Archive for February, 2008

Ryan McGinley’s Oscars Portfolio

Friday, February 15th, 2008

The names Casey Affleck, Josh Brolin, Michael Cera, Julie Christie, Marion Cotillard, Paul Dano, Hal Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leith, James McAvoy, Sienna Miller, Ellen Page, Seth Rogen, Amy Ryan, Jim Sturgess and Tang Wei probably include at least some familar to you. One thing they do have in common is that I’ve not photographed any of them!

They were however all photographed for the New York Times 2008 Oscars ‘Breakthrough Portfolio’ by Ryan McGinley. Despite being a photographer who became famous for his free and easy natural-looking images of his young New York friends, the shoots for these images had a full complement of assistant, stylist and various others responsible for hair, grooming and items of clothing.

On the page there is a video in which Editor Lynn Hirschberg talks about the film performances but not about the photographs as the pictures are shown, which I found just a little odd. I tried hard to see any link between what she was saying about the actor or character and the images but failed. I’m not a great film-goer, and the only film involved I’ve seen is La Vie on Rose, (billed at our local cinema as a Spanish Language film,) and although I like McGinley’s photo of Marion Cotillard, I can’t see any link between it and her performance in the film – or indeed Edith Piaf. Hirscherg suggests she needs to lose her charming French accent, but it would really be a great loss. Perhaps Americans should learn to accept that not everyone mangles the English language their way?

You can also see a short film on the page made by McGinley during the sessions in which he shot the portraits, sometimes with suggestions of rather more interesting ideas than some that emerged in the final portfolio. Another short movie by Jake Paltrow has the stars talking to camera about the actors that inspired them, perhaps looking more like themselves, though of course every time they face a camera it’s a performance.

Anonymous Protest

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Fair game‘ isn’t fair, or a game, and it isn’t either legal or moral. Wikipedia describes it as “various aggressive policies and practices carried out by the Church of Scientology towards people and groups it perceives as its enemies.” So if you plan to protest against them, it is probably a good idea to hide your identity.

Last month, part of a Scientology video featuring Tom Cruise was posted onto YouTube, and the Church of Scientology (C0oS) successfully demanded its removal, although it and other material about them has since been reposted. The unauthorised biography of Cruise by Andrew Morton has also stirred up controversy, with its allegations – repeated on YouTube – that Cruise is ‘Number 2’ in the organisation. There are also YouTube videos which allege that the CoS had pressurised some Australian booksellers not to stock the book. CoS is also alleged to have forced YouTube to remove some other material that describes its doctrines and practices.

The Internet movement ‘Anonymous‘ emerged  to oppose these CoS activities in mid January,  aiming to remain anonymous to avoid retailiation under the ‘fair game’ policy. In a couple of weeks it managed to set up an international day of action with demonstrations in 50 cities in 14 countries against the CoS, including two in London.

Demonstrators work masks, many choosing the mask used in the film ‘V for Vendetta’, with some also togged up in the matching wig, hat and the rest. The ‘Anonymous’ YouTube videos also had some resemblance to the Warner Bros product, and I’m sure that at one point I heard “People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.

Pictures from both London demos

Stream of Consciousness

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

One of the more frustrating things for a writer is the problem of getting your thoughts down on paper. Particularly because most ideas seem to come when you are least prepared to record them. Sometimes when I do jump out of bed in the middle of the night, after answering nature’s call I feel a need to grab a sheet of paper and a pencil and put down some of the thoughts that have been running through my head. The previous post, Captioning Dreams, came from just six words scribbled in this way – and fortunately for once I could read my writing.

Often things come to me when lying in bed, trying to get to sleep, and in my mind arrange themselves with a precision and clarity that just isn’t there when I wake and try to put them on paper. When I was working as a teacher, all my best ideas and plans for lessons came as I was cycling to college, often about the lesson I was to deliver on my arrival – but try telling that to OFSTED! (Of course their paper world only briefly intersects with real life on those rare occasions when the inspector sits in your class.)

