Failed it!

The cover of the book by Erik Kessels explains what it is about. What you can’t see from the photo is that the book also opens the wrong side. Genius touch.

The general thrust of the book is about taking failures, accidents, non-conformity and embracing it to make something creative and different from the normal. Making something unexpected and interesting. It is full of examples of artists doing this, including photographers and sculptors.

It is a reminder to think differently and create differently. To not produce chain-art, to not be McDonalds or Heineken.

Reference

Failed it! (2006). Kessels E. New York, Phaidon Press.

Ian Sinclair – writer

I listened with great interest to Ian Sinclair being interviewed on his approach to writing in a BBC radio 4 podcast (linked below) in the series Only Artists where one artist interviews another from a different field. I came across Sinclair in the EYV course with reference to psychogeography. Hearing talk about his practice was fascinating – he captures stories (unofficial histories) through discussions with people he talks to while walking and takes lots of photos as visual references for places. He then creates his own narratives based on the stories he’s heard and places he’s seen (and photographed).

I wondered how this approach might work to photography and text as a working method – it would seem to fit very well with my love of walking the streets with a camera. This is a thought to tuck away until it comes to the Landscape module perhaps.

References

BBC Radio 4 (iPlayer). Iain Sinclair and Keggie Carew. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pflfh [accessed 28.6.17]

 

Adobe Muse – website design

For some time I’d struggled with WordPress for a personal portfolio site – it seemed to inflexible in relation to layout of images on the web-page. Perhaps possible if one is familiar with customising CSS, but I’m not and didn’t really want to learn. I assume that the difficulties are because WordPress was conceived as a blogging platform and that is primarily how it is used – and it is great for that.

I dismissed the idea of commercially hosted photography portfolio sites as they seemed expensive and also template driven. As I already have self-hosted sites for my blogs and can add subdomains with no additional cost, I was keen to make use of the server space I am already paying for. A short-time ago I upgraded my Adobe subscription so that I could use Indesign and with that upgrade the whole suite of Adobe software becomes available.

So I took the plunge and taught myself to use Muse (the web-designer software). It is designed by the same team as ID and share some common functionality, so layout was very simple. There is also a great deal of help on YouTube. The concept of layers is also used in the application but in a much more straightforward way than Photoshop. What I did find more trick was some web-specific technicalities that I’d not before come across. For example, how to manage the website so it works with different sized screens. I really took me quite some time to get to grips with this.

Anyway, I eventual succeeded in creating and publishing a new portfolio site. It will of course be regularly refreshed and more content added, but I feel I have a good foundation and have grasped the basics, ready to try something more adventurous next time around. It has also made a difference to the way I interact with photographers websites – not just with the pictures but the website as an entity in itself, now that I have the possibility of controlling my own layout!

Here is a link – http://www.fitzgibbonphotography.com

Laura El-Tantawy – in the shadow of the pyramids

I’m revisiting Laura El-Tantawy’s work, in the shadow of the pyramids (also admired earlier in L1) as the approach to narrating the story along with backing sound, while the photos are shown as a video, is of interest for my final version of A5. In this I have decided a narrative is necessary to do justice to the story of my grandfather, but I’m mindful that dense text on the page can overwhelm images, and I’d like to avoid this.

The tonality of her voice is important in the narration – it is flat and calm, unobtrusive and an accompaniment to the images, rather than the other way around. I think this is why I find the work so compelling; the primary narrative is through the photos but the voice provides support and direction to the viewer. I hope to achieve something similar in my project.

Reference

In the shadow of the pyramids (website). Available from: http://www.intheshadowofthepyramids.com/sounds/ [accessed 15.6.17]

Reboot your practice with Yan Preston

Today I attended a workshop and portfolio viewing hosted by the Impressions Gallery in Bradford. Ten photographers from a variety of backgrounds and experience attended the workshop. The guest photographer and speaker was Yan Wang Preston, who is currently exhibiting her work ‘Mother River’ in the gallery (see OCA visit notes here), and the members of the gallery staff also provided advice and feedback on portfolio presentation and the process of curation.

The day started with a brief tour and discussion of the Mother River exhibition, with Preston explaining the background to the work, which had left me with unanswered questions following the earlier OCA visit. The project was four years in the making and involved photographing the Yangtze River at 100km intervals along its over 6000km route. The photographs are banal and not necessarily visually stimulating, without an apparent message or perspective. However, I learned that it was Preston’s intention to subvert the typical images of the river, whether iconic, based on traditional myths or environmental perspectives on pollution or the damming of the river and clearance of local populations. To show the river just how it is – her process of selecting ‘y’ points at 100km fixed intervals was designed to facilitate this view, along with some unwritten rules (eg not photographing ruins). The work as received wide critical acclaim and been exhibited in several countries. At this point in time, I find the work more interesting conceptually than visually but also admire the determination and commitment in delivering this challenging body of work. It was also a great lesson in how to talk well about one’s own work.

Next, there was a presentation by Yan Preston on planning, researching, and funding long-term projects with an opportunity for questions.  Here, a few notes from what was a very interesting presentation:

Be able to clearly explain your project:

  • what exactly is your subject?
  • what are you photographing? / is the aesthetic appropriate to the subject. In this context, a point was raised on Nadav Kandar’s Yellow River and the mist always being slightly yellow (as that is the aesthetic of his pallet); Preston observed that this can mean the mist is perceived as pollution (yellow smog), rather than white mist, which it mostly is in her experience.
  • what is your relationship to your subject? Preston considers this as fundamental to a project / something that represents an artist’s unique perspective.

‘Taking pictures is not that hard – it’s the bit that goes before’.

From the curator, after the discussion on the importance of research around a subject; worries when photographers approach her saying that they are ‘doing there own thing’ without reference to what has gone before. It is not that she is expecting original ideas (there are none) but something that builds on what has gone before, and that the work has substance, supported by research.

On getting known (in Yan Preston’s order of preference):

  • Portfolio reviews
  • Competitions
  • Personal relationships
  • Exhibitions / publications
  • Social media
  • And overall, be selective, strategic and effective in approach
  • Above all – make good work.

In the afternoon session, there was a portfolio review / discussion. I took along my work on assignment 5, so have made a separate post in that section of the blog here.

A very enjoyable day, and I would certainly attend future events.

References

Impressions Gallery [website]. Mother River. Available from: http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=80 [accessed 3.6.17]

Adobe Indesign – getting started

For assignment 5, the output is to be a photo book. Having experienced frustrations with LR book module on previous outings, and feeling the same pain again in A5 preparatory work, I decided to make the move to ID with an upgrade in my Creative Cloud subscription (only an additional £6/month at student rates). This post notes some of my initial explorations into work flow.

  1. LR does not alter original image files, it keeps a catalogue of changes, it makes use of virtual copies (which are virtual), so there is often no tangible file to pull into ID until something is exported. The question is how to do this efficiently, particularly when LR collections and virtual copies are an important part of my current workflow. After some experiment, my approach is to create a publish service in LR that publishes tiffs to a hard drive location. Published folders can be created within the service, where collections can be drag-dropped and published automatically as tiffs. If a change is made to an image, it is flagged for re-publishing and I guess it will automatically update in an ID document once republished. So not too painful!
  2. To view and work with the files easily in ID, Bridge / Mini-bridge seem to be convenient. First install Bridge, drag the working folder for the images to ‘favourites’ to make it easier to locate. Then the magic is to open mini-bridge in ID and the photos are there ready to drag-drop into the document.
  3. Using ID for making a basic photo book was reasonably straightforward with the help of a couple of good Youtube videos to get me started. It was refreshing to have flexibility of layout and output, something simply not there in LR book module. I guess Adobe would understandably not want too much overlap in their products, otherwise there’d be no reason for photographers to buy ID!

In theory, the output can also be shared directly online through Adobe Publish – embedded in this post below.

 

3 OCA study visits in one day (Bradford)

Three visits in one day with Derek Trillo – sounded like it might stretch my powers of concentration to the limit, but the time seemed to fly by. Good company and good art.

No photographs were allowed throughout the exhibitions, which is going to mean this write-up will lack visually. I do feel exhibitors are missing a publicity trick here – I would share iPhone snaps to Tripadvisor or Facebook and perhaps others would be encouraged to visit. Do they really imagine anyone’s going to make a high quality reproduction with prints behind glass and gallery lights shining on it?

Britain in Focus at the Science and Media Museum (SMM instead of NMM, I suppose we now call it) accompanies the excellent BBC 4 TV series exploring the history of British photography from the 19th century to the present day. The series was presented by photographer Eamonn McCabe – it is no longer available on iPlayer, but I assume can be purchased from the BBC store. Many of the artists featured were already familiar to me, including the ubiquitous Martin Parr. But John Bulmer was not, and his colour photographs of Northern England were particularly striking, standing in stark contrast to the b&w work of Bill Brandt using similar subject matter.

Source: johnbulmer.co.uk by John Bulmer

This exhibition was interesting to compare to the one I saw during the previous OCA study visit, which featured international photographers’ work about Britain, The Strange and Familiar. At the time of the previous exhibition, I was bemoaning the fact that much of the work we study is that of American photographers and it feels like there is an under-representation of native culture. It could simply be down to Americans often being masters of publicity that they achieve higher profiles, or that there are more of them, but I find it strange nonetheless. Again here, the Britain in Focus exhibition was confined to a single room only, to cover the whole of British photographic history, whereas I lost track of the space taken with the Strange and Familiar exhibition it was so extensive. There is perhaps something to learn about the power of publicity in all this.

The Poetics of Light pinhole photography exhibition, also at the SMM, was a surprise to me and I think many of the other students. Prior to the visit I wasn’t expecting much and I thought of pinhole cameras as toy-like. However, I was stunned by the quality of work on display, so much so that I’ve order the catalogue of the exhibition from Wordery online (£15 less than the £50 at SMM). The experimental nature of the cameras used (including a VW camper van, a soup can, cigarette packet and underwater contraption) and the work produced was fascinating; some of the work was surreal, as if we were viewing our world through alien eyes; some cameras featured multiple pinholes.

I am drawn to experiment with pinhole photography, which would inevitably mean getting my hands dirty with some old-fashioned chemicals – I’m somehow not so attracted to modifying a digital camera into a pinhole camera, though one fellow student mentioned that she was already doing so. The output from these primitive devices is very different in quality to standard photographic output and I suspect the photos marketable as unique objects.

The last exhibition, Mother River, was in the Impressions Gallery across the road from SMM and generally received with less enthusiasm than the first two exhibitions of the day. My impression was that the process of taking equidistant images along the course of the Yangtze river was more of a priority than taking images that were visually stimulating. This can be contrasted with Zhangkechun’s work, linked below, which focuses on the same river but engages the viewer in questioning what is happening in the images with their powerful juxtapositions of landscape with the unexpected. However, I will not say too much about Preston’s work at this time, as I will soon be attending a workshop with her at the Impressions Gallery and I hope to gain further insight then.

A thoroughly enjoyable day and great chance to catch up with some familiar faces and see some new ones.

References

Britain in Focus at Science and Media Museum [website]. Available from: https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/whats-on/britain-focus-photographic-history [accessed 27.5.17]

The Guardian on John Bulmer’s photographs of life in Northern England (Wainwright M, 2010). Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2010/jan/29/john-bulmer-photographs-north [accessed 27.5.17]

John Bulmer [website]. Available from: http://www.johnbulmer.co.uk [accessed 27.5.17]

Mother River by Yan Wang Preston at Impressions Gallery [website]. Available from: http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=80 [accessed 27.5.17]

Poetics of light: pinhole photography at Science and Media Museum [website]. Available from: https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/whats-on/poetics-light-pinhole-photography [accessed 27.5.17]

Zhangkechun [website]. The Yellow River. Available from: http://www.zhangkechun.com/the-yellow-river [accessed 27.5.17]

Artist’s book making course

Over the weekend of 6 May, I attended a two-day artist’s book making course at Hotbed Press in Salford. It’s purpose was to provide an introduction to various book formats and book making skills, producing a number of my own books over the weekend (without content of course). In addition there was some interesting discussion about the nature of books and the relationship between form, materials and content; how this can change a viewer’s experience of the work.

The course was taught by Elizabeth Willow, a fine artist. Creative Sketchbook (linked below) show some examples of her work.

My reason for attending the course was to learn how to make my own photo books – I’ve become interested in this after seeing Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood and a video of him constructing the book, combining photos and documents. I might ultimately use these skills to turn my assignment 5, ‘A story not told’ into a book.

iPhone snaps from the course:

 

References

Creative Sketchbook [website]. Elizabeth Willow’s Paper Stories (March 2013). Available from: http://www.creativesketchbook.co.uk/2013/03/elizabeth-willows-paper-stories.html [accessed 27.5.17]

Hotbed Press [website]. Available from: http://www.hotbedpress.org [accessed 27.5.17]

Christian Patterson [website]. Redheaded Peckerwood. Available from: http://www.christianpatterson.com/redheaded-peckerwood/#1 [accessed 27.5.17]

Pros and Cons of LR book module

I used LR’s book module for assignment 4, from initial drafting, uploading to my Blog for feedback and assessment and sending a copy of the book for printing with Bob’s Books. Overall, I found the process quite painful for this type of book and, on reflection, think I have chosen the wrong tool for the job.

I note here pros and cons, which I’ll revisit before approaching another photo book and deciding upon the tool to use.

