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As we get closer to the festival of Halloween, it occurred to me that I have never set out to make scary images with photography. I also wondered how I might achieve this by picking a scary subject matter and not making a series of cliched images. I have always thought that the scariest of horror films are the ones which succeed in only hinting at the horror. Films where, throughout the duration of the story, the horrific thing itself is never fully revealed to us. There is an awful glimpse of something unspeakable, or a terrible sound from out-of-shot; a shadow or a reflection, which is fleetingly presented to us. So that the true horror can take on a full life of it's own in our own imaginations. It also occurred to me, that I can't remember the last time I've felt scared, until I remember stumbling upon these ruins in an abandoned plot of land just inside the old city walls of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
This then, was the time that I had last felt foreboding, apprehensiveness and dread. Although I never actually met any ghosts and ghouls, it was for me the real "haunted-house" experience. On deciding to explore and photograph this place - I wondered if the same hinting-at-the-horror approach would work with photography as it does with film?
The Mystery of Janghuarinnakorn House and The House of Success
Since there are two main buildings which draw the visitors attention - we are really talking about haunted houses here. The big mansion in front Janghuarinnakorn House (sometimes referred to as the "White Lion Mansion") dominates the site and sits closest to the street. The other, smaller but similarly ostentatious and more bizarre looking building, "The House of Success" lies behind, separated (at the time of shooting) by a garden.
Even if you had not heard some of the stories circulating about these peculiar, abandoned baroque-fantasies, a visit to them confirms any suspicion you may have had that something terrible may have happened here.
I'm not normally so susceptible to bad vibes from places but this location has such a surreal, deserted fantasy - land quality, which is both dreadful and compelling in equal measure.
The atmosphere I wanted to recall with these shots was not just the sense of abandonment, neglect and ruin but the peculiar stillness and silence about the place. A mood which created a feeling of foreboding and apprehension, despite the fading warmth of a Thai evening as the sun goes down.
Both of these bizarre buildings, the garden between them and the chalets in the neighbouring plot of land, have remained desolate and empty for around twenty years. Local people are insistent that people stay away from them because they are haunted places. Thai people's belief in ghosts is both popular and enduring. There is evidence all over the country of situations such as this, where buildings which have been abandoned are left well alone due to the fact that ghosts now reside there.
It has been incredibly difficult to find out what actually happened to leave this site deserted and going to rack and ruin for so long. If, like I was, you are reluctant to go with the whole ghost-theory; you might subscribe to this version of what happened to this place discovered here :
"The Chiang Mai Mansion was built in 1993, during the boom. It was never occupied. The creator of this complex was “Tycoon Jack”, who is still a tycoon even though this property didn't work out. It was designed as a palatial sales office and residence for him and his elite executives, who would be involved in condo sales elsewhere. Jack thought BIG. It has a pool and a 3-storey kennel for his dogs. Tycoon Jack made the statues himself. There is a collection of them at the lot next door, that were to be used at the condo site. They are arranged there in an eerie vigil, as if waiting for the next owner. The property has been for sale since 1997. It can be purchases for 30 million Baht, $750,000 US, or 3 million Baht a year for 10 years, interest free".
These rumours appear to be confirmed by this visitor to "Creepy Chiang Mai Central". As for the doggy - loving "Tycoon Jack"; he makes an appearance in various "Bangkok Post" articles following the collapse of the property boom.
Then there is the another more oft-heard story about what fate befell this place. And there is no reason why this account could not merge with the above version.
The story goes that an eccentric millionaire ("Tycoon Jack"? ) built these properties and lived with his family in one of them. When "success" and the development of his grandiose schemes did not develop in the way that he had expected, he succumbed to a kind of madness. Something drove him insane and he murdered his wife and family; butchering them and cutting them up into pieces. No one knows what happened to this man but all are unanimous that his wife and family still haunt the site of this tragedy. As a result, no one will buy the properties or the land. Anyone attempting to develop the site has met with bad luck or death.
One of the tragic things about this place is that it seems as if it were doomed from the very start. Whether that was because it's very inception seemed like a vulgar display of wealth in a city of such economic disparities at the time. Maybe it was due to the seemingly crass decision to ignore any sense of vernacular style and go with an extremely eccentric pastiche of European architecture, so close to the ancient city walls and other historic sites? Certainly the location seems to have been an unfortunate and defiantly insensitive choice. If you listen to Chiang Mai residents; they say that it should not have been built within the walls and should not have competed in height with the surrounding Watts (temples) and may even have been built on sacred land.
Since these photographs were taken - work has begun to fill in the swimming pool and clear the land where the garden was, along with the plot next door where the statues held their communal vigil. Squatters have been reported to have moved into the main mansion, and the house of Success has been locked up securely. I'd be interested to know what may become of these highly unusual ruins and wonder if the site can ever be exorcised of whatever holds it in it's present dreadful trance.
In the meantime Chiang Mai's answer to the Amityville Horror continues to draw an array of visitors from: your average backpacker to your amateur ghost- buster, to Vogue Italia.
On my visit I was particularly grateful for the presence of a benign black and white dog which seemed to escort me about for the duration of my visit to the haunted houses. A canine presence which chose to leave only when I did and parted company with me just before dusk fell, in front of the larger mansion. Remember "Tycoon Jack" had a thing for dogs? I wonder?
There's no way I'd spend time here after dark! There's no rational reason why I should say this - it's just a very real feeling. Even after making contact with Thai friends in Chiang Mai (in the hope of confirming one of the stories about this place); I am met with a dead end in my very amateur investigations. Perhaps even to speak of such things is inviting bad luck? Perhaps I misunderstand just how much of an evil the "House of Horrors" represents in this culture? I hope I am wrong.
I've been told by more than one serious photographer how much they hate this kind of thing. I actually love photographing flowers. For some, the kind of images associated with flower photography are right there among the other photographic cliches with the kittens, the soft toys, the cups of frothy coffee, the lurid sunsets, the photographs of legs or feet and those selective colour images. So its not cool to photograph flowers? Well I disagree, and I'll tell you why.
Flowers as a subject, are a training-ground for portraiture work. Why shouldn't we consider a flower as a portrait? Flowers don't tend to move around (unless it's windy). They don't need a hairdresser, make-up artist or stylist and their location and lighting for the most part is already a given, unless you impose further modifications upon their environment. So, in a way, they are the ideal subject - since they offer themselves without conditions and, you, have to adapt to them - which is the polar opposite to what happens when you shoot with a model. In his book on black and white photography, "From Oz to Kansas" Vincent Versace says:
For me great photographic lessons were learned from shooting both portraits and landscapes. What I learned is to shoot my landscapes like portraits and my portraits like landscapes. When I photograph a flower, am I not taking the flower's portrait? When I photograph a person, is it not the objective, with one frame, to lay bare the essence of that person in one instant? Most successful portraits and landscapes are the ones in which those things happen.
Perhaps one of the reasons why flowers in photographs are considered a cliche, is because their image is seen as too easily accessible. Their universally agreed upon, seen-a-billion-times before-beauty is immediate and easy to "understand". It is not challenging or difficult to spot the beauty they portray. They represent a fast-food of beauty and are what blooms easily within a mind devoid of imagination. They don't need an extensive visual repetoire to "get" them. We have become desensitised to them. Surely, therein lies the challenge in photographing them?
What makes images more successful, is bringing life experiences and a knowledge base of techniques to the table. This allows you to create an image which reflects what you felt when you were taken by the moment. Vincent Versace.
Once again it seems like the adage: "its not what you do - it's the way that you do it", applies. I was prompted to write this piece, after posting flower photographs on my Facebook page and receiving a comment from a friend who is a novice photographer. She dismissively "liked" this album, with a comment along the lines of: "these are only 'good' because of the time you spend in Photoshop with them later, right?" Wrong! I did happened to superficially edit them in Adobe Lightroom but other than that, they were straight from the camera. For the most part the images had that: "fairies- at -the -bottom -of- a [tropical] garden -dreamy -look" because of the particular lens used. It's all about the blur, you see. Softening and blurring a background is a more sophisticated, subtle way of making one contrasting sharply focused spot in an image to be important, than using selective-colour is.
The arrival of a small 50mm f1.4 lens in my life was a big thing. It represented some kind of photographer's rite of passage at the time . Not only do you get to discover a secret weapon for low-light photography. (Suddenly you find yourself able to shoot just about anything in all kinds of dubious light, using only hand-held shooting). As a direct result of this feeling of invincibility; the novelty that you have to focus with it by moving your body position, is not such a big deal. Then there is the added kudos in the myth that it is also "the street photographers lens", presumably for the reasons just stated and its diminutive size (but also perhaps due to its compatibility with 35mm film cameras). If you are teetering on whether to buy one, then stop teetering and go buy one immediately and get it out of your system.
Rejecting flowers is behaving like an elitist photographer. I am sure that Edward Weston was not caught in a dilemma about whether it was cool or not that he should be photographing a bell pepper, nor would Imogen Cunningham have thought twice about selling out or creating limitations for herself, when she shot her flower images. The history of photography is a veritable garden in bloom with such figures: Jan Groover, Ron Van Dongen, and Andre Kertesz to name but a few.
Having a background in Art and being an Art educator, has been great. It means that I can strive to help others bypass the quagmires of elitist bullshit, dense fogs of academic language and stagnant pools of mysterious intellect, that surround being able to access Art -so that we can just get on with appreciating it and making it. I mention this, because we have lots to learn from artists inspired by flowers. Georgia O' Keefe's response to flowers being a wonderful example. Her life and work was inextricably linked to photography which gave her the compositional go-ahead for her often misunderstood flower studies.
For all the nay-sayers who carp on about: its just not manly to shoot flowers! They are not saying anything, and we have seen all of this before! Along with : Isn't it time to grow up and leave the 50mm behind? I quote Edward Weston to you:
I would say to any artist. Don't be repressed in your work, dare to experiment, consider any urge, if a new direction all the better.
For centuries flowers have been used as visual metaphor and symbols to convey just about every facet of the human condition. Why not nowadays too? It has to also be said that flowers can represent a kind of visual place setting to a specific world location or culture.
And for those who are still wondering what on earth I am on about. A blurred background (whatever the subject matter may be ) is something that you can create by switching to 'Aperture Priority Mode' on your camera. You can achieve this with almost any lens but it is best achieved with a 50mm which can open to a very wide or large aperture. (Aperture being the size of the "pupil" inside the "iris" of the camera lens). Confusingly, A small numerical aperture like: f/1.4 means a bigger hole (or pupil size) through which light passes through the lens. The bigger this "hole" in the lens is -the shallower the depth of field in the image is. The resulting de-focusing of elements in the background is created by the narrow focal range. If you set whatever lens you may have to any value at or below f/3.5 you should be able to get a blurred background, which separates the subject you are focusing upon from it. If your lens allows and you also zoom in as much as possible, while opening up the aperture as much as possible and get as close as possible to your subject it helps. Zooming-in creates zoom compression, which brings the background closer, thus increasing the blur. I particularly like the painterly effects created in these blurred backgrounds.
Of course I use Photoshop in my workflow. However sometimes Adobe Lightroom hits the spot quickly, by helping to explore a range of creative options before committing to a longer retouch in PS. Lightroom presets are worth exploring and creating. It's good to use a painterly approach with images of flowers. Perhaps I am old fashioned? - Or perhaps, I just don't care what you think? I am fond of the soft-focus, blurry, dreamy images of flowers, which transport us to the photographic-equivalent of listening to a certain Robert Burns poem being read aloud, after a few intoxicating drams.
All images in the main body of this article were shot at Singapore Botanic Gardens, 2015. These images were shot with a Nikon D700 with either a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF D lens or a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED lens and post-produced in Adobe Lightroom 4.
Photographs in the slide show are from Japan, 2012. They were shot with a Nikon D700 with either a: Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF D lens or a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED lens. They have been post produced in Adobe Photoshop CS5.
How We Can Adapt and Change The Way We Create Visual Products
One of the pleasures of photography is that it often has little to do with the act of actually taking a photograph. Instead, it is about a whole other set of experiences, interactions and activities which either culminate in the taking of a photograph, or evolve from taking a photograph. In a weird parallel, photography is also evolving along with our very experiences, interactions and activities. Take a moment to reflect on this next time you are hovering over that drone (excuse the pun) in an airport duty free, marveling at a digital adapter for a vintage Hasselblad, or considering how to make room for a Go-Pro camera in your life.
