Wednesday, February 06, 2008

600: Entangled and Enthused

I think it’s fitting to mark the 600th entry on this blog with a reflection on my recent sabbatical from, and subsequent return to, photography.

* * * * *

During my break, I found myself immersed in several books on lighting and photography, borrowed from the library.

From Lee Frost’s The A-Z of Creative Photography I learnt to manipulate colour using coloured flash and long exposure times. And Gerald Millerson’s Lighting for Television and Film taught me a great deal about atmospheric lighting on set/location. Michael Langford’s Advanced Photography, however, proved a little too technical for my purposes!

* * * * *

Cast
Ai Wei
Amos
Evans
Rachel
Yen

Crew
Adrian
Ann Gie
Chian Ming
Jane
Zach

Props etc.
Ropes
Newspaper
Ketchup
Michael Jackson Live in Bucharest DVD
Black turtleneck
Black jacket
Giant torchlight
Car reflectors
IKEA Lamp (Global)
Rubber bands
Curtain lace
Ladies’ stockings
Face mirror
Large white bedsheet
Foil
Masking tape
Sony Ericsson K700i
Sony Ericsson K750i

(Some things weren’t used in the end, like the newspaper, ketchup, turtleneck, car reflectors, rubber bands and foil.)

Cost
Ropes (assorted thicknesses; total length 105 ft) RM 35.50
Giant torchlight (Eveready Dolphin) RM 40.00
Masking tape RM 4.90

* * * * *

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape writes these words to his nephew, a junior tempter called Wormwood:

Fun is closely related to Joy—a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which the Enemy [God] would like them to be feeling or doing: but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.

Looking back over the last year-and-a-half, it was precisely the fun in photography that I had lost.


One of the things I learnt most from the Entangled Photo Shoot (and the Pesta Tiong Hua photo shoot three hours later) was that a photo shoot is not just a two-way cameraman-cast affair, but a three-way interaction between cameraman, cast/subject and crew.

In the past, I’d always controlled the scene on my own. But I have come to realise that it is extremely beneficial to everyone on set (and it shows in the final product, too) to have several assistants on hand.

It was Adrian who transported everyone (except those from 12th College, who opted to walk back together) back home, especially those living further away like Zach and Rachel. He also took many photos during the shoot itself and operated the lights at many key moments in the creative process. It was also he who took the ‘asylum in blue’ photo.

Ann Gie swapped her shorts for Rachel’s mini-skirt; it had a profound impact on the final product besides giving us lots of food for talk! Also, it was her Sony Ericsson K750i which provided all the lighting for the final few shots, which also happened to be the best pictures of the night.

As the night progressed, Zach got better and better as the lighting man. We nailed the final shot when he used my black UM Planner to shield Ann Gie’s phone camera flash to prevent unwanted stray lighting. Also, he directed the shot of the models tying up the cameraman and provided lighting for the asylum shot.

Chian Ming pulled out in order to rest ahead of some three tournaments ahead of her the next day (basketball finals, tennis prelims), but nonetheless transported virtually everyone and all the equipment to KPS where we did the shoot despite having just returned from a gruelling basketball match.

And although Jane could only stay awhile to see us get started (she had a discussion of some sort to attend), she helped pick up food from Sahur for Evans and set up the bedsheet as our budget backdrop.

The shoot wouldn’t have been what it was if the crew members did not contribute what they did. With much satisfaction and gladness in my heart, I present to you...

The Entangled Photo Shoot!

* * * * *


8.48 p.m. An attempt at 'cloning' Amos. I was experimenting with composite exposures. I think what I should've done was use a little flash to freeze him in place.


9.08 p.m. Adrian and his shadow. Just for fun.


9.47 p.m. Rachel's top is black but appears reddish under blue light, which was produced by placing a sheet of blue cellophane paper over the flash head.


10.17 p.m. Setting up the model and camera positions for the shoot.


10.31 p.m. Reviewing the positions before beginning the shoot proper at about 11.56 p.m.


12.22 p.m. The final and best shot of the first session. There was much room for improvement, and unfortunately I didn't notice that the door behind Evans was slightly ajar.


1.34 a.m. Set-up for the second session.


2.15 a.m. An exhausted cast and crew.


2.22 a.m. The crew in green light. Clockwise from top-left; Ann Gie, Adrian and Zach.


2.25 a.m. Potential album cover? Yen, Evans, Adrian and Rachel looking really 'hot' under red light.


2.44 a.m. The cast and crew decided to exact their revenge on the cameraman for making them endure a somewhat severe shoot. I had Zach fire a blue flash from the side; the picture turned out to be more asylum-ish than I expected.


2.52 a.m. More album cover potential?


Some feedback from after the shoot...

Ann Gie: My throbbing headache was healed last night.
Jane: Please don’t do that next time ya. Kesian them.
Yen: However exhausting the Entangled photo shoot was, it has failed to dissuade me from taking part in any more shoots.

* * * * *

I had barely two hours of sleep between five and seven-something, before I was awakened by How who came to give me my Pesta Tiong Hua III (PTH III) t-shirt and call me down for the shoot.


The glare from the morning sun provided the perfect opportunity to put the car reflectors to good use, for they had not been utilised thus far. This second shoot reinforced the lessons I learnt from the first, i.e. that a photo crew can be an invaluable element and that simple props used creatively can produce--if not surpass--the effects brought about by expensive professional equipment.


