Author Archives: Concentrik1

Assignment 5

I chose to look at Poundbury for Assignment 4.  It is a long term ( 30 year) housing estate being built on the outskirts of Dorchester in Dorset. The resulting pictures were well received by my tutor, so I decided to continue the theme and try to expand on it; assignment 5 attempts to get more ‘under the skin’ of the place.

It’s worth bearing in mind the original ethos of Poundbury as outlined by Prince Charles in his 1989 book “A Vision of Britain”.  He was concerned to establish a true community in surroundings which would foster English Village values and a sense of cohesiveness among the residents and workers.  Well designed, visually appealing buildings, both public and private, were the key to this objective.  Houses for people on low incomes would be built ‘using local materials’ cheek-by-jowl with spacious five bedroom executive homes, thereby avoiding the ‘monotonous uniformity’ of modern housing developments.  It is ironic that, in my view, a new kind of monotony has spread westwards from Dorchester, an unintended result of this laudable aim.

The fervent drive to include architecture of every possible genus has resulted in a huge estate-of-the-bizarre.  Palladian columns share an uncomfortable proximity with early Baroque features.  Neoclassical porticos eye neighbouring Gothic arches with ill-disguised scorn.  Some of this uneasy shoulder-rubbing is evident in the relative standards of upkeep visible in adjacent dwellings – not quite ‘white goods in the garden’, but socio-economic divisions are apparent where the big houses meet the small.

Despite my natural animosity towards environments built on a Grand Plan basis, I admire the consistency with which the project has developed.  Over its twenty-five year history there has been no let-up, no deviation from the original vision, rather a remarkable certainty of purpose along with a supreme confidence which the uncharitable may consider verges on the arrogant.

.  On the suggestion my tutor I looked at work by David Wyatt

daw2008027z02-12.jpg© David Wyatt Thames Town 2008

Wyatt became interested in these new town developments in China, where the architectural style imitated the Chinese impression of English vernacular.  Like Poundbury they were being built for a purpose, to house those in need of accomodation, although the pressure on Chinese housing stock is significantly greater than its UK counterpart.  Wyatt has adopted a ‘flat’ unaffected approach in his depiction of Thames Town.  The photographs are not the least bit contrived, the better to emphasise the anomoly of their situation.  He photographs in hazy sunshine and every detail is allowed equal prominance.

Emily Shur was fascinated by similar aspects of Japanese urban building:

© Emily Shur Morning Walk, Ginza 2004-14

These appear to be photographs of the commonplace but they each identify an aspect of the built environment which could easily go unnoticed.  Here it seems she is concerned with the verticality  of the construction, the way that the buildings appear to be reaching urgently up towards the sun.  Again, a flat approach has been adopted – Shur makes no attempt to embellish or slant the pictures, they are allowed to speak for themselves.

 

© Michael Collins South from Battersea Power Station 2006

Michael Collins likes rather dull, overcast days for making what he regards as ‘record photographs’ in a fashion developed in the mid-nineteenth century.  This technique relies on what Collins refers to as the “ calm, unembellished aesthetic characteristic”  and and absence of “didactic or subjective emphasis.”.  He goes further, adding

There is great freedom in a picture, particulary a photograph, which does not expose the artist’s motivations or autobiographical engagement within it – both for the artist and the viewer.”

Michael Collins Photography. [online] Available at: http://www.michaelcollinsphotography.com/ [Accessed 26 Jul. 2018].

What about my pictures?  Although I did what I intended, they are disappointing to me.  I feel that I haven’t been able to say what I wanted to about the place – I haven’t been able to utilise photography to express feelings.  The pictures are quite faithful in a Collins ‘record photography’ way but in their flatness and lack of expression they appear dull and uninteresting.  The technique is there but the content is boring.

In our house we have a little maxim for appraising the quality of television programs; we ask ourselves “do we care”? about any of the characters.  There has to be some kind of emotional engagement with at least one of the players which invokes feeling about them.  These photographs do not make me care.  They do produce a bit of feeling along the general lines of despair  but I don’t want to persevere with them.  It’s the same with the work of those I have critiqued above – I’m just not bothered.

