Exercise: portraiture archive

These photos are from my archive, but not taken by me. One would not usually expect to see them together as they cover a long time period, showing me and my children ageing; a range of discrete activities, from personal holidays and family photos to business trips; and a range of different locations. They are in some ways incongruous.

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What I discovered during this exercise was the difficulty in searching the archive for the photos; my archive is currently arranged mostly in folders by year and month, so searching it requires time consuming serial viewing. This encouraged me to explore practices for digital archiving (see separate post) and further to that the use of keywording in Lightroom.

‘Learn to Lightroom’ provides a good introduction to keyword hierarchies, which I’ve now spent several hours building into my LR catalogue. The hierarchy defines typologies, which can be used to reference photos in the catalogue. For example, I have a top-level keyword of ‘human emotion’ and within that the types of emotions (eg happiness) and within those characteristics that reveal the emotions (eg smile). Lightroom automatically tags the photo with the lowest level tag and those to the type to which it belongs. A readymade typological tool-box!

References

Learn to Lightroom [website]. Keyword Hierarchies. Available from: http://www.learn-to-lightroom.com/articles/keyword-hierarchies/ [accessed 22.7.16]

 

Exercise: 1.3 portraiture typology

Introduction

This exercise is a response to August Sander’s (1876 – 1964) work, attempting to create a photographic portraiture typology to bring together a collection of types.

A brief reminder of Sander’s work in Face of our time: Sixty portraits of twentieth- century Germans – he began a 20 year project in 1910 to document the German people. The work as a whole was divided into seven groups, corresponding to social structures (or types as we are discussing typology). The Met list these as: the farmer (Der Bauer); the Skilled Tradesman (Der Handwerker); the Woman (Die Frau); Classes and Professions (Die Stände); the Artists (Die Künstler); the City (Die Großstadt); and the Last People (Die Letzten Menschen), comprising the elderly, the deformed, and the dead. Strangely, there are not listed in the photo book by Sander.

Exercise

For its types, the exercise uses basic human emotions, which are portrayed instinctively by the human face. There is some debate on what these emotions are (BBC News): the conventional view is that there are six basic emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. However, more recent research using computer assisted techniques suggests that there is little visual distinction between expressions of fear and surprise; and of anger and disgust. So, for the sake of clarity, the types used in the exercise are happiness, sadness, fear, and anger.

Found images from Flickr creative commons have been used to illustrate the portraiture typology, The selection was captured in a Flickr gallery (link here). In homage to the Sander book, in which his categories are not referenced and Douglas Huebler’s variable piece 101, the photos selected are shown below without typological information. The viewer can use their own point of view to attribute the types of happiness, sadness, fear, and anger.

All images from Flickr photographers (click for details)

References

BBC News [website]. All human behaviour can be reduced to ‘four basic emotions’. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-26019586 [accessed 12.7.16]

The Met [website]. August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century. A Photographic Portrait of Germany. Available from: http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2004/august-sander-people-of-the-twentieth-century–a-photographic-portrait-of-germany [accessed 12.7.16]

Sander, A., Döblin, A., Robertson, M., er, A., & Doblin, A. (1995). August Sander: Face of our time: Sixty portraits of twentieth- century Germans. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel Verlag GmbH.

Exercise: 1.2 background as context

For this exercise, I examine the work of August Sander in Face of our time, then make a portrait inspired by what I learned from Sander’s work.

First, there should be a reference to the introduction to the book by Afred Döblin, entitled, Faces, Images and their Truth. This presents an opposing view to that expressed by Barthes in his essay, The Blue Guide (see post here). Döblin extolls the virtues of typology in a short paragraph, quoted verbatim here:

But what can we say about an ant heap? There may be some five hundred ants moving across a path, coming from a root, or from a pile of stones, in a fast and quite conspicuous movement. A hundred yards away there is an even larger crowd of them at work. No matter how closely we observe the insects, it is impossible for us to perceive more detail than certain general characteristic of the species, or insignificant differences between individuals. It is absolutely impossible to differentiate between them. And yet there is no doubt, or at least I should imagine so, that here, as with bees, all of the insects recognise each other and can distinguish themselves one from another.

The point Döblin then makes is that this same logic is rarely applied to human beings – they are perhaps to self-obsessed to do so – ‘the fact that, viewed from a certain distance, distinctions vanish; viewed from a certain distance, individuals cease to exist, and only universals persist.’ This perspective is perhaps a healthy social view – encouraging focus on similarities rather than differences. It is so often differences that lead to conflict.

Observations from examining Sanders work are as follows (references refer to the plate numbers in the book referenced):

  • Backgrounds are just that, backgrounds that serve as a backdrop to the subjects.
    Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 20.54.54
    Source: moma.org

    They are indistinct and at most hint at the context of the sitter, for example woodland or a grand house, but they do not receive a visual priority in the photos.

