‘Documentary Photography and Environmental Portraiture’ at The Photographers Place

Weekend Workshop at The Photographers’ Place, Wirksworth

13th to 15th April 2012

This Workshop had originally been planned for September last year and I’d booked to fulfil two purposes.  Firstly, I thought it would get me up to Derbyshire to start some work on a personal project I’d had in mind for a while but kept procrastinating on.  Secondly, I thought it would give me some confidence in advance of Assignment 5 of AOP.  Unfortunately, the Workshop was postponed due to low numbers, but I still went to Derbyshire, with some new motivation for my personal project.

The Photographer’s Place was first set up in the 1970s by Dr Paul Hill who was the first professor of photography in a British University .   It isn’t a place so much as a concept because the leaders come together to run the residential Workshops and they are currently Paul Hill, Martin Shakeshaft  and Nick Lockett .

The theme for this particular workshop was on documentary photography and environmental portraiture with Stephen McLaren, street photographer, as guest speaker. Before I left I went through the workbook for ‘People and Place’ and made notes so that I had some of the requirements of the People and Place sections in my head. The Venue was the Glenorchy Centre,  – a self-catering centre managed by the United Reform Church –, which is in the small market town of Wirksworth on the edge of the Peak District National Park.  Wirksworth was a town built around lead mining and is also near to Arkwright’s Mill.  I learned that it has quite a thriving artistic community and also that all the shops are owned independently.

There were around 14 participants most of whom were quite experienced photographers, which was somewhat daunting for me as I reckoned that I was one of the least experienced.  The timetable and my notes are in my paper log, but the shape of the weekend was: –

Friday evening:

Course leaders introduce themselves and show their approaches to making portraits and documentary work. Then each participant would show two or three of their own photographs on a data projector screen.  I was aghast when I saw the size of the screen, which looked huge!  I was immediately worried that my images would look pretty rubbish to be blown up as they were, especially as I’d sized them up as around 8”x6” and one of them, at least, was from a smaller compact camera.   Still, I had to go for it – it wasn’t as if there was a critical atmosphere in the room  (nothing like I’ve read about ‘Masterclasses’ recently). I had taken along a few of my photographs on a memory stick, which I thought were ‘street photography’ style and I showed three of them

     

Some of the others had actually taken in a series of images on a theme, which, really, was much more of what the Workshop was about.  It made me realise just how many of what I consider to be my better photographs (relatively speaking of course) are one-offs rather than part of a series – something that will have to change for ‘People & Place’. I was asked why I’d chosen to process the first photograph in black and white – a good questions because it made me think about it again. It was to do with contrasts and juxtaposition – wealthier looking, man; in a hurry; dressed in a light, smart, outfit as opposed to the lady musician all dressed in black and being virtually ignored.  I said that if I were to take this photograph I would actually have spoken to the lady to make a connection with her and, maybe, find out more about her.

Saturday morning:

I actually got up very early, for me, and went into town at 7am to see it waking up. I took quite a few photographs but won’t post them now. They do give a sense of the town but they are too static I think. On with the rest of the day…

Preparing for the ‘documentary’ project

Martin Shakeshaft talked to us about the history of the picture story – the first photo story being credited as the 1948 photo essay by W. Eugene Smith, for Life Magazine, on the ‘Country Doctor’ Dr. Ernest Ceriani  (brought to my attention by the WeareOCA Blog last August http://www.weareoca.com/photography/country-doctor/).

He then went on to suggest three questions which one could ask oneself before starting out on something – “Why am I doing this? What interests me? How will it be used?” I think these are very important questions, which is why I’m putting them in bold. The questions will help me to examine my interest more closely.  For example, I constantly take photographs on our local Common but I hadn’t worked out what exactly it is that attracts me. It’s having access to this countrified space, encircled by busy main roads, on the edge of town.  I can walk across the road and immediately be amongst greenery and trees in an area that has been used in similar ways for generations. It gives me a sense of my own place in time and a connection with what has gone before. Additionally there are the people who use the Common and how we all have different lifestyles and yet we come together there.