Pros and cons

  1. Integrated with LR library, so very quick and easy to experiment with various edits and change edits at a later date based on feedback. This makes it a great tool for making a mockup of a book.
  2. A range of standard layouts available, which is good for quick drafting. The downside is that the layouts are not easily editable.
  3. Book size is limited to standard options, which may not be the same dimensions as offered by the book publishing service selected. This is a significant drawback in using LR as a final layout tool. Blurb is offered as an add-in, which overcomes this drawback, providing one is happy to be limited to Blurb as a print provider. No student discount available from them.
  4. LR can export the book as pdf or jpg – again useful for mockup / sharing of edits for feedback.
  5. If the book is saved as hi-res jpg and uploaded to a print provider, text pages are large files as the white space is treated as an image and increase upload times. Preparing the book in a provider’s own software would avoid this.
  6. The standard software interface supported by the higher-end print service providers seems to be Adobe Indesign, with templates available for download to accommodate their book formats. However, from the little I understand about Indesign, it requires considerable investment in time to become proficient and it is more aimed at text-based editing than media (eg no interface with LR).

My current feeling is that for a photo book that is more about photos than text, a more efficient process would be to simply use LR for preparing a mock-up for the purposes of editing and obtaining feedback. Then complete the final book directly in the editing software provided by the service provider. So the question then becomes, which provider to use and the flexibility of their software.

A quick look at Bob’s Books and their downloadable ‘Bob’s Designer’ software, plus the offer of student discount, looks like they would be a good starting place for the next project.

The Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

OCA Study visit – Manchester Art Gallery
Hosted by Derek Trillo

Manchester Art Gallery describes the exhibition as, ‘curated by Martin Parr and celebrating the work of leading photographers, including Henri Cartier Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Rineke Dijkstra, Bruce Gilden and Evelyn Hofer… Strange and Familiar considers how international photographers from the 1930s onwards have captured the social, cultural and political identity of the UK. From social documentary and portraiture to street and architectural photography, the exhibition celebrates the work of leading photographers … Bringing together over 250 compelling photographs and previously unseen bodies of work, Strange and Familiar presents a vibrant portrait of modern Britain.’

source: www.guardian.co.uk

There is a catalogue of the exhibition, which unfortunately was not available for purchase at the gallery. However I’ve ordered it and will consider in more detail the photographs featured once I have the catalogue. In this post I reflect on my overall impressions.

Before visiting the exhibition, I wondered whether the eyes of international photographers would select anything different from a British photographer might have chosen to photograph. However, there was nothing. Perhaps because the eye of trained photographers everywhere is looking for interest in the banal. What I did find is there was something in the style of some photographers that seemed typical of their own culture and strange with British subject matter, particularly in the case of some of the Japanese and American work.

From a personal perspective, I found the photographs ‘strange and familiar’. In the rapidly changing world photographs from previous eras (even those I remember from my early childhood) seem alien and dream-like. An example is the bus conductor and postman featured above in their smart uniforms. It was not only temporal distance that created this impression, it was geographical distance – in reality I see more of some foreign countries than I do of some parts of the UK (many of which I have never visited). We are limited in our capacity to be visit many different places, so they remain strange but familiar through information we receive through different channels.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and found the theme of ‘strange and familiar’ successful in bringing together a fascinating collection of photographs from masters of the art. Perhaps that is enough to justify Parr’s theme.

References

The Guardian [0nline]. Jack I (March, 2016). Strange and Familiar indeed – these photographs of the life I lived are eye-opening. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/19/strange-and-familiar-barbican-photographs-of-life-i-lived-are-eye-opening [accessed 11.4.17]

Manchester Art Gallery [website]. Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Available from: http://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/strange-and-familiar/ [accessed 11.4.17]

Snaps of introductions to featured photographers

Click to view as gallery

 

Adobe Photoshop CC for Photographers

Over the weekend I read (or at least skimmed) the Martin Evening book, Adobe Photoshop CC for Photographers (2014 release).

I bought this a couple of years ago when first joining the OCA, and have dipped in and out of  but not paid too much attention to it, preferring to take Photoshop tips from YouTube videos (learning by watching).

However, as I approach the end of the level 1 courses I’m making an effort to close any niggling doubts on post processing techniques and decided to go through the ‘bible’ to see what I might find. Here a note a few points that will have a significant impact on my approach to post processing.

  • RAW conversion and basic adjustments. There is an overlap in the tools available within LR and PS and some additional tools in PS (eg for sharpening). It can be puzzling to know what to do where. Evening suggests that the Camera RAW filter in PS has improved to such an extent that there is little need for the sharpening tools in PS for the import and selective sharpening of images. The Camera RAW filter in PS is in fact the same as the basic adjustments and sharpening panel available in LR. Therefore, I see a strong argument for keeping clean ‘master copies’ of files in LR, complete with basic adjustments and input sharpening. The basic processing in LR, eliminates the need for general application of filters in PS such as levels, curves and exposure. One then creating copies (or virtual copies in LR) for further processing for specific uses. I’ll look at tagging these ‘master files’ in some way for ease of identification.
  • There are some finer points regarding the use of the smart selection tool that I didn’t appreciate; most importantly that it remembers the types of area manually excluded (or included) in the selection and makes next step selections base on that (a little like a self-correcting guided missile) – so it is helpful to click and drag while deselecting the are around a picture element for example.
  • I’ve not yet made much use of tools that allow perspective adjustments or liquify – something to play at during spare-time.
  • Finally a mental note to remember that there is most likely a way to perform any kind of manipulation in PS. It may be a better option than setting up an elaborate tableaux in studio.
Image manipulated using various selections to create hint of a floating flower.

 

Robert Harding Pittman

Robert Harding Pittman’s work is referenced in the OCA course material. I was drawn to his work and look at it more closely in this post.

In his interview with Sharon Boothroyd (Photoparley), Pittman discusses his work Anonymization, referring to the urban sprawl of large-scale developments that have little connection with the spaces that surround them. He says’ with this anonymous type of development not only comes the destruction of the environment, but also a loss of culture and roots, as well as alienation.’ This is something I have witnessed as western style shopping malls spread to other parts of the world – in side these places it is difficult to know whether one is in Moscow or somewhere outside of Manchester!

Source: www.roberthardingpittman.com by Robert Harding Pittman

Pittman is closely engaged with the environment, originally an environmental engineer, and says of his photographic process, ‘Usually my approach to photography is impulsive and instinctive. The more I can connect with what is around me, without thinking too much, the better it is for the photographs.’ This ‘not over-thinking’ is something that has become important to my own practice over the two years since starting my studies. It is not a question of being ignorant of context or technique, but not allowing it to hinder the instinctive creative flow when making pictures.

There is an absence of the human figure in Pittman’s work, yet he explains how evidence of humanity also dominates the work, ‘In the images we see how we control and dominate the earth, by reshaping it, by flattening it and by covering it with roads, parking lots, lawns in the desert and with large-scale developments.’ This sounds self-evident, but I wonder how many of us are numbed by overwhelming human presence and therefore do not recognise it for what it is.

The personal appeal in Pittman’s work is it’s pushback against sameness and lack of sympathy for natural surroundings and locality. It is something that impinges on many aspects our our lives – the imposition of uniformity, often in the name of efficiency and economic sense, with little regard to other sense.

References

Perspectives on Place [blog]. Robert Harding Pittman: Anonymization (June 2015). Available from: https://perspectivesonplace.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/robert-harding-pittman-anonymization/ [accessed 30.3.17]

Photoparley [website]. Robert Harding Pittman (May 2015). Available from: https://photoparley.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/robert-harding-pittman/ [accessed 30.3.17]

Robert Harding Pittman [website]. Available from: http://www.roberthardingpittman.com/photography [accessed 30.3.17]

Still life photography

In IAP part 5, absence and signs of life,  there are ‘many examples of photography that avoid the use of the human figure in order to communicate truths and stories about humanity.’ One particular aspect that interested me for further research was that of still life: it is not an area that currently features in my practice (as my working life is mostly desk-bound, I’m keen to be outside when I can); I’m interested in exploring the concept of everyday objects being transformed into something different through the medium of photography, including the use of symbolism, visual pun and metaphor; and I’d like to explore the lighting techniques for table-top still life photography, both in their own right and as techniques that can be translated into larger scale.

The National Media Museum’s video, What does it mean? Symbolism in Still Life Photography, touches on the origins on still life in painting and its dual purpose of allowing the practice of technique on things that do not move or need any particular love and attention (Don McCullin (National Media Museum) also discusses this practicality), and of representing something beyond the objects themselves through symbolism and metaphor.

My earlier studies have include aspects of lighting for still life: Light Science and Magic (Hunter F, Biver S, Fuqua P, 2015) and Table Top Photography  (Harnischmacher C, 2012). The blog posts (hyperlinked) provide some useful reminders and areas to revisit. One significant different to my kit is that I now have a light meter.

A call for ‘still life’ reference material on the OCA forum provided some useful suggestions. Some artist referenced follow.

Imogen Cunningham made exquisite use of lighting to photograph a wide range of subjects, both in locations she found them and in more formal tableaux.

source: imogencunningham.com by Imogen Cunningham

One fellow student provided a substantial list of photographers to consider: ‘contemporary’ work coming out of the USA – Daniel Gordon, Lucas Blalock, Sara Cwynar – but also UK – Lorenzo Vitturi, Jonny Briggs. Links to websites are referenced below. Gordon’s work has the feel of collage about it – complex patterns with a mix of natural and created objects; visually disconcerting. Creative Review features Blalock’s book Making Memories, including an AR (augmented reality) app that allows the work to be viewed in 3D through a phone screen. This illustrates how Blalock treats the photograph itself as just a point of departure for his work, with post-processing being a significant part of his work. Vitturi’s own website provides a stunning visual display in itself – not just a vehicle to show photographs.

This research has given me a mind full of information to digest as I develop ‘still life’ as part of my photographic practice.

References

Creative Review [website]. AR comes to photography in new book by Lucas Blalock. Available from: https://www.creativereview.co.uk/ar-comes-photography-new-book-lucas-blalock/ [accessed 26.3.17]

Daniel Gordon [website]. Available from: http://www.danielgordonstudio.com [accessed 26.3.17]

Foam Museum [Youtube]. Still/Life – Contemporary Dutch Photography. Available from: https://youtu.be/tk0wborGNxs?list=PLtFVp4OpD5nZrcpUQN36YjI3GHG9z6dFL [accessed 24.3.17]

Imogen Cunningham Trust [website]. Available from: https://www.imogencunningham.com/still-life/ [accessed 26.3.17]

Jonny Briggs [website]. Available from: http://www.jonnybriggs.com [accessed 26.3.17]

Lorenzo Vitturi [website] Available from: http://www.lorenzovitturi.com [accessed 26.3.17]

National Media Museum [Youtube]. What does it mean? Symbolism in Still Life Photography. Available from: https://youtu.be/iQ_ftM0ZXy8?list=PLtFVp4OpD5nZrcpUQN36YjI3GHG9z6dFL [accessed 24.3.17]

National Media Museum [Youtube]. Don McCullin on Still Life Photography. Available from: https://youtu.be/Qvgic5q-1Zw?list=PLtFVp4OpD5nZrcpUQN36YjI3GHG9z6dFL [accessed 24.3.17]

Sara Cwynar [website]. Available from: http://saracwynar.com [accessed 26.3.17]

 

Book: Writing the Picture by David Hurn and John Fuller

During the feedback process on assignment 4, it was suggested I take a look at David Hurn (photographer) and John Fuller’s (poet) book that combines image and text.

It is an interesting collaboration between the two artists, with Hurn’s reportage photographs having a response from Fuller in the form of a poem. The introduction to the book takes the form of a discussion between Hurn and Fuller on the creation of the work and the nature of photography and poetry.

At one point they discuss what came first the photos or the poems and they both seem to agree:

JF:  … I was also wondering if you would be able to take photographs to go with poems that I had already written.

DH: That doesn’t work , does it? Poetry is far more flexible than photography … the pictures must come first. Trying to pretend you are taking a photograph that represents an already written poem is absurd … (Hurn and Fuller, 2010, p10)

For my assignment, I had started with an existing piece of writing but had not tried to represent it directly, rather represented the atmosphere and feeling I found through reading the writing. In the final edit the writing content was reduced to extracts of phrases accompanying the picture, so the narrative in the original writing became invisible. But something of atmosphere remained.

So, I agree with Hurn and Fuller’s argument that the photograph needs to come first if there is to be a direct or literal reading between the two components. Perhaps important to Hurn with his reportage style. However, I don’t believe the order is important if a connection between the components is to be made at a different level.

A fellow student directed me to the work of Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, which she described as a collection of drawings (rather than photographs) and poems by the artist that don’t necessarily at first glance look remotely connected.

Source: MoMA.org

I think this illustrates the point very well – images do not need to be directly illustrative of text and the combination is more interesting with the space for meaning between the two.

Reference

Hurn, D. and Fuller, J. (2010). Writing the picture. 1st ed. Bridgend, Wales: Seren.

 

Reflection point: absence and signs of life

IAP, p94 discusses with work of William Eggleston and John Szarkowski’s introduction to Eggleston’s work in the catalogue accompanying a 1976 MOMA show. In essence, the point made is that it is not the photographed things that are the works of art, but the photographs of the things transformed through the view of the photographer and camera. They become fictionalised in an alternative space, ‘one balanced loosely between recognition and art’.

We are asked to reflect upon:

  • Where does that leave the photographer? As storyteller or history writer?

It is sometimes difficult for us to tell the difference between stories and histories – the political and cultural forces shaping the presentation of history can distort it to the point of becoming a story-like. So, I would generally treat ‘history’ with some care, but do not doubt that there are some histories that do their best to present an impartial and balanced view of past events. However, there must always be a selective view or frame from reality – it is not possible or desirable to consider every aspect when making a history; we would never be done writing or reading. So, in some ways it is similar to a photograph being a slice from time and space selected by the photographer as a visual author. I therefore think that perhaps photographers are a little of both storytellers and history writers – moving along a continuum depending on the work, but never purely one thing or the other.

