Category Archives: ASSIGNMENT 2

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’ (Bafta.org,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

Bafta.org. (2013). BAFTA and Andy Gotts MBE to Exhibit ‘Behind The Mask’ Photography. [online] Available at: http://www.bafta.org/media-centre/press-releases/bafta-and-andy-gotts-mbe-to-exhibit-behind-the-mask-photography [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] Spitalfieldslife.com. Available at: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/10/03/stephen-gills-trolley-portraits/ [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Gill, S. (2004). Hackney Kisses. [online] Stephen Gill. Available at: https://www.nobodybooks.com/product/hackney-kisses-print-edition [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] Time.com. Available at: http://time.com/16182/rineke-dijkstra/ [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Smyth, D. (2017). Rineke Dijkstra wins the 2017 Hasselblad Award. [online] British Journal of Photography. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/03/rineke-dijkstra-wins-the-2017-hasselblad-award/ [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Feedback on Assignment 2

Some thoughts and comments.

Blue text is my tutor’s comments, black my replies.

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

I like that you used your dog as a ‘hook’ to get the subjects to ‘sit’ for you. Everyone has their own method and this is obviously working for you.

The pictures themselves raised a couple of questions. Please remember there aren’t right or wrong answers to these, they are intended to prompt your thinking about your own work. They could form the basis of some useful learning log posts. o Why black and white? You state: “I decided to use a monochrome conversion for the final images as this bought a coherence to the series and evened out the variable backgrounds and lighting conditions.” In what way does black and white bring coherence? What does black and white do that colour might struggle with? What does it not do?

When I looked at the series of images they were very variable in lighting condition as all shot outside. I felt the colour images gave more prominence to the surroundings rather than the face itself, while the monochrome allowed the focus to be on the details of the person. There were also some distracting pieces of colour that I had not managed to avoid in the background as the people were shot were they stood and I did not ask them to move to a potentially better location. However, colour might have emphasised the skin tones of the people or helped to identify their ages.

All of your subjects are smiling and the pictures have the feel of a relaxed but professional portrait shoot. What do the portraits say about these ‘heads’ when shown as a series? Do the smiles affect how the work is viewed as a typology?

The ‘heads’ show a generally happy and content group of people who were prepared to have a ‘bit of fun’ while being photographed by a stranger. They were all taken while out on a walk in a park, so presumably in a relaxed moment. This gives a positive image – but if taken on another day, or in another place, these same people might be more subdued. I did show the images to the people and they were all pleased with how they looked! The smiles portray Scots as a positive group of people – not how they are usually perceived.

How did your choice of focal length and distance to subject affect how your sitter is portrayed? Related to this, how does camera position affect how we as viewers regard the sitter? Traditionally men and women were photographed differently in head shots, women looking up for a more flattering pose and men looking down to reflect power. What do your pictures do to challenge or support these stereotypes.

The images were all taken with me fairly close to the person, and often while I continued to chat to them, this did mean that they were all aware of the photo, no unexpected moments or expressions, therefore no surprises or glimpses of deep contemplation. I tried to take the images at a level with the person to get a feeling of equality. I had not considered differentiating between the pose of men and women, possibly this is showing that the previous stereotypes are less prevalent than in the past. I was not attempting to show power or beauty, but just the person as a person, with no emphasis on gender.

One thing I should point out is your captions. To be blunt, no one cares what camera settings you used. What they will care about though is something about your subjects. Their name perhaps, and where/when the portrait was made. Imagine you walk into a museum in 50 years and you see your portraits hanging on display. Are you interested in what camera settings were used or do you want to engage with the work and find out more about the people photographed? I’ve found a good test for whether pictures are working or not is to ask this question. If technical information is your first stop then the pictures are probably boring. If you want to learn more about the subjects and don’t care about technical considerations then the photographer has succeeded.

This is a very fair point. I only captioned the photos with camera settings because when I was doing TAOP some years ago this is what my tutor at that time wanted me to do. I would never look at technical information unless I was curious about how an image was achieved, and the image would have had to catch my attention first.

Overall I was pleased with the feedback and found it helpful. It has made me think harder about the ‘why’s’ of the images rather than the ‘how’.

Assignment 2

Final Selection:

Contact Sheets of Pre-selection Images:

Think I have picked the images that form into the best set.

Assignment Two – Collecting

The Brief:

To create a series of between 6 and 10 photographs, using the exercises from Part Two to test out combinations of focal length, aperture and viewpoint.

I would have automatically chosen to do a series of landscape or botanical images, well within my comfort zone, but was encouraged by my tutor to do a series on heads, well outside my usual area of photography.