Since I shot these images of "Landy" in Chiang Mai, I have been reflecting on this idea that there is more to photography and that to be a photographer now you have to also be prepared to do something "more". I use this example of Landy, who himself is a bit of a paradox - being at once: a cabaret performer, papaya salad salesman, bon-viveur and local legend. His personal story, which literally evolved into the photo series you see here; by way of a freshly-prepared papaya salad, a moment of dressing up in drag, followed by an impromptu dance. A review of a life and love once lived and lost in Switzerland, accompanied by sipping tea and smoking cigarettes, while poring over a stack of well-thumbed photographs. All of which held treasured memories for him; and with surrealism, depicted a high-life of parties and hedonistic fun. Past glory days in locations which seem foreign due to their splendour and wealth, even by European standards.
Had it not been for ordering up a papaya salad and having a sit-down and a bit of a chat - then none of these images would have been forthcoming. The result of this chance encounter (which was in itself engineered by my decision to get better at photographing strangers, enabled two unlikely people to share personal stories with one another. He with his words and me with my camera. Landy's story is one about having to evolve and to adapt to changes. Mine, in a way, is also about that. It is about the discovery that there can be a different approach to obtaining interesting photographs. That well shot images alone, may not always be enough to re-tell a story properly. It takes more. In this case the images emerge from the kind of pleasant conversation you might get when seated next to someone talkative on a long flight.
"It's not what you do - its the way that you do it!", our elderly Art teacher used to tell us at school, before breaking into some vintage song with similar lyrics. Maybe he had a point? Its easy to be indecisive and confused by the myriads of choice and endless nuances of the technology in photography. Just as it is too easy to get entrenched by the idea: that to be a photographer is solely about producing good photographs. Everyone takes good photographs today. You would have to try hard not to. So I am suggesting in this article, that taking a leaf out of Landy's book may be in order. Be a cabaret entertainer but get real with the cooking skills. Use your knowledge of the world and grow from your experience. Mix it up a bit, like the proverbial papaya salad. Have more than one skill at work.
Landy's story, is of someone who has evolved through the adventures that life has brought him and has managed to consolidate his skills and interests along the way, without losing himself in the process. He has learned to be more. The image of him sitting serenely with his tiara on, best depicts this. He is bathed in an otherworldly-light from the translucent tarpaulin above, catching him in a moment of contented nostalgia. His pose, along with his somewhat bizarre attire, is at first-glance reminiscent of some kind of mythical Thai being,
Photographers these days need to be more. They need to be more than simply a creative who is able to operate their device and process their images. Photographers need to evolve with their craft. Maybe this means unlocking another skill, such as writing, to accompany the images produced? (Certainly this is something I would like to see myself doing). Perhaps this would lead to self-publishing? Starting an online magazine? Setting images to music? Exploring hybrids between photographs and film? Or making films instead? It could mean re-thinking, not just how we take photographs (or make videos) but also reviewing the reasons why we take photographs in the first place?
We all know the story of how the invention of the camera precipitated a huge change in the history of art. A change, witnessed through movements like Cubism, which called for a total review of the purpose of painting and making art. "If the camera can give us a window on the world (and do it immediately) - then why do we need art?", they cried back then. Whereas the cry now seems to be: "The camera is giving us too many windows (and too many similar views) on the world! Why can't we understand the world any better?"
Perhaps we are being forced to completely review the purpose of photography? We are, whether we like it or not, being taken in hand by the 21st century and led towards the creation of visual (?) products which are still within shouting distance of what we once understood that a photographer does.
Dr Spencer Johnson's best-selling business book: "Who Moved My Cheese?" describes in a parable form how we might react and adapt to change in our life and work. The book asserts that complacency and dismissal are not options when we are confronted with change and sees the characters in the story navigating their way around a maze (a representation for the environment we live in), looking for cheese (a metaphor for the good things in life). However, the story simplistically skips around how we might develop a mindset which allows us to enjoy life, even without "cheese".
Photography often has little to do with actually taking a photograph. Instead it is about a whole other set of experiences as well, interactions and activities (that make it like traveling in Johnson's maze). When circumstances create situations where we have no other choice but to adapt and change - isn't it better to let adaption enhance what we can offer, rather than detract from it? Whether that be a rags-to-riches transition or the other way around - there can still be "enhancement". Evolution may help us to discover how to unlock new potential, discover different approaches and ways of working, which can either support or transform our creativity, with or without the cheese.
Art and Culture Beneath The Overpass
Unlike Shanghai and Beijing, Guangzhou remains predominantly an industrial and commercial city. Even with its recent makeover for the 2011 Asean Games and all of that associated development; designed to give the impression of of a modern vibrant and cultural place, it is not a city which celebrates the arts to the same extent as the other major cities of China. Whatever the reasons may be, it is still relatively difficult to find where the contemporary art scene really thrives here. More particularly, where does the local contemporary art talent showcase it's work? There have been inroads into creating 'art zones' which have reclaimed former industrial areas and decommissioned factories as seen in the examples of the Redtory and the Silo - Original Element Art communities. In both these cases, there is evidence of following a successful formula modeled by Beijing's 789 Art district (also known as Dashanzi Art District - an enterprise which has transformed fifty year old decommissioned military factory buildings and made fresh use of their unique architectural style). In these two cases in Guangzhou, residents are awaiting and watching what kind of transformations, if any, that these two districts will undergo as they evolve. As if to support this point, one website simply entitled: "Contemporary Art Venues" seems like a good place to start but upon selecting the country: 'China' - followed by an attempt to enter the city- 'Guangzhou'- it's only offered alternatives in the drop-down list following are Beijing and Hong Kong!
Contemporary art is making its way here but it is doing so at a painfully slow pace which is far behind the development of other aspects of the city. Many of the aforementioned art zones (this link provides a list), have either stagnated, given over to light industry, chic restaurants and boutique shops, or are slowly evolving into the kind of areas modeled by big brother Beijing. The art -loving public can always experience art at various gallery venues in the city, within the formal context of a gallery or city museum. However there seems proportionately less emphasis placed on the indigenous contemporary art scene or the work of upcoming or undiscovered local talent.
The same is less true for the preservation of local heritage sites which seem to follow an almost theme-park style formula in their regeneration once it is their turn for the spotlight of development to fall upon them. More on this in later postings. Suffice to say that its is often the fate of contemporary art and it's motley crew of new emerging artists and undiscovered talents to become relegated a mere sideshow within the facade of a gentrified redevelopment zone.
Xiaozhou "Art Zone" lies on the southern outskirts of Guangzhou, on the edge of Haizhu District, neighbouring the ancient canal village of Xiaozhou itself. Both of these communities are dominated by an overhead highway towering above on it's huge concrete columns. It runs above the very Art Zone itself and leads the visitor beneath it's shadow into the old village area. This is perhaps the most predominant feature which stands out in the first-time visitor's perception of this district. It is as if this very concrete, overhead, mega-structure is a metaphor for the way Guangzhou is treating its existing meager homegrown art and culture. Something to be swept or hidden away beneath a monstrous highway on the edge of the expanding city, amidst swampy fruit-growing land. Wikitravel.org's entry on Xiazhou (in the outskirts section of the page on Guangzhou), rather unkindly says this about the district :
"Some travelers describe this district as full of historical buildings, fruit orchards and canals and relate that, in recent years, this has become an artists' haven. Others report that recent development has obliterated all traces of the village and that the district is a typical industrial suburb adjoining a huge field used as an outdoor latrine."
While this description seems a little harsh, particularly as much of the village and its old buildings and canals remain, the visitor will be aware that attempts at transformation of the area have not been the most sensitive and seem to have either come to an abrupt halt or been abandoned completely. There is more evidence of the ad-hock development of commercial businesses, food outlets and tawdry souvenir shops to the detriment of preserving original lifestyle, authentic activities and aesthetics of the village. Ironically the very things that visitors flock to experience on weekends and holidays, in an effort to leave the claustrophobia of the city behind, seems to have been forced to go into retreat as authenticity surrenders to pale imitation.
Meanwhile, in the opposite direction beneath the overpass, in the 'Art Zone', there is that same familiar response at witnessing a dilution of quality and the lacklustre. What appears once to have been a sound idea, with all of the evidence of good intentions behind it's inception; seems now to have become an idea mired in the very swampland it sits within.
Experiencing the 'Art Zone' creates a mixed response of both sadness and hope because one can see that it once was the "artist's haven" it set out to be. It (still does) provide alternative glimpses to the more traditional Chinese approaches to art practice and methodology, as well as making accommodation for it. There is a corridor of covered gallery space, giving on to a series of porta-cabin-style studios running down to the river. However, much of the art produced there seems to be either derivative and / or formulaic (if it aspires to be modern), or very much grounded in the traditional. In a contemporary context the 'Art Zone' appears to be held in a paralysed, limbo state of existence and one wonders what the future will hold for it? (Read more on how the Art Zone reached this state, in an article "Art and Money : Selling Out in Xiaozhou" by Zhang Man here).
As you wander beneath the concrete canopy, listening to the metronome beat of traffic passing above and seeing the giant pylons marching off across the swampy orchards, you cannot help but get an eerie cul-de-sac feeling of being forgotten and of being literally passed - over.
These sets of photographs taken in both the Xiaozhou Village and the Art Zone attempt to express these ideas and feelings.
Getting to Xiaozhou
Take the MRT on Line 3 to Kecun station. Exit at the 'Mc Donalds exit' of the subway station then take the number 252 bus 14 stops to the the town of Xiaozhou. Alight at the outdoor bus depot where the sign of the bus stop reads ‘Xiaozhou’.
Find useful links to seeing contemporary art in Guangzhou here.
Find useful links to the art zones of Guangzhou here.
View more images from the Guangzhounaut at: The Guangzhounaut Dailies, a page set up for daily iPhone photographs taken in and around Guangzhou.
Thoughts on Progress
Its been 15 years since I last visited Malacca - probably around the time that the photography bug had started to take its hold on me in earnest. Back then I was still using my Minolta Maxxum 7000 35mm SLR film camera; didn't have much of a clue about photography (or Malaysia / Asia for that matter) and was relying solely upon my sense of wonder and awe at the "different-ness" of everything surrounding me to try and generate what I thought would be great travel photos. Intoxicated by every detail of this vibrant, historical and colourful town, I was beside myself with photographic anticipation. This kind of visual curiosity is never a bad place to start when you want to make more personal travel photographs. Only, I wish I had known (about photography) back then what I have learned now.
This return trip to Malacca was providing plenty of conflicting feelings, as I made the jump back and forth between the past and present in my mind. This made me want to follow the urge to: go-back-to-that-spot-and take-that-shot-properly, to pressurise myself into surpassing past efforts, provide instant digital evidence of improvement! Confirm that I have indeed progressed in skill, since those days of fumbling to reload another 'Fujifilm' canister, while caught up in the excitement of visual overload. "I'll do it right this time", I thought to myself. Back and forth my mind went. This is perhaps why I ended up packing everything but the kitchen sink this time around. Everything that is but the essential camera battery charger or a fully charged spare! Duh! A rookie mistake! As if a ghost from the past had already begun to haunt me; this meant that I had no choice but return to the economy of shooting like in the days of film, in order to make that sole battery last for all of a couple of days and a night. Maybe this was to be a blessing in disguise after all?
As if to echo the very history of Malacca itself, this sense with being at odds with the present and haunted by the past, was to reoccur throughout the visit. This time around I found myself less charmed by the place. New volumes of tourism have overwhelmed its narrow streets, riverside and squares and it seems as if this once quirky and interesting location has been forced reluctantly into providing that lowest common denominator of tourism experience and compromise its inherent charms. Having said that, it does remain vibrant and colourful - only that someone has whacked up the saturation, brightness and the auditory volume on the whole place.
In contrast to the previous visit here, I recognised that I am now more inclined to seek shots populated with people and to go for street portraits more than I would have done before. This time, I was less fascinated by the still lives, architecture and abstract vignettes that the Malacca of the past provided and more socially conscious to the melee around me. I began to feel sad that perhaps my innocent curiosity for the more "mundane" subject matter of the past may have have been lost, just as much as I wished I had today's bravery to shoot strangers back then. So I resolved to try and find a way to combine the two and examine these feelings in my shooting.
Since I had brought a tonne of equipment and had limited battery life, I decided to split-up the battery power between day and night shooting, determined to use the tripod and off camera flash, after trudging around with it all the while. Just as in the past visit, I spent most of my time there in a sweaty mess - this time fumbling with the tripod and / or the speedlite.
