Thoughts for July

I have been following, with some bemusement, several posts both on the OCA EYV mail thread and on the OCA year 1 Facebook page. There seems to be a small number of very vocal people who are clearly dissatisfied with the thoughts behind the course and the marking system. The problems could be summarised as:

  • I don’t feel I get enough support
  • I don’t like being told what to do
  • I don’t like the type of photography we are being asked to look at – too artsy, not beautiful, too much meaning, not enough meaning!
  • I’m not learning how to make better (read prettier) pictures
  • It’s too hard
  • It’s too much theory

Some of the above are obviously mutually contradictory.

I am not in the above camp – but I do wonder how much these vocal people reflect the general perceptions of a distance learning environment and some of the inevitable difficulties that occur. I have had the dubious advantage of working in a profession where I have always had to do a lot of self-directed study to keep up with any new developments, and was aware how hard this can be before starting the course. I am also studying for personal interest, that’s not to say that a long-term goal of making images that are good enough to attract attention and maybe even sell is out of the question!

I also am very aware that I actually signed up to do an Arts degree (and hope to be able to finish it). In any degree course there is bound to be a lot of ‘theoretical’ work, both reading and writing, and you are going to come across a range of works, some of which you will like and some of which you may hate or despise. I also think that it is likely that my tastes and specific interests will change as I see more different images and also as I read more about the thoughts and aspirations of the individual photographers. Certainly, I have already come across several artists that I would never have found before, and at least one that, on initial viewing, I could not see any value in, but whom I now really appreciate, and go back to.

I admit I am struggling to find enough time to do as much as I would like to. This is partly because I keep getting distracted and would spend an untenable amount of time following side paths, which, while fascinating, does detract from time available from doing the actual course work.

I also keep changing my mind about how to approach some of the assignments. I would probably find a little more hands on guidance or discussion helpful here, and should probably benefit from attending the study days when they are near enough or joining a local (ish) study group. Maybe a way forward would be to get up courage to post some of my images on the appropriate thread on the OCA website to ask for comments.

The issue about tutor support is a significant one. The tutor I have for EYV has not had any contact with me other than responding after my assignments, however that response has been extensive and very helpful, commenting on both my photography and my research, with several suggestions about how to take it further and appropriate links. Interestingly he has given some diametrically opposite advice from the tutor I had some years ago for TAOP. My previous tutor directed that every image should be labelled with all the image data, this one said not, commenting that you would only look at this if the photograph was intrinsically boring! (Although it can be interesting to know how someone else has reached the effect they have achieved).

Over the last month I have done a fairly large amount of personal photography that doesn’t directly feed into the course requirements. We have been away on holiday on a tour of Northern England and been to several events to do with the Romans and also to a very large military re-enactment. I have been able to use some of the confidence I developed in taking portraits for assignment 2 to good use here, and have, I think, made more interesting images of these events than I would have previously.

I have also made a small photobook for our wedding anniversary using 3 inch square close-up monochrome images of ears, fingers etc, which I would probably not thought of doing before the course. This is something I may well develop for future work and have wondered about using for the final assignment, my initial plan had to do some images around the environmental impact of the forestry commission and logging in Scotland.

So this is where I am at the moment. Trying not to get too diverted. Considering what to take forward. Generally happy that I am slowly improving.

L’amore de court – Just plain love

A documentary about Henri Cartier-Bresson, made in 2001 when he was 93.

I watched this documentary twice, taking extensive notes (which I will append as PDF’s). The film switches between Cartier-Bresson talking about his thoughts on photography and the thoughts of other creative people talking about their fields, painting, film and music. There is an implied comparison between these different art forms and photography together with suggestions about how they are similar. It is clear throughout the documentary that both the film makers and the other creative people talking had a great affection for Cartier-Bresson and that he has maintained a mischievous nature. He clearly had a wonderful sense of humour which comes over in his photography and also in his conversation with others. All quotes are from the documentary (O’Byrne,2001).

Cartier-Bresson’s main themes are ‘what is important is to look’ and ‘we live in a privileged world’ and therefore that you should make use of that privileged position to show what is important and truthful in life. He talks about luck ‘It’s always luck, nothing else. When you want it, you won’t get it’ and about his feeling that the most important part of a good image is form ‘the basis is geometry …. Intuitively I know where it falls.’

There is a fascinating section by the photographer Klavdij Sluban which shows taking disposable cameras into a prison from youths, talking to them about the basis of composition and then letting them take their own images. There is a marked contrast between the professional and emotive film showing the young men, focusing on small details of their lives such as the food hatch and the images taken on the cheap cameras which shows what the prisoners themselves found important, mainly images of each other, often in groups and often unposed, all the more evocative of their actual lives.

