Assignment 3: a linking theme – “Transient Light”
It is often the green space rather than the buildings that defines the character of a city. Munich, more than most cities, enjoys large expanses of parkland, partly a legacy of recent reconstruction, but also due to foresight in the early planning of the city. Created in 1789 the Englischer Garten is a vast swath of parkland stretching 5 km North from the city centre, covering nearly 4 square kilometres of ground. “English Gardens” refers both to the style of the park and to its creator, Sir Benjamin Thompson, an Englishman serving as the Bavarian war minister. Originally conceived by Thompson as a space for War Veterans to cultivate for food and to generate income, the park quickly evolved into a public garden.
Today it is the green lung of the city, a space truly loved by Munich’s citizens and through the several excellent beer gardens, by many of its visitors. From spring until autumn the park is crowded with people escaping the heat of their apartments, seeking open ground to picnic, play sports, party, or simply drowse in the sun. In winter, snow and ice transform the park into a venue for sledging and skating, whilst the beer gardens switch to Mulled Wine.
Early in the morning the park takes on a very different character; the only people to be found are dog walkers, fitness enthusiasts and a few hardy souls cycling to work. At this time the park seems almost endless, sounds of the city are softened by the surrounding trees, and it is possible to imagine that you are deep in the countryside. When the weather is just right streams flowing through the park emit a fine mist that struggles to rise far above the ground. Sun rise quickly burns away the mist, but for a short time just before and after dawn the air is filled with a magical luminance, “Transient Light”.
From this I evolved the idea of an extended study of this early morning light in the park, targeting the creation of a photo book and accompanying DVD setting the photographs to music. With Christmas in mind and the book as a planned gift, I needed to complete the photography by mid-November, giving me 6 weeks to develop and complete the project. Hitting my deadline I had ample material for the concept I had in mind and produced the following book/video.
At this stage I took stock and decided that I was not finished with this project, so opted to extend it into the subject for this assignment. This subject gave me a chance to explore a different facet of the city, something softer than the glass, concrete and steel that has dominated my earlier assignments. The question of the theme arose, my book was titled “Transient Light”, but in truth I have only really considered a very finite subset of transient light, specifically the evolution of dawn light and its interaction with ground mist. The assignment calls for 8 different photographs illustrating a single theme, but, how different need different be?
Furthermore, I am limiting my imagery to a very specific locale, no larger than a few football fields and immediately adjacent to the Eisbach stream that runs through the middle of the park. Working in this small area had become very important to me; I got to know every tree and fold in the ground, and could anticipate the quality of light based upon weather forecast and time of day. The whole experience became increasingly personal; I found myself relating very strongly to where I was and became attuned to the gradual changes in the park as autumn passed into winter. I explored other locations, still within the park, but the imagery I obtained, whilst consistent with the basic brief of the assignment did not sit well with the other photographs.
By selecting a small locals and specific time of day I have tried to bring focus to the quality of the light as the defining element within the photographs, the “difference” being more to do with light than topology. But, I still understand the need to create interest in the subject matter. As with my other photographic assignments, people are an important element within these photographs, a city is as much its people as its landscape. I found that the dawn light could be divided into 4 distinct colour palettes.
- Before dawn the world was basically white with muted pastel colours emerging from the mist.
- As the sun rose and crossed the tree line it turned the mist golden and yielded an almost sepia monochrome lighting.
- As the ground froze with winter, the air cleared and colour became dominated by the blue sky reflecting in the frozen ground and water; accented by bright yellow sunlight diffusing through the sparse mist.
- Finally, as the sun climbed higher in the sky, it gave way to the full spectrum of colours, but softened by the mist.
My photographs are thus divided into 4 pairs each illustrating these colour palettes, but within each pair a very different compositional strategy. Extending this project further, as I intend to do, I expect the environment to change further; the snow we have missed thus far will sharpen the contrast, whilst the soft greens of spring will bring yet another tonality to my photographs.
Before moving onto a discussion of the more practical elements of completing this assignment, I must say that I was greatly influenced in producing these pictures by two photographers whose work I was studying at the time. Both photographers have produced work that is very much a study of colour and tone, with structural elements playing a secondary role in their photography. The first photographer was Joel Meyerowitz and his “Cape Light”, a series of beautiful softly lit studies of Cape Cod. The second is Richard Misrach and his book “The Sky Book”. Misrach takes the theme of colour far further than Meyerowitz, most of the photographs in the book are simply studies of early morning skies shot in the US deserts. The only details are clouds and star trails created in some of the very long exposures. His work is very emotive and for me very personal, the book was a favorite of my father who lost a 6 month battle with a post-operative infection 4 years ago. This book was always at his side, it somehow helped ease some of the pain. A retired high-energy physicist, at the time he was studying for a degree in art and was a keen amateur astronomer; his ashes were buried beneath his telescope plinth in the garden. I think that is a good deal to do with why I am enrolled in this course.
The challenge was to create 8 photographs within a small space with sufficient visual variety to create a compelling submission. I visited the park in the hour of dawn over 20 times from early October until late December; then faced the task of reducing 2,730 images down to 8 for this submission. Editing and sequencing proved very challenging, indeed it is those skills that I find myself struggling with far more than the actual technical capture and processing of the photographs.
My evening task was to check the weather and obtain the forecast temperature and humidity for 7am the following day. From these two numbers I could calculate the dew point and with reasonable assurance predict whether there would be sufficient ground mist to make a trip worthwhile. The selected area of the park is 40 minutes walk from my home. I needed to be on site about 30 minutes before the sun rose above the trees fringing the park, giving me roughly 60 minutes worth of useable light before the sun either rose too high or the mist evaporated in the warm light.
Unlike other photographic exercises I took a fairly casual approach to selection of equipment, this was about capturing mood in low light levels rather than creating pixel precise imagery. I predominantly used my Canon 5D2 and 24-105mm zoom, Image Stabilization and high ISO helping greatly in the early morning gloom. I did use a 70-300mm zoom, but quickly found that whilst the telephoto compression was useful, shots taken from a distance became overly dull due to the intervening fog. For the two photographs with a blue caste I had my very much unexpected Christmas present, a Fujifilm Finepix X100, a lovely fixed lens “rangefinder” style camera with a 35mm field of view. This proved to be an excellent tool for this assignment; I only wish I could have used it earlier. I abandoned use of a tripod, I found it too restrictive and as the light was continually changing I needed to be quite mobile. I also wanted to capture moving people, so there was little value to be gained from the longer exposures a tripod would permit.
I have chosen a very deliberate 2:1 almost panoramic aspect ratio for all of the photographs in this project. This was primarily driven by the need for continuity in the book and video, but also because it worked well with the subject matter I had to deal with. Once I had selected the final 8 images, all were put through Lightroom for conversion to Tiffs for printing. As some of the images are far more marginal in terms of definition than I would normally work with I wanted to ensure that prints would look right and so took care to print each to A3 size on Matte paper. I feel that the Matte paper works well with the softer colours in these photographs and holds the blacks very well.
- Shooting over and over again at around the same time in the same space enabled me to get much closer to my subject. I was better able to predict when and where the best lighting conditions would occur and could time my movements accordingly.
- Although not an element of this specific submission, the development of the book and video forced me to think very carefully about sequencing a set of photographs, both from a subject, but also from a colour continuity perspective.
- Although this was by far the most “Landscape” project I have yet to undertake, I find myself needing to include people in the photographs, I am uncomfortable with images that do not ground themselves in the human experience. Whilst, not Social Documentary, this human element is starting to become a key element of my work.