Sunday, 29 January 2012

Assignment 3 – back in the saddle

Making steady progress with my re-shoots for this assignment. Have identified my 5 locations as follows:

  • Piz Gloria, Switzerland – a mountain top restaurant and viewing platform that we visited on holiday. This is the only real survivor from my first pass at this assignment;
  • Aspatria railway station – a small, local railway station, typical of many in the UK;
  • The Park Royal Hotel, Stretton – a regular business haunt, and spiritual home of the Invisible man – although he wont be appearing this time;
  • Silloth Sea Defences – a built space between the land and sea that runs for a couple of miles from Silloth harbour to Skinburness;
  • The Rheged Visitors Centre – a uniquely designed tourist facility just off the M6 near Penrith, and one of the few genuinely modern publically accessible buildings in Cumbria.

Piz Gloria I already have – although I shall probably add in an extra shot to try to catch the touristy feel of the place:

1000/495: 11 July 2011: In the footsteps of James Bond

Aspatria railway station is posing an interesting problem – I have all the shots I need but can’t decide whether to choose the slightly less interesting photo that fits the overall them or the rather more attractive one that is obviously different. Suspect I will settle for the latter in the end – it says everything that the first one says, and I’d rather go for the quality of the shot. This isn’t it the shot but gives a feel for it:

1000/708: 28 Jan 2012: Aspatria Station at night

The Park Royal is a long term haunt – I’ve been posting shots of it for a couple of years and it regularly feature sin my photo-a-day blog. it was also a major player in my Hotel Anywhere set. Need a more recent shot along the following lines. It feels like cheating to dig into my archive. Interestingly this seems to anticipate some of the stuff in Single Figure Small and Making People Anonymous. It’s also slightly less contrasty that my currently preferred look which is worth a little reflection as I’m not quite sure why my current ‘look’ appeals to me.

Silloth Sea defences is a completely new location. I think it’s important to have a long-term relationship with the place you’re photographing or some kind of visceral reaction for these small sets to work effectively. At Silloth (and the hotel and railway station) it’s the long-term relationship. I spend a half-hour every Saturday morning wandering along the sea wall while my daughter has music lessons, so it is inevitable that I have picked up a feel for what goes on their and how it works. This shot is the only one on this page that will make it to the final submission – because oddly I’m not often there when it’s this rough so I need to take my chances when I have them

1000/709: 21 Jan 2012: Breakwater at Silloth

The final building in the set comes –like the first - from the visceral reaction category. Before this morning I’d visited Rheged only once before – and that was a recce visit to see if I wanted to shoot it. It’s an amazing building, built into an old lime quarry, and with a grassed roof so that it appears to be hollowed into the hillside. It’s a multi-level, multi-function maze and I took over 120 photos in the hour I was there this morning. I think I’ve got enough for the assignment, but feel certain there must be another project in there somewhere.

Rheged Visitor's Centre, near Penrith

So there we are. This feels like a more solid foundation than my previous attempt. My only concern is that it feels, somehow, less creative than the ‘invisible man’ idea. Was I trying to run before I’d learned to walk? I don’t think so  - but I do think I overthought the brief, and as a result swung the pendulum too far from purely representative photography in an attempt to address the points raised in my assessment feedback for Digital Photographic Practise. It’s obviously possible to use creative techniques to respond to a brief without straying off to far from the spec – and hopefully I’ll have the balance right this time.

Monday, 23 January 2012

A topic for Assignment 4

Have been reflecting for a while on what to do about Assignment 4 since concluding that covering the whole of the Solway Firth was too big an ask for a single project.  As I mentioned in a comment to a previous post I think a single village is the way to go, so I’m going to make the nearby seaside village of Allonby my target. It’s worth recording here that this reflection has been going on for rather longer than the time suggested by these blog posts – I find there is some real challenge in keeping these notes consistent with my thought processes.

Allonby has an interesting mix of historic buildings, narrow cobbled streets, a wonderful location on the coast some small caravan parks and a number of small shops and cafes. In reasonable (and sometimes not so reasonable) weather, it is a bit of a honey-pot for local people walking their dogs or out for a stroll with their families, and attracts kite surfers, sailboarders and a range of other tourists. Taken together I feel their should be plenty of material to produce the required number of shots.

