Friday, August 26, 2011

Assignment 1: Submission - Introduction

As the UK prepares for the 2012 London Olympics, the word legacy is frequently used to partly justify the vast expense of the undertaking, sometimes without a great deal of explanation as to what that legacy is expected to be.  With this photographic study I explore the actual legacy left by an Olympic games nearly 40 years on.  The 1972 Munich Olympics was seen by the then West Germany as a coming of age, moving on from the dark days of the 2nd World War and its immediate aftermath into a brighter more prosperous future.  It was planned as the show case of a nation reborn. Sadly the games will be mostly remembered, not for great sporting achievements such as Mark Spitz’s 7 gold medals in the pool, but for the attack on the Israeli team that left 17 dead.
Since starting my first course with the OCA, the 1972 games site has been a source of photographic fascination, combining a variety of environments with a space in which the people of the city come together to relax, exercise, and live their lives. Although I used an element of the park, the Olympic Tower, in my 3rd Assignment for “People and Place”, I have yet to include the broader expanse of the site in my photographic studies.  When I decided to use this location for the current assignment I needed more than simply a common location to pull the images together, I needed a narrative thread that would enable me to tell something of the story of the site as well as to illustrate its current use. What makes the site so special, is that there is a strong juxtaposition between the joyful use of the landscape and deep sadness that underlies its’ existence. 
Most of the young people who today cycle and roller blade around the site are unaware of where they are and what they are standing on.  In my introduction, I mentioned the attack on the Israeli team; however, there is a far greater tragedy deep within the Olympic Park.  The stadiums are built on a low range of hills just North of the city, but still within the urban sprawl. Just south of the main stadium is a large hill, 50m high, the “Olympiaberg”.  All around the land is flat. The hills of the Olympiapark are artificial; they are literally the bones of the old city of Munich, the remnant of a city bombed into the ground during the 2nd World War. Countless bodies lie in the mounds of rubble that make up the landscape. A cross at the summit of the hill commemorates this human tragedy. 
The site on which these hills sit was once Munich’s airport, Oberwiesenfeld.  From here a plane took off in 1938 that carried Neville Chamberlain back to Britain from a meeting with Adolf Hitler.  He stepped from that plane to make the infamously ill omened “Peace for our Time” speech.  The games was literally built upon the ruinous legacy of the 2nd World War, a conflict with its origins in Munich and which ultimately brought about the destruction of the city. 
40 years on, what is the legacy that we now enjoy? What remains of the site and how is it used? In 12 photographs I can only scratch the surface of these questions, however, I intend that the images selected will illustrate the integral place that the Olympic site has in the hearts of the citizens of Munich.
The Olympic Site divides into 2 distinct, but connected sites; in the south is the Olympiapark, containing the Olympiaberg and the stadium complex.  In the North, just across the city ring road, is the Olympiadorf which contains the Olympic Village used to house the athletes, coaches and officials.  This again divides into two zones, the Student Village and a large apartment complex, home to 10,000 people.  Each of these 4 locations, the berg, the stadiums, the student village, and the apartment complex is represented by a sequence of 3 photographs.
Apart from providing subject matter for this assignment, the Olympic site also has advantages for development of my portfolio. It is no more than 30 minutes away and possesses a wide range of “parkland” and “urban” landscapes that will show distinctive change as the seasons pass.  It is also a place I love to explore and photograph, so presents no hardship to return many times over the next year.
This assignment also builds upon a growing interest in the urban landscape that began with People and Place and continued to develop during Digital Photographic Practice.  I have a long standing interest in the architecture of my city and how the population occupy the spaces created within. At present it is my goal to complete as much of this course as possible within the immediate surroundings of Munich, building upon the Legacy idea. However, it is early stages and I need to avoid artificially constraining my development as a photographer.  We shall see how this develops.
Many challenges presented themselves in pulling this set together, many of them technical and discussed below, but a few artistic/thematic problems needed to be solved.  First of all the assignment was to capture the current season, selecting the site of the “Summer” Olympics was not going to be enough.  Representing summer within an urban site has its own unique challenges, there are few clues to the season in a building.  I needed to include seasonal clues within the photographs. First of all these can be found in the people inhabiting some of the photographs; how they dress, what they are doing.  The second clue comes from the quality of the plant life and in particular the sky in the photographs; deep greens combine with the “Blau-Weiss Himmel” of the sky.  The characteristic puffy white clouds of the southern German summer are symbolized in the checkered flag of Bavaria and the badge of BMW.  Finally the strong summer sun generates sharp shadows and with care bold vibrant colours.
Part of the reason this assignment took a long time to complete was the lack of said Blau-Weiss Himmel, Graü Himmel would have been a better description for most of this summer.  Within the 4 sets of 3 images I wanted to maintain harmony of lighting and colour, which led to many revisits to shoot scenes over again with a more consistent lighting.
