Brighton’s ruined West Pier is one of the iconic landmarks of the South Coast. Certainly one of the most photographed and when I started my 365 Day Project, I made a resolution to try and avoid repeating the most cliched of the shots I’d seen. In fact I almost went out of my way to avoid shooting the damn thing!
No matter how many times a subject has been shot, there is always a different approach and it is worth taking the time to find that different shot because that’s what differentiates one photographer from another. There is nothing wrong with recreating shots with a view to understanding how they were done and in so doing mastering a technique, I’ve done that plenty of times, but I’ve tried not to publish those shots as a rule.
The reason the pier has become such an emblem is that it symbolises the best and worst of human nature. Even in ruins, the ironwork is beautiful and so far, resists the fiercest storms. The shape is instantly recognisable, even as here, when it is abstracted. The worst? The persistent rumours that the fire that destroyed it was started deliberately. Legend is that a speedboat was seen leaving the scene as the flames took hold. The identity of the arsonist has never been discovered and as long as there is no proof, there can be no accusation.
One of the challenges in landscape photography is to find a way to connect the land to its occupants. This is what elevates the best landscape photography above the biscuit tin class. West Pier does this at a stroke, the contrast that can be achieved by showing the ruin in the context of its surroundings is very powerful. The opposing forces of nature and architecture caught in perfect balance.
This shot was made with a Lee 10 stop “Big Stopper” filter around dusk at low tide. An exposure of a couple of minutes. The effect is to calm the ocean and the wreckage rises out of this preternatural stillness like a ghost ship, encrusted with barnacles and seaweed. The intent here was to stretch time, to show something that has been with us for years and to imply that it might just be here long after we’ve gone. I genuinely hope it is and during the last set of storms have fretted, hoping that they haven’t succeeded in bringing the old girl to her knees.
The final challenge I set myself was to show the pier with people. People playing, people watching or even photographing, the important thing was that they shouldn’t be interacting with me. I wanted to be the observer.
I chose to shoot at sunset again, the idea being to frame the participants in silhouette. This shot was one of about fifteen I took over a period of about twenty five minutes. I like the composition because there are distinct layers in the photograph and the pier is not the dominant figure, instead the eye is drawn from the couple in the foreground along the edge of the beach to the man playing with his dog in the middle. If anything, the dog is the dominant figure in the photograph and from there the eye can wander to the pier, with the sun directly behind it, silhouetted against a sinking sun.
Technical notes, the first and last images were processed in photoshop, using layers to bring the right textures to all points of the photograph. I use a very slight vignette to pull the eye towards the centre. And in all of these images except the last, the pier is centre stage. I used Nik Silver Efex Pro to process the colour conversion to monochrome in all instances.
Sunday was the day of the Brighton leg of the World Naked Bike Ride. Brighton has considerable history in this endeavour and despite the last three years being hampered by less than clement weather, we expected and got a very decent turn out. One aim of the ride is to increase motorist’s awareness of the fragility of cyclists on the roads, and a more effective way of achieving this noble outcome I cannot imagine!
To the photography. I tried a completely different approach this year, rather than docuenting the event and hoping to get a few decent pictures, my aim was to get one shot that epitomised the Brighton ride. In so doing I sacrificed variety in favour of what I hoped would be a better ‘hit rate’. It had to be light hearted, exuberant and happy, I wanted to make people smile. This much I knew. In addition, I wanted it to have a context, i.e.. to show Brighton recognisably and to grab the attention in a way that precluded a documentary approach.
Having decided on the outcome, I made some further decisions about the way that I would achieve it. From the technical perspective, I figured a wide angled shot from low down would give me dramatic pictures that would stay the right side of decent as knees and thighs would mostly obscure the vulnerable areas. Having made that decision, then I knew that if I wanted to feature the sky I would have to use HDR based tone mapping in order to bring the detail out of the silhouettes I would get by exposing for the sky. I knew that because the ride was in motion, I could not rely on bracketing to give me detail in both sky and riders and I suspected that if I exposed for the riders I would be left with a blown out sky from which it would be impossible to retrieve the detail. I did consider using flash, but decided against as I didn’t want to blind the riders and cause a painful accident!
