Friday, September 21, 2012

Feedback on The Intersection of Subject and Circumstance from a Point of View

My last post featured my homework assignment for The Intersection of Subject and Circumstance From a Point of View.  As promised, I am back with the the class feedback.  Before I get into the details, I want to compliment my classmates who all completely rocked the assignment.  The images were stunning and everyone stepped up their game from the first assignment.  In my opinion, this was a matter of better understanding our instructor's definition of "the intersection of subject and circumstance."  All are talented photographers capable of exceptional execution - the improvement we witnessed as photographs were shared and critiqued, was a clear understanding of expectations and what makes a great photograph from the photojournalistic perspective.

I was pleased that I nailed most.  The image below received a "meh" because of the perspective from the back of the performers.  Several classmates received similar criticism - we all took note that shots of the backs of our subjects rarely work.  There are certainly exceptions, but mine was not one of them.  Shooting the backside of subjects eliminates the opportunity to see emotion, understand how they are interacting with their circumstance or environment from an emotional perspective, and generally are less interesting.

I did not take the opportunity to defend my "point of view" for this photograph.  In the end, if the meaning of the photograph is not immediately apparent when a viewer first sees it, the image is inferior - there is no point in a defense.  Toren Beasley persistently beats the drum of "subject, circumstance and point of view must leave no room for must be obvious."

We are not in the classroom now, so I will take a moment to describe my intent and purpose for shooting from behind the performers.  My intent was to capture the feeling of a performer playing to a crowd that doesn't much seem to care about the performance.   I saw performers playing to an indifferent audience.  As you look past the subject (performers) you see, from their perspective, a crowd of people milling about without a single face looking toward the stage.  I do not take exception to the critique and scribbled a note to self - "no shots of the backs of subjects."  Check.  In short, I was over thinking the "point of view" part of the assignment which led me to take this shot.

The great value of our class critiques is that you not only get the opinion of a seasoned professional like Toren Beasely, but you benefit from the comments of classmates along with viewing their hits and misses - all valuable information to improve our photography.  Here are a few of the other takeaways I noted during the critiques:

  • Great photos prompt an emotional response.  When shooting your subjects, have patience, move, and find the emotion in the subject and the composition.  Facial expressions tell everything about the emotion, meaning, and mood of the shot.
  • When done right, the photographers intent and the viewers experience are in lockstep (unlike my "performers" shot).
  • The edges of the composition should put pressure on the eye of the viewer toward the subject.  The edges should not present a visual escape route.
  • Although we are encouraged to burn distracting highlights and background elements that do not contribute to subject and circumstance, thus pushing the viewers eye to the subject, be careful of creating halos.  See my photo below and the halo above and below the artist's arm.  I should have caught this - no excuses - the photographer has to own the product.
  • Even when precisely capturing the intersection of subject and circumstance, there remains the question of "so what?" If there is no meaning, message, or emotion in the photograph, there is no purpose.
  • And finally (worth restating), don't shoot from the backside of the subject.  Ironically, while on break, a group of us went to get coffee and took saw the news stand topped with the front page photo of the NY Times.  The photo featured above the fold was dominated by the back of an interviewer talking with a Chicago student affected by the teacher's strike.  Tisk, tisk.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Intersection of Subject and Circumstance from a Point of View

 Our assignment for Story Narrative in Photo Journalism this week is to build on the first assignment (The Intersection of Subject and Circumstance) by producing photos taken from a specific point of view.  Although we talked about the assignment in class, I encountered a similar level of trepidation in completing this assignment.  Our professor, Toren Beasely, made the point that every photograph can tell a different story based on the point of view taken by the photographer...the concise summary of our discussion of the assignment.  I understand this conceptually, but was having some difficulty wrapping my head around it and understanding how I would execute.

When faced with ambiguity, I routinely try to imagine the extremes for the purposes of providing an envelope to frame the ambiguity and provide a more confined mental space for consideration.  In this case I imagined a tense and potentially violent protest with principal actors of protestors and police.  In this scenario a photographer could shoot from the perspective of the police attempting to manage an unruly crowd, or from the perspective of the protestors attempting to convey their message under the watchful eye of officials.  Either perspective would tell a different story.  The same scenario could be viewed in a conflict situation where the adage of one man's rebel is another's freedom fighter.

With a framework for understanding in hand, I was ready to go shoot.  But wait...I am not in a conflict zone, and there were no unruly crowds hanging around my neighborhood this weekend.  My task was no easier than before getting a grip on "point of view."  Normal life is not filled with the black and white contrasts I had conceived.  Without these contrasts, I was faced with looking for more subtle differences in point of view.

