Stalking Trent Parke

Now, I don’t advocate copying the work of others (Trent Parke or otherwise). We should all be original in what we do and create our own style. However, it is also important (well, it is to me) to continually grow and improve as a photographer. Part of this process includes studying the work of the great photographers (living and dead).

Examining great photographs not only improves our vision, it also inspires us to get out and shoot. By examining the photograph we can try to deconstruct why it works and how it was composed.

try to find the exact spot where it was framed

To take this analysis to the next level, if I am visiting the location of a great photograph (assuming I know where), I try to find the exact spot where it was framed. This helps me understand the constraints under which the image was taken. It also highlights to me the limited window of opportunity for such images and the importance of revisiting a scene.

So, with a business trip to Sydney, and one of my favourite Trent Parke photographs fresh in my mind (and a quite obvious location), it was time to stalk the spot where it was taken. Here is Trent Parke’s original courtesy of Magnum Photos.

trent parke

AUSTRALIA. Sydney. A man stands in the rain at the overseas passenger terminal on Sydney harbour, which overlooks the Sydney Opera house. From Dream/Life series. 1999.

I just love this image so much. It is so simple, and yet gets more complex the more you look. It also appears to be pretty straightforward to replicate, not withstanding having a man with umbrella walk past. Right, off to Circular Quay.

I was guessing he was using a 35mm lens

First things first, I had to work out which angle it was taken from. Actually that was pretty easy once I had the Sydney Opera House in view. I also had to work out how far away Trent was. Well, I was guessing he was using a 35mm lens, at least to help me locate the right spot. I was also lucky that there was a big cruise liner in dock which made it obvious how the shot was framed.

That’s when I started hitting problems. Number 1 was that the ship was the wrong way round. The curved end was to the right and needed to be to the left. Still, I thought I had found the spot. Not being able to include the curved bow of the ship, I attempted something else. Here is my shot.

inspired by trent parke

My best attempt

At the time I did not have the original shot with me, just a vision of it in my head from having looked at it that morning. Returning to my hotel and comparing highlighted to me the unique conditions under which Trent got the shot.

I had no chance of getting something as good on a single one hour visit

You could say he was lucky, but you know what, he probably took hundreds of frames over months (if not years) to get this image. I had no chance of getting something as good on a single one hour visit.

Here are the issues:

  1. The ship was the wrong way round (and when I asked, I was told most ships dock this way).
  2. The ship did not hang around and who knows when the next one would arrive (or which way round it would be).
  3. The sky was nowhere near as dramatic.
  4. The actual spot of the shot was inaccessible since it was closed off due to the ship being docked (chicken and egg).
  5. It was not raining, so there was no-one with an umbrella to provide a curve. The curve could have been provided by some other object of course, but a hat was the closest I could get.
  6. I don’t live in Sydney, so cannot keep going back and improving my shot.
  7. I had the wrong lens (at least in terms of replicating the shot). Looking at the relative size of the Opera House, I think he was using a 28mm or 24mm verses my 35mm, especially since he was actually closer than me.
trent parke notes

My notes to self which illustrate that the opportunity for a photograph may be a short window, or even a one off.

So the lesson I took from this was a reminder to take advantage of where I live (London) to keep working on scenes where I see potential rather than continually trying to find something new. For sure if I lived in Sydney and kept coming back I have no doubt I could do better Trent’s image 🙂

Now, off to Melbourne for a few days to see if I can do similar analysis of a Jesse Marlow (from in-Public collective) image.

Check out Trent’s work and also Magnum Photos for inspiration. Since I mention him and he is also an awesome Australian photographer, here is Jesse Marlow.