Over a four-year period, Magnum photographer Mark Power and poet Daniel Cockrill have travelled together to various parts of England, compiling pictures and words about their shared experiences in a country they both love and loathe. In June, they will bring that body of work to the public in an innovative exhibition at the Atlas Gallery in London. In this series of weekly posts, they will present a behind-the-scenes look at the many details involved in planning an exhibition that makes the most of the gallery space and the newest ideas and technology for presenting art.
By Mark Power
I'm Mark Power. I'm a photographer, a member of the Magnum agency, and a lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton, the city in southern England where I live with my partner and two young children.
To explain a little about my working methods: I tend to pursue projects over a considerable length of time, often several years, and these tend to culminate in books, exhibitions, or both.
Essentially there are two strands I follow. Some of my work involves large-scale projects in the corporate sector. These are usually big (huge) construction projects, always with an open brief.
My other work revolves around ideas that are completely self-generated, self-contained, and perhaps self-indulgent (and why not?). This second strand feeds the first, which in turn aids in the funding of the second. It works quite well.
So, as I write this I'm in Abu Dhabi. I've been commissioned to photograph the development of the hugely ambitious cultural quarter on Saadiyat Island, a large expanse of almost nothing but sand that overlooks the port and downtown Abu Dhabi. Here, over the next four years, I will witness the construction of four important museums: the Louvre; the Guggenheim; the Zayed National Museum; and the Performing Arts Centre, which the authorities believe will encourage cultural tourism for years into the future.
It's an extraordinary project, one of great vision on behalf of the architects and planners involved. Part of the challenge I face in trying to make a piece of work about this is to try to visualise what the place will look like at the end of 2013. It's challenging, rather hot at times, but wondrous. I feel privileged to be here.
When I return to the UK, in a week's time, I will be starting to print my work from Destroying the Laboratory for the Sake of the Experiment project, a collaboration with the poet Daniel Cockrill. Throughout the past four years, when we could (but not as often as we would have liked), Dan and I have travelled together to different parts of England and together we have experienced much the same things. Dan writes poems, I make pictures, and then, somehow, these come together.
On the one hand, we are trying to build up a sense of our country today (a 'likeness' if you will), while on the other hand the work is an experiment in how two people, working with different mediums, naturally experience a hierarchy in what each feels to be important. It's an extension of the old experiment of putting a number of photographers in the same room and discovering that the response of each is quite different.
And this is where HP comes in. For the first time I'll be making my own inkjet prints for a work-in-progress show that opens at the Atlas gallery in central London in early June. But more importantly, Dan and I (with the crucial involvement of the brilliant graphic designer Dominic Brookman) are trying to produce a number of free-standing pieces that will combine image and text, or image and sound in what we hope will be an innovative exhibition.
Atlas is quite a small gallery, but we are interested in making something site-specific. We are working with HP to try and solve certain problems. We have ideas of what we want to do in various parts of the gallery, but we sometimes might not know how to make them. We are hoping that HP will.
I have an HP Z3200 at home (lucky me) so a lot of the production of the show will be done there. However, other, larger sections will be printed on bigger, more industrial machines elsewhere.
The point of this blog is to write (and sometimes show pictures or short movies) about the making of the show. I intend to share the successes and the problems we will inevitably meet along the way. I aim, with the help of Dan, to post something here at least once a week. We are about to travel a road which is very misty ahead... we are not sure what will happen along the way.
© Mark Power, MAGNUM Photos
As I write this, I am in the middle of the month-long Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BFB). It got me thinking about all the various ways in which we can benefit from participating in events such as this.
There is one annual photo event I regularly attend, the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) trade show here in Australia, as well as the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BFB) every second year.
The PMA Conference and Exposition: PMA in Australia (as I believe it is in the US and with similar shows in other countries) is actually a composite event. While the core activity is to enable photo-industry suppliers to meet with photo retailers and end customers, many other events run concurrently. While PMA runs workshops relevant to its members, two professional photography associations run meetings and print awards, and the Photo Imaging Educators Association runs their own sessions. Plus, various organizations take the opportunity to exhibit photography.
