NOTE: this is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.
About the work
The UK pub sector has been in steep decline since 2008, and last year an average of four pubs per day closed down1 – though some pubs are bucking the trend. In 2010 my local (The Sun Inn in Pickering, North Yorkshire) was threatened with closure when the last owner threw in the towel. Under new ownership it was refurbished and now stands as an example of what a pub can do to attract and maintain customers in a tough market.
The key to The Sun’s reinvention is community. It blends traditional pub character – it’s won multiple CAMRA awards – with a range of community activities that give people a reason to come along when they might otherwise have got out of the habit.
There are interactive activities such as quizzes, vinyl nights, folk music sessions, karaoke and family fun days in the beer garden, plus art exhibitions and one-off functions. When I think of my involvement with my local community, I think of The Sun – my friends hold functions there, I write and host quizzes there, I hold an annual photo exhibition there.
The brief I gave myself:
“In the face of a nationwide decline in usage, how does a successful pub attract and keep customers? This photo essay depicts the range of activities my local pub carries out that help to engender a sense of community for the people in the town – to show what a pub can do for its customers apart from the obvious sale of alcohol.”
Prints have been provided to the tutor as specified in the brief.
A contact sheet of the ‘longlist’ (first pass) selection is available here.
Click on the first image to start a slideshow.
Overall I tried to avoid pub clichés as this isn’t a set about drinking or pub culture per se, so that drove some of my selection criteria.
I wanted to avoid too many simple shots of people engaging in the activities being depicted, and in some cases aimed to imply rather than directly show what the photo is ‘about’.
I went for a slightly saturated colour palette and strong contrast as I felt such a bold aesthetic helped to evoke the vibrant, happy atmosphere that I associate with the place.
Here are a few notes on each image and why it was included.
- Background scene establishes it as a traditional pub – beermats denoting all the guest ales, cluster of men at the bar – so this is to represent the baseline of what the pub is, before adding on the layers of other activities
- Slogan on barmaid’s t-shirt to signify the sense of fun of the place
- Sharon is a classic pub landlady – very friendly yet totally in control – and this portrait shows her in her element, commanding everyone’s attention
- Skewed angle signifies the dynamism and hubbub of a busy night (quiz nights are standing room only)
- Circular table to emphasise the collaborative team aspect of the quiz
- Rims of glasses provide visual repetition of circle motif
- Cropped out heads to focus on quiz artefacts
- I wanted to illustrate the fundraising element of the pub but without a dull photo of people counting money
- Scribbling on hand signifies informality of the event
- Open hand to connote trust, openness, friendliness; diagonal moving right and up signifying positive movement
- It’s my hand, so it demonstrates my participation!
- Again, like the last two shots I tried not to fall back on straightforward people images but to evoke a sense of the event with less obvious imagery
- The lighting makes this look more like a club than a pub, and it helps to show how the pub adapts to its uses and customers
- To show the older clientele that one gets at a family gathering
- The front-to-back depth and the cropping to the left implies a busy gathering with lots going on
- I confess I may have been channelling Martin Parr a little for this one
- The pub is very big on supporting the creative arts and many of its activities are arts-related, including a fortnightly folk music session
- As pub owner, Martin was instrumental (pardon the pun) in its reinvigoration and stays keenly involved in many of its activities, so in a sense he is the personification of the revived Sun
- It’s not technically great, if you’re pixel-peeping, but I just love the facial expressions in this
- I’m trying to get across a sense of not only the character of the establishment, but of the individuals that frequent it and participate in the community activities
- As before I’m looking to get a sense of an activity without repetitive people shots
- The jackets on the chair backs and the instruments serve as proxies for the double act that had just nipped to the bar
- Elements around the edge of the frame provide a sense of continuity that implies the wider scene
- It’s a little distorted around the left edge I admit – this was more down to my angle of shooting than any lens issue, and I did have a go at correcting it in post-processing but actually ended up preferring the uncorrected version
- The Sun is very supportive of local artists and gives over the walls of its function room for month-long exhibitions all year round, and April is my turn
- Rather than just show art on the walls I wanted to show people getting together to appreciate it
- This image has a personal connection for me as well, as the camera-shy lady to the left was the first person to buy a picture at the exhibition
- Composition-wise, the people are bunched up to the left as I wanted to get some of my photos in shot :-)
- The hint of the Tetley sign through the window is a nice juxtaposition between traditional boozer and nouveau arts venue
Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
- Materials: as specified I used one camera, one lens (Leica Q with fixed 28mm f/1.7 lens. I tried using flash for some of the shots as lighting was often very low, but it was a little too distracting so I reverted to wide apertures and high ISO
- Techniques: many of the images have a shallow depth of field, which was partly due to the limitations of lighting leading me to wider apertures and partly as a deliberate technique to emphasise foreground subjects; if I’m honest, for some of these images I would have preferred more depth of field but I needed to compromise
- Observational skills: this assignment really tested my observational skills for a couple of reasons: first, the venue was very familiar and ‘seeing things anew’ was a challenge, though repeat visits yielded fresh discoveries; and second, as I had to be alert to potential shots and react quickly due to the unposed nature of one-off moments – I probably missed more ‘decisive moments’ than I caught
- Visual awareness: I appreciate that ‘classic’ documentary often adopts a very straight, dry aesthetic but I chose to inject a little more visual interest (see below); I also worked with deliberately saturated colours and strong contrast to support the vibrant nature of the subject matter
- Design and compositional skills: I tried as far as possible to find interesting subjects, framing and vantage points to avoid an overly repetitive ‘deadpan’ look and feel – I looked for movement, leading lines and front-to-back depth to help give a sense of what was going on in the scenes
Quality of outcome:
- Content: the limitation of 10 images made selection a challenge – I wanted to get over enough of a range of activities but include enough examples of each, so eventually settled on 2-3 images from three example activities plus one closing shot from a specific event. I also wanted a good mix of ‘types’ of shot (wide, portrait, detail, interaction, gesture etc) to maintain the rhythm of a good photo essay
- Application of knowledge: I kept in mind a lot of the reading from this introductory section, including but not limited to: the definition of documentary; objectivity, ‘realism’, discontinuities and so on; I also had the advantage of recently completing the Documentary section of Gesture & Meaning so had lots of reading and research fresh in my mind from that
- Presentation in a coherent manner: I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner; I put a lot of thought into the sequencing even though it’s not chronologically relevant, especially the first and last shots
- Discernment: the selection process is detailed here and I believe I’ve demonstrated a rational approach to what was included and what was excluded
- Conceptualisation of thoughts: a tricky one, as most of the images weren’t pre-visualised (the final shot I kind of had a version in mind in advance), so any conceptualisation was very broad
- Communication of ideas: the idea I wanted to communicate was as described in the brief, simply that a pub can be a community hub as well as a watering hole – and I think I succeeded
Demonstration of creativity:
- Imagination: the set is very much ‘realist’ i.e. captured rather than constructed, so ‘pure’ imagination is not so much in evidence; however, given the documentary format I believe that I have demonstrated some imagination (subjects, compositions, vantage points etc)
- Experimentation: I don’t believe this represents much in the way of experimentation if I’m honest
- Invention: same comment as for Experimentation – I worked in a well-established style
- Development of personal voice: there are aspects of this set that I recognise as connecting to some of my other work – compositional elements, candid moments and so on; one thing that I would welcome as part of my personal style going forwards, subject matter permitting, is that I enjoyed capturing something positive and celebratory – much of the documentary tradition is concerned with issues, hardship and negativity, and I think there’s room for documenting more positive aspects of life
- Reflection: this assignment has opened my eyes to the possibilities of making documentary work on what might otherwise be considered mundane subject matter – interesting stories exist on your doorstep; I have a fuller and richer understanding of the work of the practicing documentary photographer
- Research: in addition to the historical and theoretical background on documentary photography (mainly Clarke 1997, Wells 2009, Bate 2009), I looked at the work of a few other photographers who’ve worked on similar projects (similar but not significantly so: mostly about alcohol rather than pubs); for inspiration on documentary photography generally I have looked at some classic and contemporary photobooks (listed in Sources below)
- Critical thinking: I got a lot out of reading (or re-reading) Wells and Bate in particular, and my understanding of semiotics was refreshed by another look at my favourite book on the subject, This Means This, This Means That (Hall, 2012); I re-read Rosler’s In, Around and Afterthoughts but to be honest am not sure whether any of it really informed my work here
Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.
Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture
Parr, M. 2012. The Last Resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
Rosler, M. (2004) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Soth, A. (2015) Songbook. London: MACK
Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.