For photographers like me, whose photography is to some extent a record of their lives and experiences (rather than those who construct things to photograph) the ideal camera would record our mental images – what we see inside our heads – rather than what a lens images on some light sensitive medium. Perhaps some kind of head-set that taps into our brain waves and from them reconstructs the image so it can be saved in a digital format.

At the moment, this is just a thought experiment, without any technological means to implement it, though perhaps one day it will enter the realm of the feasible, though in some ways I rather hope not, as it is all too easy to imagine the possibilities for surveillance and control that such technology could provide. But it does perhaps represent the ultimate goal of many photographers, a kind of seamless transfer of a situation that they perceive as significant into a photographic record.

When thinking about street photography and how to improve our work, we think about equipment that is responsive and becomes intuitive, and about ways that we can remove the barrier to recognising and recording. I imagine we all start by beginning to see the photographic opportunities we have missed because we were too slow to see and react to them.

There are of course specific cameras and techniques that aid us. The Leica and similar cameras were small, simple and enabled you to feel that they became a part of you. One of the pieces of advice given by Henri Cartier-Bresson was that the photographer should become so familiar with the camera that the settings for taking a picture could be made by touch alone. On a Leica you can certainly set both aperture and distance in this way, although shutter speed is trickier – but then most of us probably changed it rather less often. On my M8 it’s actually taped on auto, but simply because I got fed up with it getting knocked onto inappropriate settings.

Working with a fixed focal length also simplified matters. You soon got to know more or less exactly where the frame edges would fall, or where you needed to stand to get the picture you wanted for your favourite 28 or 35mm or 50mm lens. Looking through the viewfinder was largely a matter of a quick check that you were pointing the lens in exactly the right direction, and something that could, if necessary, be dispensed with.

Using wide angle lenses also helps, increasing the depth of field for a given aperture and distance. Most of us relied on setting a zone of focus and always shooting from roughly the same distance – in my case usually centred on 1.8 metres.

Such techniques reduced taking a photograph to the essentials of identifying the opportunity and pressing the shutter release at the right time. The simple mechanism also meant there was little or no delay between the press and the taking of the picture.

What remained was our reaction time, the time for us to process the input and then decide to press. Working on that is tricky, and sometimes it brings up things that we might not always want to acknowledge. To be a street photographer you have to be on the street with your finger on a knife-edge, ready to react at any stimulus – and your negatives tell you what stimulates you. I found that I shared much of the same obsession that Gary Winogrand, the acknowledged master of the art, made deliberately manifest in his controversial ‘Women are Beautiful

[Don’t miss the two Winogrand links above – the first is a great description of a workshop with him, which really does give an insight into his working methods. The second has a few pictures from the book.]

Digital photography has supplied us with an equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s endless roll of paper compared to the very limited and discrete nature of film, but perhaps Virginia Woolf offers a better model for the photographer?


[This, although perhaps not obviously so, is the second in a few pieces I promised to write about ‘candid photography’ in Candid on Candids. More later I hope.]

Captioning Dreams

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

One of the consequences of age (along with diabetes, exacerbated by too many mugs of coffee staring at the computer screen) is that most nights I wake up around 4.30 am (yes, Alex*, AM does mean in the morning.) Fortunately after a short visit to the bathroom I normally fall quickly back to sleep. But this morning, I had a little shock as I woke, struggling as often out of a dream. I realised that my dream had been a kind of dream about a dream, in which I had been captioning each of its images for my pages at Alamy.

As contributors to Alamy will already know, each image submitted needs extensive key-wording, caption and description information, and it is a time-consuming process to add these, made more tedious as the system doesn’t match up well with the more standard IPTC meta-data. Yesterday I spent around 6 hours working on a batch of images submitted last month, so it’s hardly surprising that it was still at the top of my sleeping mind.

I’m not sure that my images will in any case sell from Alamy, as probably they are the wrong kind of subject matter for its customers, and those wanting my work are more likely to look elsewhere – perhaps in specialist libraries such as Photofusion, where I also have work. Or better still; come directly to me having found what they want in the 25,000 or so images on My London Diary. I do get plenty of requests to use images from there, but too few from anyone who can afford to pay.

