Sunday, March 4, 2012

P29: re-photographing a well-known image

I had been looking forward to this project, already storing up a number of scenes in Munich that might work. However, last weekends trip to New York provided an almost ideal opportunity to explore this project.  Our hotel was close to Time Square on 39th and 8th.   We needed to go to a very specific shop on Union Square, and so walked South down Broadway.  Hitting Madison Square Park, between 26th and 23rd we arrived at the Flat Iron building.  Then the light bulb went off and the subject of this assignment became clear.  I have long admired the 1903 photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz of the Flat Iron Building

The lines and careful attention to the lighting impressed me when I was doing my TaOP course, to the extent that I tried something similar in my neighbourhood for Assignment 3:

Clearly not the same site, but attempting to capture the soft feel of Stieglitz's shot.  Clearly this was to good an opportunity to miss, but at the time of passing there was not enough time to spend exploring the area and figuring out how Stieglitz took the shot.  Heidi wanted some time to herself for shopping, so we arranged the following morning to split up and do our own thing for a few hours.  Before leaving the location I grabbed a quick shot just to help me plan the next day

Not so different from Stieglitz's original from a composition perspective! This gave me some hope that I could really close in on his location at the original time of shooting.

As the project text suggests, I had no real understanding of what focal length Stieglitz used, although looking at the image and also the year in which it was taken it was unlikely to be either very wide angle or telephoto. I am guessing he would have used a view camera with a fairly normal lens.  I was travelling with a mirrorless compact camera, a Samsung NX200, 1.5x crop camera.  I had 4 lenses, 16mm (24mm FF equivalent), 20mm (30), 30mm (45mm) and a 50-200mm zoom tele (75-300), so I was pretty confident I could get close to what Stieglitz was using.  I also wanted to use a prime lens to force me to move around and think about how the photograph was taken.

The first consideration was the location:

The Flat Iron building is the triangular block in the bottom left of the picture.  The photograph was taken from somewhere to the North East in the park.  Fortunately I was visiting in late winter and so did not have to contend with any foliage on the trees, in fact this project could not have been completed in summer.  I cannot determine from the photo what time of day the shot was taken, due to the overcast sky and snowfall.   However, clearly the photograph was taken with the Sun fairly high, I am guessing between 10am and 2 in the afternoon.  I was there between 10 and 11am.  The sky was clear and so I had quite different conditions than those that faced Stieglitz.  To help with composition I downloaded the original image onto my iPhone.

When I arrived back in Madison Square Park the first thing that was obviously quite clear, in 109 years since the original photograph was taken the place has changed.  What surprised me, however, was that the change was not as great as might have been expected.  The benches and pathways had altered significantly, but the trees seemed to be in pretty much the same locations.

The above photo is getting close to the angle, however, the framing is far too wide, I needed to get in closer.  By this stage the lens selection had pretty much made itself, the 30mm (45) was clearly the correct lens. The 16mm and 20mm were far too wide, I would have to stand in front of the trees for either of these lenses to frame the building correctly.  I also deduced from the profile of the building and the position of the tree in the background that the original was made from close to that tree.

The ground had changed quite a bit, where Stieglitz once stood is now an enclosed Dog park, a place for NYC's pooches to run free in the city.  So hoping that the local dogs would not object, I moved in closer.  The below photograph is getting close, in fact I am pretty sure that it is the same tree, although now much broader and with slightly different shapes in the branches.

My final shot is very close to Stieglitz's original, I have cropped a little to bring in the shapes.

Processing to B&W for better comparison, I am pretty close, could be better but not bad.  The lighting is very different, but I think I have the framing nearly right.  A little to the left to open a larger gap between the tree and building would have helped.    The flag pole did not exist in 1903, it is a memorial for WW1.  When Stieglitz took the original, the Flat Iron was the first skyscraper this far North in Manhatten, so was quite isolated.  My photograph shows the encroachment of newer buildings.  If I had  more time I would have waited for an overcast day that would have delivered more consistent and similar lighting, sadly I had a plane to catch.

Having stood in nearly the same place as Stieglitz I then set out to think about how I would do this if I had no idea of the original photograph.  My first thought was to back off a little and frame with the flag pole that was obscuring my original shot.  As a reference shot fro the building this works better, it still conveys the characteristic thinness of the buildings, but gains some context from the stars and stripes.  This is clearly in America.

Another approach could be to use the telephoto and zoom in closer on the detail of the building, interesting ro an architecture student, but not very striking.

Any photo of this building needs to convey its remarkable shape, the next shot does this but once again is not terribly interesting, as well as being very badly lit.

A better shot would place the building into its environment yet retain the structural elements, I think the following does this quite well.

However, for me the most interesting aspect of the area around the building is the way the streets are bisected.

I think this is a more contemporary view, still capturing the uniqueness of the building, but at a human level rather the the monumental view that Stieglitz captured.  At the time this view would have been very different, the buildings on either side would have been very much lower and the sense of the city very much diminished.

However, Stieglitz's photo captured the sense of winter, cold and bleak with the building looking out of the murk.  In all of my shots the light is too strong and crisp to capture a similar essence.

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