In our earliest years we know a patch of ground in a detail we will never know anywhere again – site of discovery and putting names to things – people and places – working with difference and similitude – favourite places, places to avoid – neighbours and their habits, gestures and stories – textures, smells – also of play, imagination, experiment – finding the best location for doing things – creating worlds under our own control, fantasy landscapes. (Professor Mike Pearson)Photographers and artists have always found inspiration in their immediate location. There is a concept within Welsh culture called Y Filltir Sgwar (The Square Mile), described above by Professor Mike Pearson. It is the intimate connection between people and their childhood ‘home’ surroundings. Use this ‘sense of place’ as the starting point for your first assignment.
Make a series of six to twelve photographs in response to the concept of ‘The Square Mile’. Use this as an opportunity to take a fresh and experimental look at your surroundings. You may wish to re-trace places you know very well, examining how they might have changed; or, particularly if you’re in a new environment, you may wish to use photography to explore your new surroundings and meet some of the people around you. You may wish to explore the concept of Y Filltir Sgwar further, or you may deviate from this. You may want to focus on architecture and landscape, or you may prefer to photograph the people who you think have an interesting connection to the square mile within which you currently find yourself. You’ll need to shoot many more than 12 photographs from which to make your final edit. You should try to make your final set of photographs ‘sit’ together as a series. Don’t necessarily think about making a number of individual pictures, but rather a set of photographs that complement one another and collectively communicate your idea. You may wish to title your photographs or write short captions if you feel this is appropriate and would benefit the viewer. Think of this assignment as a way to introduce yourself to your tutor. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond to this brief, as long as you try to push yourself out of your comfort zone in terms of subject matter. Try out new approaches rather than sticking to what you think you’re most successful at.
Initially, the concept wasn’t all that intriguing to me. It wasn’t until I started researching and planning for the project that I started to become more aware of the unique attributes this concept has over the way you calculate and capture your work. The Square Mile offered guidance despite its limitations as working from the first person is usually my ‘go to’ for all of my projects, I’m deciding to further challenge myself by photographing from a somewhat ‘outsider’ perspective. Creating a level of disconnect for the viewer, I’m hoping to capture my ‘Square Mile’ (my hometown of Sheffield) not as I have my entire life but through the lens of someone else, whilst retaining the autobiographical aspects of my previous works to offer an introspective insight to how my life may differ to your own or anybody else’s. The main motivation behind this step was simply due to the fact that I initially found it quite hard to think of places to shoot, as when you drive down the same roads your entire life, you can start to dismiss their individual elements, disregarding the things that make them unique or different. I began thinking of which environments have had an emotional, or somewhat psychological effect on me over the years. My work schedule meant I had to spend a lot of my time working at night, I wanted this attribute to be one of the most defining aspects of my work as well as the fact my city had also gone into lockdown, which meant places that were previously packed with pedestrians laid empty and free for exploration.
After researching work from Tina Barney, the message became even clearer as she will often construct her images similarly to a Cinematographer. By design, her work screams calculation, the matching colours and connecting lines guide your eyes perfectly to the individual elements of each exposure meticulously with careful planning and consideration. Her images offer an outsider perspective into the lives of some of the most successful people you could imagine. The colours are consistent throughout each individual photograph, every colour carefully complements the following. Individual patterns, textures and perspectives are equally important as every intrinsic value is calculated. How did this affect my work? Well, the same could also be applied to outdoor environments too. Each fundamental aspect of a city is as important and intriguing as the next. Following her methodology and approach to constructing an almost ‘cinematic’ frame, I started to breakdown the parts that made her photographs stand out to me in particular.
I’ve been following this photographer for quite sometimes and I really like her style, although it’s obviously shot on 35mm, a lot of the more stylistic elements of her images are actually adaptable to digital mediums as well. What I really like is the lens flares and halation present in the images, I think the bright reds of the stop lights contrast perfectly to the misty and thick white haze of the fog. I like the grain, although I do think in a lot of these examples it’s perhaps a little bit too overboard, I know it’s film so it’s not something you can really control in these circumstances. In my photos I am going to use grain, but perhaps not as intensely as the photographs I’ve researched. When you’re working with a huge digital file ideally you want to preserve as much quality as possible as that’s part of the reason why we jumped from film to digital – however this can vary due to tastes and different photographers’ mentality to the work at hand.
