Monthly Archives: February 2012

Fitness for Fotographers

Any more of these Large Format shoots and I am gonna be fit as a trainer! Seriously. I went down to Trinity again today – another re-shoot. At this point it is not even embarrassing anymore, it is simply funny. It was the fourth time in there, and the banqueting manager, K___, knows me by now. He has actually been the most supportive and yet easy-going manager to deal with. What a joy, especially as this is more or less the first location I had been shooting in. 
I went down there because it turned out that maybe there was something more conceptually interesting to be gained from photographing the East Dining Hall where the professors eat rather than the plush and conventional student dining hall. The latter has a touch of Harry Potter about it, as my V.A. assistant C___ told me last week. The East Dining Hall, however, is a bit of a 1950s timewarp. Somehow, against the splendour of the wood-panelled, oil-painting-ed main dining hall, it is quirky and modest. (Modest? For the profs? Well, apparently the profs have a very fancy and special art deco bar in their exclusive quarters, so they probably don’t mind…)
To get back to the fitness: While I caught a lift on my way down to the shoot, I was on my own when I wrapped up. Alone with my backpack containing marky Mark, the detached Cambo and the folded-up Manfrotto tripod. Two kilometers with Manfred Manfrotto on my shoulder and Cambo in my hand. Ouch. At least it fits my current diet. The funniest thing: The comments and looks from other people. Two van drivers in Trinity: “Oooh, look at that. Big camera.” – “Yeah, doing a Playboy shoot.” You wish, boys, you wish…

The Pain, the Horror

Janie Maccers, self-portrait time again. If I had to do this more often, it would probably take away my enthusiasm for photography altogether. But hey, I went into this degree-course in photography willingly and happily, so no complaining now.
In the first semester of the course – two and a half years ago, now – I got away lightly when it came to our self-portrait assignment. The project back then stipulated that it had to be done via lens-less photography. (For the non-photographers among my readers: Yes, it IS possible to create photographic images without a lens. Just think of a photocopier and the fun things you can do with that, preferably NOT at the office Christmas party while not quite in possession of full brain capacity… Or use a pin-hole camera whose little opening acts as the aperture of the camera. Or create a photogram by exposing photopaper directly ex-camera.) The latter is what I did then. And I opted to show my regal profile in a slightly confusing manner, i.e. it was not discernible at first sight that I was in the image, at all. (Curious? Check HERE.)
No such weaseling out of the uncomfortable assignment of self-representation this time around. A photographic self-portrait was needed for the people photography class. Added to the pain of seeing oneself in a picture was setting up tripod, figuring out the lighting, fiddling with mirrors and determining some way of focussing. It took me 87 (eighty-seven!!!) attempts to get ONE image that was half presentable. NO JOKE! Oh, and by the way, that is not because of vanity. My final image has not been “cosmetically enhanced”. It’s warts wrinkles and all. But the focussing and the composition of a self-portrait are an absolut pain when you are working on your own.
In the end it was the lucky coincidence that produced the desired shot. I had not intended to crop my forehead out of the shot. I was actually moving forward while staring into the camera and at the same time frantically pressing the remote trigger, wondering whether I should give up there and then. Click. Almost a Cartier-Bresson-ish decisive moment: The way I was leaning forward the (continuous) light caught just the right hand side of my face. The auto-focus did not focus on my eye, but my lips, and a nice shallow dof adds to the moody shadows in the bottom right.
Ha, if I were a crime novel writer, that would make a nice moody jacket photo!

Fun fun fun

The secret to the most satisfying photo shoots? Stick to the plan but keep your mind open. What wise words. And not that I made a conscious decision to observe this rule, but it is something that occurred to me yesterday when shooting for a college project of mine. 
I am currently interested in the kind of Hollywood glamour shots of the 1920s to 40s. I am not really talking pin-up stuff, it is more portraits of the movie stars with soft lighting, elegant poses and magnificent hair and costume. So I called in the three Ms: my friend M___ who is a make-up artist and my friend M___ who is a costume connoisseur, plus hairstylist M___ who works on period films. Together we created what I wanted to be a 1920s androgynous look.
Before we started I announced that I did not want the shoot to go on for more than two hours. And I managed to stick to my resolution, kept checking my watch and managed to wrap it up within that time frame. The result? A fun shoot where noone got too tired and exhausted and where we had the energy to sit down together and chat for two more hours over a cup of tea and some cake.
I did not shoot that many pics in those two hours. But what I got is really nice. And to get back to the open mind: I managed to get some 1920s-style images in there. But the favourites of the day are actually too nice in colour than to change them to B/W. They look quite contemporary, and I am deliberately leaving a warmish colour cast on them, because I love the strong pink in it. Maybe that is because today is the main Carnival day in my native Germany and I feel the need for outrageousness? Hooray for a bit of fun!!!

