The Art of Photography | Assignment Two | Urban Decay

The aim of my second assignment for The Art of Photography was to reflect the project ‘Elements of Design’. As such, I undertook to make the photographs in black and white as I had done throughout the project. Working in black and white pushed me to think harder about my composition and the effect that the shapes had within the frame. The shape and structure of the overall image would be most important to get my message across. The black and white values, with the tonal values in between, would be my only way of exhibiting this. I also needed to envisage what the final image would look like while I was shooting in colour.

Living as I do, in a busy city, the idea of ‘street detail’ resonated with me. I decided this would be my topic of choice. After brainstorming some ideas I realised that with such a vast amount of subject matter potential that I would need to narrow down my scope. I eventually decided to centre on urban decay as my central theme. I find something inherently attractive about the patterns and lines that decaying matter, specifically man-made, makes. They are fractal by nature and therefore unpredictable. This makes them (to me) very interesting. As Paul Strand said of his 1916 photograph ‘The White Fence’, “Why did I photograph that white fence up in Port Kent, New York, in 1916? Because the fence itself was fascinating to me.”

Creating a more concise idea of what I was attempting to do meant I was able to make a more cohesive set of images rather than just a muddled set, which wouldn’t hang together. I also found it easier to shoot using these constraints rather than being sidetracked and confusing myself with photographs I did not want or could not use.

As part of my research for this assignment I looked at images which were graphically striking whilst being relatively uncomplicated in their nature. I went in to the assignment looking to use ‘Straight Photography’ as inspiration. This style was established by, amongst others, by Paul Strand (1890-1976) who, at the beginning of the 20th Century, under the tutelage of Alfred Stieglitz  (1864-1946), changed the way photographs were viewed and made. He used high contrast, sharp focus (in comparison to Stieglitz’s hitherto soft painterly focus) and often tried to represent the object in the frame as an abstract, emphasising the graphic nature of the subject.

Throughout this assignment I have tried to put this technique in to practice to simplify my photography and concentrate on making it more graphically striking. As a result my photographs start to bear a passing resemblance to some of his, particularly the photo of  The White Fence (1916 p.95, ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ – John Szarkowski) which is represented in my photograph of the decaying fence – ‘horizontal and vertical lines’.  ‘Door Latch(1944 p.53, ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ – John Szarkowski) was also replicated for ‘two points’ however, my ‘door latch’ was purely coincidental as I hadn’t seen Strand’s photograph before I took it. The style must have been subconsciously in my head while I was looking for subjects.  I have a natural tendency to photograph things square-on which translates well for this assignment. The regularity of patterns and use of graphic elements can quite often be helped and enhanced by shooting square on to the subject if possible, reducing distortion caused by the camera’s angle to the subject. This style also allows me to concentrate on the detail of the street by focusing on the abstract nature of a portion of my images.

This gave me some ground rules for the act of shooting the project however; it did not extend to the processing portion of the project. As can be seen, the images are heavily processed (in some cases) to reflect the decaying nature of my subject matter. In accordance with this I concentrated on making sure the lighting was suited to my subject matter to gain the maximum contrast whilst shooting.

Below is the image set for this assignment with a brief description and technical detail of the image. All focal lengths given are full-frame equivalents.

Higher resolution photographs of the versions here can be found on my Flickr feed.

The PDF version of this assignment can be found here.

ISO200, f/10, 1/125, 58mm

ISO200, f/10, 1/125, 58mm

Single Point dominating the composition #1

The sign to the broken-down entertainments hub is placed just below centre and dominates the image by virtue of its white front and the decrepit text which is falling off as the viewer watches. In order to get straight on with the subject I had to find someway with which to elevate myself. Fortunately there was a tree almost directly opposite which I climbed. The image is tightly cropped and a vignette directs the eye towards the white surface.

The photograph was taken with the intention of showing a good depth of field to accentuate the detail on the sign and the pattern above it. Shooting at 58mm kept the lens distortion at a minimum.

ISO200, f/6.3, 1/250, 46mm

ISO200, f/6.3, 1/250, 46mm

Single point dominating the composition #2

In a different attempt to that of the previous single point, this doorbell is literally falling out of the wall and is saved only by the wires holding it suspended above the ground. The dark cavity it has been released from provides contrast to its predicament.

I have used relatively shallow depth of field to concentrate on the switch itself.

