After having produced a few images, I asked my tutor whether the idea was sound, and he referred me to the following photography series, for ideas:
Richard Avedon – In the American West
Joel Sternfeld – Stranger Passing
For the purposes of this assignment, Richard Avedon’s work is not relevant, because there is no sense of place – everyone is photographed against a blank white background. This forces the viewer to concentrate wholly on the figure and their stance and clothing. But Joel Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing series is just the sort of approach I was thinking of. In each of the images, the subjects are shown in their own environment, rooting them firmly to a sense of place. There is a variety of postures, and the figures range from close up to quite distant. What they all have is a connection with the photographer, albeit sometimes very fleeting.
At the start of this project, my thinking was along the lines of following in the footsteps of David Hurn and John Myers, with their honest, yet sympathetic examinations of everyday life in non-urban Britain. However, Sternfeld’s work encapsulates the type of imagery I am looking to produce here, and further communication with my tutor makes me think I am on the right lines with this. Chris’s advice was this:
Using a reference such as ‘Stranger Passing’ is appropriate and I can see his influence in some of your shots, particularly shot 3 (lady, fence, field) it’s fine to use his work as a template for yours, it’s how we learn to develop our own practice. Look at 3 image and analyse why it works, look at the composition, the way that the subject holds herself, then compare to your other shots and Sternfeld’s. As I said previously, series of photographs work when there is a coherency of visual language running through the set, this is what you should be aiming for. The subject holding the sign is also interesting, although this is a tried and tested formula I can imagine you producing a successful series with this approach (Chris Coekin, email, 2016)
So, how does Sternfeld hold together a wide variety of different images, which ostensibly have nothing in common except that they are portraits? A comparative series of his images from the series are available at http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/artworks/stranger-passing for viewing. The people have no names, and are merely identified by a location and perhaps a couple of words about what they are doing there. This lack of names makes them seem to be examples of a range of different types and also keeps the concept of The Stranger in the foreground, as in people one passes by and notices, but without really taking any time to learn anything about them. Eric Kim’s appraisal of Sternfeld’s work has been very helpful to me, there being very little information about his methodology and motivation available online. Kim argues that this lack of background is deliberate, in that Sternfeld’s images themselves leave out a lot of information. “You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo,” he told the Guardian in a 2004 interview. “No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.”
Douglas R. Nickel (Lensculture) describes his work as an “intelligent, unscientific, interpretive sampling of what American’s looked like at the century’s end.” Unlike historical portraits which represent significant people in staged surroundings, Sternfeld’s subjects are uncannily “normal”: a banker having an evening meal, a teenager collecting shopping carts in a parking lot, a homeless man holding his bedding. (Lensculture, publisher’s description). This describes his work as circumstantial portraiture, which says as much about its subjects’ lives as their personality, but leaves a informational void that the viewer can fill with their own opinions and explanations.
Despite the information contained in how we look, we could be almost anybody. And if we tend to hate people who pigeonhole us based on appearances, we’re also grateful when someone sees us accurately without summing up too comfortably. Sternfeld is that kind of observer; he sees, but he leaves the conclusions up to others — to history, maybe, or to God. Neither the best nor the worst that a person can be is ruled out automatically. On the questions of the content of a particular human soul, he maintains a strong agnosticism.” http://www.npr.org/programs/wesat/features/2001/010707.strangers.passing.html
Writer Ian Frazier, on artist Joel Sternfeld
Badger (2007, p. 218) describes Sternfeld as a latter day Carleton Watkins – the perfect balance of subjectivity and objectivity. The images are about the people, but also their interaction with Sternfeld.
Application to my own work
Taking the images I have posted above as a representation of Sternfeld’s work, what can we say about how he makes his work? The subject is usually in the centre of the frame, although not always. Their size in the landscape varies, but the subjects tend to be in the middle distance, which indicates a lack of direct contact. There are clear references to the subjects’ environment, some subtle, others obvious. The colour palette is strong and saturated but quite flat – there is no sense of light. Eric Kim argues that the specific colour palette is what differentiates Sternfeld from other similar street photographers. Some images have an element of fun, but others are sad, or pathetic.
These are some elements that I need to consider with my own series. I have taken about 150 images so far of six people, and am in the process of sorting out a set that has some internal consistency. While doing this it has become clear that my photographs of a couple of the people have not worked out as I had hoped and I am going to have to reshoot. So far, using contact prints, I have come up with a couple of different options, which are shown below. However, I still need to consider which is the better of the two, and suspect that my series title (whatever it may turn out to be) will inform that decision.
Full length, but all the same distance (or they will be, when post-processed)
I need to keep focused here, because my preferred images are currently from different sets. Also, having jettisoned the indoor close-up from my last attempt, I am not happy with either of the new male portraits yet and will have to reshoot them. Conversely, I reckon that amongst my images are the right ones for the three female ones.
Finally, delving down a little further into the images above, the body language of each person is revealing. Just looking at set 2, person 1 looks wildly uncomfortable but determined to face up to the camera, No 2 looks slightly wishful, no 3 looks sardonic, no 4 looks assertive and no 5 looks non-committal. All these are my own interpretations, based on what I know about the people concerned. Kuleshov, the Soviet filmmaker argued that a person’s relationship with their background and other co-located images tends to mould our opinion about people’s expressions (link here), so clearly there is an art to picking a group that together have the meaning one wants to express.
Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography. Quadrille.