Monday, September 27, 2010

Assignment 3: Submission


To date this assignment has been the most difficult to develop, both photographically and in a sense philosophically. During the work up of the initial ideas I even came to the point of wondering if this course was right for me and gave serious thought to giving it all up and returning to a previous life of underwater and macro photography. As the course discusses early on, photographing people is challenging, not only technically but socially. The first building I decided to explore as a subject was a brand new and photographically very interesting shopping/office complex close to my home. I decided to work on a few architectural images using a 24mm tilt shift prime, not the easiest lens to use and requiring careful positioning with tripod and spirit level. After shooting an initial set of images I closed in on the supermarket and shot a couple of frames illustrating the outer area and the checkout area. I was immediately and quite aggressively challenged by the supermarket staff, demanding that I stop (to which I agreed), but also wanting to either confiscate my memory card or have me delete the images. Things started to get heated and in the end I simply walked away, reasoning that to try and stop me would be assault. I wrote this up together with the images taken in a blog entry:

To say that I was disturbed by this is an understatement, especially given that this was by no means the first challenge, although the most aggressive. In the end I came back to an old adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. This was a key experience for me, photography, especially social documentary, cannot be a risk free endeavour, thought provoking photographs cannot be made exclusively within the comfort of my home or with friends. I have subsequently checked out the law in Germany, with a neighbour who is both a photographer and corporate lawyer. It is permitted to photograph the exterior of buildings and people who are incidental to the image, however, it is forbidden to image the inside of a building or to bring attention to facial detail without express permission. This is understandable as Germany has a terrible history of covert use of photography in surveillance and its use to condemn people to indescribable fates. However, it does present a challenge to the budding street photographer. It might also, to some degree explain the distinctly architectural focus of many of the images from the Düsseldorf School of Photography, particularly the Bechers and Gursky.

The result of this mental turmoil was a quick shift in selection of buildings towards “safer” environments in which photography is common and adoption faster hand held techniques in areas in which perhaps I shouldn’t have been taking photographs. This necessarily reduced the list of possible buildings; shops, libraries, or restaurants as an example, would not be possible, however, I still had a broad range of environments to explore. I drew up a list of 18 ideas and set out to photograph 16 separate spaces/buildings. This enabled me to develop both ideas and technique, whilst trying to get to grips with how each space or building is used. I then selected a subset and where necessary revisited the location to improve a given shot or to try a different time of day. The final results make up this submission for Assignment 3.

The buildings selected range in size, purpose, and structure. I have tried to bring variety to the images, but within each building maintain a degree of commonality in style and colour. The buildings selected are all heavily used public spaces, all allow for dramatic viewpoints if desired. I have selected a church, a shopping centre, a subway station, and Munich’s Olympic Tower. In addition I have added two art museums, similar in purpose but differing in both content and structure. As the brief asked for 5-6 buildings, I could have stopped at 5, so I hope the two museums can pass muster. For each building I have selected 3 photographs, 2 did not really tell a story and in most cases a 4th image would not have added anything new.

I have played safe in some images, but in others have taken some risks in terms of framing and the sharpness or lack thereof. In each of the buildings I have striven to explain what it does and how people interact with it. As a result every photograph contains people, sometimes dominating the image, at other times very small. I
have avoided a desire to overuse architecture as a primary theme, but in a few images have allowed the structure to be the focal point.

An early debate I wrestled with was one of style, should I try and complete this assignment with a specific look and feel, perhaps using similar focal lengths, viewpoints, or content. I rejected that in favour of completing as varied a set of images as I could within a single theme, however, I do feel that I need to work with some kind of linking style or theme in one or both of the latter assignments in this course.

A final comment is that all images were taken using a full frame Canon EOS 5D II.

Building 1 – The Pinakothek der Moderne

This art museum opened in 2002 and presents a very stark architecture dominated by tall thin columns and large slabs of concrete contrasting with expanses of glass. Although impressive externally this is a building in which form is surpassed by use. Inside is a light airy series of interconnecting galleries built around a cathedral like central rotunda providing access to 4 wings containing impressive collections of 20th/21st century art, design, architecture, and works on paper. The design section always draws my attention, presenting objects both common and exotic in a manner that allows close inspection. This is a well-designed building that offers visitors an environment to explore as well as simply look at visual art and form.