Thommy Shenin is another photographer I decided to base my aesthetic on also, again it’s simply because Sheffield tends to get quite misty in the winter evenings, so working with this rather than against might add to the visual style I’m developing. Obviously above is a relatively emphasised version of what I’m going for, I think the style is perhaps a little bit too intense in this particular example.
Being a digital photographer, I needed to take inspiration from images shot and executed in the digital ecosystem. This photographer in particular was a huge inspiration for me, more specifically how he captures light and how light is used to his advantage. When you shoot at night you need defining lines, leading lines, distinguishing shapes – how much of this you choose to display is simply down to taste, but I like to make sure my images have a cohesive direction and vibe. I think the way the streetlights direct your vision into the distance, and then this massive clash of red in the break lights of the passing vehicle – it’s a really interesting image to look at with an almost ominous feeling. I think it helps having a subject walking along side, however I am not sure I will indeed have any people present in my photos.
Obviously this guy doesn’t need any introduction, he’s considered a legend amongst the photographic community. He’s one of the more traditional digital photographers, he’s a photographer who infamously shot a fraction of his Stock image work at 5pm. I think stylistically, as a throwback, somewhat modernising the effect above would be quite interesting. I know Ken likes to play around and has embraced digital photography for years, his compositing work is very minimal and he doesn’t spend a lot of time coming up with ideas – He famously said “Bad rich amateurs [photographers] think fuzzy B&W images of poor people are art.” This can come off as pretentious, but you can understand his point. He’s a traditional photographer, he’s a true creative artist with controversial opinions to suit. His methodology and approach to photography is similar to my own, as he said in his article about modern photography: “You need to learn to see and compose. The more time you waste worrying about your equipment the less time you’ll have to put into creating great images. Worry about your images, not your equipment.”
I first started breaking environments down into their defining features, every bin, every lamp post. Like Tina Barney, I needed to construct individual scenes, everything had to flow with coordinating colours, distinguishing shapes, engaging characters with interesting perspectives. The street would act as my living room, the cars, bins, lamp posts would act as my subjects.
This was one of my first basic attempts, As you can immediately see the image lacked character. The colours from the lamp posts (although colour coordinated) offered no immediate intrigue, nor the moon or the stars in the sky. Everything felt bland, I’ve put this down to a number of things – The main being that the focal point of the 14mm F3.5 I was using eliminated any ‘cinematic’ effects I initially wanted to capture. I do usually shoot locked down long exposures when I’m working at night, images at faster shutter speeds don’t tend to hold as much visual information. I also think it’s best to use as little grain as possible unless you’re going for a particular style. I think Canon equipment is a bit too clinical of a look for what I’m going for, I do like Canon don’t get me wrong but in this particular instance it’s making the images look really washed out and ‘clean’.
Although I did like this following image, the issues I listed previously are still taking away from the viewing experience in my opinion. Sure, the interesting colours and flowing perspectives are a huge improvement, to me this image felt plain and boring. There’s also a lack of visual depth. I needed to remove that ‘sterile’ feel that a lot of modern photography contains, there’s something elegant and nostalgic about capturing something with a cinematic eye. A lot of my favourite films are set at night in urban environments, so this was really fun. I did like that the longer exposure time brought out a bit of the sky, the clouds look very deep and blue, almost like the sea – but, this doesn’t match what I’m going for. There’s also this intense amber hue coming from the lights present in the scene, this has adds a green tinge which I don’t think actually looks particularly pleasant either.
