For the final Photo Tech assignment of the first year of my degree course I’ve been tasked with capturing “National Identity”. But what does this mean exactly? Well, according to the Cambridge Dictionary:
someone who belongs to a particular country.
who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others.
So, national identity is about where you’re from and what traits you might have that link you to that place.
For this assignment, I have to find a total of four people to take two images of each. That’ll be a close-up portrait shot of each person as well as a wider shot of each person in an environment that will allow the viewer of the image to understand where the subject is from (or at least discuss and try to figure out where they are from).
Now, as soon as this assignment brief was given to us, I immediately had Martin Parr images flood my mind. This is because, unlike many others in my peer group, I can’t think of anyone I know who is anything other than English. Because of this, and probably because I’d just returned from our trip to Bristol and the visit to the Martin Parr foundation, I immediately started thinking along the lines of Parr’s “Last Resort” body of work. “Last Resort” is a large series of images taken between 1983-86 and looks at British people holidaying at the British seaside. He used quite harsh fill-flash mounted on his camera to give a certain overly bright, obviously flashed look to each image. This was intentional and is a style that links each image together as a body of work.
For me, this flash works really well in giving a sense of the kind of sun we get in the UK as it never seems quite as nice on the coast here as it does in other countries. By this I mean that it’s never just ‘nice’, it always feels too harsh or nothing at all.
His work on “The Last Resort” are great examples of traditional environmental images as they tell a great story about the subjects within them and they don’t appear to have received much attention during any post-editing procedure. What I mean by this is that, if you look at them for more than a quick glance, you start to notice that some images might have been straightened or cropped a little in order to give a more technically perfect image. This, however, could have taken the character out of the images and made them look less ‘real’.
The two images above are a couple of my favourites from the Last Resort series as they scream Britishness to me.
The first image shows the young woman behind the counter looking pissed off at having her photo taken whilst at work doing her unglamorous job serving loads of annoying kids whilst the slightly older boy of the customers is of an age where he’s interested in the opposite sex. He’s showing this by the obvious subjects of his gaze. The positioning of the ice cream cone on the table at just about his crotch height is brilliant as well.
The second image could be seen as an older couple who are either bored or content with each other. They’re sitting there not even looking at each other nevermind talking to each other. Is this because, after all the years they’ve been together, they’ve exhausted any conversation and no longer have anything to say, or are they so comfortable with each other that they don’t feel the need to force a conversation? The way they are dressed and the environment they are in with its bland walls and table dressing tells me that it’s a typical British setting with British subjects.
I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a similar shot to this second image but with a modern twist. In today’s society we’re obsessed with our mobile phones and because of this, one of my ideas is to photograph a couple in a cafe sitting at a table, just like this older couple, but instead of them looking out of the window and at their hands, I’d have them both staring at their mobile phones as a means of avoiding making conversation as that’s what we do these days. Mobile phones are, without doubt, used by people of all ages as a barrier to let others know that they don’t want to interact with them.
Another photographer who recorded the Britishness of people and who had an influence on Martin Parr was Tony Ray-Jones.
Jones only had a short career as a photographer of a decade before his death in 1972 at the age of just 31. But, in that short career, he managed to document the Britishness of people in a humorous, compassionate and ironic way.
To look at Ray-Jones’s work and then to look at Martin Parr’s, it’s clear to see the influence the former had on the latter.
As with Martin Parr’s work, the images of Tony Ray-Jones are natural looking with no post-edit crops or straightening etc. They also say so much in every single image about what we did as British people and what was acceptable in the 1960s as opposed to now.
The images above are two of my favourites, but I’d have to say that the beauty contest image is probably my favourite of all. First off, we have the fact that it’s a group of attractive young females looking like they are waiting to be summoned by a panel of people (probably men) to parade for them and convince them as to why they should be crowned beauty queen. This, in today’s society, would be heavily frowned upon whereas as back in the 60’s it was a normal and accepted thing to do.
I love the difference in reactions to the women from the differently aged blokes. The young guy by the counter is clearly hot for the ladies and is showing this by the fact that he’s eyeing up the blondes arse from a distance. The old boy, however, has the blonde stood right next to him (at arse level) and yet he looks like he hasn’t even noticed her as he’d rather enjoy his cup of tea. To steal a line from Del Boy in one of the later Only Fools and Horses, the old boy probably couldn’t even raise a smile let alone anything else, whereas the young lad in the background obviously could.
