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.


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