What is the attraction of New Topographic aesthetics?

Up to now I thought I was attracted to the New Topographics photographers, such as Robert Adam’s and Frank Gohlke, because I enjoyed the aesthetic of their tract house images. Perhaps it is the bright but flat light, the quietness, the geometry if the human constructs set against the natural landscape that form a kind of accidental beauty. However, I am now having second thoughts. The following images come to mind.

New Housing Development, Benbrook, Texas 1963 by Frank Gohlke
Colorado Springs, 1968 by Robert Adams

The more I delve into my photographic inspirations, and having discovered the ubiquity of metaphors for Power, Subordination, Pathos and Monumentality in my images, I am not so sure about the attraction being purely visual. The images above actually reflect my memories of childhood. Moving towns several times and always to a brand-new house, on an incomplete estate with no infrastructure of shops or schools nearby, Frank Gohlke’s image of a sterile, but perfect (in the eyes of 1960’s aspirational adults) really strikes home as an impression of my childhood.

The Robert Adams image of a woman in a house reminds me of my mother at that time. The hairstyle is exactly right but the impression of her being trapped in this cage of an “ideal home” is also very familiar.

The use of Black and White (B&W) photography, whilst the norm in the 1960’s, is also quite appropriate to the lack of colour in life on such an estate and to the binary of B&W, right or wrong, being the only possible conditions and uniformity is a given.

These are not warm, welcoming homes. They are more “Space” than “Place” (Heidegger 1971)

The next 2 images are both by Robert Adams, from his book “Prairie” (Adams, 1978)

Genoa 1970 by Robert Adams                                      
Thurman 1969 by Robert Adams

Such scenes above are far more attractive, to me, as locations to live. Whereas Golke’s “New Housing Estate” appears to be an endless repetition of the same clinical scheme, “Genoa” entices you to go beyond the end of the street. There is a world out there to be explored. The street itself is a little chaotic with its well established but untrimmed trees and randomly parked cars, so Genoa has humanity and looks like a “Place” not just a “Space”.

Then there is “Thurman” by Adams. This is not a clinical, sterile house. It is a practical but messy arrangement of utilities for living. It feels like a home.

Both these images give the impression of being warm, welcoming places to live where shades of grey may be possible, not just black and white.

Bibliography

Adams R. Prairie, The Denver Art Museum, 1978

Heidegger M. Building Dwelling Thinking, from Poetry, Language, Thought, (translated by Hofstadter A.) Harper Colophon Book, New York, 1971

     

Field Trip Review – Granton & Newhaven

Date created – 12/03/2019

Starting intentions. I knew the possibilities of finding many “quirky juxtapositions” in this area of new build set against decaying and abandoned constructions, often separated by fences. These features appeal to my liking of quirkiness and my objections to anything that tries to restrict the “right to roam”.

This example shows, what I presume are drainage pipes, with rather amateurish protective covers, that reminded me of judges’ caps. Perhaps these judges had been buried for committing some crime themselves?

The new flats look down upon them, disapprovingly.

In the same area were these sad, abandoned Christmas trees surrounded by rubbish. Again, the flats appear to be looking down upon the scene.

More ironical juxtapositioning!

I had 2 cameras with me, one set to record in colour but with a B&W viewfinder. I found this an interesting and useful tool as, since moving to digital 16 years ago, I have lost the ability to perceive how a colour scene will render in B&W.

This image is another following my “parallel lives” and “right to roam, denied” themes.

Next, I’m not sure whether the geometry of this image would have struck me quite so strongly if it hadn’t been for the B&W viewfinder. The colour version is far more confusing.

I wanted the central post to split the screen but the slight bend to the right is disconcerting. I fixed that in Photoshop as, I believe, 3 perfect verticals will make for a stronger image than the reality.

Yes, this may not be reality, but it does now represent what I wanted to convey about the geometry of the scene.

Moving further away looking for more of a narrative than just geometry this scene resulted.