Happily, I noted that I was still as excited by the photographic opportunities before me. I felt empowered by the medium of photography and was able to take comfort from the familiar and still embrace that curiosity for what was not.
Repeat-visiting a location like this is always good for one's photography. Not being too hard on oneself is another lesson I learned from returning to Malacca. Currently, I am reading Robert M Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", a book which back then I wasn't ready for but am reading again now - and it seems to resonate. Pirsig says: “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” Just as in travel, our natural quest to be the best kind of photographer is also a journey and perhaps it doesn't have to simply be about arriving at the destination that truly enriches us?
It was my privilege to be requested to photograph this year's graduating class at Alcanta International College, Guangzhou. These portraits, along with the college's Academic Directors and the Executive Director's images, were to appear within the Graduation Programme as well as on the students own 'banners'; which on Graduation Day, displayed their university places or choices as well as their personal messages to their family friends and teachers.
One of the challenges of this kind of job is consistency at lighting (especially if not all are there on the same day of shooting), but particularly at post production. Another challenge was putting these nervous young people at ease and to try and catch a glimpse of their natural personalities during the last week of their exams (which was when the shooting took place), .
The lighting set up was simple - using only one off camera flash with an umbrella and a reflector as a fill. I wanted to create the atmosphere of a Dutch painting - a kind of warm intimacy, yet professional and dignified at the same time. I found this "guide to lighting the face" useful when preparing for this job.
I think the students liked their portraits and their Graduation ceremony and celebration was a big success as well as a very pleasant evening. I wish them all the very best as they progress onto their next adventures at university.
A 365 Experiment
I didn't buy an iPhone to keep up with the Joneses or to become more of a slave to Apple Mactintosh products than I am already. This miniaturised, 2001, Kubrick -obelisk appeared in my world in March 2013, simply because I couldn't bear the idea that I might be losing out on an opportunity to seamlessly integrate more photography into my life. I carry my DSLR camera just about everywhere - (a fact of which I am proud of- as I continue to support my photography alongside full time work) , yet somehow there are always those occasions - those "decisive moments", as full-timer, Cartier Bresson referred to them as. Those instances when one is caught in a first-thought -right-thought fraction of time, that simply will not wait for the DSLR to be unzipped from it's bag. Those mental-chewing gum visual moments, as I like to call them. Moments that are so instantaneous, that one needs both a combination of: "ever-present-ness" and a fast-draw response; or risk being caught off-photography-guard as one goes about the business of the day. These moments appear to be even more fleeting as they usually exist on the peripherals of the working day - the time in between the times you are otherwise compelled by work activity and domestic routine. This is why I bought the phone.
While all this may sound apologetic in it's tone, it isn't. For the iPhone has enabled the inner- Garry Winogrand as well as spectre of Vivian Maier to be unleashed in my photographer-life. This device is a veritable Uzi of image collection. This little tablet of joy, has almost given me the permission to invade every aspect of human existence and experience, within a world which is already preoccupied (or enslaved - its hard to tell sometimes) to it's hand-held devices. A world which demands that we record every facet of it- however crass, meaningless, happenstance or banal.
Herein lies the rub. Without some kind of imposed discipline upon this automatic response to "seeing" life; it seems I could be in danger of succumbing to a kind of visual babble. My imposed structure, to avoid this and to keep a photographer's perspective, came from a combination of the tried and tested 365 Project and the directed use of social media . A photo a day, every day for a calendar year.
I am three months away from completing the challenge and here are my pledges or self-imposed 'rules' which have acted as a kind of manifesto for this project. The list below is what I have used to steer myself into the whacky world of iPhone photography and develop my own response to a 365 project:
1) I will take photographs with the iPhone all day long. I will look for photographic opportunities arising from the moment of waking until its time to sleep.
2) I will be more observant of the mundane and not be afraid to witness life. I will record the everyday, the everyman and the routine and the regular. Whenever possible I will have that tablet in my hand as i walk through the steps of my day. From the sublime to the ridiculous- the device will be my "iCompanion." If in doubt - tap the shutter button on screen.
3) I will select and identify images which: depict an interesting or meaningful moment from the days collection. I will break the selection down to those images that are well composed, that are in focus (if they need to be) , that are either thoughtfully taken - spontaneously shot- or the result of mere happy accident.
4) I will work cliche -free. If at all possible I will not succumb to the temptations of: the notorious selfie, photographing my feet, my dinner, my decorated cappuccino or cocktail. I will also avoid photographing kittens / puppies / babies / flowers / cute couples or children. Similarly I will not resort to over-editing my shots. A practice which of course heralds the chance for a whole host of other cliches (funky borders, iridescent light leaks, big vignettes or stamped patterns) to take residence in my work flow.
(This point - I might add, has been the hardest one to stick with!)
5) I will work with as many and varied photography editing apps as I can. I will use my commuting time and my idle platform waiting, boarding lounge, protracted meetings, supermarket queuing time to work and familiarise myself with the varied editing features . If I trip up or fall down stairs because I am watching my phone's screen - it will be because i am mid-way through tinkering with an image taken earlier, not because I am texting.
6) I will always shoot in 1:1 Square format. Simply because it allows for a change of thinking regarding composition after the DSLR. In addition:- neither the lens position on the back of the iPhone, nor the orientation of the phone (when used either horizontally or vertically) won't drastically alter this compositional decision making. Square shots lend themselves well to the way they can be displayed or laid out and scrolled through on social media later. (See point 7 below).
7) Since I am living in China and "WeChat" is the most popular form of social media for people on their phones here, I will only use the "Moments" feature for posting my single image for the day and post it during the day it has been shot (before midnight). Additionally I will set up a "Tumblr" blog where I will transfer a selection of the best of these WeChat Moments, weekly so that I can link it with my website and other social media platforms.
8) I will use this daily exercise to discover what interests me as a photographer. I will allow the process to direct me towards some more meaningful street photography / photography projects. Hopefully the libraries of images in the phone's albums will act as a filter for reoccurring themes which identify themselves over time.
9) I will not stress about creating a top quality image each and every day. I will treat the project as an excuse to: walk different routes home - spend more time outdoors - more time on public transport - more time quietly observing - more time spent taking chances- more time considering vantage points and quickly react to things happening on the streets around me. I will deviate from my routine behavior as much as possible. If nothing photograph-worthy is forthcoming, then i will not beat myself up for not shooting a photo on that day to post but rather work with a shot that I have taken earlier instead.
10) I will enjoy the process and include my family, friends colleagues and students in it. I will seek their feedback and sometimes photograph them or simply take enjoyment from sharing the project with them. In doing so, I will see myself in training for working with my usual camera and overcoming shyness and or deliberation and take pleasure in the encounters that this kind of photography may bring.
So there you have it. It all sounds very sensible doesn't it? As I have already hinted, its all very well making the pledges - but following them is quite another thing entirely. It's now nine months in and I must already be guilty of not following points 4, 5 and 9! Nevertheless, this daily ritual of creating "Photo of the Day" is still a happy one and I haven't regretted doing this project at all.
I'd love to hear about your experiences with this kind of project if you too have already taken the 365 plunge. Or maybe you are some way into such a project already? Perhaps you are just thinking about it? You can visit my Tumblr site: The Guangzhounaut Dailies to see more iPhone Photos of The Day that are about Guangzhou, or join me on WeChat by using my ID : Jamie-Lowe, and find out what happens over the remaining three months of this year. The Guangzhounaut continues to add photo essays from Guangzhou on the website here too.
I am already looking forward to continuing next year with a whole different daily photographic manifesto, involving my small compact camera, the Ricoh GR), and a proposed series of 52 photo essays. Thanks for following.
Notes from a fashion shoot on location in suburban Milan
This is the last posting about the Photography and Fashion course which I attended at Instituto Italiano Di Fotographia in Milan this summer. This two week summer course was designed to prepare the photographer for breaking into the world of fashion photography and, as well as providing a sound introduction to the processes involved in finding work in this industry. Naturally it provided some practical photography shooting experience and the location shooting exercise, was perhaps the area where I learned the most lessons.
Selecting a location perhaps presents the biggest challenge. In the context of our short course -this experience could not have been made too elaborate for the sake of the logistics of having eight photographer participants, all needing access to equipment and support teams over the same time short period and in a variety of locations. We had to suffice with selecting a location within reasonable walking distance from the IIF studio in the suburban Corvetto area of Milan. Accepting that, there was no budget for transport or logistics and that we would work in photographer-pairs with our models, yet share the same assistants, stylists and make up artists; we would have to select a practical location very carefully.
Realising in hindsight the influence of issues and set-backs impacting on my simulated experience, I began to reflect on what would happen In a real-world scenario.
What's it all going to cost? And who pays?
Here in the stark reality of fashion as a concrete concept and not solely a creative one, it must surely be a question of establishing what the budget is going to be first of all. Clear communication with the client first in order to establish whether they can afford to send you (and your team) to the Moroccan desert in order to realise your creative vision, is a must. The cost for us on the IIF course, had already been covered and this was not an issue.
Courtesy, knowledge and research.
Taking the time to find out the personal thoughts of your client and really listening to what they are looking for in the promotion of their product. Likewise taking the time to find out about the brand and the clothing as well as to study their prior photo shoots and locations and to look back at the history of the brand, is just as important. In creating "newness" you neither want to be disrupting the image of a brand with whacky ideas for locations nor covering old ground, far less not breaking enough new ground either with your ideas. There is no room for creative arrogance and the client's decision has to be respected.
Simulate those conditions.
Fashion is a topsy-turvy world by necessity. The world's fashion show calendars present us with autumn and winter collections from January -February and summer and spring collections from the end of June -September, in order to establish the chain of events which lead to the sales campaigns and have the clothes on the markets by the appropriate times. You will find yourself shooting spring and summer outfits during autumn and winter. This means that, unless your client's budget can fly you to the Moroccan desert, you are going to need to settle for something similarly sandy-but nearer to home. Remembering also that having your model standing in a bikini in thin drizzle with low temperatures and grey skies, isn't going to make for a happy or productive shoot either.
In my simulated exercise, I was faced with just this very challenge. Of having to somehow "upscale" the humble surroundings of our chosen railway bridge location outside of Corvetto, so that it might translate later to a more: St Tropez, Mediterranean Riviera feel. Transforming the gritty and graffiti-ied urbanity into something more high-end. Luckily, as you can see, we were blessed with that glorious Milano summer sunshine.
We photographers are creative people and it is just these sorts of dilemmas that push all the right buttons for me and make this sort of photography so rewarding.
Are we there yet? Who are all these people? And where is the toilet?
Just getting yourself - and your model(s) and your lighting assistant, your stylist and your make up artist and hairstylist to the location - (and did I mention the wardrobe of clothes and accessories along with the studio equipment? ), is a logistic exercise in itself. Its fundamentally important to visit the location, on several occasions if possible. it would be truly awful to arrive and discover that there is no parking available or restricted access; or- that during the afternoon the location is: mobbed with pedestrians, becomes a temporary car park, hosts a farmer's market, offers no shelter for kilometres when it rains, or to discover that you are indeed trespassing, on your shooting day.
Then there are the inevitable questions to consider: "right here? With all these people here? ", "where do I get changed?", "where can I put this down so that it doesn't get wet / dirty / trodden-on / blown-away / forgotten / stolen?" , "where is the toilet?". "Does anyone have any water / cigarettes / something to eat?", "did anyone bring an actual rain umbrella / coat / pair of comfortable walking shoes?". "is it always this busy here?" ,"If he / she is doing that? Then who will be looking after that? / doing this?" "How do we get the clothing-rail / equipment / bags across there?", "does anyone have the mobile phone number for the model / the agency/ the stylist / the driver/ the supplier / the client?" And so on.
Maybe, because of my experience in international secondary school teaching (where I grew used to being responsible for the creation and management of school residential trips at home and abroad), these sorts of preoccupations have an eerily familiar but no less irksome feel about them? My take-away point is; that you will need to think of everything that can possibly go wrong and back it up from there; making a contingency plan for each and every sort of mishap you can imagine as you do. In education it is referred to as risk-assessment, but I think it applies just as well here. Give yourself adequate time to do this and to really break down each and all of yours and other's movements to-from, in and around your selected location. Establish the individual needs of each and every member of your team and consult with them first. Situations such as discovering that your model cannot swim (when you expect her to get into the pool) during the shoot, or even that your stylist has a special diet or that your driver needs to return the vehicle by a certain time, cannot be rectified on site or on that day, for example. You may think that you are simply "the photographer", but to everybody else you are the person who people will turn to immediately when there are set-backs or things go wrong. You are the "trip leader" - the supervisor, the director and the decision maker.
