Study Visit: Current Conflicts

I was not really sure what to expect from this study visit. The cover picture on the entry on WeAreOCA appeared to be of a soldier asleep, grabbing a few moments rest from the stress of warfare, the description spoke about the constancy of war, the essay linked from it had as its subject how the castration of war zone photojournalism has diluted its effectiveness almost to the point where it is merely part of the propaganda machine. What attracted me to the day, however, was the promise of the artist’s talks and the seminar.

The exhibition gave us a view of war from a number of different perspectives. None of the contributors were front line photojournalists but each had a contribution to make. Here is a summary of their exhibits and the talk they gave.

Matthew Andrew – Constructs

Matthew described how his interest in photographic truth has led his photographic journey. He opened with a slide showing this famous photo by Roger Fenton (was it or was it not staged?):

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He then went on to describe some of his staged photos, recognisable objects made from alternative materials. He showed a picture of personnel controlling drones, drawing an analogy to computer war games, then arrived at the subject of his contribution to the exhibition. “Constructs” is a project documenting war games, not the computer kind but real life simulations. He portrays the landscapes and people involved and describes how realistic they can be made to appear. To my untrained eye, they could have been from a front line war correspondent. He pointed out that some of the landscapes can appear boring but have a hidden and subtle meaning.

It was a trigger to consider how endemic war is hardwired into the human psyche, that adults can find war games and simulations so interesting.

Olivia Hollamby – Homefront

Olivia’s contribution was a collaboration with her partner. When he was posted to Afghanistan, she armed him with a camera and gave him a short briefing. He was to photograph his surroundings, simultaneously she was at home photographing his belongings. The result was captivating. She commented on the contrast between his snapshot aesthetic and her more considered staged works. She had published a photobook on the project and this was available for review.

I found, the more I looked at the pictures, the more I was drawn into the concept. As well as the obvious anxiety, there was estrangement on both sides.

Richard Monje – Bullets

Unfortunately Richard was not present to talk through his display of retrieved bullets from Afghanistan. These pictures of distorted ammunition had been photographed to be aesthetically pleasing. Being carefully lit against black backgrounds to an extent hid their brutal purpose and there was some debate about whether this was an effective way of showing them.

Les Monaghan – From the Forest

Les explained how he grew up in a forces environment and decided the regimented, institutional life was not for him. But he explained that you “shoot what you know” and showed us pictures of forces cadets that supported his decision.

In the project “From the Forests”, he followed services personnel on extreme survival training. The prints are very dark, the dark physical space leaves room for the viewer’s mental space.

In his talk he discussed the difference between photography for newspapers, where the subject has to be very obvious, and art photography, where the meaning can be ambiguous.

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Jamie Simonds – In-transit

Jamie is a commercial portrait photographer. It was while he was on his way to his honeymoon that he was grounded for 6 hours in Atlanta airport in company with some US soldiers en route to Iraq and Afghanistan. He only had a compact camera with him, but asked if he could take their portraits with it. The result is a set of pictures of a group of people on a very different journey to his own. Their faces tell their own story.

Jamie explained his approach to portraiture where he typically takes his subject against a plain background. In this respect he is heavily influenced by Rineke Dijkstra. This removal from context places the focus on the subjects and allows them to express themselves better.

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Christopher Down – Visions from Arcadia

Arcadia – a mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In poetic fantasy it represents a pastoral paradise and in Greek mythology it is the home of Pan.

Chris followed three real soldiers, either preparing for a tour or during rest and relaxation breaks. By contrasting these soldiers with idyllic pastoral scenes through four seasons, he is exploring the paradox of trying to obtain peace through war. Stylistically, it is a melding of two genres, landscape and portraiture.

I admit that at the exhibition I did not understand the message, but on researching what Arcadia means, I can now thoroughly connect with it.

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I had two main points to take away from this study visit.

Firstly, it showed that you do not have to be a front line photographer to picture war. There were 6 different photographers, all with something slightly different to say and all providing more background to the act of going to war, and what war can mean. Together, they showed a picture of war that is never reported in the media. At times, this was a much more personal picture, with an impact much closer to home, with a potential to carry more meaning to us who are so distant from the “theatres” of war.

