Assignment 4 – first thoughts

This is a ‘naive first thoughts’ posting on assignment 4, in advance of reading any of the course notes for part 4. For the first time, an assignment is not expecting images as its ‘deliverable’ but a written piece.

It is good to see that OCA are sticking with the traditional exchange rate (1 picture = 1000 words). How tricky will that be? My ‘day job’ building survey reports run to 4000-5000 words and are based on a form of research; my survey is a fact-gathering exercise and the report requires me to organise my thoughts and express them in a concise and clear way. The differences are that when looking at a building, I am dealing with very familiar territory and I have evolved a template for reporting in a logical sequence.

In my previous journeys through the groves of academe, I have encountered coursework exercises requiring 1000-3000 words. However, these have typically been in answer to a set question. The present exercise is very broad and it appears that the first task will be to identify the questions that I will eventually answer.

Actually, the first task will be to identify a photograph to work with. An easy option is to use one of the ‘standards’, such as HCB’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl, both of which have had thousands of words written already; the downside is the difficulty of coming up with anything new to say about either. I have a favourite photograph, by Sergio Larrain, of a girl standing on a lion at the base of Nelson’s Column which may offer the opposite problem, a difficulty in finding enough words at all.

I have personal reading list, in addition to the course notes. I read Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisments and Richard Salkeld’s Reading Photographs when I started C&N, and will now revisit them. I also want to re-read Terry Barrett’s Criticising Photographs, which I first read eight years ago and didn’t ‘get’ (because I had a different motivation at the time). I also have Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art, but that seems to be more about writing style than about photography.



Self-portrait exercise – submission and reflection

After spending far too much time ‘stalled’ in Part 3, Assignment Three the self-portrait exercise is now completed and ready to go off to my tutor. This is the final image set.

The changes from the images presented previously are the use of the dodge tool to eliminate the dark patch of background at the top left of each image and (of course) adding the text caption. I chose a rounded version of Arial font as being an appropriate balance between formality and informality (artificial handwriting fonts such as Comic Sans do not ‘work’ for me) and it is a font that does not draw attention to itself and away from the image.

Here are the contact sheets (submitted versions are marked up in manuscript)

… and here are the assignment notes

Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

Again, I am generally happy with my technical and visual skills. This was an interesting exercise in using studio lighting without being able to see how the light falls. Assessment and adjustments were made on viewing the results on the camera back screen. Post-processing was appropriate to the effect that I wanted.

Quality of outcome

The images fulfil both the project brief and my personal brief. I believe the basic idea (Shakespeare’s “one man in his time plays many parts”) is presented clearly and coherently.


Tricky. The basic idea has been done before (but then how many haven’t?) and the style is modelled on well-known images. However, I had to work out my own lighting and camera styles (owning neither an 8×10 nor a big north-lit studio)

Self-portraiture is a new area for me, a bit outside the comfort zone. I am not particularly uncomfortable on the opposite side of somebody else’s camera, but the exercise felt self-indulgent.

As always, the question of ‘personal voice’ is one for the viewer.


Mixed. The diary part of the exercise generated considerable self-reflection but the subject, by its nature (me) did not require a great deal of research. Similarly, I did not do a great deal of research on alternative treatments. Although there was no ‘light-bulb moment’ I have to say that the Avedon influence suggested itself to me very early and was self-evidently (to me at least) the right way to go.

Assignment 3 – more first drafts

Today, I shot ‘The Building Surveyor’ and ‘The Sailor’. Same set-up as before. Here are the contact sheets.

As before, the first group of images is about getting the lighting and framing right. After that, I am The Building Surveyor (the day job) with jacket, clipboard, compact camera and damp meter. The final set are The Sailor, wearing a drysuit and buoyancy aid. After the first few, dry, images I went and sprayed myself in the shower for a bit of verisimilitude (then went back and stood in among a lot of mains-powered flash units!)

These are my shortlist.

And here is the updated set of Avedonians

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One more obvious image to add will be ‘The Friday Night Curry Chef’. Beyond that, things become trickier (The Husband and The Father are defined by reference to other people, not by clothing or props) so I might cheat and stop at a set of six.


I put these images forward for peer review on the OCA Discuss forum and on the OCA student Facebook pages, and one of my coursemates, Kate Aston (Kate513940) suggested going in for much closer detail, using only small parts of me and the props, for example this crop from The Saxophonist:


This is an idea with potential, and I am going to have to work something up and then decide whether to make a change of direction. I suspect that all images will either be hand(s) or partial faces. The only one that might work with feet would be The Sailor (wearing wetboots). Also some decisions on presentation – will high-contrast mono still be appropriate, or should I do something softer and in colour?

Watch this space.

Assignment 3 – some first drafts

And one man in his time plays many parts. (As You Like It: 2,VII)

I have made a start on Assignment 3, the self-portrait exercise, with three of my ‘roles’, photographer, camera collector and saxophonist. Lighting, camera position and settings will be held constant over the series, so pretty much the only variables will be clothing and props. My idea is to keep it deadpan and to emulate the Richard Avedon ‘nowhere for the subject to hide’ look, with contrasty mono and a plain background.

