Personal project: the old and the new
Using the steam railway preservation movement as a subject, produce a collection of images of people who were unaware of the photographer’s presence and include in the images modern elements which were not available in the period that steam railways were alive.
I settled on a subject for Assignment 5 early on in my studies for DPP and elected to develop a theme around my ongoing steam railway preservation work, exploring portraits of people but focussing on where hints of modernity featured amongst the intended ‘old’ portrayal of the steam preservation movement. Although preservation obviously links back to times past, I wanted to develop a series of photographs which evidenced a modern twist. At the time of Assignment 1 I began to look for opportunities to capture images that fitted these criteria. Looking ahead to People and Place, this crystallised some thoughts around adapting this theme to have a focus on the people who are involved in the steam railway movement, thus combining the two elements. I also set myself the challenge of making the images ‘subject unaware’ as I wanted to avoid the temptation of using any posed shots. I wanted to encompass as many aspects of DPP as I could into the final submission, which will be in black and white, although there will not be anything from the ‘real or fake’ part of the module. There has been emphasis on demonstrating workflow, seeking shots taken under varied and challenging lighting conditions, RAW processing, and of course the use of monochrome, and I have attempted to blend these into my final Assignment submission.
The actual OCA Assignment brief asks for 10-12 images on a theme of the student’s choice and a reflective account of the assignment; this I always produce anyway.
My initial personal brief, established as early as Assignment 1, was to produce a collection of images that contained modern elements juxtaposed against the ‘old’ aspects of steam preservation, and I decided around the time of Assignment 3 to focus on people. There were two drivers for the selection of people, firstly that I have started to overcome an unwillingness to get involved with them as photographic subjects (and have actually started to enjoy it and seek out opportunities), and secondly, I saw this as a valuable bridge to my next course which I intend to be People and Place. Feedback from my tutor and from various members of the OCA Thames Valley Students Group indicated that this was a good theme, and from presentations of prints at group meetings, it was felt that my images of people were stronger and generated more interest than other images. Before starting DPP I had always regarded people photography as something of a personal nemesis, but as I have stated in earlier blogs I am beginning to get a taste for it and it has been gratifying to see that some of my more successful shots throughout the course have been of people.
I adhered to the original brief throughout and was pleased with the way that the image set grew stronger through the eight month period over which I was photographing for the project. About half of the final image set was replaced over the last month of DPP as I focussed down to refine the final selection and made a number of visits to the locations with specific photographs in mind rather than an earlier reliance on serendipity whilst seeking images for other assignments. It was a worthwhile exercise to edit down nearly a thousand shots taken over eight months, although I have wide experience of this from my wildlife projects, in that case often having to reduce a significant collection to only one or two images to illustrate a piece.
The greatest technical challenges were founded in the difficulty of taking shots that were ‘subject unaware’ which is where I wanted to base the assignment. Although steam preservation events and galas are situations where there are large numbers of photographers and the participants, and to an extent the attendees, expect to be photographed, it was harder than I thought to make images where the subjects were truly unaware, largely as they are familiar with the whole process of these events and are only too willing to look at the camera and smile for its holder! Coupled with the key element of needing to find the contrast of the old plus the new in the same shot, it reduced the photo opportunities to a very low level on some occasions. It was at this point that I had to develop the discipline to look only for chances which fitted my criteria and not be side tracked by other occurrences competing for my attention. Unsurprisingly, this was when I got the best shots.
The brief I set was a good choice as it allowed me to remain within area of photography to which I have a strong affinity whilst challenging myself to explore an area in which I have historically not experienced a very high level of comfort. I could have selected to produce portraits, but the addition of the old/new aspect added to the focus, which I believe worked well. Obtaining images with a clear old/new theme was difficult and it was more of a rare event than I had imagined from pre-OCA observations.
I have spent some time looking for photographs where modern elements have been introduced into images intended to portray some elements of antiquity, but there is very little along the lines of what I have attempted to do here other than the occasional chance find on flickr. What I did discover that was the work of Jo Teeuwisse where she has overlaid modern scenes from French streets with photographs taken in the same places during the second World War; an example is below, although the link to Teeuwisse’s flickr site show a very broad approach to the concept of digitally combining the new and the old.
New York Photographer Marc Hermann has produced a set of images along similar lines, where he has superimposed historical crime scene photographs on images of the same locations taken today to produce a fascinating series of juxtapositions between the new and the old. Quoting briefly from the Fstoppers video blog where I discovered this work “New York City’s rich photo history has been well documented by the Daily News through the years. Many of the places, stories and lives lived by New Yorkers who have come before us are still alive and well, but locked in photography archives. Marc A. Hermann, historian of the New York Press Photographers Association, has juxtaposed then and now photos of New York City, bringing back to life people and stories of the Big Apple’s past.”
Although both these discoveries portray compositional work combining the efforts of modern artists with images from the past, it is an interesting aspect that I might well investigate in the future. Although I have no personal interest in faking images, this type of work does not fall into that category as it is clearly not attempting to delude but to inform.