The simplest approach to keywording would be to make use of a controlled vocabulary, and there are hierarchical lists available for import into applications such as Adobe Lightroom, for example, the Controlled Vocabulary Keyword Catalog or CVKC. I’m not sure that their listing would be particularly appropriate to my rather limited field of work, and until the libraries I work with adopt it, I don’t think it makes much sense for me to pay the modest dollar cost but much more significant time input to make use of it. However the site does have one of the best pages of advice on captioning images I’ve come across, of course starting from the basic “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?” but with some other very useful tips.

But, as my dream showed, things can take over our lives. I’ve met many people who have said to me that they never take photographs, as they feel it makes them into observers and they would rather take a full part in what they are doing. It’s a view I have some sympathy with, but then there are plenty of events I’d rather observe than take part in.

But there are other occasions where photography is an important part of how I take part in things. It’s also important to me in preserving my own memory and sense of what happened. In the 1960s I threw myself into various things, and was too busy to take photographs. Now I find that it’s true that if you remember what happened you weren’t really there – largely because these were exciting times and too much was happening rather than substance abuse. All I have are occasional glimpses – being in a dressing room with the great master of the tenor sax, Ben Webster, came back to me a few weeks back (my job was to get him on stage able to stand, largely accomplished by drinking my share of the whisky he would otherwise have got through on his own. If he could stand he could play. And did, beautifully. I’ve never really liked whisky since.)

It wasn’t that I didn’t have an interest in photography. But in those years you either had to be extremely rich or devote hours of your time to the darkroom to be a photographer. I was penniless and already trying to fit more than 24 hours into every day. It didn’t help that my camera was still suffering from a rusty shutter after being dropped in the lake at Versailles, making speeds above an eighth of a second problematic and those below default to B. All in all I have little photographic record of those times to jog memory, one of my great regrets.

*Alex ten Napel, a fine Dutch photographer I met in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, left checking his travel arrangements home rather late. In the car when we were going to dinner to celebrate the end of the event, late on the night before we all left, he asked me “does AM mean morning?” And found he was booked to leave in a few hours on the 4.30am train. His portraits of swimmers, taken standing with them in the pool, were one of several highlights for me of the Foto Art Festival there.

Ash Wednesday

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Ash Wednesday is of course a much more serious day, the start of Lent, and a time for sack-cloth and ashes, which I did get to photograph, although my photographic day started with a couple of hundred people opposite Downing Street as a reception committee for ‘war criminal’ Condoleezza Rice. Unfortunately she came in to visit Gordon Brown by the back door and so missed our welcome – and a much-needed Geography lesson from the Friends of Lebanon:

The Middle East

I felt sorry for the guys inside the stockade opposite the famous door, cooped up for hours with nothing to photograph, perhaps because it was too noisy for Condi to emerge in case her delicate ears might hear the shouted advice from the road opposite. It really was much more fun outside, and the picture opportunities were also much better. I’m sure this would have made a better picture for the paper than another boring shot of a politician:

By 3pm we had all had enough and went away – but they were still waiting and hoping. I hope they did finally get to take something, although a quick look through the papers the next day certainly failed to find anything of interest.
More pictures.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence was getting more and more barriers and a policeman every few metres around its periphery, as if a huge and violent demonstration was imminent. Others were gathering across the road.

I walked past them and into Embankment Gardens, where a small circle of around 50 people was holding an Ash Wednesday service. This was the combined forces of Pax Christi, along with Catholic Peace Action and Christian CND. One man held a simple wooden cross on which were small photographs, I think of modern Christian martyrs, another a megaphone. The only other weapons – and ones that had seemingly struck fear into the hearts of the Metropolitan Police were ash and charcoal (and later I was also to see a hammer, some nails and sack-cloth.)

This was a Lenten Witness for Peace, an Ash Wednesday Liturgy of Repentence and Resistance to Nuclear War. The vast police presence was because a small number of those taking part were prepared for an act of civil disobedience, writing on the walls of buildings using charcoal. In fact all of those taking part were almost certainly in breach of the SOCPA legislation as the organisers “have never sought permission from the police to engage in the act of prayer and resistance which has taken place here every year since 1982.”

