Looking at 2010 and evaluating contrived images vs. the ‘haphazard shot’

2010 has been a great year, but then again it is interesting to look at every year’s progression since I started photography in 2006.

As time moves on and I generally widen my resources (ie. looking beyond Flickr), it becomes clearer to me that ‘photography’ is not monolithic and the word cannot can’t be discussed generally. Any one of photography’s purposes depend on the context of viewing, and of the viewer’s disposition, taste and expectations.

Being a ‘fine-art’ photographer, I have not been confined to a single commercial focus (ie. things can get dangerously aimless) so I have quietly admired a variety of different types of photography over the past couple of years. If I have to summarise what I enjoy seeing in a photo, across all genres, I think there are two main things I seek: a sense of the genuine, and also, the ‘wow’ factor. The first refers to how I only enjoy the work from someone who at least tries to be original, no matter what the outcome, expresses what they really want to show, rather than copying others’ work or blatantly emulating ‘trends’. The second refers to how I also like to be instantly stimulated by whatever I see in an image – there has to be for me, an exciting reason as to why the artist has chosen to express the situation visually. But seeking to use a ‘wow factor’ in my own work has often left me trapped in a rich diet of tidy polished colourful frames, and photo compositing.

This ‘diet’ has caused me to feel a certain cynicism to types of photography such as documentary, any photography that seemingly comes straight out of camera. I like to step back now and then and ‘detox’ myself from that standing. However, I also realise that even though my own images feature a lot of beauty, colour, boldness, and seemingly meaningless ‘beauty’, I have always been a fan of the ‘real’; particularly, naturally occurring juxtapositions within a scene. This has become more apparent to me since being attracted to abandoned buildings and their ready-made ‘found’ appeal:

I also understand why I have always been drawn to natural lighting, and ‘natural’ situations (a location or scene already prepared) rather than using the blank canvas of a studio or ever spending that much time having styling done, or preparing intricate props. Upon that ‘ready-made’ or natural scene of course, I introduce a contrived element which is in the form of a human, and often, for a variety of reasons including convenience, has been myself. This contrived human element, especially when I have used myself, is a way for me to call the final result ‘mine’.

It is refreshing to me, however, to remember that photography is not all about being beautiful, tidy, polished, perfect, and not always about compositing. I could do a week-long seminar on how I would encourage others to look at how you can achieve an effect across several images rather then just one: multiplicity images, HDR, panoramas, and even any combination of them put together, and indeed, the workshops I run are all about that. I think it is liberating to consider, when making a creative photograph, how you an add or remove something from the frame afterwards, whether to add more people, remove a chair for a trick effect or a person holding a reflector. Here are a few heavily composited images I created this year:

Body repairs - a ‘trick’ image where I have used compositing to ‘erase’ the chair and the person holding the chain. I also treated the background separately in order to lighten it and radically de-noise it, which added a painterly touch. I added more hair to the front of Katie’s head and reddened her lips. The image is cropped to keep the figure prominent in the frame and also treated with Curves adjustments.

Bending over backwards - a rare occasion where I completely transform what I consider to be a dark and mundane shot, into a very bright and peach-toned ‘trick’ image by compositing a raised leg from another shot (see the full mind-boggling process on this blog post).

Visions of Trees - An example of a multiplicity composite I did this year, where I shot many images of the two members of the band Visions of Trees running around an abandoned satellite dish and composited them together to create the feeling of flow and action.

A highlight of 2010 was having one of my images, The smothering from 2008 (also notably one of my most ‘processed’ or illusion-based images)  selected by curator Natasha Egan for the Art of Photography Show. It was also discussed by Egan in an interview where she compared the image to another photograph from the show, “Chris helps his girlfriend, Mona, smoke crack in their apartment in Hackney, London” (here) a very different kind of ‘photograph’ that Egan used to compare with mine conceptually, “they’re both in a box, both pictures are taken in these tight quarters, and yet the results are different people experimenting with… life’s challenges.”

In fact, being in the Art of Photography Show was a great thing for me because I had the chance to evaluate lots of other brilliant images at which I wouldn’t usually bat an eyelid, and to remember that photography is not always about beauty in its most typical forms. I find it healthy to step away from the priorities commonly found in that of mid-range fashion and other commercial photography, and recall that photography has the power to do many things other than to tantalise and make someone slobber over a woman or product (or both). The phrase ‘easy on the eye’ reminds us that gratuitous, isolated beauty in a photograph is precisely that: easy, and therefore does not challenge the viewer. It is irksome phrases like that which have helped me push my own boundaries.

