Feedback: The Fujifilm Dunedin workshops July 2013
“The photograph isn’t what was photographed. It’s something else. It’s a new fact.” –Garry Winogrand
“It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.”–Eliott Erwitt:
Dunedin in July is legendary for how bad the weather can be. However, the weather on the day of the workshop was positively balmy (by Dunedin standards). The first time in the travelling roadshow this far south, and it was great to see people coming from all over the Deep South to take part. This included one who had travelled all the way from Tapanui (how many of you know where that is?). We even had a small contingent from the Maniototo, keen to learn about Street and documentary photography and have a play with their choice of Fujifilm’s X-series cameras.
After spending the morning and learning mode, including how to setup and use the cameras, we sent them out into the mean streets of Dunedin, to come up with which would win one person a brand-new XF-1 compact camera. They had a week to process the images and get them in for judging. The trickle quickly became a flood, and then it was time to call on my team of vicious judges to help me pick the winner, and then select the top six. You will have worked out the header image as the winner, but the others were also stunning in their own right.
Remembering that street photography is about life in public places, in many ways shopping malls and arcades fit into this category, and some of the finest street photography work ever made has taken place within these semi—public spaces. In this, the winning image, the photographer has selected a viewpoint which enabled her to photograph people on an escalator. Whatever its genre, the act of making a photograph comes down to selecting a single moment, and the moment is of critical importance with the style of photography. Some of the best images made during our workshops have involved critically accurate moments and this is a supremely accomplished example of the precision of the moment. The photographer has opted for a slow shutter speed which has blurred the subject descending the escalator, but in choosing the moment of exposure has captured the moment we are the subjects head just happens to be in line with a hole on the opposite wall. In doing so she has made a photograph at once humorous, at once surreal. The photograph is graphically strong, but there are some wonderful touches, secondary elements which reinforce the image, namely the legs at the top, also blurred, and the person in the bottom right hand of the picture, whose legs are hidden. The square framing of the image helps to produce a sense of formality, a compositional contrast to the energy, movement and strong dynamic lines within the photograph. Note too the plethora of rectangular shapes within the picture space, which both reinforce and echo the picture frame.
It is possible to be as alone and lonely within the busy city environment as it is in a desert or on a mountain. Some would say more so. In this image, the photographer has observed a single person sitting at a bus stop on the opposite side of the road, presumably waiting for the bus. Her head resting on her hand, she is gazing pensively out of shot. The suggestion is that she has been there for some time, and is not sure when the bus will come. This is a lovely metaphor for waiting for things to happen, as we often do in our lives. While the predominant colour temperature is a warm one, the predominance of browns and creams gives the image a monochromatic feel, and in many ways, evokes a film noir look. One of the things I discuss during the teaching is the idea that documentary photography attempts to make universal statements, to focus on timeless aspects of life, while photojournalism focuses on specific and clearly-labelled moments, for example sports matches and disasters. One of the techniques which we discuss is the idea of making a conversation and then waiting for something to happen. In this photograph the photographer has put a lot of thought into the conversation, and arranged the picture space with care. The predominant visual elements are formal and geometrical and largely rectilinear, which makes the skewed angle of the bus stop all the more contrary and visible. There is a wonderfully graphic and textural quality to this photograph, which lends it an air of timelessness.
In this photograph, made in Dunedin’s Octagon, a young person is halfway out of shot left, while the camera shows us a view across the square. The moment of pressing the shutter is precise, and since one of the aesthetics of this type of photography is to suggest subject material beyond the frame, the exiting pedestrian supplies us enough information for us to be able to work out, and our minds, what the rest of them would look like. The strong shadows lead our eye out to the right, and give a direction for our eyes to follow. The strong, contrasty tonalities, and the use of black and white evoke a style of photography particularly popular during the 1950s and 1960s. What raises this above a simple snapshot is the presence of the person walking in the opposite direction, located almost exactly in the middle of the photograph. We thus have movement in opposite directions, and a visual tension, a kind of rubber band effect. Notice also how the position of the shadowed persons feet and legs mimic those of the person almost out of shot, and notice how the strong textural quality of the paving slabs draw our eye from foreground to background.
Made from a low angle, this photograph of a shop window is both graphically strong and carefully arranged. Our view takes us from a poster with a model wearing sunglasses looking out to the right of the frame, along past the display case in the shop window to the corner where somebody is passing just out of sight. Notice how the photographer has been careful to maintain sharp lines in the inanimate parts of the photograph while using a sufficiently slow shutter speed to allow the legs of the passerby to blur. In doing so she has created attention between still and moving. The picture space is a series of repetitive rectangles which all interlock graphically, even though the contents are relatively disparate. This is a moment writ finely.
In the next photograph, made using the window of a shoe shop, or what appears to be one, the subject material is complex and the colour relationships far from obvious. At first glance this photograph appears an archaic and chaotic, but further study will reveal that all the elements within it and to relate in some way. Notice how the two red cars (centre left and centre right) echo the red clothing of the two children, one of whom has red trousers, the other a red jacket. Their position within the picture space thus forms an implied triangle. There is layer upon layer of subject material and meaning with this photograph, an image which requires considerable study and interpretation. One wonderful touch, not easily seen at first, is the woman carrying the small child at right. Notice how her face overlaps and is delineated by the red car on the right side of the picture space. So often we are told to simplify, simplify, simplify, that successful pictures are simple ones. That in itself is a simplification, because some photographers choose to take on the challenge of arranging complex picture spaces and still holding a coherent narrative. This is one of those.
The final image in many ways evokes Robert Doisneau’s famous photograph Le Baiser de l’hôtel de ville, made in 1950 in Paris which, contrary to photographic myth, was posed as part of an assignment he was working on for Life magazine. The photograph contains the same tonal qualities characteristic of the photographers working in Paris at that time (for example Willy Ronis and Edouard Boubat). A young woman at the right of the picture is looking out and down, presumably lost in thought, and turned away from the camera. At the same time a young man running along the street towards her looks up to observe the photographer, and this allows us to make eye contact with them. As surrogates photographers, we enter into the same relationship with them as the maker of this photograph. Notice how the picture space has been carefully structured into a series of overlapping and interlocking rectangles, each with its own content, and each entire unto itself. At the same time the elderly building in the background weaves them altogether. Thus there is continuity left to right, top to bottom and from front to back. Again we have the photograph as timeless document, and a documentary photograph which one which draws from the deepest parts of the well of photographic tradition. This is a wonderfully seen and exquisitely echoed photograph in every sense of the word.
We have two more workshops to go for the year. The next one will be in Christchurch in late October, and the last one for the year will bring us back to Wellington in November. Dates to be available very soon.
See you there.