Catch 22

What do you look for in a photographer? A signature style? Or a variety of approaches? I think I have been pondering – inconclusively – for too long over that question. And in the absence of a typical Sonja style, I have approached each and every shoot, assignment and project from different angles. Literally so. Thinking that I needed to explore the endless possibilities of shooting, I have completely overlooked one thing, though: consistency.
Is that just another word for signature style? I suppose not. It applies to the quality of the images as much as the approach. But having a particular style probably helps achieving better quality – because you practice your unique way of making pictures, your way of seeing, your special interpretation of reality.

Profound!!!! *yawn* Or rather: an uncomfortable realization of my shortcomings. My approach so far has not been “varied” but “all over the place”. That much is clear to me now. How does one go about finding one’s own, individual style, though? Through trying lots of different aproaches?
I’m in a vicious circle. If I were a writer, I’d call it writer’s block. Photographer’s fix, anyone?

Stargazing in Dublin

A fruitful Sunday afternoon which I spent updating my Visual Diary – and then treating myself cum daughter to a nice little exhibition. Seeing that we were shopping in Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre anyway, I decided to head up to the top floor and check out that exhibition that the JDIFF is putting on in there at the moment. “Stargazing in Dublin” is a small exhibition of press photographs taken over the years in Dublin on the occasion of the annual Dublin International Film Festival.

My daughter was not exactly thrilled when I announced we were looking at a photo exhibition. “Oh no!”, she sighed. Photo exhibitions for her usually mean that mummy dearest is engrossed in images, spends minutes poring over one shot, pondering aperture and shutter speed and possibly then discussing particulars with other photography fanatics. Yes, she has learnt that the hard way over the past 30 months… And yet – there was no way out, up we went to the exhibition. “Who will be in the photos?”, she asked, in the vain hope that maybe there was someone in there she might recognise. “Ah, famous filmstars, I guess”, I answered. “Hm. You mean, like, Colin Firth?” I nodded. Like mother, like daughter – the poor kid already has been brainwashed and is familiar with mama’s favourite eyecandy. “OK”, she said, “but we are not staying long.” – And who should flash his bright smile from the third photo on the wall at us but Mr Firth himself? Now, that exhibition had already redeemed itself 30 seconds in…

Oooops, just an iPhone image, sorry.
Seriously, though, now. The exhibition is nothing that will shake the world of photography or the world of exhibitions, but I was interested in it also from the point of view of portrait photography: While a great many shots were simply red carpet-press call affairs, there were some really nice images that would go through as portraits. For instance a nice picture of Gabriel Byrne, B/W, bringing out the surly character of Mr Byrne, it seems. Angry young man, dark brooding Irishman. The figure in the background suggests that this really was just a shot taken on the street. And yet, with Byrne making contact with the lens, he strikes a pose and the image feels more like a portrait than a snap.
This being a quality-time-with-daughter-day, I had to keep the exhibition experience short and sweet. But the quick walk around was enough – after all these are images that were taken for the media, not for posterity, because we all know that today’s paper is tomorrow’s bin-liner. A quick look is all they want and need. There are plenty of well-known names in it – and the recognisability of the faces is something that delights anyone. Don’t expect masterpieces, though – it is just a bit of fun.
Stargazing in Dublin
Top Floor St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre,
Feb 3rd to Feb 26th

