M1 Wk1: The global image

Forum: The view from your window

Hello everyone!

A little late to the course, I am playing catch-up from North Oxford.  My office, internally locked within a Science & Technology block, shares many qualities with a goldfish bowl, albeit with a less interesting décor. It provides panoramic views of the teaching room I use within a boarding school.  Any ‘published’ images from the school have to adhere to strict Child Protection and Safeguarding policies, so the long exposure helps mask pupil identities while also demonstrating the bustling fluidity of the room during free time.  All rather a stark contrast to the beauty of the surrounding buildings and countryside!

This is the sight I see every day, yet it is one I have never previously photographed. It is always so easy to overlook the things you see most often: I am embarrassed to say that I carry a camera only infrequently when in Oxford and yet there a few more stunning cities in the UK.

View from the office

M1 Wk2: Multiple Media and Interdisciplinary Practices

Forum: ‘Other Than’ Photography…

Having read Geological Science at University, much of my time, when not working in the field, was spent in labs using magnificent Leica microscopes.  These enabled me to draw the thin sections of rock (ground down to 30 microns) that I had prepared.  One aspect of this work was always rather magical: when viewing the thin section through a microscope using transmitted cross polarized light – a process used to help identify the various components of the rock .  Suddenly the rock sample would come to life, looking more like an ever-changing stained glass window.

Below is one of my thin section sketches from a sample of porphrytic rock under plane polarised light, collected from an area of Mull (the second largest island of the  Inner Hebrides, Scotland) that I was mapping, geologically, for my thesis.  Each sketch is 150mm in diameter and represents about 2mm of rock.  These would take about 10 hours to produce, using a 0.25mm draughtsmen pen.  Today, the process takes about 1/125 second, using an attached digital camera!

Thin Section - porphrytic sample

Sadly I do not have images of this rock under cross polarised light, but the Open University has a fantastic virtual microscope web site that shows many such samples with the user able to rotate the samples.  This Link is of a very similar rock type.  Be sure to rotate the disks of rock to see the changing colours found in the ‘between crossed polars‘ dynamic image.

Rather more impressive, and from one of my favourite parts of the UK (St. Austell, Cornwall) comes this thin section: Link

I always enjoy the interplay of transmitted light through objects and clearly my degree helped foster this interest.  Possibly as a result of this, for some time now I have been experimenting with photographing stained glass windows – initially rather crudely, but subsequently with much greater success, having applied some of the same fastidious attention to detail required in my microscopy.  It is fascinating when working under high magnification to see the usually hidden details of the glass (tiny vesicles and imperfections) as well as the precision of the stained glass window artist’s work.


M1 Wk2: Multiple Media and Interdisciplinary Practices

Activity: Photography and…

Conflict has presented countless opportunities and difficulties for photography.  For the past 150 years, photography has been used to highlight the horrors of war, promote the success of war and assist in the action of war.

Photography was still in its infancy when Roger Fenton travelled to the Crimea in 1854 to record the events of the war.  His coverage was very much limited by the nature of the equipment he was using., He was not the first photographer to be drawn to conflict, but he was arguably the first photographer to offer ‘coverage’ of a war.  In the same year, photography was first used as a ‘weapon of war’, with Gilbert Elliott commissioned to photograph views of the Russian fortifications along the Baltic coast.


Roger Fenton L’Entente cordiale 1855 © Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt Link

There are countless iconic images that have come from conflict. Rather than focus on the ethics of photography in war zones, or the effect photography has had on conflict (the Vietnam War often cited as the first “living room war”), I want to consider an alternative angle raised in this month’s Royal Photography Society Journal.  In his article, freelance photojournalist Rick Findler Link (who I have had the pleasure of knowing since he was a young boy) discusses the merits and pitfalls of being ‘a freelancer at war’.  At a time when photographers and journalists were increasing seen as viable targets, their death toll in conflict areas became a matter of concern for press agencies.  To that end, many potential outlets for their articles and photographs were stating that they would no longer accept work from freelance journalists who travel to places that they would not send their own staff.

Rick comments, ‘is it not our decision as a freelancer to decide what risks we are prepared to take?  If publications continue to accept pictures from local photographers but not western freelancers what makes their lives more expendable than ours?’  For someone whose bread and butter is war photojournalism, this approach from agencies is hugely debilitating.

MFS Feature
August 2017. Raqqa, Syria. A member of the MFS tries to locate ISIS positions from the roof of their nocter (base) on the western front lines of Raqqa, Syria. The MFS (Syriac Military Council) are a group of Assyrian Christians who fight alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight to topple ISIS. Photographer: Rick Findler

Raqqa, northern Syria 2017 ©Rick Findler  Link

If conflict reporting is left to those outside the profession of journalism, are we as consumers able to trust the content (and, since this is a photography forum, endure the ‘quality’ of mobile phone reportage)?