Now the lighthouse has become a character. It is looking out, searching for a better future, away from its derelict environment.

In this example I did not spend long enough thinking about depth of field whilst on-location. The foreground fence is slightly blurred. Does this help with the message about the lighthouse wanting to escape? Or would the fence being sharp have emphasised its ties to the current location and the impossibility of escape? I have not decided yet.

The next composition was to look at the possibilities of the square format. For me, here, the B&W version has neither the strength of geometry nor of narrative to make it work. However, the muted reds and greens of the colour image do provide an attractive combination and a calm mood.

Such a picture is far more reflective of my own emotions whilst on location than delivering a narrative or an abstraction of shapes.

Did moving further back enhance the effect? Possibly. The wider view certainly increases the sense of isolation, with the empty foreground. Again, this is reflective of my own mood at the time.

Note – such “isolation” is, for me, associated with a sense freedom rather than being a negative term, implying being alone.

Moving on to Newhaven.

This is a scene I have taken before and is inspired by a Robert Adams style of banal, new build, “tract houses”. Hence the B&W, as per Adams’ images.

It works as a copy of that style.

However, I find this, muted colour, version better at capturing my own mood at the time.

The colour seems to make Fife, in the distance, recede and become far less important. Therefore, the image is more centred in the foreground and the viewer’s own location. The colours of the vegetation also emphasise the winter timing, which is much less noticeable in the B&W image.

The final image of the day was taken as another comment upon man-made restrictions to movement. Here it is caused by the razor wire and the fences around the lighthouse. I was aware at the time of trying to deduce the depth of field so as to focus on the nearby razor wire and thus emphasise the inaccessibility of the lighthouse beyond.

However, the depth of field was still too great to achieve my intentions. I should have checked more thoroughly at the time.

Ironically, I did take a second image with a very large depth of field. This did not work at all as it focuses attention on the details of the constructs and not the intended narrative. If the lighthouse had been further out of focus its inaccessibility would have been enhanced.

Conclusions

  • I’m still not spending enough time, on-location, thinking about what I am trying to do – reviewing and getting it right. For example:
    •  final image, I should have gone for much less DoF to emphasise the razor wire but not the lighthouse. To be honest narrow DoF is not a tool I use often, and I need much more practice with it. This will only be achieved by understanding exactly my intentions, at the time, reviewing my images more closely and thinking about how to achieve them.
    • These images were all hand held or with a monopod. I should have used a tripod. This would have slowed me down and freed up my hands for changing lenses and to spend more time reviewing images.
  • Tried B&W in viewfinder – useful!
    • Helped confirm the first lighthouse and its geometric potential.
    • It did not stop me capturing colour images that also worked, sometimes better!
  • One-location, one subject, and just a few minutes apart, yet 3 quite different types of image at Granton lighthouse!
    • Narrative, Geometrical and Reflective images
    • I need to recognise these differences, at the time, if I am to use the knowledge to improve my images. Again, more time thinking.
  • Overall – I do need to spend more time thinking but NOT ahead of making the first, intuitive, images. My intuition for a composition is a strength. Therefore I should make the first images quickly, with the minimum of thought, then review, determine my intents and attempt to strengthen the image.

What is Power/Subordination in images?

I developed the concept of Power/Subordination as a description for a key property (or output) of my images. It describes the relationship of power implicit in one or more image elements towards other elements (or the viewer) making them appear subordinate or somehow weaker. This feature is present in 27% of my “top 50” images and 22% of the “top 200” images. Therefore, it is a significant trope.

Here are examples:

Above the tall, powerful, new, turbines with their science fiction appearance seem to be marching across the high ground of the landscape. In contrast the old, worn fences look weak, low down in the scene and unable to stop the “progress”. This effect is enhanced as the turbines appear to be looking into the distance and to be unaware of the fences.

