Tag Archives: Tony Ray-Jones

Researching and Completing Assignment 5

Fig. 01 Cattle on The Common - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Cattle on The Common – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Introduction

Assignment 5 has a straight forward brief, the essence of which is to create a magazine story in the form of a picture essay and to design the cover of the magazine that will run the story. The final result should ideally incorporate both illustrative and narrative techniques.

As this assignment comes at the end of TAoP it is an opportunity to bring together elements of the whole course and it was always my intent to allocate a disproportionate amount of time to researching, planing and undertaking this assignment. TAoP naturally led me to researching a wide selection of established photographs, many of whom have very directly influenced my thinking even when their style or chosen field is not directly relevant to my own work but more than this influence they have collectively taught me a set of basic principles that I wanted to take forward into assignment 5 and beyond.

Working in a Series

The first principle, which is especially relevant to narrative, is that work is more effective when presented as part of a series. Nearly every photo book that I have studied and reviewed is greater, more powerful, than the sum of the individual photos within in. Sometimes this is because of the story line but often it is simply the effect of developing and building a conversation with the audience,  exponentially drawing the viewer deeper into a subject as each image is revealed.

See – Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Quality of Research and Understanding

The second principle relates to the ethics of documentary photography. Respected photo journalists such as Stuart Freeman (1), and Phillip Jones Griffiths (2) both point out the importance of the photographer immersing themselves in their subject so that their work respects and honestly represents it. Freeman states that “storytelling in photography must be as vigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” and this aide has directed my whole approach to assignment 5.

This ideal is best summarised by a quote from Tod Papageorge (13).

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough.”

See – Philip Jones Griffiths – An Engaged Observer

Contextualisation

The third principle flows from the second. Jones Griffiths points out that documentary images must be properly contextualised. His example is that a picture of a starving child is just that, it doesn’t mean anything. The photographer must provide the context, why is this child starving? what events led to this point? who is depriving him of food? Jones Griffiths believes that this can only be done by combining photographs with text, he argues that we live in a literal society so words are an essential element of photographic story telling.

See – Captions and Other Words in Photo Narrative and Phillip Jones Griffiths and the Use of Captions, Cutlines and Other text in Vietnam Inc.

Respecting the Subject Through the Quality of the Image

For the final principle I will refer back to the second part of the Freedman quotation. Understanding the subject is not enough, we must use whatever skills we possess to bring beauty to the construction and execution of the photographs. Exhibit one to support the case for this principle can be found in the work of Josef Koudelka (4) who has championed isolated and suppressed communities for much of his career and who makes these marginalised people important, human and valuable by the art and technical excellence that he brings to every one of his pictures.

See – Josef Koudelka – Wall and The Role of Olive Trees in Koudelka’s Wall

The Concept

Choice of Subject

It was always going to be important to select a subject that I already, at least in part understood, I felt that my classmate, Adam Newsome, had been so successful with his assignment 4 on IEDs (Adam’s Assignment) (5) because he had based it on a subject with which he was already intimate. This intimacy allowed him to explore and document the subject in real depth and to offer the audience an unique viewpoint.

I chose to look at my own childhood and the village in which I grew up.

Parallel Timelines

Having looked at a wide range of narratives and photo stories I wanted to develop a story line that had multiple strands. I had connected with Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (3) for many reasons but I especially responded to the idea of combining his “current” photographs with the subject’s own photographic memories, this gave the audience two timelines to follow and the opportunity for juxtaposing past and present. This worked well because Germain gave both sets of pictures equal prominence and therefore equal value, there was no suggestion that because the subject’s photos were amateur ‘snaps” that they should be treated with any less respect.

To enable me to introduce multiple timelines to my narrative I decided to base part of the story on the writings of George Sturt who lived in “my” village between 1891 and his death in 1927. Sturt was not a typical man of his times, a self confessed socialist who was also a business owner and employer and who saw his employees as people and friends. A number of his books are heralded as classics but his most moving works are a trilogy of books (6), (7), (8), based on conversations with his gardener whom he calls Bettesworth. Bettesworth, or Fred Grover, was an old man when Sturt first employed him and the stories of his life in a tiny Surrey hamlet tell the story of that village from the 1840s until his death in 1905. Sturt’s other book, Change in the Village (10) and his Journals continue to map the evolution of the area until Sturt’s own death.

The concept was to trace the spirit of Fred Grover and to document his path through this landscape and to overlay that with own childhood in the same place. I hoped to find places where Fred and I could meet and ideas upon which we might have agreed or even argued. I aslo wanted to draw on any similarities that I could find between my family history as it related the the village and Grover’s.

From the outset I wanted to use a small number of photographs from Grover’s time and from my family album. This would enable me to not only juxtapose past and present but to also provide visual variety.

Text and Captions

Whilst recognising and accepting that this assignment was about photography it was also clearly set as a magazine article and for that reason alone it needed text to complement the images. My study of the early photo stories had been informative but it was also obvious that this approach is now historic, Life and its competitors have long gone and the Sunday magazines, National Geographic and specialist magazines that are image heavy such as travel magazines have a high proportion of text to image. I am sure that there are examples of pure photo stories in magazines but I would more see this to be the province of the photo book or internet slide show.

More importantly I considered whose work had influenced me the most when researching narrative and quickly concluded it was Kodelka’s WallJones Griffiths’ Vientnam Inc and Lam’s Abandoned Futures. Each of these books are heavily reliant on the written word to contextualise the photographs.

It also seemed relevant that as I would be researching the subject matter in some depth part of the story would only be told effectively by combining words with the photographs. I made the decision to format the story as if it was to be published in a magazine but to adopt a text / picture mix similar to Jones Griffiths.

Appropriation

The use of old photographs would already introduce an element of appropriation to the project but I was also keen to try and link the modern photographs with the past by using quotes from George Sturt’s books as captions. This approach also linked this assignment back to assignment 3 and my research into Anna Fox and Victor Burgin.

