Assignment 1, contrasts is based on an exercise created in the 1920s by Johanne Itten who ran the basic course at the Bauhaus School of art and design. Itten’s theory of composition was built on the concept of contrasts and as an early part of his teaching he asked his students to identify and illustrate contrasts selected from a list.
Michael Freeman, in The Photographers Eye (2007), says that Itten’s intent was to “awaken a vital feeling for the subject through observation”. He goes on to explain that the exercise involved three steps; firstly to gain a feeling for each contrast, then to list the ways of expressing this feeling and finally to make an image. Assignment 1 calls for these same three steps and my approach has been to try and follow a process towards each pair of images.
My first thought was to develop a theme through all 17 photographs as well as having a relationship, and a contrast, across the pairs. However, as I moved further into exploring ideas for the images the harder it became to stay within a single theme as it quickly became too restrictive, limiting subject matter, technique and creativity.
The challenge in this assignment has been to avoid the obvious and the cliché. Aaron Siskind said “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect… but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.” This appeared to be an apt thought to remember on embarking upon this assignment.
My process began by creating a series of mind maps for most of the contrast pairs. This included using the Oxford Concise English Dictionary, not so much for definitions, but for the usage examples that it gives. For example “hard” offers dozens of linked words including hard problem, hard to suffer, hard life, hard frost, hard data, hard labour and so on. This helped to see the many nuances of a simple word, in fact I tended to find that the simpler the word the more widely it was used.
Having created these mind maps I began to home in on some potential pairs. I created an initial list of matched pairs and then began exploring locations that might provide images that fitted in with my ideas. I began to visualise some images and set out to search them out and in other cases I felt that a particular location or situation might work for certain pairs. Of course many of the visualised images were disappointing and some locations were fruitless but the process of planning, then seeking an image sometimes allowed me to develop a potentially better idea.
One useful visit was to an industrial museum where I hoped to find machinery that offered the opportunity to capture shapes that might work for example with rounded/diagonal, curved/straight, strong/weak and heavy/light. I expected that the most obvious contrasts available would be the physical ones such as size, texture and shape.
As the museum was indoors with very limited natural light it was challenging to manage the light but this helped to focus on shapes. I captured a series of images that were processed and assesses. This gave me half a dozen ideas that might work which I printed as rough drafts, and noting ideas about angles, lighting and compositions.
For example in fig. 2, which might have worked for rounded, the wheels needed more light bottom left, perhaps a reflector, to bring the first wheel out of such deep shadow.
The wheels are old and highly textured so light across the surface will bring that out. It also needs enough depth of field to have all the layers of wheels in focus but not so much that the very angular background comes into focus.
Another idea for rounded was to find as many rounded objects as possible interacting with each other. Fig. 3 is one example of many. By getting in close I am trying to take the viewer away from seeing an old steam engine and just to see the shapes. I have noted to try this again with a more acute angle to see if it possible to show the rounded boiler more clearly.
Fig 4. is a different idea for rounded taken in the same location.
I took several shots of these very distinctively shaped stairs that sweep round about the exhibits. I liked the idea of the people rounding the corner as well as the rounded structure of the stair case. The light was difficult with a skylight above and the dark underneath of the stairs which I felt was essential to the image . I have used the HDR Toning function in Photoshop to balance out the shadows and highlights to show the structure of the staircase. This nearly works for me it is insipid.
I tried this technique after reading Michael Freemen’s blog post “HDR Revisted” where he makes the point that HDR does not have to be extreme and is a way of dealing with the often impossible light conditions inside buildings where outside facing windows are essential to the composition. Obviously fig. 4 is not true HDR as it is based on a single image but it was interesting to try to balance of the light this way.
There was no shortage of diagonals on the old engines. Fig. 5 is one example, I liked the strong diagonal bottom left to top right and the lesser ones at the top.
I used a an on-camera flash hence the flash reflection to the right. My notes for this were to look for a framing that included the red junctions at top and bottom and to try working with natural light or a reflector. This and a number of other images also made me think about using off camera flash to bring light in from different angles.
One of the strongest images on that first visit was of a stone grinding wheel. I felt the key to a photograph of this wheel would be angled light to bring out the texture. It could work as an image for rough.
A second visit to the museum allowed me to test a focussed number of ideas.
Fig. 7 was a development of the ideas of the stairs and the iron wheels. Starting out as “rounded” it became “curved” with the inclusion of the stairs. At one level I like this image, the curves work well being on two planes, vertical and horizontal but there is also a lot of straight lines and I am still unhappy with the lighting. I used an off-camera flash gun with a small diffuser and tried it in a variety of positions but the very black surface of the wheel was a magnet for blown out highlights and this is distracting. The light did not bring out the texture of the iron. It did not make the cut and I have subsequently moved onto a different idea for both curved and rounded but I have learnt something about using flash on this sort of subject.
Fig. 8 is another image that went to the reject pile but that I enjoyed planning and working on. I had seen the hook with the tensioned cable on my first visit. It is about 3 metres off the ground and has the lights of the museum roof above it. The built in flash gun I used on my first visit has not allowed me to isolate the hook from the background so I wanted to try again with a much stronger light from the side and below. I think there is some merit in the result, the tension on the cable and the strong diagonal line through the whole subject was intended to give me “strong”. However, like most of the museum photos it is a too obvious interpretation.
Other ideas that seemed good on paper but week in practice include my hard and soft combination where I wanted the contrast of hard and soft wheels, or seats or suspension. I tried a variety of shots of steam rollers, vintage cars and iron clad cart wheels but have not found angles that offer anything beyond a photo of a wheel.
Fig. 9 is one of the better examples where I was trying to get tyres and suspension into the same composition. Unfortunately all of the shots says things like “vintage car” or “old” and not hard or soft.
The two trips to the museum have achieved a lot. I use off-camera flash, in a soft box, to bring out the texture when I photograph food and taking this technique on-the-road was a useful learning experience. I have one shot which I am planning to include in my final pieces that is all about texture and came as a direct result of planning, taking test shots and returning to the same location with a planned image in mind. The fact that most of the other ideas fell short of my expectations was also helpful as it showed the gap between the idea and its execution. On balance by selection this location I saw too many unimaginative and limited interpretations of the word pairs.
My next phase would be to look at quite different subjects.
Michael Freemen’s blog post “HDR Revisted”
Aaron Siskind quotation – http://photography.about.com