I admire the work of Noah Kalina, Yulia Gorodinski, and Annette Pehrsson. First I must mention that all of these artists’ work is distinctly different from each other and I am not lumping them into one box, but they all provide for me, in some way, a change from my usual: they offer candidness, something a bit more ‘real’, and generally, less ‘composited’ in the fantastical sense. Whilst Noah’s work has a dry-humoured, candid simplicity, Annette’s has a beautiful timeless romanticism that draws as much attention to her use of interiors and nature as much as the people being portrayed in her images. Yulia’s work is a guilty, or not so guilty, pleasure of mine. Whilst her work has all the candidness of the other photographers mentioned here, she shows how she can combine feminine beauty and colourful post-processed allure into those same witty images. All three of these photographers are in my commercially-published book Self-Portrait Photography which comes out very soon – one of the best things awaiting me in 2011!

I have also recently been inspired by the images of Martin Parr, and my last blog post showed some shots I took over Christmas whilst inspired by browsing his work.

To look at the work of photographers here mentioned, is to almost enter into another world: that of the ‘haphazard shot’, or at least, what appears to be a haphazard shot. The motive of that shot is not necessarily to say everything, but to suggest, and by power of suggestion, to potentially to say a lot more. I could put numerous examples from the photographers I mentioned above, but I recommend going to their websites to look at their images (Kalina, Gorodinski, Pehrsson, Parr).

Some images I created this year had more of an influence from this alternate realm of image-making. In May shortly before going for a fashion shoot with make-up artist Ania Gastol and costume designer Lenka Padysakova, I looked at the work of Chris Dorley-Brown. His work can be described as social-documentary street photography (he does surprisingly use photo-compositing, but to different ends) – what a difficult influence to have stuck in my head as I photographed smiley model Maria around the marshes and Hackney Wick! But the locations selected by Ania were already interestingly contrapuntal to Maria’s beauty and Lenka’s elegant costume styling, so they provided a grungy contrast. I also wanted to keep the poses a bit odd or candid. Below is one of the images, where I feel that I did something veering towards this ‘haphazard shot’, one of the many shots where I kept the block of flats visible, in pursuit of something Dorley-Brown-esque:

The ‘haphazard shot’ almost thrives on what is not in the frame. Something might be cropped off, maybe someone’s body or even head. There is not always an obvious focal point that the camera (and therefore our eye) latches onto, but there is always something important focally, and the eye will lead about the frame in an intellectual dance of curiosity. The focal point might be understated or captured candidly. There will be ‘beauty’ somewhere, maybe in the form of a vibrant colour, an attractive person or a pleasing geometric form but they are rationed like a chocolate biscuit in the middle of a strict diet (and maybe quite elusive at first, as though the biscuit were hidden by the person imposing the diet…)

The moment I felt the least frustrated was when I photographed her spontaneously standing by a crumby looking Austin Maestro. At other times I encouraged her to pull out of her model poses and stand straight-on at the camera, not to smile or pose her hands, but just to ‘be’. I felt at the time that the images came out confused, half ‘fashion’ and half a bit candid. Later I felt more excited when putting them together as weird diptychs, and now, looking back, I think it was one of my favourite shoots of the year, be it a slow burner in my head. Having my original mind-inhabitant Dorley-Brown himself ‘fave’ a couple of my pictures on Flickr made me feel as if I had had done something right or interesting. I was also drawn to making juxtapositions through diptyches rather than elaborate composites:

Some photography (ie. typically most contemporary photography) is not meant to be looked at for fantasy. People look to it for reality, for documentation. We all know the feeling of looking at old family photos and naturally accepting that the ‘wow’ factor of cherishing such images lies in the time that has passed; the differences between then and now, the things that have aged or gone. It is the aim of the ‘haphazard shot’ photographers to evoke that same feeling in a photo that has been taken ‘now’. In such photos, the viewer is not looking for special effects. They are looking to see something that relates to truth, such as politically and socially. It may be ‘truth’ relating to a specific circumstance within a family or any wider situation. The ‘wow’ moment may happen more in the head than in the eyes. The photo may even be composited in Photoshop in some way, but it won’t be evident. It will hide away as elusive as a cloned-out crisp bag. Simply because the photographer has chosen to present the image, he/she is saying something is important; by the notion of their use of ‘photography’ itself, something is being called to our attention, be it witty, humorous, or simply the way in which the artist has viewed the scene through a pair of eyes that take nothing for granted. These kind of images encourage us to see something extraordinary in something ordinary.

The ‘haphazard shot’ celebrates all that is imperfect, and at once therefore perfect, within the glimpse of life as the photographer has witnessed it. It is less about instant arrest of the eyes, and more about invoking a story in a more suggestive than overt manner.