Yvette Bonney says about Cartier-Bresson ‘when others are distracted and unobservant, Henri is on the lookout, ready to react, not even needing to stop’. In contrast, Cartier-Bresson talks about the need for concentration and how, when talking portraits ‘I talk nonsense because people expect you to say something …. I don’t listen to myself, I observe’.

Arihka (a painter) says ‘you have to perceive, not recognise’ and ‘it’s like the sand rearranged by the wind …. You need the wind, in other words, inspiration …. a sensual thing’, and Paolo Beschi (a cellist) says ‘when I start something is released …. like a camera shutter…. something unique is created ‘.

 Parts of the film were poignant, parts funny and all fascinating. A scene of driving though a tunnel to the light reminded me of the theatre images by Sugimoto, but with an intense sense of motion rather than the stillness Sugimoto imparts. It reminded me that all senses are linked, and that although in photography we are mainly using our eyes and looking, an image can also invoke the memory of sound, feeling and the gestalt of a place or a person. A good image needs love.


O’Byrne, R. (2001). H. Cartier-Bresson: l’amour tout court. [online] Vimeo. Available at: [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].


Further Thoughts on Assignment 2

Gill, Dijkstra and Gotts.

As part of his feedback for assignment 2 my tutor suggested I should look at some portrait photographers who work in different ways. Each produces a typology of ‘heads’ (and shoulders!) that you may find interesting. What links these photographers and yourself is the idea of linking the portraits through a common theme.’

I found this very interesting, and could have ended up spending the next several weeks just on this part of an assignment review.

Stephen Gill (born 1971) is widely exhibited, but also produces a series of handmade photobooks on his latest series of images. Field Studies is one of these and is described on the publishing website as ‘serial studies of mundane British scenes and objects including cash points, lost people, the back of advertising billboards and people traveling on the London to Southend train. His visual approach is unique, combining conceptual rigour with enormous sympathy for his human subjects’ (Gill, 2004). This book includes his ‘Audio Portraits’ of people wearing headphones. In these images the people seem totally bound up in their music, looking far away at times, and not always aware of the photographer. The images show a range of ages and races, the only apparent link is the headphones, and the place – a city street. A further series focuses on the shopping trolleys people use, apparently secondary to his use of a trolley after an injury (Gentle Author, 2011). I found these portraits fascinating as they focused on the everyday lives of people you see in the street, not the famous, the great or the good, but the people you meet and probably normally just walk past. He clearly engaged with them and enabled them to relax, or even to ‘chill out’ while taking a portrait that is sympathetic but not full of pathos, and which includes the often drear surroundings.

Rineke Dijkstra (born1959) has just won the 2017 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography. She concentrates on portraiture, often works with series, either of the same person over a prolonged time period or of a specific event in peoples lives. She has photographed bullfighters just out of the ring, adolescents on the cusp of adulthood and a series of images of women just after childbirth, which is one of the most vulnerable points in any woman’s life. Her work is described as deadpan by Cotton ‘The unsentimental approach that Dijkstra makes in her representation of maternity…… visualised the profound shift in the women’s changing relationships to their bodies…… something we might never have observed without such a systematic and detached photographic style’. (Cotton,2014).

Smyth says in the BJPRineke Dijkstra’s photographs and films speak brilliantly to the intricacy of the portrait image: its embodiment in time; its capacity to reveal history; the contingency of the act of exchange between sitter, photographer and spectator; and, ultimately, photography’s revelation of the self.’ (Smyth, 2017)

On describing her 2012 retrospective Time Magazine says ‘Hoping to catch people with their defences down, Dijkstra started to photograph them in the aftermath of some exhausting event. She got women to pose soon after giving birth, usually standing naked while they cradled their new-borns. By 1994 she was also making portraits of Portuguese forcados—amateur bullfighters who enter the ring in unarmed groups to subdue the bulls bare-handed. She photographed them right after they returned from the fight, bloody, scuffed and dented.’ (Lacayo, 2012).

I find her work poignant, it may well be systematic, but it is not detached. She shows life in all its variable glory, ups and downs as well as the spectacular moments.

