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Thursday, 14 July 2022

Inspired and intimidated: Feeling the power of pictures

I have been trying to decide what to do with the black and white pictures I shot with my Rolleiflex of George Norris, a rag and bone man from Hull. Using the vintage camera, I felt like I’d stepped away from the safety net of 35mm digital raw files, the ability to shoot multiple frames, and checking the back of the camera to see if it all looked okay. 


As well as being square format and black and white, the ‘pace’ of image was slower, with everything shot on a 75mm lens (that’s a 45mm lens in 35mm format). I was acutely aware that there was less action and fewer ‘caught’ moments in my pictures as I struggled with focus and ergonomics. I was also concentrating on shooting digital colour 35mm, which you can see here,  and didn’t want to miss pictures using that format. It was a sort of a fun visual experiment as I try to get better with the Rolleiflex. I felt like an overweight trapeze artiste hanging upside down in badly fitting tights, a lot of glitter and no visual safety net, but putting on a big smile as I hoped that everything would be okay. 

I processed the film and put it to one side while I struggled with the other issues that were worrying me with the colour pictures: whether I was guilty of just looking back and getting trapped in all my yesterdays - please see previous post. 

Just under a month has passed since this shoot and I’ve been able to immerse myself in other pictures. Vivian Maier: Anthology ‘Grown Up in Britain – 100 Years of Teenage Kicks, Gustav Klimt at the Schloss Belvedere, and Egon Schiele and Koloman Moser at the Leopold Museum - all in Vienna - to name a few. Thrown in for good measure: a Covid hangover to muddy my thinking. 


I found Maier’s work inspirational and intimidating. Although using the same camera, I would never be able to match her ability to capture moment after moment. Using my Covid infection as a boxing ring, I spent a week beating myself up over this brutal realisation. 
 
Vivian Maier – Chicago 1957

Coming to, my self-loathing fug cleared and I vowed to review my film processing to improve technical quality. The gelatin silver prints at the Maier exhibition at the MK Gallery are of amazing quality. And secondly, as a photographer I have never sought to capture that defining moment like Maier. My interest has been in telling the story through a sequence of pictures. I accept that some of my pictures will be more beautiful than others and could stand alone, while a few remain merely visual story-telling tools. I am aware that for the story to be understood, the pictures need to be seen in the context of one another, and with text. 

I looked again at my negatives and decided to use what I had and apply my own mantra: ‘You only need six pictures to tell a story but if you don’t have all six the story can’t be told.’ 

So, what are these six pictures? 

A General View - Sets the scene. 
A Portrait – Shows what the person,  or people, look like.
The Action – Shows what the story is about, what does the person, or people, do? 
Why or Impact – Shows why they do what they do.
A Detail – Reveals a small but important detail that if not looked at carefully would be missed.
Wow Factor – The hero image that captures the eye and makes the viewer want to know more.

Different stories have different visual priorities and you can have more than one of each of the six basic pictures. If the story is about a person who paints miniature portraits, you’d probably need several ‘detail’ pictures. If the story is about free solo climbing, you’d want more action or general views. 
So, as I swing out over the abyss on my trapeze, here are my six pictures from the George Norris shoot. I’ll let you decide if I crash to the sawdust on the big top floor or not.

General View

Rag and bone man George Norris takes a sink out of mixed scrap tipped off his pick-up truck at Griffiths Group Metal & Waste Recycling yard in Hull, May 6, 2022. 

Portrait

Rag and bone man George Norris waits for lunch in Neise’s cafe in Hull, May 6, 2022.

Action

Rag and bone man George Norris lifts a tumble dryer onto his pick-up truck as he collects scrap in Hull, May 10, 2022.

Impact

Rag and bone man George Norris stands in front of a ‘mountain’ of scrap at Griffiths Waste and Recycling Yard in Hull, May 6, 2022.

Detail 

Rag and Bone man George Norris Snr reaches out for scrap metal left on a wall for collection in Hull, May 12, 2022.

Wow or lead image

Rag and bone man George Norris walks up an alleyway as he searches for scrap in Hull, May 10, 2022.

Thankfully, life’s decisions are not linear and rules can be stretched and broken. So once you have the six basic images why not include a few more? You can even play with the notion of what it is, and what is not, one of of six pictures. Can a general view be an action picture? I think so. Or, how tight does a portrait need to be to get a sense of the person or what they look like? How about an alternative, wider edit? Or does a detail shot need to be a close up? Maybe the detail that’s revealed can be a closer look at an incident? Or maybe I could simply swap one image for another, keeping the edit tight for a basic six picture story? Below are some more choices to my original set of six.

