MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Photography Assignment 1 — Results

Space Ship
“This photo project was originally conceived by Charles Harbutt for use in his workshops. I have made some modifications in it.

This assignment is intended to test your imagination, and your ability to capture your ideas as images.

Assume for a moment that you are going to be leaving earth on a spaceship, never to return. There will not be any form of entertainment or decoration on the ship. You will not have any mirrors, films, works of art, etc. You will be eating processed food and drinking filtered urine. You may, however, bring 10 photographs with you.

In a 24 hours period, without consulting any of your classmates, make 10 photographic images that will sustain you on your voyage. We are not looking for great art; we are looking for personally meaningful images. Do you want pictures of your dog? Your mother? Or the manhole cover outside your apartment? It’s up to you.”



This was a tough assignment. If you really think about the context — you’ll never see the things, people, and places you love again — editing down to ten images is heartbreaking. That doesn’t even take into account all of the things you wish you could photograph but there just isn’t time.

1.  My last dinner on Earth.

1. My last dinner on Earth.

2.  My sweetie at dinner.

2. My sweetie at dinner.

3.  We had dinner and drinks and she fell asleep without touching her wine.  Jem is looking out for her.

3. We had dinner and drinks and she fell asleep without touching her wine. Jem is looking out for her.

4.  Zoe in M's bathroom.

4. Zoe in M’s bathroom.

5.  M and the boys sleeping in.

5. M and the boys sleeping in.

6.  Vine-ripened tomato.

6. Vine-ripened tomato.

7.  Home and what little green can be found in late November.

7. Home and what little green can be found in late November.

8.  Zoe loves her catnip cigar.

8. Zoe loves her catnip cigar.

9.  M at breakfast.

9. M at breakfast.

10.  Desert, mountains, and sky.  Everything I love about New Mexico.

10. Desert, mountains, and sky. Everything I love about New Mexico.

Course link

I’ll come back and add some text (or maybe a new post) with my reasons for choosing these photos out of the 281 I shot over the course of 24 hours, from noon 22 Nov. 2014 to noon 23 Nov. 2014. Photographers get all the glory when they get the shot that tells the story but editors have a bitch of a job.

MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Documentary Photo Project

Another post but my proposal for the documentary project is due today.



The assignment description from the course:

Documentary Photo Project
Each of you will be required to plan and carryout a documentary photo project. You may select your own subject – subject to my approval, but I would urge that you not take on anything too grandiose. I would suggest that you begin looking for a subject close to home, considering, for instance:

Life on your dorm floor
A fraternity weekend, or life in a fraternity
A day-week-month in a local laundromat
A day-week-month in a local laundromat
The work of a scientist, or lab
The activities of a campus group or organization
On the other hand, you may push the envelop as far as you dare – If you can gain access to a group of people, or an organization, whose lives or functioning we normally never see, go for it. But remember, to paraphrase Susan Meiselas:

“Faraway is not a place.”

And even more important, remember that there is one thing that you owe your subjects, be they your roommates or a group of developmentally disabled adults –

Honesty: Honesty in your vision; honesty in what you tell your subjects about your project and its purpose; honesty in your approach to your subject; and honesty in what you present to your viewers.

Your finished project will consist of 15-30 photographs, and 1500-2000 words of explanatory text. The text and photographs should, together, present the uninitiated with an understandable, engaging, ‘picture’ of your subject, but the writing and the photos should each stand on their own.



M has had to be a stand-in for other students. With her help, I chose Ghost Bikes in the Santa Fe Area.

MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Photography Assignment 1

Space Ship
“This photo project was originally conceived by Charles Harbutt for use in his workshops. I have made some modifications in it.

This assignment is intended to test your imagination, and your ability to capture your ideas as images.

Assume for a moment that you are going to be leaving earth on a spaceship, never to return. There will not be any form of entertainment or decoration on the ship. You will not have any mirrors, films, works of art, etc. You will be eating processed food and drinking filtered urine. You may, however, bring 10 photographs with you.

In a 24 hours period, without consulting any of your classmates, make 10 photographic images that will sustain you on your voyage. We are not looking for great art; we are looking for personally meaningful images. Do you want pictures of your dog? Your mother? Or the manhole cover outside your apartment? It’s up to you.”

I couldn't resist...

I couldn’t resist…

Seriously though, I started this today, 22 November 2014 at noon. It’s tough because there are a lot of things I’d like to photograph but I only have 24 hours. I suppose if I was really making a one way trip into space, I’d have sold everything and could afford to charter a jet. I can’t, so things I see in the next 20-odd hours will have to do. My family is all over the country but I think a selfie holding pictures of them is not in the spirit of the assignment. Tomorrow at noon, I’ll stop taking and start editing and post shortly after.

Course link

52 Cameras: Camera 56 part 2 – Canon EOS 750

An auto-everything camera can be as challenging as an old one-aperture, one-shutter speed camera.

The first roll was in the camera when I bought it and had a few exposures left so I used it as a basic-function test roll. It’s Kodak 400 of unknown vintage. Because I was leery of results, if any, I used drugstore processing for convenience and price.