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/60, 33mm

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/60, 33mm

Two points

Initially the crucifix caught my eye, which then lead me to see the door-latch, unlocked as if there is nothing worth protecting inside the door. Maybe the cross was felt to be enough security. This is the image which reminds me of Paul Strand’s ‘Door Latch’, although it was taken without having seen his version first.

Technically I should have used ISO400 to enable a faster shutter speed and not quite as wide an angle. I possibly needed to be  a little squarer to the subject according to my criteria for shooting.

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/100, 45mm

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/100, 45mm

Implied Triangle 1

There are several triangles appearing here. The most obvious are the repeated triangles formed by the reinforcement of the door struts. The other is the drainpipe which runs at an angle from top to bottom of the frame and forms an implied triangle with the edge of the door. The dark mold appears to be trying to paint in this triangle.

Taken at 45mm I have just managed to keep out the possibility of lens distortion in the frame. I maybe could have shot at ISO400 to enable me to get a greater depth of field although I don’t think the image suffers for this.

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/80, 33mm

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/80, 33mm

Implied Triangles #2

These dints appeared in the dusty floor of an abandoned house and I had no clear idea of what they were. There were hundreds of them distributed across the floor. They repeatedly form implied triangles across the frame. They are complimented by the blades of dry grass which also litter the floor and in turn also create triangles across the frame.

The available light coming through an open doorway gave me just enough light to shoot at ISO200.

ISO200, f/5.6, 1/2000, 48mm

ISO200, f/5.6, 1/2000, 48mm

Distinct, Irregular Shape #1

The tiling in the room has disintegrated leaving patches of irregular shapes. I have left this image very dark, giving little detail so that the shape is the dominating feature.

I have kept the depth of focus shallow to concentrate the eye on the white tile, hence the high shutter speed. In retrospect, given the lack of detail needed in the final shot I could have increased the f-stop to decrease the shutter speed. I have taken it at 48mm to keep the tile square as it appeared to my eye at the time.

ISO200, f/8, 1/320, 31mm

ISO200, f/8, 1/320, 31mm

Distinct, Irregular Shape #2

A telltale sign of urban decay; the wall with its flaking paint falling to the floor, baring beneath an untreated wall, leaves itself open to the elements.

To maximise the detail, I have used a fairly deep depth-of-field. The image was taken with the sun high in the sky giving good shadow and detail on the outline of the top of the shape and enhancing the cracking.

ISO200, f/8, 1/160, 49mm

ISO200, f/8, 1/160, 49mm

Diagonal #1

The off-set horizontal lines accentuate the diagonal staircase cutting across them. The staircase runs in-to and out-of the frame leaving the impression that it is stretching up and out of sight. The change in contrast between the upper-left and lower-right portions of the frame also help to make the diagonal line more stark, leaving it as the dividing line.

Shot at 49mm the image is a square and true representation of the scene although the horizontal lines themselves are not quite straight as the building begins to sag in its decline.

ISO200, f/8, 1/1000, 282mm

ISO200, f/8, 1/1000, 282mm

Diagonal #2

An isolated, crumbling wall shows the lines of stress as it falls in to decline. The overall impression of a diagonal line is repeated myriad times through the fractal nature of the cracking and splitting of the concrete.

I took this at a long lens length to flatten out the wall completely thus enhancing the sharp, diagonal nature of the broken wall. I have emphasised the stark edge by exposing for the white wall and thus making the background very dark. The length lens vantage point also enables me to be square on to the subject negating any lens distortion.

ISO200, f/8, 1/125, 31mm

ISO200, f/8, 1/125, 31mm

Several points in a deliberate shape

A classic indicator of urban decay, this broken pane of glass shows lines pointing towards and out of the top of the frame. Underneath, other broken shards give a layered effect with the reflections completing the depth in this image. The glass edges refracting in the sunlight produce clear highlights on the pieces of broken glass.

The reflections were tricky to deal with here and it took several attempts to get myself and any detailed reflection out of the frame.

ISO400, f/5.6, 1/125, 36mm

ISO400, f/5.6, 1/125, 36mm

Combination of Vertical and Horizontal Lines

The white fence versus the black background caught my attention as well as the obvious degradation of the fence itself. It stood out to me as an obvious graphical example of horizontal and vertical decay. This is the image which is representative of Paul Strand’s ‘The White Fence’.