Lots of information on the village can be found on the Visit Cumbria and Solway Plains websites, although neither capture my perception of the village. I know the assignment instructions say I should write up how I see the essential character after I have done the photography, but for the record, and as a guide (not a strait-jacket) it seems helpful to think through what I hope to achieve first.

The village always seems a little ‘hunkered down’ against the westerlies that blow along the coast, and much of its charm is quite intimate and well hidden from the casual passer-by because the main road was diverted out of the narrow, and cobbled, village main street many years ago. There are a couple of key locations that need to be captured in one way or another to capture the essence of the village – these include Jack’s Surf Bar, Twentyman’s General Store (famous across the north of Cumbria for its ice cream) and perhaps The Codfather (chip shop),The Ship Hotel and the Bath House. There is also the contrast between the wide open grassy banks and the narrow lanes, and if the opportunity presents the windsurfers and their colourful sails as mentioned above.

This one’s not an assignment shot, but is included here for good measure.

1000/704: 16 Jan 2012: Allonby at night

Buildings in use – the natural world

There is an implicit assumption in Assignment 3 that buildings are man-made, which is fair enough in the context of the course, but misses a whole range of built structures which are not made by people. Even if we rule out grown structures such as shells and corals the ‘manufactured’ structures are often very ingenious (termite mounds), beautiful (spiders webs) or practical (birds nests) and all have been honed by evolution to be a very close fit to their intended function.

Now I’m not quite brave enough to submit a series of natural ‘built’ structures for Assignment 3, which seems to be one of the few places in this course, or any of the related courses, where we might submit natural history photography. However, it seems legit to add it to my blog so here we are.

House martins nests, in the unlikely event that you haven’t seen one, are shaped like a half-bowl, and built from gobbets of mud and saliva between the wall of a house and the eaves. They have a small entrance hole on the top edge and typically can house 2-3 chicks and a pair of adults (which must be quite cramped as the chicks reach full size). Most other birds find them difficult to enter – so nest stealing is not an issue, and most predators can’t get up the wall or over the edge of the roof so they are well protected from natural enemies and the weather. The rough surface makes it easy for the parents to cling to the outside of the nest while feeding the young.

In the context of this course I think the key features photographable from outside are:

  • construction
  • use as a feeding station for the young
  • access arrangements and location

Hopefully these three shots capture those key points reasonably well. The first clearly shows the blobs of mud and the location (I do wonder if a little more context is needed for the eaves), the second shows the access arrangements and the manner in which the chicks are fed and the third specifically shows the access arrangement, with an adult leaving the nest.

House Martin's nest (ii)   House Martin's nest (i)

House Martin's nest (iii)


The first thing I need to say is that this exercise (which I have tried on a number of occasions over a several summers) increase my respect for wildlife photographers immensely. The participants are living creatures not amenable to direction. I have taken (and deleted) dozens of failed photos attempting to catch the birds in the upward sweep towards the nest, both at high shutter speeds attempting to freeze the action, and at lower speeds for more ‘artistic blurs’. It is not a trivial exercise to capture more than fairly static shots of small fast moving creatures. Roll on next summer for another try.

The next thing that strikes me is that I do think it is a shame there are not more opportunities for this type of photography built into the course – even if I accept that I am sometimes too literal in interpreting the exercises and assignments. There is plenty of narrative potential in these pictures. I would have to accept that they are not particularly creative or original – but are they any less so than a lot of street photography for example?

And finally, these shots crystallise some thoughts I’ve been having about how I integrate my ‘personal’ photography with these courses – which must surely be the aim. There seems little point in paying all this money and expending all this effort if I end up with personal photography and degree photography. This, and future blogs, seem to be the showcase for this integration, while the ideas taken from the course, such as accent, and narrative and understanding the purpose of your photography all serve to make that photography more enjoyable and productive. I may even feel I’m getting somewhere – let’s hope the assessors agree.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Assignment 3 – another idea bites the dust

One of the potential sites I identified for Assignment 4 was a shot or two of the church at Newton Arlosh, but that has become redundant as I’ve re-thought the assignment.