Setting the camera to automatic I pre-focused the lens to the distance I hoped the riders heads would be at. The photographs were taken using a wide angle Canon 17-40mm f4 L lens, held at kerb height on the very edge of the kerb, about a foot from the wheels of the bicycles. I set the camera to P mode as I knew I wouldn’t have time to fine tune the settings if the sun went behind a cloud. This allowed me to make eye contact with the cyclists in the hope they would respond positively to the camera.
I scouted the route and decided that the place that best suited my aims was on Western road, at the top of Brunswick Place, looking towards the sea. That gave the classic Brighton architecture prominence in the shot. I set up my position about half an hour before the riders were due, tried a few practice shots on unsuspecting passers by to work out the angle and focal length and settled down to wait.
The outcome was exactly what I had anticipated. I got a reasonable degree of interaction with the riders, and out of about twenty shots, at least four perfectly usable one. Gratifyingly, the shot I posted on Flickr has been featured by the Japanese web magazine Gigazine in their picture feature on the World Naked Bike Ride, which has resulted in over a thousand hits a day on three consecutive days this week. I’ll never make a glamour photographer, but the experience does prove the effectiveness of ‘trailing’ previous photographs on Flickr – the new viewers are casting their attention to the Shanghai shots and even the American architectural shots preceding the naked bike ride.
I think this experience has proved beyond doubt to me that when I really compose a shot ahead of time, the outcome is generally more reliable than shoots that rely on spontaneity alone. There is a place for both approaches, but I’ve been very considered about my photography for the last couple of months, the US and China trips had pretty severe time constraints so I planned meticulously. I think its paid off.
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!
Brighton’s annual Beach of the Dead festivities kicked off today at 3pm in the old paddling pool opposite the West Pier. Zombies of all persuasion turned out in force. Last year’s turnout was estimated at 4000 people; today, in spite of the dismal weather, Brighton’s zombie population turned out in style.
Last year I’d found a good spot on the route and taken some decent shots, but this year I decided to go early to the gathering place and get some more deliberate shots. The weather being dismal, I elected to set the ISO at 400, rather than my usual setting of 100, so that I could have more room to manoeuvre in post processing. I used flash in all the shots because I knew I’d be shooting against one of those horrible grey skies that actually reflect a lot of light and make it difficult to achieve a balanced exposure. By using flash, I knew that all the detail I needed would be available in the RAW file as shot – in theory a little judicious tweaking in Lightroom would be all that I’d need to bring these pictures to life. Heather Buckley explains this process in some detail in her recent blog post Brighton Zombie Walk – Beach of the Dead Photography
I turned up at the meeting place an hour before the parade was due to start and found a few excellent subjects straight away. The costumes take weeks to construct and if the photographers at times outnumbered the zombies, this year the zombies fought back – almost all were armed with cameras of one type or another, some point and shoot, some full pro level DSLRs.
As the place filled up, I kept an eye out for the killer costumes – the most challenging part was getting the zombies to look threatening, The atmosphere pre-march was jolly and convivial! There was real cognitive dissonance in the spectacle of a crowd of zombies, chatting, smoking and drinking, with big smiles plastered across their features. George Romero never had this problem on set! In some cases it took all my powers of persuasion to get them to look cross. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.
I took maybe 150 photographs over the course of two hours. I had made a decision to shoot in AE mode so that I wouldn’t have to worry about the camera settings – I knew with the Canon 5D that it would focus in split seconds and that was all I needed – with the flash on ETTL and the camera effectively on autopilot I knew that all I’d have to do was compose.
Out of the 150 I rated about 20 usable in terms of content – in a crowd, you have people walking behind the shot, peering at the subject, even walking in front of the camera – it just isn’t possible to control the whole environment. I elected to concentrate on getting the shots in as little time as possible and leave everything else to the technology. I think the shots turned out better than last year, what do you think?
Check out the album – Beach of the Dead 2012
I’m really delighted to have had two photographs selected for the “Perspectives of Brighton” exhibition at FaB. As things turn out, the pictures were taken about 15 minutes apart on the same day. Strange.
The exhibition runs from 5th to the 27th of May 2012 as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival.
FaB is a very popular hangout for photographers and various creative types working in the buzzing North Laines area of Brighton. It’s close to the station and rivals Cafe Coho as my favourite Brighton cafe!
We are having a preview night on the 4th May where all the contributing photographers will be available to discuss their work and consume copious amounts of coffee and cake!
Check us out in May – FaB is at 64-65 North Road, Brighton BN1 1YD