In the next image the turbines, whilst a similar size in the frame to those in the above image, do not appear dominant relative, this time, to the viewer. They are at a distance, looking at the viewer, almost hiding behind the shed, as if in a stand-off with, but not threatening the viewer. Somehow the viewer seems to be in control of the scene.

Both images are examples of a Power/Subordinate relationship within the image but demonstrate how changes in the composition can result in opposing relationships and narratives.

In narrative and relationship terms this image is a combination of the two above. The stone cross is looking powerful and, perhaps defiant in the face of the viewer. The ring of the Celtic cross appears to form the hands-on hips stance of a confident leader confronting the viewer. By contrast the power-pole in the background is timid, hiding behind the hill, not wanting to be involved. Its construction, being almost an inverse of the stone cross, lacks the confident stance. The third pole, on the left, is like a bystander present (to balance the composition) but not involved in the story.

This image was created because I saw the pleasing triangular shape formed by the rock and the 4 posts. However, once seen, I started to perceive a power/subordinate relationship between the confrontational looking poles and the small rock that seems to be shrinking into the ground. The cut-outs near the tops of the front two poles adds to the impression that these are in some way human. This image only works the way I describe because there is little sense of depth and the rock looks to be almost on the same plane as the posts.

Here the solid, concrete, WWII lookout post is high and looking out to sea, oblivious of the viewer. It is dominant and immovable. In contrast the viewer is low down looking up towards the lookout. Even although the lookout is not acknowledging the viewer’s presence this particular viewer feels the weaker but not necessarily threatened.

Here are 2 further examples:

Conclusions

This is a very anthropomorphic way to view images, but it comes very naturally and unbidden to me. The exercise has demonstrated how viewpoint, position in the frame, size, construction materials and the juxtapositions of elements and viewers can result in very different perceptions and meanings in an image.

Glen Coe & Ullapool field trips

Please note words such a Spectacular and Juxtaposition where the first letter is capitalised indicates it is a word whose use I have specifically defined elsewhere in my researches.

In late October I had a total of 10 days photography, first leading a group of photographers on a holiday around Glen Coe and Ardgour, then with friends around Ullapool. Both trips were focused on general landscape photography rather than my usual subject, “human constructs in the landscape”.

Weather conditions and the autumnal colours resulted in many more Spectacular images than I would usually make. These encouraged me to be more adventurous in my subject matter and my approach to the lighting. Another significant factor for the changes was the new knowledge that ~75% of my Successful images are driven far more by Shapes and the Juxtaposition of shapes than any other factor. Formerly I had believed the narrative potential implicit in the Juxtapositions of human constructs and the landscape was always the primary driver.

Fallen Pines

The 2 factors initiating this image were the Spectacular light (colours) and the straight lines of the fallen trunks forming triangles against the vertical, parallel trunks behind. In other words, geometry.

So, this image has Juxtaposition (leading to a Conscious Design) and Spectacle (Colours) as the triggers for its making.

It is a plantation of trees, hence a human construct, but it would be over-stretching my concept to suggest that was in a factor in my making of this image. It was not!

Autumn Glade

Again, the Spectacular colours were a trigger for this imager as they beckon the viewer into the scene. There is also strong Narrative potential with the narrow path formed by the trees leading towards a darker, unknowable destination. This effect is enhanced by the fallen truck appearing to block access and the branch above framing the entrance.

These contradictory factors led me into Recognizing a “Little Red Riding Hood” type of Narrative where the colours encourage adventure, but the narrowing, darker, overhung path does not. The image was Consciously Designed to enhance these effects.

There is no obvious human construct in this image. Any human connotations are created by the imagination and do not exist in reality.

Reeds

Again, no human construct but the stark shapes are geometric, especially when emphasised by the reflections.

The calm water, soft light and the (almost Oriental) simplicity of the composition create an ambiance that reflected my own zen mood at the time of taking.

A friend, Muriel Robertson, compares this image to written characters, again, perhaps, Oriental.