General View

(Left) Rag and bone man George Norris takes a sink out of mixed scrap tipped off his pick-up truck at Griffiths Group Metal & Waste Recycling yard in Hull, May 6, 2022. 

(Right) Rag and bone man George Norris calls ‘Scrap Iron! Rag Bone!’ along Wakefield Avenue as he looks for scrap in Hull, May 12, 2022.    

Portrait

(Left) Rag and Bone man George Norris waits for lunch in Neise’s cafe in Hull, May 6, 2022.

(Right) Rag and bone man George Norris enjoys a cigarette in his back garden after a day collecting scrap in Hull, May 9, 2022.


Action

(Left) Rag and bone man George Norris lifts a tumble dryer onto the back of his pick-up truck as he collects scrap in Hull, May 10. 2022.

(Right) Rag and bone man George Norris is offered a shovel as scrap by a one-legged man in a wheelchair in Hull, May 10, 2022.

(Left) Rag and bone man George Norris peers through a garden fence along a back passageway as he searches for scrap in Hull, May 6, 2022.  

(Right) Rag and bone man George Norris wheels a scrap washing machine from a house on Woodland Avenue in Hull, May 7, 2022.

Impact

Rag and Bone man George Norris stands in front of a ‘mountain’ of scrap at Griffiths Waste and Recycling Yard in Hull, May 6, 2022.

Detail 

(Left) Rag and bone man George Norris Snr reaches for scrap metal left on a wall for collection in Hull. May 12, 2022.

(Right) Rag and bone man George Norris waits at a tyre repair shop as his father, George Norris Snr, sits in their pick-up truck while a puncture is being repaired in Hull, May 10, 2022. A nail was probably picked up in the scrapyard, their first port of call.

Wow or lead image

Rag and bone man George Norris walks up an alleyway as he searches for scrap in Hull, May 10, 2022.

And of course, there is always the impact of design on the use of image on the page. The use of scale, or cropping, can change the emphasis of an image on the story-telling. For example, George spends most of his time walking the streets of Hull calling ‘Scrap Iron! Rag Bone!’ so why not use the symmetrical shape of the square format and make something a bit striking in terms of graphic shape? But then one has to consider: Is this a one story-telling wow image or a combination of 9 portrait images? Or maybe even both? 


Finally, there is the cutting room floor: images that might be good enough on their own but don’t add more to the story. These are edited out and consigned to the spike. It’s these pictures that often cause the biggest disagreements between photographers and editors. This problem is magnified tenfold if you are both photographer and editor. Editing your own images is tough as you are emotionally attached to each picture. The easiest way to deal with this dilemma is to reduce the problem to numbers. I think if you use the rule that most people won’t look at more than 12 images in a story you have your guideline. Now you need to make the cruel cuts.

Here's my cutting room floor and your chance to get subjective on the edit.





Russell Boyce, 2022





Friday, 17 June 2022

The Danger of Looking Back and Getting trapped in All Our Yesterdays

A respected friend and colleague once said to me: ‘At our age it’s dangerous looking back at the past’. That struck a chord as I was considering revisiting a picture story I had shot almost 40 years ago and I really didn’t want it to turn into ‘all our yesterdays’. I decided the real danger was that once you start looking back you might never stop, and looking forward would be a thing of the past. 



My dilemma was this: in 1983 I documented George Norris, a 19-year-old Rag and Bone man in Hull. We’ve been in touch ever since and he called me to say he was back on the carts, but this time with his 81-year-old father, George Snr, who had been collecting scrap since he was 13. 

Rag and Bone man George Norris Snr attends to his horse and cart in the 1960s in Hull.           Picture Keith Wade

On the one hand this was a terrific opportunity to photograph him again, looking at what had changed in Hull over the past 40 years, and what had not. On the other hand, I feared I was retracing old steps and reliving my past. In the end, I decided it’d be fun spending time with George and I’d get my step numbers up too. George agreed immediately but I suggested he thought it over, asked his dad, thought about it again, and then replied in the cold light of day. Yes again. 