As much as I admire work of photographers producing images very different from mine, there is something I am personally drawn to about surrealism, fantasy, embellishment and sensationalism. I think that what I do enjoy personally as an artist is experimenting with exactly how much of those saturating elements to use. This shot of Maria below, for example, may be very sobering from the likes of levitation and multiple clones, but the bubbles in the air with the lips and eyes that appear on them are the implausible element, the slightly dreamy addition that remind us we are looking at the scene of some kind of contrived, styled shoot. The costume stylist is visible in the frame and is crudely cropped off, but somehow provided a pleasurable sense of what was going on that day, half contrived and half ‘behind the scenes’.

Below are pictures I took of myself (collaboratively with Matthew) early in 2010, where I was inclined to avoid processing the image too much, keep the crude but pleasing red doorway in the shot, and let the weird beauty of the abandoned children’s ward speak for itself with its words on the wall as shot. I describe these images are somehow self-indulgent in that they remind me of the pleasurable weekend I had that time. Instead of combining two of myself into one of my usual multiplicity pics I decided to do a diptych. However, the placing of the children’s books around me, and the overall weird implausibility of a woman in her underwear sitting in this context (interpreted as distinctly sexual by Newcity Art in Chicago) still makes this image far more ‘contrived’ than what is found in most ‘one shot’ photographers’ portfolios. It’s just not as ‘contrived’ as most of my other work.

So, of course, what is ‘contrived’ is entirely subjective and contextual. The contradicting issue is that most situations which photographers like to capture ‘candidly’ are those which have been set up originally for contrived purpose. Noah Kalina’s images of models in funny poses mid-shoots spring to mind. One example this year for me, was my image Soliloquy (below). I originally set up the camera to pose vacuously on the bed with most of my body and my face within the frame. Reviewing the images afterwards, this image struck me for its simplicity and minimalism. It said alot to me than the other images, even just as my own psychoanalysis, almost. Its one of those self-portraits that suggest my images can sometimes tell me more than I am trying to tell others… or at least take their own track of meaning without my conscious intentions playing a big role.

An exercise in emotional detachment (below) was shot with a cigarette and smoke, creating an effect delicious enough in-cam. I had the idea of the title beforehand so I was intent on expressing something a bit more ‘raw’, featuring myself doing something a bit more ordinary than usual. All that I wanted to do to the image afterwards was to crop (choosing to crop off the top of my head to further dissuade the notion of it being a normal ‘portrait’) and to bolden the colours and tones in Curves.

Below are shots taken for a fashion brand, where I have had the model standing demurely, not doing so much as even flexing a leg, looking down, looking out of the frame, boldly cropped in-cam, and statue-like amongst her sleepy surroundings. Other images on the same shoot did wilder things but these were moments where I relished in a ‘one-shot’ simplicity to emphasise the clothing a subtler way.

Below is a shot taken outside an abandoned house at the end of the summer. I had a lovely afternoon frolicking in gowns with Matt and Sarah Schloo, but I have since struggled to find something new in those images beyond what I have previously done in similar scenarios with gowns and abandoned places. Getting dressed into my normal gear and standing for a ‘look where I am’/'wish you were here?’ Facebook-type shot outside the dilapidated premises provided what I thought was a more interesting glimpse of the scene: just myself loitering. I liked it because it was genuine, and not posed in the manner of the shots inside. I didn’t feel the need to share it publicly though for that reason – it is a shot I like because it is not a performance, it’s my own souvenir of the day.

Some other images I enjoyed creating this year, and how they relate to natural vs. contrived

Above: Every day is a holiday, featuring Tim Andrews. This is obviously composited, to provide an illusion beyond reality, but the shooting stage itself as an epiphany for me as I loved the raw shots more than I usually do (especially for this rare occasion for me of photographing a man) and the process of collaborating with a subject whose ideas interplayed with mine was a new and enjoyable experience. I felt confident about the things I did (such as keeping the umbrella & light in the frame, especially when I hardly ever use lights like this) and the concept of what was going on in the images was important from the outset, whereas usually I do things in a bit of a blind dance for it to become clearer later.

Above: The same fashion shoot as the one producing the purple dress images further above. In terms of the model’s pose here, everything is ‘as-shot’; her pose, her hair and the props were all placed as such. However, this particular shot was composited together from about 6 shots, to form a photomerged ‘panorama’ of sorts, providing a fish-eye effect beyond the capabilities of the lens I was using.

