Preparation for Assignment 1

The FiP work book asked us to look at the work of two photographers: Dan Holdsworth and Tom Hunter. My initial reaction to both of them was a little guarded. It was easy to appreciate the technical merit in both and I could see how they used their work to reflect an impression of a given place. However, neither grabbed my attention – I simply didn’t warm to their work. That said these were my initial impressions but they were, in part, due to change later.

Below are some notes I made in my ‘sketch book’ having looked at the works of the two photographers.

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Thinking About Assignment 1

I have been giving a lot of thought and attention to the subject matter for my first assignment – Square Mile. I understand the brief but forming a rationale for my approach has been a little tricky. The subject of my Square Mile is going to be the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ reserve at Minsmere. This place is very much a flagship for the RSPB and rightly so for it has a varied range of habitats in a small area and thus had a fantastic variety of wildlife. As a keen birdwatcher living close to Minsmere I spend, and have spent, a huge amount of time here. The relationship I have to it fits the Square Mile brief perfectly.

The difficulty I’ve had is due to the ambivalent relationship I have to the place and thus also to the RSPB. Minsmere is a very popular destination for a lot of people and families. This has increased considerably over the last three years due to the BBC hosting its Springwatch series from the reserve. But my interest in birds and wildlife is not always served when there are lots of people around. Being outdoors and watching birds for me at least does have a restorative effect. A sense of solitude and engagement with the natural world is a balm that soothes the stresses and strains that ever day work and life inflicts. When Minsmere is at its busiest it feels like a high street or shopping mall and not a place to experience the restorative effect of nature.

But I don’t want to produce a range of photographs that emphasise this sometimes negative aspect. The reason why so many people visit is because it is a wonderful place rich in wildlife, which is the reason I like to visit too. It would be cynical, parochial, and hypocritical to criticise the ‘bloody tourists’ when that’s exactly what I am! I don’t want to be seen as grumpy old man, though I may have my moments, I have a richer albeit ambivalent relationship to my RSPB Minsmere. So how do I reflect visually my favoured square mile? I pretty much instantly rejected the idea of producing a series of landscapes. That wouldn’t be what I wanted to say about the place. My relationship with it is more than admiration for any perceived natural beauty. The relationship to wildlife and birds transcends this. Photographing birds is not going to happen either. My visual relationship to birds doesn’t rest easily with conventional bird photography – looking at my experiments of photographing Gulls might help here. It was when reflecting about the role of the RSPB in the popularising Minsmere that my approach to assignment began to take form.

When I was a schoolboy birder about 40 years ago it wasn’t unusual for organisations like the RSPB to keep you out of their reserves. They were for the birds and not the public or even their own fee-paying members for that matter. What access was allowed was highly regulated and restricted. A limited number of permits were issued and these could be obtained by sending an application form through the postal system. Money is the driving force behind this democratisation of access. Greater footfall brings money: spent in the gift shop or the café. With this has come a broadening of the RSPB’s work. Nature conservation is a key function but it has also become part of the local tourism industry. Running Minsmere will involve a careful balance between creating and maintaining bird-friendly habitat and the encouraging and subsequent management of visitors.

So, it is this balance that has informed my photographic approach to the Square Mile. The people who run Minsmere have to ensure that visitors can engage with wildlife without disturbing or disrupting the thing they have come to see. How this balance is facilitated is central to my assignment

Reflections on Gulls…

A passing comment in a telephone call with my tutor, Jayne Taylor, became a catalyst for photographing the gulls in this way. I wasn’t too sure if it met the brief of capturing Stillness and Movement but Jayne said “yeah, go and do it”.

Having posted the blog entry I then took the advice of the FiP work book and printed out some of the photos and having lived with them for a few days I began to feel I there is more experimenting to be done with this idea.

I like the square format. With no horizontal or vertical dynamic the movement of the gulls seems circulate within the image, perhaps emphasising the movement further. However, I did feel as though some of the images needed a little more ‘bite’ to them, maybe there are a little too soft. In order to try and explore this notion I took one of the images and rendered it black and white and played around with it adding some grain – see below.

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Jayne’s original advice went further. “Go back and photograph then again, and when you’ve done that go back and keep doing it.” I now understand what she was driving at. When the opportunity next arises I will be back on the shingle beach and experimenting more with those wonderful gulls. Things to think about include; a slightly faster shutter speed (1/4 of second or even faster), placing the camera a little closer to the subject, or even taking two or more rapid shots at, say 250th second then over lapping them in photoshop – a kind of double exposure approach.