Other Influences

Different photographers and writers influenced different parts of the assignment.

Joachim Brohm and the Bechers influenced the way I approached a double page spread typology of cottages and other buildings that I knew as a child and that Grover would have known.

I researched a number of different views on how a photo story should be created and took forward ideas from Harold Evans’ Pictures on Page (11) regarding layouts and the relationship between pots and text although there was, of course the need, to translate the ideas from broadsheet to a smaller format. His ideas on how to build a story are invaluable an, being a newspaper man, he likes words so further justified my essay writing. Equally useful was Derek Birdsall’s Notes on Book Design (12), his ideas on how to layout a page were inspiration even though I know that I fell way short of his high standards.

My general background research is summarised in my post Narrative andI endeavoured to carry forward that research into this assignment.

Overall my strongest influences were the photo journalists such as Jones Griffiths, who I have already mentioned, Stuart Freedman, Chris Steele-Perkins, and Eugene W. Smith (for Minamata rather than his work for Life Magazine). In each case these men talk about and follow the principles I have discussed above. Quite clearly they are usually documenting subjects of world importance and I had no such subject in leafy Surrey and their technical excellence is way beyond my limited skills but their real influence on me was to set a pace for the assignment that allowed me to become absorbed in my subject and think through the photographs I wanted and how I wanted to use them.

The Process

Developing the Concept

The concept was developed in parallel with the research described in Narrative but, even before I started with OCA, I was planning a project to look at the journeys of William Cobbett or the writings of George Sturt. Partly because they were both local men and partly because they wrote about the countryside  I love and rural issues which are important to me and that always take a back seat in our urban dominated political landscape. However, I realised that the scale of the research required to deal with Cobbett was inappropriate for a single assignment and I also wanted to bring a personal element to the work and that would have been harder to achieve with Cobbett.

I felt that I already had a number of personal connections with George Sturt. My father had collected his books and as another passionate socialist shared many of Sturt’s views about the treatment of the rural poor. I had walked past his house everyday on my way to school and knew all of the places he wrote about but, more to the point, I knew these places not as a visiting student but as someone who had grown up in the lanes, fields and commons that he describes. His countryside was my countryside and it was this shared landscape that I mots wanted to explore.

Research

The first step was to re-read Sturt’s books and as I did this I formed a strong affinity with Fred Grover who had lived in a tiny cottage a few hundred yards from where I grew up, moving there around a hundred years before I was born. Sturt’s conversations with his old gardener revealed a complex life hidden behind the simple and stereotypical facade of the Surrey labourer and my copious notes centred around the important moments in Gover’s and, his wife, Lucy’s lives. His war service in the Crimea,  the enclosure of the common, the birth and death of their children, Lucy’s decline as her epilepsy worsened, the shadow of the workhouse and destitution that was the end of the road for so many of the rural poor.

Each strand opened up new avenues of research including:

  • Roger Fenton and his Crimean War photography, specifically searching on-line libraries for a photograph of the men of Grover’s regiment. I had looked at Fenton’s still life work during assignment 4 so it was interesting to look at a different aspect of his career.
  • Farnham Museum, who were most helpful with searching their photographic archives for pictures of the 19th century village, Sturt’s house, Grover’s cottage and, after much searching, a single photo of Fred Grover himself talked by George Sturt.
  • Simon Fairlie’s “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain” (15) was invaluable and provided much needed historic context and that helped explain Sturt’s thoughts on the matter.
  • I met and talked to Wendy Maddox, who co-incedentially had been taught by my Father at The Bourne School in the late 1940’s, and who is an amateur but dedicated historical researcher who has carried out extensive work on the history of the village and specifically on the old graveyard. She was part of the team who identified Fred and Lucy Grover’s unmarked graves. The results of some of this research can be found on The Bourne Conservation Society website (16)

Photography

It is not really appropriate to describe my photography trips as shoots. Over a period of nearly three months I kept visiting the village, walking through different areas, talking to the people I met and taking photographs that seemed to capture the village I remembered. My aim was to find Grover’s spirit or part of my own history so other than starting my walks from obvious landmarks such as his cottage, Sturt’s house, the houses where I had lived, the school or the pub I did not plan shoots.

Over time I began to find themes and that invested my work with a little more purpose. I began to form an idea of wanting an element of typology in the final piece and a lot of my walks were in search of cottages that had been the homes of the original squatters who inhabited the village.

A number of my walks were on, what had been the common land, and is now either part of Frensham Common which is managed by the National Trust or The Bourne Woods which are owned by the RSPB and has become quite well know for its staring role in films such as Gladiator and Robin Hood.

My photographic technique changed significantly during this time as a heavy DSLR and camera bag became too restrictive and, given I was often photographing people’s home from the lane in front of their house, it also felt too invasive. Instead I started carrying a mirror-less Fuji XT-1 and this liberated my approach and led to, what seemed, simpler and more appropriate compositions.

Sources

 Books

(3) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Gottingen: Steidl MACK (Reviewed o line via a combination of Julian Germain’s web site – http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php and the MACK web site – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/16-For-every-minute-you-are-angry-you-lose-sixty-seconds-of-happiness.html

(4) Koudelka, Josef. (2013) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture

(6) Sturt, George. (1902) The Bettesworth Book: 1978 Edition, a facsimile of the second edition published in 1902. Firle: Caliban Books.

(7) Sturt, George. (1907) Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer: 1978 Edition, a facsimile of the second edition published in 1907. Firle: Caliban Books.

(8) Sturt,George (1913) Lucy Bettesworth. London: Duckworth & Co. Sturt, George (1907) Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer. 1978 facsimile of the 1st Edition. Firle, Sussex: Caliban Books

(9) Sturt, George (1912) Change in the Village. 1955 edition. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.