No matter which group is conducting the sessions, the training events at PMA not only provide great information but are also timed to enable you to network with other participants. Each of PMA’s affiliate organizations holds cocktail parties and get-togethers.
The best part of these networking opportunities is that you never know what will come out of meeting another photographer. I’ve discovered great ideas about new directions for my work, great workflow suggestions, selling tips, and much more.
Examining exhibitions of photography can provide similar benefits. You can learn something from looking at any photography, even if you simply learn what you don’t want to try.
The Ballarat International Foto Biennale: BIFB is a month-long festival of photography, with a core exhibition program, a fringe festival of associated photography exhibitions, and a workshop program. Workshops run at two locations and exhibitions are spread over the city of Ballarat (a regional city of about 80,000 people) and nearby towns, including major concentrations in Daylesford and Trentham. Various talks are also given.
Like the PMA event, the BIFB provides lots of stimulation for the creative juices. The workshops not only provide training but also networking and the opportunity to learn from other photographers. The exhibition program at BFB is extensive and if you can’t learn something from any group of exhibitions you are not trying.
Similar events to BFB are conducted all over the world. I attended Arles in France once and found it to be a similar, but more intense, experience. There are so many others events, including the New York Photo Festival.
At any such photo festival there will be many exhibitions from which to choose. Some will appeal to you, some will not, and others you will find by happy accident.
Plan Some, But Not All, Your Time: One good way to maximize the return on the time and money invested in attending a conference is to look through the program in advance and choose which workshops you must attend and the exhibits you must see.
At some festivals, you can buy a package that allows you attend a certain number of workshops. In this case, choose the ones you must but if you are allowed some extras, then I’d suggest almost choosing at random. Since you want to experience the happy accident (and you can’t predict in advance just what you will get out of it), almost any workshop will do if you don’t have to pay extra for it.
In the case of PMA, allocate enough time to see the trade show. Then in the time you have left, try wandering into exhibits or seminars that weren’t included on your “must-do” list.
Often, you will discover that exhibitions or seminars that don’t sound particularly worthwhile from the conference program will actually offer you something of value if you go.
At most festivals, it’s impossible to see every event, but if you leave some free time in your schedule, you’ll at least have the opportunity to discover something you weren’t expecting. And it could be something the changes your creative life. Believe me, it happens.
If you derive some or all of your income from photography, then attending some of these events can be tax deductible. Since they are usually held in interesting locations, your spouse may enjoy going along, too.
It is hard to overstate just how valuable these events can be to your career and development as a photographer. So make the time and travel if you have to.
Sometimes the greatest value of attending a festival comes from something small. It could be one part of an image in one exhibition that haunts you and pushes you in a new direction once you return home. Or, a discussion with a photographer might open up a whole new possibility. You never know quite just what will happen. But I do know that I am always stimulated and something unexpected always happens whenever I attend one of these photography events. Give it a go.
Photographers who want to display and/or sell more of their images need to think carefully about how their images will be viewed. As much as you might personally love a particular shot, the photograph might not immediately have the same type of appeal to others.
The most important questions to ask are: Does this image help open the viewer’s eyes to new thoughts and emotions? Does this photograph help viewers see the world in a way they may not have seen it before? If you believe the answers to those questions are “yes!,” then you’re ready for the next step.
It can be useful to output prints of your favorite images, hang them on the wall for a few days or weeks, and try to evaluate your images as objectively as possible. I’ve found that an image that appeals after repeated viewing will likely stand the test of time in the outside world. You also might want to consider using some of the same critieria that are typically used to judge print competitions.
You can find dozens of articles and books on image quality. And at some trade shows, you can have a portfolio of your work professionally critiqued. In my opinion, here are the top eight criteria for evaluating the quality of photographic images:
Visual Impact: Does the image have the “Wow!” factor? How effectively does the image capture and hold the viewer’s attention? Is there a readily identifiable center of interest? Is the subject immediately apparent?
