ASSIGNMENT ONE – CONTRASTS
“Good art is not what it looks like, but what it does to us.” – Roy Adzak, 1927–1987, British, photographer, sculptor, self portrait
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This first Assignment required me to initially look through my archive photographs and identify pairs which portray contrasts when viewed together, and to then take new pairs of photographs where the subject and/or the way that the image is captured demonstrates a contrast between the two. In this context, contrast refers to wider parameters than just light and dark and can be something clearly apparent like Large / Small, or something more abstract or ephemeral such as Sweet / Sour or Wild / Tame. A table of suggested contrasts from which to choose is provided within the text of the Assignment, but with a little thought it is not difficult to think of many others that can be used.
For this Assignment I have selected from my recent archive collection 3 pairs of photographs which demonstrate a range of contrasts and which I have included below in Section A. Section B contains 8 pairs of photographs which demonstrate contrasts when compared plus a single photograph which contains a number of contrasts within the one frame. As I had read through the Exercises and this Assignment at the start of the course I was aware of the need to find contrasting pairs of photographs from the outset. I have therefore been looking for suitable subjects while I have been in the field on other Exercises and the photographs in Section B are a selection from the results.
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A. 3 CONTRASTING PAIRS OF PHOTOGRAPHS FROM MY RECENT ARCHIVE
Taken at the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships when they were held last year at Abereiddi in North Pembrokeshire, these two photographs were shot from a kayak in the water below the 40 metre high cliff top diving board. I used my 100 – 400 mm telephoto zoom lens in order to get close in to the distant subjects and a high ISO setting with fast shutter speed to freeze the action. There are a number of contrasts identifiable within these two images as well as the obvious ones of High and Low. The diver is clearly demonstrating action and tenseness whereas the observer in the boat at the foot of the cliff is clearly inactive and relaxed. The diver and the diving platform are towards the vertical plane, whereas the boat and the observer are clearly horizontal. The image of the diver is stark and uncomplicated and it is clear what is going on whereas the image of the observer has a number of additional elements which provide clutter and complication such as the presence of the third hand, the mystery object on the left of the frame and the beer bottle which raise questions. Is the watcher asleep or not?!
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These are clearly very different shots and they provide a number of contrasting elements. The first is the bright colour in the shot of the Maori girl taken at Whakarewarewa in New Zealand which contrasts with the monochrome palette of the early morning shot taken on Carn Llidi near St Davids. The happy and active girl is clearly part of an interacting group whereas the lone (and lonely?) figure on the mountain top is inactive and in a world of his own. The shot of the girl shows her close up and in clear detail, whereas the remote figure silhouetted against the mist is distant and obscure.
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Again, there are a number of contrasts between these photographs, some obvious, some less so. The most obvious contrast is the immobility of the boat in the mud of the Taf estuary at Laugharne and the motion of the cyclist competing at the annual races held at New Quay in Ceredigion. Other contrasts include the monochrome palette of the derelict boat compared to the colour of the downhill racer on the fully operational bicycle , and the fact that the boat image has no human interest whereas the cyclist features strongly in the second image. Less obvious contrasts are the fact that both are modes of transport but one operates on water and the other on land, and that the boat is part buried in the earth whereas the bicycle is flying some distance above the earth.
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B. PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN SPECIFICALLY TO DEMONSTRATE CONTRASTS
LIQUID / SOLID
The reflection of a large metal structure on rippling sea water creates a wonderful fluid image reminiscent of an abstract watercolour. This provides a striking contrast with the sun dried, cracked bed of a large former puddle where the previously liquid mud has dried in the sun and solidified into a crust. I have chosen this latter image because it not only provides a contrast with the liquid image, but also because it contains an internal contrast of its own. The hard, dry, brown and brittle nature of the mud crust is in direct contrast with the soft, resilient, green and fluid filled leaves of the grass.
The first image was taken with a 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens to bring the subject closer and a fast shutter speed of 1/200 sec was used to freeze the movement of the ripples. The latter image was taken with a standard 17 – 85mm lens.