(10) Sturt, George (1923) The Wheelwright’s Shop. First paperback edition 1963. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(11) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(12) Birdsall, Derek. (2004) Notes on Book Design. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Internet

(1) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism – http://www.epuk.org/The-Curve/952/ethics-and-photojournalism

(2)  Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths

(5) Newsome, Adam. (2014) IEDs – https://adamnewsome.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/level-1-art-of-photography-assignment-4/

(13) Foto8. Mark Durden Interview with Tod Papageorge – http://www.foto8.com/live/tod-papageorge-interview/

(14) Smith, W. Eugene and Smith, Aileen M (1971) Minamata vs. Chisso Corporation – Magnum Photography site – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDDWZXTR

(15) Fairlie, Simon (2009) A Short History of Enclosure in Britain. First Published in The Land Magazine – http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain

(16) The Bourne Conservation Society – http://www.bourneconservation.org.uk/index.htm

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Steal Like an Artist and an Audience with Anna Fox

Having had a week away the last week has been one of catching up at work and home and this has left little or no time for photography, course work or progressing assignment 3. This morning I planned to focus on assignment 3 or to write up my notes from Anna Fox’s excellent lecture that I attended on Wednesday. However, whilst having my coffee I started to read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon *(1) and ended up reading the whole book before even getting as far as my desk. Austin Kleon describes himself as a writer who draws and as well as publishing his own creative work he has begun to write compact little books about how to make progress as an artist, Steal Like an Artist, which is about inspiration, became a New york Times bestseller, not because thousands of artists purchased it but because the ideas are as applicable to being in business or designing a web page as they are to art. Show your Work *(2), his latest book which I have on my Kindle but haven’r read yet, is about how to get out there and begin to influence others.

Anna Fox and Austin Kleon are quite different sources of inspiration but having been exposed to the ideas of both people this week I have found some common themes that are helping me organise my own thoughts and put a number of diverse strands into some sort of framework. This is distracting me from finishing assignment 3 but might be helping me find the right context for what I am trying to do.

The fundamental idea behind Steal Like an Artist is that all art is based on ideas stolen from other artists. The book is filled with pithy quotes from sources as diverse as T.S.Eliot and David Bowie but, in many ways, they are all variations on the theme of Pablo Picasso’s “Art is theft”. Kleon’s main point is that we must find an artist whose work we love, study this artist in depth, discover who inspired them and, in turn, study that person identifying where they acquired their inspiration and by doing this open new leads to investigate and so on ad infinitum. His thesis is that by taking other people’s work apart to see how it works when you come to put it back together in your own work you should have found something of your own.

After assignment 1 my tutor pointed me towards researching the banal and the mundane as explored by the American “New Colourists”.  William Eggleston led me to Stephen Shore and I spent time first, looking at them individually and then, at the similarities and differences in their work. Whilst their work is exciting I found myself being more interested in the thought processes behind it than in the end result. It took time for me to understand why that was the case and concluded that it was because the locations in William Eggleston’s Guide and Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places are alien, too specifically American. The photographs that have the most impact upon me depend upon these locations and at this stage I cannot, to use Kleon’s concept, steal those ideas and use them on the Surrey Hampshire borders.

This added impetus to finding more local inspiration and led me to look at Tony Ray-Jones and then Martin Parr. There is a neat line connecting these men as, on the evolutionary tree of photography, Ray-Jones and Parr are on the same branch as Eggleston and Shore along with Garry Winogrand and many others. Parr was influenced by Ray-Jones and is currently curating a joint exhibition of their work.

There are clearly common ideas behind Ray-Jones and Parr’s work and whilst their end product is quite different this commonality of idea underlines one of Kleon’s other key points in that we should not “just steal the style but steal the thinking behind the style”. To steal an idea is harder than copying a style because we have to invest time into researching the artist, finding interviews with them, reading their essays, finding informed reviews and curator’s remarks that provide the backdrop to their work. In essence looking at an artist’s work is not enough, we have to try and understand their thought processes and their intent if we wish to adopt any part of their style.

The strongest link between the work of Ray-Jones, Parr and Anna Fox is their focus on leisure. Although each has worked abroad it is their work looking at the British at leisure that closely connects them not just in subject matter but in the way that they see humour and quirkiness in the British at play. In his introduction to Resort 1 *(4) David Chandler refers to the subject of the “British at Leisure” as a defining one for British Photography for the last forty years and he suggests that the baton has passed from Hinde to Ray-Jones to Parr and on to Fox.

Anna Fox studied under Parr and there are a few other very obvious links. Both work in strong colours, both look at the world with the critical eye of a documentarist and both bring humour to potentially mundane subjects. Another link is that they both have worked at Butlins as photographs (rather than as Red Coats). Parr worked as a Butlins’ employed photographer in 1971 and 1972 before he moved from black and white to colour. I have seen very little of his work from that period but there are a few prints from Butlins by the Sea (1972) in Val Williams’ book Martin Parr *(3) and it is easy to place them into the ancestral lineage of The Last Report which was first published some fourteen years later and collected photos taken from 1983 to 1985.

Anna Fox first worked at Butlins in 2009 on a project approved by, but not soley funded by Butlins. Resort 1 *(4) is the first of two collections of the photographs taken for this project and whilst any stylistic link to Butlins by the Sea would be tenuous it is much easier to connect Resort 1 to Last Resort. Fox uses colour in a bold way, like Parr she takes the ambient lighting conditions out of the equation by, in her case, using lighting rigs with strobes. As a result she creates that same sense of near 3D that is a notable feature of much of Parr’s work. The foreground, and thereby often the main subject, is always slightly brighter than the background and this brings a film set feel to many of the pictures in Resort 1.  Like Parr she explores the extraordinary that, to the less observant eye, is so often masked by the ordinary and has an uncanny knack, which is of course in reality is a great skill, of finding compositions that use colour to link the various components.

