Assignment 3: Newbridge Portraits

NOTE: this is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback from my tutor. The revisions are predominantly in the accompanying text.


About the work

Newbridge Park is a outdoor activity facility redeveloped from disused woodland in Pickering, North Yorkshire. In 2011 the land was taken over by local volunteers and funds were raised to create a mountain bike jump park, a cross-country cycling loop and a picnic area. Footpath improvements and woodland management including new tree planting also form part of the ongoing initiative, which seeks to give both local residents and tourists an outdoor experience easily accessible from the town centre.

The park is run by a committee of nine volunteers with a variety of skills and specialisms who both keep the site open and make incremental improvements when funds allow. The set continues my ongoing interest in volunteer organisations and the motivations of individuals to give up their time for a worthy cause.

This assignment has produced sets of portraits of four of the committee members. Despite technical challenges in shooting outdoors with unpredictable light, we all agreed it was important to shoot on site in the woods.

I offered each subject the choice of a standard head-and-shoulders shot, an environmental portrait that emphasised the woodland context and a bespoke pose that we collaborated on to bring out aspects of both their personality and their specific contribution to the group.

Submission

Prints have been sent to support the assessment submission.

Click on the first image in each set to start a full-screen slideshow.

Newbridge Portraits

More background information per individual can be found here.

Tim

The original project was Tim’s brainchild. A retired GP, he had a vision of improving the activity levels of locals by creating outdoor facilities.

Tim 3
3.3. Tim, the instigator

Tim’s clear favourite was the bespoke action shot with the leaf blower, as he said it showed him actually doing something in the context of the woods.

This image is my own preference too. It works on a denotative (Tim always brings his leaf blower to maintenance days) and a connotative level, as he was the original lobbyist that ‘cleared the path’ for the project, from a local bureaucracy point of view.

Mike

As chairman, Mike is in overall charge of the volunteer group.

Mike 3
3.6. Mike, the committee chair

We both felt this shot captured him best. He’s a very active person and liked being depicted in a more dynamic pose compared to the static alternatives.

In addition to Mike’s rationale, I liked this for a couple of reasons: visually, the colour scheme is more interesting than the generally green/brown-dominated other shots, and the wheel-as-frame draws the eye; from a signifier point of view the wheel represents (mixed metaphor alert) that Mike both ‘keeps the wheels on’ and ‘keeps the plates spinning’.

Rick

Rick is a government botanist by profession, and oversees the forest management side of the park.

Rick 3
3.9. Rick, the botanist

Rick chose the bespoke shot along with everyone else. He said he preferred the second and third as he was self-conscious about the unflattering close-up in the first. When pushed to choose, he went for the third because it was ‘different’ (and that’s as good a reason as any).

Unsurprisingly given my other preferences, I too liked this one best. It worked out exactly how I’d envisaged it – I wanted him to be merged in with the foliage, almost half-man-half-tree. The hiding behind the branches signifies how he mostly works behind the scenes.

Nicola

Nicola looks after the finances, both managing the accounts and raising new funds.

Nicola 3
3.12. Nicola, the treasurer

Like the others, Nicola preferred the customised shot. She wasn’t keen on the close-up and didn’t like her facial expression on the environmental shot, so it was a process of elimination!

Again, I agreed. I am drawn to the ones that adopt an unusual pose, as to me they say more about the individual than the others – in this case the fact that Nic is very in-your-face (in a friendly way) when raising money for the group. Also, in a contrary way I like the fact that the most classically photogenic face of the group is the one that’s completely obscured. Visually, the skewed angle brings dynamism and the curve of the hairline frames the collection pot nicely.

Sequencing

One brief note, in case it’s too subtle: I’ve sequenced the four in this specific way to imply a loose sense of narrative. It can be interpreted in two slightly different ways, both of which are valid:

  • Chronology of the project: Tim started, Mike manages, Rick plants trees, Nicola raises money to keep it going
  • Handing over to the younger generation: Tim (60s), Mike and Rick (40s), Nicola (20s)

Self-evaluation

It’s only in compiling this assignment that I have realised how much I overwhelmingly prefer the third shots in each set. They feel more distinctive, more interesting, more collaborative, more a part of me and my developing voice, more an evocative representation of the subject. I enjoyed planning and shooting these bespoke shots much more than the others, and I feel they are the most successful as a result.