Contingency. Time and light wait for no one.
More often than not; exactly what you see in your head -rarely becomes an exact reality. If the above mentioned issues do not represent enough restrictions to your creative vision; then the issue of time and almost certainly fading light or continuously changing light conditions will. These issues are to some extent, beyond your complete control but both light and time can be at least managed by you.
Leading up to my shoot, following the scouting day for the chosen location, I was having that feeling of being in Europe after many years away and was reminded of being back in my home city, Edinburgh again because of the similar daylight conditions. We Edinburghers, are used to an ever changing sky and a rolling program of dramatically different light conditions within a short space of time. So I made the decision to bring a portable strobe and a battery pack, along with my collection of reflectors and diffusers; not wishing to trust that the sun would remain gloriously bright for duration of our shoot. I knew I would have the option to work with off-camera flash and play with overpowering the sunlight if I needed to work shooting against the sun (thereby removing some of the less desirable background from the shots), or if I just needed to create artificial lighting effects to supplement the sunlight on site. (Remember in the scaled-down context of our exercise there was a limit to how much equipment we could factor-in. In a real world situation, there may of course be no limits to the amount of equipment and lighting you are prepared to bring if the situation merits it).
From scouting the location, I discovered that it was a great idea to take some initial shots which would jog my memory later, assist me in further developing my mood board (see an earlier article on this), and prompt the generation of a shooting workflow. Basically I wanted to tell myself:
- How many shots that I would like to have for the proposed editorial? How many does the client need?
- What variety of shots and poses I would like to end up with? (Full figure close -up, walking, seated etc )
- How was I going to achieve them within the chosen location and in what sequence should they be shot in (accounting for changes of outfit, hair and make up, light and time and other variables)?
By writing this down and presenting it as a sort of storyboard, I was able to not only clarify what I was after but also to keep that work -flow moving along without any faffing and delays on the shooting day. Remember the people that you are working with are looking to you for direction always; and the more that you can generate purposeful progress during the shoot - the more willing and actively on-task they will be too. Just as in a theatre productions, everyone on "set" -needs to know their ques.
That is not to be saying that, not "if "but "when", shooting fails to follow this work-flow as smoothly as you had predicted in your head, that you shouldn't be prepared to be flexible yet always remain working with what you have got. It's better to keep things moving along - make adjustments for things that you simply cannot change and have something in your camera, rather than to waste too much time over-thinking and making big sweeping dramatic changes to your planned shoot.
Below are two shots which illustrate two different styles emerging during my shoot which developed from deciding to use flash later. Being aware of this helped me have variety and choice, but somewhat doubled my workload later. if I were going to have to produce a single editorial telling a "story" in a consistent style as an end result, I would have to shoot as many shots in both styles, so as to be able to make a selection from one or the other and reach my quota of images for the client. it was a decision based not on necessity but on creative options. Sometimes these decisions are necessary due to poor light. The point here is, that it is important to keep in mind the bigger goal of how a collection of your images are going to look consistent when viewed together later.
Undoubtedly, it is a good idea to have several further plans (which don't stray too far from the original intent and thereby render the location as being irrelevant), for lighting your shots as a back-up. If you have the luxury of time and a single location, you may find that you can create parallel sets of images.
The sequence of your shoot will become a driving force of it. If you can spend time on close ups first, while you wait for onlookers or pedestrians to leave the scene -then do it. Some things might need to be waited for - such as waiting for the man walking his dog across the bridge and into the frame of your shot. But other things - such as waiting for the wind to pick up or the sun to be lower in the sky are not necessary to wait for., when you can find ways to manage your way around them.
Perks and benefits of shooting at my chosen location were the lovely breezes blowing across the bridge, which distributed the models hair and clothing nicely, as well as the strong graphic shadows created by the bridges structure. The bridge, at times could be reminiscent of a boat or a harbour setting. Making these things work within the shoot to enhance the images became important.
You want me to do that? In these heels?
Taking care of your model and your team as we have discussed is important. When, where and how you are posing your model is all directed by you and you only. People working with you are not going to know what you want them to do, unless you make directions specifically clear and understood. Weirdly for me, all my thoughts and ideas for poses and what might look good, are seemingly, instantly, blown away from my head with the first breeze of the day. More often than not, the Mr. Bean of fashion photography once again tries to take residence in my head. It's an experience akin to an actor forgetting his lines. If you too suffer from "shooting-stage-fright" like this - I recommend sketching some ideas on paper and having a little note / sketch book on you in addition to your previous mood and story board work to help you as a prompt.
Another take-away point from this experience was this: include your model and your team in the reviewing process frequently. Show them the camera viewfinder frequently (or the laptop screen in between segments of the shoot). More often than not, they will also spot glaringly obvious things like: camera tilting, cropping of the body and cut-offs, bad shadows, awkward poses, unecessary background elements, poor framing, horrible creases in clothes, lint, shiny areas on skin, fly away hair, unflattering poses and gestures. and so on. Include more eyes in the process, as theirs are dispassionate eyes and, more crucially, specifically specialist eyes which are directed almost autistically toward particular things, such as the quality of the model's skin or way the model's skirts sit They are therefore immensely helpful in the short-term decision making and trouble-shooting..
Never stop communicating with your model. (if something is uncomfortable such as descending a steep metal stairway in high heels then don't expect your model to be as relaxed as she could be in your proposed walking shots, for example. Introduce a plan for her to pause and pose along the way). We noticed how much Rannah perked up with the simple addition of music outdoors and how much more focused she became when everyone's attention was completely upon her. By this I mean each and every team member was actively engaged in playing their part- holding a diffuser, angling the strobe, flapping a board to create wind, standing by with a brush.
As you can imagine there were so many rookie mistakes and lots of truly awful gaffs amidst moments of great inspiration throughout this glorious sunny day. I had the pleasure of working with Rannah from Brazil (represented by the Boom Agency in Milan). For me and my hard working team, she was as patient, professional and as good humored and calm as we could have asked for. I am grateful for her role and that of the stylist Marco Di Ciuccio, the make-up and hair expert Giovanni Esdra Maurelli and Vinicius Amaral de Silva the lighting assistant, as well as my co-participants Gabor Herczegflavi and Caroline Porter in helping me to create my images and to help me meet the vision of what was in my head.
Of course thanks to the course leaders: Piero Visconti and Sara El Beshbichi, Maria Christi Lani and Lucja Hrvat for their fantastic input.
We all had a lot of fun and it was a reward in itself to share in that positive working atmosphere on the day.
A studio shooting with the theme of: Sexy Art Deco
Week one into the Photography and Fashion course at Instituto Italiano Di Fotographia culminates with us participants getting our first chance to shoot our simulated editorial for "IKI" Magazine's "Sexy Issue" in the studio at Instituto Italiano Di Fotographia (IIF) . If you have been following this journal, then you will know that I was in Milan to study fashion photography from among others, Piero Visconti, who in the previous days had led us participants through a demonstration of a studio shooting (read about this in a previous posting). Piero is also the Editor in Chief of 'IKI' Magazine and our simulated editorial reflects the brief proposed for a real issue which was published in May 2014.
Summarised here are the steps we took to achieve our first fashion editorial images in the studio. This is not by any means a text-book approach, but merely an account of how I responded to this challenge, recounting the steps that I took, ably guided through the process by the IIF team.
Beginning this process is the brief, set by 'IKI' Magzine. It's the "Sexy Issue", we are told and it is high summer after all and the city has that carefree, devil-may-care vibe about it. the images have got to be sexy but elegant. Something worthy of the quality of clothing as well as a little risque. The first task is:
Generate an idea and then create a "Mood Board"
We are in the wake of Baz Lhurmann's film -"The Great Gatsby", the FIFA World Cup in Brazil has the world's soccer fans in a frenzy and Milano is gearing up for EXPO 2015. Gucci's Spring Summer collection is in my mind and I am aware of a quiet 70's revival emerging in fashion. My mood board idea begins to draw upon these "first thought" ideas as I attempt to distill them all into some sort of coherent presentation.
My Mood Board begins with some selected images to set the tone of my thinking and which show my desired lighting set up as well as a broad idea of styling. I like the Harlem-meets-Deco feel of the photographs from Brazilian Vogue on this first page and I particularly like the strong colours and lighting which comes from above to frame the models up-turned face in them.
Then there follows a page to show proposed hair styles,. I am really keen on the jazz singer look from the 1930's -short wavy hair which is really the only reference I want to make back to this period of the 20th century, as i still want 'the look' to be a contemporary one. Also on this page i am identifying the kind of make up I am thinking of, taking into account the strong lighting set-up that I have in mind.
Lastly a page which I hoped would further assist the Stylist in helping to select the clothing - which would go best with the poses that I had been visualising. This page also helped me to recall my earlier ideas about how the model may be posed when it came to the shooting day.
Select the right model
This seemingly simple task turns out to be anything but simple. My take -away advice for this part of the process (for what it may be worth), is to spend less time scrutinising a model's portfolio on casting day but to take more time to chat and get an early feel for the development of that essential working relationship to come. It is better to know that the person you are going to select is on board with your ideas and is responsive and communicative. So casting is as much about observing and seeing if a model's personality is right for you, as it is about a good opportunity to study their "form". By form, I mean their height, poise, their shoe size, hands and features without make up, the way they carry themselves, their gestures and mannerisms and so on.
A model, it is said, can change the fortune of a brand. There are essentially three kinds of model (we are told) : "The Beautiful", "The Expert" and (the Kate Moss league) "The Top". I'm yet to meet an example who can straddle all of these categories! But I am suggesting that an 'Expert' would be the kind of model with: experience, a willingness to be professional, work hard and who has the ability to transform themselves at will in front of the camera. Ideally it is a person who can both get along with you in a friendly relaxed way on set but follow your dictates closely when before your lens.
Casting day happens as a result of the following things being done:
- Approaching the modelling agency and organising a meeting with them
- Preparing a portfolio to show to the agency
- Being able to show them the Mood Board that you have prepared.
On the day of casting it is advised that as well as collecting a model's communication card (a bit like one of those "Trump Cards " detailing their 'stats') you should consider taking a few shots perhaps in a pre-prepared set. In addition you should scout for a second option too, just in case your first choice is unable to make it on the shooting day.
I chose Paulina, a new face from Poland, on account of her distinctive baby-doll features ( at once innocent and menacing, with a touch of the oriental about them) and her remarkable eyes, which I felt would carry off my proposal for make-up well. As it happens, I think I chose both a 'Beautiful' model as well as an 'Expert', and I was really pleased with what we managed to create and I am very grateful to her.
Send a copy of your Mood Board to your Stylist, Make-Up Artist and Hair Stylist
Yes! You will need to find these key people as well. We were lucky enough, being on this course, to have these people provided for us for this exercise. My take-away advice here is to find a Stylist, Hair Stylist and a Make-up Artist at your level (of your career) and get to know them well. Making this happen seems a little like one of those story lines in an action film where the concept of putting together "a team" for a bank-job or some such theme seems similarly tricky. To do fashion photography, you need a team of specialists to assist you and half the battle is being able to select and identify the right team in the first place (I'm thinking along the lines of "The 'A' Team" here after witnessing Serene the stylist arriving at the studio with a similar black transit van packed with clothing accessories and props -goodies one morning).
Organise with your Assistant(s) the equipment list and the physical layout of the lighting set up.
Here's my hastily sketched proposal from the first discussions with my fantastic assistants from IIF below:
In my set up on the day, I actually used one main light: (a strobe with a beauty dish on a giraffe) to light my model from above, with a secondary light (a strobe directed onto the coloured background to create a spot of highlight behind my model, creating a bit of depth along with going between a third light off to the right hand side with a soft box light to catch the model's profile or a wall of white reflector panels.
Scott Kelby's book: "Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It" has been a really useful guide for me in the past and is definitely worth reading if you want a very simple and user-friendly introduction to studio lighting.
Using a digital light meter and my camera on 'M' Mode, I was able to establish a precise f stop somewhere between f11 and f8 with a 1/125 shutter speed.
