Assignment One Contrasts

This assignment is about exploring the theory of composition developed by Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany in the 1920s which led to the most fundamental overhaul of the theory of design in the 20th century.  The idea moves us beyond the traditional concept of photographic contrast, the range of brightness, to many other qualities including graphic, material and the less tangible, such as sweet and sour.  My starting point, as for most tasks so far in this course, was to construct a mind map and turn to what I judge to be the bible for this course, The Photographer’s Eye (Freeman, 2007) and also (Prakel, 2006).  Reflecting on what I read prompted me to consider the list of qualities beyond the obvious meaning and for that I delved into the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.  From this I was able to begin distilling my thoughts on possible subjects, bearing in mind I still have little confidence in my ability to be truly creative; suffice to say there were some subjects that emerged from my meagre list of possibles that I have been compiling; perhaps there are some creative juices lurking after all!

My thoughts also turned to other challenges associated with the task.  Logic says this is the conclusion of a phase therefore all that has gone before needs to be considered in composing the images; this is against the background of there still being much that is not second nature to me; solution for this would appear to be to construct a pocket check list but this may be counter-productive in terms of being a distraction. Another consideration is the ability to influence how things appear by the use of lighting, colour or tone; I did not feel ready for this approach although I did try to keep it in mind when out and about.

I also considered how to approach the selection of possible images.  Whilst the assigment instruction calls for the depiction of ‘extremes’ the context is left open.  I saw a couple of options; firstly, pick a theme and gather images that reflect said theme; secondly, select pairs in the same subject family.  I decided to go for the second approach.  After reviewing numerous previously taken photos and taking just shy of 300 new shots, thank goodness for digital, my selected 8 pairs and one depicting contrasts in a single shot are shown below with my associated thoughts.

Straight/curved

My theme for this contrast is, obviously, buildings; both of these are located in Bristol in the harbour area.  The block of flats is just that, a block. The other is the Lloyds Bank building and often forms the backdrop for local festivals and events.  Whether they represent extremes is possibly open to debate, certainly to my mind the block of flats seems pretty extreme.  Turning first to the shot of the flats.  The scene screams straight lines, encompassing not just the structure of the building but the railings, railway lines, the road and its markings.  I did approach it from different angles but felt this one gave the best representation despite being challenged by the position of the sun which I sought to use to create a highlight.  From this angle I feel the linear format draws you into the scene and gives it depth.  I was also taken by the colours which added interest; without those colours, which also serve to highlight the lines, I feel the building itself would be quite bland despite the extensive use of glass.  In contrast the Bank’s lines have been complemented by the curved landscaping such that it all flows together in one large, graceful arc.  In composing this shot I thought of leading the eye from the foreground round to the building and hence the need to get a good camera position and appropriate depth of field.

Long/short

I had many ideas for this category but with these two structures in my local area they seemed an obvious choice; Burnham pier is claimed to be the shortest in Britain and the Weston-super-Mare pier has been rebuilt following the disastrous fire in July 2008.  At first I was hesitant in shooting these two as they are both well photographed but decided to give it a go and not look at any of the standard stock shots beforehand lest I be influenced.  For both scenes I found it a real challenge to get an angle that did justice to the structure and portrayed the length of each pier; I took many shots from a multitude of angles trying to gauge the effectiveness of each.  There was also the issue of tide in/tide out and the constraints this placed on camera position.  For the Burnham pier I decided on this angle as I think it depicts just how short it is, literally jutting out a short way from the seafront; on reflection I am not sure that a more panoramic view may create a better impression but I am sticking with this.  For the Weston pier I thought my chosen composition portrayed the structure reaching out into the sea, almost straining to reach the island in the distance and thereby giving an impression of its length.  Both shots were taken in contrasting weather conditions; shooting into the sun at Weston exercised my grey cells and I have to admit to some application of graduated filter in Lightroom (my first use of this tool so a bit undecided on its success).

Pointed/blunt

As a regular visitor to, and admirer of, this iconic vessel I quickly decided on these two shots depicting pointed and blunt; nothing to do with the fact that, as a former regular passenger on HM Royal Navy ships it was custom, as a member of the embarked forces, to refer to the front and back of the of the vessel as ‘the pointed end’ or ‘the blunt end’.  I did not see much option for composing the stern shot given the space available to manoeuvre the camera position so opted for symmetry, mindful of the need to get it dead centre.  Being a very bright day I found myself playing with the camera settings to overcome the high contrast between the deep black of the ship and the bright sky.  I took several shots of the bow in isolation, both below and above the waterline, in order to get away from the standard picture postcard view, including one looking up through the glass that surrounds the ship, but it was just too cluttered.  This view, including the entry to the dry dock, not only captures the majestic prow which you can imagine slicing through the water but the ship seems to be set to return once again to the open sea, sitting there waiting for the gates to open.

Transparent/opaque

My chosen theme for these two shots is glass.  When looking down into the top deck skylight on the SS Great Britain there was a myriad of reflections which I thought created a real sense of confusion as to what was real and what was reflected.  The geometrical shapes added to the interest along with the richness of the varnished timber.  In contrast to this was the opaque glass in the windows of the shed on the wharf along with the rusting corrugated iron cladding, not very shipshape; again very geometrical but also providing a contrast in the materials’ form and texture.  I tried several ways of framing this shot to get away from the flat, vertical wall effect, seeking to get the in-camera cropping correct.