Do we have a moral responsibility to restrict any photography (or journalism) that puts the life of the photographer, journalist, fixer or driver in harm’s way, or should that decision be left in the hands of the individual?


M1 Wk3: Rethinking Photographers

Forum: Re-thinking Photographers

The descriptor ‘professional’ provides plenty opportunity for discussion in itself, with many, varied angles already being aired here.  While I interpret a ‘professional’ literally, as someone who achieves the majority of their income from that pastime, where photography is concerned, I consider the level of competence and experience of infinitely greater importance than the financial status of the photographer (or their work).

As a schoolmaster in the field of science and technology, it is often my job to give answers, or more commonly, encourage others to find those answers for themselves.  Somewhat oddly, it seems commonplace in that profession to be viewed as the go-to person for everything working, non-working, living or dead… why anyone should feel that it is for me to deal with a dead rodent, I do not know!  Notwithstanding, I am considered the de facto ‘professional’ – it would seem that this is the way in school communities.  I have taught photography (as an extracurricular activity) for 25 years and as a result, in that field, by colleagues, students and their parents, I am considered to be a ‘professional’ in terms of my knowledge.  Indeed, I had to remind one of my former students, now a photojournalist, who ‘phoned me from an assignment in Syria, that he is the professional, not me!  I should point out that I have generated exactly £0 in those 25 years from my photographic work that has been used by the schools in which I have worked (for promotional, advertising and year-book entries), so by definition, I am not a ‘professional’.

I am reminded routinely of the complete lack of understanding by some (those ‘non-photographers’) about photography.  Highlighted so perfectly when I was asked to photograph a recent school drama production.  I pointed out that I would require about 90 minutes of duty-cover from a colleague in order to photograph the event (I intended to photography the technical rehearsal, dress rehearsal and 1st night), so requesting 90 of support to enable this seemed perfectly reasonable – particularly as this was going to be a free service from me.   The response: “…but we only need a couple photos – surely you can do that in 5 minutes?”.  I was sufficiently offended that I suggested the school looks elsewhere for a photographer.  Promptly a Professional Photographer was brought in who produced an abysmal set of photographs for the fee off several hundred pounds. This person was professional only in terms of his financial disposition.

Why is it that non-photographers believe that they can turn to a photographer to solve (free-of-charge) their image-capturing shortfall?  A point mooted numerously by others.  This is not unique to photography: many’s the occasion that I have been called to a friend’s house to resolve their computing problems and after several hours, with job done, I get no more than a thank you.  Perhaps I need to ask my green-fingered friends if they could spend an afternoon weeding my garden?!

It does seem that ‘non-photographers’ see ‘professionals’ as a useful resource and all too often struggle to realise that there is considerable time, effort, knowledge, care, consideration, expertise and money put into each and every photograph a ‘professional’ produces.


M1 Wk3: Rethinking Photographers

Activity: The Filters of Citizen Journalism

Photography is an art form and as such there can be nothing wrong with using the medium artistically, even in post-editing.  However, Damon Winter’s Hipstamatic work demonstrates that the application of such ‘artistic’ interpretation to (potentially) reportage or news photography does seem to strike a nerve with some – perhaps in the same way as were we to be greeted by a beautiful watercolour depicting the lead story in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph, rather than the more expected photograph.  We have come to expect ‘straightforward’ photographs in the press, so anything straying from that is bound to cause a flurry of comments and raising of eyebrows.

In my 35mm roll film days, I developed a passion for printing beyond the frame and producing as hard an image as Ilford Multigrade would allow: stark, harsh black and white, paying homage to the likes of David Bailey as well as Margaret Bourke-White, photojournalist for Life magazine, who insisted that all her negatives be “printed to black”.  That was what I wanted to do – my interpretation of my work (well, in honesty, an interpretation that I had copied, but loved!). Sadly, without post-editing, it is no longer possible to “print to black”, telling the (informed) observer of the efforts you went to composing the image. Nor is it easy to achieve a high-contrast mono image in-camera.  I am very happy to see post-editing applied to photographs, but worry that the single click applied filter is becoming the ‘norm’ where mobile phone photography is concerned – do we really want a high percentage of the 600+ images uploaded every second to Instagram to be re-rendered by Ludvig, Inkwell or Clarendon?