Another useful trick was to make use of a grey card so as to establish a desired white balance in the camera by accessing the option to create a pre-set white balance in camera (your manual should explain how) . if you don't know how to do this then you can set your white balance to "cloudy".
Prepare to make everyone feel comfortable and at ease. Offer refreshments, point out changing areas, rest rooms, smoking areas, make clear the timetable and establish a good rapport right away.
Get your "deck" organised - in other words have a landing space somewhere on the set for your camera(s), lenses, your laptop and hard drive, so that you may better organise the transfer, back -up and archiving of images. Since its always best to view your shots on a bigger screen it is a good idea to transfer from your camera to your laptop after each segment of shooting which is usually precipitated from a change of clothes / styling. That way you have time to transfer to a folder for each segment, back- up and view the feedback.
Also, don't forget to select some appropriate music to have playing to put your model, your team and yourself in the mood. I even made a "Sexy Art Deco" -playlist, which has subsequently been expanded and improved upon by lots of cool Brazilian music courtesy of my fellow particpants on the course.
It is important to remember on this day, that you are the only person who gives instructions to the model. In short you are the director on your own film set, and maintaining pace to the day, order, breaks and efficiency of the work flow is your job.
One of the things that I learned was the importance of establishing in which order the make-up and hairstyle changes should happen (in line with the clothing changes), so as to make the transition as trouble free as possible for the stylists and make up artist.
What follows the shoot is a list of important jobs which can perhaps be covered best in another article and it looks something like this:
- First selection of the images
- Second and final selection of images
- Retouching and post production
As a fledgling fashion photographer, I realise that I still have lots to learn but found this experience, being involved in a simulated exercise to shoot an editorial, to be really valuable and I can't wait to do more of this sort of work. I am thankful to Paulina and wish her well in her career.
Special thanks to our Stylist, Marco Di Ciuccio, our Hair Stylists and Make-up Artists: Giovanni Estra Maurelli and Gerry. Our great and patient team of studio assistants at IIF Studio : Vinicius Amarai da Silva and friends.
Many thanks also to my fellow participants : Gabor Herczegflavi, Caroline Porter, Fernanda Mantoan, Maisa Mendes, Biruta Freimane, Elena Smirnova, Anya Klyueva, Anna Koroleva, who, when we were not supporting or assisting one another through this process in some way, all created great images for "The Sexy Issue" of their own in the studio on that day too.
Of course thanks to the course leaders: Piero Visconti and Sara El Beshbichi, Maria Christi Lani and Lucja Hrvat for their fantastic input.
Street Photography in Milan
A week into my trip to Milan and I have been shooting on the streets every day. The bonus is- that after the Photography and Fashion course which I am attending here finishes; the sun is slowly beginning to set and I am released into the golden hours of a Milano evening (which lasts right up until 9.00pm at night). Then of course there are the equivalent bright mornings. So, I am shooting for fashion in the day and then shooting at either end of it on the streets. It's a great arrangement. This trip also represents my transition into using film for street photography and I have been able to track down some useful suppliers and more importantly laboratories to assist me while I am here.
Emerging from the melee of the first weeks images, are some themes which I have tried to work along with. Firstly, I have decided to use a composition which sits the subject at the centre of the photograph. I'll call it: "Central Viewpoints". Rather than using a traditional 'rule of thirds' composition, I am using one which compels the viewer to be in the frame by presenting the subject slap-bang in the middle of the frame. I recently watched the film "The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson which uses this risky compositional theme throughout the film to great effect. It occurred to me that Wes Anderson might have been following, or maybe even paying homage to Stanley Kubrick's penchant for one point perspective-style composition in his films. Then with there being so much Renaissance-period art all around me, it seemed rude not to play around with a strong compositional theme, even if that meant breaking the traditional rules of good photography composition. I honestly think that sometimes a 'Central Viewpoint' works.
Then there's: "Street Portraits", I simply cannot resist approaching people who, to me seem to be real characters, as well as typifying a certain Milanese and / or Italian-ness. There is a warmth and friendliness to people here and these encounters are nearly always good humored.
"The Underground" is another emerging theme. Which comes as no surprise, as I spend much of my time using the metro system here to move between Instituto Italiano Di Fotographia, Instituto Di Moda Burgo (where the Photography and Fashion course takes place) and Piazza Cinque Giornate (where my residence is). The Milano Metro, just like any other cities underground system, provides a rich source of human activity and where there is life - there is always photography.
Another category for a theme, albeit it less well defined, is: "Street Performers" (an umbrella term used here to encompass all activity in the streets intended to engage the passer-by's attention). This category witnesses on-the-street-activities which really bring the city alive with everything from earnest charitable appeals, outrageous cons, cliched acts to impromptu jazz to BMX biking to Hare Krishna dancing.
Perhaps what is happening is a fusion of all of these aforementioned themes, as they begin to overlap with one another. Here's this posting's visual essay - in no particular order of category:
Other themes which seem, (to me), to be compelling are: "People Eating Ice Cream", "Couples Dressed Similarly", "Stuff On The Ground" (with apologies to Eric Kim) and "Alone Together" '(you guessed it! The curse of those smart phones and tablets; dumbing down our experiences in the midst of such rich visual culture). Let's see what develops next week. the streets don't sleep here.
So until next posting - Ciao Ciao
An Editorial Fashion Shoot in Milan
If you have been following this journal, then you will know that there is a particular reason that I came to Milano this summer. I wanted to find out about breaking into Fashion Photography while spending the summer in one of the most beautiful parts of Italy. What better place to start than Milan? One of the major fashion capitals of the world (and as I have been oft been told since my arrival here) -the birthplace of fashion.
Fashion photography is as much about selling a life style as is it is about a piece of clothing, so it offers the photographer a lot more room to explore their creative side. As a portrait and travel photographer, I felt the best way to develop my existing skills was to enroll on a course with Instituto Italanio Di Fotographia (IIF). IIF was created in 1993 and it is a multifunctional school that provides comprehensive photography training, offering courses taught in English such as the Photography and Fashion course which I have joined, but also Food Photography, Fashion Beauty Photography as well as other basic photography courses.
The Photography and Fashion course brings together the key concepts of both photography and fashion and provides participants with an introductory knowledge of the fashion business and the role of the fashion photographer within the industry. Getting an insider perspective and being able to interact with modelling agencies, established fashion photographers, fashion magazines and fashion designers makes it very interesting indeed.
Fashion photographer and "IKI" fashion magazine creator, Piero Visconti has been leading us through the photography part of the process, beginning with: how to develop an idea and create a mood board. How to contact an agency, organise a casting and select the right model (not as easy as you may think). The correct way to deal with your team and organise your assistant(s), stylist make-up and hair stylist and so on; through to the shooting day and eventually post production and submission.
Already during this first week (of this two week course), I have been led through these steps and have met a variety of models from two of Milano's modelling agencies and have been asked to select one as well as a back-up for a studio shooting at the end of this week and two more for the following week for a location shoot. Participants on the course have been asked to manage both of these shoots themselves, in a simulated exercise to create an editorial* for the "Sexy Issue" of "IKI" magazine (which was actually was published using that theme in April 2011).
Running parallel to all of this, (for the course is split between two locations, one being at IIF and the other at Instituto Di Moda Burgo, an established fashion design school in Milan ) we have learned about fashion styles, structure and timings of a collection in the context of the world's fashion calendar. Brands charter and fashion trends as well as some of the politics and approaches one must take once the decision has been made to go into the business. More on this in a later posting.
in the meantime, here are some of my "backstage" photographs from today's demonstration shoot at the studio in IIF with Piero Visconti; who modeled for us how we should run our own shoot in response to that editorial* brief from "IKI" magazine.
Just what is an "editorial" ? I hear you ask. In order to better answer this as well as explain these differences in fashion photography categories, I am going to quote from Photoshelter's free online educational guide: "Breaking into Fashion Photography":
Let’s start by breaking down fashion photography into some categories. Each requires a little different set of skills, but many fashion photographers cross over to work in several areas.
Fashion magazines like Vogue, GQ, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar dominate the newsstand and are still one of the most highly coveted outlets for fashion photographers. Fashion magazines devote dozens of pages per issue to editorial fashion stories, and many other types of magazines publish regular fashion stories, including city magazines, health and fitness magazines, and digital magazines. Each story has a theme, like a type of clothing, color palate, or environment. Whether shot in a studio or on location, the focus is on producing an engaging narrative, one that compels the reader to linger and study the pages—while also showing the clothing and accessories in a flattering way.
Catalog images have a very clear mission—to show clothing and accessories in a clear, flattering way that will inspire shoppers to buy. While this could mean very straightforward product shots, there can be a lot of room for creativity in catalog photography. Just like fashion magazines, some designers and brands also aim to tell stories with their catalog photography by shooting on location or dreaming up creative sets and environments.
Fashion advertising photography can mean a wide range of things, from straightforward magazine and digital ads to over-the-top billboard campaigns and everything in between. It can encompass high fashion concepts or look more like catalog work depending on the brand and goals of a particular campaign.
Another area of fashion photography is covering happenings like fashion weeks, runway shows or celebrity- centric events for media outlets, brands, trend analysis agencies and blogs. Skills in photographing live events are critical, but successful fashion event photographers also need to be knowledgable and immersed in the industry so they know what’s important to shoot during what can be hectic, fast-paced events.
Fashion vs. Beauty vs. Portrait
It’s also important to note that there is a distinction between fashion photography, beauty photography and portrait photography. Fashion photography is ultimate- ly focused on clothing and style, often shown on mod- els. Beauty photography is about promoting cosmetics or hair products. Since beauty and fashion go hand-in- hand, the line can blur. Many fashion and beauty pho- tographers are capable of shooting either, but usually
In the creation of an editorial there are many variables - not simply those created by the clothing and the accessories. Piero showed us the importance of prior planning, as well as the importance of good team work. Having a good relationship with your make-up and hair stylist, your stylist and assistant(s) is fundamental. This can be achieved, in part, by establishing clarity about your vision for the shoot long before it begins. Things have to flow on a shoot like this and they have to happen quickly .
The analogy of visualising your editorial shoot like a storyboard for a film is a good one. You have to consider your shoot as "sections" in a story and break down each clothing change or hair or make-up change into logical "sections" of a series of photographs which will have an overriding visual relationship with each other. Each section moves the story forward along with a sequence of events, propelled by your team, that is similar to a scene change in a theatre show or a new chapter in a film. As the photographer only you have final say on all matters, as your role becomes like that of a film director on set.
My turn to take on all this direction will be tomorrow and I am very excited to see how it all comes together. I have already designed my mood board - I have (I think) a strong theme, a vision for make-up and hairstyles, the right model, and hopefully the stylist will have the clothes to go with her. I have designed my light set up and I am feeling ready to go for my first fashion shoot in Milan.
Its seems like we have learned a lot in a short time on this course and I am looking forward to updating you with more from Piero Visconti's shoot today with Jovanna Petrovic from WhyNot Models, Milan, as well as what happens on both of my studio and location shoots for this editorial challenge. I would like to share my process later.
There will of course be more images from the vibrant streets of Milano to come too.
Ciao for now.
I am happy to update this now that I have seen some of the photographs Piero Visconti took during this session appearing in the August 2014 "Connective Tissue" issue of 'IKI' magazine.
I had no idea it was so close! I am feeling smug enough already enjoying the delights of Milano, so I was happily surprised to discover that Venezia was only a mere two hour train ride away. Being reachable for a day trip, I decided that a completely unscheduled visit and an impromptu day of shooting in Venezia was in order.
Venice is the sort of place that you can feel immediately in love with and then feel very sad to leave behind. It doesn't bear description in words here, which is good because this diary is an ongoing visual journal. Besides Venice has been described, written about, composed about, sung about, painted and . . .photographed to death. The challenge seemed therefore to be to find a fresh way of seeing it. On my rapid visit, I was anxious to not only find my way around this ancient city successfully but also to find interesting subjects or scenes. This would mean reining in that inner headless-chicken-photographer and trying to apply the Five 'Fs' of street photography:
1) Find a subject
2) Figure out why a subject is interesting and where / how to shoot it
3) Frame the subject appropriately
4) Focus upon what you want others to see
5) Fire (the shutter) at the point when your heart tells you to
Blessed with a beautiful sunny day I didn't stop shooting from the moment I reached Milano Stazione Centrale until my train pulled in there again later that evening. It was all too exciting and I have to say it was a challenge not to shoot like crazy. Like I suggested its a hard place to begin to describe adequately in this forum and hopefully my visual diary of a snapshot (if you'll excuse the pun) of it speaks for itself.
