Assignment 1 – Contrasts

The objective of this assignment is to assemble 8 pairs of photographs showing contrasting concepts and a contrast contained within one photograph.


It took me surprisingly long to complete this first assignment. For me, it is the confirmation that the artistic side of photography still escapes my concrete understanding. In the past, I would take good photographs by accident or instinct. But awareness of composition rules was patchy and rudimentary. One of the main issues I have to tackle is to distance myself from the technical interest I have in photography and to reach a stage where technique is unconsciously used to compose photographs.

  Light  Heavy
01-L1002282  02-L1002057
It is by chance that I came across these two subjects. Both show how a similar technique (brass casting) can express very different visual contrasts. The photograph of the young man walking was found in the garden of a large property in my neighbourhood. I used a very narrow depth of field because the background was a bit cluttered. In the second photograph, the head of a man, obviously tormented, comes from a sculpture by August Rodin found at the entrance to Basel’s Museum of Art*. The expression is intense (well, the story tells us that this man and five others will soon be beheaded). I was interested in the beautiful shiny metallic surface and in choosing a specific angle of view at close range. When preparing the photograph, it occurred to me that it was an ideal black and white subject. So I increased contrast and also gave it a blueish tint (the old cyanotype look).
*Les Bourgeois de Calais
Many Few
03-_S2V1886 04-M1000609
There are several large lakes and many rivers in Switzerland. So gulls are common. The first photograph was shot at sunrise, bathing the birds in a soft glow. There seem to be as many wing postures as there are birds. In the second photograph, by contrast, only a few birds are shown warming under a beautiful winter sun. What first attracted my attention was the larger gull standing out, as if watching the others.
Sharp Blunt
 05-_S2V4366  06-_S2V4224
Both photographs have nature in common. The first one shows a naturally spiky thistle, whereas the second one shows sea weathered wooden posts, part of a wave breaking barrier. Through this contrast, nature displays its capacity to build defence (the thistle) and to destroy artificial defences (the wooden posts).
 Strong Weak
 07-L1000928  08-L1000947
I love trees: they are persistent, resilient and patient. Walking through the square flanking Basel Cathedral, I am regularly drawn into observing the large sweet chestnut trees growing on one side. With the first photograph, I wanted to show the strength of a tree reaching out for the sky. Then, I noticed very young shoots growing on the gravel covered ground. By contrast, they appeared so weak. I did my best to take a picture at floor level with a relatively shallow depth of field, taking care to include people. The trees in the background remind us of how magnificent these shoots could become, should they be allowed to survive.
Hard Soft
09-_S2V4659 10-_S3V1099
When I took the first photograph on a Beach in North Devon, the voluptuous shapes of the rock made me first think of the contrast “straight-curved”. Then, when recently shooting clematis seed heads to show their softness, I tried unsuccessfully to find an image of something hard that would appeal to me. One day, reviewing some photographs with my wife we reconnected with the rock and the idea jumped into my mind.
Thick Thin
11-L1008570 12-L1008606
The idea here is simple: the thickness of a tree trunk compared with the thinness of grass stalks. I find the crisscrossed structure of the tree trunk very peculiar. It reveals itself only at the end of the afternoon at certain times of the year.
Liquid Solid
13-L1001895 14-L1010976
Walking around the Jardin des Plantes in Paris last winter, I came across a frozen pound. What attracted me (in addition to the notion of solid water) were the colours and shapes of the trapped dead leaves. Last autumn, I visited for the first time the Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen. At the foot of the falls, I used a wide-angle lens to capture a close-up of the mass of water appearing to be rushing towards me. I chose a relatively slow shutter speed to show movement. With a small aperture, I ensured that the industrial buildings in the background were clearly visible. Indeed, water is in Switzerland a major source of electric power through many river and mountain dams.
Sweet Sour
Sweet Sour
The first time I came across Martin Parr’s photographs was in a museum in Zurich* (there was a series on Switzerland and excerpts from other works). He was exhibiting at the same time as a retrospective dedicated to famous Swiss photographer René Burri. Never did photographs make me laugh so much as Parr’s. Later, when thinking about the contrast “sweet and sour”, rather too conventional ideas crossed my mind: should I play with objects (such as a lemon and a piece of chocolate)? Could I create something abstract with colours? Brainstorming with my wife, I remembered the photograph on the poster used by the museum to advertise Parr’s exhibition: the close-up of a smile. From it was born the idea of a sweet smile and of a sour pout. While Carr would have used bold colours, instead I tried to accentuate the contrasting moods with post-processing: adding softness and warmth for sweet and grimness (colour desaturation) for sour.
*Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich
Straight and Curved 1
Walking around a botanical garden this winter, I came across this shrub. What first attracted my attention was its intense red colour. Then, searching for an interesting angle of view, I noticed the patterns drawn by the branches. With the background, I find the image very dynamic both vertically (dominated by the in-focus forking branch) and horizontally (the curved branch). In addition, many shapes are formed with the out-of-focus background, some edges being straight, while others are curved.
Straight and Curved 2
This is a view of one of the BIS* buildings in Basel. It was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. The building forms a round corner next to one of the main squares of the city. What is interesting is the contrast between the curved shape of the building and other architectural elements: the horizontal light- and dark-grey stripes of the façade, the monumental indented opening of the front entrance and the small round or rectangular windows.
*Bank for International Settlements


