Featured

Self-portrait

Welcome, and thank you for stopping. It is very kind of you to do so. There are so many demands on our time and attention so I appreciate you taking the effort to pause here a moment.


My name is Stephen Taylor. I work full time (as an e-learning developer and instructional designer) but in my spare time I take photographs. You can view some of my work on this website. Some of it is also for sale on Alamy and nuMonday, either as digital downloads or physical prints. More of my photographs can be found on Flickr and Instagram as well.

We are always learning (I learnt that in my early days as a trainer) and this blog is a part of my learning process (and possibly yours?). Some of the postings will be on the subject of photography itself, based upon my reading on the subject and viewing other photographers’ works. Other postings will be on my experiences as a photographer seeking to improve my art; some of these will be less about the photographic process and more about the subject itself.

I am sharing them because I hope that people will respond with their own ideas so that together we can learn. I am not an expert in the subject but I am happy to share my thoughts and to have them challenged. I hope that in some respects this blog can become a conversation on the subject of photography.

Space

A photograph is an artefact – it is a flat piece of paper (or an image on a computer screen). It typically has four sides although who’s to say you can’t make it a heptagon or a dodecagon? However many sides you give your image, they will remain its edges. Everything you want to say with your photograph has to be said within that area. So how do you create images that can show three dimensional space within those constraints?

I am going to share a few of my photographs to show how I try to do it and how I attempt to use space when I am composing images. These are just my own views and, as with many things in art, there is not a right or wrong answer. I would love to hear your own views. Please share them in the comments below.

So let’s begin by thinking about empty space. This is the negative space in your photograph – the opposite is positive space which is the subject of your photograph. You will want to consider how the two interact. Begin by checking if there is anything you can see through your viewfinder that might distract from your subject – pay particular attention to the edges of the frame! Be aware that it might not be something behind your subject – check for any out of focus objects in the foreground butting in.

If you want your subject to stand out you may want to minimise anything in the background.  One option is to photograph your subject from low down against the sky, as in this example of St. John of Nepomuk on Charles Bridge, Prague. I was only interested in getting a picture of him and it was an overcast day so I had a uniform and neutral coloured sky as the background. I wanted the subject to be isolated so the negative space is completely uniform with no detail in it.

On other occasions  you might want the negative space to play a part in the photograph, as in this case. The subject is the flint lying in the grass in the foreground. In the background, though there is an old earthwork, a Bronze Age burial mound; the background therefore provides extra information about the subject and adds context.

The burial mound is out of focus. Whilst your photograph is a flat plane, careful use of focus can create a sense of depth in your picture. Here’s another example – a line of barbed wire with an out of focus field and woodland in the background.

Close-up of a length of barbed wire in front of track leading across a field to a line of trees on the horizon

These two photographs could also be considered as layering, where objects are placed in front of another, to create a sense of depth.

The track in the second photograph is another way of creating depth in a flat photograph. Your eye follows the track to the back of the picture. Here are two more photographs of another track but in each of them the effect is slightly different. In the first photograph there are some people walking away from us into the distance which emphasises the sense of depth even more. As a viewer you follow them and are drawn deeper into the back of the image. In the second picture, taken at the same places the people are coming towards the viewer out of the woods; the track leads us into the background but now we are being brought back to the front of the picture.

Photographs of subjects moving help create a sense of space. For example in this photograph of a person cycling across the image; there is space in front of them to ride their bike. There is an viewpoint that moving objects should always have that space to move into otherwise the picture may not work as well.

Here’s another cyclist with the space behind them. What do you think? Do you react differently to this picture?

This photograph does give the viewer a hint that there might be something beyond the edges of the photograph. Other ways of doing this is to have objects intentionally butting into the image, leaving the viewer with the idea that there is more outside the viewpoint.

Here is a close-up of a sunflower; it shows the detail but hints at the whole.

Another way of doing that is to have your subject look out of the frame. The viewer gets the idea that there is something beyond the edges of the photograph. It also, as in this example, creates a sense of distance; space beyond the photograph.

That’s a few of the ways that I try to use space in my photographs. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the subject. Please add them in the comments section below.

Time

A photograph is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world squashed within its four edges. It can also be a single moment trying to represent a four dimensional world.

There was time before the shutter fired and there will be time afterwards. In an earlier post I looked at the difference between instantaneous time and long time in photographs. In this post I would like to explore this idea a little bit further by sharing a few of my photographs which represent time in different ways.

You can leave the shutter open and let time pass in front of the camera.