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LIGHT / HEAVY
Small and delicate rosebay willow herb seeds floating on a pond surface provide an image of softness, lightness and fragility which contrasts with the bulk, weight and solidity of the LNG tankers moored up in heavy seas off Broad Haven. An implicit contrast in the two images is also that the rosebay seeds are blown randomly across the surface of the pond at the mercy of the slightest puff of wind whereas it is well known that it takes a great deal of effort and time to alter the course of a tanker.
The first shot was taken with a hand held 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens whereas the latter was taken with a 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens with a shutter speed of 1/320 to overcome camera shake.
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LARGE / SMALL
The bulk and presence of the white face steer as he weighs up the photographer immediately caught my eye as an image of solid strength, size and power. In size, the animal was considerably bigger than me and I framed the head closely in order to optimise the sense of presence. In order to create a contrasting image , I searched the area of the field for micro life and found the ladybird. The macro shot of the ladybird clinging on with thin and fragile legs to a small leaf is one of miniaturism, fragility and vulnerability. I did consider taking a shot in which the ladybird was a much smaller element within the frame but I chose the larger image because I believe that it demonstrates the fragility of the subject and the different micro world that it inhabits. I am still not sure that this is the right choice!
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MANY / FEW
This view of a field of a flower crop under sown with a crop of barley taken with a wide angle lens near the coast at Abereiddi shows a mass of flowers stretching almost as far as the eye can see. The closer flowers can be seen as individual blooms although with little detail but as they become more distant they lose their individuality and merge to make a mass of yellow. The macro shot of a small group of the crop flowers on the other hand shows the detail and uniqueness of individual flowers. The shot of the few tells the viewer one story of what it is to be an individual flower, whilst the wide angle view shows the powerful effect of the flowers en masse.
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ROUGH / SMOOTH
The shot of storm breakers at Abereiddi, North Pembrokeshire, demonstrates the power and energy of water when the forces of wind and tide are at work on it. Even the solid rock cliffs in time will be worn down by the power and movement. In contrast, that same water can take on a different character entirely as shown by the shot of peaceful evening light shining gold on a calm sea in the same area on a different day. Another obvious contrast between the two is the cold grey light of the storm scene and the warm golden light of the evening shot.
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STRAIGHT / CURVED
The first image was an obvious subject to choose as an example for the ‘straight’ category. It shows the ‘No Admittance’ bridge leading across to the Strumble Head lighthouse and depicts an interesting pattern of angular, straight lines. The meandering gulley on a muddy foreshore taken at low tide at Pembroke Dock equally was an obvious choice for the curved category. The two photographs, whilst they share a similar soft grey and silver palette, demonstrate contrast in a number of ways. The straight, angular lines of the bridge contrast markedly with the curving sinuosity of the gulley as do the hard and rigid materials of the bridge when compared with the soft, malleable mud banks of the gulley. A less obvious contrast is the fact that whereas the purpose of the bridge is to provide a passage over the water, the gulley serves to create a passage for the water.
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ROUND / DIAGONAL
The old oil drums used as a decorative garden divider in a show garden at the Hamden Court Flower Show immediately caught my eye as being an attractive example of a round subject. However, I found that the partial side view rather than the full face view provided a better image as it showed more of the drums and their colour and less of the complex and distracting background. As a contrast I was drawn to the straight line of this stretched rope with attached floats which forms a division line for partitioning off an area for diving and kayaking across a flooded quarry near Haverforwest . The contrast between the two images is more than the obvious one of curve against straight line. The circles / ellipses of the drums provide a sense of fullness and internal space within the structures whereas the tense, tautness and minimal volume of the stretched rope makes for a very different feel to the second image. Interestingly, the straight lines of the shelves which hold the drums provide a contrast to the round drums.
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TRANSPARENT / OPAQUE
Coloured garden lights seen through a glass bathroom window provide an interesting and attractive transparent image, which has a translucency , brightness and freshness. By contrast, the second image of a boat hull’s old and weathered painted surface, although having a similar blue and gold palette, is dull and lacklustre and does not have the vibrancy and luminosity of the transparent subject with the back lighting.
