It was lovely after all this time in lockdown to venture out to my first London Photographic workshop for well over a year. Alex and Jane were leading, and the subject was natural light. As Jane said, there is no such thing as bad light. Every form of light has its uses. I had not previously understood quite how the diffuse, soft lighting created by a cloudy sky could enhance certain types of photographs.
With lockdown easing, and having recovered from a serious illness last year that stopped all photography and much else in its tracks, I am at last able to pick up a camera again. I completed year two at Richmond College but after the illness, decided to take time out before proceeding to year three and do an online course instead. A good one to start with seemed to be the 31 Days to Becoming a Better Photographer with the Digital Photography School. This photo, above, was taken at Wraysbury lakes, near Heathrow, for Day One of the course, ‘setting up your camera’.
Day 2 assignment: Take shots in different contexts, including: Outdoors, Indoors in bright light, Indoors in dim light.
I admit it was tempting to use an old photo for part one of this, but I made myself start from scratch with a new idea. Unlike in Australia, where the course’s tutor Jim Hamel is based, and where everyone is talking about spring, here in the UK it is autumn so I was delighted to find some lemon-scented salvia still flowering in our garden. The first picture, the outdoor shot, I used a macro lens. Then I cut the salvia and put it in an Old Albert bone china milk jug, and balanced this on the end of our kitchen table, using a wide aperture (f2) on a 50mm lens and fast shutter speed for shallow depth of field. I was delighted by the unintended bokeh effect. Finally, for the third shot, which I felt was least successful of the three, I brought the jug upstairs to our son’s little studio and used a long exposure and smaller aperture. All were done on ISO 100. I felt the need to play around with flash and tripod, especially for shot 3, but didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to hand at this time.
A few of the pictures from a composition workshop with London Photographic meet-up group. The SouthBank where the workshop took place is popular with parkour and skateboard enthusiasts. We were trying to go beyond the standard rule of thirds and framing to consciously make more of positive and negative space in composition. I like the parkour shots – in London, kids don’t climb trees, they climb the walls and fly the trees.
Using the ‘pilgrimage’ theme in landscape, I went on a journey across London’s churches that took in the ‘Monument’ to the Fire of London. These are just a few small snapshots of a few great buildings from the past juxtaposed against a modern reality that cannot even have been dreamed of when rebuilding the capital began in 1666. The lines of the buildings offer almost limitless potential to exploit perspective.
There are also unexpected resonances, for example the city church that offers refreshment at lunchtimes to city workers. The church was full of office workers dining in the cool of the nave, but one waitress agreed to pose for the photograph in front of the sanctuary. I loved the surreal ‘romance’ of this – the act of service, the beauty of the person and the surroundings, the working of a church in the modern age.
This, and the candles and statue ‘tableaux’ I came across (4th image at the very top) in another of the churches we visited on the pilgrimage route, evoked for me the famous tableaux of the photographer Gregory Crewdson, and it was partly with these in mind that I tried to create the waitress ‘tableaux’. Sometimes, photographs just ‘appear’ and the moment has to be seized. Other times, the photographer has to ‘create’ them working with the surrounding environment and the available resources.
One of the sites I photographed was the old Roman Baths in London, near The Thames.
The end result, a stained-documentary feel through the glass from the pavement outside, was a photograph that I was able to see the opportunity for and take having researched a little of what was possible in the work of photographers such as Wolfgang Tillmans.
Health and safety
Photography in large cities such as London, especially if you are working on your own, has numerous health and safety hazards.
- Boundaries. Photographing the baths, above, was tricky because they were beautifully photogenic, with the sole inconvenience being the presence of people and the very 20th century viewing rail. In the end, the only usable photograph was through the stained mossy window from outside into the bath, and a silver filter gives the impressions of age. The temptation to go outside the restricted viewing area to get a better but illicit shot was real, but had to be resisted.
