Saturday, September 24, 2011

Assignment 2: Exploration

I have to admit that I having doubts about whether I can create as compelling a set of photographs as I did with the first Assignment.  The location I am currently considering, St Jakobs-Platz, has great narrative potential, but I am not yet convinced of it's photographic potential.  Conversely, this might be a problem for any small location, the variety of imagery is going to be limited and the point of this assignment is to develop an ability to document a space in a varied yet thought provoking manner.  For previous courses I have already completed similar exercises, as an example for the B&W assignment in DPP:  DPP: Assignment 3.  I have also done some detailed studies of locations in build up for other projects or assignments. In these cases the context was more limited, the point of the work was not the space, but demonstrating ability in a particular form of digital photography.

I have a few other spaces in mind for this assignment, each of which would, I believe, deliver good photography, but without a continuation of the legacy theme from my first assignment.  This is the point I am at, I have thought of building the entire course around a single theme, "Legacy", but this might inhibit rather than stimulate my development as a photographer.  I think a central narrative would add structure to the overall course, but only if I can make it work.  I can see how this could develop towards Assignment 3, I am less sure how it would work for Assignment 5.

In any case I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon simply walking around St. Jakobs-Platz, getting a feel for the place and watching the light shifting.  A key challenge in urban photography is that light is far less forgiving than in a more open space.  Shadows are harder and develop faster than in the countryside.  A tight space may only have direct light for a few hours.  I have been shooting mostly during the day in clear skies (the prevailing weather right now), which is probably more challenging than working with cloud cover.  This location will also work well in the rain, especially with a B&W theme.

I am not processing these photographs to B&W for this post.  I want to retain the colour for the time being.  I have divided the photographs into a number of themes that drew me whilst walking around.  The first is the Stadtmuseum, the old city armory built in the late Gothic style, and very strikingly different from the synagogue.  One reason that I have left these images in colour is that I love the colour combination of the roofs with the sky

What I have tried to do with this set of images is to explore different angles for shooting the museum together with different framing.  In each case I am very concerned to keep people in the frame to add scale, but also to emphasize that this is a public space.  The  second image works best for me in this set, the overlap of the glass and concrete with the museum, coupled with the people walking adds depth and helps describe the interlock of elements within the space.

I next turned my attention to the synagogue, struggling with the light, in fact from no angle was the building evenly lit at this time of day.

This image is back lit adding some, but not much, luminance to the glass cube sitting above the lower block.  The line of black columns are an anti-terrorist device, every approach to the synagogue is protected with these columns, each topped by a red light and capable of being retracted into the ground.  There is an obsession here with security, clearly driven by the Isreal connection, but also sadly by threats from German neo-nazi groups.  These barriers could form an important part of my narrative and link the intolerance of the past to fears in the present.

In this second shot of the synagogue I have deliberately used the shadow as a pictorial element, but without any special meaning, this is simply an exploration of shape and form.

Next I started thinking about how to capture details of the synagogue, first considering the challenge of how to image the wall and glass cube.  The first image uses the specular reflection of the sun to add a detail, it clearly does not work, but is a possible if I can work the sun into the frame work.

In the second shot,I have used the sky to add texture to the cube, whilst including both sky and wall in the frame.  This one works for me and has some potential as a detail.

Another way to use the wall in the photographs is via juxtaposition, using the wall as one edge of the frame

Again, this idea needs more thought and development, it will also work better in a tight crop with softer light.

Stepping away from the buildings and their architecture, I turned my lens towards the people occupying the space, enjoying the sun.  St.-Jakobs-Platz has a number of seated areas, which gather people together.  In many of these shots I have gone with panoramic framing to emphasize the people

With these photographs I want to steer this assignment towards "People and Place", avoiding turning this into a simple architectural study, tempting though that might be.  Each photograph must imbue itself with the location as well as the people, must remember that this is the Landscape course.

The two key features of St.-Jakobs-Platz are the synagogue and Stadtsmuseum, however, a number of other buildings intersect the space, two of these are the Jewish Museum and Jewish Center.  Both are very modern buildings, stone faced with plenty of glass.  This glass reflects the other buildings and people, especially as the light falls in the afternoon.

These photos offer juxtaposition, in particular the first one has the old museum reflected in the windows of the new.

I finish with a few images, that do not sit within a category

Just off one edge of the Platz is a short street filled with open air cafes, in good weather this is a popular hang out.

This intrigued me, the two posters and the waiter smoking underneath them

My final image is an odd one, this is the very understated museum of the 3rd Reich, a difficult place for Munich, but a sign of growing acceptance of the past and recognition of a new to admit to what happened and move on.

Working through these photographs I find that I am more comfortable with the location, but it still needs some thought if this is going to be strong enough for my 2nd Assignment.

