Assignment 6: Pre-Assessment Review

As this ‘assignment’ is comprised of reworking Assignments 1 to 5 and reviewing the overall submission for assessment with my tutor, the substantive output is presented under the categories of those five assignments.

However, it is useful to capture the inputs, processes and outputs of the rework phase, and to take this opportunity to make some observations about the overall learning journey, and the similarities and differences across the series of assignments.

Tutor feedback | Response to feedback


Assignment 1: Fun in the Sun

misc

This was a fairly standard ‘fly on the wall’ documentary photography project about the local pub, and I hadn’t tried to do anything particularly experimental in the original version or the rework.

This is the assignment that underwent the most significant re-edit. The main feedback from my tutor was that the image selection wasn’t the optimal version for getting across the message I wanted to (about the wide variety of community activities the pub organises in order to keep its customers in a declining market). He suggested replacing over half of the images with alternatives from the contact sheet.

In the rework I did swap out six out of the ten images, though a slightly different six than the tutor suggested – I took the general advice on narrative flow and honing the message and applied that to a re-edit. I’m happier with the reworked version, it has a little more humour and communicates the character (and characters) of the place better than the original.

I added a short sentence to the introduction reflecting on the assignment and why I’d reworked what I did from the vantage point of the end of the course.


Assignment 2: A Hole in the World

of livelihood

This was a more expressive assignment and less traditional documentary brief where I was asked to produce eight single images on a shared theme – I used loss.

I didn’t change any of the images, though the sequence was tweaked slightly on tutor advice, in terms of the visual flow.

The main challenge in rework was to better address the inclusion of the one image that was discordant with the rest, from a visual style and creative approach point of view – the ‘Bowie’ image below.

of someone you think you know

I had included an explanation of the rationale in the notes but it was perhaps a little buried, or at least detached out of context from the image itself. On other assignments I’d included a brief comment per image as part of an ‘Additional notes’ section, and so I adopted the same format for the reworked assignment here.

Other than that the assignment was unchanged.


Assignment 3: Fracktivism

Fracktivism-4

This photo essay on the growth of the local anti-fracking movement has some aspects in common with Assignment 1 in as much as it is pretty straightforward ‘traditional’ documentary style (whereas I see Assignments 2 and 5 following a more expressive and conceptual approach). It is very much in the reportage tradition of photo essays, and I intentionally adopted this approach as I was still trying out different ways of working as I progressed through the course.

However, from the vantage point of the end of the course, this is the least inventive (and therefore to me, least interesting) of my assignments, and it doesn’t really strike me as being an example of my developing personal voice. My tutor suggested I make this clear as part of the submission so I added words to this effect in the introduction to the reworked version.

In rework I considered going back to the contact sheet and retooling the entire thing in a more visually innovative way – but ultimately decided against this as it felt like it wouldn’t be true to the story; it would have been somewhat contrived to try to reengineer the narrative in a different visual style from the photos that I’d taken with a straight reportage project in mind (and the transient nature of the subject matter makes reshooting impossible).

So in the end the selection and sequence of photographs remained the same. The only significant change I made was the cover of the book dummy version. In the original, the cover image was also the first inside image, and my tutor quite rightly pointed out that such a sequence came across as unnecessarily repetitive.

On the tutor’s advice I am not planning to get an actual hardback book produced (as I have for a previous OCA submission) but rather producing a paper dummy. I may change my mind depending on the quality of the dummy I can produce!


Assignment 4: The Unphotographable

essayThe critical review essay originally had a more dry and descriptive title “Comparing the use of metaphor and metonymy in documentary photography” but for the revised version I preferred the more evocative title “The Unphotographable” (a phrase I use in the essay) and moved the previous title to a subtitle.

Some of the changes were visual: I added sub-headings to better demarcate the building blocks of my line of argument, and introduced more example images – in the original version it was over halfway into the essay before I illustrated any of the points I was making. In the final version there is a pair of images on all bar one of the pages. This spacing of images, along with the subheadings, made the essay both more visually interesting and easier to follow.

I also included a few of my own images, something I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to do in the original version but it feels right now, and I had more to choose from having completed Assignment 5.

In terms of the important content – the text itself – there were a few key edits, over and above general wording tweaks throughout.

First of all I changed the introductory examples of metaphor and metonymy to align both around flowers – it made sense to me to demonstrate that a similar subject can be used as symbolism in the two different ways.

Secondly, I added a paragraph about Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as one of the lightbulb moments of working on Assignment 5 was discovering the theory (Edwards 2012: 106) that the two eponymous systems are metaphor and metonym (rather than specifically photographs and text).

Finally, I felt that the conclusion needed a more robust ending. Given that the essay is a comparison of the two forms of signifier and that I’d summarised their respective strengths and weaknesses, I decided to answer the hypothetical question of which I would choose if I had to only ever use one: “In the hypothetical situation of being forced to choose, I choose metaphor.”


Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People?

Middlesbrough 1This assignment is definitely the most experimental and conceptual of all my work on this course (probably the whole degree so far) and the difference between it and the previous assignments might stand out a lot to an assessor.

As for other assignments, my tutor recommended including some words upfront to position this in the frame of the overall body of work / learning experience. I aim to articulate in the new introduction how the work was informed by various things since Assignment 3 – my critical review research, the last three assignments on Gesture & Meaning, a lot of critical thinking on the nature of authorship in documentary photography – and, to be honest, the passage of several months while I worked on other things.

My biggest concern in terms of people understanding the whole concept (highlighting the absurdity of extreme generalisation) was that viewers might miss the point and think that I am simply misrepresenting the places in question – I needed to make sure that there was sufficient signposting that the message is intended to be subversive, that I am actually asking the viewer to ‘disagree’ with the simplified stereotyping I have presented.

There was an important text tweak recommended by the tutor that I acted on to help minimise this risk: the title was previously “Two Kinds of People”, and he suggested turning the title into a question. This really helps to encourage the viewer not to take the images at face value. I had already added a ‘?’ to the town names in the captions (implying “Is this really what Town X is like?”) and so with hindsight it seems obvious that I should have applied the same approach to the title of the overall series.

There were three specific images that I changed on tutor advice: two photos of existing imagery, a poster and a sign, that I recropped to show more environmental context (to prevent them looking like purely graphical elements in the construct of the pie chart segment); and an image swap-out for a pairing where the intended ‘positive’ image had contradictory connotations, making the interpretation of the image more prone to a negotiated reading.

The final change I made was to add some explanatory notes per town to help illuminate my choices of image and juxtaposition – an assessor may not know, for example, that Middlesbrough was known for its heavy industry, or that Burnley is a former cotton mill town, or that Dewsbury has a high ethnic minority population.


Overall observations

The whole rework exercise was useful in several ways. Most obviously it gave me an opportunity to improve all five of the preceding assignments. It also allowed me to apply knowledge from the latter parts of the course back to the earlier assignments. Last but definitely not least, it really helped me to see the similarities and differences across the assignments, which in turn is really helping me to find my photographic voice.

The most enlightening and fascinating learning I’ve taken from the whole course is the potential of the documentary photographer to exercise authorship. I can draw a line from Assignment 2 (my practice run on intentionally encoding messages in images), through Assignment 4 (the deep dive into the myriad uses of metaphor and metonymy) to Assignment 5 (where I not only applied authorship but made the application of authorship part of the delivered assignment – introducing an element of postmodernism).

In terms of visual style I’m most pleased with the black and white aesthetic of Assignment 2 and the experimental pie chart framing of Assignment 5.

In this light I now find my Assignments 1 and 3 a little quaint in their traditional look and feel! They were however crucial in helping me to find my voice.


Sources

Baker, S. (ed.) (2014) Conflict Time Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

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.

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Grierson, J. (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly, 2.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Hurn, D. and Jay, B.(1997) On Being a Photographer. USA: Lenswork

Lubben, K. (ed.) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Norfolk, S. and Ignatieff, M. (1998) For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Ohrn, K. B. (1980) Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press

Pardo, A. and Parr, M (eds.) (2016) Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. London: Prestel.

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.

Saussure, F. de (1983) Course in General Linguistics. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court

Soth, A. (2015) Songbook. London: MACK

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge.


 

 

Assignment 1: Fun in The Sun

This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. I revisited the selection stage and replaced just over half of the images.

Reworking this assignment gave me an opportunity to apply some of the learnings from the journey I had made throughout the course, in particular the need to keep a coherent communication intent in mind and hone the image selection to support that message.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback


 About the work

In the face of a nationwide downturn in usage, how does a successful pub attract and keep customers? The UK pub sector has been in steep decline since 2008, and by 2015 year an average of four pubs per day were closing 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 communal 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 host charity quizzes there, I hold an annual photo exhibition there.

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 alongside the obvious sale of alcohol.


Submission

Contact sheet and full-size images (48.9MB)

Sample prints have been sent to OCA as part of the submission pack.

Click the first image below to start a full-screen slideshow.

 

Fun in The Sun


Additional notes

A quick note on each image and why it was included:

misc
1. The Sun Inn

Establishing shot to show bright, vibrant activity against backdrop of dark street scene.

people
2. Regulars

To establish the ‘normal’ activity of the pub before bringing in specific events.

misc
3. Darts

A still life composition to give some contrast to the overall flow, and to allude to a traditional pub activity without showing people participating in it.

quiz, people
4. Sharon the landlady

Introducing Sharon, a classic ‘friendly but formidable’ landlady, by showing her in command of the room on a quiz night.

people
5. Quiz team

I wanted to show participants in the quiz night and add a little character, show people letting their hair down.

quiz
6. Quiz takings

The scribbling on hand signifies the informality of the event, while the open hand connotes trust, openness, friendliness; diagonal moving right and up signify positive movement.

Doc-1-7
7. Andy’s 40th

A scene which I think captures the spirit of a northern working class ‘bit of a do’; the central subject acknowledging the camera and smiling drew me to this particular image.

misc
8. Dog friendly

The Sun is very dog friendly, as the owners have three of their own and support a local dog rescue charity – it’s a big part of the pub’s character (and Jasper here matches the flooring and furniture rather well).

music
9. Acoustic music night

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 – and I love the facial expressions in this.

Doc-1-10
10. Exhibition launch

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. The hint of the Tetley sign through the window is a nice juxtaposition between traditional boozer and nouveau arts venue.


Self-evaluation

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

With regard to 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.

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.

This assignment really tested my observational skills and visual awareness 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.

I appreciate that ‘classic’ documentary often adopts a very straight, dry design and composition style but I chose to inject a little more visual interest; I worked with deliberately saturated colours and strong contrast to support the vibrant nature of the subject matter. 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

The limitation of 10 images made discernment and selection of content a challenge – I wanted to get over enough of a range of activities, and a good mix of ‘types’ of shot (wide, portrait, detail, interaction, gesture etc) to maintain the rhythm of a good photo essay. In rework I replaced six out of the ten shots and am happier with the overall flow and content of the version submitted here.

I endeavoured to apply the knowledge I’d acquired from this introductory section, including but not limited to: the definition of documentary; objectivity, ‘realism’, discontinuities and so on.

I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner; I put a lot of thought into the sequencing (in both edits) to give a loose sense of visual narrative.

Whilst most of the images weren’t pre-visualised to a great degree, there was a broad conceptualisation of thought in as much as I had an idea I wanted to communicate – simply that a pub can be a community hub as well as a watering hole – and I think I succeeded.

Demonstration of creativity

The set is very much ‘realist’ i.e. captured rather than constructed, so ‘pure’ experimentation / invention are not so much in evidence; however, given the chosen format I believe that I have demonstrated some imagination (subjects, compositions, vantage points etc).

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 developing personal voice 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.

Context

On 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.

In addition to reviewing the established critical thinking on documentary photography (mainly Clarke 1997, Wells 2009, Bate 2009), I researched 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.


Sources

1 http://www.camra.org.uk/press-releases/-/asset_publisher/R16Ta0pf6w5B/content/pub-closures-fall-but-another-beer-tax-cut-needed-says-camra (accessed 03/04/2016)

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.


 

 

Assignment 1: tutor feedback

I got my feedback report from my tutor Derek last week but it’s taken me a few days to get around to writing this.

Generally the feedback was good. The covering email summed it up well:

“I liked a lot of the images – many from the ‘long list’ too. The set is good as it is, but I’ve made some suggestions of other images that you could use that I think would make it stronger.”

So my main issue is selection. I am not surprised by this, as I found the selection process to be very difficult this time around. Derek suggests both selection approaches and specific images to consider in a re-edit.

Overall comments

“Your log gives reasons as to why you’ve developed the project in the way that you have, and your strategy for the editing choices. You indicated an aversion to showing people, to save repetition and clichés. 

I’m not convinced that this is altogether necessary. Yes, repeated shots of people engaged in every activity would appear forced and contrived, yet there is a wealth of creative possibilities beyond that; many of which you’ve demonstrated in your ‘long list’ selection. Such images don’t have to appear similar or clichéd.

Although the images on this long list are too small to make definite decisions on, I’m going to attempt to make suggestions based on a different approach and a re-worked edit. I’m making these suggestions as I feel some of the best images didn’t make it into the final edit. Of course this is only my opinion: if you disagree, and you may well do so, you can defend your choices in your log.

I wouldn’t necessarily say it was an ‘aversion’ to showing people, rather that I wanted to mix it up a bit to avoid too much repetition, but I do concede that I might have taken this approach a little too far and could relax about including more people-activity shots without fear of repetition.

It’s good that there are stronger alternatives in the long list; at least they’re all photographs that I took, and it was my discernment in the edit that was my weakness rather than my photographic skill!

More detailed comments

I’ll paraphrase rather than quote everything:

Technical and visual skills

  • Don’t worry too much about colour rendition variations, these are to be expected in these conditions
  • Prints were good quality; some highlights and shadows clipped, consider revisiting the raw files
  • Some odd framing decisions – unconvinced by my cropping of heads in half (which I tried to justify) as too distracting, takes the eye out of the frame
  • Final edit pics OK but contact sheet showed lots of underexposed shots (lighting conditions – I figured I could retrieve detail in post-processing)

Outcome and creative input

  • This is where the selection point comes in
  • Derek suggested more general images rather than the four specific activities I included
  • More interaction shots
  • He suggested keeping four of the set unchanged (below) and considering alternatives for the other six
  • A keeper rate of 40% was a bit disheartening! Although I realised I don’t necessarily need to take all of the tutor’s advice…
  • He suggested specific replacement shots under a few categories:
    • Establishing
    • Dog
    • Food + music
    • Still life
    • Quiz interaction
  • However, on his advice I am not going to go straight back in and do a re-edit now; instead I will give it a few weeks and come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes

Coursework and learning log

  • Good feedback here:
    • “demonstrates engagement and creativity”
    • “thorough and invites exploration”

Suggested reading/viewing

  • On Being a Photographer by Hurn & Jay
    • I confess I have read this and didn’t really get on with it; I found their approach to photo-essays overly prescriptive and a little unimaginative
  • Photographers and projects:
    • Tom Wood’s Looking for Love
    • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s Byker
    • Paul Reas’ Flogging a Dead Horse and Can I Help?

Assignment 1: Fun in The Sun [original]

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.”

Submission

Prints have been provided to the tutor as specified in the brief.

A contact sheet of the ‘longlist’ (first pass) selection is available here.

Slideshow

Click on the first image to start a slideshow.

Detailed analysis

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.

1. Full Bodied & Mature
1. Full Bodied & Mature
  • 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
2. Landlady Sharon hosts a quiz
2. Landlady Sharon hosts a quiz
  • 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)
3. Quiz team
3. Quiz team
  • 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
4. Quiz takings on my left hand
4. Quiz takings on my left hand
  • 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!
5. Andy's 40th
5. Andy’s 40th
  • 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
6. Andy's guests enjoying the buffet
6. Andy’s guests enjoying the buffet
  • 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
7. Owner Martin leads the singing on Acoustic Music Night
7. Owner Martin leads the singing on Acoustic Music Night
  • 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
8. The accordionist takes her turn
8. The accordionist takes her turn
  • 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
9. Music Night beer break
9. Music Night beer break
  • 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
10. My photo exhibition launch party
10. My photo exhibition launch party
  • 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

Self-evaluation

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

Context:

  • 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

Sources

1 http://www.camra.org.uk/press-releases/-/asset_publisher/R16Ta0pf6w5B/content/pub-closures-fall-but-another-beer-tax-cut-needed-says-camra (accessed 03/04/2016)

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.

Assignment 1: Research

As my assignment is about a local pub I did some research on related projects.

Interestingly, single-establishment exercises like mine were rarer than I expected. I found lots of projects on drinking generally, pub/club culture, the perils of alcohol and the demise of the British pub (which is the context for, but not the subject of, my assignment).

Mass Observation

One early source of inspiration was the Mass Observation project of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the images taken in ‘Worktown’ (Bolton) which included lots of images of the British at leisure – which in those days meant men at the pub.

‘Worktown’, 1937-38 – Humphrey Spender © Bolton Council

These were mostly of historical interest, a window into the past where the pub was an important part of the community (albeit mostly for the working class male). The traditional British pub stayed largely unchanged, apart from the attire of their customers, for a further four decades or so.

Robert Doisneau

Over the Channel and slightly later (mostly 1950s) Robert Doisneau was capturing a similar subculture, that of the French ‘bistrots’ – which more closely resemble a British pub than the sophisticated dining establishments we call ‘bistros’ today.

Bistrots, 1950s – Robert Doisneau

What I found interesting here is how transferable (maybe universal) the pub culture is, when we tend to think of it as uniquely British.

Peter Dench

Dench’s series Alcohol & England is, as the title suggests, more about our society’s relationship with alcohol than pubs as such, but pubs do appear.

Alcohol & England, 2001-08 – Peter Dench

Some images looked a bit like the kind of thing I was looking for at The Sun, but mostly the pictures focused on the seedy side of drinking.

Maciej Dakowicz

Polish-born Dakowicz brings an outsider’s eye to British urban nightlife with Cardiff After Dark. It happens to be Cardiff but it could be any city centre. It’s actually much more about what happens after the pubs have chucked out and most of the images were captured on the street.

Cardiff After Dark, 2005-10 – Maciej Dakowicz

This set made me realise just how very different the ‘nightlife’ is in a rural market town compared to a city centre. Here we have more like ‘evening-life’ and we’re all tucked up in bed by 11pm…

Ciarán Óg Arnold

Arnold’s award-winning project I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed. but all I could do was to get drunk again is even more extreme and, for me unrecognisable, than the Dakowicz project. It’s basically all about young men drinking and fighting in a small Irish town.

Seeing this set made me rethink my earlier assumption that small town pub culture was inherently less raucous than city centre – it’s clearly not the case. So maybe its more about the characteristics of the community – and in particular the economic fortunes of the region. This set made me so glad to live where I do…

So I found plenty about alcohol, and about drinkers, but not so much about pubs as establishments. A fellow OCA student who is working on her own project about the refurbishment of a local pub was kind enough to let me see some of her work-in-progress and that probably matched the intention of my assignment most closely out of all of these research subjects, though I’m not able to share sample images here at this point in time.

Sources

http://boltonworktown.co.uk/themes/pub (accessed 30/03/2016)

http://www.robert-doisneau.com/en/portfolios/457,bistrots.htm (accessed 30/03/2016)

http://www.peterdench.com/alcohol-england/ (accessed 31/03/2016)

http://www.maciejdakowicz.com/cardiff-after-dark/cardiff-after-dark-photos/ (accessed 31/03/2016)

http://ciaranogarnold.com/portfolio/i-went-to-the-worst-of-bars/ (accessed 31/03/2016)

 

Assignment 1: selection and sequencing

This weekend was the original deadline for the assignment so I’d better report progress! The deadline hasn’t been moved due to me running behind – rather because I am waiting for a specific shooting opportunity that won’t arise until next weekend. I explain this in context below.

Image selection process

I approached the image selection in stages, using a workflow that I have used on other OCA assignments.

1. In the bag: 517

Over a number of visits to The Sun over February and March sites I managed to shoot a total of 517 photographs: approximately 50 times what I need. So I only need a keeper ratio of 2%.

517.jpg

2. First pass: 65

My selection workflow is a fairly straightforward incremental sweep through Lightroom using the star-based Ratings function. I first quickly go through the images either skipping or rating a 3. My logic is that I will subsequently review the 3s and upgrade some to 4 and some down to 2 (I save 5 for my real favourites and never use 1).

63.jpg

Of the almost-90% I jettisoned at this stage, most fell into three categories:

  • Technical issue (exposure, framing, focus) – quite a lot of these, mostly down to lighting issues (pubs are dark, and flash is annoying)
  • Mediocre – just didn’t stand out enough
  • Duplicate scene

I suppose the flip side question is: what attracted me to the ones that I rated? They all had some kind of instant appeal: the gut instinct that says “that’s a good shot“. Not always easy to define why, but I think one or more of the following would have come into my mind, albeit subconsciously:

  • Composition
  • Expression or gesture

What I wasn’t thinking about at this first pass was:

  • Narrative
  • Sequencing
  • Denotation vs connotation / ‘Meaning’

Also at this stage, I started to colour-code the images per event type, so I could see more easily the mix of images I had:

  • Red: quiz nights
  • Blue: acoustic music evenings
  • Green: one-off functions
  • Purple: general/miscellaneous

3. Second pass – sequencing draft: 18

At this point I started to think much more about the overall structure/sequence of the set and how many of each type of event I wanted to include. This exercise left me with 18 images to whittle down to a shortlist.

18.jpg

I made a special effort to re-familiarise myself with the brief at this point, so that I could ensure that a coherent intention informed my selection decisions from this point on.

A few keywords guided me at this stage:

community – celebratory – interaction – people – creativity

Moreover, I decided at this stage what I didn’t want to include; although this is a project set in a pub, I wanted to focus on non-typical pub activities – so I consciously excluded clichés:

  • People drinking
  • Ordering drinks at the bar
  • Signs of inebriation

There are already plenty of projects looking at the drunken side of pub culture!

In stage 2 I had already colour-coded by event type so now I was working towards a target number of images per event, to give a rounded view of the range of activities at The Sun and meet the brief of 10x images in total:

  • Quiz nights: 3x images
  • One-off functions: 2x images
  • General: 1x image
  • Acoustic music evenings: 3x images
  • Art exhibitions: 1x image

IMG_1086.JPG

The last category is the reason that I have rescheduled the submission date for this assignment: in April I have my own photography exhibition in The Sun’s function room, and I plan to take pictures at my launch party on Saturday 2nd April, with a view to closing the set with an image from this event.

I felt that this is a great example of what the assignment brief asks for in terms of being a participant in the project and not just an observer. Between the quiz nights (which I write and sometimes host) and the art exhibition, the series is bookended by activities that I am directly involved in.

I was also starting to categorise the photos along the lines of the classic photo essay image types (hook, establishing, medium, gesture, interaction, detail, portrait, closing etc).

4. Shortlist: 13

So at this point I have what I believe are 18 good images, which I need to get down to nine (leaving a space at the end for a shot from my exhibition launch evening).

Having tried this on another OCA assignment recently and finding it very useful, I took an approach that was both analytical and physical: I printed out b/w draft versions of the 18 images onto forms that I made up to capture brief information about the characteristics of each image. I was looking to answer the question: what makes this an interesting enough photograph?

I broke this question down into various dimensions:

  • Szarkowski’s five elements of a photograph from The Photographer’s Eye (1966)
    • The Thing Itself, the Detail, the Frame, Time, Vantage Point
  • A few of the facets of strong composition I admire in the likes of Larry Fink, from his book On Composition and Improvisation (2014):
    • Depth, layering, diagonals, edges, tension
  • Some principles of Gestalt visual design, mainly from Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye (2011)
    • Closure, equilibrium, continuity, proximity, similarity, figure-to-ground
  • Other general good practice:
    • Leading lines, focal points
  • Symbolism:
    • Signifiers/signified, denotation/connotation, gestures, expressions etc

I looked at each image under all of these headings. I scribbled notes and drew lines on the prints. As an aside, having the printouts in b/w and fairly small helped me to focus on the key compositional elements (apparently Henri Cartier-Bresson used to view images from other photographers upside-down to see if they still had the same visual appeal – Lubben 2011: 12).

before.JPG

This exercise was extremely useful and helped me to reject five images and narrow the shortlist down to 13.

after.JPG

Whilst this kind of analytical approach isn’t scientific by any means, it did help to focus my mind on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of each image. Each shot had to justify its inclusion.

I am however still left with four more images than I need at this point… decisions still to be made for the final edit.

5. Final set: 9 (+1)

So this is a work in progress – I have 13 candidates for the final nine positions (remembering to leave the 10th slot open for the art exhibition shot).

I have to choose between pairs of images in a few of the slots in the sequence:

  • Quiz night – general scene… do I show:
    • a wide scene of a busy pub, though it’s not wholly obvious that it’s a quiz night – or…
    • a close-up of a quiz team?
  • Quiz night – fundraising… do I show:
    • a quirky close-up – or…
    • a more mainstream shot of people counting money?
  • Acoustic music evening… two versions of a similar scene:
    • the one where the man’s expression is best – or…
    • the one where the woman’s expression is best?
  • General shot… do I show:
    • the barmaid’s amusing t-shirt slogan – or…
    • that the pub is dog-friendly?

That’s enough for now – to be honest I’m going to make the final selection decision when I add in the 10th shot on 2nd April.

Sources

Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture.

Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Eye (digital edn). Lewes: Ilex Press.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye (4th edn). New York: MOMA.

Assignment 1: the brief

Whilst I have been shooting, thinking, shortlisting, editing and researching my Assignment 1, I haven’t done much writing up of all of the above. So this is the first of a few overdue posts summarising what I’ve been up to on this assignment.

Suggested preparation

Read the section entitled ‘The Photographic Brief’ in Short, M. (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing, pp.20–26.

The useful points I pulled out of this reading were:

  • This is a combination of a student brief and a self-directed brief
    • The overall parameters are set by the given brief
    • The specific subject matter is determined by the student
  • Personal connection to the subject can be very important

Given that this is a (semi-)self-directed brief, this differs from a professional brief in one significant regard – to be perfectly blunt, one can shoot the images, determine a theme in the edit and reverse-engineer it into a brief! In this case however, I did in fact come up with the brief first and shoot to it. (I confess in the past I have done the reverse-engineering thing…)

Deconstructing the assignment brief

Produce a small photo essay of 10 images that demonstrates your engagement with the lives, experiences and histories of your local community and its people.

You’ll need to decide on a single theme, topic or activity to focus on. Discuss your ideas with your tutor before committing to it.

As mentioned in an earlier post, my subject is my local pub, The Sun Inn in Pickering, North Yorkshire. The Short book referenced about suggests practicing verbalising the brief in a simple way (Short 2011: 22), so I’ve written a brief for myself as follows.

My project brief

“In the face of a nationwide long-term decline in pub usage, how does a successful pub attract and keep customers? This project will produce a photo essay depicting the range of activities my local pub carries out that help to engender a sense of community for the people in the town. I intend to show what a pub can do for its customers apart from the obvious sale of alcoholic beverages.”

The first sentence is a recent addition. Whilst I started this from a purely personal/local interest point of view, over time I began to see a wider societal context. Lots of the people I spoke to about doing a pub photo project assumed that I was going to be examining the issue of declining pub usage, and the closure of thousands of local pubs in the last decade – a combination of the financial downturn at the supply end and increased home drinking (fuelled by cheap supermarket alcohol) at the demand end. Most of the contemporary pub projects I found as part of my research were about ‘the death of the pub’.

But this project is the flip side – what a pub can do to buck the trend. The Sun was one of the dying breed not that long ago – it was rescued from closure in 2010 and renovated by the current owners, who then started the series of regular events that have made the pub the community hub that it is today.

Rationale

To a significant degree the engagement I have with the local community happens to centre around this one pub. The pub owners and managers are very enthusiastic about making the pub a hub for a variety of community activities, many of which are creative in nature – art exhibitions, acoustic music jams, vinyl appreciation nights and so on.

Interestingly, I’m not actually a big ‘pub drinker’ (I prefer wine to beer these days), and tend to go to The Sun for a specific reason – for an event, to see the art on display etc – rather than just to go for a pint.

Do this assignment with only one camera and one lens. If you only have zoom lenses then decide on one particular focal length and don’t move the zoom from that position – you can tape the zoom barrel to avoid moving it.

I’ve been shooting with my Leica Q with its fixed 28mm lens. This fairly wide lens is proving useful for capturing the kind of indoor scenes that I’m looking for.

Provide a short commentary (200 words) explaining your ethos and rationale along with your images.

This will be fine. The hard part might be keeping it to 200 words.

Aims

This introductory assignment aims to act as a stepping stone between Level 1 and Level 2. The emphasis is on engaging with the world with your camera.

You’re encouraged to be a participant-observer in the situations and activities that you photograph. By limiting your field of action to your immediate surroundings, you’ll develop the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary – the things that may go unnoticed when you’re familiar with a place. This assignment will develop your observational skills and prepare you for more involved projects towards the second half of the course.

To the participant-observer point, there are two specific aspects of what the pub does that I am directly involved in:

  • I write and host a regular pub quiz to raise funds for a local community project
  • One month a year I use their function room to host an exhibition of my photographs

There are a few other activities that would be involved in just as a customer as well.

One final thought: I’m trying to make my Documentary assignments a bit more positive than the typical documentary subject matter – it’s tempting to make everything negative and miserable but I think there’s some potential for more celebratory material.

More prep posts to follow.

Sources

Short, M. (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing

Assignment 1: test shots

Yes, I know I’ve only just started the exercises and I’m jumping straight to Assignment 1 prep but bear with me. I’m just testing out the idea at the moment. My idea is to use as my subject my local pub The Sun Inn and how it acts as a hub for various community activities.

The very day I had this idea coincided with me and a friend hosting a fundraising pub quiz at the pub in question. I took the camera with me and when I wasn’t hosting the quiz itself I wandered around taking photos (having obtained permission from the landlord of course).

Here’s a selection of test shots.

Now, I don’t necessarily expect any of these to make the final assignment. For a start, there’s no real theme or narrative, and the images themselves are not necessarily the best ones I can produce over a period of time – they’re simply the first batch to test the concept.

What I’ve learnt:

  • Pubs are dark! And even at f/1.7 I needed to bump the ISO up to 3200 in order to maintain handheld shutter speeds – which led to more noise than I’d like (which is, if I’m honest, one of the reasons I thought these looked better in b&w)
    • I didn’t take a flash last night but will do so on a subsequent visit
    • My concern is that flash will distract the customers too much – we’ll see
    • To minimise the distraction will try an off-camera (corded) flash, on minimum power, with a softbox
  • People are often quite wary of a stranger taking photos in a pub!
    • Might be easier in a more cosmopolitan place but in a sleepy North Yorkshire market town it does mark one out as a weirdo…
    • Last night I think I might have had a better chance of getting away with it as I was hosting the quiz – on a random night I might need to keep explaining myself

I’ll be shooting on and off over the next 4-6 weeks and will get plenty of opportunities to refine the project.

I think the main point of this was to get used to shooting in the pub, work out the technical challenges (e.g. lighting) and start to form ideas on what shots I will want to capture over the next few weeks.

Oh and the quiz was a great success :-)

Assignment 1: early thoughts

As suggested by the course notes (and after my experiences on Gesture & Meaning where I am now on the third idea and still haven’t taken a single shot…) I’m starting thinking about my first assignment early. I first read the brief even before I started the course (I downloaded the sampler PDF) and so have already had some time to think about it.

The main points in the brief say (my emphasis):

Produce a small photo essay of 10 images that demonstrates your engagement with the lives, experiences and histories of your local community and its people.

You’ll need to decide on a single theme, topic or activity to focus on. Discuss your ideas with your tutor before committing to it.

Do this assignment with only one camera and one lens.

Initial thinking

Now, as cliché as it might sound, when I think of ‘local community‘ I think of ‘local pub‘. We live in a small North Yorkshire market town with a friendly community vibe. The nearest pub, The Sun Inn, is just a few minutes walk down the road, and is a warm-hearted and vibrant meeting place with lots of regular activities and events, some of which I take part in, some of which I just know about.

These activities include: quiz nights (I write and host a quiz to raise funds for a local good cause on a regular basis); amateur singing and music nights; vinyl appreciation nights; a weekly ‘beer bread and cheese’ night for a local charity; and last but by no means least, they use their function room for exhibitions by local artists on a rotating monthly basis (I held my first photography exhibition there in April last year, and will do so again in 2016).

On top of all this, it’s a nice friendly ‘local’ with lots of regular faces and a constantly rotating selection of guest beers. And it’s won various CAMRA awards. I consider myself lucky to have such a great boozer on my doorstep.

So: my draft plan is to take my camera along to The Sun several times over the next few weeks, observe the place during quiet and busy times, normal nights and regular events, weeknights and weekends – to see if an interesting theme or narrative emerges.

Sounds tough but I think I’m up to the challenge ;-)