American Pop Art review

Helen Frankenthaler Savage breeze

I attended this exhibition on the 16th June almost by mistake. My eldest son and I had intended to see the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum but could not get tickets, so we saw this instead. It wasn’t a wasted trip. The exhibition is huge, covering 12 rooms, and some iconic images were on show including Andy Warhol’s Marilyn series, Hockney’s Swimming Pool and other familiar pieces. Not having done any preparatory research, I was unaware that the whole exhibition was really about printmaking, and how it progressed during the second half of the 20th century. The videos about the printmaking processes were very interesting, and the complexity of some of the techniques was astonishing.

What is Pop Art?

This delightful little video from the Tate Gallery explains Pop Art in simple terms. Essentially, it says that there were two types of Pop Art, that made in America, and that made in the UK about America. In its explanation of the genre, the Tate Gallery says:

It began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art should be. Young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums did not have anything to do with their lives or the things they saw around them every day. Instead they turned to sources such as Hollywood movies, advertising, product packaging, pop music and comic books for their imagery.

From the point of view of a photographer, looking at work produced in a different media, the exhibition resonated in many ways. I was interested in Warhol’s use of different colours and techniques in his Electric Chair series because several of my fellow students are currently experimenting with alternative techniques and it is something I would also like to explore. Warhol said of the series that repetition reduces impact, which is something that could equally be applied to many areas of photography. Roy Lichtenstein’s dot prints were fabulous – complex and graphically expert in design, with a palette of bright primary colours. I liked Roy Rauschenberg’s mix of photography and printing often using nonstandard processes, and I need to follow up his Stoned Moon series.

There were so many artworks that it would be impossible to note them all, but the ones that I would like to research further include:

  • Jasper Johns screen prints with multiple layers and lithographs. He takes well known symbols and manipulates them to be something else – other. I like Target with Four Faces, Two Maps II and Color Numerals – lovely colours, and each one was totally different.
  • Jim Dine’s use of objects to represent himself  – dressing gown, paint brushes etc. Five paintbrushes –  an iterative series with changes and improvements at each version, including the materials he used for the prints.
  • Ed Rushka Hollywood. A copy of 26 gasoline station cover there. Big Dipper over desert 1982, Whiskers 1972, Sin 1970, Every building on the sunset strip, which is a concertina book.
  • David Hockney – Mist from the Weather series
  • A lot of handmade paper throughout the exhibition. I need to explore how to do this and how it can be used in photography. Ellsworth Kelly used handmade paper as a medium in itself.
  • Helen Frankenthaler Savage Breeze. Wonderfully minimalist.
  • Anni Albers – I like her work with triangles, reminiscent of patchwork
  • Craig McPherson Yankee Stadium at Night – almost black, but it actually has a lot of detail.
  • Richard Estes Urban Landscapes – bright posterised images from photographs
  • Eric Fischi Year of the Drowned Dog. A series of six interlocking etchings which are meant to be seen as a composite, but which have equal validity as stand-alone images.

As tends to be the case with these exhibitions, the overwhelming majority of works were by men. And as also tends to be the case, there was a section at the end devoted to

  1. Political art and dissent – this was very interesting and full of subversive ideas. I would have liked to see more of these overtly political images,
  2. Gender and feminism – I think there were two works in the main section by women, both mentioned above, but this area contained works by Jenny Holtzer, Dottie Attie, May Stephens, Lee Lozano and Kiki Smith. I particularly liked Lozano’s books.
  3. Race  – Willie Cole’s Stowage was fascinating and shocking in equal measures and is not easily forgotten, as were Kara Walker’s prints on the slave trade.

I enjoyed the exhibition more than I had expected, and came away with various points to mull over. One is the positioning of printmaking somewhere between the complete replicability of (digital) photography and the uniqueness of paintings. The processes for making the works were long and formed of multiple parts, meaning that each time a work was printed, the effect was slightly different, in the same way that analogue printing produced subtly different results each time a negative is printed. Another is the use of different materials for printing and how the material itself forms part of the work. In particular, Ed Ruschka’s 3D thick paper roadsigns spring to mind. Finally, I was intrigued by Fischi’s Drowned Dog series and Dine’s Five Paintbrushes, and how the final works have the effects of time built directly into them, meaning that the sum of their parts is greater than the individual works, and one can see how they revisualised them again and again.


