The perfect brutalist storm

Barbican Brutalism II
I was in London this month for a conference and as luck would have it the venue was to be the brutalist paradise of the Barbican centre. For some at the conference, the beauty, geometry and texture of brutailsm was a new experience. Personally this is an architectural style which has never failed to inspire. In my minds eye I see a vision of the future which embodies hope. A coming together of form and function designed to make you take notice whilst at the same time creating an environment you can live with and in.

The conference involved long days in hot lecture halls but as the evening light lingered with promises of summer I had plenty of time to capture my two favourite subjects, people and architecture.In fact if you ever get the chance to shoot the Barbican I recommend going when the sun is low in the sky and the buildings cast majestic shadows across the squares and walkways. Some may think concrete  can be nothing but boring and flat but I would challenge anyone to find a single surface of the Barbican which is anything but a feast for the eyes.

Barbican Brutalism I
Barbican Brutalism III
The Barbican centre itself is brimming with culture and I certainly need to book another trip where I have time to enjoy the galleries, cinema and cafes. The energy from the people who come for the performances and shows is palpable and spills out across the fountains and into the buildings themselves. Light and sound bounces back at you so you are surrounded by the electricity of the place and the people.

I stopped and talked to Tony, a professional musician who was sitting below a grand crest of the City of London. Tony was waiting for friends and had tickets for a Tchaikovsky violin concerto. We talked of London and his career in music. The following day he was playing piano at a retirement home near to where my grandad lives and where my family are from. I find the happy coincides which come from talking to strangers are always memories to cherish. All in all my trip to London and the Barbican was a very successful one indeed.
Barbican Brutalism IV
Barbican Brutalism V

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Nottingham; a city to call my own

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This is my city. There are many others like it but this one is mine. Or at least that is how I am starting to see Nottingham. For in seeing a city the way I see Nottingham now I feel like I am part of it and that it is mine to be a part of. My relationship with the city has been a relatively short one but like many love affairs it already feels like I couldn’t be without it.

I still know very little about the city in truth. Most of my my time has been spent on the south and east sides of  Nottingham but what I have found has already given me a more than I could have expected. For me a city is as much about it’s grand architecture as it is it’s beautiful mistakes. In a city colour and form come together in ways which inspire and enchant but are simply passed by and ignored by most.
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I have met many interesting people and found many interesting places in Nottingham but the jewel in the crown is Nottingham Contemporary. Just seeing the building brings a smile to my face and sometimes I feel I am drawn to it like a compass to magnetic north. Despite our short acquaintance this is now one my of favourite places to be in the world. I have found joy, sadness, humility, contemplation and plethora of other emotions within the white gallery walls and I come away feeling renewed. My photography has benefited greatly from having such a fantastic cultural resource so easily accessible.
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The gallery isn’t my only draw to the city. The near by lace market district is a gift to any street photographer. Its fantastic architecture and laid back atmosphere makes for a great place to shoot and relax. Each corner and side street holds a different cafe, record or book shop which are a welcome distraction. Photography comes to the slow and deliberate, the contemplative, those who live and feel in the now. The lace market helps me find that place in my mind.

So whilst there are many beautiful cities across the world I am happy to be able to call Nottingham my own even if it is only in some small way.
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Ode to art deco

Odeon Skies III

The Odeon cinema in Loughborough has drawn me like a moth to a flame since our arrival in the town last year. I find the art deco façade of the building to be inspiring and I have photographed it on many occasions. The lines and contours of the building look to me as if a graphic designer has taken a pen and drawn across the sky. I love the way the Odeon sign works with the building. The lines of the sign like the façade are very clean but in a very different way, modern and shinning. Where the sign meets the building the paint has flacked away as if it is sympathetic to the older façade. The overall result is extremely pleasing.

It’s not clear as to whether the building you see today was how it was when it was built. The cinema was originally opened as the Empire in 1914 and was designed by Archibald Hurley Robinson. It seems that the building was refurbished in 1936 and perhaps the façade was updated (1). I would image that the architecture would have been even more splendid when it first opened it’s doors.

Odeon Skies I
Odeon Skies II

Recent news in the town is that we are to have a new multiplex cinema. The cinema including it’s new bars and restaurants will be built on the site of the old hospital at Baxter Gate. The construction has began but there is little above the ground at this stage. The hoarding around the site includes an artists impression of what the finished building will look like. I can’t say that it fills me with the same level of inspiration as the Odeon. I wouldn’t expect the new cinema to be built in a similar art deco style but I would have preferred it if they had designed something more inspiring than brown brick and shop fronts.

