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.
Failed it! (2006). Kessels E. New York, Phaidon Press.
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.
BBC Radio 4 (iPlayer). Iain Sinclair and Keggie Carew. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pflfh [accessed 28.6.17]
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):
Exhibitions / publications
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
Hurn, D. and Fuller, J. (2010). Writing the picture. 1st ed. Bridgend, Wales: Seren.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Evans H (1978). Pictures on a Page. London, William Heinemann Ltd.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
For however dutifully we record what we see around us,
the common denominator of all we see is always,
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.
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.
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 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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Berger J, et al (1973). Ways of Seeing. London, Penguin Books Ltd.
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.
‘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?
‘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.
‘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!
Bray, S. (2014). Photography and Zen:: Discovering your true nature through photography. (Photography and Consciousness Book 2) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
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.
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.
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!
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!
Portrait of Britain (2016). British Journal of Photography (October). Issue 7852.
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.
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.
Szarkowski, J. and Penn, I. 1987. Irving Penn. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
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.’
Things I’ve learned from looking at the book:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Bown, J. 2000. Faces: The creative process behind great portraits. London: Collins & Brown Ltd.
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.
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.
By chance, a retrospective covering 60 years of Bruce Davidson’s work happened to be showing at the Fundación Mapfre in Barcelona while I was on holiday in Spain. Davidson (1933) is a Magnum photographer and worked for Time prior to joining Magnum. The foundation’s website describes the exhibition:
The exhibition contemplates a journey through the artist’s long career including some of his most famous series, such as Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street and Time of Change: the Civil Rights Movement as well as his most recent works, Nature of Paris and Nature of Los Angeles.
The exhibition included around 200 prints in 16 different sections. Disappointingly, photography was strictly prohibited in the exhibition and this was being enforced strictly by the attendants. Therefore, I have no images to share of the exhibition space or photos. I purchased the substantial catalogue that accompanied the exhibition and will review that separately.
Points of note from the photos and narration accompanying the exhibition that could influence my own practice:
Davidson was close to his subjects, getting to know them and sometimes becoming a part of their lives for months or even years. He describes him self as a humanist photographer. A humanist perspective can be defined as ‘a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason’ (Merriam-Webster.com). Many of his projects appeared to be attached to a cause, to show the human perspective of the subjects. I saw nothing of sensationalism in Davidson’s work.
In the video, Making Contact, Davidson tells us how he likes to befriend his subjects, showing them a small portfolio of his work and giving away copies of the photos he takes. Davidson’s 1980s ‘Subway’ project, which he discusses in Tate Shots, contrasts with the covert approach used by Walker Evan’s in his 1938 project, ‘Many are called’.
Eric Kim’s blog analyses Davidson’s approach from the perspective of a street photographer (though Davidson would not classify himself as such). What is interesting in Kim’s analysis is how the observed practice (and quotes from Davidson’s published works) is consistent with Davidson’s humanist perspective. The antithesis of Bruce Gilden’s approach to photography, which offers little concession to ethics (see post here).
Many of the prints in the exhibition showed extreme contrast of light and dark (chiaroscuro), with attention drawn to the subjects through light. It appeared as if the effect was enhanced during processing, though Davidson’s use of flash could have also created this effect. This added an oppressive atmosphere to some of the photos – subjects coming out of the darkness surrounding them.
I admire Davidson’s approach to engaging with his subjects and attempting to understand their situation. I find it preferable to ‘stealing’ or ‘sneaking’ someone’s image; though appreciate that is perhaps the only way to capture a spontaneous, ‘decisive’ moment. However, for work that is closer to street portraiture than the capture of an unfolding, spontaneous scene, Davidson’s approach better reflects the way I like to meet and deal with people. I enjoy the social side-effects of the aphorism, There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet ( W.B. Yeats), when making photos.
This is another post focused on technical aspects, rather than artistic; concerned with making prints from digital images. The main source of information was Robin Whalley’s ebook, Perfect Prints Every Time: How to achieve excellent photographic prints. However, some useful information relating to printing from Lightroom was also sourced from the internet.
The print aspect of the digital workflow does not appear to be as widely discussed as digital processing. Perhaps because many people do not make prints, but mostly share their work online, or simple do not appreciate that additional steps are necessary to get the most from digital prints. This post serves as a reminder of print steps to be added to my workflow, when printing digital images.
Colour management of monitor – this needs to be regularly calibrated so screen colours match what the software (LR) thinks it is showing. The only way to do this accurately is with additional hardware – keep my x-rite i1 attached to my iMac and check calibration regularly!
Print resolution – Whalley advises that images should be scaled to the native print resolution of the printer to optimise the print quality. In the case of my Epson sc-P600, this would be 360dpi.