Emotional Impact: What message does the photo convey? Does it evoke a sense of wonder? Awe? Joy? Sadness? Anger? Confusion? Intrigue? How powerful is the emotional impact? And is the impact present for a majority of viewers?
Composition: Does the photograph follow conventional standards of strong design, such as the rule of thirds, simplicity, clean backgrounds, and the use of leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye? Does the image include distracting elements?
Color: The effective use of color helps determine the overall mood of an image. A photograph with rich, saturated colors will convey a different feeling than one with delicately shaded tones – and, of course, black and white has its own palette of tones and textures.
Contrast: Certain areas of the image may appear too bright or too dark. Similarly, loss of highlight or shadow detail will drag a good image down. In black-and-white images, high contrast with rich detail can be visually powerful.
Technical Execution: Are there any serious, unintended flaws? Is the main subject in focus? Is the image over- or underexposed? Have important elements been unintentionally cut off at the borders? Will the viewer perceive color and tones as being natural (i.e., what one’s eye might actually see)?
Use of Light: How creatively is lighting exploited or used to enhance the overall mood and visual impact of the image? Are there any distracting “hot spots” caused by excessive illumination?
Originality: Is the image similar to others, or does it have its own personality and vision? Another good photograph of Mount Rushmore will likely bore the judges of a print competition.
Once you have satisfied yourself that you are headed in the right direction, put together a condensed set of prints and show them to a few individuals who you feel will give you a no-nonsense critique. My sister, for example, is a take-no-prisoners critic. She has helped me focus on the keepers, fix up the images with hidden potential, and weed out the images that just don’t make the grade.
Testing your selections in print competition is a great way to get feedback on your images. Try a local competition first, and then if you wish move up to regional or national-level organizations. Professional Photographers of America, and WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International) are good places to start.
And remember – pick a good title for each image that helps tell the story!
Entering a print competition can be one of the best ways to become a better photographer. Although winning awards and getting publicity can be gratifying, you don’t have to win the competition in order to benefit from it.
For example, here are just three of the valuable opportunities that entering a print competition can provide
· In a formal setting, you can see what many other photographers consider to be their best work.
· You can have your work evaluated and scored by a panel of judges. In some competitions, the judges will have microphones so you can hear their comments.
· The process of choosing which images to enter forces you to look more critically at your work. As you attempt to evaluate your work from the eyes of the judges, you will start to see each image in a whole new light.
Competitions are usually divided into categories. This gives you multiple opportunities to enter and win an award, but can make your image-selection process much tougher. A print competition might include the following categories:
· Photojournalism, Event and Editorial (includes weddings)
· Landscape Photography
· Nature Photography
· Close-Up & Macro Photography
· Architectural & Design Photography
· Digital Manipulation/Freestyle
Each competition may have slightly different criteria for judging and it’s important to know in advance what those criteria will be. For example, here are some of the criteria used by the group in which I am active: the Santa Clarita Photographers Association in Southern California.
Impact: Does this image grab my attention? Is its message understood immediately? Does this photograph hold my attention? Is it effective?
Style: This is an extension of impact but incorporates less tangible qualities. Does it seem to be an extension of the sensibilities of the photographer? Will this image hold up over time?
Composition: Look at the structure of the image. Is there movement or is it static? Is it balanced by way of effective use of negative space? Is the cropping correct? Does it have depth? Is there a primary focal point?
Creativity: Does this photograph indicate a deliberate effort? Did the photographer interact with or manipulate the elements of the photo with a specific outcome in mind? Is it innovative and unusual in some way?
Technique: Was this image created with the use of any treatments such as filtering or multiple exposures or Photoshop tricks? Does the technique support the image or does it seem misused?
Lighting: Akin to technique, lighting is the single most essential element aside from the content itself. Is the lighting appropriate? Does it upstage or complement the subject matter? If the lighting is artificial, is it well-executed?
Print Quality: Are there any obvious flaws in the print? Is it clean? Does it seem too light or dark? Are there printer marks or visible pixels? Is it printed in a way that supports or amplifies the content of the image?