The pictures for this last assignment should not be considered a failure, I tell myself.  I tried something and it didn’t really work – for me; perhaps they would be more satisfying to others.  But I have to involve myself in work which captivates me and I think I am able to recognise whether this factor is present quite early on in a project, so in future I will be more strict with myself!

 

It’s probably worth pointing out a few things about the contents of the photographs I took.  Poundbury has very few pedestrians at any time of day so I didn’t have to hang around waiting for the streets to clear in order to get that barren look.

The place is scattered with anomalies – the carefully chased-in flashing above the yellow door, what’s that about?  Did they forget to attach the pediment?  Have the new purchasers been assured it’s on its way?

Yes, that’s a mixer tap without a sink unit.  The gutter downpipes seem to merit careful foam protection – more than the rest of the house? Is there a pvc vandal at large?

Early on in the project a wicked ruler imposed a draconian window tax so many residents avoided it by bricking theirs up.  In one picture you can see the result – the window surrounds are now stuck-on the walls, avoiding the necessity to build any kind of opening yet maintaining that authentic walled-in look.  I could go on, with ever more examples but it’s already a bit old.

Finally, Queen Mother Square. It’s lit up like St Mark’s Basilica on Good Friday,  Presumably energy resource conservation takes a back seat when a massive boozer is involved (I mean the pub, not the royal personage).

 

Ex 5.1 Evidence of Life

 

Allowing objects to speak without supervision runs the risk of major miscommunication.  A metaphor may mean one thing to the first person and find entirely different meanings among each of the rest.  I have erred on the side of the literal rather than the obscure in the pictures above.

Presenting them in black and white was a considered decision.  In colour there is just too much information – the photograph appears complete, in and of itself.  That’s just my opinion and I’m aware that it is not shared by other photographers.

The theme is evidence of life, where the remnants of passage are visible even though the individual responsible has moved on; they leave behind their traces, some subtle, others gross.

Apart from the b&w rendering there is nothing technically unusual about the pictures.  I have made minor adjustments to the RAW files by setting the highlights and shadows to min and max respectively, then adjusting black/white points to just below clipping.

Then slight crops were applied, followed by simple b&w conversion.  I generally end up using the Photoshop adjustments because I get lost in Nik and Topaz.  A little bit of sharpening, saved as full size JPG’s (for printing) and low-res copies for the blog.

I don’t like them.  Not because they are technically or compositionally inferior (although they aren’t perfect for sure) but because a series of metaphorical pictures like this seems dreadfully contrived.  It’s not something I would consider as a personal project, although including metaphor, allegory and analogy does interest me, but not as the whole reason for the picture.

I could have attempted a series which employed these mechanisms as incidental components but I know I would have spent far too much time fretting about it; I understand that these are intended to be exercises not opus magna.

 

Object and Environment as Metaphor

The first thing which springs to mind when considering this question is the ‘urban bus shelter’ shot, which I have come to think is something of a student trope – every blog should have at least one rendition of this evocative object.  But when I looked for examples to use for review on this blog I was surprised to find very few on Google image search.  I had been harboring the notion that these pictures were prolific, but perhaps that’s not the case.  Perhaps the idea that they are commonplace has itself become a trope!  The vandalised bus shelter stands in for a familiar representation of urban decay;  it is shorthand for neglect and is readily recognised by most people.

But in order for the object or environment to function as a metaphor it must not be too literal.  It helps if it is shown almost in isolation, without interference from competitors for attention.  A distillation of the idea, a picture which embodies the essence of the message without laboriously spelling out every syllable.  There should be room available for the individual viewer to exercise some imaginative hops of their own however, so that they can have a sense of ownership of the connections.

There must be some familiarity with the metaphor for it to function effectively – it must be within the experience of the viewer.  If I am unfamiliar with the characteristically unpleasant smell of, say, an exotic fruit I am unlikely to grasp the significance of its inclusion in a deodorant commercial.  This is where object metaphor can easily fail, where the link becomes just too tenuous to work properly, so it can be a fine balance between obscurity and familiarity. Another risk is over-use.  Some object metaphors have become hopelessly clichéd, like the Cadbury’s flake and its phallic associations.  This can be difficult to get away from – I am amused by the Melanie Safka quote, “If it’s longer than it’s wide, it’s phallic”

Photographers are hampered by the literalness of the camera function.  It returns a very close approximation of what is put before it,  so when it comes to photographing a feeling, for example, the painter is at a considerable advantage in having at his disposal the endlessly malleable qualities of paint. However the photographer can draw on the equally expressive vector of the metaphor by selecting objects which in isolation may appear to have no bearing on the emotion, but when seen in a particular context convey powerful meaning.

