Feedback: The Fujifilm Street workshops, Hamilton, May 2013
Hamilton, on the day of the workshop, was not looking very promising. The CBD seemed a little haunted and uninhabited, partly a result, I am told, of the fact that rents in the area are very high, and a consequence of the fact that people have moved out to the mall on the outskirts of the town. However, where there are buildings there are people, and the energy shifts to fit the circumstances.
The day of the workshop was rainy and cold, and passing thunderstorms played with the area, and the light. Whatever happened, it was going to be tricky for the workshop participants, and they were going to be under pressure. With an $800 compact camera on the line, and a pile of my teaching messing with their minds, delivering an award-winning image was never going to be easy. As always, just before they left I pointed out that this is no game for purists, and what the judges were looking for was something, which would stop them in their tracks. For that reason, anything goes, and if they had the postproduction skills to move their captures to another plane, then they should go for it.
I watched over the next week as the entries came in, and I was astounded at what they had managed to deliver. In spite of the weather, they had found answers to my topic (a sense of place), and all the images were fresh and original.
Here, beginning with the winner, and then in no particular order, are what we judges considered to be the six top images. As always, you may disagree, and your comments at the bottom of this post are welcome, but the decisions of the judges are final and no correspondence/arguments will be entered into.
This first image is complex and multi-layered, almost montage-like in its construction. The photographer has used a shop window as the source material, which allows us to see both into the shop window and also outwards onto the street. In doing so we are presented with an image which pushes the boundaries of what photography is, moving us from a straight photographic rendition of the scene, utilising all the traditions of the medium, to one which is quite painterly in its design. You could be forgiven for believing that this is a composite; however the family moving across the picture plane give the lie to this and allow us to see it as a single capture. On the right-hand side, a father is trying to control a small child, while, in the centre, what appears to be a woman is dragging a suitcase along the pavement. Note how the picture is structured into three distinct sections. On the left is a mélange of suitcases in the shop window and the bank across the road, which acts as a visual tie between the three segments of the picture. The middle section of the photograph contains elements of the shop window and reflections of the buildings across the road, which weave through this section in an anarchic but strangely structured way. The right-hand segment of the picture contains a more direct vision across the road along with the aforementioned father and son. Notice how the suitcase motif repeats itself throughout the image, also acting as adjoining motif between the three sections. The road markings also weave through and interlock the components of the work. This image has been processed to within an inch of its life and relies heavily upon HDR techniques. The heavy use of HDR has created a grainy, gritty quality, which contrasts with and adds to the graphic qualities of the image.
In the second image the photographer has captured a person walking towards a series of fountains erupting from the pavement. By exposing for the fountain and pavement, and because the subject is against the light, the subject in the centre of the picture is rendered in silhouette. Notice how the left foot is securely planted on the ground, while the right foot is slightly above it, indicating that the subject is moving away from the photographer. If you look carefully, you will see that foot and shadow are slightly separated by a brighter area. Movement (away) is thus subtly indicated. Being in the centre of the photograph makes the silhouette hard to ignore and consequently our eyes are drawn to a space with little or no detail. Notice also how the erupting fountains progress across the picture space, providing a visual link, not only from right to left (or left to right), but also connecting the featureless area of dark shadow which occupies the top 40% of the picture space with the bright area underneath it. Visual staples, if you will. On the left-hand edge of the frame, foam is dripping into the picture space, completing the half-obscured fountain on the right-hand edge of the picture space. In doing so, it gives a sense of the circular, of one side of the frame being connected to the other.
Shot in a mall or closed space, the photographer has opted for an angled composition. In the foreground, slightly out of focus, is a young man resting his hand upon a red skateboard which falls out of frame. The axles of the skateboard connect the bottom and right-hand edges of the frame diagonally. As a result of the tilted framing, all the lines are dynamic, and therefore add energy to the image. Because the human eye is programmed to look for pattern, and quickly spot similarity and difference, there are a number of elements in the image that help to link the narrative together. Notice how the red of the skateboard in the foreground connects to the red T-shirt of the young woman in the mid-ground using her cell phone, which further connects to the girl in the red jeans in the background walking away from the camera, thus creating an implied triangular composition. The yellow in the top right-hand corner connects to the yellow vest of the young Asian man leaning against the wall on the bottom left-hand corner. Observe also how texting is a layer of meaning repeated in different parts of the photograph.
Blue and yellow are complementary colours and, when put together in a single image, both compete and complement. The city can be a very lonely place, a concrete jungle without soul or meaning. Making complex images can be very demanding, but so also can making very simple ones. In this photograph, which relies more heavily upon traditional photographic aesthetics, two people walking away from the camera occupy the very top of the picture space. Small splashes of yellow on the right-hand side of the picture space link to a single yellow road marking on the left-hand side, thus drawing the components of the image together. The puddles on the footpath create different interpretations of the hue blue, and active subtle visual steppingstones from foreground to background. This is a very simple image, but an effective one.
Humour, whether gentle or obvious, is an important motif in street photography. Some of the genre’s finest images are ones that make us smile or laugh. Often signage can help us in making images with a humorous narrative. The photographer has spotted a “give way to pedestrians” sign, and then seen the humour in juxtaposing it with cars and pedestrians. By placing the sign in the middle of the photograph, our eyes are drawn to it instantly, and it becomes the reference point for reading the rest of the image. On the right-hand side of the photograph, a young man is walking into the frame. His dress and the angle of his body suggest a certain cultural perspective, while the small car behind him (and the cultural perspectives behind its choice and purchase) suggests quite another. The photograph is structured quite formally into three sections, divided by the white line on the pavement and the barrier arm at what is presumably the exit ramp from a parking building. Notice how each section becomes increasingly more visually complex as your eye moves up the photograph, and notice also how the sign on the barrier arm is repeated by the small road sign directly above it on the opposite side of the street. Again, this is a photograph that has been carefully structured and one where the photographer has chosen to wait for his narrative to take place.
Released in the early1950s, Kodak’s Tri-X was the first commercial film for Photojournalists using 35mm, and it quickly became the go-to product for generations of news photographers. To the best of my knowledge it is still being made today. It had an ISO of 400, was legendary for its graininess, and over time, its grainy aesthetic defined news photography. The term “gritty reality” owes much to the visual character of this film, and it is possible to hear people today say that grainy images are “more real” than those with smooth tonalities. This is a simple photograph of a jogger crossing the street with a dog on a lead. The structuring is formal, with the picture space divided into distinct sections. Each section connects to the others by a variety of different visual elements. The runner moving through the picture provides the energy for what would otherwise be a very banal and bland image. Notice how the leg of the dog and the leg of the jogger are in a similar position, each reinforcing and repeating the other. The grainy, contrasty quality of the photograph adds to the sense of a brief moment captured with enthusiasm.
Photographs at this level require time, time to read them, time to understand them, and time to draw together all the visual elements within each of them. Great photographs require us to spend time with them and great photographs often reveal their genius slowly.
Nga mihi ki a katoa.