The ashes and charcoal were blessed with holy water and then those present took part in an act of penitence, symbolised by the marking of each of them with a cross of ashes on the forehead. After some further prayers there was a procession to ‘Station 1′, the pavement outside the Old War Office, where the service continued.

This was fittingly a situation begging for a ‘Hail Mary‘ shot, holding my camera above my head at the fullest height I could get, cursing Nikon for their cheapskate omission of a viewfinder curtain from the D200 (actually they give you a small rectangle of black plastic which you lose in ten seconds and isn’t exactly convenient) which means you have to hold one thumb over the viewfinder to get correct exposure while doing so. They did build one into the D2X, but over a thousand pounds and a large weight penalty is a lot to pay for this fairly essential but cheap for Nikon to implement feature. My first attempt (above) was possibly the best.

As this section of the event ended, one of those taking part pulled me to one side to tell me to watch out for people trying to write on the building, and so distracted me from actually taking a photograph of it happening (and I’d already changed lenses and added the flash for that very eventuality.) Of course he meant well, and I was able to photograph the police holding the guy and the unfinished message. Later I saw a woman writing on another wall, and ran, but was too far away to get to her before a policeman had stopped her and was telling her off.

A fisheye used in ‘Hail Mary’ mode to give an overall view. More curses on Nikon.

Outside the Ministry of Defence itself, a large sheet of sackcloth was used to cover the pavement and the cross laid on it. A set of theses for the modern church was read and each of them nailed to the cross while the congregation continuously repeated their chant of a short ‘Litany of the Martyrs.’

Unfortunately I think my curses must have upset Nikon, because halfway through the event my D200 stopped working. I think it had crashed, always a possibility with computers (and modern cameras are computers.) I tried the standard treatment of removing the battery for a few second, and it came back to life, though just to make sure I also changed the battery as it was below 30% left.

Somehow in doing all this, the camera went from the RAW setting I always used and on to basic quality JPEG, and I didn’t notice until I got home, and got rather a nasty surprise on viewing my work. Using my normal LightRoom import settings on jpegs always gives very contrasty poor quality images (they work best using the Linear . Once I had realised the problem I was able to get surprisingly decent results, but the lighting had been extremely tricky and I really missed the flexibility of RAW.

More pictures on My London Diary.

Shrove Tuesday: Three Races

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

I don’t think I’ve previously photographed four baronesses in the same picture, but the problem with the Pancake Race at the Houses of Parliament was that visually it wasn’t very exciting. So though a caption like “Lord Morris of Manchester, Lord and Lady Dholakia, Baroness Northover, Anne Begg MP, Baroness Garden of Frognal, Baroness Walnesley, Lord Addington” may be great for name-dropping (and would have presented a horrible problem if they hadn’t all been wearing numbers), I can assure you the caption is better than the picture. Despite all these high-powered contestants, I’m pleased to report that it was the media team that won the day.

Over from Westminster to the City of London, and visually things were getting better:

Although I couldn’t quite get this how I wanted it, there is certainly a touch of the surreal, and the Lord Mayor, Chief Commoner and various guilds were having a bit of fairly quiet fun, though the miniature cannon used to start the races was surprisingly loud. This historic event is now in its fifth year and is the Poulters’ Company Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race; they supply the eggs, while the Fruiterers bring lemons, the clockmakers time things, and the glovers supply gloves, though I don’t think anyone wore them. The gun was of course from the Gunmakers, and my only disappointment was that the forks provided by the Cutlers to eat the pancakes were only plastic. In the City I expect silver.

Tossing is easier when you can simply make the pancake levitate with your superpower

I was also worried about where or who the flour and milk for the pancakes might have come from. But further down the road and the social scale in Spitalfields things were clearer, with one of the 15 or so teams of four competing for the prize in the ‘Great Spitalfields Pancake Race’ consisting of four young women clearly labelled flour, milk, egg and lemon. This event is organised by Alternative Arts and the teams taking part seem to be students and young professionals from the many small businesses in the area. Despite one team boasting superpowers in the persons of Superwoman and Batwoman, it was a team from one of these with the sinister name of Execution that won the day.