  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?

I tend toward fiction with my photography. I’m not so much interested in documenting things as they are but creating a story or an emotional response based on my subjective reading of an objective. I work in a day-job that is supposedly strictly concerned with facts and my photography provides a release from that.

  • How could you blend your approach?

My approach is already largely blended, representing objects and people as parts of narratives they are not intentionally telling – an oak tree representing the story told in the letter of a survivor – a real place representing a fictional place, based loosely on a different real place. Truth is used as a point of departure into a world of fictional narrative that touches reality at some points.

  • Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?

I feel no want or need to depict reality, but to show my interpretation of a person, object or place. Being a photograph, it will have an indexical relationship to reality, but it is not the same thing. Often there is a fictional narrative pieced together from tiny disjointed fragments of time / space. Not reality.

Lightroom for online photo books (flip books)

I invested considerable time in working out how to present a photo book on this blog, without paying for a third-party flip book  service, which seem to come in at around $15 per month. Here are notes for future reference, or any one else who might find them of use.

Lightroom book module

  • This is geared up for printing paper books, either through a connected online service (Blurb) or by generating jpgs or pdfs (perhaps for proof of concept only) to be sent to printers. To make it work for online flipbooks, a different approach needs to be used:
    • Cover page (front and back) – LR generates as a wrap-around, so it is of no use for a digital book – set up book without cover page.
    • As we will work with no cover page, there is a need to insert a blank page before any inside cover text (automatically created when cover pages are used) so that the page spreads are kept intact.
    • When exporting to jpg files for online use, LR will export a single image whether a double page spread or a single page spread is used. LR’s double-page spreads therefore display small, in the space of a single page. Do not use double-page spreads for online flip-book preparation.
    • For the front and back cover, set up a normal page spread, using one page for the front cover and the other for the back. These will then print as separate jpgs to be inserted at the beginning and the end of the flipbook.

In WordPress (org) – plugins

Various plug-ins are available. On this site I use Photo Book Gallery, with free features that are sufficient for simple flipbooks and with a degree of control over its configuration in the settings panel. The only thing I needed to adjust was the book sizing so it was in a consistent dimension to the size of the jpg files being used.

A big upside of this approach is that the flipbook uses jpgs uploaded to the WordPress media library, so the images can be reused elsewhere in posts related to the same project.

My first flip-book was made for the first edit of assignment 4, here.

OCA study visit – Les Monaghan’s Aspirations

Source: www.aspirationsdoncaster.blogspot.co.uk by Les Monaghan

Les Monaghan, a practicing photographer and OCA tutor hosted an OCA study visit covering his own work Aspirations (Stockport Gallery, 11.2.17). I was lucky to enjoy what turned out to be a four hour discussion of Monaghan’s work, his aspirations and the practicalities of obtaining funding for projects.

Monaghan is passionate about his subject matter; he is a photographer with a cause. The theme of his work could be described as the social inequalities and limited life opportunities experienced in the relatively poor areas of the UK, including his home town, Doncaster. I’m not sure whether he would describe himself as a humanist photographer, but his practice seems very much concerned with giving a voice to his subjects, with their collaboration and permission. There is a real sense of ‘being on the inside’ in the work; in the community, of the community, for the community.

What I found striking about the way Monaghan talked about his work was the way his subjects and their social and environmental conditions dominated the air-time; photography seemed to be purely a means of record, with visual aesthetics not a significant factor. At one point it was mentioned that sociologists might be interested in the work, but considered photography insufficiently objective to be useful.

I reflected on this afterwards and wondered if photography on its own, with its flexible meaning, can ever be an adequate vehicle to do justice to serious social issues. Perhaps, this type of work might be more effective as joint project or at least with the input of a sociologist / concerned writer, which might give it broader traction. But that would of course create an addition set of challenges around the collaboration process.

Reference

Aspirations Doncaster [blog]. Available from: http://aspirationsdoncaster.blogspot.co.uk [accessed 8.3.17]

The Art of Printing Workshop with Mark Wood

Source: Wilkinson.co.uk, by Mark Wood

To satisfy my continuing interest in the technical aspects of photography, so I can make an informed choice of what to bring to my work and what to discard, I recently attended a day-long printing workshop. It was run by Mark Wood (who has some impressive credentials) and hosted by Wilkinson Cameras in their Liverpool training suite.

I feel I make reasonable prints, but you never know what you don’t know until you know – my main motivation for attending the workshop, which covered:

  • The Theory & Practice Of Colour Management
  • Setting System and Application Colour Preferences
  • Calibrating Monitors and Printers
  • Exploring the qualities and requirements for a great print
  • Soft-proofing and Printing for inkjet printers and photo-labs
  • Benchmarking Colour Management

I learned more than I expected, and note here a few points that will be introduced to my practice:

  1. I’ve never used Photoshop for printing – Wood demonstrated how much more control over prints there is in PS above LR – for example in the more realistic rendering of the soft proofing it generates.
  2. I learned the differences between rendering intents: – Perceptual rendering retains colour relationships ie good for portraits, Relative – just brings out-of -gamut colours into line. I can now used this in an informed way.
  3. We explored the use of colour spaces and why Pro RGB is standard in LR and preferred for master copies of images; the most detail / information is retained for future use – even if current screen technologies cannot use the information, future ones may be able to do so.
  4. Screen calibration was discussed at length and how anything other than a reference monitor (showing full Adobe RGB colour) was going to be a compromise on quality – no guarantee that you will be seeing what others with properly calibrated reference monitors are seeing when viewing your work. But, the technology, would most likely do a reasonable job in rendering. Also, with a reference monitor more reliable soft-proofing of prints is possible.
  5. Wood recommended testing accuracy of calibration by printing an sRGB image, letting the printer manage the colours, before moving on to paper specific printer-profiles. Is the printed image close to the on-screen soft-proof? If not calibration needs to be revisited before continuing.
  6. Another suggestion was to obtain a colour reference print and compare that to your own print of the jpg file of the reference print (I found that Marrutt.com provide a print free of charge!).
  7. Wood showed some powerful examples of how the human visual system reacts to colours and even can create phantom colours – to emphasise that despite all the efforts made during the printing process, the context in which a print is displayed can undo the effort.

Reference

Adobe [website]. Print with color management. Available from: https://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/using/printing-color-management-photoshop1.html [accessed 8.3.17]

Mark Wood Photography [website]. Available from: http://www.markwoodphotography.com/index.html [accessed 8.3.17]

Wilkinson Cameras [website]. Advert for workshop – printing master class. Available from: http://www.wilkinson.co.uk/printing-masterclass/ [accessed 7.3.17]

 

iPad portfolio

I’d used my iPad to show some photos to members of the choir who were the subject of my previous assignment, using Lightroom mobile. This was okay for the purpose but not really suitable for an iPad portfolio showing –  not a clean presentation with the LR edit functionality visible.

Screen grab from Foliobook on iPad, by Andrew Fitzgibbon

I looked for other options suitable for a iPad portfolio presentation (so I am prepared for any potential projects) and found it surprisingly not straightforward, with the obvious apps being flawed:

  • Photos, offers no possibility of manual sorting the order of photographs
  • Behance (an Adobe offering), while well integrated with LR, bizarrely shows the clock, wireless status and battery status of the iPad when in portfolio view.

After some online research, I selected Foliobook (http://www.rocketgardenlabs.com) as a reasonably straightforward but customisable solution with Dropbox integration and syncing for updates to the portfolio content.

A neat solution for creating a bespoke first page, is to an create image and text composite in Photoshop (using a new page with iPad dimensions) and then in-app add transparent buttons over the text to go to the portfolio pages (eg the footer on the image shown on the image in this post).

Saving the Photoshop composite as a PSD file also makes it easy to update with a fresh image or add additional text at a later date. A good solution for a £10 app!

Pictures on a Page – Harold Evans

I was pointed towards Harold Evans’s Pictures on a Page during a discussion, which touch upon editing, on the OCA discuss forum. The context of the book is news papers and photojournalism, but it contains a wealth of advice relevant to all photographers.

iPhone shot of book page

The 1978 book is biased towards black and white photography (it was the newspaper format of the time),
but Evans offers an interesting quote in support of black and white:

you may get closer to reality with colour but the closer you get the more obvious it becomes that it is a picture not the real thing (Evans, p13)

But this is a small detail. The book includes over 500 photographs and is informed by interviews with famous photographers. Evans illustrates his advice and opinions with examples of photographs. It includes 16 chapters, covering topics from selection, composition, sequencing, editing, cropping and words with pictures. I found it an enormously useful and interesting read.

Points for own practice
  1. Evan’s discusses at length ‘three tests for selection’, dismissing the idea of pure intuition. The qualities he looks for are: animation, relevant context, and depth of meaning. How he looks for these qualities is examined in detail in the book, along with example photographs. These qualities are a strong framework, within which to apply intuition when editing.
  2. Chapter 10 discusses picture editing (Evans, p185) – ‘the photograph, once selected, has to be edited for size shape and story content … it is a pity that the neglect of judicious picture editing is being encourage by vague ideas that there is something vulgar about cropping’. Evans then discusses contrasting views, including those of Cartier-Bresson (anti-crop) and Bill Brandt (pro-crop). I had previously been convinced that cropping was generally to be avoided, but Evans convinced me this approach has little merit. A change in practice towards cropping and shaping represents a huge difference in personal practice; including revisiting edits of early photographs.
References

Evans H (1978). Pictures on a Page. London, William Heinemann Ltd.

Aspect ratios in photography & compositional theory

Part of the feedback I received when I put my assignment 3 draft up for discussion on the OCA critique format was a comment on the aspect ratio; I’d used the standard 3:2 that comes out of my Fuji X-T1 (or any 35mm inspired sensor). The suggestion was made that 5:4 looks better and the student mentioned that he crops all of his photos to this aspect ration. I’ve used square format on a few occasions as a square is an obviously a different container to a rectangle, but had not thought of cropping to a different rectangular dimension. Strangely, I tried the 5:4 crop and liked the look of it better. This got me thinking.

Source: petapixel.com by Ming Thein

Different sensors or film formats determine the native aspect ratio of the digital or film image, as Gibson explains in his online article. He also explains what he calls ‘the 35mm problem’, which is 3:2 works well in landscape orientation but can look too tall and narrow in portrait. So the longer rectangles make it difficult to fill the frame effectively and hinder composition. Several articles (various, photocomposition) discuss the ‘golden ratio’ (3:2 is an approximation to this), including studies that show this is often a naturally occurring ratio and attractive to humans – this is supported by anecdotal and historical evidence of the ratio’s use; why have we continued to use it if we don’t find it attractive? It is also thought to approximate the eye’s natural binocular field of vision (Thein M), so it is comfortable for us to view in one glance. So if you flip 3:2 vertically, to maintain the same horizontal aspect it would need to be 4.5:3 (or 5:3.3 if you want a comparison to 5:4). This is the 35mm problem – portrait viewing does not fit with our native human aspect ratio.

Most people will stick to the aspect ratio that is native to the camera, and either do nothing else, or crop to fit later. This is compositionally very, very sloppy – not only do you not get the best frame for the shape of your subject, there’s a very good chance that you probably won’t be able to fill the frame properly, either; 3:2 is a bit of a compromise aspect ratio that lacks the organic intimacy of 5:4 or 4:3 for portraits, or the drama of 16:9 for more expansive scenes. (Thein M)

I am self-confirmed ‘compositionally very, very sloppy’ – focused on maintaining available pixels for printing at expense of composition. But the times are changing. However, there is plenty of ‘purist’ thought in the photography world to discourage cropping – the same writer has a blog post entitled, ‘why cropping is bad’. Though, he does explain reasons and why he considers aspect ratio to be an exception, providing the shot is made with the aspect ratio in mind.

Now, I am going to work and experiment with different aspect ratios, but I cannot imagine how to envision the final aspect ratio in camera, while shooting 3:2 through my view finder (advice welcome!) and I wonder about series of photos – I’m not sure that a series containing various aspect ratios would be accepted; mixing portrait and landscape in the same aspect ratio seems to already cause controversy amongst photographers.

References

Gibson A (2011). The Art of Using Aspect Ratios in Digital Photography. Tutsplus [website]. Available from: https://photography.tutsplus.com/articles/the-art-of-using-aspect-ratios-in-digital-photography–photo-7947 [accessed 1.2.17]

Thein M (2012). Introduction to aspect ratios and compositional theory. Petapixel [website]. Available from: https://petapixel.com/2012/12/26/an-introduction-to-aspect-ratios-and-compositional-theory/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Thein M [Blog]. Why cropping is bad (January 21, 2013). Available from: https://blog.mingthein.com/2013/01/21/why-cropping-is-bad/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Various (nd). Photocomposition Articles. Photoinf [website]. Available from: http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Yorkshire Dales Grid Project

Introduction

Early in 2016, I joined a collaborative project to photograph the Yorkshire Dales National Park, using a grid-based approach. The project is the brain-child of Tom Marsh of Yorkshire Photowalks and detailed information is provided on his website, linked below. Over the Christmas break, I took the last of my shots for the project.

The project is thought to be one of the largest in the world, with projects elsewhere focused on smaller urban areas. The Dales grid project covers 134 sixteen square kilometre areas, with photographs at each of the 16 OS map grid intersects within each area. One of the early grid projects was in Portland USA, started in 1995 by Christopher Rauschenberg, dividing Portland into 98 squares. That project has continued to the present day, with new photographs showing the changes in places over time. In the UK cities with grid projects include Bradford and in Birmingham.