I think it’s safe to say that both Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones could be having an influence on me for this National Identity assignment.
I was introduced to the existence of the photographer Marc Vallée by one of the subjects of one of my shots for this project. The chap I photographed on the canal boat is actually my wife’s uncle who lives in Islington, London. Marc Vallée is a friend of his and is a photographer who has had a couple of books published and who has had some of his work bought by a collector for exhibiting. Although I’m not completely sure of the price paid for his work, I believe it to had been in the thousands of pounds. He’s also a photography lecturer at a university in London and has been exhibited several times and is someone I intend to tag along with on a shoot or just go to meet and chat with at some stage in the future after my wife’s uncle offered to introduce us.
According to his website at marcvallee.co.uk:
Marc Vallée (b.1968) is a London-based documentary photographer whose work is focused on contemporary youth culture within the context of the neoliberal city. Marc’s prints are held in public and private collections including the Museum of London. Tate Britain, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Museum of London and the Martin Parr Foundation hold his zines and photobooks in their collections.
Because of the above, I’m naturally excited to meet such a well-regarded talent within the world of photography to shadow and, hopefully, learn from.
His main body of work, from what I can see, would appear to be street photography where he’s spent time documenting graffiti artists at work in both London and Paris, as per his “London & Paris 2011-2018” body of work. The work he does is documentary but I like a couple of his images that I feel relate to this assignment.
The portrait image, on the right, doesn’t meet the brief of our assignment as it’s too wide a shot but it’s still a good image, whereas the environmental shot is just brilliant. There are enough clues in there to show exactly what the subject is and where they are. Basically, a graffiti artist going about their business in France. The registration plate on the van and the street sign give us the information about the location and the act that is being carried out by the subject says it all.
The four images above are just four that I like from his work so far. They are great portrait shots that speak about the people and the environment and circles they move in. Aesthetically, they’re great shots as well as adding to the story of the whole body of work they belong. The fact that they are portraits makes them relevant to this assignment as well.
As much as I like the other three images on an artistic level, the one in the top-right made me laugh at the subjects (I’m not sure if that’s the intention). It’s a couple of youths who probably think they hate society and all the stereotypical fat older white men who are raking in the money with their big businesses and brands at the expense of the less well-off people who are forced to work for pittance and that’s why they go about graffitiing as they do; as a way of rebelling, and yet they are both stood there in their expensive branded North Face jackets! D’OH! This, to me, also shows that they’re living comfortably in the society that they try to convince people they’re rebelling against…it’s laughable.
My Initial Ideas
Right, on to my ideas for the four pieces of two images each that I’m thinking of doing. I’m definitely thinking I’ll go down the Britishness route because, as I’ve mentioned already, both Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones have had an influence on me. To me, Britishness has a few things that can be included within an image to describe itself; afternoon tea, fish and chips, coastal holidays in crappy weather and ice cream vans. There are plenty more such as the royal family etc. but I don’t fancy my chances of getting a positive response to an email to Queeny asking to do her portrait.
Also, as much as I’d like to do black and white images for this and future assignments, I’m not sure I can do that style justice right now, but we’ll have to see where we end up at deadline day for this one.
One of the images I take will be of my 6-year-old daughter stood by the hatch of an ice cream van with a 99 in hand and, most probably, ice cream around her gob after she’s taken her first lick/bite of it. I hope to capture her in the sunlight with a big cheesy grin on her face that shows she’s proud of herself and her ice cream. If there are other people in the queue at the ice cream van, all the better, but if not then I’ll ask the ice cream person to lean forward a little out of the hatch and look at my daughter with a smile on their face.
Or, if I can time it and angle it right, I’ll capture the moment that my wife is paying for the ice cream to show the process of a daughter being bought
Another idea is to use my other, slightly older, daughter in a shot. I originally wanted to do this type of shot for the ‘now’ part of the Forever / Now assignment but didn’t think of it in enough time for me to get it done and submitted.