  • The subjects are deliberately placed so they are distinctive from the backgrounds or the background serves to draw the eye towards the subjects.
  • The sitters are posed but appear comfortable and relaxed. Only a few of them smile, most wear neutral expressions.
  • Many of the sitters appear to have formally dressed for their portraits, including a farmer in his ‘Sunday best’ (p1)
  • The majority of the portraits are either half or full body; there are very few head-shots. The hands and what they are doing form an important part of the portraits: for example a locksmith holding a chain of keys, a farmer holding a bible (with his large laboured hands), an industrialist with his hands shaped as a church roof, signifying confidence.
  • Where flash-light is used the flash often appears to be position above and to the left of the sitter (based on catch-light and shadow observation).

For my own portrait, I decide to work with my own pre-teenage son, who having recently been handed down an old iPhone for emergency communication purposes, often switches of communication in preference for a head-phoned world of virtual communication, music, football and political news.

The portrait was shot in his favourite seat and with his younger brother acting as moveable light stand for the flash light. I opted a half-body shot that shows his school uniform, iPhone in hands, and headphones on head – perhaps not the usual portrait a parent would make of their child, preferring them to be free of electronic gadgetry and smiling at the camera.

untitled-1

 

References

Sander, A., Döblin, A., Robertson, M., er, A., & Doblin, A. (1995). August Sander: Face of our time: Sixty portraits of twentieth- century Germans. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel Verlag GmbH.

Exercise 1.1 Historic portrait

Source of featured image: nationalmediamuseum.org.uk, woman against sunlit wall, Clementina Hawarden

Following some general research on historic portrait photography (see sources here), a photograph by Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) was chosen for in-depth study. Carol Mavor’s book, Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, explains that Hawarden made around 850 photos, many with her adolescent daughters as subjects. Mavor states that she finds the photos erotic, while acknowledging that others do not so, and draws comparison with Sally Mann’s photos of her own adolescent children, which Mavor also finds erotic.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 20.21.59
Source. Tate.org, Francesca Woodman

There are similarities between the work of Francesca Woodman and Hawarden; in the adolescent subject matter, the frequent use of a window as a light source, the empty room as a backdrop, and the eroticism.

While much is written about the work of  Hawarden’s contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), there is little dedicated to Hawarden. This is perhaps because Hawarden’s work was not widely publicised at the time it was made – treated as private photos of her family. The V&A comments that ‘the collection of photographs by Hawarden came to the Museum in relative obscurity in 1939, without any accompanying archival material to reveal more about her life and work.’

Considering the photo, woman against sunlit wall, the National Medium Museum suggests that it could be a self-portrait or a photo of Hawarden’s sister.  Regardless, it leaves a similar impression to the photos of the adolescent daughters, posed by their mother.

In my view the photograph is erotic, though whether or not it was intended to be so is difficult to know. The woman leans against a wall, with bright sunlight from her right casting a hard silhouetted shadow on the wall. Her neck is stretched and open to the viewer, illuminated by the sunlight. Her hair drapes loosely over her shoulder, dishevelled and unprepared for the public gaze. Her elongated neck is framed by a bead necklace, which draws the eye down towards the line of her low-cut dress. She looks down, reflectively in a private moment, as if unaware she is being watched; the camera and the viewer are voyeurs of the scene. The woman’s left hand rests upon her breast, encouraging the eye towards the low neckline of her dress. Her right hand rests on her dress on what seems to be her inner thigh area, but this is ambiguous and unclear, masked by the generous folds of her dress; engaging the viewer in questioning what is happening in the image. The shadow of her outline on the wall emphasises that the woman is leaning back, relaxed and without caring what is happening around her. It also adds shade to the left of the woman in contrast to the light on her right side, the dark shadow creating a sense of mystery.

References

Eve K. Victorian Musings [blog]. Viscountess Clementina Hawarden Maude (2013) . Available from: http://kimberlyevemusings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/viscountess-clementina-hawarden-maude.html [accessed 2.7.16]

Luminous-lint.com [website]. Lady Clementina Hawarden. Available from: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/Lady_Clementina__Hawarden/A/ [accessed 2.7.16]

Mavor, C. and Hawarden, V.C. (1999) Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden. Duke University Press.

National Media Museum [online]. Woman against sunlit wall. Available from: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/collection/photography/photographscollection/collectionitem?id=1985-5078/7 [accessed 2.7.16]

Sally Mann [website]. Available from: http://sallymann.com/selected-works/family-pictures [accessed 2.7.16]

The V&A [online]. Lady Clementina Hawarden and the V&A. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/l/lady-clementina-hawarden-and-the-v-and-a/ [accessed 2.7.16]