Aiming to photograph from points where OS map grids cross in the open countryside presented some challenges – some required long walks to reach and pin-pointing locations on open moorland is tricky! In the end, I used the ViewRanger iPhone app to guide me to the spots, which saved time compared with fumbling with a map and compass. I the process, I discovered some wonderful less often visited spots in the National Park and got some good exercise.

The photographs

Click to view larger images.

Conclusion

I initially found the constraint of having to photograph from specific points on the map limiting – it always seemed that there was a better spot 10 or so meters on! However, I came to enjoy the limitation and process of looking closely at what I could see around me, perhaps taking photos that I may not of otherwise even considered worth taking. It became a lesson in the discipline of looking.

I must now wait to see if any of my work is selected for the exhibition planned in the summer of 2017, to be hosted at the National Park’s new HQ.

References

Bradford Grid Project [website]. Available from: http://www.bradfordgrid.co.uk/intro.html [accessed ]

The Grid Project [website]. Available from: http://www.birmingham-photographic-grid.org.uk [accessed ]

Portland Grid Project [website]. Available from: http://portlandgridproject.com/content/about [accessed 3.7.16]

Available from: http://yorkshirephotowalks.com/gridproject/index.html [accessed 30.12.16]

The Group Portraiture of Holland

Alois Riegel’s work, The group portraiture of Holland, is an examination of the work of group portrait painters in Holland and the interplay between internal coherence of the group (within the paintings) and external coherence (engaging the viewer outside the frame). The theories and techniques described are of interest to me in the context of my upcoming assignment 3, which will involve photographing a male voice choir.

Source: www.rijksmuseum.nl, ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt 

I foresee a challenge in making large group portraits as being the coordination of individual gazes within the group into something other than a predictable outward gaze the camera, or even worse that, accompanied by fixed smiles! Painters have the benefit of creating their images on the canvas, whereas in photography its indexicality means it must, to a certain extent, work with the world as we see it. Nonetheless, that world can be organised or even manipulated through digital post-processing, so lessons from painters can be valuable.

Riegel talks about ‘psychological manifestations’ that can be expressed within the concept of paintings, and later goes onto to describe how these can add a sense of coherence to a group portrait. The manifestations are:

  1. Will – expressed by an action. By performing actions we express our self-determination within an environment. This makes us stand apart from the environment or from those who choose to remain passive within the environment.
  2. Emotion – this is a reflection of an internal state and is passive in relation to the environment, in contrast to the active ‘will’. Emotions are visible on people’s faces and through their body language. A skilled painter can create these, photographers need to watch for a decisive moment to catch them or rely upon subjects who are good actors.
  3. Attentiveness – is where the subject become open to the effects of the environment; either to participate with it for pleasure or to withdraw from it in pain. It is a reflection of engagement with ‘other’, unlike ‘will’, which is an expression of of engagement by ‘self’.

Riegel discusses a number of paintings in his work, including how their composition and psychological manifestations serve to unify the groups portrayed. It is a fascinating look at reading paintings and discovering the artists’ intentions. For my own purposes, the following aspects are important:

  • The group members are rarely organised uniformly – while there may be a symmetry to overall composition, the groups are never lined up facing-front, one row behind another. This lack of uniformity creates visual interest; something that cannot be said of many photographs featuring large groups, where an overriding concern of fitting people within a space, which can be captured within the frame of the camera, seems to take over compositional considerations.
  • Motifs are sometimes used to unify a group that do not at first appear to be acting as a group from their positioning – for example each group member could be holding a weapon in the case of the night guards.
  • In only one of the images considered are the subjects all gazing towards a single point at the front, outside of the frame (the artist). It immediately makes me think of a photograph, where the convention is for everyone to look at the camera. When a large group all looks to the same point, it introduces a uniformity and predictability to the image; we are deprived of visual variety. The group is all attentive to the same thing outside of the frame; the photographer – there is no ambiguity or mystery.
  • Hand gestures form an important part of many of the group portraits – like a secondary set of gazes, they point, they hold, they welcome, they show. They add another visual dimension. What someones hands are doing is instinctively an important visual cue to us; are we safe, or are we at risk from this stranger? The aspect often receives little attention group photographic portraits.

I have had little success in finding photographers working with group portraits, outside of standard corporate or wedding group photographs; perhaps because these are common gatherings of large groups and they primarily serve the purpose of recording who was present, in time constrained circumstances. This exploration of group portraits in paintings has provided useful food for thought.

Reference
Riegl, A., Kain, E.M., Britt, D. and Kemp, W. 2000. The group portraiture of Holland. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.

Alec Soth on sequencing series of images

Aaron Schuman’s interview with Alec Soth on his work The Mississippi, includes a discussion on Soth’s approach to sequencing a series of images. I’m interested in this topic, as the upcoming assignment 3 (Windows) will include a series of images, where the number of images to include is left to me to decide.

Source: alecsoth.com by Alec Soth.

Soth comments that anyone can take single great picture (if they have the luck of being in the right place at the right time), but very few people can create a collection of great pictures, which is his aim.

He talks about the art being in making the collection and in the ‘interplay of the images’. He is looking to a whole beyond an individual image. When asked about how he chose and sequenced the photos, Soth refers to the model used by Robert Frank in the Americans:

Frank found the mood and motifs, but didn’t repeat it to death.  His sequencing functions as a kind of rhythm.  It carries you through the book.  He repeats certain themes, but keeps moving.  The structure really is based on poetry.

I find these concepts easier to relate in the context of music than poetry (as I’m more familiar with music), but until reading Soth’s words had not really considered them in the context of photography. Mood is easily understood as an expression of emotion; happy, sad, tense, upbeat and so on. Motif, I think of as a small recurring fragment (a obvious and famous musical example is the introduction to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony).

Unfortunately, the interview with Soth does not go on to explicitly explore the moods and motif’s his work, but looking the images on Soth’s website, here are some of the things I see:

  • A mood of coldness through whites and blues in the images.
  • Sobriety in the gaze of photos that are in the portrait genre; no one is smiling.
  • A singularity in the framing – there is often one main subject and the space around it makes it clear what that subject is. This creates a feeling of isolation when combined with the gaze of the subjects and the mood of coldness.

The concepts of mood and motif are something I will consider when it comes to pulling together assignment 3.

References

Aaron Schuman [website]. The Mississippi: an interview with Alec Soth. Available from: http://www.aaronschuman.com/sothinterview.html [accessed 21.12.16]

Alec Soth [website]. Sleeping by the Mississippi. Available from: http://alecsoth.com/photography/?page_id=14 [accessed 21.12.16]

Literary Devices [website]. Motif. Available from: http://www.literarydevices.com/motif/ [accessed 21.12.16]

Research point – the rhetoric of image

Source (featured image): http://www.americansuburbx.com, by Ed Van Der Elsken.

This research requires reading of Roland Barthes’ The Rhetoric of Image and to then comment on:

  1. The definition of anchorage and relay
  2. The difference between the two
  3. Some examples of both
  4. How the concept might be useful in one’s own creative use of words and images
Having read the work (not for the first time – see here for CAN blog post) and again with some difficulty in digestion, I came to the following:

Continue reading “Research point – the rhetoric of image”

Editing photoshoots

The upcoming assignment 3 places no limit on the number of photographs that can be included in the submission. Therefore, it is timely to reflect on the process of editing; by this I refer to the process of reviewing photos taken and working through to a final selection of images. I don’t mean the activity of post-processing – as the term ‘editing’ popularly refers to the use of tools like Lightroom and Photoshop, there is inevitably confusion. I recall being confused early in my EYV studies when my tutor referred to a ‘closer edit’, while at the same time advising not to do too much post-processing! I take care to use each term appropriately now.

Continue reading “Editing photoshoots”

Big Issue North featured image

I was pleased to have another photo featured in the Big Issue North in connection with the OCA’s partnership / advertising. This time a photo of a decaying farm building with the backdrop of Lakeland fells. The photo was taken during a family visit, with my children no doubt bemoaning another photo-stop. What struck me at the time was the relative impermanence of permanent buildings when placed in the shadow of a mountain.

The camera I: Photographic self-portraits

For however dutifully we record what we see around us,

the common denominator of all we see is always,

transparently,

shamelessly,

the implacable “I” (Joan Didion)

This book deserves to be on the reading list for self-portraiture, not just because of the 148 photographs, self-portraits by some of the greats of photography spanning nearly a century and a half, but because of the fascinating and thought-provoking introduction by Robert Sobieszek on the nature of portraiture and self-portraiture. The following passage says so much about the nature of self-portraiture that I quote it in full:

In self-portraiture, where the artist and subject are ostensibly the same person, the dynamics of reading, interpreting, analysing, and representing involve by definition a cycle of self-regard, self-presentation, self-revelation, and self-creation … an attempt to achieve an honest and convincing representation of the self invariably embodies the realisation that there are at least two selves, one accessible and the other hidden …’ (Sobieszek and Irmas, 1994, p21)

It is little wonder then, why I have found the process of creating self-portraits so challenging and exhausting – there is so much going on, when considered in this way.

img_0257

Sobieszek explains the concepts of ‘watchman’ and ‘spy’ to explore the nature of self-portraiture; the former with the role of observer of the surface of activities, and the latter with the objective of digging below the surface to discover information or secrets. In explaining how the photographer as spy might work, he quotes Richard Avedon:

The point is that you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface. All that you can do is to manipulate that surface – gesture, costume, expression – radically and correctly.

In my portraiture work, I have used the concept of a portrait as ‘an interview with a camera’; that is my way of ‘working with the surface’. In my upcoming self-portrait exercise, I need to find a way of talking to myself with the camera.

Sobieszek suggest that self-portraiture can be divided into three general types; delineation, distortion, and disguise. He goes on to illustrate these concepts by reference to works in the book. He concludes with the inevitable end, which is perhaps why I find self-portraiture a sobering exercise:

Self-portraiture is ultimately a confrontation with the self’s mortality. The self that stares back at the artist was once, when the photograph was made, and is no longer; marking a time immediately removed in time, it portends the imminency of death. (Sobieszek and Irmas, 1994, p32)

In my upcoming self-portrait exercise, I will attempt to relax into the idea of me photographing another me and me trying to shape my surface through a conversation with me. Otherwise, I am doomed to appear as a pantomime actor performing.

References
Sobieszek, R.A. and Irmas, D. 1994. The camera I: Photographic self-portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art u.a.

Miksang photography

I’ve recently been blogging on the processes of seeing and expressing a vision through photography. See Ways of Seeing (revisited) and Photography and Zen. Related to the thoughts in these books is Elina Brotherus’s reflections on her own photographic process, where she talks about creating first and analysing later.

Miksang photography is based on Eastern (specifically Tibetan) thought and the contemplative practices that include meditation. In the past I’ve read material based on similar principles but applied to creativity in the field of music, including improvisation. I read Michael Wood’s book, Opening the good eye: a path to true seeing (the literal translation of Miksang is ‘opening the good eye’.) to discover more.

The purpose of this post is to reflect on how the practice of Miksang might relate to the development of my own photography practice.

Like many things, Miksang is easier said than done – it is the practice that is challenging, not the conceptual understanding. In essence it involves:

  1. Being open and receptive to what we see around us, without the intrusion of our learned filters that we use to judge before we see. So seeing with a child’s eye or like it is the first time (echoes in music – the attention and pleasure an absolute beginner experiences when first making sounds).
  2. Once we’ve opened ourselves, staying open and receptive to see the authentic thing, holding back the learned habits of categorising and evaluating. This is difficult, it is our survival instinct to do this (will something harm me, can I eat it, can I use it) and our education processes reinforce this instinct; habits developed over our life-times.
  3. In our photography, being able to capture the authentic thing based on our clear vision of it. As well as understanding the camera as a tool, this would also include what we do to an image in post-processing; any treatment should be true to our vision of the subject (so most likely minimal).

This is not something you ‘get’ from reading a book, it is something that requires dedicated practice. As well as the general benefits from meditative practices in our busy world, I envisage benefits to the practice of art photography:

  • It helps us to get out of our own way and express our own unique vision (the art from within), without conscious reference to what we have seen in the work of others or learned about the technical aspects of photography. Those things shape our intuition and natural responses, but do not need to be actively contemplated when creating – just as a good guitarist is unlikely to actively consider musical scales when improvising; they create a unique distinctive sound from within.
  • Having a solid picture in our mind’s eye of our original, clear vision of the subject allows us to be consistent with that as we capture, process and present our images. They become authentic and not a ‘pastiche of what has gone before’.
  • Like Brotherus we can analyse after creation – I’m not sure that this aspect would be relevant to the practice of Miksang, which I understand is based on the premise that nature is infinitely creative and what we need to do is find a way of expressing this. However, it is useful to consider what has influenced us during the course of academic study as well as for the purpose of hopefully obtaining a degree certification, which of course brings no guarantee alone that we will produce authentic, worthwhile work.
Horse by Andrew Fitzgibbon.
Horse by Andrew Fitzgibbon.
References

Miksang.com [website]. Available from: http://www.miksang.com [accessed 30.10.16]

Wood M (2016). Opening the good eye: a path to true seeing. Miksang Publications, Colorado.

Female Sexual Objectification

Revisiting John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (see here) took me on an unexpected exploration of the objectification of women. I referenced female photographer, whose work comprises self-objectification, loaded with sexual signals; she responded to my blog post, commenting that her work was ‘consensual objectification’ and she was comfortable in the knowledge that her 7.7k Flickr followers were predominately male. Putting the post up for discussion on the OCA’s photography forum then generated a range of responses and references.

source: www.americansuburbx.com by Cindy Sherman
source: www.americansuburbx.com by Cindy Sherman

In this post, I aim to come to an understanding of the arguments around sexual objectification. This is not to address broader questions of equality or the impact of the general portrayal of women in the media.