In the spirit of light manipulation, I decided to have all the exco portraits done with reflected light. One reflector was held to Say Siong's right slightly above his head level (to block the sun), while the other was positioned to his left near ground level to bounce the light and give a more dynamic, three-dimensional feel to what might have otherwise been a rather flat and dull photo.

* * * * *

After editing the best of the photos, I came up with this:


The Creative Director gave it a seven out of ten.

Others have commented that it looks very theatrical; one said it looks like a movie advertisement.

My art is not Deviantart. It’s probably nowhere near those strong, sparse graphics that often work so well as pieces of art. If you ask me, I can’t for the life of me tell you why I go through so much trouble to produce something that has lesser emotional impact than a lot of the stuff my peers (and many creative media photographers) are producing.

In essence, I realise my pictures have been increasingly complex experiments and games with light. And I truly believe it was this incident that set it off:


If you ask me what it is I hope to achieve with my pictures, I cannot tell you for I do not know myself. Perhaps once again I must turn to a comparison with the band that has time and again inspired me, encouraged me and challenged me over the last few years.

The early days of U2 were marked with many experiments, few breakthroughs, lots of fun and raw, imperfect glimpses of mountains yet to be scaled. We need only to recall the unusual percussion sounds on ‘I Will Follow’ produced by breaking bottles and running forks through bicycle wheel spokes. But it was the whole joy of working together and having fun in the recording studio that made U2 what they were, and I believe, what they still are today.

* * * * *

It seems I have been less prolific of late. When I wrote the 500th entry here, I was averaging 250 posts a year. This post arrives over a year after the 500th, so in terms of quantity I'm not half the blogger I used to be!

But what a year it has been! Growing as a writer, a photographer, a person...

Photography used to be about taking snapshots and selecting the best of the lot, editing a little and printing/blogging them. Now I am far slower; often I spend ages thinking of a shot, and more ages setting it up. The end results aren't always breathtaking, but I have noticed that each shot means something special to the people involved in it.

If I may indulge a little philosophy, perhaps the question that begs an answer at this point is, "What is photography?" Lai Voon Loong of The Star, Kelvin Chan of DDB and David Doubilet of National Geographic would probably give different answers. What about Benjamin Ong?

Maybe my answer reflects my status as a budget photographer with neither high-end gear nor the means by which to acquire them; I realise I have developed in this way because of the restrictions imposed upon me by my equipment.

And my answer at this point is this: I paint with light. I am less interested in a subject for what it is than for how it interacts with light. Not all my photographs are art, and not all my art is photography; but such are the photos produced when these two worlds collide. Perhaps in some ways I'm a minimalist; but if that is so, I am only a minimalist with objects and equipment, not with time.

I have also discovered that I have no compunctions when it comes to certain types of 'vandalism', like removing man-made objects from natural scenes or getting rid of items that get in the way.


There is no real way to end this post, for it is merely a transition from one 'epoch' to another. The Ipoh trip taught me a lot about photography and has inspired me in many ways. I will blog on it soon, once I get my photos and thoughts in order.

I have learnt a little here and there from great photographers, and glimpses of Ira Block and Lisl Dennis will be readily apparent. But Ipoh was more than a photographic holiday; at some points I felt as if I was walking in a past I never knew, but only heard of in stories. And at other points I felt a connection to the rest of the world.

I've been inspired to take my photography in certain directions, some of them eccentric and all requiring lots of hard work. I don't know when I'll be able to see those dreams and visions come true, but for now I suppose I can at least share them.

And in writing I have been challenged to embark on a project similar to Alice Munro's in her collection of short stories, The View from Castle Rock. There were occasions when I really could see myself as a National Geographic writer/photographer... ah, such dreams.

But the most interesting stories probably have little to do with my photos or writings. The most stirring, electrifying and perhaps ultimately encouraging tales are always about the people in a place: encounters with the pretty girls of Ipoh, theories about the agents of the criminal underworld, voices of another era and perhaps even another planet, a car that became one of the best models on the trip, and of course... the crazy things a bunch of young adults can do given the right space and the right company!


Coming soon.

3 comments:

Siedne said...

congrats on the 600th!

Samantha said...

Hello Benjamin! It's Samantha here. It was really nice meeting you today. I should have gotten a copy of your poem or something and get your autograph dammit haha. I don't have a blog. But here I am commenting! So I guess I have online prescence now :) Nice pictures. I especially like the black and white one.

wideopensky said...

The 2.52am and the black and white ones are excellent. Not bad considering the amount of equipment you had (a handphone flash?)--not enough for strong cross-lighting, just general wash effects. Wanna experiment with black and white too? check out "savoir aimer" music video by florent pagny on youtube. i love the concept, very powerful in expressing the sentiments of the song.

I still maintain that the best lesson you learnt in Mersing was empathy, haha. ;) You should thank me for hounding you (as well as the half hour where Tee Ming and I stood absurdly with the torch while you attempted to "write" dna with your camera).

maybe one of the dna trips we take can have phototaking as the main agenda, in which you teach dnaers how to take nice photos and in return we help you in your setups. ahaha. see if you can actually persuade the others to do that.