This is one of my favourite shots from the long-term Swanage project that Simon and I have been doing. Unfortunately, so far this year I have not had a chance to get down there to add to the project.
Whilst I was out yesterday, I had a bit of a realisation about shooting street photography in colour. As I was shooting on film you are going to have to imagine this! I saw a scene where there was a women seated wearing red, with red hair and two bikes behind her which were also red. Together they sort of formed a triangle. I quickly shot the scene, then moved on. I realised that it was the colour that was important in the scene, less so the person and what they were doing. My ‘realisation’ is that your eye goes to the colour first, then the person (particularly red).
This is why I like this shot below, as the red flags form a line that direct you to the person with the red umbrella. It’s also why I like Kodak Portra film as the colours are very different in their tone to what you see on a digital camera.
I have been a bit quiet lately as we have a new addition to the family (number 3!), which has understandably not left much time for, well, anything really!
I got a some rolls of film back from the processor a couple of weeks ago of the work from the Swanage Project. There are about 400 shots to scan and go through, which is going to take ages. But, in the meantime here are a couple of shots while I work out a system to catalogue and scan the work into some kind of order!
Recently, Simon and I visited Swanage to continue our work on the project. One of the things that was in my mind before I drove down there was ‘what’s this project actually about?’ It’s been one of those projects which is really enjoyable to do, but continually unclear as to what the major themes are, beyond that of colours and contrasts.
Previously, we had spent much of our time photographing around the beach and town centre. This time we concentrated more on the back streets. Walking around what felt like the lesser explored part of the town was fascinating. It also added a whole new dimension to the project – that of depth. There was a strong physical sense of space, but also psychological depth – in terms of town’s character.
The physical depth between the thin strip of beach marks the division between land and sea, this was the most populous part of the town (obviously, especially so in the summer). The backstreets were much quieter, silent even. The streets became elements that defined local identity and character – beyond what is seen in the touristic sea front (as a person who grew up in Cornwall, I am very used to the impact of tourism on communities). What we found was a more subtle and quirky world – the previous post shows two large toy tigers ‘lazing’ on a roof top. We also saw numerous other interesting items. However, at the moment, the films containing the latent images are still stored in my freezer…
I suspect this contrast will be probably the major theme for the work – the contrast between the ‘public’ beach and the more ‘personal’ backstreets, where more subtle ‘off camera’ (as such!) performances are held to be a bit Goffman about it all.
Hopefully, when we return to the town in the summer, we will continue to build up this picture of the town. What’s enjoyable about the project, but also what’s challenging about it, is it’s exploratory nature. Not quite knowing where it is going to go is part of the fun, but also part of the difficulty. Holding that tension is my challenge…!
Photography is a funny old thing really, for the most part you have no idea who took a photograph. The photographic process is very impersonal. Particularly nowadays, you just press a button and ‘ta da’ there’s a picture on the LCD screen. There are a few photographers, like Anders Petersen, whose work is strongly recognisable. Jacob Aue Sobol is another photographer who has a strong and identifiable body of work. They utilise techniques and create content that (at least when you know of them) make you quickly think ‘that’s Petersen’. I can’t say that for a lot of photographers. Even the great Cartier-Bresson, I recognise his work because it is so famous. But, it doesn’t have the same unique marker that Petersen’s has.
Whilst my work will never be that unique, I do like the idea of making it much more ‘mine’. As I was driving to work today (it’s a long drive, about an hour and a half), I was thinking about how I would help one of my daughters to understand what photography is as opposed to ‘snap shots’. Really, I was thinking about how I should understand photography. The viewpoint in my mind was to “make the work personal and allow it to show others how you see the world”. When I look at photographs, half the time I am interested in the world view of the photographer as much as the images. It’s their personal and emotional take on the things that happen in life which is the most interesting part. I really couldn’t care a lot of the time whether an image is sharp, well composed or technically perfect – I am much more interested in the emotional reaction it is attempting to evoke in me.
The work of Eugene Smith, such as his ‘country doctor’ work, is a great example of the power to evoke a sense of time, place and emotion. Smith is, for me, one of the great photographers precisely because of his ability to create emotional images so brilliantly.