However, an article by Jeff Schewe in Digital PhotoPro suggests a different approach. That is if the unsampled dpi of the image is higher than the printer’s native resolution, print to the highest quality the printer can manage (for the Epson 720 dpi), otherwise information is wasted. Schewe’s test show that the eye can make the distinction between the two resolutions and perceive the additional quality. To find out the unsampled dpi of an image in LR check the boxes in the print module as shown above and the information then appears on the above the image as shown here. Consistent with this is Whalley’s view on upscaling prints; he states, ‘typically if you’re working with a good quality file you should be able to double the dimension of the image and still produce an excellent print.’ Another observation he makes is that some matte paper types may not be able to take high-resolution prints, so it may be worth adjusting the output resolution downwards for these papers. A few test prints while making sample prints for my C&N assessment submission showed a clear difference in print quality using Schewe’s recommended approach, rather than sticking to the standard native resolution of the printer.
Selective sharpening of image – this should be done prior to soft proofing of the image. Whalley recommends keeping a master version of the digital image without such sharpening and creating different versions depending on the intended output.
Soft proofing – Whalley’s recommended approach is to use the relevant paper profile for the printer (aka ICC profile) used for the proof, along with ‘simulate paper and ink’ checked in LR’s proof settings. The paper profile needs to be obtained separately from the paper manufacturer – I make it a practice of selecting only papers where the relevant profile is available to avoid the hassle and expense of obtaining a custom-profile. The aim is to then get the proof image looking similar to the edited LR image (view using split screen) so that the print image looks similar to the on-screen version. It will never be exactly the same, as Whalley explains, ‘the image printed on paper will never appear as bright, vivid and have as much contrast as an image displayed on a monitor. Following on from this, different paper surfaces will have different abilities to reflect light. A gloss paper for example will reflect a lot of light where as a matte paper reflects little in comparison and may appear dull’. Proofing entails making further processing adjustments; with local adjustments for out of gamut warnings in selected areas, ‘usually you will need to increase the “Contrast”, “Clarity”, “Vibrancy” and possibly “Saturation”” sliders’, states Whalley. It is the proofed version that should be sent to the printer.
Printer set-up – this is addressed in the various LR menus and is a question of setting these to fit the printer in use. An interesting suggestion Whalley makes for black and white prints is to investigation the ABW modes of the printer, as they may produce superior results and even remove the need for proofing.
Following this research and test prints, I feel encourage to print more and make it a regular part of my workflow.
I first read Brian Peterson’s book around two years ago, when I was first beginning to develop a serious interest in photography. It could be described as a technical book, on understanding the camera as a tool to make pictures. I revisit it now with fresh eyes, with more photos under my belt!
Peterson first deals with the use of the aperture, describing what he sees as three modes: ‘isolation’ (wide apertures), ‘storytelling’ (narrow apertures), and ‘who cares’ (middle apertures). This relates to the depth of field achieved in each of the ranges. Peterson reminds us that where DOF considerations are not important for a shot, the ‘who cares’ apertures give ‘critical sharpness and great contrast’ and, therefore should be used. These are useful analogies, even if we choose to use them if a different way that Peterson suggests.
At some point in my practice, I have developed the habit avoiding narrow apertures; perhaps weary of front-to-back sharp images on the internet that show nothing of particular interest, just picturesque scenes in detail. I now need to develop the habit of using this aperture range where appropriate.
Peterson generally uses his camera manually and the shutter to adjust the exposure for his chosen aperture. However, he states, ‘there are two situations in which you should make the shutter speed your first priority: when the scene offers motion or action opportunities, or when you find yourself shooting in low light without a tripod.’ Peterson is a tripod enthusiast, valuing them for the sharpness they help bring to his images.
Peterson explains that once aperture and shutter speed considerations have been made,’the real question isn’t “What should my exposure be?” but “From where do I take my meter reading?” He goes on to consider various scenarios and options in some detail. Throughout, Peterson’s preference is to use manual mode to adjust the exposure, only using the automatic modes in cases where there is uniform light; he finds this easier than using exposure lock but I guess this is dependent on the design of the camera in use. He mentions how on sunny days, he meters from the blue sky (away from the sun), what he calls ‘brother blue sky’ (also its reflections in water). He also makes use of ‘Mr Green Jeans’ when there is a lot of green in a scene, exposing at -2/3s. The approach uses large areas of reflected light to arrive at an exposure for the scene.
Peterson mentions that while evenly lit subjects are easy to meter, ‘to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, you need highlights and as many professional photographers would agree, a sidelit subject—rather than a frontlit or backlit one—is sure to elicit a much stronger response from viewers, because it better simulates the three-dimensional world they see with their own eyes.’ This may not always be the response we want to elicit in our photography, but it is nonetheless worth noting.
Re-reading this book has made me reflect on the way I use my camera as a tool (a Fuji X-T1). It is straightforward to use in manual mode, but the exposure lock can also be assigned as a switch, rather than press-hold. I perhaps us spot metering too often as a way to fix an exposure in a scene with uneven light, when metering and locking exposure based on an area might be more appropriate. I could then reserve spot metering for inter-locking with small focus points on subjects that are genuinely ‘spots’.
A photo from some exercises using closed apertures and a wide-angle lens is below (Fuji X-T1 xf10-24 at 19mm efl f/22).