The photographic metaphor acts like a catalyst in generating meaning.  It does not form part of the final product but is instrumental in its manufacture.

Reflection point – the eloquent object

Reflection point
• Where does that leave the photographer? As storyteller or history writer?
• Do you tend towards fact or fiction?
• How could you blend your approach?
• Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?
Make some notes on these questions in your learning log.

 

Here we are invited to consider the work of William Eggleston, particularly his photographs of Memphis in the late sixties and early seventies.  He has concentrated on the evidence of existence rather than the individuals themselves.  Without the overbearing presence of a person, whom we are by nature compelled to study, the artifact is allowed its own life.  The viewer is invited to study the thing itself without the requirement to consider the relationship between thing and owner.

Sometimes this exposes certain absurdities, odd characteristics, which are simply not see when paired with a person.  The photograph of the child’s tricycle, for example, is given an oddly majestic feel by the use of low viewpoint. All kinds of meanings and ‘narratives’ may be inferred by the imaginative beholder, none of which need have any basis in fact.  The options are open.

It’s not too fanciful to wonder whether the objects have a life of their own – a frequent theme of the Disney animation.  There’s certainly an object voice, one which speaks of its interactions and experiences in the human world.  Is this the storytelling capacity of the object-image?  It could equally be an example of historical record.  Perhaps it depends, as it so often seems to, on the disposition of the viewer.

One possibility of ‘blending the approach’ might be to adopt the very means Eggleston employs – to extract the object from its usual context and to ‘oddify’ it, show an uncommon aspect or detail which gives a sense of unfamiliarity.

I’ve thought about the ‘departure point’ question before;  I often try to introduce some intrigue to my work, obviously with varying degrees of success.  In looking at other people’s work I am sometimes struck by the way they have revealed an aspect of something, a person or perhaps a place, which I would not have seen myself if I had been looking over their shoulder.  They have shown me something new in the familiar.

 

Large scale projects like Soth’s and Shore’s

The scale referred to must relate to the extent of the journeying undertaken by the photographer, the better to expose himself to as much variation within his chosen area as possible.

There are other influences at work here.  Immersion in the way of life of the inhabitants surely will affect the way the photographer views his chosen subjects.  Perhaps if he is sympathetic to their circumstances the work will appear well disposed to them.

I wonder if it is necessary for a photographer to connect with his subjects in order to produce informed work.  I somehow doubt this, although I think that the more one puts into the work, the more the viewer will get out of it – but probably not the same as was put in.

I had the opportunity to do a similar project recently but I didn’t act on it – I was too preoccupied with the demands of travel itself. Whilst travelling the French and Iberian coast I met many individuals who were engaged on similar journeys; each had their own quite distinct raison, each a quite profound purpose.

They were generally balancing their responsibilities and resources with an urge to move and more often than not the urge was getting the upper hand.  I still feel it would have been an interesting project, about people who live full time aboard small sailing boats (they are all small to live on no matter how long they are).

 

These guys pitched up in the middle of the night in the berth next to ours.  They had sailed non-stop from Sweden in a 23′ boat.  They were both ex-Swedish army and had been discharged on medical grounds, having served in Kosovo.  They were heading for St Marten.  I later learned via Facebook that they had arrived safe and sound.

The project I missed doing would have been a curious mixture of insider/outsider;  I could have no way of being involved in their lives before or after meeting but at the same time we were sharing many day-to-day experiences.

It’s said that long term projects give the photographer the opportunity to get right under the skin of the subject but I wonder how this assertion would stand up to comparative scrutiny?  Would a ‘panel of experts’ be able to say whether a series had been produced in a week or a year if they knew nothing of the photographer?  I think the long term aspect of a project satisfies the photographer more than the viewer but if the viewer is aware of the effort and commitment involved, this may imbue the series with greater authenticity – in their eyes.