This was a Conscious Design based upon the Juxtaposition of Shapes and reflections.

Lochailort junction

Shapes and Colours drove this piece of Conscious Design. The inclusion of Armco barrier and the bushes was an after-thought designed to give scale and to indicate that this is not a natural cliff but is actually a roadside cutting.

This is an unusual case of my conscious compositional enhancements having a very positive impact on the success of the final image. Without these extra elements there is no context and the image becomes little more than a pattern picture.

Glen Etive

This image is purely driven by Spectacle. It is all about the dramatic lighting, colours and composition. There is a human construct present, the road, but it does not create any significant Narrative Potential as there is very little ambiguity in the scene. It is a Successful document of a moment, however the image has little long-term interest for me.

Connel Bridge viewpoint.

This final image was taken on a day where the light was flat and the autumnal colours quite weak. Consequently, I reverted to type and looked for the humour in the Juxtapositions of human constructs and the natural landscape.

Conclusions

  1. Human constructs contain geometric shapes that attract attention and have narrative potential when set against the landscape. However, tree trunks, especially those of pine trees, and reeds in water can also form geometric shapes that attract, even although they may not encourage a narrative.
  2. Banality, like Narrative has been a constant presence in my images to-date. However, in this set of images there is no banality when the human construct is missing or only appears in the imagination. That is, the first 3 images.
  3. I don’t see these images as a change of direction but as an expansion of my willingness to experiment as I learn more about my practice and motivations.

Cramond Island 7

Some great conditions for my style of photography today. Very still air and foggy. The still air is quiet and relaxing which, in turn, helps me to concentrate. The fog helps isolate objects in the image and simplifies the composition. It also enhances the warmer reds and yellows in the scene whilst making the cooler colours almost monochromatic, again simplifying the image.

Unusually, I decided to go at low tide rather than following the high tide out. This enabled me to access viewpoints that I have not been to before.

Here is a selection of images from today.

 

 I’ve never seen this cart before. Perhaps it’s a particularly low tide.

 

Bruce Percy vs. Myself – a comparison of methods

I have just finished reading 2 of Bruce Percy’s e-books, “Simplifying Composition” and “Tonal Relationships”. I greatly admire his beautiful, apparently simple, compositions and wondered what I could learn from his techniques.

By the way, both books are excellent, well laid out and easy to understand. Their details are at the end of this article.

What I quickly realised is that, although Bruce and I have a love of the same locations (Iceland & Scotland) we have very different approaches to them and very different aims when photographing them.

I am always trying to convey a narrative in my images. A narrative that is usually concerning some human interaction with the landscape. Whereas, Bruce is primarily concerned with the artistic qualities of the scene, shapes, tones, visual flow, etc. His images do not have any narrative qualities at all. You may disagree with this statement but, from my perspective, any scene requires some element of human (or, at least, animal) construct or traces if it is to have any narrative potential.

Examples of our differences are:

Bruce’s landscape elements are almost always entirely “natural” (as opposed to human constructs) whereas I always include human constructs as the key focal point in my images.

Bruce looks for coherent arrangements of elements, where the eye is encouraged to wander around the image by the shapes, positions and tones of its various component parts. I look for quirky juxtapositions, where the human constructed element stands out from its background landscape because of its colour, shape, etc. Bruce looks for coherence. I look for incongruities.

A specific example of difference is in our uses for the sky in compositions. I use the sky as a tool of scale, often allowing it to be the largest single element. I do this to emphasise the insignificance of the human elements. I also use the sky to suggest repression. Dark, overcast skies being a favourite for implying a vulnerability and that this landscape is a hard place to survive. I am trying to convey a sense remoteness and isolation. In both cases the sky is part of the narrative but not deliberately part of the visual flow of the image.