Below: The morning they met the clouds, a collab with Brooke Shaden. The effect of the early morning mist had very much that same pleasing effect as cigarette smoke – I wanted to avoid over-processing the shot afterwards. I instead wanted to bolden the image overall. This image, however, is composited to bring the ideal shot of both Brooke and I together into one frame. That is largely to do with the technique of shooting self-portraits: you cannot be precise about pose and positioning as well shooting a subject in front of you.

It is a vast and potentially convoluted topic that I am broaching here and I am half reluctant to post it, in case I am inclined to continually re-edit, but a new year’s resolution is to avoid doing that. I have drafts from 3 years ago of essays I never posted!

Overall, I strive to hit the balance between artistic and commercial, to bring something a bit more dramatic and visually interesting to ‘fine art’, and something a bit more narrative-led and meaningful to otherwise ‘commercial’ images. I would not want to flounder helplessly between the two, never satisfying the needs of both, and being labelled as the outsider by each respective circle, but to succeed in making part of my living from both sides. Having my image discussed in an artistic context in The Art of Photography Show this year was certainly a confidence boost that it is possible.

In 2010 I also enjoyed going out to LA to meet Brooke Shaden and witness her approach to photography which is very much an antithesis to the likes of the photographers discussed earlier in this post. (I will be further collaborating with her in a couple of weeks.) Starting workshops was another feature of the year that I am significantly pleased about, having been something I was planning on starting a few months leading up to it. It was empowering to realise that I could host my own independent classes without the aid (or to be more precise, the burden) of doing them with/through a company, and that I could surprise myself in being miles more proactive than some of the so-called ‘business people’ I met in 2010 who tried to offer me such an opportunity. Workshops have been rewarding in multiple ways; financially, artistically, and socially; organising and running them has so far been very stimulating, and felt like good and healthy hard work. I look forward to doing many more in 2011.

My ostensible photography-related goals for 2011 include doing more commercial work (to find a proactive fine-art agent for advertising, fashion and/or other commercial work), keep doing enough regular work to continue saving £xxx a month to buy a house, and to work on a new, separate series of images that will embody a particular concept, and ambitiously push a few personal boundaries. Also this year I would like to completely eradicate frustration and negative feelings in my day-to-day career whilst maintaining a healthy level of self-criticism – and dedicate an afternoon a week to reading. I have so many books on my shelf and would like to see beyond their tantalising covers…

In 2011 I encourage myself, and all fellow creatives to keep doing what you do with confidence – and to always keep your own personal passion for your art as genuine to yourself as possible – but also to keep welcoming the inspirations of a more diverse range of photographers into your work.

Happy new year to all my blog readers!

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Posted in Essays, musings, Inspirations - References to other artists on December 31st, 2010 | 19 Comments |

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Comments for “Looking at 2010 and evaluating contrived images vs. the ‘haphazard shot’”

    1. claude etienne
      3:25 am on January 2nd, 2011

      Hi Natalie,

      I’ve been following your work for the past couple of years, and it keeps getting better and better. I know that you teach workshops, but, it would be great if you eventually released a workshop DVD for those of us who cannot attend your workshops. I look forward to seeing what you have in store this year. Happy New Year!

    2. Joseph
      7:49 am on January 2nd, 2011

      lovely images…

      well conceived, well seen, well captured, and well done!

      I enjoy your blog. Keep it coming.

      May the good light be with you!

    3. Jessica Sweeney
      1:25 am on January 3rd, 2011

      I much appreciate your thoughts about all of this. Every new post to the blog is a welcome addition!

    4. Mike
      5:00 pm on January 4th, 2011

      Hi Natalie,
      You are an inspiration to all of us and I think you should take credit for this. Yes there is probably much to do and I appreciate your work greatly.

      Happy New Year and I hope have a great 2011

    5. diana
      3:13 pm on January 5th, 2011

      Wow! I can’t believe I read the whole thing (at work). Amazing blog post, very informative. I really admire the work of the photographers you mention and that photograph of the couple smoking crack is astounding. the shocked looks on the ‘Friends’ faces on the tv is perfect.
      Looking forward to following you on your journey in 2011 (ok rather excited about work you will be creating with Brooke especially)

    6. Gosia
      4:11 pm on January 5th, 2011

      Czesc Natalia :)

      I agree with Claude. I have also been admiring your work from away and I just wish your workshops were closer to my home. I could not attend any but I would definitely buy a DVD or a book with tutorials on some photoshop tips & tricks you have used yourself. Can you please write some more “before and after” – I love reading it? Actually I really enjoy reading everything you write :) )

    7. Stephen Reed
      4:40 pm on January 5th, 2011

      Hello Natalie,

      I agree with claude etienne, that DVD’s of your workshops could be very stimulating for those of us who can’t get to the workshops. I honestly love your work.

