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

Assignment 3: tutor feedback

I had a very good tutorial with my tutor Helen and had some really useful discussions on the assignment and my progress in general. We also discussed my proposal for the critical review assignment, but I will cover these in a separate post shortly.

I will post the full report as part of my submission prep but here I summarise the key points from the feedback.

Assignment:

  • Both online and print presentation good and clear, no major issues
  • Some technical challenges acknowledged
    • e.g. consistency of skin tones, overdose of green leading to colour toning issues
    • But addressed reasonably given limited shooting opportunities, first attempts at this kind of work
  • Consider value of captions: more contextual detail would be useful (both online captions and print labels)
    • e.g. name and role – could help viewer to read the picture
    • Alluding to conceptual choices
  • Statement: use full allocation of words and consider including elements such as:
    • Personal motivation/interest
    • Summary of working process
    • Aesthetic choices
    • Think of this as what would be printed on the gallery wall to accompany an exhibition
  • Working to self-imposed parameters on image style led to continuity in ideas
    • But with downside of some images being overly static – variation only really came into third shots
    • Bespoke ‘action shot’ of Tim works best out of the set – looks most natural – others are more obviously posed
  • Planning and preparation posts are thorough and show a good level of self-analysis and process experience / awareness
    • Action: bring the key points from preparation and reflection posts (e.g. decision- making; challenges faced and addressed) into the Self-evaluation section of the assignment submission itself

Coursework:

  • Maintaining high standard of earlier sections – need to keep it up
  • Research: good to see use of checklists in analysing images of others
    • Practicing this helps to develop understanding of visual language
    • And helps build up consistency of analysis where certain considerations will become routine
    • Consider image analysis along lines of: Content – Construct – Context
  • Reflection post on self-doubt / self-improvement (challenges of level 2 study) was good to see – self-analysis, continued research and higher standards all push one to think more laterally, pay more attention to details, identify what ‘works’ and why

My thoughts

I’m happy with the feedback and enjoyed the discussion with Helen. This was yet another assignment outside my comfort zone – I may have said that for every G&M assignment so far – but I’m increasingly realising that getting out of your comfort zone is a valuable part of the learning experience.

Assignment 3: Newbridge Portraits [original]

This is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.


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 10 volunteers (including me) with a variety of skills and specialisms who both keep the site open and make incremental improvements when funds allow.

This assignment has produced sets of portraits of four of the committee members, on site in the woods themselves. In response to the title of the assignment brief Similar but Different, three styles of portraiture are used to cover different aspects of the individuals and their involvement in the group.

Submission

Full size images and contact sheet are available separately.

Newbridge Portraits

Background information per individual can be found here.

1.  Tim

Tim, the original instigator of the project.

Tim 3
Tim

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.

2. Mike

Mike, the chairman of the committee.

Mike 3
Mike

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’.

3. Rick

Rick, the botanist.

Rick 3
Rick

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.

4. Nicola

Nicola, the treasurer and fundraiser.

Nicola 3
Nicola

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:

  • Materials: I take this to mean the locations and props I used for each set, and I feel that I chose appropriately to get over my intended messages
  • Techniques: I considered and chose a set of shooting approaches that met my visualisations; in particular I decided early on to find ways of obscuring the subject’s faces, for reasons explained below
  • Observational skills: this 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 the portraits, particularly the bespoke shots
  • Visual awareness: I was conscious of advice from my tutor regarding backgrounds in portraits not distracting from the focal point, usually the face; I tried (not wholly successfully) to mitigate the effects of erratic outdoor lighting in an attempt to bring some control and consistency to the images
  • Design and compositional skills: 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 see the face to get a successful portrait – this will hopefully be the subject of my forthcoming critical review

Quality of outcome:

  • Content: I’m not happy with the quality of the close-up portraits – I made too many 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
  • Application of knowledge: I found the course notes and recommended reading oddly lacking in new insights that I could apply here, so did more reading around under my own steam than usual; I believe that I do have a better understanding of what makes a powerful portrait and have tried to apply it here
  • Presentation in a coherent manner: I believe the sets are coherently presented, both as four sets of three per sitter, and as three sets of four per style
  • Discernment: I think I selected the best images from the many available from a point of view of both technical quality and capturing the right moment/pose
  • Conceptualisation of thoughts: all images were pre-visualised and sketched, and in almost all cases the end result closely matched my intention (small exception: leaf-blower shot, where method of obscuring face changed to mask)
  • Communication of ideas: 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 OK; the bespoke shots were intended to portray particular aspects of people’s responsibilities and character – I believe I was successful here

Demonstration of creativity:

  • Imagination: not so much in the first and second shots per set; hopefully more demonstrated in the third per set
  • Experimentation: ditto
  • Invention: poses in the bespoke shots were reasonably inventive
  • Development of personal voice: portraiture generally (and the first, more traditional shots here) doesn’t feel like part of my developing voice, but to a certain extent in the environmental shots and much more so in the bespoke shots, I did feel like the work fits in with my increasing understanding of the visual language aspect of photography – using the visual components in the frame to mean things, to be a kind of visual vocabulary that signals to the viewer what it is you’re trying to get across

Context:

  • Reflection: I’m really glad that I did this assignment in the way I did (three different styles) as 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
  • Research: in addition to the theoretical reading mentioned below, the main 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
  • Critical thinking: for the 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)

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

Assignment 3: lighting challenges

I’ve taken all the photos for Assignment 3 (unless it ends up going to reshoots) and have spent some time selecting and processing the images and seeking feedback from the sitters. I am almost ready to submit the assignment but first I wanted to capture some notes on a few technical challenges I encountered, and the lessons I have hopefully learned.

From the start I knew I wanted to shoot in the woods. This was not because of my long-standing fear of studio lighting (indeed, I had a breakthrough on that over the last few weeks) but rather because shooting a group of volunteers for an outdoor activity site in a studio environment just seemed inappropriate and missing a huge opportunity to link the people with the place.

I did think that lighting could be a bit of a problem though. And I was right.

I did two scouting trips before any subject shoots, with the twin objectives of finding suitable locations within the woods and assessing the lighting conditions. Even though I visited at about the same time of day for each reconnaissance visit (and for the actual shoots that followed), the lighting was quite different each time.

Variability of light

One factor is that the light than makes it into the ground level in the woods is subject to not only the strength/position/hardness of the sunlight above, but also to the filtering effect of the canopy of very tall trees – some of which sway visibly at their summits even when there is no discernible wind at ground level. The result is often a continually shifting pattern of light and shade.

Another factor is that I wanted to shoot in at least four different spots in the woods for visual variety, and in some cases to try to link the backdrop to the subject. Different spots only a few meters apart had quite distinct lighting conditions, due to the effects of the foliage canopy described above.

Skin tone

Possibly due to the lack of control over lighting, specifically the unplanned ditching of the artificial lighting that would have given me a little more consistency, I was disappointed on all four sets of the close-up portrait as I could see too much variation in skin tone. Transitions of shade and/or shine between areas of skin that were imperceptible to the naked eye were exaggerated in the photographs.

I did my best with my limited Lightroom / Photoshop skills to mitigate, but in the end I remain unhappy to one degree or another with how the skin has come out on all of the close-up portraits.

Practical challenges

I tried to mitigate the erratic lighting conditions (for the first two sessions, Rick and Nicola) by bringing an off-camera flash on a light-stand with a shoot-through umbrella. My idea was to provide some consistency of lighting across the image, particularly the close-up portrait in each set.

The main practical issue that I failed to anticipate or overcome was the prevailing wind conditions in the woods. Winds moving within wooded areas get channelled through the trees and can accelerate into surprisingly strong and sudden gusts. The result was that my lighting kit repeatedly fell over, to the point of slightly damaging the equipment, and so I abandoned that idea (I am aware that I could have mitigated by using weights such as sandbags, but one thing to bear in mind is that I had one opportunity to shoot each subject, and if I didn’t get it right on the day I would most likely not be able to reschedule).