TS-E 24mm, f/16, 1/90s, ISO 100
The exterior of the Pinakothek der Moderne is dominated by large sheets of glass and tall concrete columns supporting a flat roof. With this image I have tried to capture the essence of the architecture of the building, including people sitting outside the museum café to add scale. The picture is complex due to the reflections and the fact that the trees are inside not outside the building. When taking the picture I worked with views offering stronger perspective, however, I selected this one as it best captured the experience of the building when approaching it.

24-70mm at 24mm, f/2.8, 1/90s, ISO 800
The interior contrasts strongly with the exterior swapping a dull grey for a bright white. The relatively simple exterior structure is replaced by a complex interlock of stairs, pillars and floors. This photograph is taken from a position just opposite the toilets and cloakrooms. I took many frames looking for an interesting juxtaposition of people and background. This image almost looks staged, I find the man in the blue shirt emerging into the image particularly interesting, what is he doing? The left side is a little cluttered and it could be argued that I could have cut out the partial figure, however, this would have brought the three people on the left too close to the frame edge. Photoshop could have helped, but I do not want to go down that route, small blemishes or spots on the sensor are fair game, but people? The image is noisy, it looks very bright, but wasn’t, a low aperture and high ISO were needed to avoid too much blurring of the figures.

24-70mm at 70mm, f/8, 1/350s, ISO 800
If I had to select a single image in this submission, this would be the one. Walking downstairs from the entrance into the design exhibit the visitor is immediately confronted by a huge backlit wall on which are mounted a series of objects designed by Luigi Colani. In this area there are a variety of different places to look at the exhibit, chairs are provided, however, everyone is eventually drawn in close to examine the objects. Realizing this I sat on the steps opposite selected the longest focal length on my lens and waited. Over a period of around 30 minutes I took a number of frames with different groups of people and scales. This was the best. I have cropped this image to deliberately use the exhibit as a frame for the photograph and to place attention firmly on the two children examining what was a very cool bike. This photograph illustrates how people can closely interact with the art in this remarkable collection.

Building 2 – Brandhorst Museum

Just around the corner of the Pinakothek der Moderne and within Munich’s museum district is the Brandhorst Museum. This building is as much a work of art as its contents; I would even contend that it actually surpasses most. This is a box of a building with three levels containing galleries and wide stairways interconnecting the levels. The interior is very simple, large rooms with bright white walls leaving the focus very firmly on the exhibited art. The museum was very recently opened in 2009 and the collection contains a broad range of modern art featuring Cy Twombly, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol, among many others. Its very simplicity makes for an effective structure; however, all of the excitement is on the outside.

TS-E 24mm, f/16, 1/45s, ISO 100
This photograph was taken on the same day as PaP3-1 using exactly the same equipment, but adopting a very different approach to revealing the structure of the building. The ability of a tilt shift lens to preserve perspective is unique in SLR photography, but well established more than a century ago in view cameras. Similar to a view camera it forces a slower approach to image making and requires the photographer to carefully consider each and every frame. To take a successful image, first find a location that presents the framing needed, no zooming. Use of large apertures calls for a tripod and successful correction of perspective distortion requires that the camera is perfectly level; a small hot shoe mounted spirit level does the trick. Finally lack of autofocus, means that the camera must be focused manually, live view and the ability to enlarge the image is another highly desirable capability. However, once all these steps are taken it can capture beautiful images.

I have to admit that this shot is unashamedly architectural and that I very much enjoy carefully crafted photographs of impressive buildings. However, I have very deliberately included people in the frame and chose an angle that provided clues to the scale of the building and its position within the street. This building can simply be enjoyed as a work of art and people are always to be found relaxing in its environs, it is simply a very cool place to be. In post processing I have cropped a little and very deliberately strongly pushed both contrast and colour to enhance the visual impact of the coloured ceramic tiles contrasting with the blue sky.

17-40mm at 17mm, f/4, 1/3000s, ISO 400
As mentioned in the preamble to this building the interior is not greatly impressive, although by no means boring. One of the more intriguing aspects of the design is that there are several side rooms offering a view out of the building. In each room can be found seating and catalogues describing the exhibits, enabling visitors to take a break and contemplate what they have seen. This photograph is taken from within one of these rooms and includes the window that is prominent in PaP3-4. The building to the left is the Pinakothek der Moderne and in the distance is the Alte Pinakothek, a classically designed building with painted works from the 15th-18th century. In this image I have tried to capture the external world with sufficient internal detail, illustrating how people can take a break and enjoy the view. The very wide angle 17mm lens means that the perspective could be better, no chance to use a tripod mounted camera in a museum.