Secondly, I found it most instructive to hear direct from the artists, their thought processes, their work process, explaining how they came to the particular project, what it means to them, what difficulties they faced.

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Assignment Two Reworked

This reshoot was a long time coming. Family and business commitments prevented any work on it for a month or so, then when I had time the sun didn’t shine. Such is the difficulty of part-time study.

I had prepared a table of comments with a summary of how I planned to address them, then waited for the sun to shine.

This is the revised set. For the sake of completeness I have included the original images where I did not reshoot them.

1

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Tutor comments “Good control over metering with a pleasing result, some shadow detail has inevitably been lost but this is a reasonable compromise. If the group had been real people then the loss of shadow detail may have been more significant? As previously pointed out watch out for unnecessary items included in your framing such as the branch sticking out next to the wall and the hint of table legs. A tighter composition may have benefitted here as there is lots of dead space”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot at eye level and tighter composition, attention to unwanted detail”

The high dynamic range has resulted in blown highlights in the background figures, especially Eeyore’s nose, but I wanted to retain shadow detail in the foreground as I thought this was the more important.

2

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Tutor comments “Good choice of meter and white balance settings. This image demonstrates the limited dynamic range of print as your print shows much deeper shadows than the digital version. I prefer the tighter composition of this image.”

No action

3

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Tutor comments “Similar scene to the above image but with ½ stop over exposure. I imagine your comments refer to the digital image as the print looks much better than (2) due to the less heavy shadows, even with a slight loss of highlight detail. The auto setting for white balance has produced a colder look to the image so consistency is appropriate here as the image is part of a series then ‘shade’ may have been a more suitable choice. This does illustrate an advantage of shooting in Raw as the camera white balance setting becomes less important as this can be handled accurately and without loss of image integrity during post production. It is still good practice, however, to have the correct white balance setting enabled.”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot with warmer colour balance”

In a way I wish I had chosen a less brightly coloured subject for this, the dynamic range would have been more manageable! As it was it was tricky to retain shadow detail without blowing the highlights

4a

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Tutor comments “Exposing for the subject has blown the sky, this also has the effect of causing a slight ‘milky’ quality to the image due to the lens and flare occurring. A good image to illustrate the importance of using either fill in flash or a reflector to help balance the extremes of light. Balancing the light would enable a darker overall exposure which would help to lessen the flare aspect.”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot with fill in reflector balancing the light”

I was surprised at the difference a reflector made to this one, using one made the exposure much easier to manage.

4b

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Tutor comments “As (4a) but without the strong sky element. Look at the overall composition, some objects in heavy shadow are they deliberate or accidental and incidental? Tilting table I guess is deliberate but the tight crop makes this lose context somewhat.”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot with less or more appropriate background detail”

As 4a, using a reflector made the exposure much easier to manage. The specular highlight on the frame of the mirror adds a nice touch so I was keen to retain this. Depth of field was tricky, I would have liked to have kept the whole image in focus but settled on focussing on the face.

5

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Tutor comments “I like the table causing the dappled light here, good decision to include the rim of the table shadow as this helps to identify the shadows source. A more suitable choice of white balance as it is more consistent with other similar images.”

No action

6

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Tutor comments “Similar to (4a) with the strong sky causing a ‘milky’ flare and also some flare from the iris within the lens, this can sometimes be avoided by use of a lens hood and also by holding your hand, or piece of card, just above the lens on the edge of the frame (often called flagging or using a flag). Print quality is very dark compared to the digital version.”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot with fill in reflector balancing the light, ensure no lens flare”

This was the hardest to get right. Using a reflector did not work because it was in the shade of a tree so no (or very little) light to reflect. In the end I had to resort to using fill-in flash. This is not the best method as it always looks artificial. Flare was easily avoided by using my hand as a flag.