I now had to decide how to shoot this and, more importantly, why. In 1983, as an art student, I shot the whole story with a Minolta 100b camera, mainly using a 35mm lens and all on black and white film. In our 2022 post-digital revolution I could go all-out analogue by dusting off my old Nikon FE and slapping on a 35mm lens. I rejected that idea. I was not interested in trying to recreate the style of what I had achieved in 1983 as this would be stepping on to the slippery slope towards all our yesterdays. Two reasons for this: I might discover that I hadn’t improved as a photographer, and I had already recreated a picture for fun… 

About five years ago when I was visiting George, we decided to recreate one of my pictures. George had to tap up a mate to borrow a horse, we had to find the right junction on Woodcock Street where the housing had long been demolished, and avoid the traffic. It was chaos. George was bitten by the horse, which reared up and tried to kick him, much to the amusement of its owners, the traffic backed up and we were shouted at by motorists. But we got a nice picture that features on the Cafe Royal Books publication ‘George Norris Rag and Bone Hull 1980s’.  


Apart from avoiding slippery slopes, I was unclear what story I wanted to tell. Was it George then and now? Was it George and his father’s Rag and Bone legacy? Was it the demise of the traditional Rag and Bone trade? Or were these Rag and Bone men appearing as bit players in Hull’s changing cityscape? 


But I ditched any preconceived ideas and decided to go out with my cameras and see what happened. I also threw in a wild card:  as well as shooting on 35mm digital I carried a Rolleiflex and shot black and white film. The attraction here being the square format and the slower pace of composition and shooting. Conscious that I’d be doing a Q&A on video, I also needed some B roll and would shoot that on my iPhone.



What I learned on day one (12,000 steps) was that the story needed the actual voices of George and his father, not just quotes in text, so the planned video Q&A session gained importance. What also became apparent was that the ‘then and now’ pictures were happening in front of me whether I liked it or not. Not only in the repetitive nature of their work but in terms of line, shape and composition within the cityscape.


My content had mushroomed. In 1983 it was black and white film in 3:2 format. In 2022, it was 3:2 format colour digital, Q&A video shot at 16x9 on the DSLR and mic’d for sound, iPhone video B roll and square format 120 black and white roll film. Well, I suppose ‘Content is King’.  I was editing the file down and captioning the pictures after each day’s work to try to keep the mushroom contained. 

This was the pattern of the day’s work. At 8.30 sharpish George Norris Snr would sound his horn outside George’s house and the three of us would squeeze into the cab. He would then get ‘a vibe’ as to where they’d call the streets, and ‘if aught were comin’ out’ a new area would be tried. By 1 p.m. (day 2, 18,000 steps) we’d head off to Neise’s Diner for lunch. A dice with death to cross the road as George Snr refused to use the crossing. Steaming hot steak and kidney pie with mash, veg, a cuppa and a pudding, with custard of course, countered the good work the steps were doing on my midriff and all for £6. Then to the Griffiths Group, Metal and Waste Recycling (we don’t call them scrapyards anymore, recycling is the buzzword) to offload the morning’s collection.

George Snr would drop us back at George’s house. A power nap for George while I got down to editing and captioning.



By day three (20,500 steps, we went out that night too) I had come to realise that the pictures I shot in 1983 should be the story’s visual base element and that would rein in the visual chaos I was creating. By looking back at my original pictures I was able to build on that foundation and begin to structure the story visually. None of the pictures, either in 1983 or 2022, were posed or set up. 

When I saw the opportunity, I worked hard to position myself so a detail like the roof line was at the same angle as the picture shot in 1983 while George pounded the streets. Parked cars and wheelie bins in pictures taken in 2022 destroyed many of the compositional lines the pictures had in 1983. Their bright colours were a distraction. 


I experimented with removing the colour from the 2022 images to create black and white combination pictures. Although initially it seemed like a solution to the problem of mixing black and white and colour, it quickly looked like a pastiche and I felt I was staring down that slippery slope again. 


Apart from the obvious differences - no horse and cart, no flattened Victorian housing, no second-hand shops and no obvious signs of unemployment and poverty - there was a noticeable shortage of people on the streets, which was a concern for me. Also missing was the modern equivalent of one of my favourite pictures from 1983, June outside her second-hand shop, a type of business that just doesn’t exist anymore.