So long as we can be confident that images are telling an appropriate truth, then the device used to capture a given scene is, surely, immaterial?  After all, the best camera is the one you have with you. However, what can be done to moderate the content supplied by the masses from mobile phones?  Can we be sure that such material is reliable?  Is there a code of conduct, even a moral code that underpins the quick snap from a mobile phone and the £50-for-your-image upload site that could see the image spread like wild-fire, unchecked?


Project Development

Recording and archiving stained glass

Many places of worship house magnificent treasures of art that are seen by only a few.  People can be put off the nature of the building, or in quite a number of cases, there is simply no public access.  When able to see such artwork, the lighting of the windows will not always be optimal for satisfactory viewing.  Thus stunning windows go largely unnoticed and this art form is rarely appreciated.  I have been trying to make such artwork more readily available to the public by photographing the windows, but the photography of stained glass windows is beset with difficulties:

  • Light levels within and outside the building are rarely, if ever favourable, with insufficient direct light, or constant partial shadow.
  • The height and size of the windows typically results in perspective distortion when photographing with standard lenses.
  • Stained glass windows present a dynamic range, beyond the capabilities of the best cameras: is exposure bracketing then painstaking reassembly of the window the best solution?
  • The removal of the strengthening bars requires demanding image editing with manual interpolation of the four or five ‘missing’ 1cm strips of window.  Are there better techniques for such work?
  • With the image complete, how best to present a reproduction of a window that might be 4-6m tall and backlit by natural light?

I am inclined to think that removing the main subject of a windows from its context will make it more readily appreciated by the viewer (removing dedications and decorations) – certainly this will provide a more manageable aspect ratio.  However, this does then preclude the image from being quite so useful as a historical reference or for insurance archive purposes.  Thus it would seem wasteful not to archive the entirety of a window and then crop out the ‘flesh’ for more public consumption.  This does raise an important consideration: what is the current thinking on most effective archiving of data files when the images are required as an insurance backup against catastrophic damage?

Exposure bracketing was used to produce six images of the stained glass window, to provide a full range of exposures from heavily underexposed (to reveal detail in the darker areas) through to heavily overexposed (revealing detail in the lighter areas).  From those six images, a seventh image was constructed, single segment of glass at a time, having first selected the most appropriate piece from the original images.  Considerable time was then spent remove the unsightly, horizontal metal support bars before some cosmetic ‘cleaning’ of the seventh image.  The three images below illustrate the process.

M1 Wk4: Collaboration

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

– a collaborative micro project with Simon Johnsen & Ella Rivett

Work & play cover (low res)I typically intend my work to stand alone and require minimal (if any) explanation, but my component of a collaborative micro project does require a little background.  Having established that we were going to depict ‘work’ in black & white and ‘play’ in colour, I was keen to embrace both facets in individual shots, necessitating colour popping – something to which I am not adverse, but a technique that is always embraced warmly!  Both shots allowed me to use my favourite lens, Canon’s EF 85 mm f/1.2L II.

DCP_5411 e2 (low res)Constrained by the restrictions imposed on photography within a school, my compositions had to maintain the anonymity of the pupils.  The above shot, taken in my IT Suite, was entirely staged with the only post-production being the colour popping.  I rearranged the pupils to have those who were dark-haired and dark-clothed seated at the computers that were locked displaying WORK multiple times.  The only blond-haired pupil in the room became the de facto ‘star’ of the shot and was told to pretend to play the Invaders game (this was in fact a still image).  It was interesting to note that I had to ask him to look to the very top of the screen to produce a composition that looked just right – when looking at the middle of the screen his whole body shape appeared to point down in a rather negative way.

DCP_5423 e (low res)While the yo-yo image was also staged, it stemmed from the commonplace sight in the classroom of an abstract toy.  No matter what subject a child my be studying, there is an intrinsically childlike approach of having to have something to play with close to hand – not that they would actually put the item to use during a lesson!  Thus pencil cases or pockets tend to contain yo-yo’s, tennis balls, small rugby balls, etc., etc..

M1 Wk4: Reflection

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

– a collaborative micro project with Simon Johnsen & Ella Rivett

Working to a tight time scale with collaborators each in full time employment is, unsurprisingly, a demanding challenge.  I entered into this work knowing that my own routine commitments for Week 4 were heavy, so my proposed Micro Project “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” was one that would work well within the constraints of a school environment.  By Monday evening Simon had joined the project and after a few teething problems with the Groups area, it was time to start.  We used Canvas to discuss ideas and focussed on the concept of using black & white images to illustrate the ‘work’ component and colour to depict ‘play’.  Taking the proverb literally, we focussed on boys as the subject matter.