X53

I no longer make this journey regularly but I was amused by the link between the brief annotation and the bus;  it’s the X53, a double decker which lumbers along the coast road between Axminster and Weymouth.  The return trip  takes around four hours, so you’d have to be keen on buses (or the Jurassic Coast) to try it for fun.  I took the shortened route of two hours, getting off in Bridport for a coffee and joining the second bus for the return trip.  If it’s a while since you travelled by bus you’d be pleasantly surprised by the X53,  its high-back faux leather seats and free wifi.  Actually the wifi doesn’t work but there’s quite a decent 4G phone signal through most of the route.

 

From a picture making standpoint it has the advantage of a quite unusual viewpoint.  Given that the vast majority of photographs are made from eye level, the enhanced height of the top deck offers a different perspective on the surroundings.  It’s also an opportunity to observe ‘over the fence’ into people’s gardens.  Technically the window glass can be troublesome but I’ve not made any attempt to overcome this, it is just part of the actuality.

 

This exercise follows on from the ‘reverse derive’  of Exercise 5.2 but instead of remaining motionless and watching the world go past. The motion is in the camera and the world remains relatively still.  There is  certainly a consistency in the pictures – the constraints of the bus impose a definite look to the results.

 

Exercise 5.2 – Everything I can See

My intention in the pages that follow was to describe …. that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds. “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” Georges Perec 1975

 

So began M.Perec in his short 1975 work.  He sat himself down and observed the comings and goings in Place Saint Sulpice, Paris, over a period of three days.  His aim was to discern the minutiae, the details of the place rather than the obvious public buildings, statuary and other objects which usually catch the casual observer’s attention.

His purpose was to be other than the casual observer.  The intensity of his gaze, the relentless concentration on the small things, were meant to reveal the underpinnings, the true workings of a single place.

His technique rested largely on a lack of discrimination; everything he could see was written down some things several times accompanied by a wry again…  Here’s an example:

Srone: the curbs, a fountain, a church, buildings … -Asphalt – Trees (leafy, many yellowing) -A rather big chunk of sky {maybe one-sixth of my field of vision) -A cloud of pigeons that suddenly swoops down on the central plaza, between the church and fountain -Vehicles {their inventory remains to be made) -Human beings -Some sort of basset hound -Bread (baguette) -Lettuce (curly endive?) partially emerging from a shopping bag

There is a curious fascination involved in reading his lists.  They are almost free of comment and interpretation and the blank, unemotional way in which he renders his observations invites the reader to form their own imagined images.  I can see the Danon advert on the bus along with the cheese box picture alongside.

Here are some of the things I saw in the small westcountry town of Axminster one Thursday morning.

It is Thursday in Axminster

This is what I can see from a parked position in the main street.

At some point a parking warden will arrive and tell me to move because I am in a loading bay

From this position seat of the car a 180 degree view this is what I can see

Traffic lots and lots of traffic

Far too much traffic for a small market town with narrow streets

Commercial vehicles trying to get through, long, with caravans, trailers

There are grandparents with small children   I guess they’re looking after one of their parents won’t work

There’s a market, busy for a small town

Even though there is no sunshine people are dressed in summer clothes

Dogs looking somewhat distressed, trying to stay out of the way of people’s feet

Shoppers burdened with carrier bags

Families crossing the road at the road crossing

White legs

Skinny jeans

Handbags

More cars

An elderly guy in a turban; The turban is bright orange his shirt is purple

The church is open but nobody is going into it or coming out from it

The new religion is retail

The sky brightens

There’s no let-up in the amount of traffic

A post-box faded red bleached by the sun

A scaffolded shop front

Charity shops

Advertising “A” boards, there is a new Indian restaurant opening

Spiky palm plants planted in the wall around the church

Knots of people chatting

A few people passing in the cars are eating

Snatches of conversation as people walk past

Harassed mothers with children another 6 weeks to go

Children who are taller by a long way than their parents

 

Spending more time looking at a scene reveals detail which might normally go unnoticed.  No great insights or revelations, just the quotidian events of a fading town.  Perec found a certain cohesion in these observations, a sense that the whole was made up of myriad tiny details, which could themselves be subdivided into smaller details and so on.  A richness in the everyday.