It's been many years since I have been back in Europe on a trip like this. In the following postings for this journal I look forward to sharing my purpose for coming here to Milan in Italy but in the meantime; while feeling galvanised by Eric Kim's example of his recent street photography diary in Saigon Vietnam, I am going to post a visual diary over the next two weeks. Unfortunately I do not have the stamina to write in as much length and with the same frequency as Eric Kim does. I know that after a day's shooting in a new environment its is going to be a frankly exhausting task and being realistic,I don't expect to update my "Milano Diary" on a daily basis.
Here in this first post I am just going to share the quirky, theme-less and bizarre results of my first two days, until things settle into a logical rhythm (if that ever happens!)
Milano! - It's a travel and street photographer's dream.
I look forward to sharing more with you over the next two weeks.
A month ago I was approached by freelance copywriter and journalist, Lucy Grewcock to join her in Wuyishan in Fujian Province, China, on assignment for the South China Morning Post. As circumstances would have it, I could not join her on the weekend she was visiting the region, so I traveled there independently while she wrote up her experience.
A photographic "treasure-hunt" became what was on order. One in which I was to follow in Lucy's footsteps and attempt to match her experiences with my images. I knew she wanted images to support the concept of a: "5 things one must do when in Wuyishan " feature, and I was emailed a proposed list. As the publication date drew nearer, it was clear that this was to be a sort of "Amazing Race Wuyishan", where I rushed around this gorgeous landscape and ancient town, ticking off the '5 things' as a series of photographic opportunities. Great fun! I wouldn't have traded this opportunity for all the tea in China.
Wuyishan is one of the famous tea-growing regions of China, which became immediately apparent almost as soon as my taxi cruised through the outer suburbs of the old town. It seemed that everywhere and everyone but everyone, was an integral part of the process involved in bringing tea from the remotest crags, outcrops or plateaus to the fine porcelain tea bowls of the end tea-connoisseur user. Not so surprisingly therefore, my list-driven itinerary and subsequent ideas for locations were to take me through all parts of this tea production process. I took the journey that the very tea leaves took. Starting way up in the surrounding highlands and passing down through the hands of the many expert people involved in processing it, refining it, packaging and marketing it and . . .well, enjoying it. Being a hardened coffee drinker, I wasn't expecting a road-to Damascus experience on that issue, so I was a in for a surprise there too.
This list I'd been given, i discovered, didn't just represent a list of suggested photographic locations but soon was to become more of a: "What Can I Learn as a Travel Photographer? -List". As it occurred to me that each of the categories on it became a sort of lesson in itself within the itinerary, that was to be plotted upon my learning curve. So, just what was on that list then?
First item up :
(Lesson Learned: Have a Detailed Itinerary).
With only two days at my disposal, this seemed like a daunting prospect; as where exactly to hike to ? Without losing out on other opportunities? In these situations it's always best to consult with a local. This meant a sit down meeting. Even though it went against all of my usual natural instincts just to get started, get out there and make it happen. There I sat in my hotel reception; with my inner dynamo wound, knees-jigging, squirming in my seat and watching part of that first sunny morning drift by while poring over maps and guides. I did this with the very capable and helpful Jenny Zhang from CITS Travel and thank goodness that I did! Her local knowledge and experience ( as well as good nature), sequenced my movements with the precision of an air traffic controller; as well as taking away my anxieties and preventing me from becoming that headless-chicken photographer. Issues such as: potentially crowded areas, timings for events (such as raft trips, cultural shows, performances), distance times, waiting times, opening times of parks, shops and museums and golden hour light / sunset, best-times-to-be -standing [here] at; were all carefully factored in.
Being a tourist in China is sometimes like being engaged in a factory process. Hiking, it turned out, was at times an experience as thoroughly regulated as crowd control outside a sports stadium or railway station taxi queue. Stone pathways and fenced and channeled routes up and down the steep crags reminded me that I was always on a prescribed route. I suppose this is done to deal with the sheer volume of people, as much as it is to preserve the surrounding tea plantations and the environment. It was important to get shots which both acknowledged this and included the stunning landscape, as well as shots which were just about being "wild and free". Again local knowledge combined with the needs of my inner mountain goat, prompted me to leave the path, ignore the "no-entry" signs; and follow a tea plantation workers trail. My belligerent behaviour paid off and although i was off- itinerary for a while, I felt pleased with the results.
Next on the agenda:
Breathtaking UNESCO Beauty
(Lesson Learned: Separate Emotion from Logic).
One of the things I am most guilty of as a photographer is to remain caught up in the feeling; in that moment of shooting, of having taken a "lovely" shot. That excitement, the warm fuzzy-feeling of having captured something wonderful in a moment of time is a quite natural emotional response. Too often the act of taking a photograph can continue to obscure our judgement regarding the quality of the photograph later. Here is where logic has to step in and help us to detach. Below is an example of what I mean. I love to get lost in photographs that appear to say a lot, but in actuality say nothing. They may be beautifully technically shot but that is often all they are:
Another problem I had was taking photographs that did not say enough about Wuyishan in Fujian Province, China itself. Some of my images may have captured, again with technical competency, a well-composed scene which depicted an activity happening somewhere sunny in Asia . . perhaps. An example below:
Logic demands that the brief must drive the creation of the images. The assignment is not only about creating well composed, quirky or technically well executed shots. The brief is about telling others about a specific location in Southern China. Logic demands that each image, where possible, should provide enough visual clues to support the feeling that we are in that unique location. Below is a better example to help illustrate my point:
In this image we are being given a visual checklist of clues that may help the viewer pick up upon a few Wuyishan-specific features. The terraces of tea bushes in the background, the sheer rock faces descending to Nine Bend Stream, the style of bamboo raft, the peaks in the background, the bamboo groves - all of which help to tell us where we are. Photographer Garry Winogrand said: “Every photograph is a battle of form versus content” It is too easy to forget the content while being distracted by the form in travel photography.
Usually it is good to leave your photos for a period of time before going back to review and begin editing them - a practice that Garry Winogrand used to his advantage. Following this assignment There wasn't the luxury of time for me to be able to "forget" my shots for a while. So I sought the next best way to help me to detach from my photographs: i showed them to a variety of people and asked for honest, brutal criticism.
Garry Winogrand: Every photograph is a battle of form versus content.
The third item is my favourite:
A Cracking Cuppa
(Lesson Learned: Get Closer).
Consider the difference between the two images below:
In the first we are observers to an activity and we can feel that we are almost like spectators at an organised event. In the second we in are in the scene with the players. We have a rapport with the person picking tea. We can sense there has been a breaking of ice and some kind of communication. Although the second photograph was not selected largely due to its cliched feel, it does serve to illustrate the point that we should get closer to our subject. That may mean overcoming the fear of approaching and photographing strangers. Martin Parr said: "I go straight in very close to people and I do that because it’s the only way you can get the picture. You go right up to them. Even now, I don’t find it easy. I don’t announce it. I pretend to be focusing elsewhere. If you take someone’s photograph it is very difficult not to look at them just after. But it’s the one thing that gives the game away. I don’t try and hide what I’m doing – that would be folly." For more on this read my article: Completed Encounters . Getting closer and thereby involving oneself more fully in something requires more than technical skill and they do say that: travel opens your mind - it pays to be open to people and to the things going on around you. So It was through this experience that I became interested in drinking tea again, along side being able to catch shots like this:
Spending part of an afternoon taking tea this way -was not only relaxing but allowed for me to get settled into a comfort zone with a group of people. Thus you get physically as well as emotionally closer to your subjects- out of which further shots become possible later.
Sometimes a few tight, close -up and /or abstract shots can say a lot more about a subject than several photographs can. In the following shot there is something about the rich colours, and variety of textures which tell us about the ritualistic and intimate nature of tea served traditionally here.
Robert Capa : If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.
Next on my list was:
(Lesson Learned: Work All of The Angles and Anticipate)
We've all been there. You spend a long concentrated period of time working at recording and capturing something such as a stage performance. You position yourself in front of the stage and stay shooting throughout the performance in what is billed (in your mind) as a 'main event". As the show comes to end - you begin to wrap things up yourself and put the lens cap back on in an I'm done here gesture. What you haven't realised, is that on the periphery of this 'main event' -something else quite spectacular has been going on and that you've missed it, simply because you spent too long overworking something and not changing your position. This happens so frequently when taking travel photographs. So often we become captivated by a 'main event scene' and work it for too long from the same safe positions or angles.
The first example below is satisfactory as a pleasing landscape scene. However what follows is so much more satisfying and it was improved upon by spotting the man off to the right side of the temple preparing his mule train to walk out to the plantations nearby.
With some anticipation, as well as shouting out to him like a madman: "ni chi na li? " as he moved off - I was able to run ahead of him and catch this:
People going about their lives in an environment is nearly always more interesting (to me) than a standard shot of that environment, no matter how attractive it may be.
By following this monk back around behind a screen in this mountain temple- I am rewarded by a more intimate and better-lit portrait:
The take-away point is: when traveling - never put that lens cap back on, until you have worked a scene completely. You are always looking for opportunities presenting themselves which enhance the already interesting.
Martin Parr: I feel that a strong image should be both interesting from a visual standpoint and meaningful from a humanistic standpoint.
Last on my learning curve was:
Outdoor Adventure for Kids and Big Kids
(Lesson Learned: Be Socially Conscious).
As just about everything seemed like an adventure to me because I am big kid at heart, yet this category proved to be the most challenging in generating even one or two solid images for. I reasoned that because I didn't have a lot of time and that I didn't have any passion for golf (which was one more of the attractions drawing people to Wuyishan), that I would drop that option in favour of shooting on or from the river. That way I could maximise the use of the potential time remaining, as well as perhaps generating more shots for the other categories. Bamboo Rafting it was then!
It had been important to witness this activity from as many different perspectives as possible and to keep referring to it as often as it presented itself. Since rafting is hard to avoid in Wuyishan,I had already collected quite a few ariel perspectives from bridges and from the Heavenly peak itself.
The rafting "station" where you go to board your raft, is in fact just like a railway station in size and format. It's one of the most popular tourist activities and was therefore built up in people's expectations.
Now all that was left was for me to do was to tip the boatman (apparently a common practice anyway, even if you are not vying for a front seat on the raft), settle into my cane chair and take in what's around about me from this peculiar vantage point. I wasn't aware how limiting being in that chair would be. Not to be deterred by this, I began to see that it was fascinating to observe others from up close during a sustained period. Others seated alongside and others on other rafts coming alongside and others on the banks. People's reactions to the passing scenery and to the continuous banter offered by the boatman became just as fascinating as the scrolling montage of scenery. Indeed people relaxing this way gave up all sorts of opportunities to record quite socially telling images. In other words; the tourists themselves became more interesting than the locations. I took advantage of their equally fixed positions from mine and used much of this opportunity to make shots of my fellow tourists.
Joel Meyerowitz: I had a social responsibility to tell it as it is.
Now that the article: "Steeped in History" has been published, it is interesting to reflect on what images that the editors chose from the selection that i sent them and how those images matched or not with Lucy's writing.
My experience working on this assignment seemed to once more mirror the Wuyishan tea's progress. Just as the tea undergoes its protracted journey; processing and transformation as it passes through the stages from bush to cup, so too did my photographs as they passed through their journey of shooting, editing, post processing, further selecting and on until their final printing. It reminds me that photography and indeed writing for that matter, like the production of fine tea, is a craft. A craft which is dependent as much upon the tastes of the end user, as it is upon the intentions of the publisher and its original creator.
Here is the article, as it appeared in South China Morning Post's 48 Hours Magazine on 12 june 2014 and posted with permission:
Buddhist monks and novices had been bused in from temples all over Thailand to attend this event. Thousands of them filed into Changklan Road outside the walled city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand to attend this annual mass alms-giving ceremony. They assembled in the chilly darkness of pre- dawn to take up their positions along one great avenue of plastic chairs, set up in rows and receding back along the length of the road for kilometres.
I had been tipped off about this ceremony by a local shopkeeper, who had handed me a leaflet a few days before, which proudly proclaimed a gathering of 10,000 monks and I must admit to being dubious about whether that would be true or not. I had trouble envisioning what 10,000 monks, let alone everyday people, would look like assembled in one of Chiang Mai's ancient streets, far less imagine how they would organise themselves. Yet here I was confronted In the dawn twilight with this surreal sea of saffron, orange and yellow robed boys and men. All silently seated, braving the early morning chill with woollen hats and throws, clutching their bowls and glowing together against the blue dawn light in a kind of orange unison. They continually filed past, barefoot and with otherworldly grace on their way to find seats in this almighty row of 10,000.
