Thursday, June 2, 2011

Assignment 5: Second Thoughts

As I mentioned in my last Assignment 5 post, I was achieving good results with my underwater imagery, however, my usual working style - Macro images of the strange and wonderful creatures in the reef -  was not working for me in the context of a BA in Photography.  Technically the images were good, even expressive, but ultimately they were simply record shots of animals.  I experimented with DoF and environmental placement, however, this still was not art!

Here are a few examples:

Previously I would have been overjoyed with any of these captures and I am sure they would be appreciated by anyone (especially divers) looking at them, but they are not art.

I then thought around a focus on wide angle images of the reef, all of these use my 10-22mm zoom

Once again, I am pretty happy with these and the many other "keepers" I captured.  However, once again, I do not think they are right for this course.  I have two reasons for this:

  1. The images have no common thread, other than that they are underwater and really difficult to create. There is no story here beyond a series of beautiful images of a strange and for most people inaccessible place.  
  2. There is no self expression in these images, what comes from me, again other than the fact that I was there.
This caused a lot of introspection for a few days and left me feeling a little down, how could I create a set of images that would work both to describe a place I find manifestly beautiful, but which also have a common thread.  Maybe not a story, but there needed to be a narrative.

Inspiration came from the OCA community.  Whilst I was at the island I had some access to the Internet and was able (when the system permitted) to post a few images to the web.  Feedback to one image in particular gave me an idea that I was then able to develop into what will become my submission for this assignment.

In common with many locations in South East Asia the island offered an excellent "House Reef" accessible directly from the dive base.  The base was built just at the edge of the lagoon, at the point where the shallow slope of the lagoon suddenly switched to a steep slope to significant depth.  Over a distance of about 50 meters the lagoon went from the beach to a depth of about 3m, at the dive base this then dropped over the next 50m to around 25m - the sea floor depth in this area.  The slope is sandy and populated by numerous artificial reefs, structures of wood or steel dropped into the ocean to create habitats and attract fish.  Good for the divers and good for the wildlife.

Around 20m deep on the Lankayan House Reef

Such house reefs are great places to dive without the pressure of boats and large groups.  Heidi and I could simply go and do whatever we wanted to.  As we dived the house reef around 10 times, we became very familiar with it and it became a great place to refine photographic ideas, with the ability to return to a location and shoot several times.  As can be seen in the above image the visibility was mixed, repetitive diving meant we could take advantage of when the vis was good.  We could also spend as much time as we wished, completing 70 rather than 40-50 minute dives.

Initially my motivation was to capture images such as the following:

This capture takes advantage of the juxtaposition of fish with the man made structure of the jetty, together with light filtering from above - this shot was taken at dusk when the light was very low.

Diving the house reef also brought us into a place few divers bother with, the transitional zone between the shallow sand/blocky coral of the lagoon and the depth of the reef.  Most divers, especially early in their activity, want to dive deeper and deeper, the rationale seems to be that cool stuff lives in the deep and look at me I'm a Ninja deep diver.  With experience the obvious becomes clear, most stuff lives in the brightly lit water close to the surface and depth only brings darkness, shorter dive times, and increased risk.  Armed with a camera, more light is always good!

However, diving in shallow water over sand is very difficult, it requires complete buoyancy control (managing depth simply by how you breath and not with fins) and an ability to maintain very precise depth.  Here is an example of how to do this

Heidi is in no more than 3m of water, her fins are high to avoid disturbing the sand and creating a cloud that will severely displease her buddy!  This is also more dangerous than it looks as the shallow lagoon can have a lot of boat traffic, hence the need for accurate depth control.  Diving in 3m of water means staying in a layer deeper than 1.5m to avoid outboard motors and above 2.5m to avoid kicking up the sand.  The beauty is that air and decompression limits are effectively infinite, the cold will get you before air becomes an issue.

What this image also shows is the magical light that exists in this shallow layer and some of the sense of infinity that pervades this region.  During one of these very shallow dives I took the following image and posted it to Flickr under the title: "Underwater Minimalism"

The play of light and the sense of infinity really hit something in my psyche, this image says a lot about why I love to dive and what the ocean means to me.  The good feedback made me then develop this further.  I abandoned mu scuba gear and reduced my camera rig to simply the housing and wide angle lens (no strobes).  I then took to snorkeling in the lagoon trying to capture different aspects of this special world:

There is a surprising amount of life in the shallows (safer from predators).  There was also shelter provided by trees that had fallen into the sea due to erosion.  The lagoon has its menaces:

Juvenile Black Tip sharks grow to adulthood in the lagoon safe from attack by the larger sharks of the deep water.  These guys are no more than 2 feet long, but are still very sharky and wonderful to swim with.  A big advantage of moving from scuba to snorkel is losing the noise a scuba system creates, meaning I could get much closer to the wildlife.

Another aspect of the lagoon is that it is the point at which man interacts with ocean, structures are built supporting piers, over water buildings, etc.  These create habitat for the animals and make for some interesting imagery:

Over a period of about 8 days I spent at least an hour a day exploring this shallow regime, snorkeling or diving, camera in hand - got some funny looks from other divers.  In total I took around 500 shots, which I have now narrowed to 80 "keepers".  My next job will be to refine these to the 10 or 12 needed for the assignment and to further develop the conceptual side.

What I have in mind is a study of the layers that make up the lagoon, what exists between surface and bottom, but perhaps also the interfaces between surface and sky.  Whilst on the island low tide coincided with early evening or dawn, meaning that I could shoot the surface of the lagoon in combination with the moon or fiery sky of sunset.  Following are a few images on this theme:

The challenge I have is whether this will break the flow of the underwater images or add further to the narrative of a lagoon.  The colours will be different and individually these images are pretty much "nice" holiday shots...

A further variant on this theme is the under-over shot:

These are very tricky to shoot as it needs very flat calm sea, a depth at which I can stand, and luck.  They are interesting and possibly add an extra dimension.

Almost as an FYI, here is an image of the lagoon and dive base

Almost all of the shots were taken to the left of this jetty, under the dive base in center, or under the jetty.  The boats are the reason care is needed, I have no fear of any sea animal, but outboard motors scare the crap out of me.

So, my theme is set, the photos are taken, no chance to go back 8,000 miles to reshoot anything, it now comes down to the edit and developing a meaningful narrative for the sequence of images I finally select.  My goal is to create a set of images that must be judged as a whole, not a series of individual photographs whose technical merits can be critiqued.  This is a good project for DPP as the images will require a significant amount of work before finalizing, however, what is most important to me is to see whether I can create a coherent and artistic statement about what the tropical ocean means to me.  This is personal, very personal!

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