My final comment concerns equipment and focal lengths.  For this shoot I took 3 prime lenses, a 35mm, 85mm, and my 24mm TS-E.  I used the lenses fairly evenly, however looking at the exif on this set of shots: 12 came from the 35, 10 from the 85, and only 2 with the 24.  I am increasingly finding that 35mm is a great focal length for working in the city, good field of view combined with excellent contrast.  The 85 allowed me to step away from my subjects, allowing some compression of planes, but without placing me too far away.  The 24 was less useful this time as I was more concerned with people in the space, than with the space itself.  The tilt-shift lenses are fabulous for inner city work, but are not well suited to quick moving exploration, they work best with a slower more deliberate method.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Photographer: Michael Wolf

I first came across Michael Wolf in a compendium of photographers work published alongside the 3rd Prix Pictet in 2010.
Prix Pictet Growth
The competition requested work looking at the theme of growth, predominantly being answered in the context of global development and its impact upon the planet and it's inhabitants.  Among the photographers nominated or shortlisted for the prize and thus included in the book, was the winner Mitch Epstein with his series "American Power", investigating the addiction of Americans to power and the hold it has over them.  Thomas Struth also featured with his Paradise series, as did Chris Jordan with his shocking series of images of decaying corpses of albatross chicks, their bodies full of plastic debris mistakenly fed to them.  However, the stand out for me, visually at least, if not politically, was a series of photographs by Michael Wolf of high density housing in Hong Kong.  I immediately ordered the volume from which this entry was taken
This was a definite case of not being quite sure what I had ordered, when it arrived there were 2 volumes, not 1, in a semi-transparent slip case, a fabulous package and now a very treasured possession.  The two volumes were labeled "Hong Kong Outside" and "Hong Kong Inside".  The former was a series of photographs of the external walls of vast high-rise housing developments, investigating the colour and form of these frankly terrifying places to live.  None of the photographs show either the sky or the ground, the buildings seem limitless.  The sense of infinity is further enhanced by the repetition of 102 images.  Although very similar, each is also quite different, the detail pulls the eye across the frame, looking into windows or at cloths hanging on frames.  The power here comes from the control of the frame and the use of repeating, but occasionally broken symmetry.

However, the first volume is the easy part, the second volume is a portrayal of comfort and horror, often contained in the same frame.  From outside he turned inward; 100 photographs of individual apartments, each no more than 120 square feet in size.  Every photo is taken from a very similar angle (no window or door is visible) and each reveals the inhabitant sitting within their tiny space.  Opposite each page is a brief description of age, profession, and why they like to live there.  At first it is quite shocking to see people in such small spaces, crowded with their possessions and furniture.  However, as I stepped through the book, I started to look at the details, photos on walls, small decorations, food they have just bought.  My gaze was pulled into each photograph and each demanded to be read, to delve into these peoples lives.  After a time, realization dawns that for most of these people this is not hell, it a comfortable place to live, surrounded by friends and their prized possessions.  

Except, that is for the rooms that are nearly empty.  Normally occupied by a single man, some of the rooms have little more than a bed, a chair, and perhaps a TV set. Here the comparison is immediately with a prison cell and questions arise as to why someone would choose such a spartan existence.  How do they fill their lives, why do they have nothing, why,...

These two books ask powerful questions about urban life, how many people can we sustain this way, how can we tolerate such living conditions.  However, in a world with continued population growth, this might be a vision of the future, not some kind of quasi-medieval past. Seen through European eyes, in which a house with 10 times this space is still considered small, these images are shocking; seen from an Asian perspective, I suspect not so much.

Photographically the strength of this work comes from repetition of form, illustrating difference by constant framing, enabling the eye to seek out the story without the distraction of first having to decipher the geometry of the photograph.  Although Michael Wolf is German, he studied in the US and works in Asia.  He is not a graduate of Duesseldorf, but, once again I see the influence of the Bechers and their typographies coming to the fore in this work.

Overall I find his work deeply fascinating and an excellent example of urban landscape photography, it strikes a chord somewhere deep in my psyche, perhaps my desire for order and symmetry finds a friend in his work.  Whilst I do not see myself stepping down the route of typographies, I do find inspiration in the control of the frame and the density of his images.  As I continue towards Assignment 2, I will keep this work in mind.

All of these photographs can be found on his web site: Michael Wolf

Sunday, September 18, 2011

P15: Planning your portfolio

I have already blogged on my selection of location and framing for the 4 seasonal images.  Since then I have spent some time trying to capture an image that works with Summer, not as easy as I thought it might be.

First of all I want to return to the location and place it into context.  In the middle on the Eastern side of the Englischer Garten is the Monopteros, a Victorian romantic vision of a Greek temple.