I obviously have a thing about how addicted we all are to our mobile phones, and I find it quite worrying about what effect it is having on our kids. I’m worried because my eldest is perhaps the first wave of kids who are growing up in the age of the smartphone and we don’t fully understand the effect it is having on them and we won’t until they mature and are the ones keeping the country running. Maybe it will be a good thing, maybe it will be bad, no one really knows right now.
Because of my concern for both my daughters and the influences put on them through the screens of their mobile devices, I’m going to take an image of my 13-year-old with her phone in her left hand whilst she stares at it. With her right hand, she’ll be flicking the middle finger at the camera I’m taking the photo with as I’m positioned at a slight angle on the opposite side of her to the mobile phone.
This is going to show that she’s a typical teenager already and is more fixated with
When I was going to do this for the Forever / Now assignment, I was going to do it simply in front of a black backdrop, but this won’t be good enough for this assignment as it needs to be in an environment that helps to show she’s a typical British teenager rather than just a typical teenager. Because of this added part to the idea, I’ll try to have this done on holiday when we go away to Norfolk during the Easter break. It might be on the campsite we stay on in our VW campervan, or maybe even on a waterfront somewhere where people are crabbing and she’s oblivious to it as she’s living in her phone.
The portrait shot for this will have her looking annoyed at me for asking her to tear herself away from the phone for a minute to have her picture taken.
I’ve already mentioned this one in the Martin Parr section, above. I initially thought about going, with my wife, to Kilworth House and having a nice posh afternoon tea there in the Orangery as this would afford me nice lighting and some great props with the posh cutlery, cup and sauces and cake stands. That, to me, screams British stereotype.
The Kilworth House idea is still a possibility but I do like the idea of the modern twist with the mobile phones of the Martin Parr cafe picture. I think both of these are possibilities to be shot.
Fish and Chips
This idea involves my older daughter again and would see her stood outside the Fleckney chippy, either on her own or with some of her friends, phone in one hand and cone of chips in the other.
I imagine the image to be of her off to the right, under the chip shop sign. This would then let me get the inside of the shop in the shot, also, allowing me to get other British people going about their routine of buying fish and chips.
If I wanted to go down the phone route again, I could have her in the same location but be staring at the phone whilst struggling to eat the chips straight out of the cone without her hands as she can’t think or bear to put the phone down for a minute. I’ve actually seen a kid lose his newly bought tray of chips and jumbo sausage by trying to do this. It was like he couldn’t even think to put the phone down for a few minutes. What’s the world coming to?
An image that popped up on the screen when we were being shown examples of work relating to national identity was of a couple of what looked like teenagers in RAF uniforms. This gave me the idea of having my daughters boyfriend in his army cadets uniform with a proud look on his face.
As of now, though, I’m not sure where to take this shot as a way of putting him in a relevant location to show the national identity. Maybe the fact that it’s a British army cadets uniform is enough? I might have to think about this one a little more before shooting it.
I’ve already had an idea to get the British past-time of crabbing into a shot, as mentioned above, but feel that it could be the main focus of an image for this assignment. Me and my family like to go to Norfolk in our campervan and can spend quite some time crabbing there, usually in Blakeney.
This image could involve both my daughters and my wife with the focus being on just one of them. The close-up portrait image would then be of that one person who’s the focus of the environment image.
Chips on the Pier
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it but, I and my family like to holiday in Norfolk, UK, and generally do so at least once each year. Every time we’re staying on the North Norfolk coast we end up spending some time in Cromer as we feel comfortable there and the kids think that the best arcade is there on the seafront by the pier.
One of our rituals is to buy fish and chips and eat them in one of the shelters on the pier before heading off to the arcade to shove countless 2p pieces into the machines. An image I’ll try to capture is of my wife, kids and dog all sheltering in one of the old shelters on the pier whilst eating their fish and chips. If the weather isn’t great and the sea is choppy, then great, that all
2p Arcade Machines
The chips on the pier followed by a time spent in the arcade along the seafront in Cromer gives me another idea for a shot. The image I have in mind could be of my wife or either daughter getting thoroughly over-excited at the act of spending lots of 2p pieces on an arcade machine in the pursuit of walking away with some crappy toy.
The environment shot for this could look quite nice with the bright lights found in those places.