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

In both the examples above there is an interesting and consistent colour scheme. In Leaving Day the reds in the two foreground childrens’ clothes are picked up by the chalets in the background and this gives the picture an overall impression of reds. In Wooden Donkeys there are a selection of blues, the small boy in the foreground, the girl behind and to the left, the banners, the saddle cloths and the sky, there is an overall impression of blue.

This is not true of every picture in Resort 1 but in many there are one or more pieces of detail colour that carry through to the background and give the overall composition a sense of there being an overriding scheme.

Another link between Parr and Fox is their common interest in the work of the John Hinde Studio who photographed and published postcards of Butlins in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Parr discovered Hinde’s postcards whilst working at Butlins and, according to Val Williams, this was the beginning of his interest in collecting postcards. Fox, on the other hand, directly acknowledges that the style she developed for Resort 1 was influenced by the work of the John Hinde studio. The hallmark of Hinde’s postcards is that they were stage managed productions with lighting, direction and, often, actors in the shape of Butlin’s redcoats pretending to be guests. Fox had started at Butlins taking pictures of adults enjoying themselves on adult only weekends, stag nights, hen parties and the like, and for this she had worked with a portable camera and flash. This approach fitted her subjects and the parties that were unfolding in front of her but when she started to work with family holiday makers she discovered that her subjects were uncomfortable with the street photography or  “paparazzi feel” of this approach. In response she started to use a static 5 x 4″ camera with a lighting system and a team of assistants. This “film set” method, similar to that used by Hinde’s photographers, encouraged her subjects to participate and capture this unique view of modern day Butlins.

I have deviated from my narrative to look at the work of Parr and Fox because it is through these examples that I hope to describe how style theft is good. Kleon makes the point that plagiarism is passing off other people’s ideas as one’s own but imitation is an essential part of the process of developing a style. Anna Fox openly credits Parr and Hinde as influences, her use of daylight flash is “of Parr”, her big production studio sets “of Hinde”, for her subject matter perm any of Ray-Jones, Parr, Hinde, and many others. In Kloen’s terms she has stolen these ideas but there is no doubt that Resort 1 is Anna Fox, not any of the above, nor is it a homage to any of the above. Fox has taken ideas and style and through imitation she has transformed it, we can see the heritage, but her work is distinctly different because she has remixed and reworked, blended and merged, invested her own personality and through all these things created her own unique style.

Steal like an Artist was the right read at the right time partly because I find it reassuring. He describes ways of working that I already follow such as Google everything, read, find as many diverse sources of knowledge as possible, take endless notes, draw pictures, sketch ideas, use the computer as a way of editing, finalising and presenting and not as a way to develop ideas. He says “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Kloen presents some key words which need to be born in mind when we steal ideas. We should honour not degrade, study not skim, steal from many not one, credit not plagiarise, transform not imitate and remix not rip-off.

Kleon’s book is, in many ways, about research with the objective of developing a style and his ideas can be expanded upon and taken forward as a framework for study. When I first started with OCA I had no idea on how to research or study photography, instinctively I started looking for photographs I liked and then began to study the photographers who took them. This led me every which way and exposed me to a few new ideas but nothing was exciting me to the point that I wanted to go out and take a “Henri Cartier Bresson” – too black and white, too stuffy, or a “Koudelka” or a “Salgardo” – too dark. I found Camilo José Vergara and immediately wanted to “take photos like that” but I needed to have started thirty years ago as the whole point of his work is the long term documentation of change. Eventually I arrived at Eggleston and Shore that I loved but felt were too American and then I came upon Parr. In one direction this led me to Winnogrand and in the opposite direction to Fox and I have a list of names of other photographers which are still on the research list who are mentioned by or in the context of Parr.

Salvador Dali said that “Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing” so Kleon urges us to copy, copy, copy and through this process, and because our copies will not be anywhere near perfect we will find and produce something that is uniquely us.

I have spent a lot of time looking at Shore and Parr and now having been introduced to Fox’s work through the OCA Study Visit I am in the process of adding her to the list. The are many aspects of their work that I want to be take as direct influences or, is it steal?

  • The saturated colours
  • The bold, uninhibited use of colour
  • Working in sets or series and not on individual images
  • Daylight flash
  • Parr and Fox’s types of subjects
  • Fox’s stitching of individual photos to create a memory of a place over a period of time
  • Fox’s idea of collecting text and images separately only bringing them together in the final edit
  • Shore’s use of deep depths of fields making every piece of the frame equally important

The list is longer but the point is made.

From my experience of working with GCSE and A Level students and my own studies I know that subject matter is always a challenge and, in the age of Flickr, there is an over emphasis on “wow factor”, what Roland Barthes might have seen as all studium and no punctum. Anna Fox, in her lecture, talked engagingly about her career which started photographing Basingstoke, a notably un-interesting new town, her project in offices which was published as “Work Stations” and documenting her mother’s cupboards and her local village. Her point is that photography starts at home, She described documentary photography as recording something to give it historical significance and to have it remembered and her photographs of mundane offices in the 1980s, village life in the early 90s, Butlins in the 21st century and her current project in a small French city all fit into this description. Few people would identify any of these subjects as exciting, there is no “wow factor” but she creates compelling and memorable images that will stand the test of time and offer an insightful description of their place and time.

One of the reasons that her work has value is that she has constantly developed her style and used new techniques. She made the point that the fact she had used a technique or was using it now did not mean she would continue to use it so there is obviously an evolution of style in her work. One of her current techniques is to use a static camera to take snapshots of a fluid scene like an airport arrivals hall or a retail shop and then to select several moments from different raw images and to stitch them together to form a memory of a place over time.