However the church itself is historically interesting, being fortified to help protect villages against Border raiders. It has extremely thick walls, crenellations, arrow slit windows and a door that is only wide enough to admit one person at a time. It also has a defensively designed tower. To me all these things add up to a good reason to take some photos – which I duly did – thinking that they would make a good study for Assignment 3. Sadly, the more I think about it the more I have to admit it isn’t going to work either.

To start with, it’s a church. I know the assignment says I can choose whether or not to include people, but the fundamental purpose of a church is to allow people to come together to praise God. I’m sure that with good use of light it is possible to catch the idea of praise or divinity, but it wont capture a congregation – and the bottom line is I’m not personally prepared to interfere with a religious ceremony in order to capture a group of people at prayer – as I would inevitably have to do in a church this small.

The assignment also says ‘describe…the way in which (the space) is used’. Even if I stretch it to ‘was used’ I still can’t effectively show people hiding in the tower and defending their families and livestock. I can show defensive features of the church, but without the people I don’t see how I can provide sufficient context for the idea to hold together. Maybe I’m getting hung up on wording, but there are plenty of other building to work on for the assignment, so I’m going to post some images here to show the key points of the building as another project for Exercise 16: Exploring Function.

First up a couple of exterior shots to set the scene and show the crenellations, and the relatively small scale of the doorway and general absence of windows:

Newton Arlosh church (i)  Newton Arlosh church (ii)

These clearly establish the unusual design, and are more suggestive of a castle than a church. The next three are really about trying to capture the thickness of the walls, the confining nature of the entrance way and the military appearance of the windows.

   Newton Arlosh church (iii)  Newton Arlosh church (v)  Newton Arlosh church (iv)

And there it is. I’m finding this ‘sticking to the brief’ quite tricky but I’ll get there in the end. I have a few more ideas up my sleeve yet.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Assignment 4 – some thoughts (and maybe a photo or two)

I’m struggling with sorting out in my head what subjects I want to consider for my re-shoot of Assignment 3 and for the first (hopefully only) pass at Assignments 4. Part of the problem is I get attached to ideas – irrespective of how workable they are – and lead myself up blind alleys.
While I was waiting for feedback on A3 I worked my way through a few ideas for A4 – the trick I felt would be to avoid touristy material, as described in the assignment text. I jotted down a few broad thoughts, analysed the pros and cons (in my written log) and eventually settled on The Solway Coast for a sense of place. It has a lot going for it – it avoids the tourist traps of Keswick, Cockermouth and further into the Lakes, it is a reasonably defined area and it has – to my mind at least - a definable feel. And there’s the rub... for me the feel is about the absence of people – the solitude, the lack of really definable features, the wind and the sound of oystercatchers. In other words, very little to do with ‘the place and the people who live and work in it’.
I tried re-working the idea around a historic sites theme, and even did some recce photos at a couple of locations. Maybe it was the weather but it simply didn’t gel – the aim of the exercise is to produce a series of images for a travel publication and although these photos have a certain ‘atmosphere’ I can’t honestly see them being used in a consumer publication because of their general drabness.
A dreary day at Beckfoot 1000/688: 31 Dec 2011: By the Solway Viaduct
Obviously I could wait until the weather improves, but I just beginning to re-establish some momentum on this module and I’m rather loathe to lose that. There is also another issue I had to face once I actually got out on the ground trying to take photos - the sheer size of the area I was planning to cover. So – time to reconsider.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Assignment 3 Feedback: if at first you don't succeed...