I began to think beyond the more obvious visual aspects of combination pictures - repetition of action, line and shape - to examine the notion of using sentiment to combine images. I thought at first that visually this would be like adding tomato ketchup to custard in Neise’s Diner. I tested my idea on a friend who’s a terrifically creative editor (not the custard and ketchup idea, the picture idea) and it began to make sense to us both. The example below uses the eye line as the common factor to make the link.


To help me sort out the chaos (day five, 10,000 steps) I got all the newly edited pictures printed and spread them out of the floor. The distraction of a drugs bust at a cannabis farm opposite colour printers Foto Worx helped me while away the time as the prints were made.


I was trying to work out how the edit would work in terms of sequence: what order should the pictures be seen in and was a natural flow developing? Nagging in the back of my mind were the different format requirements of video, web page design and, if possible, print. Two landscape pictures made into a combination create a vertical and two vertical pictures make a landscape. Verticals seen on both video and web pages do not sit comfortably but verticals viewed on mobile devices do sit well. Both shapes would create black bands either on the top and bottom or the sides on the 16x9 video format and a transition between the two could make a visual ‘jump’, especially shifting from black and white to colour. 


So, I concluded that different edits were needed for the different formats, which sounds obvious now. But to create different edits to tell the same story I needed lots of content, which luckily I had.

For my website I transcribed all the video and wrote the text story (not without help from my colleague Giles, thanks again). I realised that I needed some additional pictures from 1983 to provide social and economic context for the flow of the narrative. This presented me with the opportunity of using the picture of June in the second-hand shop. The use of text was heavier at the start of the piece than further down, where I just relied on captions. I decided to bold the text to accentuate this. I think the combination pictures work very well, especially when viewed on a phone.



I structured the story as ‘a day in the life’ timeline starting in the morning, through to the collection of scrap, weighing at Griffiths and then the day’s end. You can see the result by clicking here.

The video edit was more complex. I wanted to use the video platform to tell the story through still images. The danger was that I would be seduced into using too much video, and the stills from 2022 would take second place. At the same time, I had to consider the potentially uncomfortable viewer experience as the content format jumped from 16x9 video to vertical combination still pictures. My solution was to not shy away from these concerns but use them to my advantage. 

In my first edit I led the story with the head shot combo of George in 1983 and 2022 to introduce him to the viewer and to say this was a story told in stills and not video. But I was a little uncomfortable with how the almost square shape appeared on the screen as an introduction. My solution was somewhat counterintuitive. I led the edit with B roll video which says ‘hey this a video piece about George’ but then crashed in a single vertical 3:2 still black and white portrait picture of George with my narration as audio. I think the black around the image enhances it too. This to me says ‘hey this is a story about George told in still pictures using a video format as a platform. Enjoy!’  You can see the full video by clicking here.


What the video does allow is a transition between the 1983 and 2022 still pictures. This removes need to use the combination pictures and when you freeze the transition it produces rather pleasing results.  





I was also acutely aware that the video is 10 minutes long. I’m told the attention span of viewers of most online content is 30 seconds. As a challenge to myself I produced a 59 second video too that you can see here. Maybe the audience I am looking for has more than 30 seconds. I certainly hope so. The analytics on the video so far bear this out, so I am more than happy.   

I think I have managed to avoid the problem associated with looking back at the past and getting stuck there. I have done a full 360 degrees and am looking forward to the next idea. I think I have moved the story on by how I shot and presented it in 2022. But you can be the judge of that.

As for the 120 black and white Rolleiflex pictures, I felt they would not add anything more to the telling of George’s story in these formats. But I could not resist a sneaky footnote on the video with a combination of nine pictures. I will turn my mind to them soon.



Russell Boyce 2022

 

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

What's on a film that sat in a camera on a shelf for 40 years?

Recently a friend handed me a boxed Zeiss Ikon camera, first made in 1932. The box was a little tattered, the instructions a bit creased but the camera looked in excellent condition. 

 

Now my heart usually sinks when asked about cameras. For me they are simply a means to an end, capturing ‘the picture’.  


He said it was his Godmother’s camera and had sat on his shelf for at least thirty years, and wanted me to shoot a roll of film with it. 



At home I read the instructions and popped open the back. To my amazement there was a roll of film that had been wound through the camera. There could be an unseen picture of relatives in younger days. Or it could be a case of a full year high days captured to the shout of ‘get the camera dear, time to do a picture’, Christmas, Easter, a summer holiday, a birthday celebration and a new-born all on one roll. Or just a blank strip of fogged film.