Photos are chronological but the numbers are reverse-chronological because of the camera’s pre-wind. What would normally be first is last.

The beginning of a new compost pile.  Program autoexposure.

The beginning of a new compost pile. Program autoexposure.

Sleepy Goober.  Depth of Field (DEP) mode.

Sleepy Goober. Depth of Field (DEP) mode.

Jem contemplates attacking Zoe (he did).  Program AE.

Jem contemplates attacking Zoe (he did). Program AE.

Another roll — expired (unknown date) Kodak Max 400 processed and scanned by The Camera Shop of Santa Fe.

Full moon rising over the Sangre De Cristos.  Program AE.

Full moon rising over the Sangre De Cristos. Program AE.

Pond at Black Mesa Golf Club.  Program AE.  I don't golf but they were cool about letting me photograph.

Pond at Black Mesa Golf Club. Program AE. I don’t golf but they were cool about letting me photograph.

M at Pizza Centro.  Depth of Field (DEP) mode.

M at Pizza Centro. Depth of Field (DEP) mode.

I’m not sure who Canon was targeting with this camera or the older no-manual-control FD-lensed T-50. Gadget-freaks with money but no time or desire to learn photography, I suppose. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice camera if you want good photos using good glass and a good built-in flash, but it can be pretty limited (and limiting) for things like the moonrise photo. I was at the extreme edge of being able to get the shot at all. A few minutes later, I could get the moon and a black background or let the flash fire and underexpose everything but the immediate foreground.

MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 1

“Do Photographs Tell The Truth?”
Using On Photography as a taking off point, support or refute the argument that a photograph, which captures only a single instant in time, can never present an accurate, honest, representation of an event or situation.


While comparisons between photography and other pre-photographic graphic methods have been done, by Sontag and others, they are a useful starting point for answering the question, “Do photographs tell the truth?”.

I believe that a photograph can, if that is the intent, present an accurate and honest representation of an event or situation. In that respect, it is no different than other graphical methods of documenting the world as we know it.

At its simplest, photography depicts a noun — a person, place, or thing. “This is [a common or proper noun]” or in the absence of context simply, “This exists”. Portraiture is an example of a picture of a proper noun. A portrait, in whatever medium, is usually idealized or at least tries to present someone at their best. This is not the same as falsely presenting a portrait of someone else — it represents a specific person. It may show them well dressed, in good light, and with that gigantic blemish that always seems to appear at the least opportune time airbrushed or Photoshopped, but it shows a person at a certain time and a certain age, posing for a portrait. Within the context of a portrait, it is still honest and accurate because it is supposed to be a picture of someone at their best.

There is another level within portraiture which may be considered to be more “honest”. Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) deviated from the idealized, god-king representation of a pharaoh and ordered his likenesses to be more naturalistic (given the artistic constraints of the time) showing his elongated face, pot-belly, and slight limbs. Joseph DeCreux, portraitist for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and current internet meme sensation, depicted himself realistically in self-portraits, showing his receding hair, long nose, and crooked teeth. He believed that the outer appearance, particularly the face, was representative of a person’s character or personality (physiognomy). While either example may be more accurate in an absolute sense, it breaks out of portraiture and into documentary — it removes the context and imposes a different standard.

A purely documentary image, again regardless of medium, can be as honest in intent as the skill of the documenter allows. Early drawings by western explorers of the rhinoceros were not particularly accurate by today’s standards but they were honest and accurate given the drawing skills of the documentarian and the knowledge of biology at the time. The visual analogy to armor and the pebbled texture of the skin were stressed or exaggerated in order to convey the “sense” of the animal. If I take a digital photograph of a rhinoceros, must I leave the photograph as it was captured by the camera or can I boost the contrast to show you, the viewer, the texture of the skin? I know the texture of the skin. I saw it with my own eyes. Is it more or less honest to alter the photograph to show you something that I observed to be true? By “lying” a little bit (emphasizing the contrast in the photograph), I’m conveying more information. Is purity of what the camera sensor technology can capture more “honest” than showing a more visually informative modification? A better photographer, a better camera, or a better lens might be able to show you the texture of a rhinoceros’ hide without modification. I’m not in Africa or at the zoo to reshoot, so I have to work with the photograph I have.

Maps used to be sketched by hand and measured by dead reckoning and knotted ropes at sea. Measurement methods have improved over time but they don’t make earlier maps less “true” in the context of their time. If I give a map an accurate legend, does it matter that I added colors to represent the height of the terrain? I have altered something “pure” in order to convey more information. Is Google Earth less honest because a geo-referenced satellite image was digitally skewed to correct for a wide-angle lens and the curvature of the earth?