The Opera

The Gallery of Photography is a wonderful resource to have in my adopted home town of Dublin. The purpose-built gallery is slap-bang in the middle of the city, has a great bookshop and is – best of all – free in. And never have I been so glad about the latter than at my last visit to the Gallery.
The Opera by Varvara Shavrova is a project about the Peking Opera. That misleading name describes the traditional Chinese stage entertainment that is characterised by stylised performance, heavy make-up and elaborate costumes. The latter two alone make for compelling photography. Or so I thought when I went in to view the exhibition that is running until the 26th of February.
The project The Opera focuses on the transformation of man into woman and woman into man as the bulk of the shots are documenting the making up of a male actor into a female character and the taking off of the make up of an actress who plays a male character. Shavrova basically took time-lapse images of the whole process and displays them in different formats – there is a series of photographs of the male actor being made up, displayed in simple white frames hung closely together. 
Projected against the wall in the small gallery space on the first floor of the gallery is a time lapse clip of the female actor having her make-up removed. This is actually quite interesting, but the artist has overlaid the images with some kind of antiquing filter, and the artificial (?) spots, smudges and scratches on the images interfere with the contents. The question is simply: why? Why is that very informative and interesting sequence of images being obscured with spots and scratches that are meant to make the pictures look antique? It seemed unnecessary and gimmicky.
Then there is a video sequence of the male actor that in detail shows the process of being dressed and made up as a female character. The video is accompanied by a piece of music that was especially commissioned for the clip. Considering that music appeals to the emotions of the audience so much, the choice of soundtrack/music is quite important – and in this case does not work at all. Composer Benoit Granier combines traditional Chinese elements with electronic music. That is all very well – but somehow the music evokes an eerie feel. It is more suited to a subtle horror film than a fairly neutral documentary project. The effect, however, is, that the cross-dressing issue of The Opera suddenly gets an underlying feeling of sinister strangeness. Surely, that can’t be what the artist(s) had in mind?
Chinese Streetkitchen – by me, not by Shavrova
Lastly, there is a group of three images that are displayed on lightboxes and with accompanying sound. This for me could have been the most successful part of the exhibition – except I could not see the connection between The Opera and a Chinese soup kitchen (accompanied by soundtrack of cackling hens). If this was Shavrova’s attempt at giving her project context, then for me that was not enough. And why does she not show the actual context of the Peking Opera – the colourful costumes, the masks, the (spare) stage set-ups, the audience, the actors? Is she over-familiar with that? Her audience probably is not and would benefit from some input –  apart from the fact that some context shots would have added some more colour to this otherwise strangely colourless body of work.
What stood out for me really was that it used a number of different display options that were interesting. But the quality of the shots made me wonder whether these had actually been taken as stills or were they screenshots from video footage. With rather unflexible and conventional tastes in photography, I would have preferred less video and more stills – which in my opinion would suit the gallery of PHOTOgraphy (not VIDEOgraphy) better, too. But who minds, if a gallery is free in…
Varvara Shavrova – The Opera
until February 26, 2012

Project Work Again

And we are off. Yesterday was the first of the “serious” shoots. Trinity College dining hall. And it went well, I think – as far as the process of shooting went. The result of the shoot is unclear until I have the developed slides in my hands.
With last semester under my belt, set-up was quick and easy and posed no problem at all. In fact, shooting the LF images was a cinch. Except for working out the exposure time. In the absence of a light meter I had to use marky Mark to work out shutter speed. 1″6. And what is that exactly? Numbers tend to throw me off, and converting temporarily got me into a panic… Should have foreseen that, Sonja!!! – Luckily I realised that I had TTL metered with my camera still set to 500 ISO and hence the shutter speed too fast, anyway. New metering revealed that I needed a shutter speed of 10 seconds for an aperture of f22. *phew* That was easier, even though it was the first time that I had to use the B setting on the lens.
I chose the largest f-stop for my shots because I wanted to get as much detail in as possible. Photography is a rather exact science, but I have to admit that there was a bit of personal judgment involved here. When metering for a shot against the windows, I had to rely on the impressions I got from looking at the small screen, in order to determine whether to try a 6 second or an 8 second exposure. Personally, I love the burnt-out white of windows in interior photography, but since it is hard to tell how that will exactly show up on the slide, I thought I should better be on the safe side and try both exposure times.
With the LF shots in the box, I decided to go around and take a few detail shots of the dining hall. These are not just reference shots, but I need to “bump up” the content of a photobook that is connected to the project. It makes sense to give a few more insights into the workings of this student canteen, i.e. the furniture, the decoration, the staff, the people who eat there. Whether the LF work will sit well with the digital mixed bag, remains to be seen.

Testshoot Terror

One thing that I learnt last year was, that you should never shoot without scouting the location first! That goes particularly when you are using equipment like a large format view camera. I learnt that the hard way when I found myself lugging a heavy Cambo plus even heavier tripod to remote lighthouses at the end of a pier or on the tip of an isolated, rocky promontory last semester. Never mind finding a shopping trolley or long unused baby buggy to wheel your equipment around (more entertaining option, by the way, is a human assistant whom you can laden down with the 5kg tripod *hehe* also found that out last semester… Thanks A___!), checking the space and environment and taking a few testshots – even with a fifferent camera from the one you are using) is imperative! 
Thus I found myself in the distinguished surroundings of a local institution recently, scouting my location for a project shoot. Permissions all sorted, I thought I had nothing to fear. I wanted to introduce myself to the manager in charge of the particular facility I was shooting but missed him, due to lunch. Anyhow, with a general go-ahead I proceeded to snap away in my chosen location. I was nearly wrapping up when a member of the public came up to me and said “You better not take pictures here!” at first I didn’t get what he meant. Did he think the location was not worth my attention? Was he a photography head himself and thus had noticed the light was not ideal for taking pictures? It turned out he did not want to be photographed and find his picture “plastered all over the papers”. I assured him that this was a college project and not a press call and that I had received permission from the relevant people. But after that I felt stifled and awkward and wrapped up asap.