The portrait shot could be of my subject holding up a won crappy toy next to their face which has an expression of joy and/or smugness to it.
We’re British so we must like queueing, right? Us Brits know that we don’t enjoy it, just the same as anybody else in the world, but it’s a definite British stereotype. Because of this, it could be an idea for a shot.
There’s a mobile chip shop that visits the village I live in and it’s also a thing for campsites to include quite often and I know there’s always a queue outside those things. The act of queueing and the fact that it’s for fish and chips could make for a thoroughly British image.
The Grand National
This weekend sees the running of the Aintree Grand National in Liverpool, Merseyside. Gambling is a pastime/problem all over the world, but the Aintree Grand National is another English tradition. An idea for a shot that popped into my head is of a couple of kids waiting outside a high street bookies whilst mum or dad goes in to put on a bet. The portrait shot could be of one of the family members holding the betting slip close to their face with an excited/hopeful smile.
Talking to my parents about how my degree course was going and what I was doing, particularly this assignment, gave me an idea of the great British past- time of gardening. Both of my parents enjoy their gardening and have a nice garden to show for it.
A trip round to theirs during the Easter break could be in order to get a shot of one, or both, of them tending to their masterpiece.
Initial Shoot and Feedback
My initial shoot period took place during the second week of the Easter break and included four different people in four different locations.
The first shoot was with my youngest daughter when I saw her having a picnic with some of her toys. It gave me the idea of a tea party as I knew she had a set we could use.
Although I quite like the idea of this shot, I don’t like the execution of it this first time around. I feel that the composition is all a bit cramped and I’m not sure I like the lighting from the flash bounced off the ceiling and bounce card attached to the speedlite.
I think this one requires a reshoot in a slightly different location. I’ll do this in the back garden in natural light where there’s more room.
I’m happy with the closeup portrait shot of each of the four people I photographed in this first session, which includes this one of my youngest daughter. Even though it was taken in the same room as I’d taken the wide environment shot, I re-positioned her so that the ambient light from the window was lighting her to get rid of the need for a bounced flash. I think it works well as it has nicely positioned catch-light and illuminates her well with the left side of her face in the light which starts to fall off towards the right side, making the image not look flat.
This was the second person I photographed in this session and was the first I positioned to the left of the composition. I quite like this arrangement but, after feedback and a conversation with Dave, I’m going to shoot the next portrait shots in portrait orientation as well as this style of landscape orientation. This will give me the option of the two to choose from.
The first image I took was of a friend who’d come round for a BBQ. To me, not much says more British than a bloke in an apron thinking he’s Gordon Ramsey of the BBQ world whilst drinking beer. Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought this was a good opportunity for a couple of images anyway.
As always on this blog/sketchbook, click any image for a larger version.
The two BBQ images above just don’t feel right to me. I just don’t like them. I think I might be struggling with this assignment as I feel like I’m always striving for that nicely composed and well executed, technically, image, whereas this assignment is calling for a more natural, organic image that tells a story. I think I’m also struggling with the feel of shooting wide-angle shots that let the environment around the subject tell a story. I know that I’m often surprised at things I see in the background of my images that I didn’t see at the moment of creating it as I’m often too busy ensuring the subject is correctly positioned etc.
Of the two images, I much prefer the one with the dog longing for the burnt sausage being held in the tongs. A big mistake I made with these pictures was that I waiting until too late in the day to take them. By the time I got round to taking them, the sun had passed over the front of the house and was no longer shining into this corner of the back garden. I’d also had a few beers myself and we’d finished eating by this stage. All-in-all, this image was a bit of an after-thought and is why it’s not very good. I should also have popped one of my speedlites somewhere around to add a little bit of light into the now shaded corner of the garden. I believe this shot needs to be re-done as well.
As with all the portrait shots I’ve done so far for this assignment, I’m more than happy with this one and am confident that it’s what is expected. The difference with this one compared to the others is the fact that the subject is centrally positioned. As I mentioned, this was the first of the original four subjects I shot and it wasn’t until after this that I decided to position the subjects to the left of the frame.
The third set of images I did in this initial section are probably my favourite so far. These are of my elder daughter outside the chippy in the village we live. Fish and chips was another thing that instantly came to mind when trying to think about Britishness.