Martin then covered aspects such as how many pictures will be needed and key elements like the establishing shot; the pace of the narrative and different perspectives (focal length; aspect etc) so as to avoid visual boredom.  He exampled these through showing us W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay, ‘Man of Mercy’ on Albert Schweitzer, Life Magazine, 1954.

There are many different types of picture story, such as sequential narratives; diptychs; triptychs; poetic/abstract/mood pieces; the use of a rostrum camera to move the camera across an image; still image with sound, and digital story-telling (short films usually less than 8 minutes).  Here are 7 elements to consider as well: –

  • Point of view/purpose
  • Dramatic question
  • Emotional content
  • ‘Your’ voice
  • The power of soundtrack to support and embellish (or the opposite of course!)
  • Economy/Just enough content
  • Rhythm/flow

Some good resources are: –

BBC Wales Digital Story Telling Project

Magnum in Motion

MediaStorm:

Photobus:

‘Documentary’ Project

We were given a brief to produce a three-picture story, making sure that we obtained an establishing shot. The opportunities were to visit the old railway station where a lot of renovation work is being done on old engines; a Spring Fair being held at the Derbyshire Eco Centre; to walk around in town; photo opportunities around the town, or a nearby quarry which has been reclaimed for the community. I chose to go to the railway station and then the Fair.

a)    The railway station

Due to health and safety concerns we had to wear a reflective jacket and we also had a brief safety talk from the health and safety officer. Then we were set loose onto the volunteer workers who were working a little further down. One of our group, Chris   immediately got talking to them and, really, he laid the ground for us – so thanks very much indeed Chris. The volunteers were so friendly and eager to talk about what they were doing and it didn’t take long before they were calling us over, and closer, to look at what they were working on.  I started to feel much more confident about talking to people whilst getting close to take photographs. I’ll discuss some of the photographs below. We spent so long there that we actually missed the next train to the Eco Centre and had to walk there. It was cold, threatening rain and very hilly!

b)   The Fair

The Fair was very popular, despite the poor weather, and had lots of interesting demonstrations, exhibits; course information and eco-inspiration.  I felt a little more inhibited because there were more people around but still felt able to walk around taking photographs, especially as there were so many other people doing the same thing.

It was well into the afternoon by then and we had to be back at the Glenorchy Centre to download our images and begin to edit them, before the talk by Stephen McLaren.

Processing our ‘documentary’ pictures

We gathered in small groups with the course leaders, although some people had brought their own laptops so worked alone. Myself and another participant worked with Martin Shakeshaft. I had already looked through mine and chosen three but Martin said, “let’s look through all of them and flag likely ones”.  It was interesting to sit there and see how his finger hovered over the track pad on some of them, either hinting he wasn’t sure, or stopping at some I hadn’t thought were good enough. I’m only going to show a few here because I want to concentrate on learning points and will be using some later towards the exercises in People & Place.

Wrong

     

If you feature someone’s eye-line then the viewer need to be able to follow it to see what that person is looking at. If you focus on something in their hands you need to get in closer to see what it is.

Better

    

I think this one is okay

I tried to make this one grittier – seemed more in keeping with his character somehow – and I desaturated the colour slightly to add to this.

 

The overall feedback from Martin was that I can ‘see’ the image but I need to get in closer.  That was advice already given by my tutor for AOP after she had seen my initial images from the Illustration & Narrative exercises.  Honestly, I do go in much closer now and I don’t take so many photographs of the back of people.  How close do I need to be without shoving my camera right into people’s faces – which is something I don’t want to do? That’s the challenge for me. My AOP tutor and now Martin, suggested using a prime lens around 28mm (full sensor size). Martin also suggested, alternatively, to stick my zoom lens by using tape so I couldn’t zoom. This is all obviously a whole new learning area for me.