I also found Andy Gotts who, amongst other images, has produced a series of portraits of BAFTA award winners that was exhibited under the title ‘Behind the Mask’ in 2014.  The images are show the great and good of the acting world who have either won or been nominated for a BAFTA. Gotts says, ‘I have always been a movie buff and getting the opportunity to meet my matinée idols is beyond a dream come true’ (,2013).  Janette Dalley, who worked with him on the exhibition describes ‘a masterclass in minimalist photography’ (Gotts, 2014) and Anna Allalouf, the curator, says ‘it feels profoundly vulnerable to go under the camera’s gaze when you don’t have a ‘role’ …. perhaps the camera has stolen (heaven forbid!) a little piece of one’s soul’ (Gotts, 2014) but goes on to describe how his simple and quiet process does not actually feel invasive.

The images are a mixture of colour and monochrome, chosen, I feel, to reflect the person. Some are contemplative, some brash and some, such as the portrait of Ralph Fiennes, made me initially smile, and then laugh out loud. The two that I found most entrancing were Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf, among other roles) and Christopher Walken – to me an unfamiliar face, but the portrait makes me feel I might know him. It is this quality of intimacy that drew me to his images. The people are famous and must have been photographed many, many times, but there is a feeling of Gotts reaching out to who, not just what, they are. This is a quality I would like to be able to emulate.

Learning points:

  • Observation not invasion
  • Both colour and monochrome are valuable – but give a different feeling
  • Know and understand your subjects
  • Be gentle (not quite the correct word – but neither is kind).

References (2013). BAFTA and Andy Gotts MBE to Exhibit ‘Behind The Mask’ Photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Jul. 2017].

Cotton, C. (2014). The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Gentle Author (2011). Stephen Gill’s Trolley Portraits | Spitalfields Life. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Gill, S. (2004). Hackney Kisses. [online] Stephen Gill. Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Gotts, A. (2014). Behind the mask. London: British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Lacayo, R. (2012). Rineke Dijkstra Makes the Awkward Sublime. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Smyth, D. (2017). Rineke Dijkstra wins the 2017 Hasselblad Award. [online] British Journal of Photography. Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Exercise 3.2

Using a method inspired by the example above record a trace of movement within the frame.

I found this exercise both interesting and frustrating. After reading about it I remembered some images of fairground rides I had taken some years ago using a slow shutter speed to show movement and had planned to repeat the exercise and see what happened. Unfortunately, despite it being summer, and visiting a number of events I did not find any fairground attractions. I have three of the original images below to show the effect I was after. The intensity of colour and the movement blur really emphasised the excitement of the fair.


The nearest I got to repeating it was the image of the big wheel below, but it wasn’t really moving fast enough to show a good blur. This would have been more successful if I had been able to take the image at night with blurred lights. This was taken at a shutter speed of 1/8th sec handheld, and even then was very overexposed and had to be significantly modified in Lightroom. A much longer exposure might have worked with the aid of a tripod.


Another image type I have played with in the past is night shots, either using a long exposure time and relying on the movement of vehicle to give trails of light or by moving the camera and thus causing the light trails artificially. I thought about replicating these but decided to just show some of the original images to give the idea.


I then decided to try to show the rush and thrust of a busy place, using a slow speed to emphasise the movement of the people. I experimented with this on Princes Street in Edinburgh at about lunchtime and also in Waverly Station.


I liked these images as I feel they give an idea of the pushing and hurry of trying to cross a street. Interestingly I found that I was automatically trying to follow the people while they were moving and had several images where the people were sharp but the background blurred, which was not the image I was aiming for.  I really need to go back with a tripod and try and retake these, although it will be difficult to find somewhere to set up a tripod where I can both see the crossing and not be knocked over by the rush of people. These 2 images were taken at 1/15 sec at f/22.


This was taken in Waverly Station, again shows the busyness of the place, but I liked the effect of the woman running, presumably she was risking missing her train, and felt that this image told a strong story. This was taken at 1/20 sec at f/20.

I also experimented with images where the shutter speed was quite fast but I was moving rapidly, in this case on a train, looking out of the window. The initial images were not successful as they tending to show the dirty window rather than the view. Images just looking outside gave a good movement blur – but could have been taken anywhere, or looked as if I was not holding the camera still. The more distant part of the image below does retain relative clarity compared with the actual station, so could be worth experimenting further.


I then used my son, who was almost asleep with his head on the window, and focused on him. This gave an interesting contrast of the in-focus person inside the train compared with the intense sense of movement outside the train and I felt was the most successful of this series of images. Taken at 1/30 sec at f/5.6 the blur will have been exaggerated as I was focusing on the nearer person.


Learning Points:

  • Movement can be shown in a multiplicity of ways
  •  Just because it’s a single image time doesn’t have to be static
  • Think about the story you are trying to tell