Perec sought an alternative to what he saw as the sensationalism of the newspapers – the train crashes, the floods, wars and earthquakes.  He employed the techniques of psychogeography and the maxims of the Oulipo movement in his writing, followers of which employed its constraints as a means of encouraging creativity.

This is Place Saint Sulpice today:

The brief asks us to consider whether this approach might make for an interesting project, but to my mind it is a triumph of technique over content.  The framework, the scaffolding of the method is apparent throughout the work and I feel that this adversely affects the creative possibilities rather than enhancing them.

This was my Axminster vantage point:

Exercise 4.5

The balance between text and picture is delicate.  A slight shift of weight from one to the other can cause a disproportionately large change in emphasis.  This is made more noticeable as the text becomes more specific and less obtuse.  The poetic, allusory text seems better able to support and contribute to a photograph without closing down the interpretations available to the viewer.

Here I have chosen snatches of text from the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake.  I made an attempt to read this as a teenager, probably because I thought it would make me mysterious and interesting to girls, a strategy which was distinguished by its profound lack of success.  I’ve gone back to it in later years (the trilogy, not the strategy) and find it increasingly seductive.  Peake was a talented poet and artist as well as the author of these epic novels  – Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone.

His imagery is rich and disturbing but he does make you care about the grotesque characters who populate the work.   Finding pictures to complement the words is difficult because the balance referred to above firmly favours the text; it’s simply too evocative to match.

I did have a stab at it, though, and the results are lower down the page.  Hover over to see the text.  My evaluation follows the photographs, lower down.

 

 

These were taken at Forde Abbey in Somerset, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery. It’s not as moody and threatening as Gormenghast so I had to take some liberties with manipulating the pictures in post.  In an attempt to match the ethereal qualities of the words I made some of the pictures using an inexpensive tilt adaptor between the 50mm lens and the body.  The lens is a favorite – what was the standard 50mm for Olympus analogue cameras turns into a 100mm on a micro four-thirds body and the image circle, originally intended for 35mm film, allows considerable lens movement without vignetting.

Although the results are achieved through true camera movement, they look very much like Photoshop’d imitations, recognised largely as a technique rather than a creative tool.  I have used this on previous work to modify the plane of focus to achieve a different look, which did work quite well but on this occasion I didn’t really like it.

The rocking horse and cobweb picture is a composite.  The cloisters were taken in bright sunlight but manipulated in PS via a colour look-up table to give a moonlight feel.  The wisteria (which looks almost as old as the house) was altered by dodging and burning and the targetted application of green contrast curves.  For me it was a fine line between creative emphasis and dungeons-and-dragons.

I think it works insofar as it fulfills the brief but i think it is much too contrived – not just this particular attempt of mine, but the whole idea of combining text never intended to be augmented with photographs.  The books are mightily powerful on their own.

There’s a project idea here, though;  the characters in the book – Swelter the chef, Steerpike, Fuschia and Lord Groan among numerous others – might make a good portrait series.

 

Assignment 4

A mile or so outside Dorchester in Dorset a controversial housing project has been in progress since 1993, under the aegis of HRH the Prince of Wales, who set out much of his architectural purpose in his book A Vision of Britain (1989). The development is now home to over 3000 people and 120 businesses.

Out-of-town housing estates are nothing new, but with Prince Charles at the helm this build has a visionary mission – to blend as many architectural styles, motifs, embellishments and protuberances as possible in the smallest feasible space, thereby encapsulating the very essence of the English Village in Dorset.  Residents in the adjoining host town, itself no slouch when it comes to historical credentials, largely consider this aim a wild shot, missed by a country mile.

To me it is an astonishing achievement, to have spent twenty-five years in pursuit of a plan, the ineffectiveness of which must have clear as the first chimneypots where appearing – sans fireplaces.  The hope was that by innovative building design a coherent community could be established, one where the traditional values of English country life would flourish. I believe communities generally grow and thrive despite their surrounds rather than because of them, so although there’s no reason why this should not be the case in Poundbury, I wonder whether relations are hampered by the very factors by which HRH sought to achieve them.