Objectification is a phenomenon; ‘The majority of the thinkers discussing objectification have taken it to be a morally problematic phenomenon’ (Papadaki E). This is perhaps where our challenges start in considering objectification in the context of photographs:

  • A phenomenon is observable through our various senses in the real world. A photograph is not the real world, it has a malleable meaning depending on context and viewer. It can be used as an element in influencing perceptions or narratives, but not without a considered process of communication. We cannot assess whether a photograph alone objectifies without knowing its context; it is meaningless to do so.
  • In defining objectification the 10 criteria referenced all relate to the ‘treatment’ of another person (Papadaki E), for example ‘reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses’. A photograph alone is incapable of communicating about how a person is treated. It shows a fraction of a moment in time, through the frame of a view finder, in two visual dimensions.

Therefore, attempting to assess whether a photograph on its own objectifies, is futile. It must be interpreted in a broader context.

The next point to consider is whether objectification is wrong per se, or whether there are circumstantial considerations, for example ‘consensual objectification’. An example of this in popular fiction is the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, with UK sales of over 12 million (Singh A); books with a central theme of sexual objectification and 80% sold to women ( US statistic -http://www.bowker.com/news/2012/Whos-Really-Reading-50-Shades.html). ‘[Martha] Nussbaum believes that it is possible that “some features of objectification … may in fact in some circumstances … be even wonderful features of sexual life”, and so “the term objectification can also be used… in a more positive spirit.’ (Papadaki E) This view appears evident in the Fifty Shades’ success. Everyday Feminism magazine asks the question:

There’s a long-standing debate in feminism about sexual empowerment: How do we know when someone is being sexually liberated versus being sexually objectified, since they sometimes can look similar from the outside?

The answer, they propose, is in determining who has the power. Deciding where the power lies may take some analysis and consideration, but it is a pragmatic model.

I will not consider any photographs (in their context) here, but have a useful model for viewing and interpreting work going forward.

References

Everyday Feminism [website]. How Can You Tell if You’re Being Sexually Empowered or Objectified? Ask Yourself This Simple Question? Available from: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/empowered-vs-objectified/ [accessed 25.10.16]

MoMA [website]. Cindy Sherman. Available from: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/gallery/4/#/0/untitled-95-1981/ [accessed,25.10.16]

Papadaki, Evangelia (Lina), “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-objectification/ [accessed 25.10.16]

Singh A. 50 Shades of Grey is best-selling book of all time. The Telegraph [online] (August 2012). Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9459779/50-Shades-of-Grey-is-best-selling-book-of-all-time.html [accessed 25.10.16]

Research point 1 – Elina Brotherus talk to OCA students

OCA IAP (p63) asks us to watch a talk by Elina Brotherus to OCA students about her own work.

It is a short talk of a few minutes and focuses more on her process of working than her photographs. Her advice is simple; get out and photograph more, following your instincts and leave the analysis of what you have made until later.

After reading the advice, I did just that – a 30 minute drive to Saltaire, UNESCO world heritage village to walk around and photograph and just see what came up.

Photos

Analysis

Saltaire was an industrial village built by August Salt (mill owner) in 1851 to house his workers and provide welfare and education facilities. It would have once been busy with industry and workers going about their daily activities. It is now preserved for heritage and tourism. The grand mill is a successful a location for artisan shopping and cafes and a gallery space for  the largest collection of Hockney’s work in the world. It needed to be repurposed to survive and this undoubtedly required substantial effort and investment by the current owners.

I felt a sense of melancholy walking around – similar to a recent visit to Liverpool’s Albert Dock – both once places providing labour and productive output, but now housing gift shops and coffee shops, with little feel of community.

I processed a few of the photos with a sense of nostalgia (for a time of course I could not have known), which may not have been shared by the people employed at hard mill-work. The processing is fake (digital in Lightroom) as is the activity now housed by the mill – no longer an industrial powerhouse, but a servant to tourism.

So, the analysis results in a strap line for the series of photos – From Industrial Powerhouse to Servant to Tourism.

Ways of Seeing (revisited)

I first read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing in January 2016 during my CAN course (see here). I was curious to see whether I would take anything new from a second reading, with the book appearing as recommended reading for IAP.

Looking back on my previous blog post (Fitzgibbon A, 2016), it is in the form of a book review, with the book summarised as follows:

The work is a series of essays that encourages us to see and read art, beyond the two-dimensional image, the interpretations of the traditional art establishment and those holding hegemonic interests. It encourages the reader to think from multiple perspectives about a work to allow more profound understanding. Berger explains how ‘the way people look at art is affected by a whole series of learned assumptions … beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status, taste etc’ (Berger, p11) – importantly that these assumptions may not be relevant and ‘mystify rather than clarify’.

The form of the book review is a useful reminder of the contents of a book, but disconnected from my photographic practice and practical implications. As I’ve progressed through the OCA courses, it is reflecting on the link to practice that I realise is more valuable than just reading and reflecting in the abstract.

The main learnings in respect of photographic practice are:

  • Chapter 1, explores the ideas of seeing, ‘seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak’ (Berger J. et al (1973), p7). The emphasis is on what could be called analytical viewing; how one can read images incisively. This is not only in terms of the narrative within the image, but in the context of the time in which it was made, the purpose for which it was created and/or adapted, the commissioner of the work, the artist and the viewer. Multiple perspectives. Considering these aspects when creating our own work can bring greater awareness when communicating our vision, as well as when reading other work. Perhaps equally importantly, given the transmittability of imagery and resultant re-contextualisation, we can consider what might be missing from our reading; information that is simply not available or obtainable.
  • Chapters 2 (visual essay without words) and 3 focus mainly on the portrayal of women in images. In my previous blog, I was uncertain whether Berger’s reading of female psychology was as relevant today as in 1960s Britain. Anecdotally, I felt it could be, but hoped that we might have become more conscious of a culture of demeaning portrayal of women. The Misrepresentation Project in 2011 however, highlights the ongoing struggle. As a photographer, it is important to be aware of the engrained culture of the objectification of women, valued for appearance and sexual availability; this is shown in imagery through the gaze and signs within the narrative of images and also the gaze in relation to the viewer of the image. Berger discusses this at length. A look at female self-portraits on Flickr reveals some complexities in this area; sexualised self-portraits – exploration of sexuality or self-objectification / knowingly or unknowingly. It is perhaps not for us to judge how others decide to present their own body-image, but we can decide how and what we choose to photograph.

Flickr gallery of objectifying self-portraits (my perception):


During this research, I noticed CyanideMishka who dedicates her work to exploring her own sexuality through self-portraits; the photos are well-done but I wonder whether her 7.7k followers are mostly male and on what level they read the photos. See here (contains nude images) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyanidemishka/. I will see whether she will comment on this post.

Berger does not deal with the portrayal of men in imagery to any significant extent, other than to mention they are mostly shown in positions of power and authority, their own person, not an object to be owned. In recent years, after Berger’s writing, issues with male depiction in the media have also gained some traction.

  • Chapter 5 deals with the genre of old paintings and their commissioners. For me, often confused by the merit of some oil paintings, this was a revelation. Berger says, ‘oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house.’ (ibid, p83). Berger observes that the reason that many of the greats of oil painting died in poverty was because their work didn’t show things that would appeal to the vanity of wealthy commissioners (eg merchants in fine houses, with beautiful possessions). The work was not ‘commercial’. I am reminded of the story of Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) introducing the work of Picasso to America in 1911 and being unsuccessful in selling a single piece. In all art, including photography, the quality of the work does not necessarily relate to financial reward. Photographers motivated to make money from their work do well to separate their commercial and personal artist interests.

Berger’s work raises some fundamental considerations about the way we portray people in photographs and the way we read photographs that are so deeply engrained in our culture that they may go unnoticed or ignored as ‘just how it is’.

Reference

Berger J, et al (1973). Ways of Seeing. London, Penguin Books Ltd.

Fitzgibbon A (2016). Context.Fitzgibbonphotography [blog]. Ways of Seeing (5 January). Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/ways-of-seeing/ [accessed 24.10.16]

Vimeo. Misrepresentation Project. Available from: https://vimeo.com/86728310 [accessed 24.10.16]

Photography and Zen: Discovering your true nature through photography.

In my tutor’s feedback on A1 (see here), he suggested that I could be overly concerned with the technical aspects of photography, possibly to the detriment of other aspects. This struck a chord and reminded me of my early experiences with guitar playing, when it was easy to become too focused on the technique of playing, rather than just playing. After a while one knows the technique, it becomes second nature and doesn’t need to be thought about. Through my guitar and being an erstwhile judo player, I’m aware of how it feels to be in a non-thinking zone and also that I am not yet often in that zone with my photography, sometimes actively thinking about camera settings.

I decided to turn to Stephen Bray’s book Photography and Zen as part of a reflection on my current practice and how I might break out of my technical habits. I also referred back to a review of a book I read during the EYV course, Tao of Photography by Phillippe Gross.

My earlier review of Gross’s book appears to be a series of quotations from the book with no record of what they meant to me at the time. A little disappointing in retrospect, but encouraging that I would hopefully not repeat a similar approach just over a year and a half later. I perhaps need re-read the book. The quotes listed are all about seeing and perception, for example:

It is part of a photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country – Bill Brandt

How can one see intensely if pre-occupied with the techniques of using a camera? Perhaps modern cameras contain too much technology and too many options for our own good. They are complex gadgets with countless possibilities for tinkering. I recently purchased an old Nikon FE manual focus film camera. When using it, I was immediately struck by how limited the options are for setting it up and using it compared with my modern digital cameras. There is little to do, apart from looking and capturing moments in time!

Turning to Bray’s book, I note here things that resonated with my thinking on forgetting the technical, rather than a review of the book’s contents.

  1. ‘A certificate may denote competence in many skills, but rarely is it an indicator of flair. To have flair it is necessary to fully embrace what life has to offer.’ (Bray, S. (2014), p117). The risk of academic study and focus on technical skills is becoming too focused on theory and forgetting to ’embrace what life has to offer’ and getting out and making photographs. Somewhat of a dilemma when studying and working at the same time – can leave little time for the ’embracing’ bit. The answer must be to integrate studying with doing and living as far as possible?
  2. ‘Mistakenly, I thought what I lacked were knowledge and further skill. In fact what I needed was the courage to explore my own nature.’ (ibid, p145). This is a profound insight – it is without doubt less challenging to seek knowledge and skill than to confront one’s own nature. This confrontation can bring honest and insightful work, that has something to say.
  3. ‘One of the dangers of photography is that, whilst it enables expression of your inner world upon a computer screen, book page, or gallery wall, it can also become a substitute for living.’ (ibid p197)

In the end, it is perhaps as simple as this:

Pick up your camera and make images with it.

The featured image for this post was made after reflecting on the wisdom in this book. Camera used simply – ISO fixed for the shoot (like film), manual focus, manual exposure; changes only made if there were significant changes in light and subject distance. Followed by 2 or 3 minutes in Lightroom. It was indeed refreshing. The lesson is decide on an approach/process and stick with it without unnecessary tinkering; embrace the moment intensely.

I saw sheep glowing in the sun cutting through the storm clouds. I focused singly on the glow, lowered my exposure and shot. The sheep glow!

References

Bray, S. (2014). Photography and Zen:: Discovering your true nature through photography. (Photography and Consciousness Book 2) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Context.Fitzgibbonphotography (February 2015) [blog]. Review of Tao of Photography by Phillippe Gross. Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/tao-of-photography-seeing-beyond-seeing/ [accessed 20.10.16]

Digital Splash – speakers

Wilkinson Camera run an annual event in the North West; this year over two days in Liverpool’s Exhibition Centre, near Albert Dock. As well as product stands, busy feeding and fuelling photographers’ demand for new products they don’t necessarily need, there are guest speakers.

I saw Michael Freeman speak on travel photography and Faye and Trevor Yerbury speak on their portrait photography practice and projects. Both presentations showed the photographers’ own work, which they talked to. I note here, just the points that were of specific interest.

Source: yerburystudios.com by F&T Yerbury
Source: yerburystudios.com by Faye & Trevor Yerbury

The Yerburys presented some beautiful lit and intimate portraiture. Listening to them speak, I picked up on a theme that runs through portrait photography that appeals to me – a simple approach to lighting that allows the photographer to concentrate on the subject and prevents the subject from feeling overwhelmed by studio lights. They explained that they often use a single light and reflector only, with the occasional addition of a second light. Trevor explained his enjoyment of finding out about the lives of his subjects as he talks with them. They also described some of the projects they have undertaken to keep their work fresh and explore new ideas; this seemed to be personal work in between their paid work.

Michael Freeman has published innumerable books on photography. He spoke about his many years as a professional travel photographer and the changes over the past 20 years; unexplored corners of the earth are now much more difficult to find because tourism has become pervasive. Freeman then discussed how to get a travel shots that are not like everyone else’s. These included, travelling away from the main tourist spots, focusing on people (who are unique) rather than landscapes, and avoiding the obvious shots that have been done time and time again.

References

Digital Splash [website]. Available from: http://www.digitalsplash.tv [accessed 16.10.16]

Freeman Photography [website]. Available from: http://www.michaelfreemanphoto.com [accessed 16.10.16]

Yerbury Studio [website]. Available from: http://www.yerburystudio.com [accessed 16.10.16]

Photographers suggested for A2

As a part of the feedback on assignment 1 (see here), I was recommended to look at the work of 3 photographers in preparation for assignment; Joel Sternfeld (1944), Katy Grannan (1969), and Phillip Lorca diCorcia (1951).