I’m going to have to re-shoot this image as well as I’m just not happy with it enough to submit it. This is because I think the subject could be positioned closer to the chip shop window which will allow me to get in that bit closer. Even though I’ve ‘de-hazed’ the glass in the window and door to allow the viewer to see the Pukka Pie sign and into the chip shop and the menu, I still feel that I could position myself more to the left and get more of the inside of the chippy. The thought now is to attempt to get the shot on a Friday evening when it’s hoped there will be more people around going into and out of the shop. If I can get someone coming out of the shop carrying a bit bag of fish and chips, that’d be great.
Again, a decent portrait shot which I got a chip in to link it to the wide environment shot.
The fourth and final image created from this first batch was taken at a Leicester Falcons American football game where I’ve managed to get myself in at as one of the photographers in an attempt to add images of my favourite sport to my portfolio.
The guy in these images is called Ted Watts and is a student at the University of Leicester. I kind of know him as I photographed their games before moving on to the UK senior league and the Falcons. I hadn’t really spoken to him before this shot so this was a test for me to get myself out of my comfort zone. This could be a reason for the bad positioning of the subject for the environment shot.
The composition of the image on the left is far better as there is the pitch, goal posts and someone holding a ball which helps to tell where he is. Even with that, though, I’m still not happy with the shot and, as I had pointed out to me during my feedback session, I could have taken him back onto the pitch and got more in the way of story-telling background in the shot.
I’d like to redo this shot as well but I’m not sure I’ll get the chance. If I were to do it again, it’d be done on the pitch with his shoulder pads on instead of on the floor next to him (he got benched after the first quarter after having a not-so-good game so took them off). The image on the right is probably better due to him not wearing a helmet and is, therefore, perhaps, more intimate. I think it’d be helmet off and better location if I get to do this shot again.
I quite like both of these portraits as they are positioned the same and I feel the one with the helmet on directs the viewer more into the subject’s eyes, whereas the one without helmet shows more of the subject and lets the viewer have a better look at him.
After not being overly excited by my first batch of images, I decided to get a couple more. The intention was to use the early May bank holiday weekend to get the shots. I had two possibilities in mind but only actually achieved one.
The image that didn’t happen was to be of a friend who owns a Triumph Toledo that he restored over the course of a few years and is very proud of. Triumph is a British company and has a lot of history and pride with its Britishness. I planned on getting some shots of him in and around his car with the mansion house known as Stanford Hall in the background. This could have come about as there was a VW event happening there on that weekend. Unfortunately, though, we couldn’t get him and the car positioned well enough to get the shot I wanted.
The other shot was to be of my father-in-law on the canal boat we’d booked for the day to celebrate his birthday. This shot did happen and can be seen below, but it wasn’t my favourite of that day. My wife’s uncle also turned up so I got the same shots of him as I had done with her dad and, to be honest, I think he fits the bill more accurately and makes for a better image.
The images above are of my father-in-law getting into the spirit of things with his captain’s hat whilst embarked upon his mighty sailing ship. These were the type of images I’d envisioned for submission for this assignment but am not now sure I’ll use.
The two images below, however, are ones that I’ll be submitting unless I get some really negative feedback for them. I just feel that the main subject in these photos looks more like a narrow-boater and fits into that environment better.
I also went back to the Fleckney Fish Bar to retake the environment shot of that as I wasn’t overly happy with the first attempt. I’m thinking more along the lines of technical quality as the original one looks too soft. I tried standing at a different angle for the second attempt but couldn’t get that shot without me appearing as a reflection in the chip shop’s window. At this time, I need to have a comparison session of the two as well as trying to get more feedback on them before deciding which to go with.
I also want to try them in black and white before the deadline for yet more comparisons of which look better and which could get me the higher grade.
I can see pros and cons for both images and definitely need more feedback to possibly help me decide between the two.
The one on the right is the one from the 2nd shoot and I prefer the way the subject it posed and is looking at the camera but I’m not sure about the scene in the window from this angle. I could BS my way through it and say it was deliberate due to the car that’s being reflected in the window is a Jaguar…British. I do prefer the Pukka Pie ‘Open’ sign in the door of this shot as that again speaks of Britishness due to the pie company and the fact that it says ‘open’ in English.