The dwellings appear tightly regimented; no brick out of place, no wall or fence dares rise beyond the prescribed height.  Render is uniformly mute, the soberest of Farrow and Ball hues. Georgian sash windows (of 21st century uPVC) are the whitest of white; glass sparkles, letterboxes and hefty door knockers gleam in a superior, brassy fashion.

The very sense of community which was envisioned at the outset is stifled by the precision and orderliness of the place.  I searched in vain for a weed, a discarded crisp packet, a neglected potplant, something to relieve the incessant air of perfection.  No washing hanging out to dry (this is prohibited in the bye-laws, an appropriately feudal restriction), no children’s toys in sight.  Nothing as vulgar as an on-street wheel change or a bonnet-up bit of trivial car maintenance – all forbidden.

The pictures I made for this assignment were taken on a single day.  I knew what I would find at Poundbury, the challenge was to express my feelings about the place in a series of connected photographs.  The text was already swimming around in my head, the result of reading years of news reports, discussions with friends and colleagues along with specifically researched online sources.  I had the basic narrative already and chose to augment it with additional text.

At first I had not intended to include text in the series but whilst wandering round the place I was interrupted by words and phrases I’d encountered previously; I have sourced snippets of text to expand the sentiments I have about Poundbury and its Grand Plan.

I’m not really satisfied with the ‘slideshow’ presentation style but I felt that any attempt to ‘artify’ it would only make things worse. I think it might work better in book form. There’s plenty of scope for the viewer to ‘open up’ their understanding of the venture and I think the words do stimulate connections within the pictures themselves.

Technically things are quite straightforward.  The day was bright, very sunny, so I worked on the RAW files a little to lift shadows and keep detail in the highlights.  I always under-expose by a stop; I know this defies the prevailing wisdom but my choice is purely aesthetic – I get the look I want. Far be it from me to question Olympus Corporation but my light meter is In full agreement with this strategy.

I edited the photographs down to a selection which I felt spoke most eloquently, then mangled them a bit in Photoshop.  Not really – I only spent a couple of hours on the whole lot and that was mainly adjusting perspective for the flat, expressionless look I wanted.

 

 

It goes without saying that this form of sardonic juxtaposition is nothing new.  Victor Burgin was working in this fashion in the 1970’s:

© Victor Burgin

 

Burgin placed his appropriated text right inside his photographs to emphasise the contradictions he observed.  I would think that he already had the text in mind and then, like me, he made the pictures to demonstrate the point.  His are b/w, in keeping with the contemporary social documentary look.  He has chosen a standard font, which doesn’t seem to connect with the more elaborate faces used in the original advertisements which looks a bit like this:

Burgin’s choice suggests authority – it was the face of choice for the broadsheet newspapers of the day (actually I think they were all broadsheet, the tabloids didn’t appear till later in the ’70s).

My intention was to present a somewhat parodic viewpoint, more ridicule than social commentary.

 

References

Slides 2, 4, 6 :         Poundbury – Poundbury. n.d. Available at http://poundbury.org.uk/ [Accessed 11 July 2018]

Slide 8:                Poundbury | the Duchy of Cornwall. n.d. Available at http://duchyofcornwall.org/poundbury.html [Accessed 11 July 2018].

Slides 10, 12, 14:           Covenants & Stipulations – Poundbury Manco 3. n.d. Available at http://www.poundburymanco.co.uk/covenants-stipulat ions/ [Accessed 11 July 2018].

Slide 16:        (PDF) Participatory Community Planning, Urbanist Style: Theory and Practice at Poundbury. 2008. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259972613  [Accessed 11 July 2018].

 

4.3 Storyboard

I did find that it was almost impossible to do a storyboard – actually more of a comic in this case – without having an idea about what was going on in the panels.  Fair play to animators, this stuff takes ages to do, even with the help of Pixton online storyboarding.

These characters are so generic that one could write anything as captions and it would probably stick.  Here, our hero manages to avoid being parted from his (unlikely) pocketbook (going all USA here because it was a diner!) by remembering the days in the month.  I would probably have stayed a bit longer as I am loath to walk out on a nice mug of coffee.