More on photo-manipulation

My creative frenzy has continued over the weekend, and extended out from the original mandala concept. Progress is slow because I am learning thing I did not know about Photoshop through videos, which is time consuming, although  very worthwhile. Here is my rendition of Sunrise at Angkor Wat, an image I took last year, with the Before and After for reference. (Please zoom in; there is a lot of detail). Unfortunately, a lesson I have learned is to make completely sure that the images overlap, as I have two very annoying lines one pixel wide intruding into the image, which I am struggling to get rid of. I have printed out and framed a couple of the mandalas so far, and they don’t look bad at all.

I then started to look at moving away from a circular image towards something that still holds references to the original image. The result below is called Wolfgang Tillmans Revisited. Before and After are shown again. I rather like this, and think there is some potential here too.

Finally, I have been looking again at something  I was hoping to do in assignment 3 of C&N, which is combining different images in an organised way, and have finally figured out how to make a shape within an image (and written down the instructions, so I can do it again).

_1410522-1v1w triangle

My plan now is to explore this in more complex ways, as outlined in this YouTube video on polyscapes. This should allow me to manipulate my images in the way I am looking for. It isn’t a quick process, but is great fun. I am also mulling over the idea of turning some of these images into patchwork quilt works, using fabrics similar to the colourways I am producing.



Some more mandalas

Today, I’ve been making some abstracts of Iceland, and extending the Photoshop repetition idea a little further. Here are a couple of original images, and some of my variations. The first is River at Jökulsárlón, with the original first (obviously).

I then tried something a little different, using a YouTube video on making Kalaidoscopes in Photoshop. This included how to make a repeatable action set for the process, so that I don’t have to start from scratch every time.

It is interesting that in the straightforward mandala has picked out a small feature from the original (a rope hanging in the drying hut) and emphasised that, while the kaleidoscope version is much truer to the original colours and proportion.

With this in mind, I produced a kaleidoscope of the first image and this was the result.P1180281-1v2

Not nearly as successful as the other one. Clearly the layout of the original is critical to how it turns out, depending on the treatment. Some work much better than others.

What is Place?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, with regard to my own work and the different locations I visit round the world. There’s a section in the Landscape course, which asks “what makes a space a place?” and my very basic understanding is that human intervention and the creation of memories there turns a space into a place. However, that is not what has struck me on my globetrotting adventures. My own experience is that it is the colour palette of the landscapes that clearly identify them. For example, when I think about Icelandic landscapes, the pictures in my mind are black, yellow, red and white, while that of central Australia is ochre, black, soft lime green and yellow.

Taking this a little further, it is interesting to flick through my Lightroom library at high speed, over the course of the year. As the seasons change, so does the colour palette in a very clear but subtle way. Of course, we all know that the seasons are associated with different colours – black and white for winter; greens and yellows for spring; bright yellows, reds and blues for summer; and soft golds, bronzes and browns for autumn.

Alongside this, a couple of pieces of work have caught my attention online, which specifically look at the way that colour grading is used in films and TV programmes. Jason Shulman has condensed entire films into a single image, which condenses the colour grading used and which gives hints about it and also how the director filled the screen in their work.  There has been much speculation on the OCA Facebook sites about how he achieved this, and the consensus was that he merged a series of very long exposures. In a similar vein, Visually Satisfying Project Shares the Color Palettes of Iconic Film Scenes, a Twitter project, picks out the specific colours that exemplify movies and puts them together in the same way that Design Seeds uses. This has the effect of bringing together a range of colours that work together and which are reminiscent of the films concerned.

