Inklings of Oxford: Photography Blog 3 by Jim Veneman
As photography goes, I’ve always had a tendency to operate on the side of simplicity. Some of my finest feel-good moments have come when reading quotes from well known photographers who said that all they really need is one body and a couple of lenses. Now that’s my kind of photography.
Although this project screamed for more lenses, a tripod welded to the camera and a trunk filled with ways to create and control the light, I simply couldn’t do it. I did take a tripod and even purchased an amazing shoulder bag designed to make it easier to carry. I also had a few extra lenses, one even being a 300mm, a rather heavy beast. But when it came right down to the shooting, the 300 was used only once for photographs of deer in a distant field, and the tripod was taken out of its really nice bag to provide a little extra support for an evening photograph of The Trout Inn. Fortunately, these occurred very early in our expedition. The long lens and tripod never again left my room at Regent’s Park College. From that point on it was a camera body and two lenses. I did carry a second camera body, but it was never used. It was, however, nice to know it was there just in case.
Although I’m certain that the tripod would have been valuable from a technical standpoint, the ‘list’ was always looming not far from my compositional thought. Time was of the essence, and there wasn’t much of it. Although many of the exteriors of the Oxford architecture were breathtaking to say the least, their interiors were absolutely astonishing. A key element of this splendor is light. The designers of these fabulous spaces were undoubtedly masters in the use of light. So, I chose to let the scene created by those original architects provide the light I would use. This, of course, brought about some pretty intense challenges.
Of the tests this approach brought, one was crucial in practically every view, and is consistently a part of photographs produced by anyone, anywhere. Handling the light in reference to shadow detail is always a task of considerable challenge and requires great care, both as the image is recorded, and then later during image editing. There were occasions in which this was not an overpowering concern, but those were few. In most cases, especially concerning interiors, the exposure difference between highlight and shadow was extreme. In addition to careful adjustment of exposure, many of the photographs involving these places took extra time during final file preparation.
Often as Hal and I walked into one of these majestic spaces, my thoughts drifted quickly to the task at hand. How do we quickly capture the needed perspectives, from detail to the wider view, in such low light levels? With the clock always ticking, and without delay, I tried to place the camera in the most suitable positions. Hal’s coaching was always helpful at this point. He saw each location from the standpoint of both history and story, often noticing the vital details that I would miss. Thanks to the newer vibration reduction lenses, I could still adjust the camera to obtain higher levels of quality with minimal technical sacrifice, in even the most challenging spaces.
I’m sure if you were to take a camera back to a place of your youth, you would want to capture scenes from your memory. Some of them may have changed dramatically, others very little. Before you raised the camera to your eye, you would look for those nearly exact perspectives that would conjure up those memories. Later you would look through those images and would be able to feel the wind, hear the sounds and smell the fragrance of days past. In some ways, this is what Hal and I were trying to do too. We attempted to give one the chance to not just view an image, but experience, even feel the places that were so much a part of the lives of this group of friends.
A truly helpful phrase I heard frequently from Hal was, "They walked together right through here." Interestingly, it was always at that point that I would begin to see.
James Ray Veneman serves as assistant professor and director of visual communication at Union University. He covered the efforts in Iraq, spending time in Baghdad and on board an aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean from which the book, A Greater Freedom, was produced. Other assignments include the days immediately following the World Trade Center attack and meetings in Cuba with Fidel Castro.
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