So I persevered with natural light for both these first two shoots on the same day and the other two that followed separately, as I didn’t want there to be artificial lighting on some but not others.

Blown highlights

The lighting caused me some exposure issues which I should by now be able to anticipate and avoid – I can only imagine that the pressure of dealing with a live model made me forget some of the absolute basics :-/

Specifically, the shafts of light funnelled downwards through the treetops made for blown highlights at the top of the subjects – most notably the (ahem) shiny pates of the gentlemen sitters and the shoulders of the light green t-shirts. The latter in particular caused me an issue on Tim’s environmental portrait shot that I had to resort to Photoshop to fix.

Lessons were learned! In the final session with Mike, I switched on the ‘blinkies’ to show blown highlights on my camera display, and when I saw a similar bleached-out effect on the t-shirt shoulders I dialled back the exposure a stop so as not to lose the green. It worked.

I don’t often do this kind of post for assignments, probably because I don’t often feel like I’ve made quite so many mistakes (positive spin: learned quite so many lessons). Or if I do, I reshoot or correct them behind the scenes. Directing models on location is however something that I have had little to no practice in, and I always knew that scheduling reshoots would be difficult. So I’m glad I’ve got all of this down in writing if only so I can reduce the chances of making the same mistakes in future!

Assignment 3: research

This is the third post I’ve done recently looking at specific portrait photographers who might be useful to my studies, with the other two linked below for reference:

This post is about photographers that I’ve looked at specifically for Assignment 3. Most were recommended by my tutor Helen and at the end I’ve added someone that I had in mind all the way through based on my memory of seeing his work a couple of years ago.

Rineke Dijkstra

hilton-head-island-s-c-usa-june-24-1992-webWhilst the name was new to me, I recognised some of her work once I started researching her, particularly the new mothers in hospital and the young bathers. The Tate website puts it best when it describes her as “capturing her subjects in moments that are both self-conscious and unwittingly revealing“.

Lots of her work is outdoors, which ties in with my assignment. Despite the outside settings, the portraits are very formally set up, lit, posed and shot. It’s as though she builds an invisible studio around her subjects. Influences from art history are evident in much of her work., such as this portrait that brings to mind Botticelli’s Venus.

I find more to admire than to like in Dijkstra’s work. It’s technically excellent, and the vulnerability that she manages to capture in the subjects is notable – but something about the repetition of the deadpan, formal poses leaves me slightly cold. The subjects often look so ill-at-ease that it makes for uncomfortable viewing – it feels almost exploitative. Interesting from a study point of view, but it’s not a style that I’d like to emulate.

Alec Soth (Broken Manual)

This was Soth’s ‘running away from it all’ project looking at modern American hermits. Of the Soth projects that I saw as part of the Gathering Leaves show in 2015 I think Broken Manual was the one that made least impression on me, so it’s interesting to revisit it from a portraiture context.

2007_10zl0053_ver3.jpg
S., Alabama from Broken Manual by Alec Soth

Almost all of Soth’s hermit portraits present their subject in the context of the landscape. The above image in particular, presented as an example by my tutor, is a key influence on my assignment plans in terms of presenting my subjects as small elements in a broader environment, albeit for different reasons than Soth. My interpretation of Soth’s decision to place the subject small in the frame is to emphasise their isolation. Visually I find this one in particular interesting because of the echo of the man’s tall, skinny frame with the high, spindly trees behind. He’s isolated as a human, yet (visually) blends in with the neighbouring woodland.

As an aside, I heard Soth talking about the project at Photo London a couple of months ago, and while he didn’t say as much, it struck me that the title might be a subtle play on words, as one can find the phrase Broken Man in Broken Manual. Soth has previously written on the importance of titles and how much thought he has put into them.

John Angerson

Although a lot of his work is commercial and/or studio-based celebrity portraits (and sometimes understandably unremarkable), some of his environmental portraits are much more interesting.

Like Soth in his Broken Manual work, Angerson is good at placing the person in the environment to make the connection between the two. So again, this is providing some inspiration for my own attempts.

