Saturday, March 3, 2012

a good people and place photo !?

During this module, I have grown to like the concept of people and place as it seems to be a good way of considering photos; there may be no people in them yet usually there is something similar that stands out while all photos contain some kind of space if not place.

Dorothy is taken ill
The photograph above is one I made while visiting a Bristol art gallery with some other students. We were having lunch afterwards and one of us, an elderly lady called Dorothy, was taken ill and an ambulance was called. At first, I was involved and concerned that Dorothy was going to be alright; when I saw that there was nothing I could do, I stepped back and made a few exposures of what was going on.

There have been comments that this photograph must have been set up, it looks too well ordered! In fact, it was carefully composed and I needed to move around a little to find the right vantage point.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Innovation in photography

My work has been criticised as lacking in innovation! This makes me wonder exactly what innovation in photography is.

Innovation is defined by Wikipedia as "the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself." 

Innovation in photography can happen at the level of the camera possibly, if one has the necessary skills, of building a unique camera set up; a friend of mine has done this. Johnny Watts, I remember meeting his father who was a scientist of some kind, has built his own "flying camera" which keeps him endlessly occupied with assignments around the world. Some of his work can be seen at ...

Yet, in an art context, innovation is likely to mean something else. Here the emphasis is probably going to be on new ideas. As a student, I still find myself learning the craft of photography and am wary about striking off into other avenues, of loosing the photographic notion that can be so easily supplanted by the ideals of art which may even subvert it. this might sound like a rather too stoical view yet Barthes in his work "Camera Lucida" that attempts to define photography and certainly succeeds in raising its' status as art, concludes that it should not be considered as art in the traditional sense since this would limit it's potential.

I don't think that innovation in photography is about using different processes. In my first P+P assignment, I experimented with filters at the processing stage, producing images that stand out and look different but perhaps do not really add anything more than that to the work. Often this approach can be gimmicky although there are of course photographers who work wonders in the darkroom; of these, Jerry Uelsmann  ... His skilful work began in the chemical darkroom where different negatives were combined to make fine art prints; these days, he is apparently working in the digital realm where his ideas can find an even freer rein with the controls of Photoshop.

I have done a certain amount of this kind of montaging in Photoshop and an image from this is shown above. This was done as part of a workshop and for me, borders on the lewd, while at the same time confronting the viewer with uncomfortable feelings that they probably experience anyway if Sigmund Freud is to be believed. Here the innovation is done to express a concept not for it's own sake. The photograph made below was pre-visualised and was not made with any particular concept in mind rather as an attempt to convey something such as the oppression of black people or just the suppression of women in society (I don't think an image needs to have a clear cut concept since if it did, one would not need an image and could rely on words alone!) The title "Lulu" is a somewhat oblique and ironic reference to an ancient skeleton unearthed in Ethiopia.

A dictionary rather than an encyclopaedic definition of "innovation" relates more to the idea of introducing something new. In many ways, I study photography because I am looking to express things that I am not able to do so in my present work which is largely concerned with the accurate representation of wildlife. I like to combine images to emphasise natural phenomena since the viewer is not being deceived and the image is still an accurate representation.

Short-eared Owl in flight (composite)
The photograph above is obviously a construct yet it still shows the way a Short-eared Owl flies, in fact it gives a kind of inside knowledge that photography sometimes makes possible.

For me, innovation may not be something to consider at the moment of capture (different camera angles are usually worth exploring though) but be in the manner of presentation, the way the body of work is assembled.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

photographing older people

I decided to visit a coffee morning at the church in town (St.John's of Wellington Somerset) as part of a possible project; my interest was to make images of the coffee morning against the backdrop of the church. This however did not work because the coffee morning was held in a hall next door to the church which showed no sign of ecclesiastical trappings.

I had heard about the event through my mother who introduced me to the woman in charge who said she would be happy for me to make some photographs and asked if she might have one or two to inform others of what is a monthly event. This lead me to make some more general shots yet mostly I was interested in the people present - there is often so much written in the face of an older person.

Here is a general shot, an attempt to show what is going on that might be of interest to those who visit without making any of them feel awkward ...

