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.
When I finished my 365 Day Project, I found myself curiously adrift. I no longer felt motivated to go out and shoot every single day, but I was also keenly aware that the simple fact of shooting every day had improved my ability to see photographs and also my technique by sheer force of repetition. To compound the problem, most of January was spent searching for a new house, so my photography was somewhat reduced.
I decided that what I needed was another context to put my photography in. Sure, its great to carry a camera around and I’ve been fortunate enough to stumble across some great opportunities while so prepared, but I felt I needed to get excited about something and I knew that wasn’t just going to come out of thin air. I resolved to be patient, knowing I would recognise the opportunity when it came.
A trip to India provided exactly the stimulus I was looking for. I was very struck by the billboards. Everywhere I went in Bangalore, posters of epic machismo glared out of the walls, a whole mythology of the modern Indian male, straight from the imagination of advertisers. I was very conscious that these posters were setting a high bar for the majority of the population, feeding aspiration but also fuelling disappointment and anger. I decided the subject of my Bangalore project would be related to the advertising.
The day after the event I was working on finished, I got up early and drove out to the KR Market. I’d been here before and knew I would find some good juxtapositions of aspirational advertising and stark reality. This time however the market area was mostly deserted so I started to explore the backstreets surrounding the marketplace. Inevitably I quickly became lost and resolved to explore further. Diving deeper into these streets I discovered an area I would describe as impoverished. Here, the gap between poster life and real life became wider and more blindingly obvious. Beyond the business parks, there is an India of grinding poverty and I realised it would be here that I would find my best subjects.
I probably should mention at this point that roaming the back streets of a strange city alone, with a camera that probably represents several months wages to most of the people you meet is perhaps not the wisest thing to do. In a couple of places, I became aware that I was being scrutinised and moved quickly on. It’s a peculiar thing about travel, I’m a confident person and I’ve never felt directly threatened. I’ve walked the streets of New York, Beijing, Delhi, Bangalore, Paris and London in the last twelve months without a single incident. Always a first time, but I make an effort to be friendly when I’m out taking photographs and also maintain an awareness of what’s going on around me.
My final picture is the one that made the whole expedition worthwhile. I’ve always felt uncomfortable photographing poverty. It’s a conscience thing. I’m a middle class, educated male from one of the worlds leading economies.No matter how little cash I feel I have at any one time, there’s a danger of being patronising and worse, prurient in photographing extreme poverty. I’ve walked on past several opportunities to photograph people sleeping rough, because at the time I had no purpose in photographing them. On this occasion though I had a purpose and a point to make. This picture absolutely nailed what I was trying to articulate with my poster shots. It’s a shot that carries the emotional punch I was looking for. Above and beyond the fact of the enormous gulf between the indomitable alpha male of the poster and the broken spirit of the man sleeping, there is also the fact that this person is somebody’s son, has been somebody’s lover and friend. It’s a very sad image I think and one that I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to take.
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.
Street Photography is a style of photography that celebrates the small wonders of everyday life. In the last couple of years it has become something of a fashion statement and some very wonderful photography has resulted. Indeed it has become so popular that it supports several festivals worldwide, the most notable local example being the London Festival of Photography, running throughout June in Kings Cross, Bloomsbury, Euston & Fitzrovia
This book is a record of the photography of Vivian Maier, an extraordinary woman who left an archive of magnificent black and white observational photography shot between 1950 and 1990 in boxes, unseen by anyone and only discovered after her death when editor John Maloof discovered a box of her negatives in an auction house in Chicago. The story goes that having recognised the value of his find, he hunted down other examples of her work and pieced together this book, a record of her life and her photography.
The quality of the pictures is remarkable considering she worked alone, without peers and showed her work to nobody. As a record of post war western culture it is superb, as a volume of street photography it is practically peerless. Surely a one off, never to be repeated in today’s hyper sharing, socially mediated world of digital delights. A wonderful book, highly recommended, its published by powerHouse Books and can be found on amazon for a very reasonable £31.
Robert Mapplethorpe The Complete Flowers was published by teNeues in 2006 in hardcover and features 53 colour and 227 duotone photographs ranging from his earliest work right up until shortly before his death in 1989.
His portraits of flowers are possessed of many of the same qualities as his erotic work, managing to suggest and emphasise a sexuality that some would argue is inherent in flowers in any case. Whether you agree with that or not, this book is breathtakingly beautiful. Mapplethorpe brought a fine art sensibility to photography and it is very evident in these pictures.
Quite honestly, as a birthday present this book is fabulous. As a body of work, this sets the standard.