Kleon offers similar advice to the artist about subject selection as the better we know and understand something the more easily we will interpret it for others. I am finding it increasingly important to take photos for myself or as Kleon puts it, to write the book we want to read. Bringing these ideas together I conclude that we can pick any subject close to home to document, to give it historical significance and to have it remembered; we can use flash like Parr or static cameras like Shore or Fox or white backgrounds like Bailey as long as we understand why we are using them and that we are using them as part of a process of finding our own voice.

My favourite quote amongst the many in Steal like an Artist provides a fitting conclusion.

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening everything must be said again.” Andre Gide.

Sources

*(1) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

*(2) Kleon, Austin (2014) Show Your Work. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

*(3) Williams, Val (2002) Martin Parr. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

*(4) Fox, Anna (2013) Resort 1. London: Thames and Huson Limited.

Assignment 2 Tutor Feedback and Reflection

I have received my tutor’s feedback on assignment 2. It is included below along with my comments, reactions and reflections. The assignment was submitted on 14th February and the feedback was received back on the 2nd April. I have quite obviously covered a lot of ground in the intervening 6 weeks so a number of feedback comments have been overtaken by events.

” Overall Comments

Again this was another strong submission Steve, including a diverse range of imagery from the Turks and Caicos Islands.

 The issues raised in the previous report are as follows:

  • Further consider the Monochrome versus Colour debate
  • Look at the work of Josef Koudelka in particular relation to image composition.

I can see you have responded very well to this feedback and enjoyed reading about your thoughts on Koudelka (and here and here and here) posted on the blog.

Feedback on assignment

This was a strong series of images Steve, which took the opportunity to develop a themed body of work via a place already full of visual interest.  From a technical perspective I couldn’t really see much wrong with the way in which you construct an image IE: Composition / focus / exposure etc. I do think some worked better than others in my opinion … I’d guess others would have a different opinion though. ”

A Combination of Vertical and Horizontal Lines

Fig. 01 – A Combination of Vertical and Horizontal Lines (Fig. 4 from submission)

” The imagery that stood out for me was as follows: Fig. 4 – Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point. ”

Distinct Shapes

Fig. 02 – Distinct Shapes (Fig. 10 from submission)

” Fig. 10 – Cruise Ship Through Ruin ”

Rhythm

Fig. 03 – Rhythm (Fig. 13 from submission)

” Fig. 13 – Bottles.  This was not to say the other imagery didn’t answer the brief, but just these images stood out for me with the beer bottle on the left of the first step of fig. 04 being the ‘Punctum’ for me personally. “

Response

The “cruise ship through ruin” always felt like one of the strongest images because it had so many graphic design elements to go with the colour and the juxtaposition of the cruise liner on a perfect sea with the ruined building.

I can see why the bottles in fig 13 attracted particular attention as the subject was odd, I felt that this image was the nearest I came to capturing the unusual hidden in full view and, as I said in my submission, it made me feel that I could have created a more interesting set if I had “found” William Eggleston and Stephen Shore before, rather than after the trip. I believe that my subsequent study of Eggleston, Shore, Ray-Jones and Parr have helped me improve my observation skills and become more alert to potential subjects.

It is interesting that “The Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point” appealed and why it appealed. The beer bottle was the special feature for me as well and the sense of something very normal having happened here in the recent past made the ruin more intriguing as it has moved from a millionaire’s holiday retreat to a ruin and appeared to now have a role as a place for someone to sit and drink beer but instead of throwing the bottle onto the piles of rubbish they had carefully placed it on the step.. 

” I thought the idea of exploring this island was already ahead of the game in terms of visual interest. Many of these assignment submissions come in and do not really leave any kind of comfort zone. That is not to say that a series of images must be shot in an exotic location to be of interest … probably the opposite actually, once you scrape the surface.  I did find that the images that intrigued me the most made reference to an area of abandonment or former glory IE: Fig 04 or Fig 10. I think this might have been the theme to explore as many of these relatively new tourist locations have a hidden or unseen past to explore, with deep significance. “

Response

I am in total agreement and the idea that developed on location was exactly that. I initially wanted to bring together a combination of ruins, abandonment, new developments,  the degeneration of new and old and the restored and unrestored historic colonial buildings to paint a picture of flawed progress. However, and I see this as the fundamental challenge of these assignments, instead of selecting 15 images that told this story I had to find 15 images that told this story and “ticked off” the various design elements. In editing I had to choose between the story, the strongest images and exhibiting the design elements and these objectives were often mutually exclusive.

To satisfy my own need for the story I pursued three themes in parallel. I looked for the design elements, I worked towards a study of degeneration  and looked for ways to document the islands without producing a cliché ridden travel guide. (here and here)

In a few cases the three objectives intersected and where that happened I captured the strongest images in the submission. I didn’t want to shoehorn in an image that fitted the theme of the series when it was a weak answer to the design criteria but I also felt uncomfortable broadening the series to include images that fitted the criteria but were not as strong in terms of the theme.

I do not intend to use this as an excuse to ignore the assignment or to argue that my work would have reached great heights if only I had not been constrained of the assignment. The test is to present strong images, tell the story and meet the criteria. However, I am close to completing my shoots for assignment 3 and know that the images collected so far are tending to place theme above the perfect completion of the assignment criteria so only time will tell whether that is a step in the right direction in terms of feedback and assessment.

Implied Triangle

Fig 04 – Implied Triangle The Conch Fisherman

” I also liked the action portrait of the Conch fisherman, but felt this might have worked better if it had been shot deliberately, with collaboration, in a setting where the background gave significance or context to the image. “

Response

Point taken and accepted. I took half a dozen pictures of this chap and whilst he was willing to chat about his trade and was quite friendly I’m not sure whether I could have tempted him to collaborate. The resident population, or “belongers” as they call themselves, are not especially comfortable with tourists who presumably might be called  “unbelongers”. I recently watched the excellent Bill Nighy drama “Turks and Caicos” and the point was made there that the locals just clean up after rich tourists. 

