Saturday, 19 March 2011

Feedback Assignment 4

Well, I suppose I couldn't have expected a glowing report back on this assignment.  My street photography has improved, but my starting point with this genre was very low, my progress slow due to limited opportunities and looking retrospectively, perhaps lacking a natural flair for it. So unfortunately, the images are pretty woeful!!!

There was an interesting comment my tutor made:
Unlike your other photos, which are often professional in approach, execution and result, this work doesn’t have the finished polish.  It’s a rougher and more raw look at things.
I'm taking this as a backhanded compliment about my other assignment work but it does indicate his disappointment with this current assignment. I don't disagree with his comments but I do think his expectations were very different to my own. As per brief, he was anticipating a set of images that were taken in the style of Helen Levitt and as he puts it:
Her pictures make amusing connections between people and people, people and things, people and environment...It’s the unstoppable energy of people’s personalities, their life force which comes out of her work. 
And unfortunately not so of mine.  I think and it pains me to say it (I'll give my pride a good talking to later), my street photography skills fall way short to emulate Levitt or in fact any other street photographer to any sort of satisfaction.

My approach this past six months has been to practice the general art of street photography.  I think my error has been that I submitted what I felt were my strongest street photographs and not those that most closely resembled the style of Levitt.  Until I started this street photography project I had no idea how difficult it actually is.  And even with practice I'm not sure I may ever be able to achieve what is required.

In addition, I do feel slightly uncomfortable with this 'in the style of' (see this post). However, having not displayed a style of my own, to compensate for the lack of Levitt's style, doesn't help. And sadly what I thought was quirky and humourous was in several cases missed.  I didn't explain my images hoping that, as street photographs, they shouldn't need it.  However, I suspect it might have helped to give my bemused tutor at least a fighting chance!!  Reflecting generally on my street photography, I do wonder whether what I'm trying to communicate is too subtle and doesn't resonate with others. Are they too obscure or just plain boring?  Here is an example:

Now, I can see why he didn't see how this fits the series. He suggests this is more in the style of Walker Evans, which is being kind.  However this is one of my earlier shots that I am still really fond of.  Silly I know, as it is pretty dull.  But bear with me for a second more so I can try and redeem myself somewhat. I see several things in this: its a funeral parlour, there is a blue transit van (not a hearse), the number plate (ARM) and two filled black bin liners (as if body parts are being thrown out with the rubbish). I thought it had some humour but I think I may be in an exclusive club of one!  Here is another example:
Again, not at first sight in the style of Levitt, however Levitt was interested in the chalk drawings of children.  I consider tattoos a popular form of self expression today.  What I saw here was the art on his arm and the carved engravings on the antique wood that kind of mirrored each other.  Too weird huh?!  

Unfortunately, there were few successes, infact the three men/Burton's image is perhaps it. Even the ones I thought were relatiavely strong came in for criticism technically and artistically. For example, these two.

With some of the others, I think I have applied some of the characterisitics found in contemporary street photography that have fallen short of the brief.  So unfortunately, I think my tutor was genuinely struggling to glean anything positive in this set.  Strangely with hindsight, there is little I could do differently.  Street photography cannot be forced and I can think of no way I could have rushed this along or improved it really. I think more hours of practice...and then some more hours...

I was also surprised that he has suggested I use photoshop more to improve the aesthetic of the images, some of which he considered murky. And may be consider converting to black and white. I tried to keep the image as authentic as possible with little cropping or manipulation perhaps at the detriment of how the images looked. I think he's right and a little tinkering in photoshop is little to worry about.

Hey, some you win and some you was an 'away' game and I took a pummelling. But despite this, I am really glad I tried it. I think the success of this assignment, or indeed the lack of, indicates where my strengths lie and probably allows me to adjust the balance of where I invest my time going forward with justification (see this post). But, yes I am hugely relieved to put it behind me...and whilst I will continue with the SPN project and continue to explore the rural street photography idea I think accepting defeat to a certain extent is the gracious thing to do.

I'll pick myself up, move on...and have another go when I get the inspiration!! 


  1. You got an incredibly quick response to your work! I am sorry that it wasn't so good for you. I don't expect a very positive response to mine either but like you don't think that a failure because I feel it's a staging post in my development and not an end point.

    As you've said below, Street Photography tremendously hard to master. A few years of occasional wedding and social photography have given me a head start on the technical aspects but getting your eye into a style and ethos is quite a significant discipline.

    I also think putting together a set is really difficult: I've struggled a few times to get the balance right between strong pictures and the brief, and think that skill will be a lifelong learning point for me. Looking at Helen Levitt's work, I wonder if some of your rejects might not have been better choices - they have more of her energy and humour.

    Some of your pictures in this set are really very good indeed as reflected in being chosen by the street selectors for their show.

    As for the pictures of the tattooed man and the undertaker's premises: I think your ideas were not bad (I got the connection between the tattoo and the wood) but maybe there is a point about how you communicate it: there was a great deal of other material in both pictures which distracted. Sometimes a tiny counterpoint or slow burning surprise element makes for a very effective image but all the elements need to work together to achieve this.

    Personally I think you have everything to play for, should you wish to pursue this genre. I've been struck by Martin Parr's comments in this short interview - that success in any subject needs a level of obsession and a lot of sheer hard work.

  2. Really appreciate the thoughtful response Eileen. Yes my tutor is incredibly quick. He got the assignments from me on Friday afternoon. By 3.30 he had emailed through the first assignment feedback. By 6.30 the second arrived. Incredible really. I take it yours hasn't come back yet then? And I wouldn't worry about the response at all Eileen, it was a super piece of work.

    We have a very slow connection so struggling to see the Parr video at the mo, I'm going to try again later. What I'm not clear about at the moment, and I know this has been discussed elsewhere, is how much you can learn and how much is innate. And thereof how long you should persevere with something for. I'm not about to give up on SP but on the other hand I don't want to continue pouring my effort in to something that isn't playing to my strengths. I find it a real challenge in this particular course as I feel I'm swimming against the tide all too often - which must be good training but a tad frustrating too.

    And as for Parr's words on obsession - somehow I get the feeling we're all heading that way!!!