Peterson, B. (2010). Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Showing in Bradford’s Impressions Gallery is Syd Shelton’s Rock against racism (RAR). BBC Arts summarises the context:
Rock Against Racism was a groundbreaking movement which staged marches, festivals and concerts from 1976-81 with the aim of fighting racism through music. Activist, photographer and graphic designer Syd Shelton was in the thick of it, shooting performers including The Clash, Aswad, Pete Townshend and Misty in Roots and documenting demonstrations across the UK. He was also one of the key designers of the fanzine Temporary Hoarding. As an exhibition of his photographs from the period go on show in Bradford, Shelton tells BBC Arts the stories behind 12 of his favourite shots, and explains how Rock Against Racism was formed as a reaction to the toxic politics of the era.
I visited Impressions Gallery to see the work for myself and note the following areas of particular interest:
In the video installation that accompanies the work, Shelton explains that he did not envisage the photographs as a single piece of work but more as a disparate record of events unfolding in the movement around him. It wasn’t until later that his wife persuaded him that the photographs were worth making into a book.
The photographs combine portraits and documentary photos of RAR events, all shot in black and white. I found the combination of portrait and documentary highly effective; it was as if viewing the broader story of the social context, interspersed with the stories of individuals in the movement.
The photographs are often posed, with Shelton explaining that he preferred this approach to a Cartier-Bresson style decisive moment ethos; apparently the photos were of little interest to the photo-editors of the time because of their preference for the traditional decisive moment. While they are posed, they have a candid spontaneity that makes them feel of the time and place they were taken.
The prints were on aluminium sheet – a good idea for a travelling exhibition; I’m unsure of the economics of this approach but the format removed the need for framing and glass, so I would assume cost-effective.
An interesting touch in the exhibition was the use of glass cabinets to display memorabilia, posters and original contact sheets of the photographs. Seeing the marked up contact sheets with their tactile feel, has encourage me once again to look into a more organic approach to producing ‘contact sheets’ from digital image files.
Many of the photos were composed to show context to the main subjects – whether rows of police in the background, or a street sign recording the location of the photograph. This added a sense of historical interest to the photos.
Shelton has demonstrated in the press coverage of the exhibition, the captions that accompany the photos and the newly released book of the work that he kept good notes on what he photographed. Almost 40 years after the events of RAR, these provide invaluable contextual information and allow the story to be told and presented as a record of popular history. This is something I need a process for in my own practice.
Hundred Thousand Exposures, The Success of a Photographer is the 1945 autobiography of E.O Hoppé, introduced be Cecil Beaton. Beaton describes Hoppé’s work:
Hoppé’s pictures were entirely different from the other photographs at that period, for they were all imbued with a controlled and subtle romanticism and atmospheric glow – they were the work of someone with taste, perception, appreciation; of someone who used the camera as an artist.
The book is a chronology of Hoppé’s career through turning professional, setting up a studio, advise on equipment, how to handle sitters, to his experience with a few of his most famous sitters, including Mussolini.
The book is of a different era based in a society that was very different to 21st century England, but it offers insights that are still relevant today:
He offers advice on starting out in photography and cautions against over-investing in the latest equipment, ‘the wealthy man, according to my observations, rarely succeeds because he is tempted to rely more on the latest elaborate equipment than ideas, effort and stamina … to work long hours experimenting .. ‘
Hoppé discusses his location preferences for portraiture as ‘miniature’ cameras developed and allowed for mobility beyond the studio environment, ‘harmony between sitter and photographer is best achieved in the former’s domestic or business environment. There is always a certain artificiality about a studio, and there is noting like a home atmosphere for promoting intimacy. At home, the sitter is host, which gives a natural sense of dominance and poise’ (p46).
He emphasises the importance of keeping equipment simple, so his mind is free to concentrate on essentials (p67); ‘possibly some astonishment will be caused by the simplicity of my outfit … I am aware that enterprising manufacturers sell almost every variety of gadget for home portraiture, but most of the these things are bought by the overawed amateur’. This reminds me of the approach taken by Helmut Newton (mentioned here).
Throughout the book Hoppé emphasises the importance of understanding and researching his subjects to engaging them in conversation and allow them to express their character before the camera. He enjoyed the psychological aspect of working with portraiture, and this is what lead him into studies of ‘types’.
Hoppé E.O (1945). Hundred Thousand Exposures, The Success of a Photographer. London and New York, The Focal Press.
During a visit to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, I came across two photos by Keith Arnatt (1930-2008), Matresses and Miss Grace’s Lane.
The captions explained how David Hurn taught Arnatt about photography in 1973 when the two met (Arnatt was already a conceptual artist) and how these works were photographed in the warm colours of romantic English landscape paintings. The Met explains that with ’emphasis on the imagination and emotion, Romanticism emerged as a response to the disillusionment with the Enlightenment values of reason and order in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789.’
Constable’s work shown above is typical of the movement. That Arnatt chooses to photograph dumped rubbish with a similar colour pallet to the grand landscapes creates a sense of visual irony.