Now, that is probably just me – taking reprimands and rejections very personally. But the whole experience kept wallowing around in my head for the rest of the day. I totally respect the right of privacy of an individual and would never publish something that I have no right to show. But the sensitivity of some people when it comes to photographing I find very hard to deal with.

A lot of it stems, of course, from non-photographers’ lack of understanding how it all works. If I am standing in a large space and am taking a wide-angled shot  of the room (as I did in the above mentioned scenario), I am not featuring any of the people present particularly big in the shot. They are merely accessories in the composition but not the main focus. People cannot judge the hardware and simply assume that my (24 – 105 mm) lens is big enough to shoot a macro of their pimples. How this man assumed I was taking pictures of him while I was standing over a table across the way from him, focussing on the salt and pepper shakers and pointing away from him, I have no idea! Inflated sense of self-importance?

I do not mind being observed as a photographer. I have no problem with people asking what I am doing. But I do not like it when people automatically assume that I am a paparazza just because they happen to be near my lens. I am a photographer, not a terrorist!

The Fear of "No"

The semester – the final one – has started. Final sprint to the BA in photography. So it was high time for me to get my ass into gear and start securing permissions for the location shoots that I am planning.

Location shoots? Permissions? Why the heck do I always sign myself up for projects that involve doing things which I inherently shy away from? I love photography. I love photographing and I love being a photographer. But I find it hard to approach people and ask for permission to shoot. I know it is just a simple question with two possible answers. But the fear of “No” is so big that I tend to shy away from it. My fault entirely, because there is nothing personal  in a stranger refusing me permission to take a picture of him or her or of his/her property. It is merely a formality, respecting the rights of privacy and property of someone else. And yet this fear of rejection regularly stifles my creativity.

Despite knowing that about myself, I came up with my current project. It involves taking pictures in Irish (staff) canteens, hence I need the permissions of the businesses, companies and institutions to photograph inside their properties. Something I really hate! And the Queen of Fuseling aka moi let it slip for as long as possible. Until I was finally shocked into action by my fellow student J___ last week.

Amazingly, it is not as hard or as difficult as I always think beforehand. I would have loved to go the easy route and do all communicating in writing. The e-mail is my preferred mode of communication: quick, instant, targeted, personal while being distant. Perfect for shy little country girls like me. But I did realize that it makes a far better impression if you actually pick up the phone and make contact directly. You have a better chance of getting what you want when people get at least an aural impression of the person behind the project! It is often less time-consuming. And with an instant reply you won’t send out futile letters or e-mails – or wait endlessly for an answer to your request.

Here are a couple of general observations that I made while contacting my prospective locations. They might come in handy for you in case you are pursuing a project that needs permission to shoot.

1. Choose wisely when you are calling!
  – the day of the week: Fridays are bad! People often are not in the office when you call or already in weekend mode. Follow up e-mails get pushed to the bottom of the mailbox and are forgotten by Monday morning! Mid-week is the time to call!
  – the time of day: forget any time between 12 noon and 2 pm! Lunch break! People are not at their desk!
2. Find out the name of the communications or press ifficer. If you have a name, it is easier to get through to the relevant decision makers and to follow up on the call.
3. If you haven’t got the name, get the switchboard to transfer you to the relevant person. Make sure you ask for the name, e-mail and direct number so you can easily get in touch with them again.
4. Use your own network. If you know anyone in the company where you are planning to shoot, mention their name! It adds clout. And it often also lifts the suspicion that many companies have if you can suggest that your inside contact might be able to “chaperone” you while on location.
5. Always stay calm and polite, even in the face of sheer lunacy. You won’t get what you want if you are snappy.

The last point there was tested to its utmost yesterday when I rang a major IT company to request permission to shoot in their canteen. I am still reeling from the  Beckett-esque absurdity of the following conversation. Catch 22, methinks. But at least they haven’t quite yet refused to grant me permission:
“XYZ Ireland, Reception, how can I help you?”
“Hi there, can you put me through to the Communications Officer, please?”
“Who is it that you need to speak to?”
“Oh, I don’t know the name, can you just put me through to the Press Officer?”
“I am sorry, I can only transfer you if you have a name.”
“Ah, hm, ok. Well, where can I find the name of your Communications Officer?”
“I am sorry, but I am not allowed to disclose that information.”
“Eh, but how can I get in touch with your Press Department then?”
“Well, you can do that in writing.”
“Ah, good, I’ll e-mail then. Is it”
“No, I can give you the fax number, though.”
“FAX???? I don’t have a fax, how am I supposed to get in touch with you?”
“Well, that is all I can do for you.”