7

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Tutor comments “Did you try white balance on tungsten as a comparison? Overall the image colour and light are pleasing, by varying the distance of the light source to the subject you can control the quality of the shadows. Much further away the light source would create harder shadows that may have been effective with the bars on the background. Very tight crop at the bottom, your comment concerning hand holding is a bit of a giveaway! You should have used a tripod!”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot with more distant light source, use tripod”

I used a tripod for this. My tripod is cheap and it is almost impossible to adjust it to the correct shooting angle, hence the wonky image. I experimented with moving the light further away but it did not make much difference.

8

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Tutor comments “Inventive use of light and good to retain some foreground shadow detail in the print, although the floor has nearly disappeared. When dealing with dark moody subjects with digital cameras sometimes it is good practice to shoot a lighter exposure or with more fill in then will be finally required. This is due to noise issues and contrast range. The final moody effect can then be achieved in post production with the knowledge that you will not have lots of noise appearing. I realise that this does not apply to this assignment.”

No action.

9

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Tutor comments “As you point out this is not truly back lit but more ¾ back lit, and as such the contrast range of the scene is easier to manage. Tilting table and odd crop as you lose just the edge of the table on the right. With this type of photography where you are in control of the elements you need to aim for precision as in the work of Chip Simon. The print here is quite dark compared to the digital version.”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot more at eye level and careful about composition and crop”

This is my least favourite of the reshoot. There is a distracting background (which I tried to blur with depth of field) and the colour balance is not satisfactory. The exposure has resulted in blown highlights on the signs but they are (mostly) readable.

10

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Tutor comments “Here the contrast is more noticeable, slightly blown highlights (255, 255, 255) in some of the signs and some almost black shadows. When shooting an arranged image then a photographer has the ability to adjust the image elements to work within the restrictions of equipment and lighting. In this case it may have been possible to angle the signs to avoid the direct sun just enough to remain within the dynamic range of the camera, I realise that was not the point of this image – just an observation! The shade white balance setting has produced a warmer overall result, remember when shooting just Jpeg then white balance setting is fairly critical due to the inability to alter this satisfactorily in post production. If shooting a series of images using Jpeg then it is important to have the white balance set appropriately to achieve a consistent look. Look at the framing again, is the fallen leaf in the centre of the shot important? It is central so it becomes fairly dominant.”

Notes for reshoot “as 1”

I worked hard for this composition. With the three very similar pictures (1, 10 and 12) and in the light of tutor comments to assignment 3 (regarding variety of viewpoints) I wanted something different. I thought this was quite amusing with Eeyore looking straight at the camera with his grumpy expression at having to do some work.

11

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Tutor comments “Fairly even lighting shows how a Jpeg can handle low contrast scenes easily. From a compositional perspective the still life group would benefit from some foreground interest (right or left) that you could have shot past, possibly out of focus which would lead the eye into the image.”

Notes for reshoot “reshoot with foreground detail”

There are blown highlights on the gnomes on the right, they were closest to the light.

12

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Tutor comments “Appropriate meter setting and exposure compensation to hold onto highlight detail. in film days most professionals shot colour transparency, this required very accurate exposure usually within 1/3 of a stop to hold highlight and or shadows. A compromise was usually required and a decision made what was important – shadow or highlight. The one big advantage of this relates to print as the dynamic range of print is similar to colour transparency film so you were fairly certain that what was recorded on the transparency would print correctly. This comparison also applies to a certain degree to working with Jpeg and print. The Jpeg will not hold as much information as a Raw file and, as long as the image is correctly exposed, is more likely to print fairly well straight from the camera, your prints successfully retain the shadow and highlights as recorded on your digital files, although there is a slight further loss of shadow detail.”

Notes for reshoot “as 1”

As mentioned earlier, I wanted three different viewpoints for the three similar pictures so went for an elevated view for this one. The signs are blown and unreadable but in this case, shadow detail was more important.

This was an interesting assignment first time round. Doing it again towards the end of the course provided an opportunity not only to reinforce the message of the assignment, but also to incorporate things I have learnt in the rest of the course.