Sarah Carp

Probably the artist I’ve been most impressed by in this batch of research. Her projects, which tend to combine portraiture with landscapes, are all incredibly beautiful but with an edge of mystery and melancholy that really drew me in.

As noted elsewhere, I’m fascinated by portraits that exclude or obscure the face, and Carp employs this approach a lot. Through the combination of excluding the face and placing the subject in a particular environment, it emphasises the connection between the person and the place. It also makes the subject seem more contemplative, as though they are looking off into the distance, in the same direction as the viewer, yet not addressing them – almost ignoring them. And this draws me in even more.

I had in mind early on that I wanted one photo in each of the portrait sets for the assignment to have the face obscured, so it was really encouraging and interesting to see that others have employed this technique successfully. I confess I only really had a proper look at Carp’s work after I’d already started shooting for the assignment so her work has become kind of a retrospective, reinforcing inspiration rather than a direct one.

Laura Pannack

from Glass by Laura Pannack
from Glass by Laura Pannack

From her website: “Her art focuses on social documentary and portraiture, and seeks to explore the complex relationship between subject and photographer.

This subject-photographer relationship comes through particularly strongly in her series Glass, which is more staged and conceptual than much of her subsequent work. In this she placed a sheet of glass between her and her subjects and asked them to close their eyes, and the effect of this is to exaggerate the existing unease that many people have when having their portrait taken.

Most of her work is less tightly constructed and more organic. Like the others mentioned in this post, she excels at depicting people in a particular ‘real’ environment, and many of her portraits have an unforced, informal quality to the posing that makes them lean towards documentary in style. Others do look more deliberately posed and are more visually striking for it.

Whether informally captured or specifically directed, her use of unusual poses is what jumps out at me in the photos of hers that I am drawn to. There’s so much more to do with portraiture than capture shots of people standing up straight…

Brian Griffin

One aspect of my assignment that might not be immediately obvious is that I am aiming to capture portraits of what is, in a sense, a set of ‘workmates’ – albeit they are engaged in voluntary rather than paid work. For this reason, one source of inspiration was the business portrait work of Brian Griffin.

A couple of years ago I bought a box of pamphlets from the inaugural Foto/Industria biennale in Bologna, a set of exhibitions celebrating the often-overlooked genre of business/industrial photography. Griffin’s exhibition/pamphlet was entitled Annual Report 1974-2013, and collected some of his commission work for businesses.

These images and others by Griffin stuck in my mind, and taught me that there are so many variants on portrait posing that can be employed – to add more visual interest and/or to communicate something particular about the sitter. The Johnnie Turpin one in particular is striking: the use of the deep black shade creates an odd shape yet it is immediately recognisable as a sitting position – giving the impression that this man is confident and relaxed. The expression, looking over his own perched foot and disguising his mouth (that other indicator of mood, after the eyes) makes him appear very superior and aloof. It’s a great image, but I wouldn’t want him as my boss…

Sources

Rineke Dijkstra https://theliteratelens.com/2012/09/14/rineke-dijkstra-and-the-solemn-portrait/ (accessed 06/07/2016)

Broken Manual http://alecsoth.com/photography/?page_id=213 (accessed 06/07/2016)

https://alecsothblog.wordpress.com/2006/09/13/90/ (accessed 14/10/2015)

John Angerson http://www.johnangerson.com (accessed 06/07/2016)

Sarah Carp http://www.sarahcarp.com (accessed 11/07/2016)

Laura Pannack http://laurapannack.com (accessed 11/07/2016)

Brian Griffin http://www.fotoindustria.it/en/archive/brian-griffin/ (accessed 11/07/2016)

Griffin, B. (2013) Annual Report 1974-2013 [part of Foto/Industria box set]. Bologna: Contrasto

Assignment 3: storyboarding

I’m not sure if ‘storyboarding’ is exactly the right word for a non-narrative work, but it’s the closest I could think of for what I’ve been doing – visually planning each shot, including sketching out proposed compositions.

As a quick reminder, my assignment will be a set of portraits of four committee members of Newbridge Park, a local volunteer group who have redeveloped disused woodland into a mountain bike park.