Bruce uses the sky as yet another visual element where tones and shapes in the sky are included in the flow of the image. To quote him:

“By forgetting that one is sky and the other is ground, you force yourself up to notice relationships between them.” (Simplifying Composition, P15)

He is abstracting all reality from the various scenic elements so that they can be integrated into an artistically satisfying whole.

I can understand this but it doesn’t work for me. Even when looking around Bruce’s beautifully crafted images, trying to follow his ideas of flow, I often completely ignore the sky. It is there in my peripheral vision and I am aware of the sky’s mood or emotional context but not of its flows or shapes as they relate to the image as a whole.

Bruce actively looks for “compositional devices” in the landscape. Elements that will aid the visual flow around the image, diagonal lines, S curves, etc. I also use lines in my compositions but not to the same extent and I often use them to impede the visual flow rather than aid it. I mean that I will use lines that cross the image and form barriers between the viewer and the focal point. In this case I am using the line to separate foreground and subject to intensify the isolation of the focal point. Again, I am using the line as an element to aid the narrative rather than the visual flow.

Bruce’s compositions contain details but these are usually restricted to the focal point areas of the image whilst the rest of the composition is made up of relatively smooth, undetailed tones. His images are abstractions of the reality. Conversely, my images tend to be highly detailed throughout.

Am I missing a trick here? Do my images need to be detailed from front to back, with every blade of grass clearly visible? Would I be able to achieve Bruce’s artistry, whilst also being true to my own goal of celebrating the human habitation of remote, unforgiving environments? I need to think about this.

Looking at Bruce’s very practical, on location, tips in “Simplifying Composition”, I am pleased that most of them are second nature to me. However, it would be good if I was applying them more consciously rather than just intuitively.

With Bruce’s help, I can now articulate more photographic techniques, that are part of my intuitive processes, but of which I was unaware. They are:

  • (P36) Using the viewfinder to view the scene in 2D rather than directly viewing it in 3D. However, I think it might be better still viewing the scene, with one eye closed, and through a piece of card with an appropriate cut-out. Then I would be better able to engage with the scene, away from the distractions and constraints of the camera itself.
  • Making tripod movements of just a few inches up or down or side to side to change the scale relationships (P40) or parallax relationships (P56), respectively, of foreground and background elements. However, today, I do this intuitively and I believe I need to be more actively conscious of what I am seeing and trying to achieve in order to get better results.

Bibliography

Percy B. Simplifying Composition, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2015

Percy B. Tonal Relationships, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2016

Both available at: http://www.brucepercy.co.uk/books/

When Focal Points become Installations

Over several years, I have noticed that the human constructs I use in my images as focal points can have one of three different purposes and significances. These are:

  • As a mid-ground or distant element but still a focal point within the landscape. The message is that the element is lonely, isolated and insignificant within the landscape.
  • As the key foreground element that represents only what it is, nothing more nor less. The landscape gives context to the object but the story is about the object and its construction, state of repair, etc..
  • Appearing as an “installation”. The element may have been placed in the landscape for purely functional reasons. But, the way I have composed it within the landscape and because of its shapes or constructional features it looks as if it was deliberately designed and placed by an artist, in response to the landscape.

Or

What makes these last images different? Why do they look like installations?

In both cases, the man-made elements are large in the frame and centrally placed. They are also the only significant, identifiable element in the image.

The gravel around the concrete block in the upper image and the mud tracks around bonfire in the lower image both look like a stage or a dais for the object to sit upon. Like a sculpture.

Finally, the significant elements are both made from materials that would not, naturally, be found in such locations. So, the materials have been transported there and these objects constructed deliberately.

A small change to the composition of the “bonfire” image can make a large difference to its interpretation as seen below.

The bonfire is no longer central. However, it is still the most significant element. Now we can see the tracks more clearly, they look less like a dais. Their true function as the paths used to deliver wood to the bonfire is now clear.