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-16-46
source: vice.com, by Phillip Lorca diCorcia

I consider three aspects of the photographers’ work:

  • ‘Procurement’ of subjects. An important part of the process of portraiture is finding subjects that are willing to give their time and image to a photographer. The quid pro quo. In Sternfeld’s work Stranger Passing , the approach to the work seems to be described by its title – strangers passing through seemingly random locations, photographed within the context of the moment and engaged with the camera but at a distance (the subjects are aware). The photographs were taken over a period of fourteen years (1987-2001) (Fadedandblurred). In contrast Kern explains diCorcia’s approach; ‘To find subjects for his series Hustlers, Philip-Lorca diCorcia drove around Hollywood between 1990 and 1992 looking for male prostitutes. Although many of the photos look perfectly timed, off-the-hip candid photos of street hustlers, diCorcia pre-selected the locations and did lighting tests with an assistant before searching for a subject to put in each setting’. diCorcia paid his subject the same amount that they would have charged for their trade in sex, with the project funded by a $45,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Source: http://www.npg.si.edu, by Katy Grennan
Source: http://www.npg.si.edu, by Katy Grannan
  • The style of the photographer. Eric Kim quotes Sternfeld as saying, ‘Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world. Color is the real world. The job of the color photographer is to provide some level of abstraction that can take the image out of the daily.’. This is an interesting perspective; Sternfeld’s work contains a limited colour palette, which provides a level of abstraction that is not immediately apparent as it is with black and white photographs. Grannan also works in colour, with a limited pallet; it is this that allows us to focus on the portrait subject without the distraction of noisy colours, which can quick overwhelm a subject and themselves become the focus of our gaze. diCorcia’s colour palette is subtle, with the look a classic chrome film; muted and with warm shadows.
screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-14-08-25
source: artblart.com, photo by Joel Sternfeld
  • The story or narrative of the works. Sternfeld’s Strangers Passing feature ordinary people, dressed in ordinary clothes, doing ordinary things. They are not photographed close up to reveal the expressions of their faces or hands but put at a distance in the context of their place, with Sternfeld’s large format camera showing details of both people and place. Similarly Katy Grannan uses the everyday in her work, again within the context of their environments, but with a specific message to the work, for example, the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, or teenagers serving time in adult prison facilities; there is an element of photojournalism. diCorcia stages his images and uses lighting artificial lighting in making his images; though they are staged in such away as to make them look not obviously staged.

There is careful attention to the story told by portraits in the work of these photographers, either through staging or careful inclusion of the context of place. Limited colour palettes bring an element of the abstract to the work despite it’s rendering in colour.

References

American Suburbx [website]. Photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia Talks (2003). Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/09/interview-photographer-philip-lorca-dicorcia-talks-2003.html [accessed 8.10.16]

Erik Kim Photography [website]. Kim E (2014). 6 Lessons Joel Sternfield has taught me about street photography. Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/02/14/6-lessons-joel-sternfeld-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [accessed 8.10.16]

Fadedandblurred [website]. Put a frame to the world: Joel Sternfeld. Available from: http://fadedandblurred.com/joel-sternfeld/ [accessed 8.10.16]

Fraenkelgallery [website]. Katy Grannan. Available from: https://fraenkelgallery.com/artists/katy-grannan [accessed 8.10.16]

Luhring Augustine [website]. Joel Sternfeld, Passing Stanger. Available from:  http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfield [accessed 8.10.16]

National Portrait Gallery [website].Feature Photography/Katy Grannan. Available from:  http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/feature/grannan.html [accessed 8.10.16]

Vice [online magazine] (2013). Richard Kern on Philip Lorca-diCorcia’s ‘Hustlers’ (November 13). Available from: http://www.vice.com/read/richard-kern-on-philip-lorca-dicorcias-hustlers [accessed 8.10.16]

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The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900

I’ve been dipping in and out of Max Kozloff’s book The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900 for a couple of months now (it is OCA recommended reading material). I purchased it used from World of Books (who recycle library books and say they donate some of their profits to charity); a good source.

The book is a monumental effort of over 300 pages (large pages) and over 300 photos in colour and black and white. The text is small and dense for the A4 pages; it is as much a written documentary as a photo book. Deborah Garwood’s review on artificial.com enthuses over the quality of the writing and level of research that went into the book; there is really nothing to disagree with in what she says.

There are two ways to read this book: the first, as a text exploring the context of the  photographs and photographers included; what it means to take a portrait, how a portrait might be viewed, the psychological and sociological significance of the photographs. And how portrait photography has evolved since 1900; the second way is as a visual reference for photographs and photographers, perhaps referring to the words for additional context.

Having read through the book (not every word), I know what I can find there and that it will no doubt be a valuable reference source. Perhaps that is enough to say in the context of a visual arts study blog, on the premise that any relevant quotes will be included along with the appropriate pieces of work?

However, I will make note of a particular aspect that I find rings true as I have been working on my own portrait photography. Kozloff opens by saying:

Among its many functions, the human face acts as an ambassador, on the job whenever out in the world. We are face reading, socially inquisitive animals, accustomed, mostly likely programmed, to respond to physiognomic expressions as signs that help us decide our own behaviour in limitless scenarios.

It is attention to these visual signals that I feel contributes to interesting portraiture; the rich tapestry of the face and not the camera-mask or fixed smile. These expressions talk to us visually as we read a photograph and draw us into know more about the sitter. They are not necessarily ‘nice’ or  ‘beautiful’ expressions, but they catch our attention and prick our curiosity.

I would like to avoid taking bland photographs of smiling people; though sometimes the social pressure could be too great to resist!

Reference
Garwood D (2008). Artificial.com [website]. The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900 by Max Kozloff. Available from: http://www.artcritical.com/2008/02/01/the-theatre-of-the-face-portrait-photography-since-1900-by-max-kozloff/ [accessed 27.9.16]
Kozloff, M. 2007. The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.

Portrait of Britain

source: portraitofbritain.uk
source: portraitofbritain.uk. Photo by Chris Baker

The October edition of BJP features an article on and images from the ‘Portrait of Britain’ competition, describing it as ‘an exhibition by the people of the people and for the people’. The 100 winners from over 4000 entries are exhibited on digital screens in selected railway stations and are available in an online gallery (link here).

I particularly enjoyed the humour in the image Sunday Football by
Chris Baker. Two hapless players, with no ball, looking of into the distance, with a backdrop of rusting goal posts and a residential tower block. It is a reminder that the ‘beautiful game’ can be played by anyone, anywhere and is in stark contrast to images from the English Premier League.

Also featured in the BJP magazine are interviews with a number of individuals responsible for commissioning portrait photographs for magazines. In the interviews we gain insights into what the look for in portrait work. Some comments:

  • ‘Good portraits have attitude and convey something about the sitter’s personality … are eye-catching and demand that you stop and stare at them … get under your skin and make you want to know more about the sitter’ (Kathy Ryan, New York Times)
  • ‘What makes a good portrait? Freedom! … a general direction … as much freedom to create as possible’. (Hayley Louisa Brown, BRICK magazine

For the development of my own practice, I have registered to be notified of future competitions and will submit an entry!

References

Portrait of Britain (2016). British Journal of Photography (October).  Issue 7852.

Portrait of Britain [website]. Available from: http://www.portraitofbritain.uk [accessed 26.9.16]

Reflections on Lightroom workflow and archive

Having recently addressed my IT infrastructure around my photographs, in particular a robust back up routine and a MacBook docking station (see here), it was again time to revisit my workflow and approach to maintaining my photographic archive. I first seriously considered this during my Context and Narrative Course (post here), in September 2015. Re-reading this now the process seems complex and too involved – there is little surprise that I’ve failed to follow it!

Here I note my revised workflow and look forward to reviewing it in 6 months to discover whether the approach turns about to be workable.

Overall set-up

LR catalogue is kept on a Macbook Pro (MBP), with the backup saved to Dropbox. The MBP, including the LR catalogue, is also backed up to a NAS drive using TimeMachine.

Primary storage for photo files is a 2TB WD hard drive (WDHD), which is connected to a MBP docking station along with a large monitor. The MBP is docked to work on the image files, or to work on them remotely ‘smart previews’ are created. The WDHD is backed up via TimeMachine to the NAS drive and to the cloud using iDrive (with student discount!)

On import (while travelling)

Photos are imported to the LR catalogue but stored in a desktop folder on MBP named ‘photo import’, which is separately referenced in the LR catalogue. This is a temporary working location used for review and processing only, not cataloging of the images. While travelling a portable WD 1TB drive is used to back up the image files and stored separately to the MBP.

On cataloging (at home base)

I’ve rearranged the folder structure on the WDHD into  3 top-level folders: 1) own digital images, 2) others digital images (mostly family members or friends that I’ve agreed retouch), and 3) historic photos (analogue family archive that I’m beginning to scan). Own images contain the vast majority of files and my approach to sub folders is now: year/general category (eg family, landscape, street, OCA)/specific project or location. I was previously using LR’s default of year/month, but this buried specific projects deep in the folder structure, making it tricky to quickly find anything.

On selecting and processing

Initial selections:

  1. On import, rate any image with potential as 1 star. Note – keyboard short-cuts for stars are the numbers 1 to 5.
  2. Filter and review all 1 star images, making basic processing adjustments if needed. Rate any images passing review with 3 stars and process. Use virtual copies when very different treatments are planned (eg colour and monochrome), otherwise use snapshots to mark different versions of similar processing.
  3. Any images that are stand-out, rate as 5 star (use with extreme discretion)
  4. Apply keywording to starred images using defined structure / regularly update maintain keyword structure. This allows searching of archive for specific images with specific elements.

Project selections:

  1. These are made after initial selections, but for specific purposes. Two tools to suit nature of project:
    1. LR collections (including collection sets) – remembering to create virtual copies of original image files if specific adjustments are required (eg crops)
    2. Colour flags. I’ve set mine up to be labeled; potentials, picks, selects – draft, selects – final. Keyboard shortcuts are 6 to 9.

As a general workflow principle, I aim to process the original RAW file with basic exposure corrections only and then work on virtual copies for further processing. This allows images to easily be repurposed where different crops / processing is required.

 

Irving Penn 1987 retrospective – MoMA

I previously looked at the work of Irving Penn (1917-2009) through online resources (see here), specifically at his ‘pop-up studio’ work. I enjoyed looking at the work but was unable to find much of it in online archives, so tracked down a used copy of the book accompanying the MoMA retrospective of Penn’s work (Szarkowski, J. and Penn, I. 1987. Irving Penn). The cover material describes Penn as ‘one of the most distinguished practitioners of portrait and fashion photography of the last four decades.’ In this post, I reflect on my reading of that book.

img_0212
Source: iPhone snapshot

The 25 page introduction to the book is written by John Szarkowski and provides a biography of Penn, covering his formative years, his influences, his working life, and his work to the time of the 1987 retrospective. Atget and Evans are cited among Penn’s influences and this is reflected in his early work; Szarkowski comments that Penn’s ‘personal sensibility’ is evident in these early works, saying ‘The raw materials … are as humble as those of Atget’s working class shops, but in Penn’s picture they seem dear enough for Tiffany’s’ (ibid, p19).

Penn spent many years working as a Vogue photographer at time when Vogue seemed to have afforded him the opportunity for a great deal of artistic freedom and financial support for projects (see also Helmut Newton as a Vogue photographer). Szarkowski offers a number of insights into Penn’s work:

  • ‘It was his idea that the portraitist must seem a servant to the sitter … , one whose function is to attend and encourage the sitter’s self-revelation’ (ibid, p24)
  • ‘In contrast to the prevalent magazine style of the years around 1950, his portraits are free of reference to the sitter’s work or habitual environment’ (ibid, p26). Szarkowski describes Penn’s work in which there is not even a sign of the anonymous studio as a ‘wordless conversation between the photographer and sitter’.
  • Szarkowski’s view is that Penn was less successful when he has worked outdoors … ‘from the studio we see with perfect limpid clarity his subject. In his work from out-of-doors we see, perhaps too clearly, his artfulness.’ (ibid, p35).

The book includes 156 of Penn’s photos (21 in colour), covering all aspects of his work. Here I reflect only on the portraiture.

Throughout we see the sitters stripped of context; there is either a studio backdrop or a void behind the portraits. This gives us an impression of the sitter without distraction and showcases Penn’s sculpting of their ‘self-revelation’. Because the sitters appear as their own people, rather than actively engaged with the camera and photographer, I feel that we are looking into their personalities; an absence of the camera-mask.

On the other hand, when it comes to Penn’s studies of sitters in traditional / native costume and decoration, in my view the approach does not work as well. Placed out of context into pop-up studios, the images look like museum show-pieces in glass cabinets, removed from their habitual locations. They do not view as portraits of ‘self-revelation’. For example Couple with Dog (ibid, plate 62) or Sewer Cleaner (ibid, plate 86). Of course my perspective is influenced by my own cultural background in which I expect to see the traditional matched with the traditional or of the same period; otherwise it feels incongruent or artificial. Likewise, if the same subjects were dressed in contemporary styles and photographed in a studio, I would read the photographs differently.

It is interesting to draw parallels with the work of Jane Bown (1925–2014) and Emile Hoppé (1878-1972), also making portraits in monochrome. All of the photographers emphasised the importance of interpersonal skills to draw out the characters of their sitters; they also recognised the impact intrusive photography techniques can have on the psychology of the subject. Bown with her 35mm Olympus OM1 camera and use natural light; Hoppé moving to smaller format cameras when they became available for his studies of ‘types’; Penn using pop-up studios to avoid bring subjects into a formal studio setting. All paid attention to and had routines for working with their subjects; all different but somehow looking to find ‘self-revelation’ or ‘finding their photo’.