Another shot shows more action but is also a more confined view ...

It was however the more portrait orientated photos that interested me ...

This couple posed well (without being posed) and I consider the image might be of value to them and their family. The composition works!

The final image is of my mother. She does not look directly at the camera which I prefer to the ones where she is looking in the direction of the camera and hence rather self-conscious.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Eve Arnold

Eve Arnold has died. She was more a name to me than anything else and the fact she photographed Marylyn Monroe did not really interest me. However, her death surely deserves a little understanding of her life.

Here is a statement she made ..."If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument."

Photography is often seen as an aggressive activity (Susan Sontag in "On Photography" has stated that) yet as one starts to get to know photography as more than a hobby, one can see that many of the best photographers are not like that. The paparazzi are just one kind of photographer and not representative of the whole and even among the so-called paparazzi, one can find photographers who do not work aggressively; one might consider Eve Arnold to be such a photographer.

Among the people she photographed are Queen Elizabeth II, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford; she seems to have photographed them as individuals rather than celebrities and presumably did this by getting to know them a little and establishing a rapport.

Am looking forward to seeing a retrospective of her work in the not too distant future.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mitch Epstein and Chris Steele-Perkins (Open Eye Gallery Liverpool)

Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK
Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, and Peter Haveland, OCA tutor for photography and visual communication, met students inside the entrance to the Open Eye Gallery on Mann Island in Liverpool which opened in 1977 and has been the only dedicated photographic gallery in the North West of England. The building itself is something of a work of art being black on the outside and white on the inside with a skyscraper extending above.

initial meeting with Gareth, Peter and students
After Gareth had spoken to us all about what the meeting involved, Peter asked us to consider the way the exhibition had been staged. These days exhibitions are not merely hung in an available space, in a gallery like this they are very carefully planned and photographs are placed in particular positions.

photograph by Mitch Epstein; the odd one out in this collection from "American Power"
For instance, there is only one photograph which might be considered as portraiture, it pictures a mixed race couple assembling what is left of their possessions after a natural disaster has struck (Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs, Pass Christian, Mississipi 2005); this photograph is hung on it's own wall, the only image to be separated thus since the others are all joined in someway by the wall running around the two rooms in which the exhibits are found.

Gareth mentioned that Mitch Epstein's 8 photographs that under the title, "American Power" which formed the first exhibition we saw, had been made with a large format camera using a 10 by 8 sheet size; Epstein uses colour negative from which large C type prints are made, a few feet across and high. To do this, he uses a small team of assistants apparently, and it can take an hour to set up the camera to make an exposure. A great deal of thought goes into this operation and one can see the photographs have been expertly composed with the result that the prints have a phenomenal quality.

Gareth had been some despondent about Epstein's work before seeing this exhibition, regarding Epstein as being a rich American who can afford to jet around America with a team and loads of equipment to make his images. Yet he conceded that these immaculately made images really do establish Mitch Epstein as a world class photographer and a worthy winner of the Prix Pictet, an environmentally based award.

OCA students make notes about one of Epstein's photographs 
My own concern with this exhibition was what actually Epstein means by "American Power". It is certainly not the power of military might that has become so prominent in an age that has seen the horrors of war broadcast from Vietnam and Iraq. There seemed to be a different kind of power in each image and this is emphasised by Epstein himself in a quote I read after seeing the exhibition; he says, "About a year into making this series of pictures, I realised that power was like a Russian doll: each time I opened one kind of power, I found another inside."

One of the first images one sees, is of a view over Las Vegas made in 2007 (all photographs are dated by the year and this is probably significant because the images are documents of particular places at a particular moment in time). To the right of the image, is a large black pyramid, the angular form of which leads one into the picture; slightly behind this are some Disneylike fairy tale castle towers that contrast with the overall bleakness of the city itself; there is plenty of parking space to the left of the image and the vista includes arid mountains in the background, a reminder that this city has to generate it's own power. There is another kind of power in the vast area covered by this image and the way it is communicated so effectively. 

