24 Mar 2011

ken burns is innocent

Moving pictures? Sound as well? Nah, it'll never catch on. Who do you think I am, desperate to tart up my fine art photography with a garnish of Ken Burns effects on a bed of Gerry Rafferty's Streets of London?  Well, against my better judgement, I've been thinking of putting together my pictures to a soundtrack of some description. 
It's interesting to re-consider the concept of a slide show in terms of an experience that now isn't so much about sitting in your front room comatosed by the neighbours' holiday snaps or a cold church hall camera club enthusiast only interrupted by the whirr-click of a carousel. Daddio get with the digital age. Now we can consume byte-size pieces of media on-demand. Simultaneously re-tweeting Justin Beiber while waiting to eBay bid on a collection of 60s manga we queue a YouTube sequence of skateboarding cats.

How to compete for any attention span, however shallow, in those circumstances?

As part of the opportunity to display my book loved; life; London at the Format Festival I was given the chance to participate in the Carousel Slam. I loved the oxymoron. It made me reconsider my outmoded thoughts on slide shows and I decided to jump in.

The business of editing and sequencing images was my first challenge. I had a way in by virtue by referring back to love; life; London and I soon had a rough cut of about 30 images. However just sequencing them like a PowerPoint presentation i.e. centre each image onscreen, 3 seconds each, next - next - next - etcetera - etcetera - etcetera didn't do them, nor the medium justice.   
I wanted to give some energy, some reflection of the street to the experience.This made me focus on the soundtrack. I was desperate not to contradict my no-crop no-caption maxim, not to "lead" the viewer but let them make up their own mind what they take from the picture. I didn't want to set these pictures to a song which made an overt connection to a particular interpretation (herewith known as the Rafferty Effect).

Where did that leave me?

As well as photography about the city, and books about the city, I do love films about the city too. Digging around the sequences on my YouTube channel I picked out a couple. The first was The City, an American documentary from 1939 by the splendidly monikered Willard van Dyke. It has a wonderful soundtrack which is a sampler's paradise. The vocal excerpt I picked had a marvellous quality, like a 50s government information film, but the spoken words were more B-movie panic than Keep Calm and Carry On.

To follow I couldn't resist one of my all-time favourites West Side Story. If I'd ever had a Jim'll Fix It wish (details here for my overseas friends) then it would have to be a walk-on role in that production. It's such a perfect combination of sound and vision I felt guilty running Leonard Bernstein's score against my pictures.
However the segueway between it and the first piece just fell into place so perfectly I felt it was meant to be. Honestly.
Now when I reviewed the sequence I wanted to do something more with the images themselves. Working on a MacBook the Ken Burns effect, a zooming and moving effect, is a default within iMovie and I confess to having found it profoundly irritating whenever I'd seen it. However, after introducing the soundtrack the ebb and flow, rather then making me feel seasick, suddenly made sense. I applied it to all, with a little tweaking, and clicked save.
OK it's showtime...although you've probably gone straight to play this before reading of my ramblings above. I know I would.
Just this week I was invited to show this again at the HOST Gallery's Slam and this time I was to able to introduce it in person. It was a really inspirational event. A full house collectively experiencing a diverse collection of moving images, in both senses of the word. it was also great to be part of a broad cross section of photographic approaches.
This current year of street photography is wonderful. It's certainly keeping me busy. However I think it's important to recognise there's a real opportunity here to make connections in the wider community of people who care about cities, about urban places, about how we shape them and how they shape us.
And by the way, Ken Burns, if you're listening, I take back what I've said about you.

20 Mar 2011

the good ship Ambiguous sets sail

Heavens, I'm so excited by the Ambiguous Project.

25 souls have signed up for the voyage, from all points of the compass. I've even been drawn to the siren call of Facebook, after resisting for so long.

True to my convictions about photography I believe the act of creation is as important as the final output. To make that happen I've set up a page so we can all share in the making of the book.

OK the first image has been cast into the ferment.

It's one of mine, taken at the Elephant & Castle in London in the late 80s. There were a few thoughts in my head when I chose it. As it's the first in the Ambiguous sequence I had the advantage, and burden, of selecting anything.

This particular image appealed to me as it's one I've personally spent time contemplating. I originally chose to keep and print this picture for reasons to do with the composition. However that's changed over time and now when I look at it the location and subject of the image itself evoke special memories, both of my childhood and, in later life, as a young father myself.

n other words it fits my brief for the project perfectly.

links to my Ambiguous Book Project image

 I can't wait to see what happens next.