Time blurs

Time blurs and you can end up with some surprising and slightly spooky images as in this photograph taken outside York Minster. The young man was fixated on his phone and stood stock still but other people milled around him in the time the shutter was open and in the final result have turned into apparitions. Rather appropriately this photograph was taken at Halloween! The camera was stood still for the photograph (on a bin as I didn’t have a tripod!) and the world and time moved around it.

Or you can use a very fast shutter speed and stop time in its tracks

Time stops

The water dropping from this tap is frozen forever in a single instance, such as these drops suspended from a dripping tap. Our own eyes would be unlikely to catch this moment, but a camera and a flash gun can capture it and hold it for us to observe at our leisure.

Time itself could be the subject of the photograph

Old time

Your choice of subject matter can help create a sense of time. Perhaps it is something very old such as this ancient yew tree, allegedly 2000 years old.

Weathered time

Or something that shows the decay of time as in the rust on this old railway carriage. 

Or perhaps your subject matter has deep historical resonance and a strong link with the past.

Time resonates

This photograph shows the jetty at Cobh in County Cork where the last few passengers for the Titanic set off to join the vessel on its ill-fated trip.  In another example I recently shared some photographs and wrote about the sense of another place where momentous events happened (again of a maritime nature). This was the launch ramp of the Great Eastern steam.

In both cases when standing at such places photographing them I have a sense of the events that took place there resonating down through the years.

Take time to record time.

There are other ways that time can be recorded by photography. It’s just that you may have to go the long way round to do it.           

One method is to revisit a subject over time, record it as it changes, perhaps with the seasons. You could either set your camera in one place on each occasion to record exactly the same scene or you could move around to get a broader picture of space as well as time. In a rather informal way I did this when I took a series of photographs from September to May in a small park near where I live. You can view some of the photographs here.

In that case the images were a series of photograph but it is possible with software such as Adobe Photoshop to layer multiple images taken over a period of time into one photograph. To see some more extreme examples take a look at this Ted Talk by a photographer who spends his time doing just that.          

Capturing our own memories.

Great times

And finally there are other more subtle ways to show time. This is likely to be incidental but can also be very personal. After all, photographs are memories. Looking at an old photograph of an incident in your own life can highlight the sense of time having passed.

Here are two which mean very much to me. The first shows a table laid for dinner taken on a holiday with some very special friends a few years ago – it reminds me of that particular warm evening as the sun was setting and we were just beginning to gather to eat.

Personal time

The second photograph is layered with memories – it is a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse and it was bought by my father in Lucknow, India (as the stamp on the fly leaf shows) whilst he was serving there during the second world war. He had brought it home and kept it all his life so the book itself had become a memory for him of his war service and his experiences in India. For me, the photograph represents the memory of my father.  


So time can be captured within the camera, leaving the shutter open and letting time run by, or using a very fast shutter speed to stop time in its tracks. Or it can be recorded in a series of photographs of a place, object or person over time. Or it could be captured by the subjects we choose to photograph of places and objects imbued with great significance in the past that still ring through the ages. Or, on a more personal level by the memories that photographs can hold have of own lives.

What other ways can you capture time in photographs? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

The Familiar

For the past year the places I have been able to visit and photograph have been limited, so very often I have fallen back on subjects closer to home, returning to the same place many times. There is one particular place I have visited regularly since last September. It’s a small park near my home where I would meet with one or more friends depending upon the rules at the time. I always took my camera with me and over the last few months I have photographed almost every aspect of the place; its trees, the benches, the little café (sadly closed for much of the time) and the community garden. And I watched them through the different seasons from leaf fall into deep snow and back into bloom again.

As a photographer the familiar can offer a way of exploring something in depth. If you are not in an area for very long, for example visiting somewhere new for holiday, you won’t have time to explore so some of your photographs might be more of the postcard variety. If you are going to take meaningful photographs you need to understand the place more.

Some photographers specialised in one particular subject for all or part of their career. Eugene Atget, for example, photographed the streets and buildings of Paris, giving us a detailed view of how it looked in his day.

Photographing the familiar can also act as a way of recording time. Nicholas Nixon photographed his wife and her three sisters once a year for forty years, always standing in the same order so you could see how they changed over time.

If you photograph something regularly your relationship to the subject will also change over time. Perhaps you will begin to see it in a different light, literally if you visit it at different times of the day or the year as I was with the little park.

“The most solemn and awfull appearance”

This is the latest in an occasional series of photo essays on the events that happened at places I have photographed. I am always struck by the sense of time that has passed and the momentous events that have occurred at the place I have chosen to photograph. This series explores some of those moments from some of my favourite places. This one looks at a number of different places across London that have fascinated me since I came here thirty years ago.


