I developed ex 4.3 The beauty of artificial light. I enjoy working in low light, I like the control that you get over exposure, the richness of colours and the sense of otherness compared to the same subject in daylight. My theme was red telephone boxes after dark. I considered (and tested) several approaches but the one that resonated with me was a pure study of the box and the light, using depth of field, focus, and long exposures to add an abstract quality. The work was read by peer reviewers in a number of different ways.
Andrew Hurley of the National Telephone Kiosk Collection at Avoncroft kindly agreed to talk to me about the some of the technical qualities of phone boxes. They have all had 12 watt fluorescent light fittings since 1969 due to vandalism, cost and high maintenance associated with the previous timer-triggered filament bulbs. The fluorescent strips last for about 5 years with the quality of light degrading over time. A new fluorescent fitting has been installed into boxes since 2000. Boxes in well-lit locations have one strip, those in darker locations have two. Power is drawn from the street-lighting grid. Many boxes have also had their glass replaced with polypropylene. This acquires a milky appearance after long exposure to sun, which does make for interesting behaviour with light.
My work process was as follows:
1. Identify local boxes using OS maps and social media
2. Daylight recce of boxes to check for functional light, functional phone and location/obstructions/parking. Noted with evernote and mobile photo. Rough schedule of shoots.
3. Shoot after dark, in manual mode, with tripod and cable release, spare battery and card, plus weatherproof and high-vis clothing where needed. I used a 40mm lens for the first image, others were a mix of a 50mm prime and a 100mm macro prime. There was no flash but a range of ISO settings. Work was processed in Lightroom with adjustments to white balance where needed.
4. Produce contact sheets, basic pp, review shots
5. Produce shortlist and place on OCA forum and blog for peer review
6. Do any follow up shoots after peer review (I did about 7 actual shoots, images were used from four shoots of four different boxes in three different villages).
7. Make final selection and do post-processing.
Normally I research extensively before picking up the camera, but this time I decided to follow a suggestion on the OCA forum of starting the work first, then bringing the research in later. There were two triggers to this work – firstly Nick Turpin’s Night Bus series that shows passengers photographed after dark on the top deck of a London bus, and an article by Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times.
“The light emanating from a red phone box in the evening was once a symbol of refuge, a beacon and a place of connection to the world.”(Heathcote, 2016).
The phone box light is part of its identity, and seemed a perfect fit with the brief. For many of us over 30 the red boxes are landmarks in our personal landscapes as well as our environments, with memories of various activities conducted within their illuminated yet somehow still private shelter. The boxes provide their own landscapes too – mosses, weeds, brambles and insects all colonise them. Our red boxes have seen us join Europe and now witness our departure, they have seen the de-nationalisation of British Telecom and the massive proliferation of mobile phones, yet they live on.
Turpin was my over-arching influence; I was entranced by his candid, bus-lit portraits. He worked hand-held, photographing over three winters (BBC London Radio, 2017). I loved the glow of people behind the windows, and the way the glass was often fogged by condensation and/or rain drops. I wanted to try to capture those same qualities, but without the people. I also came across George Tice’s image of a telephone booth in New Jersey, taken at 3am in 1974 (via my critique thread on the OCA). This image I found outstanding because of the ease with which the different levels of light are captured, compositionally it is great too because all of the elements work together and there is no clutter.
It was difficult to consider which photographers in Part 4 had approaches that linked to my work. I enjoyed Sato Shintaro’s work but thought it was on a larger and less personal, less intimate scale than mine. I liked Rut Blee Luxemburg’s city reflections caught in tiny puddles and her jewel-like glowing tones, but again felt that many other images were on a larger, less personal scale. I agree with Bill Brandt’s words about photographing what the camera is seeing rather than what he was seeing, and think this chimes with my approach. It was interesting to move beyond “it’s a phone box” to consider the structure and the light more objectively. Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love (Dir. Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) was the work that I can best relate my efforts to because of how he casts light and lighting almost as protagonists in their own right, and the attention that he paid to tiny details. Everything was important and shown with careful consideration and lighting.
Developing this work from the exercise was a risk. The idea came from nowhere and I already had a list of perfectly good ideas for which my tutor had suggested relevant practitioners. Yet my test shots for these weren’t compelling or didn’t hold enough promise for a series, and I kept wondering about phone boxes. I felt they could nail the brief provided I could make a cohesive set that concentrated on the light and didn’t stray into broader landscape or documentary themes. It took me out of my comfort zone – it felt odd to be dealing with fixed structures in the landscape and a whole new set of environmental constraints. I felt the exercise set was a little “trippy” so I toned it down slightly and concentrated on light and details. I significantly increased the geographic scope to ensure that I had enough images, reflecting on my tutor’s comments from A3 about needing plenty of images to secure a strong edit.
I am pleased with this work. It feels delicate, understated, original and effective, and it starts conversations. There are some things that I would change – the image with the paint splashes needs to be retaken square on, for example and there’s scope for improving focus in some shots. The change in research approach worked in this instance, and I have been able to submit what I hope is shorter but equally effective writing.
- Imagination – wanting to capture the light, the little details of phone boxes after dark, the experience.
- Experimentation – taking many photographs over multiple shoots and multiple weather conditions. Trying out different use of ISO, focus, focal length (from wide angle to macro)and camera movement. Considering decommissioned boxes with other uses.
- Inventiveness – rejecting the chocolate box views and light trails. Photographing the things that are remembered but not photographed (flies in the light, moss on the sills etc)
- Personal voice – I like to explore the familiar and the forgotten and this work fits with this idea. I am sure there is a long way to go however.
Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings – Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, UK. (2017). Special collections. [online] Available at: http://www.avoncroft.org.uk/collections/special-collections/ [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].
Discuss.oca-student.com. (2017). OCA Discuss. [online] Available at: https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/experiments-towards-the-beauty-of-artificial-light/4205/63 [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].
Heathcote, E. (2016). British by design: the red phone box. The Financial Times. [online] Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/e3d4de62-3f6b-11e6-9f2c-36b487ebd80a [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].
Turpin, N. (2016). On the night bus. 1st ed. United Kingdom: Hoxton Mini Press.
Turpin, N. (2017). Through A Glass Darkly | NICK TURPIN. [online] Nickturpin.com. Available at: http://nickturpin.com/winter-bus [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017]
YouTube. (2017). Nick Turpin BBC Radio London 2016. [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/7Kwwz7BbXbw [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].