That said, I’m glad I did styles 1 and 2 as they provided a benchmark of ‘normal’ portraiture that helped me appreciate the advantages of the third approach more – in terms of both how much I enjoyed doing them, and the end results.

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I chose materials (locations and props) appropriately to get over my intended messages, and considered and chose a set of shooting techniques that met my visualisations; in particular I decided early on to find ways of obscuring the subject’s faces, for reasons explained below.

Using my observational skills came up mostly in the planning stage, first in terms of observing my volunteer colleagues to determine who would make the most interesting subjects, and also at a practical level to identify where and how to shoot, particularly the bespoke shots. I was conscious of advice from my tutor to be visually aware regarding backgrounds in portraits not distracting from the focal point, usually the face;

I took design and compositional aspects into account throughout this assignment. I decided early on that for consistency all images should be vertical format as this is a visual cue meaning ‘portrait’. For the traditional portrait I observed norms of placement of the head/eyes. For the environmental shots I ensured that the person was no more than one-third of the height of the image in order to give the background enough prominence. For the bespoke image I was looking for unusual compositions, angles, poses that emphasised individuality. Finally, but importantly, I wanted to investigate a developing theory of mine that you don’t need to clearly see the face to get a successful portrait.

Quality of outcome

Regarding the content of the final images: I’m not 100% happy with the quality of the close-up portraits – I made avoidable errors and/or should have factored in time to check the images and reshoot if necessary; the environmental shots are more successful and I’m particularly happy with the bespoke shots. I tried to mitigate the effects of erratic outdoor lighting in an attempt to bring some control and consistency to the images

I found the course notes and recommended reading oddly lacking in new knowledge that I could apply here, so did more reading around under my own steam; I believe that I do have a better understanding of what makes a powerful portrait and have tried to apply it here.

The sets are coherently presented, both as four sets of three per sitter, and as three sets of four per style. I’m happy that I showed discernment in selecting the best images from the many available from a point of view of both technical quality and capturing the right moment/pose.

All images were pre-visualised and sketched, and in almost all cases the end result closely matched my conceptualisations (small exception: leaf-blower shot, where method of obscuring face changed to mask). The communication of ideas is different for each portrait type: the standard portrait shots only really needed to communicate that these people belonged to the same group, and the t-shirt did that; the environmental shots needed to communicate the context of them volunteering for a woodland project, and I think that works; the bespoke shots were intended to portray particular aspects of people’s responsibilities and character – I believe I was successful here

Demonstration of creativity

The third in each set did demonstrate degrees of imagination, experimentation and invention; the first and second admittedly less so.

Portraiture generally (and the more traditional shots here) doesn’t necessarily feel like part of my developing personal voice, but to an extent in the environmental shots and the bespoke shots, I did feel like the work fits in with my increasing understanding of the visual language aspect of photography; also, from a subject matter point of view, I am increasingly covering volunteering of one form or another in my work

Context

I’m really glad that I did this assignment in the way I did (three different styles) as on reflection it’s helped me articulate two complementary feelings on portrait photography: first, that I don’t really get much satisfaction out of ‘straight’ portraiture as I find it imposes too many limitations on really ‘saying something interesting’; and second, that one can apply concepts of visual language, authorship and communication (all increasingly fascinating to me) onto portraiture, making the end result a unique image that is the combination of photographer and subject.

For the critical theory, I kept returning to Bate (2009) more than anything else, as it helped me unpack the underlying conceptual aspects of portraiture; some useful insights came out of Angier’s Train Your Gaze (2007), Higgins’ 21st Century Portraits (2013) and Bright’s Auto Focus (2010). The main practical research for this assignment was looking at a number of portrait photographers’ projects, some suggested by my tutor both generally and specific to my proposal, and some from the course notes and my own findings. Particular practitioners that made an impression on me: Charles Fréger, Christoph Soeder, Alec Soth, Sarah Carp, Laura Pannack, Brian Griffin, Jack Davison.

In summary, this was an assignment well outside my comfort zone that I didn’t particularly enjoy while I was doing it, but got a lot out of as a learning experience!


Sources

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

Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus. London: Thames & Hudson

Angier, R. (2007) Train Your Gaze. Lausanne: AVA

Higgins, J. (2013) 21st Century Portraits. London: NPG

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