Exercise: This is where I live

Brief

Go out and photograph your local environment in two ways. First, go out and record the scene that greets you in your local village, town centre or area of the city. Do the work on a compact.

Try to think of the viewer looking at your work in 100 years time. The images should be self-explanatory – that’s what was happening. Select 12 images to show the place ‘warts and all’. Respond to the scene.

Write around 250 words reviewing your images in your learning log or blog. To what extent have you managed to show the ‘truth’ about your town or area?

Now re-visit the same location with your DSLR camera and, this time, apply a craft approach to the scene. Produce a set of images that shows the area at it best or most intriguing.

Response

I live in Pickering, North Yorkshire, a small market town on the edge of the North York Moors National Park. It’s a fairly picturesque and tourist-friendly place, with attractions such as a steam railway and medieval castle ruins. Out of season it’s a little quieter but the high street (‘Market Place’) where I took these shots is a surprisingly lively and busy place for locals to shop, meet, eat and drink – even on a winter midweek afternoon.

Set 1: point and shoot

My first set of photos was taken with a compact on a fixed focal length as instructed. I rattled off lots of shots and on first-pass editing I was pleased to see that I had managed to capture a number of aspects of the town’s character (positive and negative) that I would associate with the place, such as:

  • charity shops
  • cafes
  • elderly people
  • local independent shops such as greengrocers
  • quirky bric-a-brac shops
  • sense of community, people meeting up in public to socialise

I do think I’ve captured it ‘warts and all’ reasonably successfully, without deliberately seeking out an ‘ugly side’ if that makes sense. Although it’s difficult to switch off your ‘photographic eye’, I tried to present the street in a matter-of-fact / deadpan manner, recording what was in front of me without any pretensions. A viewer in 100 years time should get a reasonably balanced picture of the town centre from this set of a dozen images.

Set 2: stylised

Once I’d reviewed and selected the first set I’d lost the light for the day so will have to return to town tomorrow. This gives me a chance to think about what ‘applying a craft approach’ might mean. The brief says to “produce a set of images that shows the area at it best or most intriguing“. This could include making a number of specific photographic decisions to emphasise certain elements of the locale. The could include:

  • colour palette (i.e. I could make the second set black and white)
  • framing, viewpoints and angles
  • subject selection: I could specifically seek out distinctive people and objects, for example, or I could concentrate on people-less scenes
  • depth of field decisions to provide emphasis

… and so on.

OK, I’ll complete this tomorrow.

For the second set I kept in mind the specific objective of making the place look more interesting. For Pickering, this meant playing to its traditional strengths, in particular emphasising:

  • its history and heritage
  • its tourist-friendliness

In practical terms this meant isolating specific elements using:

  • focal length
  • focus
  • framing

There wasn’t a huge aesthetic difference between the two sets; image quality of good compact cameras is getting closer to professional level, and as noted above it’s hard to switch off one’s compositional eye completely. The big difference was in the specific subject matter and my treatment of it.

Whereas with the first set I shot what I saw (and parsed the information in the images after the event to build a representative picture of the town), with the second set I planned what I wanted to shoot, then sought it out. This is my eureka moment…

What I’ve learned

In The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski used the phrase “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft” (Szarkowski 1966) and this concept came home to me perfectly with this exercise.

While both sets are nominally of the same place (and the difference in equipment used is a red herring in my opinion), the real difference was in the intent. In the second set I wanted to show Pickering off as a distinctive, interesting place. This involved selective focusing on that which makes it interesting, and more pertinently excluding visual information that didn’t support my objective.

In documentary photography language, the first set appears to be more objective while the second set is more obviously subjective. Note that I am placing them both on a continuum rather than labelling them absolutely objective or subjective. As Bate (2009) puts it:

“The idea that one picture is more objective than another only really means that one has hidden its ideology within a rhetoric of neutrality and description, while the other flaunts its codes of subjective investment.” – Bate (2009:53-54)

So to respond to the questions that close the brief:

Is it possible to create a false impression? When we look at the work of documentary photographers do we believe what we see? Is integrity therefore an issue for the social documentary photographer?

Yes, it absolutely is possible to create a false impression – deliberately or unwittingly. We should therefore be wary of the documentarian’s intentions, to the extent that it is possible to know them. And yes, integrity is an issue. One of the keys to understanding the intent or viewpoint of the documentary photographer is to understand who commissioned the work and why.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) project in the 1930s and 1940s was a well-documented example of how editorial direction dictated what subjects should be sought in order to influence the national mood (Sontag 1979:62).

At its extreme, highly manipulated ‘documentary’ can become propaganda.

Sources

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Szarkowski, J. (1966) The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA.

 

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