Much learning came with this assignment (and with the course as a whole). While I would like to highlight three specific topics here, it should be made clear that the process of learning never happens in isolation. At the same time I was thinking of creating the above photographs, I was also visiting exhibitions and reading books (most notably Susan Sontag’s On Photography). My expectation (and hope) was that this course would bring me in touch with the real artistic nature of photography. In fact, my studies generated a complete questioning of not only the artistic nature of photography but also of the very essence of the act of photography; as a photographer, I feel reborn and now at the stage of early childhood. I will come back to this in future blogs (so please watch this space: I will add links here when new material becomes available).

Specific to this assignment, were three aspects of my learning:

  1. Eclecticism in regard to subject and techniques: is it good or bad?
  2. Post-processing: why do I do so little of it whereas it is so important (and how important is it actually)?
  3. The creative process: how to manage the fact that it tends to sometimes stall?


In the past, I conceived photography essentially as being technical and aiming at producing wonderful and extraordinary pictures (I am a long time subscriber of the National Geographic magazine). Due to some characteristics of my personality, technology is the easiest path to tackling the subject. However, it was always quite clear to me that there was something else beyond the mere beauty of a photograph. Exposed to famous photographers’ work, I could sometimes sense their artistic qualities, but other times I could not. So, the question was: “Why is this particular photograph considered by others as outstanding?”. This question directly led me to embark on the Open College of Art course “The Art of Photography”.

Yet, reading more about photographic composition in the course and other material caused me to enlarge my field of vision. One could say that it is good… The problem is that the diversity it brings also gives me the feeling that I lack focus. In other words, I am feeling drowned by many ideas of projects with few of them receiving the necessary attention to warrant completion. I imagine myself as a painter starting tens of sketches and throwing a few streaks of paint on canvas but never finishing a single one. My OCA studies should help me develop a structured and rigourous approach to photography.


When working with an analogue camera, I was using the best media available at the time: colour slides. Already then, I was told by some that colour might deceive or distract the eyes and that black and white photography had more artistic relevance. While I do not fully agree with this, my preference for colour slides meant that I ignored the vast possibilities of post-processing, typical of black and white film photography.

As a consequence, I am now struggling with producing final images: what is the right colour balance, how sharp should they be, how to apply the adequate level of contrast. These are only some of the questions to which I have not yet found definitive (or at least satisfactory) answers. In addition, everything needs to be learned in regard to black and white post-production. I will publish further blogs on this subject.

The creative process

This aspect of my learning is similar to that of eclecticism. While I took note of several ideas of projects, initiating them, sustaining the steam and obtaining a result is an uncertain process. There are several aspects of my way of thinking and working that I have to better master. One in particular relates to the capacity to switch from one task to another and to persistently maintain the effort, even if applied little by little. Full time dedication to a project is unfortunately seldom possible.

This entry was published on 18/01/2014 at 17:18. It’s filed under Assignments and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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