Towards Assignment 5
Over an eight month period I took around one thousand images. Throughout the period I attempted to address the key fundamentals of DPP and consider workflow, the way the camera will perceive an image and how I believed a coloured scene would appear in black and white as much as possible. My final set of selects was comprised of 81 images which are shown below. This was reduced quickly with the focus on trying to find juxtapositions between the old and the new and using the star and flag system in Lightroom 5.3 as a tool to achieve this.
This reduced set contained 13 images which I took forward for consideration for final submission. Although the requirement is for 10-12 images for the collection to be advanced for assessment I decided to go for 10 as I felt the slightly more stringent option would force me to be more discerning for the final picks.
From the final thirteen, I elected to go with the portrait orientation for the woman with the paper coffee cup as it gave a better balance to the image and omitted the dead space of the train tender at the bottom left
The use of the electric angle grinder gave me two options and I selected the portrait format again as it showed more of the modern tools in use and the 1/100sec shutter speed I used gave just enough motion blur to the sparks flying from the grinder to add interest to the image.
There were two options for the digital camera being used to film the trains and I selected the first shown here as I had chosen to focus tightly on the image on the camera back, allowing the rest of the foreground and background to be blurred, rather than the second where the person was the focal point of the image.
These choices left me with the final set of 10 images as follows. The order of the images follows the narrative of a day on a steam railway, although I have to accept that such recognition would only reveal itself to someone familiar with such events. However, does a series of images always have to display a narrative sequence ..?
My final selected ten images for Assignment 5 are:
Image 1 Something is always being repaired and in the modern era this is usually a quicker process than back in the original times. The presence of the angle grinder, electric drill and safety glasses provide a modern context and the key photographic challenge was to visualise how an image taken under very low conditions but with the spectral highlights of the sparks would materialise. To get some ‘action’ into the sparks needed a shutter speed of 1/100th second and I exposed the image to optimise the appearance of the figure, letting the sparks ‘blow’ as they were always going to.
Image 2 Waiting at the start of the day always involves the stoking of the engine and feeding of the crew. The driver with the burger was a fleeting photographic opportunity where I had to gamble on +1.5EV exposure compensation to correctly expose the figure against the bright light of the sun behind the window.
Image 3 The driver with the paper coffee cup was a technical challenge and I used a small amount of fill in flash to expose the face and figure which were partly against bright light and dark backgrounds and under the shade on the cab cover. I was pleased with the final outcome here and how the flash also accentuated the steam around the cab to diffuse the background further. I noticed in Assignment 3 how flash could increase the apparent density of steam, and although this was entirely fortuitous in this case, I felt it added to the image.
Image 4 The station master and rail travellers was the ‘widest’ shot that I included and I was attracted to the two pairs of figures and the figure just appearing through the ‘staff only ‘ door and how the modern clothing contrasted with the period uniform. I also liked the intensity of the interaction between the couple on the left and the apparent disconnect between the station master and the manwith the rucksack, although they were in fact in deep conversation at the time.
Image 5 The train diver with the ‘emo’ haircut was certainly not something that would be seen in the 1930’s and was a clear target for a shot. Like many railway photographs there was the complication of a very dark lower foreground coupled with a bright upper background to the frame. Although I noticed it only after the shot was taken, I did rather like the replication of the hair parting in the gables of the modern houses in the background.
Image 6 The arrival of the scheduled train is probably the most frequently recorded event on these days and I wanted to record this moment on the back of someone’s digital camera with the same train in the background. It took a number of attempts to get what I wanted and what I ended up with was the previous image displayed on the camera back as the photographer lined up the subsequent frame.
Image 7 Baseball caps appear everywhere and preserved steam railways feature the occasional appearance. I framed this shot against the carriage behind and made a small crop to include the window stickers to contextualise the two people.
Image 8 The train is ready for departure and paperwork needs to be completed – in a modern ring binder and with a ballpoint pen. This photograph was taken after one of the recent storms, hence the appearance of a chainsaw in the cab instead of the standard issue bow saw that would have been originally carried to clear branches from the line.
Image 9 As the train departs there are always a number of photographers hanging from windows and I felt this presented a good opportunity which I wanted to include. The reflection of the photographer in the side of the 1930s carriage made an interesting addition to the image.
Image 10 My final shot was a little different to the others and was the result of a chance observation as a train pulled away and revealed the interaction taking place. I liked the symmetry of the situation and how the people and their bags were positioned on the bench and how the railway line in a way mimicked the parallel lines of the tracks.
In conclusion, I felt that this final Assignment 5 was a successful attempt to showcase some images from an area of photography for which I feel a strong affinity and also to meet the challenge of setting a highly specific brief within the area by selecting the old/new aspect. It will hopefully provide the springboard for moving on to People and Place as it has taken me a long way towards enjoying photographing people, which I would certainly not have thought possible before commencing DPP.