A bad tempered and bitterly fought general election which resulted in a trouncing for the losing party and the winning party in hoc to some of its more extreme elements.

Sounds familiar?

This was actually the election of 1710 when the Tories stormed to power over the Whigs (the precursors of today’s Liberal Democrat party) with a 150 seat majority. In an age when England was largely a theocracy they won on the back of a fear that the Church of England, the established church, was losing its power. The Whigs had introduced policies which gave freedom of worship to dissenting Protestants such as Methodists and Baptists. This was seen as too much for the extreme elements of the Tory Party who rallied under a three word slogan, “Church in Danger”.

Following their success and after many years in the wilderness the Tories were quick to act. In 1711 they passed the Act of Occasional Conformity which made it harder for dissenters to qualify for public office, and in 1714 the Schism Act made Dissenting Academies illegal. But they wanted to do more to assert the authority of the state and in a theocracy what better way than building a lot of religious buildings?

St Anne’s Church, Limehouse, was one of the churches built in the rapidly expanding eastern suburbs of London
as a part of the Fifty New Churches Act

The established Church of England, through its network of parishes and churches, played its part in bolstering the authority of the state and maintaining social order. Trouble was there weren’t enough churches to go around especially in London which had experienced rapid population growth over the last two hundred years. This was keenly felt to the east of the city where once rural districts were quickly turning into extraordinarily large and densely populated parishes, the most notable being Stepney.

It was in areas such as this that the  priest  of one overgrown parish, writing early in the reign of George I, put it:

“… the Vilest People, Highwaymen, Housebreakers, felons of all degrees. Impudent Women and Persons disaffected to His Majesty’s Government, take Harbour and fly to their haunts therein as Vermin to their Kennels, after they have taken their Prey: and this, as the Case stands at present, with too much security.”

The Fifty New Churches Act

To counter the joint threats of the non-conformists and the growing population of the East End, and to provide a fitting symbol of the power of the state, the Fifty New Churches Act was passed. Its purpose was to build

“…fifty new churches of Stone and other proper Materials with towers or Steeples to each of them … in or near the Cities of London and Westminster, or the suburbs thereof.”

Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect and one of the commissioners appointed to oversee the implementation of the Act (and, notwithstanding his fervour for this piece of legislation, a Whig) wrote:

“The fifty new Churches the Queen has gloriously promoted the building of in London and Westminster should not only serve for ye accommodation of ye inhabitants …, but at ye same time remain monuments to posterity of her piety and grandure, & by consequence become ornaments to ye Town & a credit to ye Nation.”

 Vanbrugh felt that in order to assert their authority the new churches had to be of “the most Solemn and Awfull Appearance both within and without.” The sheer grandeur of the project can be seen in the cost of some of the churches, of which only one was to cost less than £10,000 (a rebuild) and at least two of which were to cost four times that amount each. St Johns, Westminster was one of the more elaborate; it and St. Pauls, Deptford, both designed by Thomas Archer, were built in a highly baroque style, a very theatrical form of architecture which  had originated in Rome in the seventeenth century. It made extensive use of ornate detailing internally and externally.

The architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, and a student of Christopher Wren’s, is perhaps the most famous name associated with the Fifty Churches. He made use of baroque elements but his churches were of a more austere nature, coming closest to Vanbrugh’s “Solemn and Awfull Appearance.” He had been appointed surveyor to the Commissioners of the Act in 1711 and held the post until his death in 1736.

The most uncompromising of his churches is perhaps Christ Church, Spitalfields, an aggressive, monumental church. Its portico has massive pillars with a central arch breaking through the horizontal on its way to the steeple, serving to emphasise its stature.

Hawksmoor was also the architect of the only church to be built in the City: St Mary Wolnoth, a small yet monumental church looking like a stocky pugilist muscling its way through the buildings that surround it. Within, it belies its small exterior with a disproportionately high roof supported in each corner by three massive columns.

St Mary, Wolnoth, small but monumental; the only church built under the Fifty New Churches Act in the City of London

Baroque architecture was perfectly suited to the aspirations of the High Church Tories. It had arisen in a city where state and church were inextricably linked and presented in solid form the evidence of that connection. In England, however, it was to last only a brief time as an interlude between Inigo Jones’ cool classicism of the mid-seventeenth century and neo-Palladianism (in many ways a revival of Jones) in the later eighteenth century. It was during this interlude that the last fling of High Church Toryism occurred before its subsidence in the face of Whig ascendancy.