The concept of using a colour pallet in photography beyond constructing it in the scene, seems illogical in the context of photography’s indexicality. However, digital manipulation allows possibilities (see SLR lounge link below) within Photoshop. Colour toning-matches can also be achieved in Lightroom by click-and-dragging the colour swatch tool (see Lightroom Killer Tips).
I intend to explore the use of digital colour palettes in upcoming portraiture exercises.
Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography by Roswell Angier provides an excellent survey of the genre, exploring its many forms with references to practitioners throughout, including examples of their work. It also provides information on technical considerations of portrait photography.
This blog entry serves as a headline reminder of what can be found in the book for future reference.
Chapters form topic areas and include: about looking, portrait/self-portrait, at the margin: edges of the frame, tremors of narrative: portraits and eventfulness; you spy:voyeurism and surveillance; portrait: mirror, masquerade; confrontation: looking through the bull’s eye; blur: the disappearing subject; flash; figures in the landscape; and digital personae.
The photographers referenced in these contexts are numerous. They include, in order of appearance: Julia Margaret Cameron, August Sander, Sebastio Salgado, James Nachtwey, Jo Spence, Catherine Opie, Francesca Woodman, Guy Tillim, Leif Claesson, Boris Mikhailov, Allen Frame, Weegee, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Jeff Wall, Merry Alpern, Harry Callahan, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Michael Wolf, Kevin Bubriski, Shizuka Yokomizo, Yasumasa Morimura, Tanyth Berkeley, Nikki S. Lee, Lyle Ashton Harris, Mark Morrisroe, Nan Goldin, Shōmei Tōmatsu, Philip Kwame Apagya, Seydou Keïta, Gary Schneider, Bill Jacobson, William Klein, Nancy Rexroth, Mark Cohen, Chauncey Hare, David Moore, Jitka Hanzlova, Joel-Peter Witkin, Barbara Norfleet, Tina Barney, Kelli Connell, Loretta Lux, and Aneta Grzeszykowska.
Angier covers his topics with energy and enthusiasm which makes reading the 272 pages a pleasure. A few examples of the content:
In the context of ‘looking’, Angier explores the relationship between photographer and subject, ‘There is tension here between photographer and subject, faintly resembling the moment of concentrated tension that Avedon habitually seeks … Sander’s portraits are not opinions, in the sense that Avedon used the word. His objective was to create an even-handed inventory of social types.’ The varying objectives of photographers when it comes to portraiture. He goes on to describe Jo Spence’s work as, ’embattled and engaged, determined to explore the taboos and hidden truths which bedevil family histories.’
Angier makes a powerful observation about framing in the context of ‘at the edges of the frame’. He notes, ‘Ernest Hemingway once commented that one of the most important things about a written text is what gets left out … A similar statement could be made about photographs. The demarcation between what is included in an image and what gets left out, the area defined by the edges of the frame, can be one of the more exciting elements in a photograph.’ He makes and important comment on how the technology of modern cameras, predisposes the photographer to centre in the frame, ‘assumption is that the subject of the image should be in the center of the frame. This assumption is part of the folklore of photography. It is reinforced by the way in which modern cameras are designed.’ Later on in the work Angier goes on to reinforce this point and it is such an important point, that I repeat it verbatim:
Camera design actively encourages the balance and symmetry of the centrally framed subject. When it is superimposed on the subject of your portrait, the split-image focusing aid or centered auto-focus mark (right in the middle of the viewfinder) is like a bull’s eye. It is all too easy to aim, focus, and shoot, without shifting the framing before the moment of exposure. This procedure is subtly reinforced by the fact that many in-camera metering systems are center-weighted, giving preference to the reflected light values in the central area of the viewfinder, where the subject presumably will be located. The camera’s viewfinder, in effect, acts like a template, telling us how to arrange the elements of the picture. The point is to make pictures in which the act of framing/ aiming becomes invisible. When this happens, composition not only ceases to be an aggressive gesture, it all but vanishes.
In terms of a practical approach to my own photography, with my Fuji system, this advice supports the use of point focusing (with the focus zone movable around the frame), and spot metering where the metering can be set to follow the point of focus. There are of course indirect ways of achieving the same outcome, but this way puts the camera as a tool to efficient work.
Angier discusses focus and how some photographers manipulate focus to provide unexpected results as compared to the human visual system. He observes, ‘In fact, the camera and the eye do not see in the same fashion. The eye scans back and forth in time, allowing the brain to assemble an image that we perceive as a stable whole. But this image is really an assemblage of discontinuous fragments. The camera freezes an image, in a wider field of view than the eye can contain, in a single instant. The scanning eye sees things incrementally and in focus, regardless of their distance from the viewer. The camera sees objects distributed through space simultaneously, at different degrees of focus.’
On flash, Angier comments the need for flash is not necessary the quantum of light as modern camera can cope with most light levels, but more does the quality of light suit the purpose of the image.’
In summary, a book that will serve as an excellent source of reference to be revisited over and over.
Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography (Required Reading Range) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
I was introduced to Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972) through the OCA course material and he has since become something of a special interest; I had never come across him before; I found the story of fame lost after his own generation fascinating (it is often the other way around with artists); and his body of work is inspiring.
Hoppé portraits: Society, studio and street is a book published by the National Portrait Gallery to accompany their 2011 Hoppé exhibition. It contains 150 portraits, an essay by Phillip Prodger on Hoppé personality and type, and a biography by Terence Pepper. Both the photos and the text are very well done, making the book an excellent reference for Hoppé’s portraits.
Hoppé was a famous society photography, the choice of the wealthy, the stars and the powerful to promote their own images. His list of sitters read like a who’s who of Western society, from George Bernard Shaw and David Lloyd George to Benito Mussolini. Prodger explains that it was this ‘extraordinary access to leaders in various professions prompted him [Hoppé] to consider whether they might share common characteristics.’ It was a fascination with types and psychology, which ‘became one of the hallmarks of his career’. This theme continued beyond the studio into the artist’s work with street photography.
Prodger comments that although Hoppé’s work was often cropped in publications to show head shots, the originals were wide enough to capture the hands, which is often a distinguishing feature of his portraits. I note that this was also common in August Sander’s work (see post here), who was also notable for his typology. This interest is perhaps because it is the hands that allow a person to do the type of work for which they have become known; the tools of the trade so to speak.
A few general observations on the photographs in the book:
It is clear that early works were heavily influenced by the pictorialist movement and, indeed, Hoppé mentions Julia Margaret Cameron as an influence. There is a soft charcoal-like appearance to monochrome. Later works are sharply focused and modern.
Unlike in Sander’s work, there is a vast variety in the way Hoppé poses his subjects and captures their gaze. He is aiming to reveal something of their personalities, rather than document a type. Hoppé discusses this aspect in some detail in his autobiography, which I will visit in a future post.
The way Hoppé positions his sitters in the frame is as if he were studying a landscape; what aspect does he want to show and what point of view is needed to show it. There is no falling back on a formulaic approach to sitting.
Similarly with the gaze of his sitters; while some look directly into the camera, others look away, lost in their own thoughts, as if we are viewing a private moment when they are lost in their own being, their own personality, rather than acting for the camera. As I’ll cover when writing about Hoppé’s biography, he waits for these moments to occur during his dialogue with his sitters.
For my own practice, there are some valuable lessons here for setting up formal portraiture sessions.
Hoppé, E.O., Prodger, P. and Pepper, T. 2010. Hoppe portraits: Society, studio and street. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications.
National Portrait Gallery [online]. Hoppe portraits: Society, studio and street. Available from: http://www.npg.org.uk/hoppe/exhibition.html [accessed 27.7.16]
This post reflects on a visit to a retrospective exhibition on the work of Helmut Newton (1920-2004), at the Foam Museum, Amsterdam on 14.7.16. I was lucky to have visited retrospective of Stephen Shore’s work on the previous day (see here), so I could not but help be impressed by the difference in work within the same media.
The exhibition contains over 200 photographs,covering Newton’s life work. Newton was primarily a commercial photographer, working extensively for Vogue magazine, whose website provides a timeline of his work with the magazine. He also shot photos for Playboy Magazine. He later received the critical acclaim of the art-world, being awarded the prestigious grand prix national de la photographie by the French Ministry of Culture in 1990.
Newton never defined his own work as art, saying ‘Some people’s photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, that’s fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire.” (Dazed Digital). The documentary Helmut by June, which is available on YouTube, provides a fascinating insight into Newton’s approach to working, based on home video footage taken by his wife, June. From this, it is clear that the models are used as part of his tableaux; he is not interested in photographing them as individuals but how he can use them as an element in the scene he envisages. By definition he is objectifying them. However, Newton is insistent that he is presenting them as strong or powerful in his images. So, objects of power rather than weakness and submission. But nonetheless often in fantasy, erotic scenes that appeal to the male gaze.
The exhibition does include some traditional portraiture that is concerned with showing the individual, including a photograph of Margaret Thatcher, the first British female Prime Minister. In this work, there was often a lack of contextual information (Sanderesque), which is very different to his fashion tableaux. What was evident in this work was the depth of tone and the creation of the three-dimensional illusion. His approach to equipment and lighting is simple, Newton explains ‘it is all in his head’. (Helmut by June). It was surprising and inspirational to see that in a shoot featuring Claudia Fischer that a simple domestic battery-powered torch was being used as a light-source.
Newton’s work divides opinion, ‘Dramatic and beautiful, maybe, but are his photographs also misogynist, cruel and pornographic?’, asks Linsey Barker in the Guardian. Barker doesn’t answer the question directly in the article. There is however an extract that expresses her view and that of Newton:
Certainly, his photography is a matter of taste, and some of his more extreme, fetishistic images are, to many of us, just plain nasty. In fact, he’s happy not to be liked by everyone, though flamboyantly exasperated by those who believe that his work is demeaning to women. To me, the woman-in-saddle shot is funny in its absurdity but, equally, I can see why it might be regarded as offensive. He gets rather cross when I say so. “It’s bullshit!” he says. “As far as I can tell, and women friends have told me, the feminist movement has evolved into something more serious.”