In recent times, I have become interested in connecting images together to gain a sense of narrative, rather than the single image. I do love the single image stuff, but my interest nowadays is mostly about trying to create a more nuanced view of a topic than before. Following my ‘advice to my daughter’ the point is to create a view of what a subject means to me, rather than a supposedly more neutral or objective view.
So when I shoot at Swanage, what I am really saying is ‘what does this place mean to me?’ rather than a more straight document covering the typical parts of the town and beach. The first approach becomes a process of discovery of my experience of the place, whilst the second approach is more flat and boring to me in that my subjective experience is muted in the work. I have been shooting consciously with the second mindset, but unconsciously with the first. So to harmonise things, it makes sense to firmly locate my project work in the ‘what does this place mean to me’ sphere, not only because it makes things more personally interesting but also because it feels much more congruent with me.
This photograph taken from our shoot there this weekend is a move in the right direction. I will post up some of my thoughts about the recent trip soon.
This week, my friend Simon and I met up to have a pint and look at some of the work we have done so far with the Swanage project. This is a project contrasting the place between the summer (where it is packed with tourists) and winter (where it returns to being primarily a local community). This year we have been quite loose in our aims and have been mindful of the mass of work that has been done before about the British at the seaside. Martin Parr, Tony Ray Jones are two giants in this area.
Swanage is a great location in that it seems psychologically cut-off from the area around it, it has a feel that you are stepping into another place and another time. The town has a traditional seaside feel to it (where people use crabbing buckets, eat lots of fish and chips (very nice by the way!) etc. In the summer it is awash with people, and I can imagine that people would return to the place on several occasions over the years. It has that kind of quaint feel to it.
In the winter, the place seems to take on a different and darker character. The place feels more local, but it also feels more threatening and less welcome. This feeling might be ‘you had the place in the summer, but it’s ours now’. Growing up in Cornwall, I remember experiencing a similar feeling when the emmets (holiday makers) have gone back home. This contrast is really interesting, and certainly something that we want to thread into our work!
Taking a “let’s see what will emerge from the trips stance” has been an interesting approach. We are getting a body of work together now, and are starting to pull out some themes to organise how we think about the town. Contrast and colour have been dominant, but also how differently we both look at the town. Simon, it turns out, steps in closer than me. He is good at isolating the subject and creating a strong feeling of emotion in his work. My style is more about bringing the environment into the imagery. I tend to create less of an emotional closeness, but a more distant and reflective stance. That can only be a good thing, as we can invite the viewer to think in different ways.
However, we are still at a point using this approach where we are thinking “what is this project about?” and “what actually are we trying to say here?” We are getting a little clearer, but I still don’t think we have really got to grips with what the project is about. So far, it’s been a lot of fun, which is great. But, in terms of photography and saying something, there is a long way to go…
I was down in Swanage again this weekend with my friend. We are jointly shooting the town as part of a longer-term project contrasting the place between summer and winter. It’s really good to work alongside another photographer, particularly as our styles are quite different. It certainly makes for some good learning as we share ideas between one another. I really enjoy it.
I went down in the afternoon and took the available light shots on film until it got too dark. I have no idea what will come out of that part of the work. When it got dark (and after a brief foray into a local pub!) I turned to digital, the ridiculously high ISO capabilities of the Canon make night shooting possible in a way that is not realistic with film for me. I regularly shoot between ISO 5000 and 12800. The shots are noisy, I did start to convert them into black and white, but then I decided to pop them back into colour. Even though they are a bit rough, I do quite like the effect.
The project is still evolving. I am taking an ethnographic approach in that I get certain types of images, then once I have got enough of a certain type it’s time to move on to get another. At some point either the work will start to repeat itself, or I run out steam on the project. I am not sure what the project is about, but that’ll become clearer over time as the whole thing starts to shape up. However, it’s a slow burner so I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Swanage feels separate to other places that I have been to. It feels physically more cut off from other places, but also the town and its touristic feel seems to be from another earlier British era. This quality gives the town its character, but at the moment I am not sure if I have managed to capture that sense of it being a little microcosm on the images. Hopefully, this will change over time.
My favourite shot is of the lone palm tree at night. I just love it!