In terms of my own practice, as well as paying attention to the process of engaging with subjects (which I am lucky to have significant experience of doing in my day-job), it is important to shoot portraits regularly, including with flash if needed, so that the use of the tools becomes second nature and as invisible as possible to the sitter.

Reference

Szarkowski, J. and Penn, I. 1987. Irving Penn. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Restoring an old portrait

A friend asked me if I could restore a photo of his youthful self, in which the black and white had become a tinted yellow/green and the emulsion had spotted, perhaps with moisture. He wanted to use the photo as an incentive for exercise.img003

Not having attempted anything similar before, but knowing that there would be similar photos in my own family archive, the photo presented an opportunity to study the restoration technique and try it out for a good cause.

YouTube has become my go-to resource for finding out about Photoshop techniques; there are many people who generously share their knowledge, sometimes as a draw to their paid subscriber services. Already with a good foundation in Photoshop, I’ve never felt the need for a paid subscription and can invariably find the information I need through unpaid videos; good new for me, but a perennial issue for content makers aim to make money online when so much material is shared for free. The best video I found for restoring photos is the Phlearn one, referenced below.

My approach in brief:

  1. Scanned the image (Epson V370 photo) at a resolution of 720 dpi – the scanner is capable of much higher resolutions, but given the poor quality of the photo there seem to be little point. The image was saved as an uncompressed TIFF.
  2. Imported the scan into my Lightroom library for cataloging purposes and onward processing in Photoshop.
  3. Used a Huion tablet for work in Photoshop (poor man’s Wacom) – I found responsiveness issues when working on my MacBook Pro (having moved my photo studio from my iMac), which I need to investigate further.
  4. Order of working with Photoshop tools:
    • Spot healing brush – to automatically take care of small areas of blemishes (used extensively to remove the spotting).
    • Healing brush – used for larger areas when I need to sample from specific areas (mostly on the face and legs).
    • Brush tool – used in a few areas where there was limited / no pixel information (sampled tones from elsewhere and brushed on).
    • Black and white layer mask – to remove the colour cast from the scan.
    • Levels adjustment – to fix the tonal range in the photo.

Here is the retouched photo – not perfect, but good for a first attempt and given the technical problems I was having with my MacBook lag. The image printed well at A4 size.

ian

References

Youtube. Phlearn.  How to Repair an Old Torn Photo in Photoshop. Available from: https://youtu.be/abXAvWuteI4?list=PLtFVp4OpD5nY-3t3a0hUKH59-6cGNQ9eG [accessed 21.9.16]

Faces – Jane Bown

I first looked at the work of Jane Bown (1925–2014) during the Context and Narrative course (see here), when I watched the documentary Looking for Light. Bown was a staff photographer for the Guardian newspaper for much of her working life and the reputation she gained for portraiture was such that celebrities would request sittings with her (an interesting twist for a newspaper photographer).

Bown’s book, Faces: The creative process behind great portraits, is both introduced by Bown herself and she provides brief commentaries on each of the photos. The book includes 120 black and white portraits, covering several decades; subjects including Woody Allen, John Lennon, Anthony Hopkins; it is like a who’s who of newsworthy personalities.

What draws me to Bown’s work is that while she took an uncomplicated approach to photography, using an Olympus OM1 and almost exclusively natural light, working under tight time constraints, her photos are captivating. It feels as if one is looking into the real character of her sitters, with little artifice. Bjork is quoted on the dust cover of the book, saying:

She can look at a person and she knows, instinctively, straight away, who they are.’

screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-10-26-44
Source: Guardian.com

Things I’ve learned from looking at the book:

  1. Bown always shot on location, rather than in a studio and worked to address different set of practical constraints where ever she worked. This flexibility to deal with the sometimes less than ideal, and improvise seems important.
  2. Bown stayed with her manual 35mm Olympus OM1 and 50mm lens throughout her career. A camera that can now be purchased on eBay, including lens for around £100. There can be a tendency for photographers to fall into the ‘gear acquisition’ trap thinking that the latest gear will make the difference to their work, when it is really what goes on behind the camera that makes the difference. Bown’s approach is a powerful example of this maxim. She says, ‘I don’t use lights, flash or light meters. This means that I travel light and don’t waste time setting up. I like to have as few barriers as possible ..’ (Bown J (2000), p8).
  3. Bown’s preparation for a session in a new location was focused on looking for light; ‘once the light is dealt with, I can can get on with the business of   taking the picuture’ (ibid, p9). She comments that in situations she could not find natural light she would improvise, for example by putting a 150 watt bulb into a table light. Photographing in black and white offers more leeway in lighting than colour, where the temperature of light needs to be more carefully considered.
  4. Bown describes how she moves around her subjects to explore the framing of the shot and the context of the portrait. Each portrait in the book includes Bown’s explanation of the framing and what she liked about each image. There seems to be a clear intention and an attention to detail. This is perhaps what is needed to take great portraits; a great awareness of what is occurring within the frame. I’ve noticed in my own work that I’m sometimes prone to miss small distracting details in the frame, which could have easily been removed physically or by reframing at the time of shooting. The discipline of considering the whole frame, not just the subject is particularly important in portraiture.
  5. While some of Bown’s work comprises head shots (important for newspapers), much includes context, which was perhaps not included in newspaper prints. Hands and features in rooms or outdoor spaces form an important part of the narrative for Bown’s portraits; whether they are directly connected to the subjects or to aid with the composition.

This book is a great inspiration for black and white portraiture. Highly recommended.

Reference
Bown, J. 2000. Faces: The creative process behind great portraits. London: Collins & Brown Ltd.

Big issue photo

I was pleased to again have one of my photos featured in the Big Issue (12-18 September 2016 ed.) as part of the OCA’s partnership with the magazine (see C&N blog for previous feature). The photo is not one of my favourites, but it does offer an interesting point of view of the famous Fountain’s Abbey in North Yorkshire.

The featured image was part of an experimental exercise in seeing how far I could work with jpgs straight out of camera, including minimal editing if needed. In this case quite some adjustment was need to lift the deep shadows and the quality of the image suffered in the process. My current practice is now to shoot in RAW only for this type of situation and reserve jpg only for more casual occasion with friends and family. I’ve since learn to reduce the processing time I need for RAW images, which has influenced this choice. I regret not having a RAW file to work with for the Big Issue photo, though it caught some attention regardless.

bitn-1149_04

Lessons in technology and wasted hours

I write this as a note to myself not to repeat the same errors in a few years time and to sign some potential hazards for anyone about to undertake a similar exercise.

I finally resolved to upgrade the IT technology that supports my photography; or rather is fundamental to digital photography. The situation was that my old iMac’s memory would soon begin to creak under the weight of RAW files; working on a LR catalogue based on Dropbox between two computers (MacBook Pro for travelling) has proven not to be without complications or confusion; and there was a general shortage of backup capacity for my household of four people.

The solution was simple but the implementation not so simple, mostly due to pit falls of the ignorant. For the photo workstation – a MacBook docking station (CalDigit Thunderbolt Station), a 27inch matte hi-resolution screen (BenQ BL2711U), and repurposing of the 2TB WD hard drive (previously used for TimeMachine backups) as a larger drive for photo files, attached to the new docking station. For photo and general household backup a Network Attached Storage device (Synology Disk Station with 2 bays, plus two 3TB drives).

Cutting out the gory details, here are the snakes and ladders:

  1. Never, ever delete TimeMachine back up files from an external drives manually. You could end up with 2 million plus files in your trash that your computer will try for hours to count up and delete and then give up – apparently this is just not the done thing (how was I to know!) and OS cannot cope with empty the trash for a long list of good reasons. It seems the best way is to simply reformat the drive to clear all the old backup files and then start again. Not quite so simple when you’ve already moved your photo files to that drive!
  2. When moving photo files between drives, always do it within Lightroom or the indexing in the catalogue is completely screwed and needs to be rebuilt (thank fully I was already aware of this) – just press the ‘+’ next to folders in the library to add your new drive/folder, then drag/drop within LR.
  3. TimeMachine can also backup external drives attached to a Mac to another external drive. I discovered this after making a manual backup of photos on the WD hard drive. Just go into options and delete the external hard drive to be back up from the excluded items (TimeMachine excludes these by default). This is a neat solution that allows my working folder of imports on my Macbook Pro (plus other files) and the photo archive on the WD drive to all be backed up to the NAS, while using the excellent version control in TimeMachine.

This post has killed a little time as I wait for 10,000 photos to transfer back to my iMac so I can reformat the WD hard drive, empty the trash, and move the photos back again to the cleaned drive. We live and hopefully learn. The only remaining step is then looking into cloud backup of the NAS (Backblaze B2 is looking like the way to go).

Black & White conversion workshop

Here are my reflections on what I found to be a very useful three hour workshop with Mat Hart on black and white conversion using Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro.

Hart is a professional photographer of many years, and a self-confessed late adopter of digital photography. His story, work and blog can be found here (see also link below). He explained that once he made the switch to digital, he spent a year of intensively working out how he could achieve the same control over output he was used to with film. It is the outcome of this experience and his subsequent digital work that he shared during the workshop.

My motivation for attending the workshop was to further explore the tools of photography, in this case the digital dark room. Something that I consider important alongside the study of the art of photography to develop my own practice and refine an approach to giving voice to my vision. I’m not comfortable that I’m approaching post-processing in the most efficient way to obtain the results I am looking for; it can sometimes feel that I’m working in circles, in a sea of technical advice absorbed from books and the web.

The detailed content of the workshop will not be repeated here (for that attend a workshop!), but a few high level lessons and an example of an image reworked using the approach to black and white conversion suggested by Hart.

  • Always work with RAW files – processing needn’t be hugely time consuming and, as is well understood, the offer far more flexibility in post.
  • Presets (even your own) waste time – undoing adjustments made by the preset that do not fit your vision for a specific image.
  • Use the algorithm in Nik Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion (with basic adjustments as explained in the workshop) and then fine-tune the image in Lightroom.
  • For a speedy LR workflow, only the basic adjustments panel for overall image adjustments and the brush for specific adjustments can be used to great effect and with excellent control over the effect on the image.

The workshop shared several practical examples and also considerations when shooting for black and white. Overall money and time well-spent!

Finally, before and after images. This was a low-contrast image in poor light and serves as an exercise to show the improvement in speed of processing, as well as contrast:

Caravab #1
Post workshop – 3 minutes
Caravab #2
Pre-workshop – time not measured, but much longer.

 

 

 

 

Reference

Matthew Hart Photography [website]. Available from: http://www.matthewhartphotography.com [accessed 4.9.16]

Nik Collection [website]. Available from: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/products/silver-efex-pro/ [accessed 4.9.16]

Gone Astray by Clare Strand

Clare Strand’s (b 1973) Gone Astray project is described on her own website (link below). The project (in two parts) was a part of the output from a year-long residency at the The London University Of The Arts (2002/3).

Strand explains her inspiration for the project:

The title of the series is taken from a Charles Dickens text, Gone Astray 1853 which is an account of a young child lost in the City of London. A story filled of references to anxiety and vulnerability and to people leading double lives.

source: clarestrand.co.uk
source: clarestrand.co.uk

The two parts of the project are portraits and details. Portraits show people who appear to have been pulled from the street in everyday clothes, but photographed against a traditional C19th painted mural thatwould have been used for street portraits. The subjects are posed as if they are going about their daily business, some showing signs of anxiety referenced by the title. The subjects’ gaze is not engaged with the photographer, mostly looking down or away. When viewing the photographs, this creates a visual irony; care has been taken to set up a traditional painted mural, against which subjects would traditionally be carefully posed. However, Strand’s subjects are portrayed as disinterested in the photographer.

The second part of the project, Details, shows (as its title suggests) details. This time they are photographed outside the studio, on the street using a harsh flashlight to highlight the details. The ambient light is closed down, keeping the backgrounds to the details shadowing and dark. Our eyes are drawn to the details, highlighted in the chiaroscuro.

source: clarestrand.co.uk
source: clarestrand.co.uk

For my own practice, the two main aspects of interest in Strand’s work are the visual irony created by the mismatch of background and subjects in portraits and the use of flash to highlight details and cut ambient light in details.

References

Clare Strand [website]. Gone Astray. Available from: http://www.clarestrand.co.uk/works/?id=100 [accessed 2.9.16]

Worlds in a Small Room by Irving Penn

In Image on Paper, Tim McLaughlin reviews Irvin Penn’s (1917-2009) 1980 book Worlds in a Small World, telling the fascinating story of how the work came about. He quotes Penn’s comments on working in a temporary studio:

The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 23.51.34
source: sangbleumagazine.com

From Penn’s words quoted in this review and in Sang Bleu Magazine, it is apparent that Penn paid many of his subjects for sitting. He was interested in photographing different types of people (the example above is from a group of Hell’s Angels) by bringing them into ‘pop-up’ studios (or ‘day-light’ studios as Penn refers to them).

We should note that Penn was a highly successful commercial photographer for Vogue (for slide show of photos see link below, or here). At least some of the Worlds in a Small World work was made in between commercial shoots; it is likely that he had both the means to pay people to sit for him and the necessity because of time constraints.

source: vogue.com
source: vogue.com

We learn of Penn’s practice from the Image on Paper article:

His trips were commissioned by Vogue … He finally perfected a portable outdoor natural light studio with a custom built tent. This structure was 11 feet high and had a 10 x 18 foot floor. He augmented the set-up with an 8 x 12 reflective screen … could be set up quickly by a team of assistants, and could fit on the top of a jeep … Penn took five Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras and a compliment of close-up lenses.

So, pop-up studio with its suggestion of informality, is arguably a misnomer in this context; more like an on location shoot with entourage.