All this and more of course on My London Diary.

Candid on Candids?

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Bus, Peckham 1991 (C) Peter Marshall
Bus in Peckham, 1991 (C) Peter Marshall

A day or two ago someone asked on an on-line photography forum if anyone knew of a book on the subject of candid photography they could recommend, mentioning one publication they had already been given as a present. (I haven’t read it, but what looks to me a rather posed portrait on the cover didn’t inspire confidence.

My immediate response was to wonder what there was to write a book about, which perhaps wasn’t the most helpful of comments, although perhaps appropriate. On further thought what I would recommend is Ralph Hattersley’s ‘Beginner’s Guide to Photographing People‘, published in 1975, though it came out in the UK, published by Robert Hale Ltd, in 1979. (ISBN 0709174039)

It’s a work that I admire for starting with a discussion of the ethical basis of portraiture, and with a listing of some of the wrong and the right reasons for taking pictures of people, in a chapter on taking candid portraits. Later in the book there are chapters on how to make staged candid pictures and how to photograph strangers in the street – and that also starts with an examination of your motives.

Hattersley also does a pretty thorough job of the technical stuff, including lighting. Of course its a book written for photographers using film, but really digital hasn’t changed things that much, although some cameras at least provide new opportunities for shooting with the camera away from your eye.

The very term ‘candid photography’ has a dated feel to it. I immediately think of the 1930s ‘Mass Observation’ project and the splendid images of Humphrey Spender on the streets and in the pubs of ‘Worktown.’ If you have any doubts about the validity of working in this way, take a look at the way the Bolton Museums now give the work a proud place on their web site. As they write, “He used what was at the time cutting-edge technology in the form of an unobtrusive 35mm Leica camera.” In some respects the early screw Leica that he used was a better instrument than the later M cameras for this kind of work – where you don’t change lenses. It was smaller and less obtrusive, and I think the shutter was perhaps even quieter. Certainly much quieter than that on the latest digital Leica M8, and even the promised (and expensive) replacement will still be rather more noticeable.

Bolton’s weather also helped Spender, since he spent most of his time there wearing a mackintosh, keeping the camera hidden under this except when he was actually taking a picture. As they note, “He recalled that the occasional Boltonian would react angrily if they discovered him taking a photograph.” There was a feeling of being spied on – rather more rational then than under the Panopticon of security cameras that now track us through much of our lives. Spender himself they suggest “disliked the intrusiveness of his work” and the stress of documentary was one reason why he turned away from photography to painting and stage design.

I think photographers always have a responsibility to their subject, and especially so when you photograph people without their permission. I often take pictures I would not use, perhaps because I’ve caught a moment when they look distinctly peculiar (something some other photographers sometimes seem to strive for.) Or when photographing a flamenco dancer recently, the picture that caught the fleeting fraction of a second where her rapidly swirling skirt revealed rather more than intended. I perhaps see it as my job to try and see the picture as the people in in might see it years later in a book or museum rather than an immediate reaction.

One of the great projects of candid photography was made by Walker Evans, travelling on the New York City subway trains, often accompanied by his assistant Helen Levitt. Starting in 1938 he photographed using a Leica hidden under his coat, its lens poking out, making around 600 photographs. He had conceived the project with the help of his collaborator, writer James Agee – they were working together on the even more famous ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men‘, published in 1941 – and Agee in 1940 wrote a preface to the subway work. Although the pictures were finished in 1941, it was not until twenty-five years later in 1966 that ‘Many Are Called’ was published to accompany a show of the images from it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

While at the time the pictures might have been seen as an intrusion into privacy, the passing of time gives us – and any of the subjects – a different perspective. The work was published again in 2004 by the Yale University Press and the Metropolitan Museum of Art mark the 100th anniversary of the subway system, with new texts and also greatly improved reproduction of the images, thanks to new digital scans.

