Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide
Part 2: How to Document
Photography is an invaluable tool for recording many subjects of cultural
significance, from single artifacts to complicated events. A detailed discussion
of the merits of photography as a research tool is beyond the scope of
the present publication, but the reader is advised to consult John and
Malcom Collier's Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Tool and
Bruce Jackson's Fieldwork.1
Today, the standard equipment for still photography in the field is the
35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera with interchangeable lenses. Since
it is often desirable to make a photographic record on color as well as
on black and white film, access to two camera bodies with an identical
lens mounting system is desirable. Due to advances made in electronics
in recent years, modern 35mm cameras are relatively easy to operate. Most
possess "automatic" modes that require the photographer to do little more
than focus and press the shutter release.
The choice of color or black and white film should be based on how the
photographs will be used. For example, if a publication will be the result
of a documentation project, black and white film is probably the appropriate
choice in most cases. If the main vehicle for communication will be a slide
show, then color slides are the best choice. The goals of some projects
will dictate that fieldworkers use both color and black and white film
for documentation. A wide assortment of slow and fast films designed for
various lighting conditions are available--slower films for bright light
and faster films for low light. In order to obtain the best possible photographs
under field conditions, researchers should carry several rolls of film
suited to different levels of light. In settings where very low light prevails,
the use of an electronic flash (strobe) and/or a sturdy tripod may be advantageous.
When planning how photography will be conducted in the field, it is advisable
to draw up a schedule of photographic tasks. Most field photography can
be assigned to one of four subject categories: human activities, portraits,
artifacts, and photographs in an informant's collection. Each of these
presents particular problems for the photographer and calls for the application
of certain equipment or techniques.
When photographing human activities, 24mm and 35mm wide-angle lenses are
useful for capturing two or more people relating to each other, to their
work, and to interior space. Complete coverage of human activities requires
taking a variety of medium and close-up shots while walking all the way
around the scene. In order to insure that every step of a process is recorded,
fieldworkers should learn to take many photographs. Later, copies of photos
can be used to great advantage to elicit detailed information about the
various steps in the process--details that might otherwise escape the attention
of the fieldworker.
Portrait photography is usually conducted with lenses with focal lengths
of 85mm to 135mm. When taking portrait photos, tripods may be used to increase
camera steadiness. People who pose for portraits are usually more conscious
of the photographer than are those who are engaged in activities. Frequently
subjects will stiffen up and assume an extremely grave demeanor. It is
the fieldworker's responsibility to make the subject feel at ease so that
a more natural image may be recorded. Usually this can be achieved if good
rapport is established. It is often helpful for the photographer to explain
the type of shot that he or she would like to take and how the equipment
will be used to achieve that end.
With artifact photography, it is important to take photographs of each
artifact from a variety of angles in order to record its basic characteristics.
With complex objects, take close-up shots of significant features as well.
So that viewers of photographs will be able to discern the size of the
artifact, it is advisable to place a suitable object of known size--a coin,
a ruler, a range pole--next to it for at least one shot. For example, when
photographing buildings a range pole marked off in one-foot intervals and
a shorter measuring stick marked off in feet and inches are appropriate
for most shots. Photographers should pay close attention to background
and depth of field to insure that the artifact is sharply depicted on film.
With large, immovable artifacts, such as houses and ships, the photographer
should select lighting conditions and viewing angles that depict them to
best advantage. Small artifacts can be placed in front of contrasting backgrounds.
Because tripods increase camera stability and permit longer exposure times,
they are useful for artifact photography.
Fieldworkers are often given permission to copy photographs in private
collections. While it is sometimes possible to borrow photographs and take
them to a professional photo lab to be copied, if copies are made at the
owner's home the possibility of losing originals is eliminated.2 Copies
can be made with a 35mm camera and a standard copy stand consisting of
an adjustable camera mount, a platform upon which the photo rests, and
bright lights for illuminating the photo. An acceptable substitute can
be improvised by inverting the center column of a tripod, affixing the
camera to the mount, and using adjustable lamps or natural light to illuminate
the subject photo. Special attachments for close-up work, or "micro" or "macro" lenses,
are highly recommended for copying photographs and other small objects.
When copying photos, fieldworkers should bear in mind that a photo itself
is an artifact. In order to convey this, it is important to take at least
one shot of the entire photo, including its borders.
Although it is impossible to predict all the photographic problems that
may occur in maritime settings, it is possible to note a few that fieldworkers
are likely to encounter. When photographing on and around water, glare
from reflected sunlight is a frequent annoyance. In order to reduce glare,
one may wish to consider attaching a polarizing filter to the camera lens.
These filters are relatively inexpensive and may be purchased at most camera
shops. Another problem is damage to equipment resulting from contact with
water, especially salt water. Photography on moving boats, for example,
nearly always exposes photographic gear to spray. To cut down on exposure
to water, equipment not in use should be kept in a plastic bag or some
other waterproof container. In addition, it is important to change film
and lenses in protected areas to insure that water does not enter a camera's
internal mechanisms. If underwater photography is required, special waterproof
housings and waterproof cameras can be obtained at a variety of prices.
One other problem that often confronts fieldworkers is achieving good photographic
coverage in confined spaces, such as boat cabins and small workshops. This
problem is easily solved with the use of wide-angle lenses. 24mm and 28mm
lenses are especially useful in such situations.
In order to permit proper cataloging and analysis, it is necessary to
record all pertinent data about each photograph. General information about
the photo session, such as date, place, names of subjects, description
of scene, and name of photographer, should be recorded in the fieldnotes
at the end of each day of photography. The cataloging of individual images
will probably not occur until after the film has been processed and converted
into slides or negatives. After processing, data pertinent to each image
can be entered on a form, such as the "Photograph Log" included as Appendix
A.4. Black and white films can be more efficiently cataloged and filed
if a contact sheet is made of each roll. The filing of slides is enhanced
with the use of archival-quality slide storage sheets.
If a project's fieldworkers are not experienced photographers, or if the
production of high-quality photographs is important for the success of
a project, it may be a good idea to obtain the services of a professional
photographer. If adequate funds are not available, it may be possible to
persuade a photographer to donate time in exchange for permission to use
project photographs and information.
1. John Collier, Jr., and Malcom
Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Tool.
Rev. and expanded ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986);
Bruce Jackson, Fieldwork, 194-256.
2. However, if it is desirable
to borrow photographs (or other artifacts) from private collections, the
use of an artifact loan form, such as the one included as Appendix
A.7, is recommended.