From the top a good view is offered looking South into the park

What I like about the view from this point is that it captures the park, the city, and the people of Munich from a unique vantage point and one that is fairly easily replicated.  I have chosen to use a focal length of 100mm with the path crossing the photo acting as the foot of the photo and the skyline as the top.  The interest in the image is provided by the variety of people and foliage that occupies the middle ground.  The trees in the left and right foreground vary during the year, but never obscure the view.

The immediate challenge was to get a good image that would be representative of Summer,  here I met my first challenge.  By shooting South I was always shooting partially into the sun and ending up with a  weak sky and high contrast.  At other times of year this is less of a problem as I would shoot early or late in the day.  In the summer I needed to shoot in the afternoon as that is when people are in the park.  Summer needs to be reflected in the people who throng the park.  The other seasons will be better represented by the changes in the landscape.  Here are my 4 candidate images for Summer:

None of them are ideal, contrast and colour are problems, I think the first of the set is probably the best.  I like the people and I have a better sky than in others.  I suspect that the summer shot will be the weakest, I have shot here before at other times of the year and know how good the landscape can look, so am confident that I can build a good set of photographs.

Assignment 2: Location

Following on from my first assignment that looked at the legacy left by Munich's 1972 Olympic games, I want to stay with a historical narrative and continue to examine Munich's past and present through the lens of my camera.  I started with the rebirth of Germany's hopes through the architecture and landscape of the Olympic park.  Now I plan to step back to the more difficult question of Munich's Jewish history and the appalling legacy left by the Nazi parties genocidal policies.  There are a number of locations in which I could develop this assignment, the Dachau concentration camp is just an hour away on the train.  Alternatively around Koenigsplatz there are a number of old party buildings.  However, I am drawn to a location in the center of the city in which there is a cluster of new buildings that attempt to deal with the past and to start again.  This is Sankt-Jacobs Platz, just south of the city center.

Situated here is the brand new Munich Synagogue, Munich Jewish Center, and the Jewish Museum, all very recently built.  Opposite is the Munich City Museum, documenting Munich's past and very recently opening a ground breaking exhibition on the cities Nazi history.  Munich is finally coming to terms with its past, after a long time during which it has been deemed better to forget than confront.  Nearby is a variety of both old and new architecture, all within a pedestrianized zone enabling good access for photography.  This is a sensitive site and I have been politely challenged by the Police to explain why I was taking photographs, but then allowed to continue what I am doing.  The site is a little more than an acre, which is roughly 64x64m, or 4,000 square meters:

The area of interest to me is the yellow line, the green line is roughly the limits of a single acre, however, I do not want to be totally constrained to the synagogue complex.  So I am looking at something that is perhaps a little more like a hectare than an acre, after all in Munich we are metric.  The square building in the center of the green square is the synagogue, to the north is the Munich Museum and to the South the Jewish Museum.  To the East the long low building is the Schrannenhalle, one of the earliest steel built structures in Germany, originally the meat market, now unused.

Over the weekend I had a chance to spend some time looking around the area and getting a feel for what might be possible.  I constrained myself to shooting with a 17mm TS-E so had a strong focus on space and architecture.

Above is the Munich Museum, once the city arsenal, retaining a slightly medieval look with the turrets at the corner and the long sloping roof.  Opposite it is the Synagogue

The above two shots show the synagogue shot from due West in the early afternoon.  The playground add some humanity and movement to an otherwise quite austere building complex.  The museum on the left has a popular cafe.  This has potential and I suspect one of these shots might already be strong enough to work into the final set, the one with the boy in the foreground is especially good.

The wall of the synagogue has a strong relief, bringing to mind the wailing wall.  I need to do some research on this before submitting the set.

Another shot of the wall, very strong contrast to the terracotta and blue sky behind.

Just 5 shots to start, but enough to suggest to me that the location has potential.  I still have a few questions that I need to answer:

  1. Should I shoot this in colour or black and white.  As the above images show there is strong colour to be had, but it is actually limited to the sky and the red roofs.  Black and White might accentuate the architectural elements and add a solemnity to what might be a quite somber set.
  2. To what degree should I include people in the shots?  In my last assignment I had more of an implication of residence than the actuality, something I was properly questioned on.
  3. Is there enough variety in the scenes, I think so, but this will be one of the challenges in producing the final set of 12 images
Finally whilst shooting this first set of images I spent some time walking around Munich looking at the tourists now flocking to the city for the Oktoberfest.  I had Thomas Struth's work in mind when I shot the following series:

The people add scale and interest to what would be otherwise quite dull subjects, this is something I need to explore better in my forthcoming assignment.  I finish this set with a couple of total architecture shots, the first of some building work that caught my eye


The second is Munich's first high rise apartment block, quite revolutionary when first built and controversial ever since, you either love or hate this building, I love it!