…dust yourself down and try again. Or to quote Thomas Edison:

"I have not failed 700 times (to make a light bulb). I have not failed once. I have
succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have
eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will
In broad terms my tutor’s feedback on Assignment 3 is that I got too carried away with the invisible person motif and forgot to do the assignment(my paraphrase). Am I disappointed? A little. Am I surprised? Maybe not. I can’t help the feeling that perhaps I tried too hard to shoehorn a series of shots for which I had an emotional response into a brief which they didn’t really fit. I can now see very clearly on re-reading the instructions that I have missed the point of the assignment on a number of counts:

  • didn’t provide adequate (any in some cases) evidence of research or prior understanding of the buildings purpose and how well it succeeded;
  • didn’t describe how I set about showing the important features, nor what I learned photographically during the assignment;
  • in the shots at home I didn’t really reflect the relationship between the space and its use;
  • ditto the B&Q shot;
  • the hotel and home shots don’t really provide any context.

The first two of these could have been avoided by reading the instructions properly, which is probably what annoys me most – I only have myself to blame. So what can I salvage?

  • The Piz Gloria shots worked OK but I need the supporting text;
  • The railway station worked OK, but on reflection the invisible person motif interferes. I could resubmit without the invisibility treatment – but in truth without the invisibility the shots are a bit dull;
  • I am emotionally attached to the hotel room shots, so I can probably re-use a couple if I provide a bit more context (plus the written work)
  • Some pride – I have demonstrated that I have some decent Photoshop skills, and that I can express a feeling through photography.

This just leaves “What next?” which is, sadly, a fairly long list.

  • Dig out the tourist material that made me choose Piz Gloria as a possible shoot location, write up the rationale and what I learned;
  • Explain why I chose the hotel room, select/shoot some context material (it’s a regular shooting haunt) and do the write-ups;
  • Reshoot the railway station images and do the write up;
  • Choose and research two new locations, shoot and write-up.
  • Think about what to do with the invisible people – it feels to good a motif to abandon, even if this course is not the best place for them.

I think the primary conclusion is READ THE INSTRUCTIONS before you start, keep re-reading them as you work and check before you submit the assignment that it actually does what is requested.

It’s also worth remembering that being creative is not an excuse to ignore the brief.

Finally I’d like to thank Norman, my tutor, for his support over the last 48 hours and for writing the feedback in such a way that I could take the bad news positively. As a result I feel like getting stuck in rather than giving up.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Reflecting on Shiny Objects

Some time ago I took this shot for my photo-a-day blog and it’s intrigued me ever since. It appeals to my sense of humour – which is probably a bit self-indulgent given it’s a self portrait but I think that’s the joy of self portraits – I’m not attempting to portray someone I don’t really know, so there’s a bit of positive feedback to emphasise whatever part of my character I choose to display at that moment.
1000/628: 01 Nov 2011: Self portrait
Hadn’t really given the idea much more thought other than I kept returning to the photo until last night when I produced this shot in a CD – again for my photo-a-day blog.
1000/690: 02 Jan 2012: Self-portrait in a CD
So now I had the germ of a series, a little odd perhaps, but definitely a series in the making. Just to prove it, here’s the shot I took for today’s blog post.
1000/691: 03 Jan 2012: Self-portrait in a teapot
Not quite sure why these photos feel right yet. Might be the distortion, perhaps the simple pleasure of doing something a bit oddball or perhaps even the idea that I've hit on a series that says something about me (not sure what though). Whatever – I’m going to try a few more as the muse takes me and see if something other than simply reflection emerges from the series.

Edit 15 January:
Here's a slide show of the full series - I've done this continuously for a fortnight. Still not sure what it says about me but it's certainly an interesting challenge, and has received more interest on Flickr than anything I have previously posted.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Three Tips to Help Your Photos Tell A Story -

Three Tips to Help Your Photos Tell A Story -

'via Blog this'

Some sound advice on photo essays here which I need to feed into Assignments 4 and 5.

There does seem to me to be an interesting tension between creating an atmosphere and telling a story. In my own mind 'sense of place' is about the former, but I can see how the latter could also be used to evoke a feeling.

Leaves me with a bit of a conundrum. I was planning on covering the Solway Plain for Assignment 4 with a series of shots which I hope might invoke some of the isolation and sense of space that I get when I'm there, but now I'm wondering if I'm missing a story telling opportunity. The question is - what story to tell.