17-40mm at 17mm, f/4, 1/30s, ISO 400
In both of these museums I have essentially worked 3 photographs that show firstly the building, second how people occupy the interior space, and thirdly how people interact with the art works. My final photograph from the Brandhorst museum is simply a photograph of an art work, in this case by Damien Hirst, featuring a huge mirror on which is mounted multiple small mirrored shelves supporting thousands of tablets. Anyone looking at this work will see themselves reflected against the pills, a commentary on our dependency on pharmaceuticals. For a photographer it offers an unusual perspective of the museum and its visitors, it is almost as if the art work is looking at you. Inevitable is my inclusion within the photograph, not quite a self-portrait but an image of me the photographer. I can think of how to photograph this without appearing in the image, again careful use of a shifted lens could work, although it might need several separate images stitched together, plus some kind of background to avoid the reflection of the gallery in the image. I have again carefully cropped this to only include the artwork in the final framing.

Building 3 – Munich Cathedral

Munich’s cathedral, the “Dom zu Unserer Lieben Frau” is more commonly referred to as the Frauenkirche or simply the Dom. The building was completed in 1525 and has been almost completely rebuilt since the war after bombs destroyed one of the towers and collapsed the roof. It dominates Munich’s skyline and is the highest point within the central city due to a popular law that prohibits high buildings spoiling the city’s skyline. Inside it is quite stark in its simplicity, unlike many of the highly decorated catholic churches elsewhere in Munich. It has recently gained prominence due to the elevation of former Bishop Joseph Ratzinger to Pope. The Dom is a major tourist attraction and this does diminish its effectiveness as a place of prayer and worship, however, the building offers enough small chapels and quiet corners for contemplation and peace. A small chapel with a door is provided in which any noise and especially photography is strictly forbidden.

17-40mm at 40mm, f/4, 1/20s, ISO 400
My goal in photographing within the Dom was to try and capture something of the spirituality of the building and how people interact with it. As a contrast I also felt a need to show the internal structure of the building and its immense scale. The interior is simply too big to image in its entirety so I had to find an angle that conveyed size but also in a manner that had some compositional structure. This image is taken about halfway into the church, showing the main aisle leading to the altar and dominated by the cross hanging from the ceiling. The people in the frame enable the eye to take in the scale; otherwise I have gone for a fairly conventional rule of thirds composition. The light is the dominant feature in the church with the white painted walls creating a very airy open feeling.

24-105mm at 105mm, f/4, 1/20s, ISO 800
This is the first of two low light images that seek to bring out the purpose of the Dom as a place of prayer and contemplation. Photographing people lighting candles to remember lost friends or family must be done with care and consideration, hence the relatively long focal length and positioning slightly to the side and rear to avoid drawing attention to myself. At any given time there are hundreds of people taking photographs in the Dom, however, I still feel the need to be very respectful in such a location. This photograph is a moment in time at which two people are placing candles, the dominant light comes from the candles and provides a warm soft feeling to the image.

70-200mm at 200mm, f/2.8, 1/45s, ISO 1600
Descending a short flight of stairs it is possible to enter a small underground chapel or crypt directly under the altar. This space is dimly lit with a mixture of ceiling mounted spot lights and candles. Entering the room I first sat on a pew towards the back and spent some time thinking about how to create a photograph of this space. My intent was to image the crucifix illuminated on the left wall, but how to meaningfully include people in the shot. As I sat I noticed that there was a small space just opposite the cross directly below a spot light. As people walked through the room they sometimes walked through this light and were illuminated for a fraction of a second. The rest was selection of a long focal length, an exposure that in combination with image stabilization would enable an acceptable capture, and waiting for the right moment. The girl in the resulting image has briefly closed her eyes, most likely in response to the sudden bright light, but that has created an image of serenity, however false it might be. A friend behind her is out of the light and almost seems to be a following shadow.

Building 4 – Fünf Höfe

The Fünf Höfe, translated as Five Courtyards, is Munich’s newest shopping centre, opened in 2003. It is one of the swankiest areas to shop, although not quite at the very top end of what one can spend in a pretty rich city. The five courts are 5 distinctly different zones within the centre, each characterized by a specific architectural style. Whilst very glitzy and fun to wander around, the architecture almost overwhelms the shops and I am frequently left with the impression that I have not really seen the shops. Coupled with a maze like floor plan this means that I do not believe it works terribly well as a place to shop, but perhaps the strangeness of the interior retains people and their money.