But, back to the point. I could have used one of the following shots of the same man as these contain far more context but de-power the design element but this does raise another issue which I struggled with when editing the series. In his feedback to assignment 1 my tutor suggested that I should not mix the aspect of my prints, i.e. do not mix horizontal aspect and vertical aspect prints in the same submission. I subsequently used the OCA forum to ask whether this was the general view. The tutors on the forum did express the same view so all of assignment 2 was presented as horizontal aspect prints.

I am still struggling with this inferred rule. Whilst I recognise that the majority of photo books have a consistent format there are many examples where the occasional vertical or square aspect is included in a book of horizontal aspect prints. I also noted that David Bailey did not feel constrained in his Stardust Exhibition where he mixed vertical and horizontal on the same wall or where he created photo montages of related prints in single frames that included square, vertical and horizontal.

If I had not felt bound by this inferred rule I would have used 2 or 3 vertical prints including fig. 05 below.

Fig. 05 Conch Fisherman - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 05 Conch Fisherman – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 06 Conch Fishermen - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 06 Conch Fishermen – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

” When you look at a series of images and one makes you stop, this can be referred to in terms of what Roland Barthes would call ‘Studium’ or a general enthusiasm or interest assigned to an image. This is as opposed to something that might be classed as a rare detail or piercing moment of either pain or delight, which Barthes would term ‘Punctum’.  I have listed a publication below by Barthes entitled Camera Lucida, which I urge you to read in relation to developing your photographic critical position.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

The Blog is working very well for you and you appear to be updating it regularly, which is excellent. It is very easy to navigate and contains some really strong and diverse research, which is excellent at this stage of the degree. Just check the spelling of the ‘Bibliography’ link.

Suggested reading/viewing

Parr, M.2004:Think of England. London. Phaidon Press Ltd.  (see follow up work here)

ISBN-13:978 – 0714844541

Eggleston, W.2002: William Eggleston’s Guide. New York. MOMA Press  (see follow up work here)

ISBN-13: 978-0870703782

Shore, S.2004: Uncommon Places. London. Thames & Hudson  (see follow up work here and here)

ISBN-13: 978-0500542873

Barthes, Roland.1993: Camera Lucida. Vintage Classics. London. (see follow up work here)

ISBN 13: 978-0099225416

Response

I also felt that leading into assignment 3 was the right time to explore Martin Parr. I have seen extracts from “Think of England” in Val William’s book on Martin Parr and have ordered “Think of England” but it is currently out of stock at Amazon. I have completed a review of “The Last Resort” (here) and although my choice of subject for assignment 3 is quite a long way from Parr’s style his approach has helped me understand the key role that observational skills play in photography.

 In his feedback on assignment 1 my tutor suggested that I start to research the banal and this of course quickly led me to William Eggleston and the new colour movement. I have already completed my shoots for assignment 2 when I received this advice but I have spent a lot of time researching Eggelston (here and here) and that led me to Stephen Shore and Uncommon Places (here) and ultimately to Tony Ray-Jones (here) and Martin Parr (here)

” Pointers for the next assignment

Apologies about the late response regarding this feedback, as I note you already have looked at some of these practitioners in relation to assignment 3. Anyway ….. please use the following to inform assignment 03 – Martin Parr, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Parr is a well known Magnum Photographer, so it may also serve you well to try and become acquainted with what the Magnum Photo Agency [http://www.magnumphotos.com] is all about. The other two [Eggleston & Shore] are very important American photographers especially in relation to the use of ‘Colour Photography’.

Eggleston in particular is cited as being the photographer who introduced the art world to Colour Photography, with his ground breaking exhibition at MOMA in New York in 1976.  Prior to this, most serious photography had been monochrome.

Lastly, regarding work already conducted on assignment 3 – in relation to reflections / portraits, please see the work Tom Wood conducted from Merseyside buses in the 1980’s called ‘All Zones Off Peak’.

I hope this is of help to you Steve and I look forward to your next assignment.

Response

Very helpful pointers and I sense that Parr, Eggleston and Shore are ideal influences at this stage. I have used the Magnum site extensively as it bypasses the frustrations of general image searches on the internet where separating the wheat from the chaff is laborious and frustrating.  Magnum has two massive advantages, they are all photographers at the top of their profession and the site has a powerful search engine so it is very easy to focus in on a single topic across many practitioners. They also provide a historical and contemporary cross section of styles so it is possible to find very different approaches to the same subject.

I will certainly look into Tom Wood, I did see some of his work when I helped take a school party to London last year but I will now search out images from “All Zones Off Peak”. It is too expensive to buy a copy as it is currently showing on Amazon at £165.

Overall Reflective Comments

I would obviously have been happier if more of the submission images had made the “short list”, 4 out of 15 seems a poor hit rate, but looking back on the submission six weeks down the track I fully accept that they were not all strong enough and, if I was to assess them now I would have only added 1 or 2 more to the “short list”. As mentioned above, I feel the key is to ensure the theme and what I want to say is given priority over ticking off the assignment criteria and I need to push further out to test where this takes me. 

There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from my tutor’s remarks and whilst I have collected plenty of test shots and have some potential final images for assignment 3 there is still plenty of time to use his guidance to good effect. 

Eggleston, Shore, Ray-Jones and Parr are influencing the way I observe but I am not seeing a clear influence coming through in my photos. There are fleeting glimpses of the way they see and capture the world in a some very isolated examples of the pictures I have taken in the last month so hope still springs eternal. I would have given myself a better chance of showing their influence more directly if I had chosen a different subject for assignment 3 as I have not come across many reflections or mannequins in their work.

Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Fig. 1 Cafe in Aldershot 2014 - Primarily influenced by Vegara in the sense that I am drawn to capturing the changing shop fronts of Aldershot head-on but with a touch of Parr in that I am interested in the two customers who represent the changing population of the town. 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720. 50mm prime lens.