- Roads and traffic, people and motorised. It is easy to get caught up in the moment of finding the perfect shot, and end up in the middle of a road, trip up over a pavement or step, fall down a sudden drop, find oneself barging without looking into a group of schoolkids on a day out. In the latter case, it is particularly important to be aware, so as not to cause injury to a child (or adult) with a piece of protruding equipment such as a non-retracted tripod. The watchwords at all time must be care and courtesy
- Criminals. It is important to be careful not to engage in conversation with strangers, especially strangers who are clearly not other photographers, who might be expressing curiosity in the value of your equipment, or where they can find you on social media and so forth. Be aware at all times of the potential for theft, stalking and other forms of violence and harassment.
- Laws surrounding photographs. No-one wants to be arrested or fined. It is important to be aware that in London and other places, the well-worn adage that you can photograph who and what you want in any public space is not actually the case. In London, for example, there are restrictions on commercial photography in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square. It is also important to be aware of the laws around harassment, of people who do not wish their photograph taken, and of indecency. There is a helpful summary of some of this here.
I took these photographs thinking of the film stills photographer Cindy Sherman. The drama of the character in traditional attire against the now-famous London landscape looking south across the river, and ‘praying’ against the famous ‘London stone’, comes over particularly well in black and white.
These were the photographs I used in my final project, printed up after being prepared in post-production, in one case with filters, and otherwise using the select tool to enhance. The theme was ‘pilgrimage’.
Rochester, where the new Augustine Camino begins, is the second oldest cathedral in England, founded in the seventh century. To this day pilgrims climb the medieval pilgrim steps on their knees, although the original worn stone is protected by wooden slats.
A view of the Medway Valley from the North Downs Way on Blue Bell Hill near Rochester, Kent, on the first day of the five-day Augustine Camino. I loved the way the grey light with the sun bursting through from time to time enhanced the natural drama of the landscape. Photoshop with select tools was used to lighten aspects of the foreground to improve the balance.
The North Downs Way along which the new Augustine Camino passes has in early summer many beautiful fields of rape. We’ve all seen dreamy photos of girls with flowing blonde hair in blue dresses in this fields. I thought it a nice counterintuitive change to capture ‘older’ pilgrims, equally photogenic in their own way but perhaps a little more ‘real’, amid this glorious blossom.
John McGowan is a Discalced Carmelite who tweets out of the Carmelite Monastery in Kensington, London (@johnmcgowan50). He is among the religious working to bring a more life-enhancing tone to a medium that can sometimes feel a little toxic. This is him in the private, modern chapel at the heart of his monastery, designed by Níall McLaughlin architects from materials including gold, amber, oak and bees-waxed stucco. I spent a long time thinking about and planning this picture, to get the symmetry with the candles and Fr John with his mobile phone in hand, set against the Virgin on the other side of the reserved sacrament. The picture has an element of surrealism about it: is this devout monk really taking a ‘selfie’ in church, or is he instead preparing for his Office, Lauds or some other such?
For this last in the dream-reality series, I attended a workshop with London Photographic on macro-photography. This was a miniature model of newly married couple, surrounded by matches arranged in a heart-shape. I used filters in Photoshop to add to the surreality of this, where the flames have yet to be lit around the dream of married life. What kind of reality will the fire bring to this couple? This photo depicts a moment in many of our lives that is the end of one pilgrimage, and the start of quite another. May the road rise up to meet you all, my friends!
In these photographs, taking pictures of people in an environment that both reflected and told a story of them and their worlds, I was conscious of the work of Duane Michals. Although I considered it, I stopped short of going down a more surreal route. Exploration of the romantic and the surreal in post-production composition, bearing in mind the work of photographers such as Arno Rafael Minkkinen and the photojournalist Ernst Haas is something I was influenced by throughout this project and am excited to develop more for the future in level 3.