Therein, lies the answer, for the viewer of the photography; it is a matter of personal taste, shaped by culture and experience. Whatever that view, it is not appropriate to deny the intention of Newton himself, “Triumphant,” is the word he uses to describe his work to Barker, also telling her that he disagrees that he often makes women look absurd or objectified.
Finally, an observation on the format of the exhibition itself. Some of the prints were what can only be described as ‘monumental’, filling whole walls. This can either be viewed as reminiscent of fashion billboards, but the print quality is something very different, or as that of old paintings hung in the city’s nearby Rijks Museum (the art that Newton says his work is not).
This post reflects on a visit to the Stephen Shore (b1947) retrospective exhibition in Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, visited on 13.7.16.
Shore is a photographer of huge influence, first selling work to MoMA at the age of 14 and going on to have his first exhibition at the age of 24 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the 1970s he was one of the few photographers working in colour. The retrospective contained 200 photographs covering the period 1960 to 2016 (Huis Marseille).
O’Hagan explains, ‘in the 70s, everyone hated Shore’s quirky photographs of everyday life because they weren’t in black and white. Now, a new retrospective shows how he became a modern master – and how the masses finally caught up with him’.
“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap,” Stephen Shore once said. “But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.”
The breadth and depth of the work on display in the exhibition is a staggering, covering street photography, landscapes, urban and suburban environments, conceptual work, and archeological landscapes. It is difficult to know what can be said simply and concisely about it. Mentioned here are just a few images of interest.
The early selection or Shore’s black and white work is reminiscent of Robert Frank’s The Americans, with wonderfully composed snapshot street portraits, which subjects at the edges of the frames, and their gazing drawing the eye into and across the frame.
This type of street photography is often poorly emulated by amateur photographers, who hold onto the black and white tradition, seemingly believing that any candid street photograph makes arresting viewing.
In early 2000, Shore was to revisit black and white photography and a street style. This panoramic image features the main subject sharply focused and contrasted to the left of the frame and in the middle distance.
They eye is then drawn forward and across the image creating an illusion of depth in two dimensions.
The photo below shows a suburban landscape, with almost a graphical illusion of depth. As the viewer, one has the sensation of stepping into the scene; carefully placed diagonals pull the eye into the distance, towards the mountains.
The final image selected for this post shows an landscape, in which man’s mark and influence on the scene has been embraced and shown in the photograph; no attempt show a beautify, unspoiled landscape, or to digitally remove the power lines, which etch man’s mark across the scene.
An excellent exhibition, which will further encourage my exploration of the ordinary for photographic possibilities
Diane Arbus (1923–71) is a photographer whose work deals explicitly with identity. A retrospective of her work was first published in 1972, following her suicide in the previous year and the edition considered here is the 2012, fortieth anniversary publication. At the time the book was first published, John Szarkowski summarised his thoughts on Arbus:
Diane Arbus was not a theorist but an artist. Her concern was not to buttress philosophical positions but to make pictures. She loved photography for the miracles it performs every day by accident, and respected it for the precise intentional tool that it could be, given talent, intelligence, dedication and discipline. Her pictures are concerned with private rather than social realities, with psychological rather than visual coherence, with the prototypical and mythic rather than the topical and temporal. Her real subject is no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed. (back cover material, Arbus D, 2012)
The introduction to the book includes a slightly rambling monologue by Arbus, setting out her views on photography. In the context of understanding her approach to portraiture, the following points are important:
Arbus’s subjects have a confident gaze before the camera. She comments, ‘actually they tend to like me. I’m extremely likeable with them. I think I’m kind of two-faced.’ It sounds like Arbus attempts to instil confidence in her subjects by acting benignly towards them.
Arbus talks about the need for a photograph to be ‘specific’. She seems to mean the unusual, rather than the generic, the things that have been seen before. She comments how she was drawn to photograph the freaks and nudists. Indeed, the book is full of unusual people, not conforming to what is general presented as the norm.
She expresses a dislike of texture, saying, ‘… I really hate that, the idea that a picture can be interesting simply because it it shows a texture … it bores the hell out of me.’ Her interest is rather to see the ‘densities of different kinds of things.’ This preference is reflected in her work, which tends have soft contrasts, there are no craggy sharp lined faces in her portraits. Nothing like Don McCullin’s homeless Irishman here.
An aspect of photography that Arbus comments she tired of is strobe lighting, saying, ‘… lately I’ve been struck with how I really love what you can’t see in a photograph. An actual physical darkness. And it’s thrilling for me to see darkness again.’ Of course, this limitation does not follow for modern strobe lights, which are finely controllable. However, Arbus would perhaps not appreciate the use of digital processing techniques used to open up shadow information and show detail throughout images.
