Exercise 4.5

Exercise 4.5

For this exercise, I have chosen to continue my exploration of the humble onion, also my subject in exercise 4.4. This time, I am looking at different ways to photograph an onion that is not “conventional”.

Googling “onion” yields the photographs shown in the screen grab below:

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Onion pictures in Google – grabbed on 18/02/2017 at 20:39

Most of the photographs have a white background, which indicates that these were mostly shot for “stock” photography applications, which just show the subject in its cleanest, most distilled way. Some pictures show a whole onion, others a section cut of the onion or slides, and some others just show a bunch of onions together.

If we scroll down, we can see other types of pictures:

  • We see onions with their leaves attached, just taken off the ground
  • We see drawings / designs based on onion shapes
  • We see close-ups of onion rings / onion parts
  • We see sacks full of onions and pictures of hundred of onions together
  • We see food prepared with onions
  • We see people dressed up as onions.

One of the approaches suggested by the coursebook was to make the subject incidental to the picture. Looking at Chris Steele Perkins and John Davies approach to Mt. Fuji, I believe this mostly works in cases where the incidental object is easily recognisable and / or is sufficiently unique to be able to counterbalance the main subject. For example, in John Davies “Fuji City” (see here), if any other generic mountain was at the back of the picture, it would not be considered as an alternative way of portraying that mountain, but it would just be considered truly incidental to the picture, in other words, completely dispensable.

The question then becomes, if a subject is just something generic or ordinary, how do you make the “incidental” approach work? One way of looking at it would be to make the object incongruous to the frame. In a way this is a bit dangerous because it may be interpreted as making the object stand-out and then it ceases to be incidental. The approach, for it to work, would require a balance between subtlety and assertion.

Based on the above, I attempted a series of shoots where I placed onions in places where we would not expect to see them. Some of the better shots are included below:

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“The bookends” (1/50s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – I took a series of photographs using onions as bookends, a use for which they are not particularly well suited given when shape and lightness. This is one of the better shots of this series, showing the onions as a small part of the frame and plenty of other objects more overwhelming in size. Yet the onions manage to become the subjects by virtue of the unexpectedness of seeing them being used as bookends.

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“Failed bookend”  (1/50s at f4. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – As expected, during the shootout some of the books ended up falling because the small onions were not heavy enough to support them. I took some pictures of the fallen books and the onion, such as the one above, but in my opinion these, while aesthetically pleasant, give too much prominence to the onion, which no longer can be called incident to the picture.

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“Fruit bowl” (1/60s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – Another idea was to make the onion the odd one out by placing it inside a bowl of fruit. I like the simplicity of this concept, but in the end I deemed this too subtle.

Another approach I wanted to try for this exercise was the “lens vision” concept used by Bill Brandt successfully in many of his nudes and body part studies (see for instance here and here), where the use of a wide-angled lens in close up results in distorted, slightly surreal images.

I took some of these shots with a combination of lenses mounted on extension tubes to achieve extreme close-ups and also with a compact camera in 1cm macro mode, which only worked at the wide end of the lens, allowing for extremely close wide-angle shots of the onion. Here are some of the resulting photographs:

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“The top end” (0.4s at f22. ISO 800. 43mm mounted on extension tubes) – This shot is a more than life-size close up of the top end of the onion, where the leaves were cut. It has quite an abstract quality to it, but it is hard to tell it is an onion.

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“Top end, too” (1/60s at f2. ISO 500. 6.1mm lens (equiv to 28mm in full frame)) – This shot, also of the top end of the onion, was taken with a wide-angle macro lens compact camera. The extreme close up allows for the narrow depth of field, in spite of the small sensor, which gives a pleasant background blur; but the background is too bright and clean which makes this picture look too much like the ones in Google.

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“Sideways” (1/60s at f4. ISO 1250. 6.1mm lens (equivalent to 28mm in full frame) – also taken with a wide-angled compact camera in macro mode, this was one of my favourite shots, as it shows a bit more clearly that is an onion, but at the same time, it is not embellished like in the shots at the top of Google. It shows the rough, ageing skin of the onion and does not hide its blemishes.

The final shot I selected for this exercise was taken with a 135mm telephoto lens mounted in extension tubes to allow a closer focusing. It is shown below.

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“Cracked skin” (0.8s at f11, ISO 800. 135mm lens mounted on extension tubes)

It shows a close up of the side of the onion, where the outer skin is starting to crack. In spite of the close up, the contour lines and the crack would make the image instantly recognisable as an onion to anyone who has ever handled one in the supermarket or the kitchen. To me the crack signifies both the imperfection of real life – it is hard to get an onion as clean as those found at the top end of the Google search – and provides a focus point which is slightly different from the object itself: it is an onion all right, but the onion becomes a bit incidental to the crack in this instance. There are close-ups of onions in the Google-searched pictures, but these tend not to be as close as my picture above and tend to focus on more harmonious aspects of the onions, such as the concentrical inner rings, and not on the imperfections of its outer parts, as in here.