The Fair

There was a lovely lady there, Anne Menary who had created some quirky cards, which I really liked. She had some books there, which I thought where for sale but, sadly for me, were not.  These are her working tools and Anne had created them by using old book covers and then inserting her working sketches and materials.  We had quite a long chat and she also said that, every time she goes on holiday she creates this type of book inserting various souvenirs etc.  Of course, they all reminded me of the wonderful sketch and logbooks I’ve seen both at the Farnham UCA end of year show and on WeareOCA, which make me feel so uncreative as well.  I bought some of the cards Ann has produced (although I’ll probably keep them) and, using my new- found confidence, I asked her if she would pose for me:

Here she is and you can just about see the books in front of her. Anne does lessons at the Centre and, if I lived in Wirksworth, I would certainly go on one of them.

My final photograph here is one that I thought could make an establishing shot for the Fair

I was in two minds about it because I also took more general shots of the fair but this one appealed to me – as if the lady was having a conversation about what to look at next.

Stephen McLaren, Street Photographer

Stephen co-edited Street Photography Now (2010),  which presents 46 contemporary street photographers, together with four essays and a ‘global’ conversation between leading street photographers which explores issues within the genre.  By sheer chance my husband had bought me the book for Christmas, before I even knew that Stephen would be guest speaker on the Workshop. It is full of vibrant, candid shots which exemplify street photography as it is now.

Only one of Stephen’s own photographs appears in the book (the first page) and he told us that this was by chance as it fitted what was needed. this was by chance. It features the back of a young woman who is walking along with chestnut-brown, glossy hair flying around her.  Stephen‘s talk was informal in the sense that he showed/talked about some of his personal, favourite photographs and showed us how he had been putting images together to produce books.  As you can see from his website, his images are colourful and quite striking and you can see how closely he gets to people. We didn’t get to the discussion I would have liked to have had regarding the ethics of street photography, e.g. taking photographs of people who don’t want you to do so and taking photographs of people who are injured  (see ‘Coupling’ on his website).

Sunday

This was a more low-key day which I needed really because the previous day had been intense and tiring.  I went off outside with a small group and Nick Lockett  showed us various ways of using remotely-fired flash in natural light. One interesting effect was gained by setting tungsten light in WB, whilst putting an orange/warm gel on the flash.  This gives a vivid blue sky whilst warming the subject’s face.

Once back inside, Martin Shakeshaft talked to us about Blurb books; ebooks and more aspects of digital story-telling using sound.

Conclusion

It’s a shame that the Workshop couldn’t have been held last year because I can say quite definitely that it would have been a wonderful lead-in to Assignment 5, Art of Photography . As it was, it was a very useful refreshment/reinforcement of what I learned in Art of Photography and a good lead-in to People and Place.  I gained more confidence in asking people if I could take their photograph and  took a lot of photographs which will be appearing in my new People and Place Blog. I also made a link with Mo,  another OCA student who is currently studying People and Place and it was good to share notes with her.

I’ve looked at the resources given by Martin Shakeshaft. They are all excellent and I particularly like Photobus, (which is clear, user-friendly, informative and with lots of free content) and the Digital Story Telling Project.

References

Howarth, S & McLaren, S (Ed),  Street Photography Now (2010), Thames & Hudson , London

Anne Menary: http://www.annemenary.com/

BBC Wales Digital Story Telling Project: http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/arts/yourvideo/queries/capturewales.shtml

Magnum in Motion: http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays

MediaStorm: http://mediastorm.com/

Photobus: http://www.photobus.co.uk/

 

30th April 2012

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6 Comments on “‘Documentary Photography and Environmental Portraiture’ at The Photographers Place”

  1. guylejeune says:

    Sounds like a great weekend, love the railway shots

  2. John Umney says:

    It sounds like a very worthwhile weekend. The gain by being with like-minded people in a learning environment comes through very strongly and, from what you record here, the experience will be very beneficial to P&P. Good to get a link to Mo’s blog as well, more interesting reading from a fellow traveller!
    Now, get that 28mm lens out and get in close..

    • Catherine says:

      I felt exhausted at the time but now I’m slowly beginning to realise how much I’ve absorbed. I keep prevaricating about the lens – my husband keeps tantalising me with his Ricoh GXR that has a leica mount!

  3. Miriam says:

    That sounds really interesting and useful plus you for a lot out of it.


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