    8. Lash LaRue
      5:00 pm on January 5th, 2011

      This post brims with intelligence; as always, I learn from you. Thanks.

    9. Crestine
      5:34 pm on January 5th, 2011

      Lovely blog/essay. Thanks for sharing and not trying re-edit. I am the type also to not share my words/photos because I percieved to be “not ready” or “not good enough.” I too need to go beyond my insecurities and perfectionism and say to myself “Just do it and go with it already!”

      Cheers to a great 2011!

    10. Brad
      9:06 pm on January 5th, 2011

      Bloody wow! That writing might just very well be the most personal and revealing written word on art and personal commitment that I’ve read in a long time. It was the perspective and insight into your thought processes that was the most intriguing. This was a long read (for a blog anyway), but never dull or boring. One thing is quite sure: You “talk” like an artist.

      I wish you continued success in your “workshops” and I’m sure many will flock to them due to the personal and unobtrusive nature of something that was created by you vs. the corporate workshops that have an agenda and more of a hands off approach.

      Interestingly, you brought up doing “commercial photography” work to save money for necessities like buying home, but will continue to create art.

    11. scott
      5:32 am on January 6th, 2011

      Thanks a lot.
      Photographs tell stories on their own but reading the thoughts of the artists who make the images is like the secret ingredient in your mother’s best cake recipe: It gives them a little more zing.
      I’ve looked at your work on and off for the past few years and I’ve been concentrating more lately. Thank you for sharing your insights and I wish you a fruitful and creative new year.

    12. Rob Dunlavey
      4:12 pm on January 6th, 2011

      Thanks for the thoughtful, critical and supportive post. Your work is always inspiring to me but your thought process and your attitude to balancing personal and commercial work is good to see articulated in such a thoughtful way. Good luck in 2011!

    13. Don
      3:56 am on January 9th, 2011

      Hi Natailie,
      I’m far to depressed to try and digest all that you stated in this article, or really to take my art that seriously. But I did look through the other photographers you included links to. All very good, but what struck me as curious was the one you mentioned as a “guilty pleasure,” Yulia Gorodinsky. While she is a wonderful artist, I found her work to be sad and depressing… marked by loneliness and Isolation. I guess being recently divorced again could sensitize me to such themes, but I wondered what you saw in her work that could elevate it to the level of “pleasure.” I don’t mean her work isn’t good, but the emotions it invoked in me were far from something I’d sneak away in the night to indulge in… lol.

      Thanks for sharing so much of your life. I’m happy that you’re making enough to be able to save and build a life for yourself. I always knew you would.

      Cheers. I hope to see you again this summer.

    14. Elizabeth
      6:46 pm on January 9th, 2011

      Even more thought-provoking than usual, Natalie! I hope you realise what a good writer you are, never mind your other talents. Keep ‘em coming. I love it!

      PS – Thanks for the bestest workshop experience ever!

    15. Tom M
      4:59 pm on January 14th, 2011

      Yulia Gorodinski is featured in the 2011 30 UNDER 30-WOMAN PHOTOGRAPHERS at http://www.photoboite.com/3030/. Annette Pehrsson, Brooke Shaden and Natalie were featured in 2010. Some fine company there.

    16. kevin
      8:59 pm on January 19th, 2011

      Hi Natalie,
      I think you may have heard already, but I thought I’d remind you, and indeed feel free to do a blog post about it :) but Noah Kalina is coming to Brighton in Feb to give a talk, run 2 workshops and also 1:1 sessions are available. You can see more here,


      I hope you dont mind me posting this, regards, kevin

    17. Jessica Tremp
      11:11 pm on February 9th, 2011

      I think this is a very thought provoking and honest post. I don’t know of a single photographer that after years of finding his/her ‘niche’ then suddenly frets about not doing something more contrary to it.
      Whilst I think it’s extremely healthy to experiment outside your usual field and let other styles influence your work, I think it’s also vital to stay on track of what you have loved and are loving to do. This, in the end even if heavily composited or staged is very honest in itself. This is the way people have paved new ways and in your case, stood out from a crowd for taking something of their own and going all the way with it. You should be (and I’m sure you are) incredibly proud for the name you have made yourself doing what it is YOU are doing.
      Much love


    18. Jessica Tremp
      11:13 pm on February 9th, 2011

      p.s. I agree, you write wonderfully.

    19. SONGTSE'S LOOK! » Blank canvas
      5:23 pm on July 21st, 2011

      [...] I wrote a blog post about 2010 here. [...]

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