Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Working The Machine Shop

There's been a fair amount of interest in my Machine Shop project so I thought some might enjoy or even find it useful to talk about how it came about and how I 'worked the scene', not a topic you find much of in books - oh they'll tell you how to compose, but the actual process of being presented with a subject (the shop) and actually checking around for interesting things to photograph is less well discussed. I've done a little in prev. blogs relative to specific images, and have gone further in the book (yes, it's still being edited) and decided to tell you about this project.

As you probably know, I have an interest in old industrial subjects anyway, so when I cruised round an old neighborhood in Calgary, discovering Independent Machinery, an obviously old collection of buildings raised interest. I peered through the windows into a pile of junk, so much it was hard to imagine I'd be able to find a simple composition. No one was around and I wandered off.

When I went out shooting with a friend, I remembered the place and we drove by. The gates were open and there were people around. With the confidence of having a friend there too, I had no hesitation about going in and asking and they were very cooperative.

Now I had to figure out how I was going to photograph the place. The oldest part of the shop was just as cluttered as I remembered and I doubted I could find an image there (though I did later). I headed instead for the newer part of the shop, with sunlight pouring through south facing and very dirty windows, backed by trees outside so showing quite a bit of green in the windows, all be it blurred by the dirt - quite nice. The shop was fairly cluttered too but there was a position from which I could put most of it behind me and focus on the south wall. it was moderately interesting and I photographed it on it's own. I looked around to see how I could improve it and noted a chain hanging from a lift and felt that it would make good foreground.

I realized it was way too close for depth of field to manage the situation and were I to move further back, the chain lost prominence, so my position was fairly fixed a couple of feet back from the chain. I made two exposures, one focussed on the chain, the other on the wall in the background.

After that picture, I looked at some fairly modern looking workbenches covered in tools, but couldn't see patterns in the chaos and in the end though I did take a couple of pictures, they were as bad as I'd been afraid of (but I didn't spend a lot of time on them, and you never know...)

I was intrigued by the tightly packed copper tubing of heat exchangers an spent some time on that - though in the end that's my weakest image of the shoot. I wandered into the old part of the place, confirmed that I couldn't make anything out of the clutter and looked for interesting details. I was quite excited to find the pipe benders sitting in the dark on a bench (30 second exposure). It was interesting though. I wasn't sure they were in the best position and I realized I could basically put them in whatever pattern I wanted - it's a lot harder to arrange things like a painter, much easier to take what you've got and make the best of it. I'm not sure even now and after a second shoot of the pipe benders that I have got the definitive image.

They were a pretty obvious thing to photograph though as the surface had a lovely patina to it - not too shiny, but some great highlights. I tried a fairly symetrical arrangement but that looked too artificial (after all it was). I tried a bit more jumbled and liked that better. I set them up so one led to the next, fairly nice, but still a little 'arranged'.

By this time, my friend was in the building and I decided it might be best to move on so I wandered over to a third building (the newest) in which I found drill presses, milling machines and giant lathes. I liked the lathe but couldn't find a really good composition. THe drill press was ok, but not great, the bench had some interesting widgets on it so I photographed those, moving a few bolts around for a better pattern. (rounding up the strays - hey, I live in Calgary).

I then found a small wooden box full of odd shapes of metal of a variety textures and tones. These were definitely interesting and I was fairly sure I had a good image here. Unfortunately I hadn't noticed that in photographing it next to the wall, one edge was very much in shadow. I have made successful prints but I really had to bring up the shadows and also do a substantial amount of cloning of metal parts to extend them, and the image isn't top drawer as a result. This was the biggest reason to go back for a second shoot and that's a story for another day.

So, you might ask, how did I actually go about finding these things to photograph? The obvious answer is I just did, through years of practice. On a more practical level though, I know I was looking for interesting shapes and surfaces that photographed well. I had no special agenda, had no special point to make, other than perhaps to say in the end, see how fascinating the stuff is at an ordinary machine shop?

Well used tools that are not painted have a lovely surface. If it's curved, even better. Much of the place had so many things going on, finding an image was more than difficult and most of my success has been with parts of things, close ups or isolated details, like the lights.

The things that I have found on subsequent trips I didn't even have the slightest inkling of on the first visit.

There were lots of images I walked away from because even though the parts were excellent, the whole just didn't work. Perhaps I'm a bit obsessive about composition but it's what works for me, I have to be able to make some sense out of the parts - they have to work together for me, and certainly I tend to most admire work that is strongly composed. Composition is certainly not the whole story, but it's an important and probably essential part for me.

In the end, my search was for 'neat' things, before looking for 'neat' photographs.


Alan Rew said...

Thanks again, George, for an interesting article about the psychology of looking for photographic subjects. If I understand you correctly, you're saying you don't go in with preconceived ideas about what you are going to photograph, you keep an open mind & react to what you find. I remember an article you wrote some time ago that made the point that preconceived ideas can reduce the chances of 'finding' a composition.

BTW I'm looking forward to seeing your book being published.



George Barr said...

Exactly so, the more I predict what I'll find, the less open I am to alternatives. While it's possible that may not be true of others, my suspicion is that it could well be an issue for others. On a second visit to a previously photographed site, there's a temptation to return to the same subject matter - and there's nothing wrong with reshooting if you have something you want to correct I did that with the box of metal shapes), but in that case, I had a specific plan based on previous knowledge and only had to fine tune it and having done so, was ready to move on to new images.

On the other hand, simply trying harder with the same image may not be productive - you might well be better off looking for new material or at least a new way of seeing it, since the problem may not have been you being .9 inches too far to the left, the problem may have been the whole concept.

In ways I have been lucky in that each time I have gone back things have been moved or there's a truck in the way, or someone is building something and I have had no poss. of wasting time trying the same thing again, only harder, I was forced to look for new things.

It might be necessary when there's nothing to force you to new ideas to limit yourself to say, 20 minutes refining the old before you move on to new ones (not necessarily a new location, just a different idea about this one).