Only in German I am afraid:

17-40mm at 17mm, f/8, 1/8s, ISO 400
In common with the third image in this group, I have chosen a slow shutter speed to emphasize the movement of people within the largest of the 5 courts. 1/8s hand held is at the limit of my ability to hold a camera still and so this is not the sharpest of images, even in the non-moving background. Having said that the image captures well the movement of people in the building and the light of the internal structure. A creative risk, but I hope a worthwhile one. Shortly before this frame a group of teenagers passed by deliberately throwing sweets onto the ground to force the street cleaner to continue his job, but enabling me to capture his activity and with a look of sympathy his acceptance of my presence. I appreciate that the use of a dragged shutter to capture movement can be overused, but here I think it is appropriate.

17-40mm at 17mm, f/4, 1/350s, ISO 800
Moving to the smallest, but definitely the strangest of the five courts, this image contains the lower part of a giant latticework sphere hanging in the middle of an open space. The ubiquity of the mobile phone is captured in the foreground. The effect is almost that of some alien ship hovering over the shoppers waiting to grab the unsuspecting for further examination. This is a street capture, carefully framed, but without a huge amount of pre-planning other than walking around waiting for an interesting combination of elements.

17-40mm at 39mm, f/4, 1/6s, ISO 100
Admittedly technically weak, this image still captures the sense of the space and its use, in this case taking a break for a bite to eat. I came back and photographed this scene several times, obtaining better sharpness and using more sensible ISO and shutter speed, but never capturing the combination of people seated and walking, or the lighting.

Building 5 – Münchner Freiheit UBahn Station

Throughout the last year, studying with the OCA, I have become more and more interested in the Munich underground railway system. It provides a fascinating environment for taking photographs combining people and movement with dramatic architecture and strange viewpoints. One of the most interesting locations is the Münchner Freiheit station, located in the heart of the trendy Schwabing district of Munich in which many bars and cafes are located.

What was once a very dowdy dirty environment has been transformed with mirrors and intelligent lighting into a modern temple of transport. The most striking part of the upgrade is that all of the supporting columns have been covered in blue glazed tiles and then illuminated individually. The effect is that the columns appear to glow and are then reflected in the mirrored ceiling. As a station it works as well as others, but is not uniquely functional in any particular way. It gets people to and from the trains in an efficient manner and provides suitable sustenance. If anything the architecture can take away attention from the purpose of the station.

17-40mm at 17mm, f/4, 1/60s, ISO 800
After taking in the remarkable “glowing” blue pillars the next element of the space that becomes apparent on arriving at the platforms is that the ceilings are all mirrored creating some strange perspectives. In my first image a train sits at the platform and is reflected in the ceiling, the mirror dominating this composition. The bright red SOS box contrasts with the blue and the single person in the frame seems distracted. Taking this and the other photographs was more akin to working at an event, the subjects continually move, I am not really sure if I am permitted to photograph (although nobody ever objected) and there is no way to use a tripod. All of this almost dictates a wide angle treatment and the application of high ISOs.

In this and all the other photographs for this building I have used a grey card and colour checker to try and maintain constant white balance in a strongly coloured environment. Prior to shooting the station I shot a target in as typical lighting as I could find and then copied that calibration to all other images in the set.

24-105mm at 24mm, f/4, 1/15s, ISO 800
Unlike the first image I am deliberately trying to convey movement in this photograph. This started as a straightforward attempt to try and capture the structure of the space, with the blue pillars receding into the darkness beneath the bridge crossing the tracks. When the train arrived I simply continued to shoot as people also started to walk into the frame. The glare of the man in the centre suggests he may not have been happy being photographed, but he did not protest. Use of a slightly narrower angle image stabilized lens has helped to retain structural detail, but can do nothing for movement of the passengers.

24-105mm at 24mm, f/4, 1/15s, ISO 800
When I first entered the station I focused on the architectural elements, however, I quickly realized that successful images of a station needed to include the trains and passengers that support the existence of the building. This image was a fun one to create; I waited until a train arrived in the station, then as the crowd emerged and headed for the escalator I stepped onto it turned around and photographed the crowd following me up the stairs. As a result, virtually everything in the frame is moving as well as my own position. I was quite surprised at the results, testament to modern camera technology and hopefully a steady hand. The resulting image captures a busy station in the midst of the Friday rush hour.