Although the subjects in Penn’s personal work are very different from the Vogue models, we can see the cross-over in his approach in that the sitters were tightly staged and directed. This creates an intense dynamic between the photographer and the sitters that is not necessarily present in a more observational style of portraiture, involving subjects who are not public personalities. This is something I’d like to experiment with in my own practice.

References

Guardian online [website]. Irving Penn obituary. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/oct/08/irving-penn-obituary [accessed 1.9.16]

Image on Paper [website]. Classic – Worlds in a Small Room. Available from: https://imageonpaper.com/2013/07/21/review-worlds-in-a-small-room/ [accessed 1.9.16]

sangbleumagazine.com [website]. Iriving Penn’s portraits of Hell’s Angels and his description of the experience. Available from: http://sangbleumagazine.com/2014/04/03/irving-penns-portraits-of-hells-angels-and-his-description-of-the-experience/ [accessed 1.9.16]

Vogue Magazine [online]. Irving Penn Photos. Available from: https://www.vogue.com/slideshow/photographer/irving-penn/#2489619 [accessed 1.9.16]

 

Project 1 – the unaware (reprise)

In the original post, summarising research on four photographers (see here), it was mentioned that I had no information on the approach to covert photography by Lukáš Kuzma. Subsequently, I contacted him direct by Facebook messenger and the communication chain is below, with links to a short description of his book and a YouTube video, in which he discusses his photography.

In terms of approach, Kuzma uses an intuitive response to the environment around him, following what interests or surprises him, taking his camera everywhere. This reminds me of Tom Wood’s approach, who also sets out with no specific intention. In the video, he seems to make no attempt to mask that he is taking pictures, but walks quietly around with a small inconspicuous camera (what appears to be a Fuji X-pro or X100T).

———————————

Hi Lukas – I hope you don’t mind the direct approach. I’m a BA photography student with the OCA and I guess you know that your work is featured as part of their course material. I’ve just written a short piece on approaches to covert photography, including your work alongside 3 other photographers. I’d be grateful if you could share a brief explanation of your approach to Transit London? My blog post is here – http://identity.fitzgibbonphotography.com/2016/08/29/project-1-the-unaware/

Lukáš Kuzma accepted your request.

Hi Andrew, I prefer direct approach. My approach. I’ve sent you a link where you can read in my books {blurb.com/lukysta} about the work I’ve done. On that page you can read Continuum where it is described. there is also a short video that includes more information >https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjxkYtJlOsA< My approach is to go out with a camera and see where it takes me. Its a process that is driven by curiosity, intuition and involves a lot of different approaches to a current situation. Underground in London is a great place for candid works. People are rushing through the same route everyday leaving me plenty of space to explore and to capture that world. Hope it helps, and good luck with your study.

Thanks – very helpful. I’ll share with the OCA group, so you don’t get pestered with the same question too much!
Great I appreciate it, best of luck
end.
—————————
References
Blurb [website]. Transit
by Lukas Kuzma. Available from: http://www.blurb.com/b/5798286-transit [accessed 30.8.16]
Youtube. Short film CLICK – IP production and Lukáš Kuzma. Available from: https://youtu.be/IjxkYtJlOsA [accessed 30.8.16]

Project 1 – the unaware

In this post, I examine the work of four photographers whose work includes covert photography (‘not openly shown, engaged in, or avowed’ – Merriam-Webster.com). There is an important distinction between this and candid work (‘relating to or being photography of subjects acting naturally or spontaneously without being posed’ – Merriam-Webster.com), which is not necessarily done secretively. The works are Tom Wood’s Looking for Love, Martin Parr’s Japonais Endormis (‘Japanese Asleep’), Walker Evans’s Many are Called, and Lukas Kuzma’s Transit London.

Issue magazine features a full-length interview with Tom Wood, touching on various aspects of his work and his motivations. Wood’s work is eloquently described:

Wood’s photographs convey much more than they literally depict. He not only shows us the people who make up the fabric of his day-to-day existence, but his manner of photographing forces us to recognize his subjects as sentient individuals. As a result, we are asked to contemplate their difference, the thoughts and emotions that inspire their actions and make them who they are. Tom Wood sets out to capture the complexity of being. His photographs succeed in isolating fragments of the sensual world, and exposing the human impulse to both negotiate and make sense of it. (Issue Magazine)

source: paperjournal.co.uk
source: paper-journal.com

As a teenager of the 1980s myself, I found something autobiographical in Looking for Love, even though it was shot at the opposite end of the country to my teenage years in the South West. Wood’s approach to covert work is to blend in, so that after a while people just accept him as part of the scene and don’t take notice of what he is doing. This requires a significant investment of time to be successful, and some of Wood’s projects took place over several years. Wood explains, ‘I don’t have agendas. I go out and take the pictures and you figure out what they mean afterward when the project’s finished. The camera is asking questions. You put it all together and you see what it adds up to. Whenever I’ve gone out with something specific in mind, it never works for me.’ (Issue Magazine). Wood offered subjects copies of their photos on his return visits to locations, and the reciprocity appears to pay-off in terms of continuing cooperation (Bruce Dickinson does the same – see here).

Magnum Photos explain Martin Parr‘s book as, ‘in ‘Japonais Endormis’ (‘Japanese Asleep’) Parr travels the Tokyo subway photographing sleeping commuters, many of whom travel for hours every day. Photographed from above, the 24 colour images give the impression that one is standing on a busy commuter train looking down at those lucky enough to get a seat.’

Stuart Franklin (Magnum President) is quoted in the Tokyo Times,saying, ‘It’s not hard to take photographs, it’s not even hard to take good photographs. What is hard is to put them together in a way that says something compelling’.

source: https://pro.magnumphotos.com
source: https://pro.magnumphotos.com

Here Parr’s approach to covert photographs is simple – he subjects are asleep (or as good as) and therefore incapable of being aware that they are being photographed. There is little risk of the photographer being caught-out taking a covert image. It is that Parr produces a series of photographs with a story that makes the work compelling – there are many similar one-off photographs of people unaware through sleep on Flickr, but they do not form a coherent story. Examples here:

Make-up

ASX explains Walker Evans‘s project:

Walker Evans’ Many Are Called is a three-year photographic study of people on the New York subway. Using a camera hidden in his jacket and a cable release running down his sleeve, Evans snapped unsuspecting passengers while they traveled through the city. Evans said that these photographs were his “idea of what a portrait ought to be,” he wrote, “anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind.”

source: asx.com
source: asx.com

Evan’s project was shot in 1938, when cameras were not ubiquitous as they are today, nor as technologically advanced. His approach falls somewhere between that of Wood and Parr; Wood with a high degree of risk of being challenge with his ‘blend-in’ approach, and Parr with very little chance of challenge as his subjects were asleep. Evans’ subjects were alert and awake, but he relied on hiding the camera to mask his photographs taken at close proximity. Evan’s only had control over when to press the shutter release; even framing was directional only, rather than composed. Despite the covert nature of the photographs, we still see some subjects looking back at Evans – this gaze is the general confrontational attitude on the New York subway, rather than a deliberate gaze between the subject and photographer.

The New York Times explains, ‘the furtive nature of the photographs adds to their sense of authenticity, as does the fact that the people in them are so obviously and absolutely unposed.’ It also provides an interesting Evans’ quote that expresses his philosophy on photography:

“Stare,” he commanded. “It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

Lukas Kuzma studies BA (hons) Photography at the University of Chester, UK. He also shot a series of photos on the underground (London, rather than New York like Evans). I currently have no information on how Kuzma approached the covert aspect of the work.

source: lukaskuzma.com
source: lukaskuzma.com

Though the photographs mostly appear to be carefully composed, so I suspect that his approach was more akin to Woods than Evan’s. People are mostly in their own worlds on the London Underground, desperately avoiding any communication with fellow travellers, so it is easy to image how these photos could be taken covertly with without the need to hide away the camera.
Kuzma’s series has a broader theme than that of Evans’s or Parr’s, which focus specifically on subjects facing the photographers in the carriage. Kuzma’s theme is ‘transit’ and addresses different aspects of a journey.

Covered in a separate blog post is another piece on subway photographs by Bruce Davidson (see here). However, Davidson did not adopt a covert approach to his work, so it makes an interesting comparison.

In summary there are various broad approaches to photographing ‘the unaware’: subjects that cannot be aware (as they are not conscious of their surroundings); subjects that have general awareness of their surroundings but do not notice the photographer as he blends into the environment while not masking his activity; subjects who are aware of their surroundings, but the photographer masks his activity – Evans with a hidden camera and cable release, but now with wireless technology (eg iPhone app) that allows a much greater degree of control.

References

ASX [website]. Walker Evans: ‘Many are called’ (1938). Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/05/walker-evans-many-are-called-1938.html [accessed 29.8.16]

Issue Magazine [website]. Tom Wood: Making Sense. Available from: http://issuemagazine.com/tom-wood-making-sense/#/ [accessed 29.8.16]

Japan Times [online]. Magnum’s 60 years of Tokyo. Available from: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2007/03/29/arts/magnums-60-years-of-tokyo/#.V8QFTWVYH0d [accessed 29.8.16]

Lukas Kuzma [website]. Transit London. http://www.lukaskuzma.com/transit-london/ [accessed 29.8.16]

Magnum Photos [website]. Available from: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYD12G4T2 [accessed 29.8.16]

New York Times [online]. Review/Photography; What Walker Evans Saw on His Subway Rides. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/31/arts/review-photography-what-walker-evans-saw-on-his-subway-rides.html [accessed 29.8.16]

Paper-Journal [blog]. Interview: Tom Wood. Available from: http://paper-journal.com/tom-wood/ [accessed 29.8.16]

Untapped Cities [blog]. Photography: Walker Evans’ NYC Subway Portraits. Available from: http://untappedcities.com/2012/11/20/photography-walker-evans-subway-portraits/ [accessed 29.8.16]

Vimeo. Looking for Love (Sorika Productions). Available from: https://vimeo.com/71627593 [accessed 29.8.16]

Vivian Maier at Fundació Catala

Another piece of happenstance during my vacation (see Bruce Davidson here) was that an exhibition of 90 Vivian Maier prints was showing in Barcelona at Fundació Catala. The exhibition was described on the gallery’s website (repeated in full here least it should be taken down in future):

This exhibition brings together more than 80 photographs, most of them unpublished, of this American photographer who has managed to captivate the world after the chance discovery of her files, shortly before her death. In 2007, a young researcher in the history of Chicago, John Maloof, bought at a small neighbourhood auction some abandoned belongings of a totally unknown elderly woman named Vivian Maier. What no one could imagine was that her wardrobe harboured a huge photographic work: more than 120,000 negatives, home movies and sound recordings that would change the history of photography.

The exhibition “Vivian Maier. In Her Own Hands”, produced by diChroma Photography and curated by Anne Morin, brings together photographs in both black and white and colour, most of whom were recently revealed by the Maloof archive, showing street scenes from New York and Chicago over the years 1950 to 1980. The photographic language that Maier uses is its own visual experience based on a discrete and silent observation of the world around her. His (sic) scenes spontaneously capture the peculiarities of the “urban America” in the second half of the twentieth century with a great sense of composition, light and environment, showing a great ability to communicate both humour and tragedy. Vivian Maier’s work has already been inscribed in the history of twentieth-century photography, next to big names from the called Street Photography, as Helen Levitt, William Klein and Garry Winogrand. Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009) Born in New York to a French mother and an Austro-Hungarian father, worked as a nanny for forty years. On his (sic) days off Maier was dedicated to making photographs that will jealously hid to the eyes of others. Her life is a mystery. It is said to have died in abject poverty living on the streets for some time, until the children who had looked after in the late 1950s bought an apartment and paid her bills until the day of her death in 2009.

Photography was allowed in the gallery and attached is a pdf of some sample images and information panels – see here.

Source: iPhone gallery snap
Source: iPhone gallery snap

I was already familiar with Maier’s work through the John Maloof and Charlie Siskel documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, the BBC’s Imagine documentary, Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?, and a photo book gifted to me, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, also by Maloof. The mystery of her life and work adds an additional, unusual context to her photos.

In this post, I focus only on my observations from the exhibition.

  • Maier experimented with self-portraiture, looking for interesting reflections in different objects; this work is striking in the simplicity of the approach available to Maier and effectiveness of the images, some including imaginative over-lays of other people or objects. Maier’s intention when making these images will probably never be known – were they studies in reflections, aimed at honing observational and technical aspects of her work, or was it interest in her own image (that she never printed)?
  • The tonality of the prints (mostly black and white on matt) was notably higher quality than that in the printed books of her work. This would be expected to some extent, but the difference seemed more significant than that I’ve noticed with other photographers’ work. This is an important lesson in managing the context of the presentation of work and what can happen when out of the photographer’s hands.
  • As the photographs were not edited by the photographer, we have no understanding of her intention; particularly whether or not she envisaged them in series or as individual images. I find exhibitions of images arranged around themes, or in series more significant and accomplished than stand-alone images. Having visited a retrospective of Bruce Davidson’s work the day before (see here), I missed this aspect from the exhibition.

Overall, I enjoy Maier’s work because of the proximity to her subjects – there is a sense of being taken back to the moment in which the photo was made and being up-close to personalities from another time. There is an intimacy to her work that I feel is important to make this type of photography worthwhile; close, often with wide-angle perspective of narrative; it otherwise becomes a shot of a stranger walking down a street that anyone with a camera could take.

References

Fundació Foto Colectania [website]. Vivian Maier. In Her Own Hands. Available from: http://www.colectania.es/index.php?i=3&p=2 [accessed 28.8.16]

Vivian Maier [website]. Available from: http://www.vivianmaier.com [accessed 28.8.16]