 

So now I had two jobs; first, get the film processed and secondly, see if the camera still works. 



The film needed to be processed C22. I quickly discovered that the C22 process was superseded by C41 in 1972. I decided to explore the rabbit hole of technical photo forums on how to best get this film processed, it made my head spin. So, I made a quick post on Facebook for some help and emailed a few photo labs to see what they advised. 

 

Capturing the present…

 

In the meantime, I decided to pop a roll of HP5 film into the camera to see if it was still light tight and the shutter worked. The shutter speed range is 25th to 125th with a ‘not so handy’ B setting too. Aperture ranging from F6.3 to F22. 

 

Before going out I again referred to the instructions. Just as well as I discovered if you want a horizontal picture hold the camera upright and if you want vertical picture hold the camera horizontal. See fig 1.



Fig 1.

 

A diagram to explain what is where on pages 2 and 3 and an attractive assistant to help with my exposure.




Focussing was (as ever) going to be a challenge. The focus ring was marked in feet, 4.6, 6, 9, 12, 18, 30 and infinity. I decided to keep it constant so paced out four steps and set the camera at 12ft at F8. I kept that distance in my mind’s eye, moving back or forth or letting people walk into range. It was all very hit and miss and needed a lot of practice. If people were moving too quickly, I decided to leave well alone as at 125th it would not freeze the ‘action’.

 

I fought myself with the notion that I had to try to make half decent pictures. Why put all that effort in if the camera was leaking light, but then again if it wasn’t leaking light I would end up with a boring set of pictures. Also, I couldn’t remember how much I had to wind the film to make sure that it didn’t double expose part of the frame. 

 

Upside down numbers appearing in dark red windows on the back of the camera as I wound the film. The black squares on the contact sheet are where I over wound the film. Lesson learned.



I spotted two ladies who were walking slow enough that I figured 125th would freeze their movement. As they came into the 12 ft line, I took their picture and immediately the woman on the left said, ‘you can take my picture wearing a bikini if you like.’ 

 

Quick as a flash I replied, ‘It’s too cold for me to wear a bikini and as I’ve put on a bit a weight it causes too much chafing when I run about.’ 

 

Lucky for me they hadn’t heard the second oldest joke in the photographer’s repertoire and off they went chuckling to each other.  



The picture itself, although dull except for the laugh with these two old dears, demonstrates that the lens is sharp enough and with a little tweaking in photoshop the tones are quite pleasing too. I shot the picture below to eliminate the movement element. Sharp enough to methinks. 



It started to rain so not wanting to get the old camera wet I headed home, second task complete. I have returned the camera to Chris, its owner, loaded with a roll of film so he can master it.

 

Processing the past…

 

As for developing the colour film I was given a few options. Process it in modern C41 chemicals but at room temperature for 50 minutes. This method may retain some colour but risks losing all images. Another forum said forget any notion of retaining colour and develop in ID11 for 13 minutes so at least you’ll be assured of an image if there is anything on the film. And a third suggestion was to process in ID11, agitate for one minute and then leave undisturbed for an hour. I went for option four and sent to AG Photographic+Photolab who assured me they give it love and care and hand process as black and white. 

 

And that’s exactly what they did. Here is the processed film on my light box. At first glance nothing to see. 



But the team at AG Photographic+Photolab must have worked some magic as there are two images.





The black lines are where the film has been fogged over the years. But what is most exciting for Chris is that woman in the first frame on the left is his Godmother, Carys Houston. But as yet, he is unable to identify the other woman in the picture or where this picture was taken. It also transpires the camera was actually owned by Carys’ husband, Canadian Roy Houston, who was a cardiologist and died in 1958. 

 

I have cropped the image here so you can see them more clearly. Is that a figure between them who has moved their head quickly and blurred? Remember the camera shutter speed is 125th at best. The hair dos look similar or maybe it’s just a plant? I’ll let you think on that. 



No-one is sure where or what the battleships are so even though at the time it was important enough for someone to take a picture of them, that importance has faded with time. No doubt there is someone out there in the Metaverse who can identify it. 

 

For sure this journey was not a Vivien Maier discovery in terms of photography. But in simplest terms Chris has another image of his Godmother Clarys and a Zeiss Ikon camera that works. 

 

Oh, and if you are wondering what the oldest joke in a photographer’s repertoire is, I think it is; ‘let’s go into the darkroom and see what develops.’