Heads: Frame a headshot, cropping close around the head to avoid too much variety in backgrounds. The classic headshot is buoyant but neutral.

Research:

I spent some time looking at portrait photographers. There are a large (and not always helpful) number of lists available of the 10 (or 50) ‘best’ portrait photographers. Most have a similar list of names, with Annie Leibovitz, Steve McCurry, Helmut Newton, Man Ray, August Sander and Diane Arbus figuring prominently.  Many of the portraits are not a head shot, but are full length and show background to ‘set the scene’ and give wider information about the subject. Some that I found that met the above criteria and gave me ideas were (this list could have been much longer):

  • Diane Arbus – Blonde girl with shiny lipstick, N.Y.C., 1967
  • Diane Arbus – A woman with pearl necklace and earrings, N.Y.C., 1967
  • Steve McCurry – Haridwar, India,1998
  • Steve McCurry – Pul-i-Khumri, Afghanistan,2002
  • Annie Leibovitz – John Lennon, New York City, 1980
  • Annie Leibovitz – Merce Cunningham, 1994
  • Man Ray – Henri Matisse, 1925
  • Man Ray – Ernest Hemingway, 1923

 

How:

I started in our local park where I go on a daily walk with my dog. Most of the photographs are of total strangers, a few I know ‘in passing’ to say hello to and two are family members. Having the dog with me was a good ice breaker, as usually she would pick the subjects for me by going up to them and standing at their feet. I then explained what I was doing and asked to take a photograph. No-one refused! There are three images taken inside, two at a show and one in a house.

Technical information:

I use a Panasonic micro 4/3rds camera, and used a variable focal length lens (14 -140mm, equates to 28 – 280mm). The camera was set to aperture priority and I used the widest aperture possible with the focal length used. Most of the images were taken with a focal length between 40 and 60mm, although occasionally longer if the person seemed uncomfortable with me getting that close to them. These settings allowed the focus to be clearly on the face and threw the background out of focus. If the person was standing, I stood, and if sitting on one of the park benches, I crouched down next to them so that I was taking the photograph level with their faces and not looking up or down at them.

All images were taken with natural light. I did not have a reflector, although have now acquired one, but it is too large to carry easily in my pocket.

Post processing was done in Lightroom, mono conversion in Silver Efex Pro2.

Success of series:

This was a completely new venture for me so I was very nervous about approaching the people, however it was easier than I imagined it was going to be. However, nerves undoubtedly did play a part and I was not always careful enough about the background or the position of the lighting. A reflector would have been useful on several occasions to allow better lighting of the face.

Talking to people before taking the photographs and getting some, however small, connection was useful and I felt they were more at ease and relaxed, therefore their expressions were more natural. Several of the people were wearing sunglasses, although it wasn’t particularly sunny, and I did not ask them to remove them as I felt this would have been too invasive.

I decided to use a monochrome conversion for the final images as this bought a coherence to the series and evened out the variable backgrounds and lighting conditions.

I did have difficulty choosing the final images so I decided to look for internal consistency. Several of the people were wearing headgear, varying from hats to glasses perched on their heads, so I used this as a focus for the series.

Summary:

  • Positive
    • Talking to the people in advance
    • Using a large aperture
    • Keeping on a level with the face
    • Monochrome conversion
  • Less positive
    • Not having a reflector or alternative light source
    • Lack of confidence, so not always approaching people

Thoughts for the future:

This was an interesting venture and definitely one I want to expand on. Rather than taking very close head shots I would be interested in taking images of people in the setting that they felt comfortable with. Many of the people were also dog owners, so It would be interesting to take ‘man (or woman) and dog’ pictures, a modern day take on Keith Arnatt’s series ‘Walking the Dog’. Two of the images taken in this series, although not chosen as final picks, did have the person holding their dog close to their face, and this would be a concept worth exploring further.

 

Photobooks explored while looking for ideas.

Arbus, D. (1990). Diane Arbus. London: Bloomsbury.

Arbus, D., Phillips, S. and Selkirk, N. (2003). Diane Arbus Revelations. New York, NY: Random House.

Hurn, D., Grafik, C. and Arnatt, K. (2007). I’m a real photographer. London: Chris Boot.

Leibovitz, A. and DeLano, S. (2011). Annie Leibovitz at work. London: Jonathan Cape.

McCurry, S. (2015). Portraits. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Newton, J. (2009). Helmut Newton. Koln: Taschen.

Pepper, T. and Warner, M. (2013). Man Ray portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery.

Sander, A. and Conrath-Scholl, G. (2009). August Sander. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel.