A bit of fun with the Brighton & Hove Camera Club this week taught me a couple of interesting lessons. I’d really recommend this to other camera clubs as it brought a host of hitherto unseen photographs out of the shadows and gave everyone an opportunity to see other people’s work in a collection. The challenge was excellent for participation, because of the format, everyone in the club was dragged in within a couple of days – like a chain letter, the participant list grows exponentially.
The rules of the Black and White Challenge are very simple. The person issuing the challenge posts a photograph every day for five days. On each day, she issues a new challenge to another photographer. There are no prizes and it is much less nerve-wracking for new photographers than entering a competition is. I remember the tension of my first competition only too well – mine was the second to last photograph reviewed by a visiting judge who had already displayed a view of photography that seemed to combine the narrowness of a fanatic with the casual cruelty of a sadist. By the time he reached my photograph my fears had multiplied and expectation diminished to a point where anything other than disqualification seemed like a momentous victory!
The beauty of the format is that it encourages people to take a fresh look at their archives. Landscape photographers suddenly show a penchant for street photography, sports photographers for still lives. Five good photographs in five days is asking a lot of even a full time photographer – I think it was Ansell Adams that remarked that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop” – good is not the same as significant, but still a tall order!
We used the club’s Facebook page as the forum – with the result that an already vibrant page became Turbocharged almost overnight. Such was the popularity of the challenge that someone has already proposed a follow up. In Colour.
So what did I learn from the challenge? I deliberately avoided photographs I’d already exhibited, so I took a look at monochromes I’d shot in the last three years or so. iPhone, Canon, anything was up for selection. The lesson I’ll value most was – spend some time looking again at the archives. Generally I shoot to an idea I have and I view the day’s shots through the prism of this idea. Consequently some perfectly good photographs get overlooked. I’d always liked the IBM Conference shot – taken on an iPhone in Barcelona, I’d seen the extreme contrast created by a half open door and waited patients until the right combination of people arrived in the right place. I had to anticipate the timing of the shot and there were several rejects, but this one came out exactly as I’d anticipated.
The Beachy Head shot was taken using a combination of Graduated and ND filters as it was directly into the sun. I was very close to the cliffs edge on a fairly windy day and for some reason attracted a procession of other photographers who seemed to think this was the only place to take a shot from. Strange and potentially suicidal behaviour…
The Shanghai picture was taken on the day I arrived, I had to buy an umbrella and my original intention was to shoot the cityscape provided by the business district in the background across the river. The rain put that idea on the shelf and I had to think of another approach. I decided to back off and shoot from a distance, using the lines and reflections in the concrete as leading lines. The success of the shot depended on a combination of people being in the right place to provide depth front to back. In this I was often frustrated as many walkers politely stopped and waited for me to finish the shot!
My final submission was taken in Bangalore this Spring. I’d become fascinated by the posters, advertisements displaying an idealised version of the Indian male. Implausibly macho, impeccably poised, a combination of stereotypes resulting in an impossible to live up to ideal. This shot was taken some time after I became hopelessly lost in the back streets behind a market. A perfect combination of reality and fiction, the shot exactly captured the ambivalence I’d felt about these advertisments.
I had a great time trawling through my archives for these pictures and was happy with the way they turned out as a set. More fascinating though was the experience of seeing other people’s work, people whose work I thought I knew quite well, submitting often surprising and occasionally stunning pictures. I’ve grown to expect “stunning” from many of the photographers in this club, but the Black and White Challenge inspired some fantastic exhibits.
Two days before I left for America at the beginning of the month, I moved permanently out of Brighton and parachuted, temporarily courtesy of my partner Viv’s parents, into the rather wonderful countryside of Shropshire.
So, no longer a Brighton based Photographer – rather, given the amount of travel I’m doing this year a British Photographer!
New York was an absolute blast, freezing cold I nonetheless managed to get two shots I’ve been kicking myself for missing on other occasions – the view from the Rockefeller Centre and the interior of Grand Central Station.
The Rockefeller centre is one of those trips that you just have to grit your teeth and do. It’s expensive, full of tourists and the resident photographer will try and persuade you to pose for a grisly humorous portrait against a photographed backdrop but there really is no better viewpoint. The Empire State runs it close, but taking pictures there is a nightmare – dirty glass protects you from falling off the thing and of course you can’t get the Empire State into the shot. The big advantage of “Top of the Rock” is there is aa viewing platform in the centre of the tower that raises you some ten feet above the protecting glass screens. There are also gaps between the screens large enough to get a 24-70mm lens through.
The other must grab shot that I’ve failed to grab in four previous visits is the interior of Grand Central Station. This has been photographed so many times it’s virtually impossible to find a new angle. I chose the long exposure route using a wide angle lens. I decided to shoot diagonally and rely on the natural movement of the people to fill the frame.
I processed this particular shot in Silver Efex Pro to get the high key effect – it was a very gloomy day and I wanted to be able to pick out the people in the final rendering.
After a couple of days in New York, I moved on to San Jose where I was due to work last week. I had a whole weekend to explore and having not visited the west coast since I was seventeen, there was a whole lot to explore. I discovered a beach in Santa Cruz that boasts a natural arch and spent a whole morning taking carefully composed landscapes. None of which turned out as good as this – a shot taken rather casually on my way off the beach!