The brief asks that the three shots of each person are all taken in the same location. It felt very appropriate to shoot all the images in the woodland park itself.

While the brief doesn’t specify this, I strongly feel that rather than have three slight variations of pose or expression, it would be more interesting to adopt three different styles of portraiture, as summarised below with my sketches alongside.

1. Traditional head/shoulders portrait

For all four sitters I will shoot a fairly traditional portrait, focusing on the face, with background de-emphasised. These are more about the person and less about their involvement with Newbridge Park.

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2. Environmental portrait

For all four I will place the subject in a wide shot that gives equal prominence to the woodland environment. In this way the subjects are being presented as part of the wider volunteer group – their similarities are emphasised, not their differences. There may however be scope to introduce some more specific props e.g. bikes.

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 3. Individual portraits / face obscured

I want each sitter to get a portrait that is specifically constructed to denote their individual contribution to Newbridge Park – to celebrate the difference and diversity that makes the committee team successful.

I also want to investigate the notion of whether you can get a sense of a person from a portrait that does not clearly show their face. Non-facial portraiture is an area of photography that I increasingly find fascinating (and am considering making the subject of my critical review assignment, but more on that later in the year…).

So my challenge here was to come up with an execution concept per sitter that (a) illustrated their distinct involvement in the group and (b) obscured their face. My proposals are sketched below.

Also included are some notes on each individual (my perception / self-perception).

3a. Rick

Rick’s specialism is woodland management (he’s a botanist, works for Defra) and he coordinates activities such as maintaining the native flora and planting new trees on a regular basis.

Rick is a reliable member of the committee who puts a lot of time into making sure his end of the project is running smoothly, as well as getting involved in wider activities. He’s usually more of a ‘back office’ contributor compared to the others who are more the public face of the group. He got involved as his children were growing up and he had more time on his hands, coupled with a desire to do something good for the town.

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My vision for the bespoke Rick shot is to have him standing behind foliage – I want to give the impression that he is some kind of half-man/half-tree hybrid :-)

3b. Nicola

Nicola is the youngest member of the committee and is studying bookkeeping as part of her day job at North York Moors National Park. She is our treasurer and looks after the bank account, plus is very involved in frontline fundraising.

Nicola brings bags of enthusiasm, organisational skills and increasing financial knowledge to the committee. She got involved initially as she wanted to give something back to the community (a common volunteering motivation) and had got interested in mountain biking. Also, she gets to practice her burgeoning bookkeeping studies on the group.

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For these reasons I envisage Nicola rattling a collecting tin at arm’s length.

3c. Mike

Mike is chairman of the committee, and has driven the initiative tirelessly for over five years. He is an absolute mountain biking fanatic, and a bike guide/instructor for a living.

He runs the show; much as he’d like to share the load more with the other committee members, it would probably fall apart if he stepped away. His motivation is that he’s passionate about both biking and doing something to help the community, which makes Newbridge Park a perfect fit.

3c.JPG

The prop for this one has to be a mountain bike. I see Mike peering through the spinning wheel of an upturned bike (mixed metaphor alert: he keeps the wheels on the whole operation / spins the plates).

3d. Tim

Tim is a retired GP and pillar of the local community, and several years ago used his civic influence to get the nascent project the support it needed to get off the ground. Though less involved now, he is still an ambassador and occasional lobbyist for us.

Tim’s contribution is his persuasive manner, his contacts and his years of civic experience. His initial drive for the project was his experience as a doctor seeing young people leading increasingly sedentary lives; he wanted to get the community to take more of an interest in physical activities.

3d.JPG

The image I have in mind for Tim is him pointing a leaf-blower at a pile of dry leaves directly in front of him such that a cloud of leaves flies up to partially obscure his face. The reason for this is twofold: firstly it is literal as any time we have a maintenance day in the woods Tim comes along with his leaf-blower (I think he finds it therapeutic…) and secondly it is metaphorical as he was the original ‘path-clearer’ for the project back in the day, via his lobbying of the town council and others.