Switching over to my Leica, things immediately started to fall into place. I decided to go for a narrower 35mm focal length from the 14mm I was using earlier on the Canon, this would make the images feel more contained and help guide people’s eyes towards the middle of the frame. Weight is important when you’re photographing environments as people tend to look for distinguishing lines and patterns almost instinctively. I also added a 16:9 aspect ratio to these particular shots adding to that cinematic feel I was talking about earlier, although I did only end up using it on a few of them in the final edit, there were numerous reasons I ended up changing my mind, one of them being that some of the angles I had in mind for this project weren’t particularly flattering when all shot from the same aspect ratio. I do think a lot of the issues I listed before are no longer present in the following images, but I did bump into a few issues, the image on the Leica is technically better but a lot of the Voigtlander lenses actually decrease the quality over modern Canon lenses. I do think stylistically and conceptually these images are a lot more cohesive.
I think the main turning point for me on this project was tackling the effects of halogen bulbs on the setting and vibe, I actually counteracted this by utilising the colour science used in Cinestill 800t motion picture film.
As you can see from the photo above, the amber tinge you would normally see from the surrounding light is no longer present. Shifting that hue from amber to green actually then started to bring out a lot more detail in the shadows as well, a lot of information that would have been lost in the amber actually came out a lot better when shifting the images colours over.
I think Cinestill for me has the perfect aesthetic. I know my digital sensor won’t actually pick up any red halation as a contrast around the highlights, but I think adapting everything else but that could have a better effect on the visual style anyway. As I said, I wanted this project to display somewhat of a visual evolution. Stylistic somewhat. I darkened a lot of these images, added grain, adjusted contrast. I think It’s important to explore visual emotion, the approach to these images may be different to your own, but does that make them any less intriguing? I wanted to approach this all from an autobiographical point of view. Expressing nuances and moments in my life through imagery.
In conclusion I would say The Square Mile is an interesting concept for those who have grown a little bit too comfortable in their skillset and wish to try something new. With the rules and constraints of the concept being so vague, I had the opportunity to capture moments and environments I would otherwise overlook. Forcing myself to stop and look at a street I would otherwise dismiss has developed my view on autobiographical photography, as I didn’t actually realise until recently how much of an affect these places and scenes have had over my life. Choosing these environments was the hardest part, I needed places that wouldn’t just represent the more urban aspects of Sheffield, but also the cinematic and photogenic aspects too. Sheffield is a growing city, continually evolving overtime, I needed to capture the striking brutalist landscapes contrasting between the more modern architecture that’s recently been erected. The city has grown with me, from old to new. Each part of the city represents an era in time which we may never get the chance to revisit. Capturing the cinematic quality of an autumnal evening contrasted between the piercing blue headlights of a passing vehicle, the stark reds of a stop light – everything flows and much like in the works of Tina Barney. I found that modern lenses, more specifically lenses made for Canon bodies don’t seem to have as much character as vintage Leica M glass. I switched over to the Leica after my first night of shooting and I saw almost an immediate difference. The quality did decrease, sure, but the ‘UFO’ like lens flares of the Leica M glass built more of an atmosphere than the wider lenses on the Canon. This project was a dark reflection of Sheffield at night. The brief is actually something I now use everyday when I’m shooting. It’s a method I apply to almost every one of my night images. Also contrasting the darkened environments with places I would come to see throughout my entire life, revisiting these places made me reflect on how far I have come as a photographer over the last decade.
What would I do differently?
I would probably pull back on the colours I used, I made a modified version of a Cine Preset kit to which I used as a foundation on every image. In the future I would probably use my own colours, I usually develop all of my own presets. For this project I wanted to come at it from someone else’s point of view, whilst still making it about me. But, the colours look off at times and I’m not a big fan of photographers who add grain as well. I would probably rely less on the technical colouring aspect of it as I would the actual technical approach to taking the photos.
I do like the seven I picked, out of those seven only four achieved any notable feedback (two hundred likes or more) on Instagram – learning from people’s feedback is integral in development. My picture of the Church for example got a huge response of about two hundred and fifty likes which leads me to believe I’ll need to be more more technically proficient and utilise my time more in order to gain more visually expressive shots.