Fig. 1 Cafe in Aldershot 2014 – Primarily influenced by Vegara in the sense that I am drawn to capturing the changing shop fronts of Aldershot head-on but with a touch of Parr in that I am interested in the two customers who represent the changing population of the town. 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720. 50mm prime lens.

Working through the exercises in the third section of the course I have been thinking about my approach to assignment 3. Each of my shoots for the part 3 exercises has given me one or two pictures that fit into a pattern that is leading me towards a potential assignment 3 submission. I am not quite ready to finalise my plans and start shooting but my current idea is to find my colour combinations by photographing people in front of contrasting and colourful backgrounds. I am not certain whether the backgrounds are shop fronts or cafés or beach huts  or a combination of all three but I am looking for significant blocks of colour to contrast, compliment or clash with people’s clothes. I am putting this post together to help me crystallise my thoughts and to bring together some test shots in one place.

People and place will be the most important elements but the colour cannot be incidental, it needs to play an essential role. I have reached this point partly because I have found a selection of shots that hold some promise and partly as result of the work of a number of artists who are influencing the way I am looking at locations.

Since Christmas I have become increasingly interested in the American colour movement of the 70s and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the work of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and their approach to documenting a time and a place by focusing on the ordinary,  this has influenced my thinking and hopefully in time will influence my work. I have also drawn inspiration from Camilo José Vergara whose work documenting the changing infrastructure of urban America is a refreshing approach to street photography where the street is often more important than the people in it, I like the way he allows the architecture to dominate the image. so that he photographs the influence of people more than the people themselves. Each of these men work in colour which is appropriate to this part of the course and, more importantly, is my favoured medium but their work is fundamentally about America which is not an issue in terms of appreciating their art but, culturally and locationally is removed from where I want to focus.

Fig. 2 Polish Deli in Aldershot - Similar to fig. 1 with the shop providing a colourful backdrop to a lone Nepalese passerby. In 1975 Ray-Jones could view the English as a, generally, single race, in 2014 we are a much more exciting cultural mix so we have a Polish Deli in a Hampshire town with a Nepalese resident. - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 200. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 2 Polish Deli in Aldershot – Similar to fig. 1 with the shop providing a colourful backdrop to a lone Nepalese passerby. In 1975 Ray-Jones could view the English as a, generally, single race, in 2014 we are a much more exciting cultural mix so we have a Polish Deli in a small Hampshire town with a Nepalese resident. – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 200. 50mm prime lens

The test shots I have included here do not represent the work of the artists I am mentioning but it is work that is coming from the same direction or where I feel the result is a direct result of having explored the work of Eggleston, Shore, Vergara, Ray-Jones or Parr. Most of these photos are current test pieces for assignment 3 and I want to take some of these ideas further over the next few weeks as I build towards that assignment. Some are older photos that I have gone back to as a result of studying the aforementioned artists but are photos where I feel I was on the edge of the kind of observational skills I need to move forward with assignment 3.

Many of my photos here are taken with deep DoF, this is a very conscious decision based on the work of Shore and Parr, I am actively seeking detail and am willing to sacrifice a bit of quality and use a higher ISO to be able to pack as much focussed detail into the frame as possible where all the information is playing an active role. I have some ideas that will be best achieved with a tripod and playing the waiting game al la Shore but when I am working hand held I will accept the high ISO.

Since starting this course I have held back on getting too deeply into Martin Parr’s work because I felt that a time would come when his approach and his subject matter would be especially relevant. I thought this might be towards the end of TAoP but I sense the moment is here and now because my embryonic ideas for assignment 3 have strong links to his exploration of Englishness and the types of locations that he has often been drawn to.

Fig. 3 Man In Cafe on Rainy Day Clevedon - Typical English seaside resort on a wet cold day, there will alawys be someone having a cup of tea in the rain. 1/125 at f/8, ISO 400. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 3 Man In Cafe on Rainy Day Clevedon – Typical English seaside resort on a wet cold day, there will always be someone having a cup of tea in the rain. The lack of colour makes it a poor image for assignment 3 but I like the empty café and the wet pavement. 1/125 at f/8, ISO 400. 50mm prime lens

I can see Eggleston and Shore’s influence in Parr’s work, especially in his indoor shots of cafés, meal tables, cups of tea, the trivia of everyday life but more than that it is his intent to document a way of life more than to take photos of places or things or even people. However, I think that there is a fundamental difference in his work and that is his sense of humour and his ability to gently poke fun at something that he is part of, his Englishness. This desire to photograph the English being English is something that Parr shares with Tony Ray-Jones and to understand Parr’s work better I started by looking at Ray-Jones who Parr cites as a major influence.

Fig. 5 Café in the Sun Clevedon - Another person wrapped up against a cold wind enjoying a cup of tea at the seaside - 1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 4 Café in the Sun Clevedon – Another person wrapped up against a cold wind enjoying a cup of tea at the seaside, the colour of the sign works well but there is not enough human interest – 1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Tony Ray-Jones tragically died very young and, as a result, there is a limited amount of his work available to see and much of it is in black and white. A small selection of his colour work can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24142421 * (1) and Martin Parr’s selection of his black and white pictures can be seen at www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24826739 * (2). In the context of this discussion the black and white prints are the most relevant but I was very interested in some of his American colour work especially where he is using shop fronts as a backdrop to his studies of people. Parr says that Ray-Jones approached his project, that was posthumously published in 1971 as A Day Off, with “anthropological skill and rigour” * (3) and this phrase reveals something of both men. They both worked to document a place and a time and approached their work as a study. The power of their work partly lies in the sets of the images and the context of the sets. We are used to seeing individual Martin Parr photos in isolation but they lose something when they are extracted from the context of the set and this appears to be equally true of Ray-Jones’ work. In A Day Off he sets out to show, in his words, “the sadness and humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people” and he focusses his attention on his own race to communicate “something of the spirit and mentality of the English”. To achieve this he visited places and events in the late sixties, traditional and ritualised events such as Glyndebourne, one off events such as the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival and places where the English were being very English such as on the beach.