Building 6 – The Olympic Tower

My final building is the least conventional and presented a different challenge to the others. The Olympiaturm is a defining feature of Munich's skyline, it's 291m height making it visible from virtually anywhere in the city and from a great distance away, quite visible from the Alps on a clear day. It was completed in 1968 as part of the complex built for the 1972 summer Olympic Games. It contains a viewing platform, revolving restaurant and even a small rock and roll museum with some pretty cool exhibits (The Olympic stadium and arena being two of Munich's key stages for major rock and roll acts). There are two levels from which it is possible to step outside, the lower wider one has a high fence to prevent suicides, the upper level set back a little provides an uninterrupted view of the city and surrounding countryside. As an observation platform it is unparalleled providing a helicopter like viewpoint, but at the price of being very crowded at the top, with access to and from the lifts needing much patience. I cannot imagine what would happen in the event of fire or similar disaster.

24-105mm at 84mm, f/11, 1/45s, ISO 200
Finally an outdoor subject with plenty of light supporting high shutter speeds and narrow apertures! When we arrived at the tower my first thought was simply, wow what a view and clear air for a change. After taking an obligatory set of scenic shots I turned my thoughts to how to describe this building and how it is used. The use case was very clear, this is an observation platform for people to enjoy the view, so any photograph would have to state this very clearly. I have avoided including a shot of the tower from a distance as a good photo would need to be taken from several 100 meters away losing any sense of personal use and even scale. I have thus selected 3 viewpoints, the first tries to capture the sense of this being a viewpoint. This is shot from the upper viewing platform and captures the act of viewing with a perspective that illustrates the height of the building. By including two of the Olympic venues in the shot I am also trying to fix the location of the image. The aperture is a little too large; f/16 or f/22 would have improved the background sharpness, although the soft background contrasting with the sharp foreground adds some depth to the image. With more time I would have included a little more of the man in the frame.

17-40mm at 17mm, f/11, 1/180s, ISO 200
The second shot turns the camera to shoot along the plane of the upper viewing platform capturing the space available to the visitors. The image is a series of arcs, even the clouds seem to have collaborated in this thematic element. The graffiti is a sad comment on lack of respect shown by visiting tourists. A straightforward descriptive photograph, but not spectacular.

17-40mm at 17mm, f/11, 1/60s, ISO 200
My final image turns the axis of the camera once more this time to point upwards from the lower observation deck capturing two guys enjoying the view. The blue sky is helped by a polarizing filter and I have taken care to try and achieve a reflective symmetry in the image emphasizing the geometry of the building. These three photographs need to be seen together, individually they are OK, but as a set I think they capture quite well the structure and use of the viewing platform.

Learning Points

Coming to the end of the assignment I think the key learning points for me were:

  1. To understand and respect local laws and customs concerning photography, even if I don’t agree with them. This was frustrating and may stand as a challenge when I move onto the Social Documentary course. Art requires bending the rules and I fully intend to keep doing so until asked specifically not to, but it is very important to know in advance what those rules might be.
  2. Respect the subjects of my photography and acknowledge them with a smile, I have a right to take photographs, but they also have an equal right not to be photographed.
  3. Before taking any photographs in a specific location walk around it and try to understand both the structure and the flow of people through the space before getting the camera out of its bag.
  4. Using a wide angle lens to get close in busy crowded environments and that a flash gun is utterly unnecessary for almost all indoor photography, provided care is taken with exposure.
  5. To continually review exposure during shooting and work the exposure triangle to my advantage.
  6. Creating a good photograph takes forward planning and a good understanding of the environment within which I plan to work.
  7. A successful portfolio is a distillation of many shoots and many photographs in each shoot, digital provides the freedom to create more exposures, but at the price of much time spent reviewing in front of a computer, time that could be used being out and about creating images
  8. Although not really a part of this assignment specifically, looking at other photographers work and seeing how this could be incorporated in my images. I don’t want to slavishly copy another’s style, but there is so much to be learned by looking at how other photographers tackle similar subjects.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Shaun

    Great reading, thanks for sharing. You've inspired me to get stuck into my assignment!

    All the best and I look forward to reading your next post.