Writing in the introduction to her book "Art Photography Now", Susan Bright says " … the increased use of large plate cameras and the consequent slowing down of the photographic process have also had an important impact on how artists deal with the city. Panning out and taking a wider view causes one to see the city as a layering of moments in time, belonging to no one, more like an archaeological site - albeit one in which people live". She could have been looking at Epstein's image as she wrote these words as they so accurately describe some of it's meaning. She continues, "The mysterious spaces where cities stop and suburbia starts, or the sites one might hurry past in everyday life, are rich pickings for the many artists in this chapter."

A final remark from Bright helps to put this exhibition into perspective; "The act of photographing has the ability to turn what might be ignored into something much more profound". This statement can be applied, as intended, to photography as a whole.

Peter and students viewing Iowa 80, Truckstop, Walcott, Iowa 2008
Another image, "Iowa 80 Truckstop, Walcott, Iowa 2008" shows intricate detail of perhaps 1,000 or so objects of merchandise above which there are four large photographs of trucking people and their trucks. The use of different parts of the image to create contrast runs through this body of work (it is also evident in "Century Wind Project, Blairsburg, 2008" where the lower part of the image portrays suburbia and the upper third the wind farm) and recalls modernist approaches as does the frequent use of other contrasts (one and may, small and large etc) in the images. Peter Haveland mentions that Epstein appears to be mirroring established artistic approaches and I can't help be reminded of John Davies by Epstein's image of people playing basketball with towering chimneys in the background although here a more concentrated perspective, usually achieved via a telephoto lens, has been achieved. One wonders how consciously Epstein is working when he references other art works; Peter also mentions Picasso as an influence and I am reminded of Gurtsky's supermarket scenes while viewing "Iowa 80 Truckstop, Walcott, Iowa 2008".

What I like about this exhibition is the fascinating amount of detail that is rendered yet the theme is also highly relevant since the environment rather than merely the landscape is being portrayed here. At the present time, an extremely important Climate Change conference has been taking place in South Africa and yet received scant attention by the media who are fixatingly interested in the economy and in particular Britain's opt out of the Eurozone. If we do nothing of significance for the environment, and this seems to be what is happening as the unanimous findings of leading scientists are often questioned and regarded with suspicion, then we won't have an economy to think about and possibly very little of what we like to think of as civilisation. Epstein draws out attention to things that really matter. Perhaps the underlying message to this work is that nature is a much stronger power than American power and so the title is deeply ironic.

Peter talks with Gareth and other students over coffee

Over coffee in a nearby Starbucks, Gareth bought us all drinks (courtesy of the OCA) and we discussed the Epstein exhibition. One topic of interest was the difference between the different ways of presenting photography. Large well made prints allow one to see the photograph in a different light and images that once appeared intriguing but not easily comprehensible suddenly reveal their meaning. One example of this, is in "Biloxi Mississipi 2005", an image that has appeared in newspapers and on the net to advertise this body of work. Seen in a gallery, one can see that it shows the aftermath of a natural disaster, with an upturned car in the background and a large mattress implied on a tree in the foreground.

Of course, photographs can look better in the pages of a book, but the book "American Power" which could be found in the gallery book shop, seemed a very poor substitute for the exhibition; one might be better off going to the website of the exhibition where the images can be found along with some comment. In regard to the next exhibition though, the book might be preferable since the photograph's meanings are still discernible in a smaller format.

Peter Haveland made the point that much of Epstein's work is referencing art history with oblique references to artists such as Picasso. I can't help thinking that photography history is also being referenced with the image (pictured above with a couple of OCA students making notes in front of it) reminding me of one of John Davies photographs.

To conclude my thoughts about Epstein, they still continue as I try to unravel the plethora of meanings to be found in his images, I have to say that a lot is is not found within the image; they need contextualising. Hearing stories about the images which are not found in the captions does help to bring out their meaning.