I think that the bit I like about the original shot (the one on the left) is how much that can been seen of inside the chippy after I ‘dehazed’ the glass of the window. We now get to see the inside of a modern village chip shop. It just adds a bit more to the image for the viewer to look round.
Black and White
As I mentioned above, I intend to start practising the art of black and white photography but realise that there is a lot more to it than simply clicking the B&W button within Lightroom or Photoshop. I did attempt to turn some of my images to black and white but wasn’t happy with the results and felt like it was a safer bet to submit them in colour for now. The images I adjusted are below. As always, click on an image for a larger version.
Although I love black and white photography, I don’t feel these images are similar enough in lighting and tone to submit like that. This is something I’ll work on as I strive to discover my ‘style’.
One Final Idea
After an encounter with Dave and Tom during one of the Photo Tech lessons leading up to the deadline of this assignment, I came up with one more idea that I managed to cram in before said deadline passed.
Dave was seeming to get frustrated with Tom as, to me, he (Tom) couldn’t see the wood for the trees with some test shots he’d taken. The pictures he’d got were of his brother in the living room of their home. Dotted around the living room were religious items as well as medals and trophies. When we asked him whose the medals and trophies were, he told us that his dad won them in his days as a boxer. This instantly gave me an idea for an environmental image I could take of my dad.
In his working days, my dad was a successful firefighter both in Yorkshire, where we lived originally and then in Leicestershire, where he worked until he retired. I read through the assignment sheet again and realised that I could set up a “conceptual, constructed, contrived image” and so did just that.
I wanted the image to be about him and so decided to blur the background items just slightly to the point where it was still obvious what they are but you keep coming back to his face as that’s what’s in focus.
I wasn’t sure if I’d gone overboard with the hints as to who he is and what his nationality is, but the more I look at the image the more I’m convinced it fits the brief. My biggest concern is whether it fits well with the style of the other environment and portrait set I’m planning on submitting as they are outside and wider shots that fit the first part of this section of the brief in that they are more “traditional” environmental portraits. The other set I’m submitting is the one of the chap on the canal boat.
The portrait shot of my dad that I’d submit is:
Although I like the lighting in the images of my dad, I’m not sure if I’ll get graded down due to it not being the same as in the other set I’ll be submitting. The canal boat images are purely natural, outdoor light whereas I used a combination of ambient light coming in through the French doors of my parent’s dining room with a softboxed speedlite set at 1/8th power, just to help, as the ambient light wasn’t enough to light the subject.
I also thought about the lighting after taking the initial test shots and was going to introduce a second softboxed speedlite on a slightly lower power setting on the opposite side of the subject. This would have got rid of the darker side of the image which, after some time thinking about what I was saying about my dad, I didn’t want. By this, I mean that I wanted a lighter side and a darker side to him as I feel this speaks about the kind of person he has been throughout his life.
As I remember him from when I was younger, he always tried to be a strong and fun person for me and my sister but I also know that he’s gone through very difficult times with his mental health due to the stresses put on him as a firefighter in his early days in the force but then also as a leader and decision-maker in life-and-death situations in his later career after his promotions. I considered creating a “split light” effect in these two images to reflect this but thought I’d be taking it too far away from the other images I’d be submitting. Because of the whole continuity thing, I introduced a reflector onto the darker side of the image to get the lighting I have in the images above.
I guess I need to find out about the whole continuity between the sets we submit. Does the style have to be across all four images submitted or just between each individual environment and portrait set?
Final Sets to Submit
After a final bit of feedback on the day before hand-in, I’ve decided to submit the two sets my heart was telling me to. These sets are the chap on the canal boat and the set of the ex-firefighter. These sets are the most similar in style and therefore the most appropriate for this assignment.
I must admit that I didn’t really like the image outside the chip shop and did like the other two so was glad when the feedback I received steered me to this final decision. A negative that was mentioned was that the close-in portrait of the firefighter isn’t different enough from the wide shot to show that it isn’t just an extreme crop. I definitely didn’t just crop-in, as can be seen in the A3 prints, but I do understand the feedback. Conceptually, I imagine the images will be seen as boring but, as far as I could figure out from the brief, we were tasked with documenting the person as opposed to creating an artistic masterpiece.