Off topic: Magnum submission review

I’m taking a couple of weeks off Documentary to focus on other studies, but this popped up yesterday and I felt it appropriate to mention it here.


I’m halfway through both Documentary and my other Level 2 course Gesture & Meaning. It’s been bothering me recently how I seem to be diverging away from what I thought, after three years of OCA study, was my developing personal voice. I felt at the end of Level 1 that I was honing in on what kind of photography I enjoyed and felt I was reasonably good at. And then my Level 2 courses seem to be hemming me in a bit more (I know, this is my reaction to the briefs, I should be more creative, etc).

Anyway: I really love street photography – the fleeting moments, the shots that no-one else will ever get – but hadn’t managed to work it into assignments yet. So when I saw that Magnum Photos and LensCulture were collaborating on a photo competition to celebrate the former’s 70th anniversary, and one of the categories was ‘Street’, I decided to tip my hat in, pretty much just as a temporary distraction from my studies.

The clichés of street photography are black and white, grim, gritty and urban. So I chose colour, vibrant, celebratory and seaside resort :-)

I didn’t win, but part of the package is that you get feedback in the form of a Submission Review from an anonymous industry expert. After a few months of waiting, I finally got mine. It’s surprisingly thorough and constructive. I will include it in its entirety below as a couple of other students have asked what kind of feedback you get.

Submission Review

Rob Townsend, 

Thank you for submitting these photos. The single images of Nice each convey something special about the city. Bird Man is one of the standout images – lovely portrait within a quiet seascape. One bird alit on his hand and the others patiently queued as they wait their turn. The colors are lovely: the man wears a light purple coat jacket and yellow brown pants, his clothes set him apart from the pastel stone, blue sea and sky. The photo establishes a serenity, a quiet interaction between man and his avian friends. Well done. I have suggested a tighter crop, especially eliminating space to the man’s left.

Carnival Dancer is well framed – the black and white beading on the bikini contrasts well with the bright yellow of the rest of her costume and the flowers in the background. Also technically smart to choose the shallow DOF to blur what could have been a distracting background of intense reds, pinks, and yellows. The close up detail of the perspiration on the dancer’s torso is a nice touch. 

The Divers is a good moment to capture – with one of the divers having just flung himself from the structure while others mill around and watch. Aligning the top platform with the horizon imparts stability to the towering structure which lessens the sense of height, and consequently excitement of the event. A lower vantage point, if possible, would have freed the platform and the dive would have become a more intense moment. Tabac is clever, including the urban signage of the shop with the patron’s actions. Three Wheeler presents the anachronism of the contemporary lime green vehicle in the centuries old city. It’s easy to understand that these smaller cars would be suitable for the narrow, winding streets. 

The vertical format works for the Divers, Tabac, and Three Wheeler. I found myself wanting to slightly crop the top and bottom of Three Wheeler. ‘To crop or not to crop’ is a continuing debate among street photographers. I generally align with those who refrain from cropping and direct greater effort towards careful framing during capture. Still, street photography is reactive requiring a quick response. If the original framing of the scene isn’t spot on – do you settle for the lesser or correct it with gentle cropping? With digital cameras you also have the option of adjusting the frame format as you photograph. If you are uncomfortable with post-capture cropping, then be more aware of framing during capture and consider adjusting the camera setting. 

You identify people, moments, places in Nice that contribute to an understanding of the city. You photograph each subject thoughtfully, knowing when to move in close for a subject (Carnival Dancer) and when to back away and give the subject space (Bird Man). Your eye catches the anachronism of the Three Wheeler and the humor of the smoker exiting the Tabac shop. All of these images of Nice would be enhanced if a bit more explanatory information accompanied them. Not lengthy essays, but brief captions. Your photos are captivating and draw me in, but I want to know more. The famous carnival, age of divers and ocean depth, the use of three wheelers in Nice, anything about Bird Man, etc. 

I’m sure you are aware of the street photographer Martin Parr and his humorous street photography. I enjoy Parr’s suggestions about street photography. Your work reminds me of an American street photographer, Joel Sternfeld. His 1980s work American Prospects was an understated look at people and places throughout the United States. 

Good luck to you as you continue to photograph. I expect to see much more of your work.

A couple of other notes:

  • There also followed a list of recommended books, photographers, events and competitions
  • For images where it was suggested that I could have cropped differently, the reviewer actually included an alternative crop in a before/after tool:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 09.48.03

In summary – I might not enter a huge number of competitions in the future, but I am keen on entering the occasional one where such a Submission Review is part of the package.

It was enlightening to get feedback that is unrelated to academic assignments, and on photographs that I feel are more in keeping with the kind of thing I like to shoot.


5 thoughts on “Off topic: Magnum submission review

  1. Catherine 23 August 2016 / 13:11

    That’s really helpful and constructive feedback and well-worth entering.

    Isn’t there any way you can get street photography into either of your Level 2 Courses?


    • Rob Townsend 23 August 2016 / 13:22

      Yeah, hopefully! Not really been able to so far as street photography tends to be quite loose thematically and hasn’t fit with the assignments so far. But I’m hoping to get it into my final Doc assignment, the personal project…


  2. Anne Bryson 24 August 2016 / 20:02

    Refreshing to get constructive feedback on images you have taken for your own pleasure and a genre you enjoy rather than, as you say, academic assignments where your focus is quite different. Good too that the reviewer has made reccommendations for further reading and viewing. Should offer light relief compared with some of the stuff we are ploughing through at present. Well done Rob.


  3. Phil 29 August 2016 / 15:07

    Thanks for sharing this story Rob. I quite like the idea of heavyweights giving something back to us mere mortals.

    The feedback was positive and I am sure it has given you some extra zeal to push on.


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