This mass of serenely patient, seated figures immediately absorbed my camera's attention. So much so, that I completely forgot about the purpose of the event. Failing to realise that there were thousands of devotees also gathering like an opposing team and with just as much military order along the opposite direction. These two columns were separated by a platform where the oldest and most respected monks sat ready to lead the ceremony and the chanting. White-clad local dignitaries were seated opposite the monks and beyond them the people respectfully gathered - ready with their alms and offerings. A huge spiritual stand-off was in place.
People had brought along boxes or bags of food offerings. Many of the people had dressed in white and waited kneeling and with their hands folded in respect. By offering food to the monks, not only are Thai people supporting the important role of monks in Thai society but - based on the Buddhist doctrine, they’re also making 'merit's'. Following the concept that merits attract good fortune and develop spiritual growth. Monks are an integral part of Thai society. They preside over marriages, funerals and a host of other ceremonies such as blessing the construction of a new building or venture. They can also act as consultants to everyone from your average citizen through to the captains of industry, business leaders and the politicians.
After the ceremonies had ended, all those thousands of monks stood up and streamed by the pious spectators to collect their alms. Every monk had his bowl filled up many times and uniformed helpers were standing by with large plastic bags to collect all the alms. I later discovered that the monks did not necessarily keep the alms for their own temples but donated them to the poorer or more remote temples instead.
Much of my trip prior to this spectacle had been spent as a monk-chasing tourist, in an earnest attempt to capture the visual and spiritual mystique of these saffron clad figures. Like every travel photographer (who is honest with themselves), I am aware that images of monks in Asia can potentially be nothing more than a photographic cliche. Yet, I still held onto the hope that my shots would be the "wow" ones that summed up all the spiritual essence of. . . . something that I again realised that I knew next to nothing about.
So here are, after a wee bit of research and a December morning spent with 10,000 of them- are some "Monk Facts" :
"Taking the robe and the bowl" is part of growing up. A Thai family earns great merit when one if its sons opts to become a monk. It is an expectation for Thai males to join the monkhood for some short period in their life - yet it is not compulsory. Between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or gets married a young man under twenty years old may enter the 'Sangha' as a novice. This might be for a few days or for a few months. During that time they shave their heads, study Buddhist principles, learn meditation and get trained to be aware of a spiritual aspect of life. When a man reaches twenty years old he may become a monk and he can then remain a monk for as long as he wishes.
To be a monk is to be a scholar. In the past, before schools were established, the temples and monasteries ("wats") were the education system. Nowadays Thailand has a normal government school system, but to this day temples still can function as important educational institutions. There are about 32,000 monasteries in Thailand and 460,000 monks ; many of these monks are ordained for a lifetime. Of these a large percentage become scholars and teachers, while some specialize in healing and/or folk magic.
Early starts. All around Thailand the daily routine for monks is pretty much the same.
- 4.00 am - The monks wake up and meditate for one hour, followed by one hour of chanting.
- 6.00 am - The monks walk barefoot around the neighbourhood, while the local people make merit by offering them food.
- 8.00 am - Returning to the temple, the monks sit together to eat breakfast, then make a blessing for world peace.
- Before 12.00 noon - Some monks choose to eat a light lunch at this time. This is the last solid food they are allowed to consume until sunrise the following morning.
- 1.00 pm - Classes in Buddhist teaching begin. Some monks may attend school outside the temple.
- 6.00 pm - A two-hour session of meditation and prayer begins.
- 8.00 pm - The monks retire to do homework.
- Besides these duties, all monks are given specific roles to play in the day-to-day running and maintenance of the temple and its surroundings.
A spectrum of robes. Thai monks can be seen wearing various shades of robes, from dark brown to the familiar brilliant saffron. The Sangha is divided into two main sects : the Mahanikai (Great Society) and the Thammayut (from the Pali dhammayutika or 'dharma-adhering). The latter is a minority sect (the ratio being one Thammayut to 35 Mahanikai) The orange robed Mahanikai and the stricter, more academic red-brown robed Thammayut who can eat only one meal a day (before noon), provided for them by those who wish to make merit. They cannot touch money. The darker shades are also preferred by monks in the Thu-dong or forest monks.
Men only. All monks must follow 227 strict precepts or rules of conduct, many of which concern his relations with members of the opposite sex. Women are forbidden to touch monks and should not even stay alone in the same room as a monk. If a woman wishes to offer an object to a monk, it must pass through a third medium, such as a piece of cloth. In fact, monks always carry a piece of cloth for this purpose. The monk will lay the cloth on the ground or table, holding on to one end. The woman places the offering on the cloth and the monk then draws it away.
Cradle to the grave. When a monk is ordained he is said to be reborn into a new life and the past no longer counts - not even if he was married. Some retired or widowed men choose to join the Sangha after their wife dies or when their working life is over.
Room for growth. After being in the monkhood for several years and demonstrating extreme dedication to both social work and spiritual study, a monk can be promoted gradually until he reaches the Sangha Supreme Council, the governing body presided over by the Supreme Patriach.
Blessings. Tied in with merit making -one of the roles of monks is to provide blessings to people. Most if not all ceremonies in Thailand are not complete without the blessings from monks. Sometimes Thai people will engage the individual or personal blessings of monks. Monks are respected members of society and even novice monks are shown respect by everyone. Some monks have become very famous for their intuitive and healing powers, and for their accomplishments in terms of building temples, settling disputes, giving advice and educating people.
Monk Chat. Some temples have “monk chat” sessions where monks answer questions by the audience. Those are normally done by Thai monks in the Thai language. However in temples that are frequented by westerners, those chats are sometimes in English as well.
Tolerance. Monks will never preach or try to persuade or convince others to do something. They do not try to move you toward their lifestyle or beliefs but simply live by their Buddhist principles and do not expect you to change your behaviour or your way of life. That is left up to you.
You can view my photo essay on the morning of 10,000 Monks and I am grateful for the understanding that I have gained about Buddhist Monks in Thailand from this experience and from this trip to the ancient city of Chiang Mai.
Home of Kung Fu -Canton Style
Just as we Edinburghers celebrate Sir Sean Connery as one our most famous city's sons; so too do Foshaners with their immortal son- Bruce Lee. As here is where he grew up. For Foshan is truly the ancestral home of kung fu . To be more specific, down here in the south, in Canton, is where kung fu, practised and known as the disciplines of wing cun or hung ga, was one of a variety of skills deemed necessary to have a full Confucian "training". The nanquan or "southern fist" style of this popular Chinese martial art: was developed here.
Perhaps more dear to Foshan people's hearts than Bruce Lee (if that's possible), is the legendary hung ga master -Wong Fei-hung. The son of an already famous folk hero, Foshaner Wong Fei-hung was the real Confucian deal. Not only was he a martial arts expert, becoming a hung ga champion but a learned man of traditional Chinese medicine and an admirable acrobat. Wong was known for his particular brand of lion dance performances; of which Foshan people are also proud, since this unique specific style of the dance emerged and became famous here too. Its apt when you discover that traditionally these lion dances were performed only by martial arts experts.
One of the delightful things about living in China is to witness the ease with which apparently unlikely or incongruous activities are brought together within the same venues. So it comes as no surprise when you visit the Zumiao Ancestor Temple complex at Lingnan Tiandi; that side by side with the smoking incense in ancient censors, there are museum exhibits to kung fu film stars and gurus, along with troops of lion dancers and opera singers ready to entertain you. Perhaps Wong with his Renaissance-man mindset would approve? So here is a place where the martial arts lover can come and discover not only the heritage of Wong Fei-hung but also wing cun master, Yip Man. As a foreign visitor to Guangzhou and Foshan, it's a must for a day- tripper destination, particularly if you are only visiting the region for a short time. There are not many places which offer continuous displays of kung fu bouts and training, regular spectacular lion dance routines, blasts of Cantonese Opera and all of it set amidst the beauty and the, ahem, serenity of a leafy temple grounds,
The Ancestor Temple dates back far as the Song dynasty. and I'm not going into a long history lesson here, suffice to say its old (on a par with medieval castles in Europe) - you'll have to visit yourself to find out more. If you are travel photographer and you are visiting Guangzhou for the first time or even if; like me, you have lived here a while, it is worth heading down to Lingnan Tiandi in Foshan. What delighted me, was the opportunity at this single location, to have a veritable visual pick n' mix of Chinese cultural activities all served up in a oner.
So be prepared photographers for the opportunity to shoot a variety of cultural colour and spectacular acrobatics. I focused on the athletics and leaping energy before me, but I could just as easily have produced a photo essay on the less spectacular activities going on all around the temple complex. Groups of pensioners playing chess and cards under leaf dappled light, pilgrims praying, lighting joss-sticks or dropping coins into khoi-bright pools. Trees festooned with ribbons, shadows in courtyards and lovely abstract vignettes from decorative details - the list was endless. I am sure i will be sharing more images and writing more, about the rest of this district's charms, as the visual treat did not by any means end at the temple.
Essentially now a conurbation of Guangzhou, Foshan and its Lingnan Tiandi District shares in another parallel to Edinburgh for me. Edinburgh's neighbouring port city of Leith, my adopted home, underwent a similar make-over cum preservation and gentrification process back in the early 1990's. Shedding it's humble centre of export and industry status -for one of a more grandly modernised and vibrant cultural-heritage focus. As a result, visitors to Lingnan Tiandi can wander amidst the restored ancient architecture, as if they were wandering amidst alleyways and piazzas of a hip European city. Here historical and commercial buildings are blended seamlessly, couched in a western style overhaul, the local culture sits showcased within it all, like a series of set gems. My visit culminated happily in an Irish bar (i wonder what that says about things?). As I mentioned - more on that later; in a future posting from the Guangzhounaut.
Guangzhounauts can get to Zumiao Ancestor Temple at Lingnan Tiandi District, Foshan by taking the GF Metro line to the Ancestor Temple or Zumiao stop. Take Exit C and go right and right again . Lion dances happen twice daily, the morning performance starting at 10.30am They also take place at the Wong Fei-hung Lion Dance Martial Arts centre at the foot of Xiqiao Mountain.
View more images from the Guangzhounaut at: The Guangzhounaut Dailies, a page set up for daily iPhone photographs taken in and around Guangzhou.
ONE THING AFTER ANOTHER
Shortly before the New Year, I was involved with assisting a group of students at Alcanta International IB College, Guangzhou, to create a Rube Goldberg effect "machine" for the production of a short film: "One Thing After Another". We filmed and edited the video using the iPhone and used the interior of the college building as the location for the machine's whacky "task".
If you are not familiar with the Rube Goldberg effect, a good place to start, like we did, is to go and view Rube Goldberg's biography and original drawings at the very informative Official Rube Goldberg website, which celebrates the life and times of this Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor and author from the early 20th Century.
A Rube Goldberg effect, machine, contraption or device; in a nutshell- is a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation. Just like his British counterpart: W. Heath Robinson, Goldberg would portray his surreal comic inventions in series of annotated cartoons, such as the example below for a "Simple Way to Take Your Own Picture":
Though Goldberg never invented his machines to actually work, you can find plenty of inspiration for real working examples that have since been built by creative enthusiasts seeking the joy of chain reaction on You Tube.
So what did we learn from the production of "One Thing after Another"? Well, firstly it is a great way to stretch those creative muscles, as both the processes involved with making the machine and then filming it during its operation, provide two very different sorts of challenges. Here is our little film, which after an enormous amount of shooting small clips, re-takes, and repeated steps, only lasts for a few minutes!
Here's a quick summary of some of the things we learned from the experience:
START BY CHOOSING A TASK for your machine to perform. The purpose of making "One Thing after Another ", was for a segment in a morning assembly, with the theme of : "Consequences". So it was decided that the machine should deliver a loaded message somehow and work its way down through the building from an upper storey.
INCORPORATE FUNCTIONAL AS WELL AS CREATIVE ELEMENTS INTO THE DESIGN. By juxtaposing: rolling balls, ramps, zip lines, tubes and the domino effect (to keep things moving), with creative elements such as: a balloon bursting to release a ball, a knocked catch being released, or a series of explosions created by a spiked vehicle, and combining these with our functional elements, a rough design was drawn out beforehand.
