Failed it!

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

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

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

Reference

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

Ian Sinclair – writer

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

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

References

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

 

Reboot your practice with Yan Preston

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

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

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

Be able to clearly explain your project:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

3 OCA study visits in one day (Bradford)

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

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

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

Source: johnbulmer.co.uk by John Bulmer

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

OCA Study visit – Manchester Art Gallery
Hosted by Derek Trillo

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

source: www.guardian.co.uk

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Snaps of introductions to featured photographers

Click to view as gallery

 

Adobe Photoshop CC for Photographers

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

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

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

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

 

Book: Writing the Picture by David Hurn and John Fuller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: MoMA.org

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

Reference

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

 

OCA study visit – Les Monaghan’s Aspirations

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

Pictures on a Page – Harold Evans

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

iPhone shot of book page

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

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

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

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

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

The Group Portraiture of Holland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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