Tuesday saw the welcome addition of a third collaborator, Ella, who was quick to contribute positive ideas and suggestions to the group.  By Wednesday we had each contributed a selection of images allowing an interim review and discussion on where to go next (including some thoughts on how the work should be presented… a process that dew collective shrugs of shoulders!).

Simon made the astute observation that the collaboration was also bringing together a sense of time flow through the images: play being the driving motivation as a pre-school youngster, with more of a work-play balance as they get older and an ever-increasing workload as they move through the teen years and beyond.

Ultimately we settled on selection of ten images presented as a straightforward PDF of uncaptioned images, with an written overview of the work by way of an appendix.

The Sunday morning webinar was a first for me – met with a mixture of anxiety and trepidation, but it was reassuring to know that both Simon and Ella would be joining me.  Not being one to impose myself on others, I have never been great at articulating the reasons behind my work, but in a process pleasingly less painful that orthodontics without analgesics, Gary McLeod extracted appropriate information from each of us, allowing a full picture of the work to be painted.  Gary clearly has a penchant for asking involved questions that would themselves benefit from captions and subtitles, but he kept us all amused and on our toes throughout. The feedback was both positive and informative, but limited to the combined wisdom of Gary and Gem Toes-Crichton.

It was wonderful to hear the detail behind the Micro-collaboration of Michael-Jay Smith and Gem Toes-Crichton, albeit in the absence of MJ.  Their theme was Growth, following the Sandra King quote: “The tiny seed knew that in order to grow, it needed to be dropped in dirt, covered with darkness, and struggle to reach the light.”  In contrast to our project, Gem and MJ agreed upon the theme and then worked without further discussion on their compositions.  The results were surprisingly similar, with MJ producing a thought-provoking series of personal memories from early childhood through to his teenage years, tied to trees.  Gem contributed two macro images of plants ( a lichen and a pennywort) growing in their natural habitats on the North Cornwall coast.  To this was added a third image of an ‘honorary’ local from Boscastle – the background to this image resonated well in me, having lived my teenaged years in a South Cornwall fishing village, where, no matter how long you had lived there you were not considered a local unless you had been born there!  The well-composed image captured a man who clearly had a long and varied history, but highlighted Gem’s personal growth in approaching and photographing a stranger – something I would find challenging.  Gem spoke well in her description and explanation of the collaboration, and despite the communicative difficulties during the project, it seemed abundantly clear that this was a most successful pairing.

M1 Wk5: Power & Responsibility

Forum: Power & Responsibility

jeff_mitchell_3000.jpgRefugees cross from Croatia into Slovenia in October 2015 © Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images https://goo.gl/gtrmU6 

Jeff Mitchell’s image of refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia in October 2015, was used controversially by the UK Independent Party during the 2016 referendum campaign to leave the European Union: Guardian Article

What ethical questions does this image, and how it was used, raise?

In teaching children (or adults) the importance of online safety, a key risk to mitigate is the posting of images on social media. The advice is simple: once uploaded, control of an image is lost, so due care is required. Submitting images to trusted agencies or stock photo galleries carries similar risks. While there are fantastically detailed editorial policies, contracts and agreements, designed (primarily) to protect the interests of the photographer, there is surprisingly sparse guidance or legislation to control the destination and use of the photograph. A photographer could be content in knowing that their image has generated an income and is going to be used in a proscribed manner, but beyond that, control of the image is lost.

In keeping with many other photographers, I am part of ‘the talented Getty Images & iStock contributor community’, to use their vernacular. Concerns over the potential for misrepresentation of my images has meant that I have not yet posted content onto my account, but am working meticulously through my potential portfolio in an effort to minimise exactly the sort of situation that befell Jeff Mitchell’s image. There was nothing wrong on a technical licencing front with UKIP’s usage of his image, but it is clear that they were using the story behind the image in a manner that caused offence and worked against the intentions held by the photojournalist when capturing the image. Undoubtedly, he would not have allowed his image to be used in this manner, but nevertheless was happy to receive his share of the £485 fee (presuming ‘standard editorial rights’) for the image to be used, essentially, for any purpose.

A humorous yet poignant take on this matter was discussed by Dave Gorman in Series 4, Episode 2 of Modern Life Is Goodish (first broadcast on Tuesday, 15 November 2016). Here, the comedian explored the perils of stock photography from the perspective of the lowly model. Happy to receive a small, flat rate for the use of their portfolio, the model might not realise that they could become the face of a product or service for which they would not ever wish to be associated.

Stock photo agencies provide a potentially lucrative outlet for a photographer, but the moment they upload their image to the agency, the photographer’s opinions, intentions and ethical judgements are cast to the wind.