ASSEMBLE THE MACHINE. Assembly, as we discovered, needs loads more space than you originally thought it would. Particularly if you are going to create opportunity for viewpoints from which the machine at work may be filmed successfully. You will use more than one camera angle consecutively. The action, as you will discover, can all be over all too suddenly! Adequately capturing it, so that the viewer may understand the transition of motion and witness the transfer of energy, is essential.
PLAN A ROUTE which facilitates for the camera work to be done and the camera person to move with the action easily, as well as providing for as non-cluttered a background as possible to view the machine in action.
TEST REPEATEDLY BUT BEGIN SHOOTING FOOTAGE RIGHT AWAY. There's very little chance that your machine will all work the first time. Be ready for plenty of tweaks, modifications and retakes so that you can enable your machine and your shots to run without a hitch. If any of the individual links are difficult to replace such as an inflated balloon containing a ball, skip that step and begin the next one manually. You will have to take it on faith that that step will perform correctly during the final performance. Every short few seconds of film may count in the final edit.
DECORATE YOUR CREATION. Something which we didn't pay much attention to, given the constraints with our project. Streamlining your theme with key colours or appropriately chosen equipment can be a good way to make your film visually more interesting, provided that the decoration doesn't get in the way of the smooth running of things.
One of my favourite Rube Goldberg video discoveries on You Tube was this wonderful creation by 2D Photography House in Canada called: "How Do You take Your Portraits? - Rube Goldberg Machine vs Issac Newton".
Maybe reading this journal post will have the knock-on effect of inspiring you too to try and make a home-made Rube Goldberg device?
Impromptu Street Portraits
"When in doubt, click" - Charlie Kirk
How often have you passed by someone in the street, having thought to yourself - "that person looks like a real character and they have such an interesting face (or look) ?
Having set out my stall in my 'About' page on the Jamie Lowe Photography website; I earnestly stated that- I use photography to connect with people, or some such words. The truth is that it's quite often la photographie de l'escalier with me and photographic opportunities, when its comes to encountering interesting people. As a highly visual person, with a tendency to be one of life's window-shoppers, and voyeurs; this seems to go against the grain of my manifesto. So I figured that it was time to look to some of my 'heroes' of photography for advice.
It was Eric Kim, contemporary street photographer, whose words, as well as his photographs, which helped steel me into action:
"In my experience if I asked people to take a photo of them with a smile, around 8 out of 10 people would say yes. Once you are comfortable to ask strangers to take their photos, you will begin to build up the guts to take photos of them without asking for permission."
"Whenever you miss "the Decisive moment" or hesitate to take a good photo (and end up regretting it) don't beat yourself up over it and feel shame. It is pointless to regret your past mistakes. Rather, use it as a learning lesson and do differently next time. So the next time you miss the Decisive moment (because you didn't have your camera with you) always remind yourself to carry your camera with you. When you see a photo you want to take, don't hesitate. Just take the photo and live without regrets."
Armed with this and various other words of wisdom and not having the luxury of a 31 day programme when on a Christmas break in Thailand, I decided to think of my camera as a kind of 'talisman' to help my situation. I wanted a ready-made solution to help overcome my fears of approaching strangers to photograph. I had just been perusing the vast range of Buddhist amulets for sale at various temples. The Thais favour these as potent protective symbols, to wear around their necks. Symbols to ward off evil, bring good business, succeed at love, have wisdom and so on. Like any photographer, I know my camera intimately well and as a result I feel similar to the character of Linus with his blanket from the Charlie Brown cartoon. It's a source of comfort, as well as being a source of confidence, as in the case of Thor and his hammer. This is a simple way to redirect your thinking. Remind yourself, that this is a device that you know how to use well and that you bring with you everywhere. Your camera, has met many challenges with you and served its humble purpose unstintingly. You can literally hide behind it, cradle it, or hold it forth as a token of peace. And when you use it -magic happens!
I'm not advocating that its acceptable to randomly stick a camera in someone's face and expect them to be pleased about it, simply because you believe that by having a camera- it makes you entitled. What I am saying, is that it is about an attitude within. When you think to yourself- I'd really like to take a photograph of that person and I feel that I can make a really good job of this- it provides the basis for a polite, non- threatening, open approach. After all, what is the worst thing that could actually happen? They could say "no", or shoo you away.
It's probably our fear of potential conflict with others that tends to steer us away from such behaviour. Yet I have found (and remember, I havent made it even a small way through Eric Kim's proposed 31 steps), that in the short seconds following a simple request - Would you mind if I take your portrait? The surprised subject (who also wishes to avoid conflict), usually agrees. You don't have to go into a great long speil, as to why you would like their portrait in the first place. That may make you come across as awkward at best and creepy at worst. A simple - I think you have an interesting face- often suffices. If you genuinely find that person visually interesting, then that is going to communicate itself through your body language, gesture and facial expression, even before you verbally ask.
Here is the trick. In those seconds before you receive your reply; you're already ready to take a first shot (settings dialed in) - then as you continue to be non-threatening by thanking them and using your charm and / or smiling, you set up for the next shot, without dropping the camera from your eye and try for two or three more as you communicate. By making the whole experience a very rapid "no-big-deal" situation. You should be able to part company, leaving the impression in your subject's mind, that this is not such a bizarre request or indeed such a random event after all.
I've called this series of photographs: "Completed Encounters", as you will notice that I haven't yet graduated fully in Kim's' programme, to taking people's portraits without their permission. Although there have been a few in this series that didn't start as consentual photographs. Instances where I shot first, smiled, asked the question and then carried on shooting, have shown me the way forward to another level,. I've seen how its possible to gradually develop a feel for when and how this sort of non consentual photography can work and I realise that I need to perhaps journey through all 31 steps, to generate a wholly different series of imagery.
For me, as primarily a portrait and travel photographer, 'Completed Encounters' has been about- just that. The after-words, the banter, the chat, the mutual glance at the back of the camera for approval. The passing of a business card and the networking that may inevitably follow taking that portrait. There is often a palpable sense of relief from both parties as the ice has been broken, as it were. Most of the time people are just flattered, or in the worst case scenario, puzzled as both parties go on their seperate ways.
'Completed Encounters' continues to be a rewarding experiment. It certainly helps me to develop my skill at putting models at their ease in a studio situation, make quick-fire compositional decisons and allow my subject to reveal their personality, as I attempt to capture that certain something which attracted that person to my attention in the first instance. Joel Meyerowitz said that: "Photography is a way of reading your culture". I believe that is true even if you are; or especially if you are, a portrait and travel photographer. As the act of taking a photograph says as much about how you view a subject, as to what the subject reveals to you and your audience. Maybe like mine your camera is your talisman too and you too, feel proud of having a 'craft' ? I hope that my camera continues to be that two-way device for communication and goes on facilitating that open and honest exchange between photographer and subject.
I recently opted for joining a tour of some of the local industries surrounding Chiang Mai in Thailand, attracted by the potential of getting some interesting shots of people working and seduced by the colourful images to be shot at the parasol and silk weaving factories. Here are few things that I found that benefited the photography results from this trip that I'd like to share. There are no hard and fast rules or particularly magic tips for creating better travel photos. However, one of the most important things that I have learned to do to improve my travel photography is to stop and think! It's so easy (for me at least) to surrender to that default, trigger- happy response in the excitement of the moment. Easy to say when presented with a kaleidoscope of visual opportunity, a series of potentially once- in- a- lifetime moments, or simply a clear shot through the crowds, or clouds, or whatever obstacle stands between you and that elusive subject.
Groundwork in advance
If you are going on this sort of tour - ask when and in what order you will be taken to the various locations? And if you have the luxury of making your tour a tailor-made experience, state your preference of timing to visit specific locations where you particularly want to spend the most time. Make your decision mindful that the golden hours lie at each end of the day and you may not wish to fight with exposure compensation throughout the day if it is strong sunlight overhead.
Choose a lens which is going to be able to cope with diverse light conditions. On a tour like this one, we spent a lot of time in either semi-dark interiors, punctuated by strong light from windows creating horrid exposure challenges, or under the intense glare of overhead sun. Working with Aperture Priority setting, and a lens which gives you the biggest aperture range to cope with these sudden lighting transitions, is going to help. I found my little f1.4 50mm lens really useful.
Think about where you are going. What story can you tell from your record of going to that location? And research the work of others who have been there. Even by having a quick look at postcards on sale, or in the photo pages of a guidebook, to quickly establish what has worked for others, or where iconic shots have been taken. This doesn't need to drive your decision making either way, but can give you some useful hints about what has been done before, so that you can arrive looking for a fresh take on the experience.
Succumb to OCD behaviour
I usually try and set out for the day with a purpose to my shooting. Decide for example that you will only or mainly concern yourself with seeking: colour, lines, patterns, textures, shadows reflections and contrasts , geometry, motion, people and portraits, for example, or any combination thereof, and then try to stick with that theme.
Next time when you are in the field, ask yourself these three questions:
- Why am I taking this shot? ( Is it interesting? And what makes it interesting?)
- What do I want to direct my audience's attention to, by taking it?
- How can I best direct my audience to what makes this an interesting image?
Before I take every shot during the day I try and get used to going through that most dastardly of check-lists ( Image size and quality / ISO / White Balance / Aperture Priority or Manual / If using Aperture Priority - Exposure compensation? / Type of focusing?) with autistic devotion. This should become like a mantra in your head, even as your finger twitches over the shutter release button. Then if that weren't enough -yay! Another check-list! (C'mon you know the score!) And of course, it goes like this: Position: (Point of view, camera angle, (there's nothing wrong with lying on the ground!)) Framing: (what really needs to be inside of the frame and what doesn't? What's cluttering the background? Where are the likely sources of blown-out highlights?) Composition: (set the grid inside your viewfinder to help remember the rule of thirds)
Phew! All of that before every shutter click? The answer is of course: "yes" - if there is time allowing. And if there isn't time?- I hear you ask! Then, upon arriving at your location, spend a few minutes to decide what sort of default setting on your camera is going to work best; so that your camera is ready to shoot and give you a half-decent result, if you are caught by surprise suddenly with a fleeting photographic opportunity.
What is it that you are expecting to see? Be very prepared to view it and shoot it differently
The sausage machine experience of a tour, gives us little time to dally and get creative but it is worth hanging back and getting away from your group, being the last one to leave and waiting for other groups to pass through.
Chat with people and break the ice before taking a shot. Revisit a subject once they have got used to you lingering and make the most of shooting while chatting.
Select and identify something within the frame that tells us: "this shot was almost certainly taken in Chiang Mai / Thailand / South East Asia". It doesn't need to be a big ostentatious thing but its good to provide these small clues for your audience who like to be able to decode and identify with your work.
When that image that you had in your head; with colourful parasols being held aloft by Apsara-like, graceful Thai beauties doesn't materialise. Get OCD and go through your check-lists! What can I find here instead? Shadows? Geometry? Pattern? And go with it! Too sunny? Then why not get underneath a parasol- literally?
"Less is more", is a popular response to cluttered or overcrowded situations. Sometimes the devil truly is in the details and a whole experience can be reduced to a few carefully selected close-up shots. The dark densely-packed, nineteenth century feeling silk weaving workshop was a particularly difficult place to shoot and often the close ups communicated more.
Take a good preliminary scout around a location first.
Use geometry provided by surroundings to guide your composition.
Change your camera angle to eliminate potentially over-blown highlights or unnecessary mixed light or background / foreground clutter when composing your shot.
Anticipate. When that guy gets off his mobile phone, he's going to get back to painting that spot again- or when the glue has been applied she will throw over the next piece of fabric catching the light again.
Work with positive people and don't try to force a situation. If you've got your shot - move on! There's no point in shooting a scene to death once you've got it technically correct. Use your time wisely. There are always other opportunities.
Have a back-up device - a (fully charged) iPhone for example, is a great little camera and deals with those dodgy light conditions in its stride; letting you concentrate more on composition issues and providing you with a very rapid, candid response in claustrophobic situations and when you are visually exhausted.
I know its stating the 'bleeding-obvious' but charge that camera battery and format your camera SD cards before the trip! Pack spare cards and a charged battery. Decide whether your location is going to present dust or water hazard to your camera lens and fit a filter accordingly. If you have some kind of light waterproof cover for your camera (even a poly-bag) to hand, as well as a clean cloth to wipe your filter then don't forget it.