Arbus comments that she dislikes the idea of composition, meaning rules of composition. She comments that, ‘there’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like the rightness and sometimes I like the wrongness. Composition is like that.’ This approach is evident in her photos, with elements sometimes placed awkwardly and effectively in the frame (child with a toy hand grenade, for example).
In concluding, Arbus comments on intention, with the pity phrase, ‘I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.’.
The White Cloth Gallery, in Leeds, is hosting Sharon Boothroyd’s (a former OCA lecturer) exhibition, They all say please. This is an account of a visit on 9th July.
If one had not been in the know about who was exhibiting in the gallery, it could have remained a mystery; there was nothing in the exhibition space explaining the work or who produced it. The details on gallery’s website were also sparse and took some digging through layers to find. As an exhibiting artist this would have been a little disappointing; an opportunity for promotion missed.
Fortunately, there are other online sources that explain something of the intention behind the work. Slate features what seems to be extracts from an interview with Boothroyd, who explains that the inspiration for the work initially came from found prayer cards in a church and then an online prayer forum. The title of the exhibition comes from the observation that all the prayers start with, ‘please …’. Interestingly, Boothroyd explains that the project originally started as a work illustrating the prayer cards, which become captions to the images, but after a mishap with the photo files, she relaunched the project in more of an abstract direction.
The work seemed a combination of the abstract and the illustrative; for example, Please keep us safe tonight is accompanied by the photo of a woman standing alone at a bar (distinctly illustrative); whereas the selfish prayer, Please bless my eBay listings, was accompanied by a washing machine (in the gallery), which is distinctly abstract. Apparently the photo for the latter should have been the old warehouse buildings (according to Boothroyd’s own website).The mix between the illustrative and the abstract was a little disorienting, and distracted for the concept of the work.
The photos themselves, which can be viewed on Boothroyd’s own website (here), are processed in consistent subdued tones (with a chrome appearance). Many of them are taken in subdued lighting conditions, but the tonality in the shadows is wonderfully reproduced (example above, with the contrasting highlights). The shots are carefully, but conventionally framed, with subjects mostly centred in the frames; easy on the eye, but not visually challenging.
Overall, a very interesting concept. The importance of consistency in interpretation of a concept to avoid disorienting the viewer is perhaps a lesson learned from viewing this work.
Roland Barthes’ essay, The Blue Guide, is found in the book of essays, Mythologies. Hachette World Guides, are dubbed ‘Guide Bleu’ in French and Barthes analyses the perspective of the Blue Guide in his essay. The Blue Guides title was acquired by Ernest Benn Limited in the 1930s and no longer has any connection with Hachette (Blue Guides).
Barthes essay references the perspective of the bourgeoisie – it is difficult to draw a directly equivalent term at the time of writing as there has been dramatic social change in the intervening years. However, Barthes was referring to a privileged middle class with the means and time to travel and holiday abroad. We should broaden this perspective to tourism in general in the modern era, since in Britain alone there are around 43m overseas holidays, which is up from 1m in 1950 and 27m in 1994 (Guardian online). A quick search for travel books on Amazon.co.uk, reveals 750,000 titles available. Anecdotally, Barthes’ criticism would most likely apply to many modern travel books?
Barthes’ central argument is that travel books simplify and generalise perspectives on cultures, ‘The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell Arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes, and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities – they constitute a charming and fanciful décor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments’. In effect, Barthes is warning about the use and misuse of typology.
Secondly, Barthes argues how the guide projects hegemonic interests, ‘Beside the historical accounts proper (which are rare and meagre, incidentally, for it is well-known that History is not a good bourgeois), those accounts in which the Republicans are always ‘extremists’ looting churches – but nothing on Guernica [1937 bombing of Basque town at behest of Spanish National Government] – while the good ‘Nationalists’, on the contrary, spend their time ‘liberating’, solely by ‘skilful strategic manoeuvres’ and ‘heroic feats of resistance’,
While generalisation and simplification is necessary to make sense of the world in short time, Barthes’ essay is a reminder that we should be alert to the filtering and distorting that can be present in the information we receive. Typology by its very nature embodies filters and distortions of a very broad, impossible to meaningfully summarise real world.
The importance of getting the right exposure for the image one is trying to make, at the time one takes a photo perhaps receives less attention in the digital age than it should; after all there is post processing. To understand more about the subject area, a useful reference book is Michael Freeman’s, The Photographer’s Exposure Field Guide: The Essential Guide to getting the Perfect Exposure; any subject, anywhere.
Freeman explains the importance of making the desired exposure in camera: ‘Getting the perfect exposure means rising above total reliance on the camera’s metering mode, whichever that is. As the first and all-important step is to know what you want from an image, you have to evaluate the exposure before committing to a metering mode, whether this takes a fraction of a second or it’s something you decide at the beginning of a shoot.’ (loc 809). It is easy to let the camera take care of exposure in an automatic mode and end up with an average exposure across the scene. However, this does not necessarily place the key tones in the scene at the tonal level that best suits our intention. Adjustments can be made in post-processing, but there are limits to what can be done without affecting the image quality and disturbing the original, natural graduation of tones throughout the image.