A further challenge was to avoid the submission becoming a Social Documentary study.  It was important to populate the images; however, I had to reject many good images that presented more as a study of people than the environment they occupy.  The overall problem of image selection took two weeks to solve, building many candidate sets and then tearing them down. Reducing from over 1,000 photographs to 12 was more difficult than I expected.  I could quite happily have developed this into a book with 50-80 photographs and still have had a hard time choosing. 
Finally I have tried to avoid following any one specific style or approach to these photographs, although I think I can see that beginning to develop.  I am influenced by other artists, in particular German photographers of the Düsseldorf School, but also Stephen Shore and Martin Parr, however, in most cases I have not consciously tried to incorporate their style into my work; again looking at the images I suspect that is happening in any case and will comment where I see this.
Starting out to photograph the area, my intent was to be very systematic, carefully constructing each shot, working with a tripod and prime lenses.  Reality turned out differently.  I did follow the original approach for some of the time, but rapidly found that the weight of equipment coupled with constraints on movement were limiting my creativity.  Subsequently, I left the tripod at home and picked up my zoom lenses for much of the work.  I spent a lot of time walking around the location, exploring different views, trying to understand the structure of the terrain and how the buildings interrelated.  I felt a need to engage with the space and work out what it meant to me personally as well as graphically.  Traveling light helped with this process and subsequently many of the best images were found rather than planned.
All but one of the images was made with my full frame Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, the exception being a concert shot with a Canon G10 compact.  As stated above I planned to use predominantly prime lenses, for their better contrast and colour definition.  In the end I worked my way through 17mm, 24mm, 35mm, and 100mm primes, as well as 16-35mm, 17-40mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm, and 70-300mm zooms.  Ultimately 10 of the photos selected were made with either the 17-40mm zoom or the 17/24mm tilt-shift primes.  The lesson I learned from this was that versatility frequently won out over absolute image quality, especially when dealing with shots that contain moving people, the shot you capture will always be better than the one that is missed.
When it comes to static architectural subjects, a perspective control lens changes the game, enabling shots that otherwise would be impossible. I learned how to use these lenses without a tripod, carefully aligning the lens with a vertical object in the frame and then manually focusing.  To aid this I switched out the focusing screen in my camera with one that contained framing lines.  This was not a perfect process and some extra work was needed in software, however, I was quite surprised by the versatility of these lenses when used handheld.  The bright summer sky also helped, I was able to shoot at f/11 and ISO 100, but still obtain a shutter speed in excess of 1/125s.
Post processing was challenging, particularly achieving acceptable colour balance.  Every photograph had subtle colour variations, individually not an issue, but troublesome when placed adjacent to other images in the set.  I processed all of the photos in Lightroom, carefully adjusting colour channels in each image to balance the degree of saturation and tonality in the greens and blues, the colours that presented the biggest issues.  When shooting I did not use filters, but in many of the images I have applied grad filters in software to either brighten or darken the skies and occasionally the foreground.
Each shot is sized for printing on an A4 sheet with a 1cm margin for handling, an aspect ratio of 1.46:1, pretty close to the 1.5:1 of my camera. I have sharpened all images for print and checked each print when complete for colour balance and detail – this is an area where I still have much to learn.  The images submitted have been converted from 16 bit Tiffs (Adobe RGB) to medium quality JPEGs (sRGB), which has lost some quality when compared to the prints.
1.     I am a “gear head”; I love the technology and craft of digital photography and am lucky to have a job that supports that passion. However, there is no substitute for being there! Traveling light and carrying a single zoom lens reduced the fatigue of walking up and down hills in 30 degree heat. 
2.     I think too much about what I do, I over worked this assignment, partly because I did not have a clear objective when I started – I need to be more focused, plan the shoot and shoot the plan. There was a distinct risk of continual creep in my goals, never achieving an end.  As a student this is merely a time issue, as a professional it is the road to missed deadlines and disappointed clients.
3.     Although I have yet to understand what I feel landscape to be, this assignment has helped immensely.  I admire the grand vista of the mountains or the delicate softness of a sun rise over the fields, however, my personal taste is tending towards the concrete, glass and steel of the city.
4.     When pulling together a set of images intended to work as a sequence, it is critical to first select photographs that work together, even rejecting more powerful shots in favour of narrative consistency.  Secondly these photographs must have a degree of tonal similarity, bouncing from brilliant blue skies to muddy grey simply doesn’t work.
5.     I struggle with colour, I instinctively reach for the increase saturation control when editing.  For this set I have tried to restrain that impulse and have printed each shot to check for consistency in the final copy.  I have still included bright colours, emblematic of summer in central Europe, but have consciously avoided over saturating the photographs. 
Below is a screen print from Google Maps showing the area in which I worked.  The location is roughly 2km long North to South and 1km wide.  The 4 areas that I featured in the image set are marked out, plus the BMW factory, the industrial “Legacy” of Munich’s past.   I did make a study of this area, but could not make it work within a 12 image set.

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