The Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

OCA Study visit – Manchester Art Gallery
Hosted by Derek Trillo

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

source: www.guardian.co.uk

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Snaps of introductions to featured photographers

Click to view as gallery

 

Adobe Photoshop CC for Photographers

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

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

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

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

 

Robert Harding Pittman

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

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

Source: www.roberthardingpittman.com by Robert Harding Pittman

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Still life photography

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

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

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

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

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

source: imogencunningham.com by Imogen Cunningham

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book: Writing the Picture by David Hurn and John Fuller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: MoMA.org

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

Reference

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

 

Reflection point: absence and signs of life

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

We are asked to reflect upon:

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

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

  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?

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

  • How could you blend your approach?

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

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

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

Lightroom for online photo books (flip books)

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

Lightroom book module

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

In WordPress (org) – plugins

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

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

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

OCA study visit – Les Monaghan’s Aspirations

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

The Art of Printing Workshop with Mark Wood

Source: Wilkinson.co.uk, by Mark Wood

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

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

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

 

iPad portfolio

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

Screen grab from Foliobook on iPad, by Andrew Fitzgibbon

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

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

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

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

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