Print Presentation: Does the presentation of the image support the image? Or does it upstage the image and drag it down? Would you be proud to see it displayed publicly?
As you can see, judges score prints on both objective and subjective elements. And yes, it is possible for a technically weak print to win an award if the image makes a strong emotional impact.
So now that we know what the judges are looking for, let’s tackle the really hard part: Picking which images to enter. I’m not joking, this step can make a strong photographer swoon. It is pretty easy to get down to your top ten, but top three? Ouch! And before you can even get down to your top ten, you have to decide: Which category? How many in each category? I’ve adopted a six-step process to narrow down my choices.
STEP 1: I ask myself: What are my business objectives? Would it help me build my business if I gained recognition in a particular category?
STEP 2: Or, I ask myself: What creative or developmental goals would I like to pursue? These can include almost anything, from learning how to create top-notch panoramas and HDR images to shooting celebrity portraits or weddings.
STEP 3: I go through my images in each segment. First, I pick the top two or three. Then, I eliminate as many sinkers as possible. An image that has a technical weakness must have other redeeming features, such as uniqueness or storytelling that keep it in the running
STEP 4: Now that I have whittled my collection down to the crème-de-la-crème, I review the leftovers that survived the cut. Of these, I will pick another two or three images.
STEP 5: I make some working prints (usually 8x10 or 8x12) and put them in a book. For a week or so, I show this book of prints to the most accomplished, opinionated, and contrary photographers I can find. This step helps me to: (1) identify those images that I personally like, but probably won’t cut it in competition; and (2) find images that I don’t like as much as everyone else does.
STEP 6: I make the final cut. I try to select only those images that convey an uncommon subject, feeling, or style or make a special impact. These are the images that I know will be competitive.
Once the final cut is made, I go into production. Print quality, mounting and presentation are also very important.
This image just won first place in the Portrait Category in a regional competition. From a technical standpoint, it is not very strong. In fact, I took it with a very small point-and-shoot camera, through my car window, while I was waiting in traffic. But the judges said that what carried it through was the emotional content—the storytelling
I got into my present line of work by following two of my passions-- traveling to remote locations and photographing people. This combination of attractions has led me to photograph many indigenous groups around the world.
I love everything about the process—planning the trip, finding the guides, meeting and interacting with the people, and making their portraits. There is a unique beauty that comes from living close to the land. It’s a patina or maybe a wildness that attracts me. But it’s a look that seems to disappear as we begin to rely on others to gather and produce our food.
In the beginning of my career I was just trying to capture the beauty that I saw in the people I visited. However, it didn’t take me long to realize the unique challenges that these people face. To bring awareness to some of these issues, I began to combine personal stories with my portraits. I actually silkscreened biographical information about the subjects on the Plexiglas of my framed pieces in my exhibits. I could then highlight an issue (i.e. the human rights abuses in Tibet) through the eyes and words of individuals directly affected by the issue.
Today I look for partners, mostly not-for-profit organizations such as Amnesty International or CARE, that are addressing the same issues that I want to help bring attention to. These partners usually support the production by helping with access and travel expense. However the greatest benefit from the partnership for me is in getting the work distributed. If I’m doing a book, these partners will often pre-order books, making it easier to get a publisher. If I have an accompanying exhibit, which I usually do, they help find venues for the exhibit. By combining forces with organizations you believe in you can set up a win-win situation in which the organization gets exposure for its work.
When I started out in photography I had no idea I would be doing the humanitarian work I now find myself doing. As I look back I find the things that served me most were the projects I did out of an attraction for the subject or a sincere desire to help address an issue. The efforts that served me least were the times I tried to approach a market for my images or guess which images would sell.
Humaria is an 11-year-old street vendor (selling eggs) in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has never gone to school and like all but 12% of the young girls in Kabul is illiterate. I took this photo on top of a hill overlooking Kabul. She is part of the Women Empowered project that was supported by CARE and promoted by HP.