Assignment Five – Research and Planning

I started with three ideas for the final assignment of this course. The first was toying with drinks, but pictured in a surrealistic way, next was to symbolise the telling of a story, the idea was to use roses of different colours to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet.

The idea that stuck however was to do a series on Hastings pier. This would have the greatest personal connection and the tutor agreed it would be the most appropriate.

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5th August 1872 was a notable date: it was the first bank holiday in the UK, established as a result of the Bank Holidays Act 1871. It was also the day a 910 foot pleasure pier opened at the south coast resort of Hastings, in East Sussex.

Seaside piers are a typically Victorian, English curiosity which delighted holidaymakers during trips to the seaside. Around the turn of the century almost a hundred piers existed, now only about half that number remain, victims of poor investment and increasing sophistication of the travelling public.

Hastings pier boomed from the time it opened, through the heydays of the 1930’s and became a mecca for pop bands in the 60s and 70s. The decline started in the 1980s when lack of investment failed to maintain the structure in a serviceable and safe condition, storms in 1983, 1987 and 1993 took their toll and the pier closed in 1999. It was then bought by a private investor who refurbished the visible superstructure and reopened it in 2001, on May Day bank holiday. But much needed structural repairs were never carried out and it closed again in 2006, this time by the council on health and safety grounds. A local charity was formed to raise the funds to repair the pier but to little effect.

On Tuesday morning, the 5th October 2010, the pier was subject to an arson attack. Two youths were seen jumping from the pier. They were arrested and later released due to lack of evidence. The fire was quickly spotted and emergency services were soon on the scene but due to the unsafe structure, they were limited in their ability to fight what was at the time a small fire. As a result 95% of the pier’s superstructure and decking were lost.

The devastation galvanised attempts to save the grade II listed structure. The council has successfully pursued a compulsory purchase order, lottery funds have been granted and in August this year, work has started to restore it. Like a phoenix, a brand new 21st century pier is rising from the Victorian ashes and the efforts of the charity behind it are being heralded as an example of what can be done by local community power to save this part of the country’s heritage.

I grew up in Hastings and spent much of my time in, on or under the pier. I took speedboat rides from the pierhead and saw my favourite bands performing in the ballroom. I’ve swam under it at high tide and walked around it at low tide. It formed a central part of my formative years and I cannot describe the loss I felt when I heard the news of the 2010 fire.

This series of pictures is intended to describe some of the history of the pier, some of my personal nostalgia and loss and give a sense of hope for the future.

Influences

Simon Roberts – The idea for this project came from looking at Simon Roberts’ work “Pierdom”. By pulling back as he does from many of his subjects he shows the subject in its context and takes a lot of emphasis from it. This can result in a detached style and can lack intimacy. In many of Pierdom’s photos the pier is in the context of lots of sea, empty beaches or emerging from rooftops.

Saltburn is pulled back so far, the pier is almost lost:

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St Annes has a massive swathe of empty beach as a foreground:

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Clevedon is a pierhead surrounded by sea and sky which blur into each other with no clear horizon:

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Although some context will be required, this impersonal feel is not really what I am looking for with what I want to say.

Helene Binet – A lot of her work is dominated by geometric shapes and patterns. In contrast to Roberts, she will often get in close and create a geometric shape out of architectural details. A lot of her work also uses shadows and reflections to paint a picture with tones.

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Eric De Mare – Evidence of activity brings his photos much closer, often there are people as an integral part of his composition but where there are none, there is evidence of human activity eg sacks, machinery. His influence on architecture is still felt today.

The photos show very much the use of architecture, especially the series on the functional tradition where he found aestheticism in plainness.

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John Davies – The series British Isles 1979 to 2009 contains panoramic vistas of cityscapes and industrial landscapes characterised by a high viewpoint. The Metropoli project has a similar high viewpoint. It’s not for him to get down and dirty and crawl through the grime of the city streets, he’d rather stand aloof and take in a vista like a visitor from another planet. But whereas Simon Roberts’ detachment is enhanced by the muted tones and dreaminess, Davies’ are sharp as a knife.