The bonfire is made up from uniform pieces of fence palings. In this composition, the small length of upright fence has appeared on the far right of the image. Therefore, we can surmise that the bonfire is made from pieces of such fencing that are no longer required. The bonfire is just a means to get rid of unwanted wood without the effort of having to transport it down the mountain.

Overall, the man-made object no longer appears as an installation but as a purely functional and practical object.

The concrete block in the upper image is also purely functional. It is a support for a bend in the unseen water pipes that feed a hydro-electric power station a few hundred feet below.

Conclusions

With reference to my research the idea of objects becoming “installations” is not in line with my thesis about human constructions becoming focal points for photographers within a landscape. This is because, once the object appears as an installation it is so dominant within the image that the remaining landscape becomes just a canvas for its presence. The story is no longer about the landscape. It is about the object.

My images will need to follow a fine line where the human construct is a lesser (certainly no more than equal) player to the landscape within the narrative of the image.

Iceland – Lens Choices

On returning from 10 days in North Iceland, having taken only Landscape images, I decided to analyse my lens usage. I was going for maximum quality and so tried to use my two prime lenses as much as possible. How often was I able to achieve a satisfactory composition with the prime lenses and how often did I have to resort to using a zoom lens?

I analysed 456 images, each of which was a unique composition. The results were as follows:

Wider 28mm 35mm 50mm Long Total
Prime 154 50 204
Zoom 38 42 89 45 38 252
Total 38 42 243 95 38 456
Percentage 8% 9% 53% 21% 8% 100%

“Wider” means anything between 18mm and 25mm and “Long” means anything greater than 60mm .

“28mm” includes any zoom images between 26mm to 32mm.

“35mm” includes any zoom images between 33mm to 44mm.

“50mm” includes any zoom images between 44mm to 60mm.

These ranges were chosen on the basis that, with a bit more effort, I could have used a prime lens, instead of the zoom, and still achieve a satisfactory composition.

Conclusions: Nearly 3/4 of all my compositions were, or could have been, achieved with the two prime lenses. Do I need another prime lens? Based on these results the answer is no. But, if I was to buy another it should be a 28mm lens.

As well as the superior quality a further benefit of using the 2 prime lenses was to slow me down and cause me think far more about each shot as I sought to find the right composition without the ease of a zoom lens. A consequence is that I took far fewer images on this trip to Iceland than I did on my last visit. However, my success rate (achieving good compositions) is much higher.

Auchencorth Moss

Looking for something different from Cramond I decided to try Auchencorth Moss as a little research showed it was (relatively) remote and had old constructions.

It was very windy but dry and the light was exactly what I wanted.

I want to make images that are capable of significant enlargement (A1+) so I took extra care to get the composition and the sharpness correct in camera. I also used only my 35mm F2 prime lens. I found myself spending far more time than I usually do at any one location, thinking about and trying different compositions. I believe my repeated trips to Cramond are starting to pay off by my taking a more considered approach at the taking stage.

This was the first composition I saw and immediately wanted to use the background hilltop, peaking through the fire break in the trees. Although the tower (~1900) predates the trees by many years it feels as though the trees are some kind of fortification laced there for the benefit of the tower.

This is the head of a ventilation shaft, apparently part of the Talla Aquaduct and sits in the hidden valley of the Harlawmuir Burn. I was trying to capture something about the captive (fenced in) construction being further held by the straight wall of hillside beyond with the small construction (a survey point – top right) like a sentry, on guard. Here is a closer viewpoint.

Despite the fence the construction now appears dominant in the scene rather than being constrained by the environment.

This is my favourite image of the day. It has so many different elements (and stories) that work well together in small groups but without any strong, overall composition.

This scene, with the small group of farm building amongst the trees in the distance reminded me very much of the foothills of the Colorado Rockies where I used to live. The grasses here are Scottish moorland types rather than the dry prairie grasses of Colorado but the (apparently) long straight road and the power lines could be anywhere in the US prairies. This is a type of location where I feel very comfortable – feels remote, wide open views but with signs of human habitation.