I used a wide angle lens held really low, at sand level for this shot. I took about six frames, moving about to try and get the people separated from the rock. I was really pleased with this one because my attention was on the rock and the family to the right. I hadn’t noticed the little girl to the left and she really makes the picture in my opinion. There’s a rather obvious echo of the arch itself and the stance of the mother, but the little girl pointing adds balance, depth and a little bit of a mystery to the picture.
So am I going to settle down to a life of rural bliss in Blighty? The chance would be a fine thing! I’m jetting off to the South of France on Sunday, Dublin the week after. This is proving to be a great year for both travel and photography. The only regret I have is missing my friends at the Brighton & Hove Camera Club – if that club were a lager it would definitely be a Heineken!
Last tuesday, flushed with the success of being awarded gold in the Brighton & Hove Camera Club Projected image competition I impetuously volunteered to give a short talk about my work to an audience more used to hearing from proper photographers like Guy Edwardes and established photojournalists like Toby Smith and Andrew Hasson. This week has been spent in the main trying to work out what I can talk about that wouldn’t come across as arrogant, patronising or fatuous!
Interestingly, for me at least, the realisation that I was going to structure the talk around a set of images meant that I looked at my portfolio in an entirely different way and this helped me to discover a few things about myself and my photography. It helped me to pick out threads of commonality that I wasn’t particularly aware of, or perhaps hadn’t considered before.
I started with digital photography about five years ago, but only began to take it seriously two years ago after I’d lived in Brighton for a year and a half. It’s been a hell of a learning curve and I’ve enjoyed every minute. I bought a Canon EOS 550D in spring 2010 and upgraded to a Canon EOS 5D Mk III this summer after realising that a lot of my work could broadly be described as landscape photography.
And that is an important step – I’d deliberately refused to specialise, reasoning that as a relative beginner, albeit one with a degree in Photography, Film & Television gained in 1984, I had a steep technical curve in front of me and I didn’t want to box myself into a corner by learning a limited set of techniques allied to a particular style of photography. So for twelve months I’ve dabbled with Street photography, Macro photography, Landscape, Urban, Architectural, Night, Travel….you name it, I shot it.
I have learned a lot of technology in the last two years, not least about light. I’ve been using Lee filters, Polarising, Neutral Density, and am leaning towards getting it as right in the camera as I can, before working on the picture in Lightroom. And all the while, reading , looking and learning from other photographers.
Realising that compared to many people in the audience I am a raw beginner encouraged me to think of a framework in which I had something to offer that would be interesting and I hope amusing. Eventually I decided to structure the presentation around the notion of deliberation. By this I mean that the percentage of my best work that could be described as happily accidental has fallen over the last two years and I am now much more likely to capture the image I set out to capture, even when time and conditions are unfavourable. Accident still plays a part, in fact I would say that experimentation and pushing the boundaries are just as important to progress as technical mastery, however I’m now in the position where I can be pretty confident of getting decent shots regardless of the conditions I’m working in.
I chose seven images to talk about, all of them flawed from a purely technical perspective, but all were in some manner experiments and in concept at least say a lot more about me as a photographer. These pictures represent where I want to be. I’m remembering the influences that made me go to Film School, the cinematic genius of Orson Welles, Nicholas Roeg, the german expressionists and american directors such as John Huston. And I’m seeing the influence this has had on my photography, the drama of “A taste of Evil”, the abstract expressionism of “Walkabout” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, the sweeping landscapes of John Huston all bring a sense of drama that I’m seeing in some of my own work.
Skywalking for example was an image I planned fairly meticulously. The inspiration was a sequence from the film “Walkabout” directed by Nicholas Roeg in which a girl becomes lost in the australian outback and there is a wonderful point of view shot of people walking towards her, rendered indistinct by the heat haze they seem to float above the desert floor. This shot was taken at low tide and sunset on Brighton Beach, reflected in a large puddle and flipped 180 degrees to get that other worldliness.
‘My Bird Sings’ is a different kind of shot. One that I’m particularly proud of given that it was taken in a tiny window of opportunity (about 90 seconds) in very difficult lighting. The picture is a very private moment shared between the lady cleaning the floor and a bird, singing on the window. I knew the moment wouldn’t last so my challenge was to capture enough detail to be able to bring the lady out of the shadows, without blowing out the window entirely. I composed the shot into three zones, leaving a lot of foreground to emphasise the privacy of the moment. The camera is an interloper here.
The final image, “Hope” was one that presented itself by accident. I was in the right place at the right time. as soon as I saw this couple, the picture was fully formed in my mind. The pose reminded me of second world war propaganda posters – people looking up into the sky at the sparring fighter planes. Without wanting to validate the prime minister’s ridiculous assertion that we are in the economic equivalent of a war, I saw in this couple’s demeanour an element of hope for a future. Another private moment.
I rarely shoot people and don’t think of myself as a people photographer. For all that, people bring another dimension to some photographs and I am seeing more opportunities as I continue my journey.
Finally, the evening wasn’t just about my journey! There were nine other photographers presenting, none of them less than fascinating! It made me realise more than ever the value of the advice my tutor at Film School gave me “Don’t worry about ‘style’, you are who you are, your ‘style’ is in everything you do.” Looking at the variety and quality of work on display yesterday I couldn’t help but agree.
I really enjoyed the experience of presenting to an expert audience. Beyond that, it’s an interesting way to get to know people in the Club and encourages interaction. I certainly hope to do more in the future – must go and shoot a few more photographs first!