Assignment 1 – Five Unknowns

Edit:  Scroll down for the revised submission!

For my first assignment in this module I have included images made during a weekend workshop at the National Portrait Gallery.  I am aware that there may be objections to this approach, perhaps along the lines of it not being true ‘OCA’ work and that the subjects were not unknown or from my local area.

However I think it’s a valid submission.  Students are urged to make no distinction between ‘personal’ work and ‘OCA’ work, that they should be one and the same thing.  Central London is a local area to me along with East Devon as I have well established connections in both.  The sitters are indeed strangers and our interactions were just as tentative as any between the newly-met.

A Workshop with Rory Lewis

Rory was the workshop leader over the weekend.  He is fascinated by the paintings of Caravaggio and those other artists who make extensive use of chiaroscuro technique.  We made a number of forays into the gallery itself, studying the lighting effects produced by various painters and selecting elements thereof as inspiration for our own work.

All of the pictures were made with flash lighting and reflectors, mainly shoot-through umbrellas or softboxes.  The boxes were quite small, about 60cm but very close to the subjects, maybe a metre away.



After making the entry above I decided to stick to the brief a bit more closely by accosting some random people on the promenade and taking their picture.

I think one of the purposes of this assignment is to propel the student into the scary world of portraying people who are unfamiliar.  This has some resonance with me – for much of my early life I was terrified of this kind of encounter and probably walked away from as many opportunities as I embraced.  But advancing years have had a mellowing effect and I am no longer concerned that someone may declare “What, you? Photographer? Ha, you’re rubbish, you are!”.  I have also come to understand that this response is very unlikely to occur;  most people are quite pleased to be asked, others are slightly baffled but compliant and the few who refuse most likely have deep dark secrets they wish to conceal.

I have a little ready-made spiel I use when approaching people together with a gracious response should they decline to be photographed.  Explaining I’m a student is a help, presumably since all kinds of bizarre behavior is expected and generally tolerated.  Taking the photograph seems to take less than a minute but the chatting and reminiscing which follows can extend the exchange well into a quarter-hour.

All these people are dog-walkers, or rather people who are taking a dog or two for a walk.  I did the pictures in a couple of sessions over two days, using a rather ugly shelter as a pop-up studio.  I have used it once before for a previous exercise and I consider it my own.  The sun glares directly in as the shelter faces south and the white paint is quite reflective.  I wanted to get a little more modelling in the pictures because with that amount of face-on light the results are a bit flat.  I used a speedlight with a grid to camera right, 45° vertical and the same horizontal.  The exposure is about 50:50 ambient and flash.

Both dogs and owners were very well behaved and responded willingly to direction.  People love talking about their dogs and it was easy to establish some minor rapport.  The dogs who were on their way to the beach were slightly less patient than those coming back!



Assessment Criteria

• Demonstration of technical and visual skills (40%) – materials, techniques, observational
skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.

Technically these photographs are competent.  Exposure is as intended and no adjustment to the RAW files was required.  They have not been sharpened, squashed, intensified or had the tonal values twisted. They have been cropped to a 1:1 format, a compositional decision made on the basis of personal preference and to establish as far as possible a cohesive shape to the contents of the frame.

• Quality of outcome (20%) – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a
coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

This idea has been done plenty of times before – but not by me.  I think it’s a pleasing group of pictures but if I were to do more I think I’d have all the dogs as close to owner eye-level as possible.  This aspect emerged on its own – I think it would work better because it’s meant to be about the connection between the dog and owner, not about them and me.  Except it unavoidably is, of course.  There is plenty of room for development here should I choose to make more of it.  Dogs appear in many historical portraits in various guises and as both sign and symbol.  In earlier times it was only the wealthy who could afford to keep (feed) a dog so the presence of a pet dog indicated a well heeled sitter.  The dog was a symbol of fidelity and only the nobility were permitted to keep hunting dogs.  I like the idea of riffing on the 19th century portrait-with-dog in a modern sense, perhaps using the kinds of backgrounds and props the artists employed.

• Demonstration of creativity (20%) – imagination, experimentation, invention,
development of a personal voice.

As mentioned it’s not original but it is creative – I did it the way I wanted and in my terms.  The ‘personal voice’ aspect is certainly present, but it’s an echo.  I have wrestled with the PV before and concluded that if can hear it, that’s what counts.  Here it is mumbling slightly but to me it’s recognisable.

• Context (20%) – reflection, research, critical thinking (including learning logs). 

My portrait research and learning has been aided by attending the aforementioned NPG course; for reflection, see above.