I wonder what the fate of the existing Odeon will be? Whilst the university increases the number of people in the town during term time I can’t imagine that there will be enough demand for two cinemas. It would be a shame if the Odeon were to be abandoned and it fell into disrepair. The cinema in my old neighbourhood of Kings Heath was left in this way and it wasn’t long before it was struck by arsonists. That would be a sad ending indeed for a building which has inspired me the way the Odeon has.

Odean Skies IV

Ultimate people watching

Loughborough Market III

Everyone has a their own likes and dislikes and I would imagine that most photographers find certain photographic genres that they enjoy more than others. There are a few genres which stand out for me however since starting to take my photography more seriously again street photography has become one of my favourite past times. There are many reasons why street photography has captured my imagination and I hope to explore this a little further in this post and talk about the genre as a whole.

I love cities and could happily sit for hours drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I enjoy looking around at the people, architecture and general goings on of the city. Something that has fascinated me is the way in which our environment shapes our behaviour. I have carried out a small study on the subject deliberately omitting the people, more interested in the thoughts and feelings my images would evoke when they were out of context. I really enjoyed putting the project together and I intend to return to it at some point.

Typically however street photography is characterised by its focus on the people that live and work in our cities and towns, putting them in the context of the environment which they reside. Since the dawn of photography we have been drawn to photographing the human condition. Some photographic genres attempt  to place its human subjects in a staged environment however many images attributed to street photography are candid, capturing people going about their everyday lives. Even when the subjects are posing for the camera in street photography the images are trying to capture the street as much as the person in it. This can lead to interesting juxtapositions with the advertising and other imagery that is commonplace in modern towns and cities.

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With the variety of  people and viewpoints that one might encounter in any urban space the possibilities are endless and you never really know what you might find. The opportunities are also often fleeting with an image being made and lost in a moment. This can lead to street photography being exciting as well as frustrating. The good thing about street photography is that you can often take a break and then find some new inspiration around the very next corner. In fact when faced with some disappointing shots I have headed towards the nearest pub and struck up a conversation with a stranger over a pint only to get back out on the street with a new vigour (hopefully derived from the conversation rather than the alcohol).

Like most genres of photography we are standing on the shoulders of giants, many great photographers have made a name for themselves by creating stunning street photography. What is striking to me is the different approaches that have been taken. For example Henri Cartier Bresson would spend vast amounts of time in a location working a scene where the backdrop created a perfect geometric composition, waiting for a person to step in and complete the image. Others like Bruce Gilden took a different approach, striding through the crowds with camera and flash filling the frame with his subjects. Personally I find the images by both of these photographers absolutely mesmerizing and there are many other approaches to being a street photographer.

All of the different definitions and approaches to street photography can lead some to question whether or not it is a genre worth pursuing as it can appear diluted with some regarding it as a scatter gun approach to imagery. For me it is this flexibility which makes the genre so appealing. If I were to imagine the most eclectic place that I could, I would probably have a city street in my minds eye. Each street photographer conjures up their own view of the city making them sinister, sultry or a celebration of what it is to be human. Depending on your technique you can draw out the harsh colours, graphic and claustrophobic press of the metropolis or wash this away and draw on the loneliness, decay and  corruption which exists in the spaces surrounded by people. If photography is about showing your view of the world then showing your personal view of the city is a worthwhile endeavour in my opinion.

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One of the other reasons why I have been drawn to street photography is that when I picked up my camera again I promised myself that I would put myself out of my comfort zone. The act of photographing the stranger in a public space is at first nerve racking. If you are trying to shoot candidly then you always have a question about how somebody might react to your pointing a lens in their direction. This feeling took me a bit of getting used to and I still sometimes feel a little self concious today. What you don’t want to do is try to look like you are hiding. Be bold with your camera instead of making yourself look a bit creepy. If you catch somebody’s eye then smile and perhaps indicate that you would like to take their photo. Now that I am more confident I quite often ask people if I can take their picture although the act of asking can dramatically change someone’s reaction to the camera and I am always concious of how this might change my image.