Smooth/rough

Again, inspiration from the SS Great Britain, this time from the structure below the waterline.  Time and circumstance has not been kind to the hull and rudder of the ship. However, the restoration work being carried out provides a stark contrast between before and after.  The rudder, having been restored, shows a smooth, contoured surface, highlighted by the rows of rivet heads, all cloaked in a rich coating of red paint. It took me some time to decide upon how to shoot this, whether to put it in context of the ship or go solely for the theme of smooth.  In the end I felt that, despite it being a large expanse of smooth red metal, the lines of rivet heads gave an area of interest that makes this composition work.   Contrast this with the severe rust on the hull providing a landscape of deeply pitted iron, giving colour and texture, and flaking paint all of which combine to provide an interesting array of shapes, textures and colour; I have it in mind to go back and try this shot with a macro lens.

Diagonal/rounded

The link between these next two subjects is metal.  Whilst some may argue that my diagonal, the spoke, does not fit the bill as it does not span the corners of the standard geometric shapes I would contest otherwise as this falls into the category of ‘other figure’ as per the definition of diagonal.  For me there is something about such objects, the size, how they were manufactured and how the surface rusts generating patterns and colours; I think this shot also conveys something of the weight of this component and the rigidity that the spokes give it.  My concern in taking this shot was how to add interest given its position almost flat up against the wall so I spent much time framing it in different ways.  The contrast with this is the collection of metal fuel containers, lights and the bucket waiting to be filled with oil.  There was a real sense of how the light was generated; oil from the barrel into the bucket, then tipped into the containers which, in turn, are used to fuel the lights. Again, I was concerned that this shot would be too flat but I think a degree of depth is given by the bucket and oil barrel.

Hard/soft

For this contrast I wanted to get away from the obvious subjects and looked for images that implied the contrast.  Whilst I think these images speak for themselves as regards the hard and soft contrast I believe they also convey a message.  For me it starts with the Help for Heroes poster displayed on the door and the knowledge that so many of our servicemen fall on hards times when they leave the armed forces due to a number of factors; most of us take for granted a warm bed and roof over our head each night.  When composing the doorway shot I considered a number of options from including the whole frontage of the doorway to concentrating on the sleeping bag on the floor; my final choice reflects my desire to give some prominence to the poster and thus the wider meaning of the photographs.  When it came to the shot of the bed my initial concern was it was going to be just that, a bed; using different viewpoints and judicious use of the zoom lens I was able to bring in the interest of the window blind and colour of the painting on the wall, all of which puts the bed in context and adds to the message.

Sweet/sour

These two images should, I hope, stimulate the senses in order to bring to life the contrast!  Taking the photographs moved me out of my comfort zone in a number of respects; composing the shot, depth of field, lighting and capturing the moment through selection of shutter speed.  Thanks be to Continuous Low shutter release, a plentiful supply of lemons and a very patient wife!  This was the first time I have ventured into this area of photography and at first, in my enthusiasm, rushed headlong into getting the shot; not until I stepped back and thought things through did I make headway.  I am particularly pleased with capturing the lemon juice spray as it was squeezed.

Contrast ‘in one picture’ – rounded/diagonal

This has always been one of my favorite shots, taken at the Eden Project.  It is part of an intricate fence of various geometrical shapes and here we have the contrast of rounded and diagonal provided by the clever weaving of the rope on the frame.  When I took this picture it was more about framing the scene through the fence but I think it works equally well for this exercise.

As I stated at the beginning, I saw this assignment as the drawing together of all the lessons thus far as well as exploring the theory of contrasts.  In that respect I found it quite a challenge as it was too easy to get wrapped up in the task of identifying the contrasts and how to get the message across and this was sometimes at the expense of some of the learnings from the exercises.  This has brought home, once again, the need to stop and think about all the elements of constructing that ‘killer’ photograph.  Also, taking so many shots of various contrasts resulted in a lengthy down selection process with much back and forth before taking the decision to reject a set of images.  For some of the landscape shots the light was not at its best and I should have planned when to take them (golden hour springs to mind); it is now very evident why you often read that top landscape photographers visit a place many times before committing.  I am happy with my decision to seek contrasting images from the same family of subjects; that said, I think using a theme would also be interesting in that it would be telling a story.

Reference List

Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 2004. 11th ed. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Freeman, M. 2007. The photographer’s eye: composition and design for better digital photos. Lewes. The Ilex Press Limited.

Prakel, D. 2012. 2nd ed. Basics photography 01: composition. Lausanne. AVAPublishing SA.

Reflection

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills.  I believe my technical skills are improving although there is still much that has yet to become second nature.  As such, some of the photographs are perhaps lacking in quality as I concentrate on one or two particular aspects at the expense of others.  In some areas this may be explained by a developing knowledge of the functionality of my camera and my overall workflow, including the use of Adobe Lightroom.  In terms of demonstration of visual skills, I think the majority of photographs show an ability to compose a scene, building on the exercises leading up to the assignment.

Quality of Outcome.  I think both the photographs and the narratives demonstrate an application of knowledge gained thus far and I have presented it in a coherent manner allowing the reader to easily navigate to the various sections. On reflection, in one or two cases perhaps the photographs do not conveying my thoughts as clearly as I had wished, specifically, rounded/diagonal and I should have been more self critical at the time of selecting the shot.  In the majority, though, I believe I have put my message across clearly.

Demonstration of Creativity.  Creativity has been an issue on my mind throughout.  I think it is evident that there are degrees of creativity in this assignment, in some areas I have gone for the obvious (Long/short) but I hope I have shown an ability to explore the boundaries elsewhere (Hard\soft, sweet/sour) both in terms of the subject matter and new techniques.  In putting this together I have told it as I see it, it is for others to decide if I am developing a personal voice.

Context.  An area for improvement is research.  There is perhaps a lack of evidence of wide research reflected by my reference list and I need to read more widely and get myself to some exhibitions/galleries.  However, I believe my learning log indicates critical thinking and the application of the discipline of reflection.  I look forward to my tutor feedback which I feel very much in need of at this juncture.

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