I am keen to explore the idea of working with different colour palettes as representations of a place and have decided to explore them in a couple of different ways. Firstly, I have taken the scenery out of the images for the most part and making mandalas in Photoshop which merge the colours into complex patterns. Below are my first two trials, and I am quite excited about where this might go. They are both from Australia, the first from Uluru and the second from Darwin. Alongside it is an abstract of water reflections from Katherine Gorge in the style of Peter Kenny, a photographer whose abstract work I greatly admire. This has possibilities too. Do zoom in on the mandalas – there is a lot of detail in them

The potential in Photoshop to take this further are huge, and it merges my interests in patchwork and photography in a mutually effective way. There is much to be learned here about the use of vectors in making template shapes and extending the complexity of the work to incorporate symbols and patterns appropriate to the place about which they were made.

Review – Master of Photography, series 1

Master of Photography

I don’t have Sky on the TV at home, so was unable to watch this series last year when it came out, something I have been lamenting. However, I am currently in possession of a two week free subscription to NowTV, and so spent a wet weekend comfortably tucked up on the sofa binge-watching series 1. Watching the whole series over a short period of time made it easy to get a sense of how the different contestants progressed in their work, some of the issues they faced and how their choices affected their overall success or failure in the project.

First things first. The set was strangely inappropriate, being an old warehouse on the outskirts of Rome, and filled with an assortment of stage props of the 19th century warehouse variety. Each contestant sat at a non-matching table that looked as if it had been bought at a junk shop and repurposed. It seemed a little odd for what is a modern subject. The three judges were Rut Bless Luxemburg, Oliviero Toscani and Simon Frederick, none of whom are familiar to me, and it will be interesting to have a look at their own work in due course. Along with the contestants who came from a wide variety of European countries, it was very pan-European in feel, which was a change from the usual format. The compere was Isabella Rosignelli, whose role was to provide the voice-over and look encouraging. The parts which included her were rather grating, as she favoured a flirty enthusiasm which was totally out of place in what was a serious competition with enough prize money to make a serious difference to the winner’s career.

The contestants were given a task each week, and then judged on the basis of either a single image or a series of three, which they had to select and edit immediately after the task was completed. The tasks ranged from “the human side of Rome”, to portraits, landscape, night photography etc., offering the contestants a wide range of subjects to show off their skills. Thereafter, a famous photographer was called in to offer some advice on their choice of the image they wanted to submit for that assignment, most of which the contestants ignored (foolishly, as the advice was better than their own choices.) The judges then gave the images a mauling ranging from “Boring” to “This is rubbish” and bemoaned the poor quality of the images and editing, and  one contestant was given their marching orders.

On the basis of the exact requirements of the tasks, personally I think the right person won – Gabriele Micalizzi, an Italian photo-journalist and tattoo artist. His images were consistently good and a little edgy, although I did not like the way he staged some of them to get the best effect, something which is considered out of order in photo-journalism at present. He appeared not to have been taught any of the theories and practises of current art photography, and this showed in his images, which were a mix of all sorts of styles and genres. I cannot honestly say that he improved significantly over the series, nor that he has a particularly recognisable style.

Of more interest to me was the poor selection choices made by some of the other contestants, and their difficulties in adapting to the changing briefs. Personally, I thought that Yan, the Russian contestant produced the most interesting work, but his performance was marred by his bizarre editing choices, particularly in the last two episodes. Most of the women seemed keen to rip their clothes off at any opportunity, and Laura in particular was unable to produce anything that did not include herself, preferably naked. (Beautiful images, though meaningless in large numbers). Several of the others too struggled to let go of their “signature look”, which limited their work.

The judges were pretty harsh in their criticism throughout, and only gave grudging praise occasionally. It seemed they were constantly disappointed that the work was not more challenging and creative, and I had the feeling they were looking for an arts response from photographers who have come from the commercial world and who did not really understand where they were going wrong. The mentors were much more constructive in their opinions.

On the whole though, it was an interesting series, and I look forward to seeing the next one. I wonder whether they will include more contestants from the academic side of photography this time, to spread the potential responses to the tasks, almost all of which were quite traditional in series 1.

