Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Final reflections on The Art of Photography

TAOP is complete and submitted for assessment in March 2013, so it’s time to consider a final evaluation, a self-appraisal if you like, of what I have achieved and what I have learnt, as well as to consider what went well and what didn’t.
First and foremost, it has been enormously enjoyable, and that’s what I started the course for.  Like many OCA students, I’ve done the scrapping for marks and grades in an earlier life, so this was all about expanding my photographic horizons beyond those I have previously developed as a hobby wildlife photographer, and trying to connect with the artist aspects of making images. 

Distance learning has been an interesting and new experience for me and one I have enjoyed.  I think I have maintained motivation throughout the first year and apart from a few employment related slowdowns in output, have maintained a consistent pace throughout the course and certainly never lost focus on what I was trying to achieve.  Given that there is no cohort entry into the OCA courses it is expected that as new ‘rules’ and documentation are issued they appear at different stages of a student’s progress and additions to reading lists and availability of clearer assessment submission guidelines materialised towards the end of my first module. I don’t see that as a problem, just an observation of an inevitable part of an open entry course.

There is opportunity to spend several years over TAOP if I had wished, and with that could potentially come the chance to go and re-shoot assignments to try and improve submissions based on feedback, growing knowledge and experience.  However, I resolved from the outset that I would get this done in one year if work allowed, and I certainly don’t feel that I would gain significantly from repeating what I have already done.  I am sure that I could garner a few extra assessment marks if I went back and photographed again some of my early efforts, and I could definitely add a lot more ‘learning’ and study visit experiences, but that would defeat my personal purpose.  On the student forums there does seem to be a lot of debate over marks and comparisons between achievements, but given that students can build work over a flexible number of years, I don’t really see this as particularly valid.  I will gain more from moving on to DPP than I will from dwelling on TAOP I think.

There is no doubt that I have developed a far greater awareness of possibilities for photographs when I’m out with the camera, and as I will elaborate later, have developed the beginnings of an instinct for spotting contrasts and design elements and for pictures that ‘work’.  This has been a huge improvement in my photography and probably the biggest change attributable to spending the time on TAOP.

Contrasts was the first opportunity to photograph to a ‘set’ brief, albeit a very wide one.  This was not as simple as it seemed and initially I fell into the trap of assuming knowledge on behalf of the viewer would inform their understanding of the contrast portrayed, rather than solely using the images to show unequivocally what the contrast actually was.  However, some helpful tutor guidance steered me away from a couple of early blunders and I was pleased with the set at the time.  However, looking back after nearly a year, I do cringe at several of the choices and would certainly never repeat some of the shots I took back then.  This is good, as it clearly means I have changed in my views and thought processes and I am sure that I could go back now and interpret the contrasts in a far more imaginative way and deliver some better images than I did with quite a constrained approach in the early days.  I think the biggest change in my photography over this year has been the expanding ability to think more widely about the subject when interpreting a brief and not be too limited by precise instruction, although at times I have found this hard as I don’t think I have a very artistic way of thinking about things.

Elements of Design
This was an opportunity to investigate shapes and I think was the high point of TAOP as far as the photographs I took were concerned.  I decided to use the Embankment area of London as a theme for the assignment and also chose to work in black and white so I could focus on design and shape and not be deflected by the presence of colour.  Getting narrowed down to a location and a medium from the outset worked well, as did the opportunity to make a number of visits to improve and expand the portfolio of images from which I eventually drew the submission.  I found that I started to spot ‘elements of design’ quite easily after a while and this has not stopped since, becoming a regular feature of my photography – I often spot and photograph ‘shapes’ that fit this brief and have collected a great many more over the last year, although I have no plans to start replacing the originals I submitted. 

Well I thought this was going to be easy, everything is coloured, right … ?  And that was part of the problem.  Deprived of the focus of a topic and left to photograph anything, I got somewhat derailed at the start by trying to be too precise in finding the exact colour and in trying to compose images where the colours I wanted were just too large a part of the picture and in too precise a ratio.  I didn’t think the course guidelines were too helpful in this respect, although Michel Freeman’s Photographer’s Eye set me down the road to what I think I was trying to achieve.  I tried to get a mixture of still life, outdoor and indoor images for this assignment, although I guess the easiest option would be to go for still life indoors and select a topic such as food where colour and proportion could be more easily controlled.  This was one Assignment where I did decide to make a few late changes in images for final submission for Assessment, so hopefully they are an improvement. 