I was reminded only briefly of this work on Saturday, as I crammed into an underground carriage full of Kiwis out with a few thousand others for their Waitangi Day Circle Line Pub Crawl. This image, taken with a 12mm lens on a Nikon D200 may in some respects qualify as candid, but was certainly not made without the knowledge and willing consent of those shown.

New Zealanders celebrate Waitangi Day on the Circle Line Pub Crawl
(C) Peter Marshall, 2008

More pictures as usual on My London Diary. More about candid photography in other posts shortly – including Stream of Consciousness.

What makes a good portrait?

Friday, February 8th, 2008

I often find Jörg Colberg‘s Conscientious blog (see sidebar) annoying, too often clogged up with short and undiscriminating links to photographers, but among these are some interesting pieces that make me continue to check it out.

One of these is What makes a great portrait, where he and Miguel Garcia-Guzman of Exposure Compensation, another blog I’d add to my Sage feed if I could work out how, wrote to zillions of photographers, fine art and commercial, bloggers, curators, editors, and gallerists and asked them the question “What makes a good portrait?”, asking them to provide an example and their comments.

They both print the 20 or so replies that they got – which do include a few great portraits, notably by Ingres and Sander, along with a few others that are frankly dross and some between those extremes. One of the pictures is that beautiful image of a young woman, Edouard Boubat’s muse Lella, taken in Brittany in 1947. This can be seen with some of his other images of her on the Sexuality in the Arts blog. It is certainly the best image of the set, but I’m not sure it is the best portrait of her.

Tim Hetherington wins World Press Photo Prize

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Congratulations to UK photographer Tim Hetherington, whose colour image of an American soldier resting in a bunker in Afghanistan has won the 2007 World Press Photo Prize. It is a picture that captures, as jury chair Gary Knight of VII notes “”the exhaustion of a man – and the exhaustion of a nation.”

On his web site, he says “I’m currently in New York recuperating after an accident in Afghanistan.” He was in the country on assignment for ‘Vanity Fair‘, where there is also a slide show of 15 of his portraits of soldiers and another of 15 images from the Korengal Valley – the winning image is the final picture of this. There is also a video discussion between Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, the writer of the feature.

You can also see it and all the other winners on the World Press Photo 2008 pages, which will be occupying me for some time.

PGDB Shortlist: John Davies

Friday, February 8th, 2008

John Davies is a photographer who I’ve long admired and the only one of the four I know personally. I’ve written and talked about his work (I’d also written about the work of Holdt before the nomination for the prize) including an extended review of the superb large-format book of the show ‘The British Landscape‘ (2006) which was nominated for the prize.

John is included in the Urban Landscape web site which I run with Mike Seaborne, but you can see more of his work on his own site.

His work is the best presented of the four short-listed photographers, filling the gallery at No 5 (with the coffee bar) with large, well printed black and white silver gelatin prints.

John’s landscapes are panoramic not in format, but in the sense that he likes to work from a high viewpoint with a relatively wide angle of view. Simply in terms of technique, his work stands out compared to the competition, but of course that isn’t it’s main strength. What strikes me on viewing these prints is their sheer lucidity both physically and conceptually.

The prints on show are a cross-section of his black and white work from 25 years in the book – and in the larger show. The book was my choice for the photo book of the year when it came out and the even larger prints here are just slightly more impressive. I do just wonder if they are a little too large on the wall, with the grain beginning to become intrusive in some areas. But they are certainly very well printed.

I’ve long considered John to be the leading contemporary exponent of urban landscape photography (though I also love the work of others including Gabriele Basilico.) On show here are some of his classic images, although I think I am currently even more interested in his colour work, and would feel that that is now making a greater “contribution to photography” than his older black and white work. Perhaps the weakest element of John’s work are his captions which sometimes seem to me to be too prosaic and concerned with the place rather than the precise location of the picture or its content.

One curious aspect of his work in the catalogue is the warm tone of the illustrations, brown rather than the much more neutral tone of his images. I don’t think this – or the small scale does them justice.