Fig. 3 Dog in Rome 2008 - As an ex-resident of Italy I find this very Italian, a stylishly dressed couple photographing their dog at the Trevi fountain. 1/200 at f/5, ISO 140

Fig. 5 Dog in Rome 2008 – As an ex-resident of Italy I find this very Italian, a stylishly dressed couple photographing their dog at the Trevi fountain, this is sort of lucky shot I need to find to explore Englishness, more colourful clothes would help assignment 3. 1/200 at f/5, ISO 140

He captured people dressed in strange costumes for competitions or because a specific mode of dress was the uniform for a particular event or because a visit to the beach was such a special occasion for the working classes that they sat in the sun in their best suit and tie. This is so emotive for my generation, my mother would insist my father wore a tie to dig the garden in case a passer-by mistook him for a labourer. Ray-Jones photographed a lot of people drinking tea and often this very act was totally at odds with the backdrop. The well-to-do couple drinking tea at Glyndebourne with cows in the adjoining field and people on deck chairs drinking tea from china cups. This gentle madness documents a generation who were constrained by convention and by custom.

Many of Ray-Jones’ compositions are crowded, even cluttered, packed with information and this style is important with this type of documentary photography. An interesting beach, festival or street is often a busy place and to capture the sense of place the image needs to contain plenty of information. The skill of Ray-Jones is to make sense out of all this information. A good example is his photograph of the Salvation Army on Brighton Beach * (3) where the frame is packed with people but the composition is designed to carry the viewer deep into the group and focus on the flip chart before spreading out to all the band members. Parr said of Ray-Jones’ pictures “They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.” * (4)

Parr picked up the baton and has been running with it ever since. His earliest black and white work published as the Non-Conformists documented a small Northern industrial town with sympathetic humour. I have read blogs where writers find Parr’s work distasteful and, in some cases, offensive; they interpret his photos as being cruel, suggesting that he is laughing at his subjects. I believe that this is far from the truth, I think Parr is comfortable with being British and that there is affection in his portrayal of, what he sees as, people being British.

Another aspect of Ray-Jones’ work and Parr’s early work is that in the 60s and 70s Britain was becoming a multi-cultural country but most, if not all, the photos in The Last Resort and those that I have seen from A Day Off and The Non Conformists are of Anglo-Saxons. 40 or 50 years later we live in a different England where being English means something quite different and this is something that I want to explore.

Fig. 5  - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 6 Indian influences in Aldershot, a Nepalese women walks past two Indian restaurants, I was looking for colour combinations and found them in the women’s clothing, the signage and the yellow and black scaffold poles and it further explores modern England,  there is no clue that we are in Hampshire – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 50mm prime lens

I am going to write up a review of The Last Resort in the next few days but, here I want to concentrate on how Parr’s approach can influence me in assignment 3. In Last Resort there is the same warts and all feeling that I see in Eggleston’s work, the same acceptance of seediness without focussing on it in the way that many modern street photographs tend to do. Parr shows that observation needs to have no boundaries. Looking back at my own work I see that, whilst living in Asia, I saw and photographed the world as it was but in England and when living in Italy my photographs have been about the way I want the world to be. In the Philippines I wanted to capture a real sense of place and its people but in Italy I appear to have wanted to produce calendar shots. There is no doubt an underlying reason for this but I now want to get back to observing and photographing what is there and not what I want to be there.

At this stage I am letting myself be influenced by the small group of photographers who have really caught my attention and am consciously letting their ideas impact the way I work. For example Cartier-Bresson and Eggleston work with compact small cameras and by using a 50mm prime lens much more often I am realising that I work faster, less intrusively and with less distractions that I did with heavy zoom lenses. Vegara has taught me that the architecture tells an important part of the story; Parr and Ray-Jones are great observers and work in sets and I can see that a good set is worth far more than the sum of its parts, five photos working together to tell a story is far more exciting than one great picture. Shore shows that you can pick a good spot, compose a picture, thereby creating a stage and then wait for the players to enter.

Fig. 7 Dogs Waiting - A man waits with two dogs outside a shop , the colours in the window display drew me to this shot but it is the man and two dogs both looking in the same direction that makes it interesting - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 7 Dogs Waiting – A man waits with two dogs outside a shop , the colours in the window display drew me to this shot but it is the man and two dogs both looking in the same direction that makes it interesting – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

At this stage assignment 3 is probably a progression of the type of images I have used here. I am not satisfied with any of them which is okay because they are only test shots. There is too much empty space in too many of them and because of that they lack the punch of Parr’s New Brighton shots and I have to work on my angles when trying to include shop or café fronts, the lines of doors, signs and pavements need to work better with each other to avoid becoming a distration. I need to use the architecture as a structure to frame the people more effectively.

However, on the positive side I feel the idea developing:

  • background colour from shops or cafés and I still want to explore beach huts
  • foreground interest and colour from people
  • explore modern Englishness
  • concentrate on observation and capturing the sense of a place and its inhabitants in a positive way without being judgemental
  • create a set

Sources

Parr, Martin (1986) The Last Resort. Revised edition published in 2013. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Parr, Martin (2007) Martin Parr. 2013 Edition. london: Phaidon Press

Internet

* (1) BBC News – Tony Ray-Jones in Colour  www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24142421

* (2) BBC News – Only in England: Photographs from a bygone era (Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones) www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24826739

* (3) BBc News – In Pictures – The English by Tony Ray-Jonesnews.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/04/in_pictures_the_english_by_tony_ray_jones_/html/6.stm

* (4) Amateur Photographer – Tony Ray Jones, Iconic Photographer http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/how-to/icons-of-photography/534741/tony-ray-jones-iconic-photographer#JWIau4qOtRYovXFo.99