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Whilst these examples have informed this work in a general sense, there are a couple of specific influences to mention.

I was struck by similarities between Binet and de Mare, for example:

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This led me to working under the pier to explore similar possibilities.

John Davies’ use of an elevated viewpoint is echoed to an extent by Binet. I had also found some archive pictures of the pier from a higher perspective. Hastings is a town of many hills which enabled me to get a similar perspective, particularly over roofs and chimneys.

Some of my responses to these influences that did not make the final selection are:

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Planning

As well the research described above, I also did an internet search of pictures of the pier before the fire. This gave me a library of images to draw influence from and to direct my own picture taking.

I wanted to show a sense of loss; that the pier was a place for fun and amusement, attracting a lot of people of which now it is just a ghost. But with the proposal and funding in place for the refurbishment there is a nod to a hopeful future.

I decided to think in terms of three:

1 – The Past

Old pictures of the pier “juxtaposed” with as it is today, not exact copies, but showing the “feel”. Part of my library consisted of pictures of newspaper adverts for bands appearing on the pier and I thought it would be a telling picture to include these in some way with the fire ravaged ballroom.

2 – The Present

I originally thought of this as being a catalogue of the current state but decided to make it more personal by generally including people. This would be them going about their daily business with the pier as a backdrop. When something gets familiar, you ignore it; I wanted to show that the dilapidated pier has reached this status.

3 – The future

A couple of pictures to show the possibly bright future.

Assignment 4 Reworked

My tutor picked up on the colour I changed the water to and I admit I was not happy with it. My intention was to make the water more inviting by changing the muddy brown colour to a more attractive blue. As he pointed out, all I did was t change the colour of the material that was making it brown. So instead of bits of earth suspended in the river water, I had bath salts.

He suggested another couple of approaches. The ideal he said was to take another picture under similar conditions of a nicely coloured river and use that. I did not have such a suitable picture and was not able to take one with the right lighting conditions so I experimented with his other method. This was to combine a hue shift with desaturation and a contrast boost.

Working further on the final image with just the water selected, I changed the hue to a slightly deeper blue and almost entirely desaturated it. I then used levels not only to increase contrast, but also darken it. This is the result:

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I think the result is more realistic, still not perfect but an improvement over the previous attempt.

And I’ve learnt a new Photoshop technique which has deepened my understanding of the software, especially hue and saturation.

Assignment Four – Tutor Feedback and Response

Within a week of receiving it, my tutor sent me his feedback to assignment four. I’m getting used to his thorough feedback but continue to value it. It’s in full here:

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I expected to get some useful advice on how I could have achieved the results I got in a better way so I was very pleased with “Technically you have done well, The majority of your techniques have been handled soundly…” yet I was well prepared for what came next “…apart from the water colour change.” This is one manipulation I was not happy with although I could not explain my dissatisfaction as pithily as he did, “The water looks like it has blue bath salts in!” I made several attempts to get it to look how I wanted it but never really made it. He has given me another avenue to try.

I should point out that his comments about submitting a final print were rescinded in a later e-mail. I did submit one but it had apparently got stuck to the hard copy of the assignment when I posted it. The lesson is to keep them separate, either in a separate envelope or with a divider sheet. Aside from sending assignments to the tutor, there is an obvious lesson here when I send everything for assessment.

The other main learning to take away from the feedback is really to continue on the direction I am going, especially with regard to researching, using that research to inform my own work and documenting it. This is particularly important as I start on assignment five, the personal project.

A couple of other gems of useful advice:

“Garry Winogrand is often quoted about how the photographer can ‘transform’ a situation by the way that four edges are used to select and arrange the elements within the photograph, and perhaps more importantly by what information the photographer decides to exclude from the framing.” – I was thinking along the same lines when I was looking into photographic truth but could not find a suitable quote.

“Commercially the less a photographer has to process and correct within an image the better, mainly down to time involved in post-production.” – Time is of lesser consequence to an amateur pursuing a hobby in his own time but to a pro, time is money! The consequent tip of shooting a straight image as well as a tilted image is valuable.