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CONTRASTS WITHIN A SINGLE IMAGE
This shot taken with a 70-200 telephoto zoom lens of a peak breaking through the early morning mist in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, demonstrates a number of contrasts within the one image. Most obvious is the contrast between the light, soft textured clouds and the dark starkness of the hill top and the rounded fluffiness of the clouds also contrasts with the angular solidity of the rock. There is also a contrast between the small size of the visible area of the mountain when compared to the large expanse of the cloud cover giving the impression of the mountain as being an isolated island in an endless sea. The fact that the shot does not contain any other land or subject matter and the cloud blanket extends to the horizon heightens this sense of isolation.
On a deeper level the awareness that the mountain top in the cloud bears a resemblance to a breast also provides a subliminal contrast between the hard, unyielding rock summit and the soft and malleable texture of a breast. It also creates a tension for the viewer who is left guessing about the imaginary body beneath the clouds (or the bubble bath if the imagination goes that far!).
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Having completed the task of identifying contrasts within photographs, I believe that the purpose of this Assignment has been to assist me to look at more than the technical aspects of photography and the surface qualities of the resulting images, but to look beyond and explore the conscious and unconscious significance and stories behind them. That is certainly what I have got from it. The identification of contrasts within photographs is a means of looking for those hidden qualities that draw and hold a viewer’s attention and create a response that will live in their memory.
I have headed this Assignment with Roy Adzak’s quote that “Good art is not what it looks like, but what it does to us” as I believe that this is a fundamental truth and reflects what I want to achieve in my photographs. The presence of contrasts within images is one powerful way to provide triggers for the viewer to look deeper and create stories, imaginings and revelations which will expand his / her connection with the image, with the subject and with life generally.
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MY SELF – ASSESSMENT
Having reviewed my selection of photographs I recognise that while they have some merit and I do not dislike them, in general they fall far short of the ‘good art’ criterion that Adzak expresses. To be fair to myself, I am not alone. The number of photographs taken by the majority of photographers that do truly meet the criterion are few and far between and the exception rather than the norm. At this stage in my development I want to feel pleasure not dissatisfaction at the results I have achieved to give me encouragement whilst also holding the recognition that they do not as yet do what I want them to do.
What works for me
In these images I have captured what I set out to do and I can see why I took them. They demonstrate the fact that I am finding subjects in a wide range of fields and that I am constantly looking for images that appeal to me. I also know that they present images that are generally more carefully considered and better technically executed than I would have achieved a year or two ago, and that the results are more consistently of reasonable quality even if they do not meet more exacting standards.
The process of finding subjects, taking the images and then examining them to identify contrasts has helped me to think much more about why I am taking a photograph and what I want it to show rather than just capturing a scene. This will help me to bring focus and purpose to my work rather than just achieving a random collection of ‘snaps’. I can see that through my reading, looking at photographs and completing the Exercises as well as the other activities that I have been doing recently, I am much more aware of the changing place and public perception of photographs in the world and this is shaping my view of my own work and its direction.
What I can improve on
My photographs currently tend to lack depth of meaning and character. I am not just referring to the ‘wow factor’ although that would be nice to achieve , but to that intangible element that connects with both the heart and the mind, the intellectual as well as the aesthetic.
I am also not sufficiently competent and confident with the technical side of photography yet and this will need to come with practice and focus. If the technical side can become more second nature to me, then I will be able to spend more time, thought and effort on the subject and what I want to create.
I have no trouble finding potential subjects, but I do currently have a problem with identifying what is special about them and how best to capture the specialness. Whilst some of this difficulty can be overcome by acquiring greater expertise and confidence with the technical side of things, I also need to free up my imagination and creativity, a major challenge for me. Along with this, I will need to allow myself to be more experimental and adventurous. I hope that, between us, my Tutor and I can work on this aspect of my photography.
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