I saw this late in the day and knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to it to photograph it again. So went with ISO400 as the shutter speed remained just high enough for a sharp image. Although the angle is quite wide it does not account for the slight warping in the fence which was actually present and may have contributed to a certain degree to the fence’s downfall.

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/60, 45mm

ISO200, f/4.5, 1/60, 45mm

Curve #1

This abandoned French colonial house in Cambodia gives a great opportunity to show the urban decay that has taken place since the Khmer Rouge ravaged the small fishing village of Kep. The diffused light from the right serves to light not only the graffiti and wall, but also highlights the curve as it flows from left to right across the image and in to the dark recesses of the building.

I have ‘got away’ with 1/60 here. Really I should have been using a higher ISO to guarantee I didn’t get any camera shake in the shot.

ISO400, f/4, 1/400, 31mm

ISO400, f/4, 1/400, 31mm

Curve #2

The elegant curve of the gate is off-set by the flaking paintwork, general detritus and barbed wire at its crown. It speaks of more affluent days past.

I had been shooting down dingy back streets and by the looks of it I could have shot this at ISO200 quite easily if I had thought a little harder about my settings, which were obviously set up for less light than was available here.

ISO400, f/4, 1/160, 33mm

ISO400, f/4, 1/160, 33mm

Rhythm (broken)

The slats and bolts of this bench repeat to produce an uneasy rhythm which is then ended abruptly by the broken slat and punctuated by the dirty tissue stuffed in to the void.

The light was starting to fade, so ISO400 gave me enough shutter speed to work with here as I already knew I wanted a shallow depth of field to concentrate solely on the bench slats and the detail of the wood grain and bolt heads.

ISO400, f/4.5, 1/60, 82mm

ISO400, f/4.5, 1/60, 82mm

Pattern

Quite literally in the process of decay, this fungus faithfully follows the lines of its quarry as it starts to take over the wall, reproducing a less defined facsimile of the wall upon which it resides.

At 82mm I have tried to square off  and flatten this image to show the pattern as I saw it. The diffused light from top right helps create good contrast to display the pattern well. Again I need to pay attention to the shutter speed although I had got very good support for the camera as it was on the floor when I took the shot.

Conclusions

This project and assignment has really opened my eyes to the use of graphic elements in photography and the decision to use black and white photography in this segment has been the correct one. I had already started to understand more clearly how to visualise the final shot before I lift my camera to my eye. Shooting in black and white has pointedly moved this on, as I have needed to visualise not only the composition but also the graphic content before picking up my camera. To a certain degree this meant I could plan the assignment mentally, without needing to be in front of the scene. I could decide on the type of shot I wanted to look for. Of course this meant adjusting my expectations when I just couldn’t find what I was looking for (I have no images of rust in my set, which I was certain would make an appearance and indeed I actively went looking for only to find that the end result was not going to make the grade).

Using a known technique as a starting point to my assignment, combined with my decision to concentrate my efforts on urban decay, has made my project more succinct than it might have been otherwise.

Throughout the project and in the final assignment there is a constant flow of graphical exchange, not only within individual images, but also through the set of images as a whole. The elements can combine, compliment or contradict each other depending on the way in which they are made or viewed. The irregular ‘shapes’ could have also represented the dominant point. Within both ‘curve’ images there are many other shapes and elements happening: triangles, irregular shapes, horizontals and verticals all appear at points. My ‘pattern’ in the main is very stark but the contradiction of the fungus growing from the bottom softens the appearance, as it follows the contours it has at its disposal. The ‘diagonal’ wall fools the eye in to thinking it is a diagonal, when actually it is only implied. It is, in fact, made up of thousands of tiny angular reliefs. It could be enlarged massively and would still look very similar to the version here. This harks back to the recurring fractal nature of decay, as I alluded to in the introduction. It also demonstrates (along with my other examples) the myriad opportunities for finding graphical elements within photography.

With reference to previous feedback, I have looked to be aware of visual distractions within the frame and looked and read about photographers for inspiration.

Having used black and white photography as a vehicle for this assignment, I can say without a doubt that I will use it much more within the medium of photography. But, I will attempt to use it in a structured fashion so that it suits, exemplifies and enhances the situation I am photographing.

8 thoughts on “The Art of Photography | Assignment Two | Urban Decay

  1. Pingback: Assignment 2 – Urban Decay – Response to tutor | BA Blog
  2. Pingback: Assignment 3 – Colour | BA Blog

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