In my own practice, I have tended to rely unthinkingly on the camera’s automatic exposure readings and adjustments too frequently. Freeman emphasises, ‘know clearly what the photograph is about—what caught your eye, what attracts you about the shot, and what you want to convey. Have in your mind’s eye how bright it should be overall, and how the distribution of brightness should look. Naturally, this is the million-dollar question.’ This involves working with the camera’s assumption that the scene should be an average 50% brightness (‘18% grey), where the human visual system perceives the most detail. It involves deciding where key tones in a photograph should sit in relation to 50% and adjusting exposure to achieve a vision.
With high dynamic range scenes (the range between the darkest and lightest elements), Freeman reminds us that there needs to be a compromise or reframing of this kind of scene as it is likely to beyond the range of the camera’s sensor. Or alternatively, take different exposures and blend in post-production. With lower dynamic range scenes, there is more freedom to choose and, in fact, average exposure reading across the whole scene can work well.
Before moving on to look at an example, there are a couple more valuable extracts from the book. Freeman refers to another book, ‘The title In Praise of Shadows is stolen from an influential essay by junichiro Tanizaki, written in the 1930s. In it he railed against the new tendency to install tungsten lighting in traditionally dark Japanese interiors, but the point is not completely alien to photography. In digital processing there is a tendency to choose auto—with its generic brightness—without thinking; but it doesn’t have to be that way.’ It is perhaps this averageness that gives the impression of sameness across much digital imagery, lacking richness in tone. Freeman makes the following important point about human perception, ‘Highlights carry a sense of glare, while shadows are areas we tend to peer into. This is a perceptual matter: if the highlights are rendered so that we think of them as bright, we take them in but tend not to spend time on them; with shadows, if we think they have some relevance we look longer at them to discover detail’. If everything is average brightness, there is nothing to peer into and create visual tension, everything is served to us on a plate.
In this example of a shadowy scene on a river bank, there is a clear highlight area on the grass bank. This is a similar brightness to the edge lighting on the old flood gate mechanism. If I’d taken a photo using an average exposure across the scene, The image would appear similar to the first image adjusted in Lightroom with ‘autoexposure’; the large
shadow areas raised to an average and the detail revealed in a flat-looking image, with highlight details lost.
In contrast, the featured image has (in my view) more interest and a greater depth and richness of tone. It shows the large blocks of shade and the light highlights I’d envisioned.This was taken by spot metering the exposure for the bright area of grass, with a +1 stop adjustment to raise it above the 50% brightness level.
In conclusion, I will be paying much more attention to my vision of exposure in my practice going forward. Perhaps this is just the progression that comes with becoming more familiar and practiced with the camera as a tool for making photos.
Freeman, M. (2011). The Photographer’s Exposure Field Guide: The Essential Guide to getting the Perfect Exposure; any subject, anywhere [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
I took the opportunity to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bangkok while in Thailand over the weekend during a business trip. The museum has only been open a couple of years and is a bit out of town (expensive Uber ride!) but is well worth a visit. I would guess that the place is on the scale of MoMA in New York City.
The collections are focused on contemporary Thai art, some of which is a stunning fusion of the traditional and the modern. Captions are provided in English and Thai.
Included in the foreign collection are some photographs. There seemed to be a strong narrative style, with a dash of fantasy running through the photos. This reflects the slightly surreal theme running through the rest of the art collection.
The Photographers shown (accompanied by iPhone snaps) were:
Manit Sriwanichpoom – I initially read this as a gay take on the Adam and Eve story, but on reflection, it could also refer to the commoditisation of sexual fantasy; the man with his pink shopping trolley encouraging the women to perform for his own voyeuristic pleasure. Perhaps a view formed by my perception of the sex trade in Thailand and a Western perspective on the colour pink. However, the artist explains the series of photos from which the print is taken, as a criticism of an emerging consumerist society, with the colour pink signifying vulgarity and the sex trade in Thai culture (reference Pink Man Begins).
Tom Chambers. Chamber’s work is of composite fantasy scenes, made with skill enough to make the viewer question whether or not the scenes passed in reality. Chambers describes his process on his website; photomontage based on sketched concepts that can take several months to complete.
Richard Tuschman. Constructed bedroom scenes, processed in a painterly style. The museum’s collection contained a number of paintings in a photorealistic style, so this made an interesting juxtaposition. Even intercontextualisation. In Petapixal’s interview with Tuschman, his influences are described as follows, ‘Richard Tuschman began experimenting with digital imaging in the early 1990’s, developing a style that synthesized his interests in photography, painting and assemblage.’ Photoshop acts as his canvass.
Thavorn Ko-Udomvit – blind glasses. This was an almost absurdist work – thumbnails of headshots of people all wearing the same ‘blind’ glasses. I laughed to see the confusion on the faces of the sitters – the disorientation if temporary blindness. The concept gave me an idea for my own project which I’ll revisit soon, perhaps in the context of coursework.