There are plenty of resources on street photography in books and on the internet. Eric Kim’s website alone is a treasure trove of information. You will also find plenty of groups on Flickr to use for inspiration. So what are you waiting for!? Pick up your camera and head off into town.

Taking photographs on your own is easy

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In my last post I mentioned how I recently joined a photography community on the online community platform Meetup. After entering one of Birmingham Photography Meetup’s monthly competitions I thought it would be worth going along to one of  group’s photoshoots. Luckily the next meeting was a street photography shoot in Birmingham, which (excuse the pun) was right up my street.

I knew that going along to the Meetup was going to have an effect on the way I thought about my photography but I didn’t realise just how much. In the back of my mind I thought I would meet some interesting people who would be able to give me some technical pointers about how to get the right exposure in this situation or with that type of lens as opposed to another. The friendly bunch of photographers that came along to the meetup where more than happy to share their techniques and I learnt some great stuff but these pearls of wisdom aren’t the main thing that I have taken away from the experience. Somehow going out and shooting with a group of other people has made me focus on myself.

Up until now photography has been pretty much a solitary exercise. I’m often shooting  when out with my family but it’s normally only me that has a camera in their hand. I find myself walking around from point to point thinking about what it is that I am trying to capture and moving methodically through the motions. I am usually capturing images with something in mind and I tend to have a single set of ideas. Walking through Birmingham  with the folks from the Meetup had some profound effects on me and hopefully will help me to grow as a photographer.

The first thing that took hold of me was impatience. I had an itchy shutter finger and the only way I was going to satisfy it was to push that shutter release as quickly as I could. Its not that I took a great deal more pictures than I probably would have done on my own its just that I took less time to take a single image. The presence of others with a lens in their hand immediately made me feel like I had to be the first. Street photography generally lends itself to this type of fast paced shooting as you attempt to capture the “decisive moment”1 but it doesn’t mean that you should do this at the expense of a well composed image. Unfortunately at the beginning of the shoot my lust to be the first overtook my photographer’s eye in some cases. Sometimes my speed payed off but in others my lack of attention is obvious in the images that I captured at the beginning of the afternoon.

The next thing I noticed was that every time I went to take a shot someone else was already there. The guy beatboxing, the bored looking burger flipper texting on his phone, the trumpet player, the atmospheric side alley. Snap, snap, snap, snap! This made me feel like I had to go faster but it made no difference, the photographer in front of me just became the first behind me. My competitive nature started to grow in my panic. Luckily for me I have an emergency kill switch. I came to a halt on New Street and assessed my situation.

I’m sure many of you have read photography books that give tips on how to improve your photography and one tip that tends to come up again and again is don’t just turn up and take the picture that’s right in front of you.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what I had been doing and to some extent that’s what I was observing from my fellow photographers. There nothing wrong with this approach and it doesn’t mean that from a technical point of view that you are going to get “bad” images it’s just that on my journey into photography I was hoping to find something else. I was hoping to be able to find something about myself in the images that I create, an ability to communicate my perception of the world. I might be a long way from having my own style in my images but if I don’t think about why I am creating a certain compositions then I’m never going to find it.

So instead of walking down the center of the street and being drawn to “the obvious image” I started to stalk around the edges of the street. I began by searching for stickers, the little pieces of graphic design which adorn our urban environments. I expect that many people view these vinyl wonders as vandalism but to me they tell a story about the creativity of the people that live in a city. The type of people that live their lives through the bold colours and alternative images that the self adhesive artwork  represents.  One of my favourites images from the shoot was found stuck on the side of a phone booth in the corner of large a square in Birmingham:

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This might not be the most technically perfect image but it feels much more like it belongs to me. I have found recently that its the small incidental items which intrigue me.  For example on a recent trip to the pub with friends, a shot of my best friends Doc Martin resting on a beaten up coffee table was one of my favorite images. For me that image captures a little piece of the day. Perhaps the same can be said for the image of the sticker.

In conclusion, one trip out with a group of fellow photographers has made me look at the way approach my subjects as well as help me to think about what an image means to me. They also helped me with some new ideas, one person in particular mentioned using a square crop and I decided to use this as a way of bringing together my final collection. These are some pretty deep subjects and not was I was expecting to get out of the Meetup. Taking photographs on your own is easy, meet some people and get out of your comfort zone.

1 http://www.openculture.com/2011/11/henri_cartier-bresson.html