I am working in a very tight space with three lights. Main light is slightly high (30˚ or thereabouts above my eyeline, and slightly left of centre). Fill light is a big soft box on the floor at my feet. I found I got some nasty shadows on the background wall, so I also placed an open-tube light behind my shoulders to illuminate the wall.

Here are the contact sheets.

The first group of images are pilots to sort out lighting and framing. Framing, in particular is ‘interesting’ because the K-1 does not have a fully reversible screen, so I was using it on a tripod, with the self-timer, on a trial and error basis. I eventually left the framing a bit ‘loose’ so that there was room to tidy it up in the final crop. (I know Avedon used the full frame and printed the film rebates, but he had the luxury of being able to frame each subject precisely.)

After that, I have two sets as ‘the photographer’ (with and without the leather jacket) holding the RB67 as naturally as possible. Although some are posed as if taking a photograph, I eventually did not use them because it looks contrived and may be confused with having taken a mirror selfie. I picked up two other cameras for ‘the camera collector but only took two frames. Finally, I was ‘the saxophonist’. I decided against an ‘action shot’ in favour of holding the instrument in a relaxed way – partly, this was instinct and partly a knowledge (from my pub gig photography) that blowing a wind instrument can distort faces.

I selected these images as a shortlist, all cropped to 5×4 proportions and all similarly framed (belt and upwards). The only Lightroom manipulation has been to open up the shadows (move shadows slider well to the right).

Finally, I made my selections, one for each role and made a contrasty mono conversion in Lightroom (increased clarity and contrast, increased luminance in the flesh tones, general tweaking) which I have saved as a user preset titled “Avedon”

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An idea at last – the diary abandoned

Assignment three is about self-portraits; it says so in the opening sentence, “Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit.” The diary, which I have been agonising over and is probably my main reason for procrastinating over getting back to blogging, is just a tool to identify a way in.

My 11 day’s worth of diary was pretty much a chronicle of events, mostly pretty routine, and with no ‘deep innermost thoughts’. However, on re-reading it, I find that although much of life is routine (banal, to pick up on Garry, my tutor’s, comments) I do play several different roles, depending on where I am and who I am with. Of course, I should have been thinking about this all the time – after all, I introduce myself in the right-hand column of this blog (also on Facebook and elsewhere) as

I am a building surveyor, sailor and photographer, but not necessarily in that order.

To that list, I can add, father, husband, occasional saxophone player, Friday night curry chef …

My way forward into this assignment, with approval from my tutor, is to produce a series of self-portraits showing some of the different roles I play. I see this as a deadpan, if not totally banal (I still find that a pejorative word) series. My face will be the constant, with my roles signified by clothing and props. This might look derivative of Keith Greenhough’s ‘Iron Man‘ images on p73 of the course notes, but I plan to strip it back further. My first thought is to take inspiration from Richard Avedon’s approach to his ‘The Family‘ and ‘In the American West‘ series, contrasty monochrome against a plain white background, with frontal lighting, leaving his subjects nowhere to hide. It will be a digital effort, not large-format (I have the LF camera but focusing and actuation become a problem with selfies).

I had considered making this a self-absented series, still-lifes of the clothing and props but I think that would be a gimmick too far. Similarly with mirror selfies, which are already clichéd and the gimmick would detract from the meaning of the image.

Potential roles, identified from the diary (in order of appearance, not importance) are:

  • Building surveyor (‘the day job’)
  • Photographer
  • Photography student (assuming I can differentiate it from ‘photographer’)
  • Video/DVD watcher (is that a role?)
  • Rotarian (really unsure how to show that)
  • Reader of books (again, is it a role?)
  • Saxophone player (well, I make noises that I like)
  • Cryptic crossword solver
  • Occasional cook (top of cooker only, not oven)
  • Sailor and basic dinghy instructor
  • Wrapping wife’s birthday presents (on the day!)

No guidance or prescription on how many images are wanted in the set. I think 5-6 would be plenty. I will try some test shots during next week.


Things are not going well with the diary. Before my gap in blog postings (day job getting in the way, then procrastination delaying a restart) I managed 11 days worth (at 2-3 pages per day) before abandoning it. Having picked it up to re-read, I am confirmed in my first opinion – bloody hell, it is boring. About two-thirds of it relates to work or weather. Mostly a list of events and not a lot of ‘deep innermost thoughts’.

It was, therefore, a relief and a bit of an eye-opener to get this from my tutor:

“As for ‘boring’ that’s a good thing in my opinion. Most of the best photos come through refection on the Everyday mundanity of life. A look at a certain strategy (and some critical readings) should make you aware that representing the mundane is a way of counteracting the idea of photographs of ‘spectacular’ and eye catching things – which soon become cliches and don’t stand the test of time.”

He also sent an article (Shinkle, 2004) which will take two or three more readings to get my head around. I have always regarded ‘banal’ as a bad thing in photography. Seeing it presented as a good thing or a valid strategy is interesting – if that is not an oxymoron.


Shinkle, E. (2004) ‘Boredom, Repetition, Inertia: Contemporary Photography and the Aesthetics of the Banal’. Mosaic 37 (4), pp.165-183.