By 1714 the Tory dominance was over; in that year they fell from power and the following year a further Act was passed setting up a new Commission. Whereas the previous one had included such architects as Wren, Vanbrugh and Archer, the new Commission contained none. Indeed thee was a feeling of embarrassment at having to carry through the Act.

This may have been to do with the expense of the project. In 1717 the Commission protested at having to rebuild old churches, pleading that building should be done in “Rubble, Brick [and] Brick coin’d with stone,” instead of just Stone and finally decided to build no more churches “till we find ourselves in a condition to discharge the Contracts that are made or shall be made for finishing the Churches now in building.”

With the Whigs back in power and a more favourable view of dissenters, the baroque style of High Toryism fell out of favour.  The Scottish architect, Colen Campbell, in his work Vitruvius Britannicus, published in 1715, was scathing of the baroque style calling it “affected and licentious” and endeavouring “to debauch Mankind”. He praised the earlier Italian architects such as Palladio alongside Inigo Jones for their cool classical style of architecture.

In 1715, following a putsch at the Royal Works, the office which undertook the building and repair of the monarch’s property, Campbell became the chief clerk. Out went Wren to be replaced by an amateur architect, William Benson (another Whig). His brother, “lately come from a merchant in Ireland” replaced Hawksmoor as the Clerk of Works.

Within a short time there had been a backlash against those who had been involved with the earlier churches and their design began to change. This can particularly be seen in the case of St Giles-in-the-Fields. Hawskmoor was amongst those who put forward a design but the tender went to Henry Flitcroft, “Burlington Harry”, a one-time joiner on the estate of Lord Burlington, a champion of the neo-Palladian movement. James Ralph commended Flitcroft’s church as being “the most simple and elegant of the modern structures: it is rais’d at very little expence, has very few ornaments, and little beside the propriety of its parts, and the harmony of the whole to excite attention, and challenge applause.” Ralph, “Mr Rafe the Critick” as Hawksmoor called him, thought much of the other churches built under the Act “mere Gothique heaps of stone, without form or order.”

Flitcroft ultimately presented a bill of £8,436 19s and 6d (£8,436/19/6d). Cost had become a very important factor and in 1719 work came to a halt in order to pay off outstanding debts. Five years later the Commission was obliged to admit:

“… that ye Expence of building with stones. Purchasing Scites for Churches, Church yards and Ministers’ Houses, is so very great and does so far exceed the Calculations formerly made, that ye Committee conceive it will be utterly impracticable to build one half of the Churches first proposed.”

As a cost-cutting exercise the Commission in 1727 asked Hawksmoor and his then colleague, John James to build two new churches and rectories on a £10,000 budget for each. The results, St John, Horsleydown and St Luke Old Street, are more straightforward (bar their idiosyncratic steeples – Hawksmoor’s influence).

The spire of St Luke’s, Old Street, Hawksmoor’s contribution to the one of the last churches built under the terms of the Fifty New Churches Act

So the venture petered out. Cost cutting, political changes and a change in architectural tastes brought it to an end. Of the Fifty New Churches only ten were built (and two of those rebuilds).  Efforts to assert the authority of the Church and the State through the building of grandiose churches had failed. It would become the last major church building exercise until the Victorian era when a similar panic about the threat to the Church of England’s authority broke out. It was part of the long retreat of England as a theocracy.

However it has produced some of the most dramatic buildings in London. I first became aware of them when I was doing my history degree and ever since I have been drawn back to them, especially to the strangely unnerving designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

The Sitter

A Daguerreotype in its ornate frame
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Photographic portraiture is the best feature of the fine arts for the million that the ingenuity of man has yet devised. It has in this sense swept away many of the illiberal distinctions of rank and wealth, so that the poor man who possesses but a few shillings can command as perfect a lifelike portrait of his wife and child as Sir Thomas Lawrence painted for the most distinguished sovereigns of Europe.'”

The Photographic News (London) 1861

A little while ago I posted a blog about the growth of the selfie from the first time we saw our reflections through to the present day when we take billions of photographs of ourselves every year. It has become a second nature to pose in front of a camera whether it is for a self-portrait or someone else is pressing the shutter. We have become so narcissistic it can be very hard to imagine what it must have been like to have been photographed for the first time. In this blog I want to focus on that experience.

Can you remember when you first looked at a photograph of yourself and realised it was you?

The chances are very remote that you do. We have all grown up in an era when photographing ourselves is a common occurrence. Many of our life experiences from the significant to the mundane have been captured on camera so to try to isolate the moment when you first saw a photograph of yourself would be very difficult.