Sequencing

Just a quick note on sequencing: have mapped out these sketches (simply in the order that I arranged the shooting sessions) it’s becoming clearer to me that there might be an optimum sequence to present these subjects, in a rough implied timeline of the project (past-present-future).

  1. Tim: got the project off the ground
  2. Mike: keeps the whole operation running
  3. Nicola: makes sure we stay afloat financially
  4. Rick: plants for the future

A slight variation on this, switching around the last two, makes the implied narrative more about the older generation handing over to the younger:

  1. Tim: 60s
  2. Mike: 40s
  3. Rick: 40s
  4. Nicola: 20s

I’ll decide later but I do like the idea of having some overarching structure to how I present the four subjects. I can’t resist looking for a narrative…

More to follow…

Assignment 3: proposal

I haven’t quite finished the coursework on this section but am close enough to get down in writing my preparation so far for the assignment. I’ve swapped emails with my tutor and she’s given her positive feedback and advice on the idea, so I’m cracking on.

Brief (summary)

Produce a series of 12 portraits that give insight into the character and nature of four individual sitters chosen from a particular group. Choose an organisation or group that has a broad membership in terms of age and appearance.

Interview your four chosen subjects and make a written record of how they see themselves and how they feel about their involvement in the organisation or pastime.

As a photographer you may have your own ideas about how you would like to portray them. Make a written record of this and analyse the areas of commonality and difference between each subject’s view and your own.

Decide on some possible locations. These may be indoor or outdoor settings but photograph each sitter in one location only. The locations you choose and the composition of the images must reflect the group’s common interest in some way but also reflect the differences between each sitter within this overall area of interest. You may work in colour or black and white.

Offer each sitter/client a choice from your three best images of them. You should end up with 12 images, three of each sitter.

Statement (work in progress)

Newbridge Park is a outdoor activity facility redeveloped from former quarry and disused woodland in Pickering, North Yorkshire. In 2011 the land was taken over by a group of local volunteers and funds were raised to create first of all a mountain bike jump circuit, followed by a full cross-country cycle 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 activity experience easily accessible from the town centre.

The Newbridge Park committee is a set of 10 volunteers (including me) with a variety of skills and specialisms who work tirelessly – and mostly thanklessly – to both keep the site open and making incremental improvements when funds allow.

My intention for this project is to create portraits of four of the committee members, on site up in the woods themselves. I intend to adopt three different styles of portraiture and present the results back to the subjects as per the brief. The types of portrait planned are:

  1. Half-body, fairly traditional, with defocused background
  2. Full-length, environmental portrait giving equal prominence to woodland setting, less formal pose / maybe more candid moments
  3. A pose that is specific to that individual’s particular area of interest (botanist / mountain biker / fundraiser / lobbyist etc)

Preparation to date

  • I had the idea some weeks ago and approached the committee members for approval
  • I’ve taken some test shots with a couple of subjects (that I’m not happy with and will reshoot! I will incorporate these into a later prep post and explain why they are not being used)
  • I’ve subsequently done further location scouting up in the woods and identified better spots for each type of shot as described above
  • I have shortlisted four of the volunteers and identified their particular ‘angle’ with regards to the project (and tried to ensure a broad mix as suggested in the brief):
    • Tim: 60s, retired doctor, active member of town political scene, original instigator that got the idea off the ground, remains involved in  figurehead/ambassador capacity
    • Mike: 40s, mountain bike fanatic and instructor, chairman of the committee and all-round driving force that keeps the whole thing going; no Mike, no Newbridge Park!
    • Rick: 40s, government botanist, responsible for the woodland management side of the park
    • Nicola: 20s, keen cyclist and also studying bookkeeping and so effectively our treasurer, responsible for the financial side of the operation
  • I’ve provisionally set shoot dates/times with three of the four subjects
  • I’ve been reviewing some really useful research recommendations on similar/related projects by other photographers from my tutor

Next steps

  • Interview each subject
  • Confirm final shoot dates/times
  • Come up with ideas on shot number 3 for each sitter – the one that’s specific to them (had some ideas already but need to refine and plan in more detail)
  • Write up research on similar projects as suggested by tutor
  • Shoot!

More to follow…