Sean O'Hagan who writes about photography for The Guardian, describes these images as "timeless" and I wonder why since so many do seem to relate to places that are obviously temporary; for instance, the view over Las Vegas made in 2007 must have already changed considerably as I write this at the end of 2011.  Peter replies that "timeless" is being used more as a journalistic term here rather than an academic one; this is characteristic of much writing about photography these days. Of course, the images are representative of man's relation to nature which is timeless while the images do not represent a definitive moment; perhaps, they can be considered timeless in the sense that they will last a long time in the canon of photography because they are outstanding. The word "epic" comes to mind.

Chris Steele-Perkins' exhibition The Pleasure Principle is in the archive room upstairs

The other exhibition we see is "The Pleasure Principle" by Chris Steele-Perkins. Made in the 1980's and produced as a body of work in 1989, this exhibition is in the archive room. It recalls the Thatcher years, she features in one photograph looking almost demurely at the camera while a character to one side pulls the most ghoulish face, and reveals class divisions of the time as well as segments of English life. For instance, there are photographs from a party of the elite in "Berkeley Square Ball" where Prince Edward is cleverly caught in what looks like a panned shot, his face being in focus while those around him are blurred although one can see the idolisation in the eyes of one ogling female; another photograph from this series shows the rich behaving badly as one man appears to be shouting as he holds his glass of alcohol (probably champagne) and a couple of snog vicariously in the background, a reminder that the rich are better off than most but are themselves no better. Socialist politics encourages us to hate the rich which is further given fuel by envy that is bound to surface when there are others who have so much more than the average man. Yet these photographs show the rich as they actually are, no better than the ordinary man; it is only their clothes that are better perhaps as well as the luxuriance of their surroundings.

Another image, this time of a night club shows a threatening stance being made towards the photographer. Each image has a story to tell here and it is why the exhibition seems to also work in book format; a copy is on a table in the gallery downstairs and contains more images than those on show.

Chris Steele-Perkins was separated at an early age from his Burmese mother when his father brought him back to England to be educated. He has never felt at home in Britain stating that "If you are not entirely white, you are never entirely British." I wonder if such a statement can be made with such confidence today where the reality of Britain is much more multi-cultural and multi-ethnic although the British National Front remind one that not everyone accepts this state of affairs. Chris S-P made these images when he came back to Britain from a time abroad in the East.

Chris Steele-Perkins may feel like an outsider but he photographs like an insider. However, his images pale rather when seen alongside those of Mitch Epstein. The prints would appear to be digital made from transparency film scans; their quality is nothing like that seen nowadays and one wonders at their exact mode of preparation. They are C prints made in 1989; beyond that we know next to nothing.

The OCA does not last long but one is left with an array of impressions that need to be considered and filtered into a more intelligible form!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

making a passport photo

This is quite a simple task yet not as easy as one might assume as passport photos usually need to be made according to certain specifications and the size might vary between countries.

Here are the specifications for the Indian Visa/ Passport photo followed by the UK ones. They are worth reading in as much as they give one a basic understanding of the complexities involved in making such a simple photograph or just responding to the request of "Can you take my photo please!"

I have done the image at the required 2 by 2 inch size and then put six of these on to a 6 by 4 print so the photos can easily be made when required.

From the photographer's point of view, a standard lens needs to be used (a slightly longer than standard 80mm would work well) while the background needs to be plain.


It is imperative that the photograph submitted at the time of application must fall within the specifications and sizes given below. Applicants can obtain the correct specification photograph from the coin operated vending machine available at the visa application centres. Applicants can get two photographs instantly at a nominal cost of a £4.
Unacceptable photographs, that do not meet the specifications, may not be accepted for submission.

Sample Photograph:

The photograph should be in color and of the size of 2 inch x 2 inch (50 mm x 50 mm).
The photo-print should be clear and with a continuous-tone quality.
It should have full face, front view, eyes open.
Photo should present full head from top of hair to bottom of chin.
Center head within frame.
The background should be a plain light colored background.
There should not be any distracting shadows on the face or on the background.
Head coverings are not permitted except for religious reasons, but the facial features from bottom of chin to top of forehead and both edges of the face must be clearly shown.
The expression on the face should look natural.

Do’s and Don’ts for a Proper photograph

The photo should capture full face, front view, with eyes open.
The head should be in the centre of the frame.
There should be no distracting shadows on the face or background.