In the early days of photography seeing that photo would be a significant moment especially as it may be the only one you will ever have of yourself. It would not have been a simple “Say Cheese” as you or someone else held their phone up for a moment to capture everyone. The process would have been complicated. It would have required a trip to a photographer’s studio so it would have been something of a day out.

Initially the cost would be quite expensive, perhaps the equivalent of several months wages; another reason for it being a one-off experience. In  time and with improved processes and technology this cost would come tumbling down.

Once at the studio you would have been ushered onto what looked like a theatrical stage with daylight pouring down from above to light you. The set would have included a variety of backdrops, furniture and props, possibly of a grander style than you were used to at home, adding to the sense of the occasion. Apart from the light overhead there might be some mirrors beneath you to throw some of it back into your eyes. As you settle yourself down you try not to squint.

Family portrait 1855. Not everybody manages to stay still!
Bergen Public Library Norway from Bergen, Norway, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

You and your family would be posed. The photographer would disappear under the dark cloth of his camera to check the image and then come back to move you a little. You might be sat in a chair with your family around you. As you lean back you feel a metal clamp behind your head to hold it steady for the duration of the exposure. The photographer asks someone else in your group to hold their chin in their hand as if in thought.  You will all need to stay still for a bit.

You would probably arrange your features into a fairly neutral expression. You won’t smile because it is hard to keep it up for the duration of the exposure and you really don’t want to ruin the picture as you will only get one chance. Also, perhaps you are slightly overawed and feel you need to put on a face appropriate to the grandeur of the circumstances. You might be thinking of some of the portraits of famous people you have seen and you would remember that in most of them did not smile. So you would compose yourself accordingly.

When everything was ready you would need to remain still whilst a photographic plate was put into the camera and then the lens cap to expose it for a little while.

If your photograph is being taken in the very early days of the invention then you may need to stay still for several minutes, maybe up to twenty minutes even in the brightest sunlight. In those cases you might close your eyes (trying not to fall asleep) knowing that the photographer would open them again by retouching them. As the photographic process became more sensitive and lenses were able to capture more light the time would come to a few seconds.

Once the ordeal was over you would be ushered out with no doubt the next subjects already queuing up to take your place for their moment in the spotlight.

A few days later you would return to pick up the photograph. Today images have become transient; we look at them for a moment and then move on. There are apps devoted to the short-term sharing of photographs, deleted after a brief moment. Back in the nineteenth century your photograph would have been more than just an image. It would be an object. For the early Daguerreotype process it would have been a one-off, a shiny artefact set in an ornate frame. Once home the photograph would take pride of place on a shelf for all to see (although because of its reflective surface it could only be viewed one at a time from directly in front).

And at the end you have an heirloom, an object held by the family, fading and scratched but still recognisably you after all these years. We look back at you and briefly experience that same sense of wonder that you must have felt on the day that you first held this photograph in hands.

Looking up

Changing your viewpoint lets you see things in a different way. Here are a few photographs taken over the last few weeks on strolls around my part of London when I turned the camera skyward to take a different view.

Spring

A few photographs taken whilst cycling around London in late March and April as the year turns from Winter to Spring and as the Covid19 lockdown eases in England.

On this day 29th March

St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland with fishing nets in foreground

Another from my collection of photographs taken on this day in years past and, another from my visit to the south coast of Ireland in March 2015. This is the coastal town of Cobh, just outside Cork. In the background is St Colman’s cathedral; construction began in 1869 but numerous revisions to the original designs meant that it was not consecrated until 1919.

The fishing nets in the foreground remind us that is a working maritime town. Apart from fishing it would once also have seen transatlantic liners pausing here before heading to America, the most famous (for all the wrong reasons) being the RMS Titanic.

It is fascinating if slightly grim to think that this small town and its cathedral (probably still covered in scaffolding at that time) would be the last sight of land for the passengers and crew of that ill fated vessel.

On this day 28th March

Kinsale

Today’s photograph was taken in 2015 on a visit to Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland. One of the things I loved about Ireland was the colourful buildings such as the blue and yellow ones up on the hillside above the harbour.

On this day 27th March

Cork skyline

For those of you who have been following my photographic endeavours for a little while you may recognise that I tend to hunt out the more obscure parts of the places I visit. This is a view of Cork taken today in 2015. In the centre of town there are lots of marvellous buildings and, of course, a rather splendid river but I turned my camera to the edges of the city and photographed the skyline of a church spire and telephone wires.