In the initial exercises I experimented with a couple of statues and vases, which served well to develop some rudimentary lighting skills and an understanding of how to emphasise various features of a subject.  However, my final choice was a loaf of bread as suggested by my tutor.  This indeed worked well and I was able to illustrate shape, colour, form and texture indoors with lights and candle light and outside with sunlight.  The biggest improvement here came with the purchase of a couple of decent constant lights and attendance at an RPS portrait photography weekend workshop, both of which gave me the chance to practice the impact of lighting changes, and both of which gave me a real boost forwards for later parts of the course.
The work with the loaf took me quite some time and numerous attempts to get the images as I wanted them without having to do much in Photoshop afterwards.  This was an important personal goal here as I wanted to learn to get it right in camera and not to substitute post-production for what I ought to be able to get right in the first place.  I also discovered that unless you have a series of stands and clamps and an assistant, you need four hands to set up some lighting arrangements.

Illustration and narrative
The subject for this was to a large extent dictated by the time of year.  Indeed there are many events around Christmas that could potentially be researched and photographed, but they tend not to be occurring in my life and work in any way that I could envisage being available to shoot a sequence of images to tell a cohesive story.  I eventually went for the concept, design and fabrication of a piece of silver jewellery which gave me an interesting number of technical and narrative challenges.  However, it did give me a subject  to which I had ready access and was able to shoot on a number of different occasions to fulfill the objective of telling a story from beginning to end, and hopefully using a range of the techniques which had been covered on the course thus far.  I had the aspiration of bringing shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, focal length, use of colour, lighting skills and composition into the images and then using what I had learnt of illustration to compose images of different sizes into a final document.  I was really pleased with the outcome of this as the final output from TAOP and I would not have done this anywhere near as well a year ago.

Finally, there are the other parts of the course and the learning that went with the practical photography.  I read a number of books which were on the reading list for TAOP as well as some recommended by my tutor and others that I discovered along the way or through discussion on the student forums; these have mostly been reviewed elsewhere on this blog and my thoughts can be found under the Book Reviews tab in the side bar.  Apart from the technical material, the rest was new to me and I derived a great deal from the coverage of the history of photography and the works of various celebrated photographers and fine artists.  I also, for the first time really, started to appreciate pictures from their artistic point of view and developed some basic skills and knowledge in the reading of a photograph, although I do fundamentally disagree with the interpretations propounded by some authors where I am sure they are reading far too much into serendipity.  A debate for another day and another module though …

The four OCA study visits I attended were a vital element for me in not only getting the opportunity to talk through images with tutors and other students, but also to be able to put names to faces of some of the people I ‘met’ through the OCA students forum and through the Flickr site.  Several of these have been an excellent source of advice in matters relating to the course and in offering help and encouragement through TAOP – you know who you are, so great thanks.  Everyone has something new to suggest and books and websites which have contributed to my overall learning have been numerous.  I was also able to make a number of gallery visits on my own, and again the learning from the course enabled me to really start to get to grips with some of the images I saw.

The OCA Photography student’s weekend residential event in Leeds was a great success for me and it was the first time I had met face to face with several people I had been corresponding with online and the chance to have informal discussions with tutors and other students was invaluable and enriched the whole learning experience.  The lecture content suited me well and I thought the portfolio session was a real eye opener as it was the first time I had produced images other than wildlife shots for critique and discussion. Although it is difficult to achieve I would like to see some form of ‘live’ tutorials taking place as it just adds so much to breaking inevitable barriers associated with distance learning.  I have recently become involved with a regional Thames Valley OCA group, so hopefully some of the plans to meet informally as a student group will come to fruition.  Our first gathering at Somerset House in January to look at Henri Cartier-Bresson was certainly a successful venture.

Blogging was something I enjoyed and I really forgot the online element and public visibility very quickly and just got on with it.  Blogger has some irritations and seemed unreliable with the placement of pictures unless you just wanted them lined up down the middle of a page, and its handling of text was at times bizarre.  However, as long as it was kept simple, it worked well enough, although next time I will structure my blog differently with greater emphasis on the learning and less on the exercises and assignments.

I was glad that I kept the hard copy learning journal as well as the blog, as it gave me somewhere to consider images which were not available on line.  However, as I became more aware of the excellent and readily available press packs which galleries were willing to make available to students, and how willing some quite well known photographer were to grant access to images with acknowledgement, the hard copy journal got used far less.  I may continue with this is the future, although at the time of writing I’m not convinced.

Tutor responses to assessments were rapid and very helpful, with valuable pointers on how I could improve images and my approach as well as helpful suggestions on reading. 

This will just about be the last post in this TAOP blog apart from when I add the final mark in case it is of use to anyone who reads this far in the future, so it’s off to DPP ……

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful that you've completed Dave. You've obviously gained such a lot from TAOP. wishing you well with assessment and looking forward to meeting you again on study visits etc.