Intent matters. Sontag’s earlier essays compared photography to the written word and found photography to be less honest, less true. But words can inform, mislead, omit, or emphasize contrast, just as photographs can. Revisiting the earlier example, suppose you have never seen a rhinoceros and know nothing about it. If I write and describe a rhinoceros breathing fire, it is the same as painting or drawing a rhinoceros breathing fire or Photoshopping flames coming from a rhinoceros’ mouth. Photography is as accurate and honest as any other method of communicating if the photographer has the intent of accuracy and honesty and the technical skill to represent it. The same is true of the writer, the painter, and the sketch artist. Telling the truth depends on the intent and integrity of the person writing about, painting, drawing, or photographing the event or situation.



Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Course link

MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Intro

Sadly, the course at Santa Fe Community College was cancelled. The instructor is really good so I was pretty bummed. Inspired by my sweetie — she’s doing a DIY MFA — I decided to make or take a course any way. I found MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

From the About page:

“The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.”
Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering

I’m about a month into “Documentary Photography and Photo Journalism: Still Images of A World In Motion” (Course 21W.749 as taught in Spring 2002). There is some photography, a semester-long documentary project, and a lot of reading and writing. I’ll miss having live lectures and discussions with other students but the course is well structured and the materials available for download are pretty comprehensive.

The first writing assignment is:

“Do Photographs Tell The Truth?”
Using On Photography as a taking off point, support or refute the argument that a photograph, which captures only a single instant in time, can never present an accurate, honest, representation of an event or situation.

Course link

52 Cameras: Camera 55 part 2 – Polaroid SX-4

This camera is really fun to use. It’ll be great for setting up a photo booth at a party.

Poking around inside, I did find some useful information.

It's made by Westec.

It’s made by Westec.

I found Westec on a Polaroid list of OEM companies. That explains why so many ID company’s cameras look the same — Westec made them. No copyright info or manufacture date but the Motorola micro-controller has a date code of “9540” so it was made in the 40th week of 1995. No telling how long it took to get from Motorola to the distributor to Westec or how long before they used it in the camera but it’s definitely younger than October 1995.

The lenses are plastic. They are 110mm from the film plane. The aperture is 9mm so the camera is about f/12 (110mm/9mm) The shutter for each lens is a simple solenoid-controlled disk. In the above picture, you can see the space for the solenoids in the six lens version of the camera.

I thought since the aperture isn’t adjustable the brighten/darken dial must control the shutter speed but it doesn’t seem to be the case. The solenoids aren’t precise, in fact the shutters bounce like crazy. That leaves the flash as the exposure adjustment.

I figured out how to defeat the film interlock and did a primitive shutter speed test using the 240 frame/second video mode on the Nikon AW100. No matter how the dial was set, the shutter time was 7 or 8 frames (not counting the bounce). 1/240 fps = 4.2 milliseconds per frame so the shutter is about 1/30.

Click for an animated GIF of a shutter test.

Click for an animated GIF of a shutter test.

That’s pretty much it for the technical side. On to some photos.

Using the 1 photo per shot setting.  From mug shot to happy cat lady.

Using the 1 photo per shot setting. From mug shot to happy cat lady.

Four photos at once setting.  You can see a little variation in the exposures.

Four photos at once setting. You can see a little variation in the exposures.

Hamming it up while babysitting.

Hamming it up while babysitting.

Cats in Halloween costumes.  There will be blood.

Cats in Halloween costumes. There will be blood.

Friends on Halloween.

Friends on Halloween.

I’ll post some more after I run some Fuji 3000B through it.

52 Cameras: Camera 55 part 1 – Polaroid SX-4

It’s not actually a Polaroid except for the film back and the rollers but I don’t know how else to categorize it. I loaded film before I realized just how little information is out there for this camera. When I finish the pack, I’ll open it up and see if there are any markings on the inside. I can measure to get the aperture but the shutter will be difficult — it only fires with film loaded.

52 Cameras: Camera 54 part 2 – Canon A520

I like not being under the camera-a-week time pressure. The button battery had gone dead so I missed a lot of shots fiddling with the date every time I turned it on. I had the luxury of getting a battery and taking the camera with me for another week.

An early macro shot.  I blew it out with the flash but some tweaks on the levels and it looks like I did it on purpose.

An early macro shot. I blew it out with the flash but some tweaks on the levels and it looks like I did it on purpose.

Me and Zoe the wonder cat in the new digs.  Photo by M.

Me and Zoe the wonder cat in the new digs. Photo by M.

Purrfect focus on this shot of Jem bathing.

Purrfect focus on this shot of Jem bathing.

100% crop of a macro shot of a burr.

100% crop of a macro shot of a burr.

Mountain of recycables at the Santa Fe transfer station (100% crop).

Mountain of recycables at the Santa Fe transfer station (100% crop).

And a mountain of tires.

And a mountain of tires.

I messed up and used "postcard" mode.  1600X1200 and date/time stamp.  I was trying to get the shot and protect the 60D from the rain.

I messed up and used “postcard” mode. 1600X1200 and date/time stamp. I was trying to get the shot and protect the 60D from the rain.

I don’t know that I’d seek this camera out as a keeper but for small prints and digital work, it’s nice. Native resolution is 2272X1704. The effects, sepia, B&W, etc. are just OK. Manual controls, including focus, are great.