The photographs in this post are the product of my 5 shot assignment.  In my opinion, I have captured a point of view...some stronger, some less so.  However, I can hear Torens words already, "a great photograph is one where the subject, circumstance, and point of view are immediate and incontrovertible."  I will not reveal the point of view I was attempting to capture but leave that for your consideration.

I will followup this post with the assessment of my instructor and classmates.  Like the first assignment, there is likely to be some pain involved, but it is all for our benefit in becoming better photographers.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Intersection of Subject and Circumstance

Wow.  I just noticed it has been a month since my last post.  Appropriately, in my last entry I talked about the "back to school shopping list."  Appropriate because although I am enrolled at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in the New Media Photojournalism Masters degree program and have plenty of photography related topics to discuss, my life is no longer my own.

I went into the program with eyes wide open.  This is not my first rodeo.  So far, I am able to manage my handful of jobs, the class work, completing a cafe conversion to my hipster motorcycle, and putting our home in order to go on the market.  However, three of my favorite activities have suffered.  I have not played golf in a month, and I have not posted to the blog in over a month.  The time I enjoy dearly spending with close friends has also suffered.  On the bright side, I have a new group of very talented friends I see each day.  All are delightful and inspire me to pursue my craft with the greatest diligence.

I hope to find time to share my experiences as I proceed through the program.  However, life has a way of messing with the most well intentioned plans.  For today, I will share our first photography assignment in the course titled Story Narrative in Photo Journalism taught by Toren Beasley.  The assignment was to take three photographs in three distinct environments capturing the intersection of subject and circumstance.

Subject and circumstance?  Ok, subject...I get it.  Every photo has (or should have) a clear subject.  I, along with my classmates, had some difficulty understanding the "circumstance" part.  Most of our consternation was a result of over-thinking.  As we learned during the in-class critique, circumstance is not a big deal.  As a simple example, a photo of a child licking an ice cream cone includes the subject (child) in the circumstance of devouring the precious ice cream.  In the end, all of the shots presented in class met this criteria.  The real fun came during the class presentations when Toren, along with the rest of the class critiqued our work...and subject/circumstance was just the jumping off point.

The photographs you see here are a product of my homework.  I was fortunate enough (read sarcasm) to be the first to present.  This honor gave me the privilege of gaining an extra measure of feedback.  Rightfully, Toren dished up an full helping of criticism in order to set the stage and provide definition of his expectations for the rest of the class.  No worries, it has been a couple of weeks and the therapy has helped immensely.

Most of the criticism I received included:

  • Too many distracting elements that drew attention away from the subject.
  • Ineffective use of depth of field to provide separation in the photograph.
  • Not taking that step to the side to eliminate a distracting element.
  • Lack of absolute clarity regarding the circumstance.
 Here are some of my takeaways and revelations gratis Toren.

  • Tight shots make circumstance and subject most clear.
  • In photo journalism, cropping is not only admissible, but encouraged...and the shape of the crop does not matter.
  • Avoid bright areas that are not your subject.  The eye is naturally drawn to the brightest spot in the photo.
  • Eliminate distracting elements by moving, reframing, and otherwise keeping things out of the background that do not tell the story.
  • The photographer is solely responsible for everything in the frame.  Control your environment and beat your equipment into submission.
  • Use depth of field to separate your subject from the environment.
  • Dodging and burning in photo journalism is the norm - burn down highlights and background objects so they do not draw attention away from the subject.
  • Great shots are those where subject an circumstance are unquestionable.  If the viewer has to think, it is an inferior photograph.
  • The only things that are out of bounds in photo journalism are moving objects, removing objects, or inserting objects.  And even with these, there are exceptions.  If you happen to do any of these things, you simply have to own it, and call the image a "photo illustration."  In other words, cropping, burning, dodging, toning, color correction, and the balance of darkroom tools that have translated to the digital darkroom are all acceptable techniques.
I hope to return soon with the second assignment - the intersection of subject and circumstance from a perspective chosen by the photographer.  In concept this is not difficult.  Imagine a tension ridden protest involving police and a group of potentially violent protestors.  An image taken from the perspective of the protestors would look quite different than one taken from the perspective of the police.  Either way, the photograph might make a dramatic statement about the opposing group; a unique perspective based on which side you fall...the perspective of the photographer.

Have fun and go make some great photography.