Make sure photo presents full head from top of hair to bottom of chin; height of head should measure 1 inch to 1-3/8 inches (25 mm to 35 mm). Make sure eye height is between 1- 1/8 inches to 1-3.

Lighting on face and background

The light should be even and balanced to avoid shadows on the face.
Background behind the face should be properly illuminated to avoid shadows in the background.

Photograph Print Properties

The photograph should be in size 2 inch x 2 inch (50 mm x 50 mm) and in color.
Print photo on thin photo paper.
Ensure the print is clear and has a continuous-tone quality.
Do not retouch or otherwise enhance or soften the photo.
Resolution and Printing Quality/Contrast and Colour

High-resolution photography and printing are strongly recommended.
Both conventional and digital photography are acceptable, and conventional or digital printing methods may be used.
Resulting print should exhibit a continuous-tone quality regardless of the print method used (dye sublimation, ink jet, laser, etc.)
Digitally printed photos should be produced without visible pixels or dot patterns
Fine facial features should be discernible.
Brightness and contrast should be adjusted to present the subjectand background accurately.
Photos without proper contrast or color may obscure unique facial features.
Color should reproduce natural skin tones.
Fluorescent or other lighting with
Unbalanced color may cause unwanted color cast in the photo. Appropriate filters can eliminate improper color balance.
Head & Eyes- Position and Background

Head should face the camera directly and should not tilt or turned (portrait style).
Photo must show both edges of the face clearly.
The eyes must be open, level and clearly visible and must not be covered by hairs or eyeglass frames.

Glare on eyeglasses should be avoided with a slight upward or downward tilt of the head.
No tinted or dark glasses.
Head coverings are not permitted except for religious reasons, but the facial features from bottom of chin to top of forehead and both edges of the face must be clearly shown.

Exposure and Lighting

There should not be any over-exposure or underexposure which results in an unusable photo.
There should be a three-point balanced lighting. Facial features should be clearly evident in the photo.
Lighting should be adjusted to avoid shadows on the face or background. Diffuse sources of light, such as umbrella lights, are preferable to point sources.
Flexibility in Children’s photographs

Babies under one year do not have to have their eyes open.
As regards the photograph of the children under ten years of age, requirements can be somewhat relaxed in respect of height of the face and the position of the eyes in the photographs; and in case of babies and infants also, the position of the face, the facial expression, the eyes and the line of sight can have some relaxation. However, a frontal photograph with clarity is required for children.
It should show the child alone (no chair backs, toys or other people visible) looking at the camera with a neutral expression and the mouth closed.


The rules for passport photos

The photographs you supply with your application must:
  • show you with a neutral expression and your mouth closed (no grinning, frowning or raised eyebrows)
  • show you on your own (babies should not have toys or a dummy, and there shouldn’t be other people in the photo)
  • be in colour, not black and white
  • be identical
  • be taken within the last month
  • be 45 millimetres high x 35 millimetres wide - this is the standard size when you have a passport photo taken in a photo booth or studio (you should not trim a larger photograph to meet this condition)
  • be clear and in sharp focus, with a clear difference between your face and the background
  • be taken against a plain cream or plain light grey background
  • not show you with red-eye
  • be of you facing forward and looking straight at the camera
  • not be torn, creased, or marked 
  • be printed on plain white photographic paper
  • be free from shadows
  • be taken with your eyes open and clearly visible (no sunglasses or tinted glasses and no hair across your eyes)
  • be free from reflection or glare on your glasses, and the frames must not cover your eyes - the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) recommends that, if possible, you remove your glasses
  • be professionally printed (photographs printed at home are not acceptable)
  • show your full head, without any head covering, unless you wear one for religious beliefs or medical reasons
  • be taken with nothing covering your face - you should make sure nothing covers the outline of your eyes, nose or mouth
  • be a close-up of your head and shoulders with a recommended head height (the distance between the bottom of your chin and the crown of your head) between 29 and 34 mm
  • not have any writing on the front or back, except on certified photos - trademarks or photographic printing on the back must not show through