17 Mar 2011

Are you looking at me?

Thought I'd just publish my recent piece in fLIP, London Independent Photography's magazine. 
As I've found with this blog, reflecting on why I do what I do is a rewarding exercise. The standby excuse of any artist, the "I just do it because I have to" position, is perfectly acceptable but, as I've found, a missed opportunity to question and justify my own indulgent behaviour! 
Anyway on with the show...
Standing in the shadow of Centre Point I'm facing a dilemma. It's 4.30 on a still July afternoon. Attempt one more pass westbound along Oxford Street into the sun, my friend and adversary. Take the tube to Marble Arch. Risk missing a scene. Restore some energy for the eastbound assault at 5. Head's throbbing, throat's dry, hands sweaty. Last roll of film presses insistently against my heart. Remember. Left breast pocket for fresh, right for spent. Left right, left right. Suddenly I'm off. I exit my cool refuge and immediately sense an opportunity. Pulse slows. I'm physically here. My mind's out-of-body. The curtain on the choreography of the street is about to rise. Cue Sean. 
I appreciate this may all be a little melodramatic; the portrayal of the photographer as outsider, a single white male with a starring role in his own remake of Taxi Driver, perhaps with better hair. Nevertheless my approach to photographing on the streets of London is characterised by both a physical and mental immersion in the act of taking a picture. 
It all began over twenty years ago with my baptism to the streets of Manhattan.
"Is the bus free? Is the bus free?"
"Kid, the only thing free in New York is the air." 
A spiritual home to a kid who idolised 70s TV cop shows and 80s new wave bands, New York City became my real home for a couple of years. More by accident than design, my move was as much about the chance to re-invent myself in the grand tradition of 'making it there' just like Frank Sinatra said. It wasn't easy. As my airport bus driver friend would agree, New York is a helluva town. 
Taking photographs became a way of making sense of this Babel. The density of midtown streets, the impulsion to keep moving, "NO LOITERING" signs, lead me to a style of photography that kept me inside the strongest currents of this stream of consciousness. Pre-set aperture, shutter speed, focus. Camera rarely held to my eye, more often away from my body, a two-way mirror that both reflects and absorbs. Not that this technique was without drawbacks. A couple of months after my arrival in the height of summer my camera had enough and expired on the corner of West 34th and 8th. After presenting it to a repair shop for estimate I was admonished on my return and told not to use it on the beach without sufficient care. In fact the salty residue that had seeped into my camera was the sweat from my hand. 
Although my technique has essentially changed little since then, the greatest difference has been in my perspective. In New York I rushed to the film processing store every week, clutching my half dozen rolls of Tri-X, eager to see what sliver of the street I'd managed to capture. Invariably I returned disappointed. The images never quite living up to my expectations. Mute, monochrome, motionless, I felt I'd anaesthetised the very things that inspired me. Yet I persevered, always looking for that one, golden shot. 
Back in London my frustrations mounted. I felt I'd stacked the odds even higher. At least in New York a constant diet of sunshine fed my fast shutter speed, big depth-of-field habit. A neat grid of streets meant I co-ordinated my wanderings to maximise the light: shadow ratio. An exuberant street culture guaranteed a flow of individuals of all strokes, loud and proud. As I attempted to mine the same vein in my home town I began to wonder what I was doing. My persona as outsider had been legitimate in New York. That didn't seem to ring true any more. 
Then I did something I'd never done before. I began to really look at my pictures. Plunging into my contact sheets, old and new, I found images that had lain dormant for ten years or more. It struck me it wasn't about the golden shot any more. It was about recognising the possibility of a picture. It was the act of seizing that moment that was so exciting. Whether I successfully recorded the moment on film was something separate, something with its own life, sometime in the future. You can regard this as a cop-out, a sign of getting old. Perhaps it is but somehow I think I'd rather be a Winston Smith than a Travis Bickle.

9 Mar 2011

hello London

Welcome to readers of the new Street Life issue of fLIP, the excellent magazine of the London Independent Photography community.
link to fLIP Magazine street photograph edition
Thank you for your interest in my work and I hope you enjoyed my piece "The Distance Between Us".
I'd like to reciprocate and invite you to join Ambiguous, my worldwide street photography book project!

The details are in this post.
So far photographers from the Netherlands, the Philippines, Italy and New Zealand are in, as well as the UK, so you're most welcome to join too!