, and offered some very simple advice for shifting the photographer’s block: just get out there and start shooting.

So last weekend I did just that. And I think it worked! I stopped over-thinking it for a while and just rattled of shots of colour combinations I saw, without worrying about whether they were part of the final series, but just to ‘unlock my eye’ a bit, if that makes any sense at all.

Finding a structure

Following the ‘just get out there and start shooting’ intervention I started to relax my mind on the assignment and worked out part of what was bothering me about it. What I realised was that I was worrying over the same things as I did in assignment one – namely the total number of shots and the diversity of ideas required. I found assignment two better in this respect as once I’d decided on a central theme (train stations), the ideas came thick and fast. This assignment, like the first, specifically requests a range of subjects. I’m realising that I find it more satisfying to work to a coherent theme.

With this in mind, and having got over the fundamental photographer’s block thing, I decided to brainstorm with myself how I could bring more cohesion to the brief, give myself a framework of sorts.

What I came up with is a the idea of a 4×4 set of images, where there are four examples of each colour combination (complementary harmony, similar harmony, contrasting, colour accent), one each from four thematic areas that I reckon I can find images within. I mapped this out in a grid to help me get a reasonable balance between the colours, like this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 22.08.52

It’s not to say that I will stick rigidly to this, more that I’ve realised that I need some kind of structure to my planning and this is helping me do that right now.

Inspiration

In terms of inspiration on subjects, as per previous assignments I’ve looked at assignments submitted by other students. Not to plagiarise, more to give my brain some jumping-off points that might trigger ideas of my own. For the first time I found myself being more critical of other people’s work; in some instances I didn’t feel that the student met the brief well at all, and in others I was awestruck by the beauty and imagination on show – a real variety of responses to the brief.

The real breakthrough I had in terms of inspiration was the discovery of the MultiColour Engine search tool – it’s amazingly useful and somewhat addictive. It allows you to select up to five colours from a palette, adjust the ratios and search for images that match your chosen criteria. It’s given me lots of subject ideas already.

MulticolorEngine

MulticolorEngine

Keep in mind

So armed with the insight of what I didn’t want my images to end up like as well as what level I aspired to, I put down some thoughts, or maybe self-imposed rules, for my series:

  • Bold colours, dominating the image – colours need to the first thing you notice, not incidental details
  • Primary, secondary and maybe tertiary colours only – no whites, blacks, greys, creams etc
  • Keep in mind all the compositional and design learnings from sections one and two
  • Visual consistency in the thematic sets of four – lighting, focal length, colour temperature, saturation and so on

Now to take more photos… wish me luck.


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Tony Ray-Jones’ Notebooks

I saw that the new Media Space has opened at the Science Museum in London and have already decided that I should give it a visit while I’m working down here. The inaugural exhibition is “Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr”. I hadn’t heard of Tony Ray-Jones before reading about the exhibition, so I was interested to see that there is an article on him in the September edition of the British Journal of Photography [1].

I’ll comment on Mr Ray-Jones’ photographic oeuvre when I get a chance to see it, but what I found fascinating was this BJP article that focused not on his photographic work, but on his notebooks, now part of the archive of the National Media Museum in Bradford (of which the new Media Space is a southern offshoot). He was an avid note-taker, and the BJP article reproduces pages from his ring-bound notebooks that he used to document his thoughts and his work.

I particularly liked his ‘Approach’ note.

Tony Ray-Jones 'Approach'

Tony Ray-Jones – ‘Approach’

It’s a handwritten manifesto, or more likely aide memoire, with his 13 rules/reminders for photography. I think I should have something like this, to make me remember what’s important. It might not have exactly the same points on – his genre was very much people photography – but I do like the simplicity of having a list of ‘commandments’ to stick to!

1. BJP (2013) Archive: Tony Ray-Jones’ Notebooks, British Journal of Photography, September 2013


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Assignment 2: tutor feedback

I got my tutor’s report on Assignment 2: Elements of Design over a week ago but haven’t managed to find the time to write up this blog post until now.

I was hugely relieved to see that it started with the sentence “Overall this was an excellent 2nd assignment“! But of course the really useful feedback was the detailed constructive critique that made up the rest of the report.

Much of the feedback was with regard to some technical issues, which I’m hoping I will learn to correct as I go along on my photographic journey:

  • Shooting at too high ISO and introducing too much noise in one particular instance – should have gone for a longer exposure time and used a tripod
  • Similarly, using too slow a shutter speed for a shot containing a crowd of people meant that none of them came out sharp enough to be a focal point
  • My prints came out warmer in tone than the onscreen images; I put this down to it being a new printer that I don’t think I’ve optimised yet. I’ll need to sort this before the Assignment 3 on colour!
  • I used an 18-200mm zoom lens for most of the images in the assignment, even though I have a couple of reasonable primes, and this led to a couple of observations:
    • first, it’s not a fast or expensive lens and this meant that I sacrificed some image quality
    • second, it led to a wide variety of focal lengths being used and sacrificed what could have been a more consistent ‘feel’ to the images

The choice of the zoom lens is related to another observation that my tutor made, which wasn’t evident to me at the time but is very obvious now… he remarked that my photos of people were shot from high vantage points or from behind the subjects. As he politely phrased it I was “obviously trying to remain fairly inconspicuous”; what I think he means is: I’m too timid! This is very true. i’m not that comfortable (yet) with getting in close and taking pics of people. This is something I need to work on, especially for the People & Place module of the degree course.

The feedback on my blog was pretty good, although he did point out that I tend to go in for long posts that maybe go into more detail than needed. I should be mixing it up a bit with shorter posts. I have a few ideas for shorter pieces so I will take this feedback on board.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the tutor’s feedback and already working to take it on board as I move through part three.