Exercise 1.11 Stillness & Movement

Below is a series of images of gulls. In some respects they are a staged series as they are not random chanced upon images. The gulls are coming to bread paced on the ground by me with the camera set up in advance. In order to capture movement a slow shutter speed was set with the some shots at 1/8th and others at 1/30th of a second. The day was overcast and the light quite flat and consequently the levels were adjusted in Photoshop Elements  to slightly to broaden the tonal range. Also, the images were sharpened slightly. They were taken at the telephoto end of my zoom lens. I like the contrast between the still of the sea, the ‘solidity’ of the shingle beach and the blurred movement of feeding gulls.

Part of this exercise is to look beyond what’s recorded in the image and consider if they communicate anything unintended; symbolic or metaphorical is suggested in the course notes. What has surprised me about some of the images is how elegant the movement is, especially some of the gulls in flight. I am very familiar with gulls, I am a keen birdwatcher and I knew that by putting down lots of bread I was would have a fast moving feeding frenzy. So, I was expecting blurred aggression and some of the images represent something akin to this (especially the later ones shot at 30th sec.) However, the earlier ones (shot at 8th sec) have a softness to them where the movement is rendered quite etherial, even balletic.

The common perception of gulls is a negative one. Stereotypically they thought of as loud, aggressive, messy, and if I can be anthropomorphic, ‘anti social’. While I acknowledge they can be difficult they have learnt to take advantage of humans, particularly, in feeding on the mess we leave behind – for example, scavenging half eaten kebabs and the like left behind by late night revellers. In this respect they should be seen as recyclers cleaning up after us, the same way that vultures are seen as cleaning up carrion on the plains of Africa and India.

Gulls deserve a better ‘press’. They have a beauty and a soft elegance that the stereotype is blind to. The process of recycling implies a sense of movement; the subject of the recycling undergoes a change of state being transformed from one unwanted thing into something deemed to have a new value. Hopefully some of these images have an allegoric quality serving to realign the perception of gulls: recycling the recycler as it were.  Revealing a beauty in their movement that is not often seen.

 

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Exercise 1.10 Shutter Speed

Being a little house bound but itching to get out and press on with photography I came up with this hand home-based remedy. This exercise wants me to capture movement and I had just the thing hanging from the ceiling of the conservatory. In reality we hardly ever use it so today it literally had the cobwebs blow off it!

Below is a sequence of images in the order of 1/125th, 1/60th, 1/30th and 1/15th of a second shutter speeds. On reflection I should have gone for a 500th and 250th as well but I somehow overlooked this…

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Exercise 1.9 Soft Light Landscape

These three images are the result of following the ‘Soft Light Landscape’ exercise. They are of the river Deben in Suffolk on a stretch upstream from Woodbridge.

In the early morning light with the combination of low ISO and high F stop the shutter speeds were long hence a tripod and shutter release were used. Bracketing the shots, as per the instructions, was actually essential because the water and wet mud tended to produce under exposed readings from the light meter.

The three images were all adjusted in Photoshop Elements to add or enhance the luminosity. Using ‘Levels’ the shadows, mid tones and highlights were all manually altered. It surprised me just how little adjustment of each was needed to bring out this luminosity. Even as ‘thumbnails’ on the screen the difference from the original was clear, yet they have retained a natural look and don’t look over produced.

 

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Research Point: Gabriele Basilico

This week I have looked at the work of the late Gabriele Basilico as a preparation for ‘Exercise 1.9 Soft Light Landscape’. I wasn’t familiar with his work before this. I was so impressed with his depictions of buildings. Photographed in early morning light he captures a great tonal range. No doubt also aided by the use of medium and large format film cameras.

As a record of the built environment the near absence of people is intriguing. Perhaps the presence of people would be a distraction and hence the viewer can assimilate the image without the very human reaction of wondering about who the people are and what they doing.

The war-zone images shows us buildings as survivors, or otherwise, of conflict. In this sense they seemed ‘too obvious’. I’m sure most of us we would be curious about these. So for me it was his other architectural images, those of factories and docklands that drew me in more.

Recently, I been taking some images of redundant old buildings and others that have undergone changes in use. And now feel inspired by Basilico’s work to raise my standards of image making – as best I can with the equipment I’ve got.