Recently on a brief trip to Singapore, I took the opportunity to visit the iconic ‘Gardens by the Bay’, just to enjoy the beauty but also to explore some technical aspects of photography that these were a perfect place to practise. The sky was grey and overcast but it was still possible to create dynamic pictures using a variety of depths of field, and framing man-made structures interacting with nature, while juxtaposing against it.
While the light was daylight – I was sadly unable to visit at night – I was working while bearing in mind the seminal photographs and film of Vincent Laforet. While I do not have the lenses for tilt-and-shift technique, I was able to practise in these photographs with long depths of field, focusing on a point about a third of the distance away in-lens, to obtain the best possible focus for all aspects of the picture. This is useful in landscape photography, and takes me forward to a project I will be developing in level 3.
Health and safety: This involved taking photographs at great height. Leaning over barriers to get a better shot must be done with great care, both for oneself and also bearing in mind that noone walking below needs a piece of equipment landing on top of them from above. It is important to remember always to keep the camera strap around the neck, and all other equipment properly secured so as to ensure no harm comes to others.
My aim was to develop some macro photography skills while attempting to insert some more abstract element into the final project in keeping with the concept of dreams and reality. A macro photography workshop with London Photographic meet-up group was a literal eye-opener and made me aware of this area of photography as one requiring a huge new set of skills, but also with tremendously exciting (and expensive equipment-wise) potential.
The miniature photographic ‘sets’ created by the organisers allowed exploration of abstract and macro concepts and technical skills. Bruce Nauman’s work here was an influence, though in the end more his work with neon than his holograms series, in terms of image and construction. Also it offered a small opportunity to work while thinking in the context of Lorenzo Vitturi’s still lifes.
One notable aspect of this was in technical challenges of focus, especially when taking the toy duck reflected in the droplet of water. It took a long, long time to get a usable photograph, without camera shake, and illustrated a long-term need to invest in the frame equipment.
Working in the final term of level 3 towards the Dreams/Reality project, my goal was to move on from the floral theme in the studio and at Kew Gardens to a ‘wilder’ goal including tentative spiritual exploration around ‘pilgrimage’.
This was very much taking forward the work from last term, working particularly with depth of field, aperture and shutter speed in manual mode, with some post-production effects being brought into play, to create a variety of effects around realism and surrealism.
It turned into two literal pilgrimages, but also became the proper start of a pilgrimage for me as I begin to find and create my own distinctive style, drawing on the work and influenced by the numerous masters in the field of photography.
For my term 3 project, based around creative exploration of the dreams/reality theme, I began my research by taking photos on pilgrimage. I was able to experiment with new techniques learned in Photoshop processing, such as masking and the use of lassoe and quick select to light and darken specific areas and enhance light and shade. Landscape is a great subject on which to practise with these tools and make the most of ethereal light, ancient stone and natural beauty. These photos, taken on a walk from Rochester to Aylesford Priory, are part of set taken for use at work. The main photo is a view of the Medway Valley from the North Downs Way on Blue Bell Hill near Rochester, Kent. I used photoshop select tool to enhance the light, in an attempt partly to evoke the atmosphere of the kind found in the photographs of Gregory Crewdson. Nature did not need much help from me here however! Read the related article about the newest pilgrimage route in the UK, the Augustine Camino, here.
Term two we analysed use of studio lighting in relation to product photography. We made a presentation on a particular photographer.
My presentation was on Robert Mapplethorpe, and found his studio work with flowers, both on their own and when photographed with people, incredibly inspiring.
Using dark backgrounds and split lighting techniques in the studio with a diffuser/softbox it was possible to create dramatic light and shade contrasts that highlighted the relationship of the flowers to the human subjects while presenting both flowers and people in their beauty and vulnerability.
For the flower on its own, the trick was to use a reflector also to make the light bounce back onto the stem, otherwise the stem would have been in complete darkness. Using also a low F-stop some sharpening of the stem was necessary in post-production.
Also studio assistance was needed to use a shield to ensure absolutely none of the light fell onto the background, to maintain the dramatic effect caused by total darkness.