Exercise 3.4 – Five types of gaze

Time is pressing on, and I really need to get assignment 3 finished. However, this exercise asks us to collect images of at least five of the different types of gaze explored in Project 2 –

  • the spectator’s gaze
  • the internal gaze
  • the direct address
  • the look of the camera
  • the bystander’s gaze
  • the averted gaze
  • the audience gaze
  • the editorial gaze.

I have written about The Gaze in a previous blog post, so rather than go out to actively collect images for this, I have decided to use some of the previous images I took during Part 3, as I want to include as many of the elements of the exercise as I can.

The brief is thus:

The objective here is to produce a series of five portraits that use some of the types of gaze defined above. The specifics of how you achieve this are down to you; you choose which types of gaze you wish to address and who your subject might be in relation to this decision. What you are trying to achieve through these portraits is a sense of implied narrative, which you can explain through a short supporting statement. Don’t try and be too literal here; the viewer must be able to interact with the portraits and begin to make their own connection to the work, aided by the type of gaze you have employed.

My original plan had been to select a variety of images which simply illustrate different types of gaze in an unconnected series of images, but upon reflection I realised that there is more to the exercise than this. Not only do we need to show different types of gaze, but there should also be a sense of narrative within the series. I therefore selected all the images from a photoshoot I did last month for a village event to commemorate the centenary of the award of the Victoria Cross to William Gosling, a soldier in the First World War. Across Britain, soldiers who gained this military accolade during that War are being honoured 100 years to the day it was earned, and a plaque is being laid for each of them in their home village or town. I was asked by the Parish Office to take photographs of the event for posterity.

Here is the series.

This exercise was more difficult than it might at first appear. Many of my images could have fitted into more than one category of gaze, and the need to make the images as portraits limited possible contenders in what was an event with a large number of people crammed together. Also, as an integrated narrative of an event, the series only gives part of the story. I would have preferred to bookend it with longer shots, showing more of the parade and pageantry. However, as an exercise in looking at people in different ways, it was very useful.

I also need to note here that whole books have been written on The Gaze, and the many different ways and levels in which it can be interpreted. Below, I have listed a few links for future reference.

Chandler, Daniel (1998) Notes on the gaze.

Shukul, RN. (2008) Introduction to elements of GAZE theory

In addition, there is also Jacques Lacan’s theories on the Gaze to explore. They are relevant in general, but not specifically to this exercise.

Note on work for the TVG exhibition – 2

After a few days away from this, I took another look at what I have put together so far for this, and the bits that intrigue me are the intermediate areas between the old photos and the new, where one is fading out and the other gradually becoming clear. There is something in this space that I want to explore further, to do with change, the reality of history and memories. More to come on this in future posts.

Secondly, I have been looking at the idea of how we store our memories, and in particular our photographs (which recall the memories). I have seen other students putting work relating to memories in boxes, but I would like to think about them as packaged ideas, that one can take out to look at. To this end, I have been experimenting with enclosing an image or images within a clear box, that one can pick up and consider from a variety of angles and directions. The clear barrier between the viewer and the memory appeals to me in the same way as the glass on a picture or photograph frame does, but the three-dimensional aspect adds something – the ability to look at a memory from different points of view and perspectives, which echoes how some events and what happened at them keep reappearing in our minds.

There is also something to consider here about how certain memories, which we take out to look at over and over again, may be holding us back from making necessary changes to our lives. An example might be a relationship break-up, where certain behaviours by the ex-partner are regularly re-examined. We can only move on if we decide to forget these issues. I have put together a little sequence below to illustrate this idea. I am still working on how to suspend the photographs within the cube invisibly, so for now I am using red thread, and on reflection, the Red Thread analogy works quite well, so I might keep it. (The images inside the box were something I had lying around, so are not significant. For a proper version, I will need to think about representations of specific memories.

I am also wondering whether a series of stcked boxes with different images and different stages of forgetting might work. I haven’t got enough boxes at present though, only three. Also, should the red thread extend outside the box on one side to simulate the connection with the photographer?