Category Archives: Photographers

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.

https://www.sky.com/watch/title/series/f1e397e3-9c89-4232-9664-2d5b0005f950/master-of-photography/episodes/season-1/

Thoughts about place in travel photography

If I am honest, my real enthusiasm in photography is in documenting my responses to the places I visit on my travels, and I travel a lot at the moment. Four trips are already booked in for this year, with a long weekend in Venice being the first, in only a couple of days time. I therefore want to consider how I can use my studies to benefit these activities, and vice versa as well. To this end, this post is about several series of photographs from Lenscratch (what a wonderful resource this is), which have a clear sense of place while offering a glimpse at another way of life , and to consider some of my own images in that context.

Yoann Cimier – Nomad’s Land

This is a series by a French photographer living in Tunisia. She has taken photographs of the ephemeral beach tents that local people set up to protect themselves from the sun, and the individuality that come through the different constructions says something about both current Tunisian culture and its nomadic past. This is an outsider looking in, in a social documentary style. The images are washed outand do not feature people directly, although some are shown as a by-product of the exercise.

Thom Pierce – The Horsemen of Semonkong

Pierce is a British photographer working out of South Africa. He has produced a number of series of local cultures, and this focuses on the people of mountainous Lesotho, who still get about by horse, as cars cannot cope with the terrain. These are portraits in a similar style to my own assignment 2, but what particularly draws the attention are the wonderfully complex and mismatched clothes that the subjects wear. Again, these photos were taken by an outsider, and combine documentary and portraiture.

Karoliina Paatos – American Cowboy

Another outsider, Paatos decided to make a long term project of visiting various cattle ranches in mid-USA to document the life there – so romantic in films, but difficult and only marginally financially viable in reality. Her images mix landscapes, portraits and general documentary genres and look at both the hardship and the harsh beauty of the lifestyle.

Shandor Barcs – Family from the Mist

Barcs is a bit different from the previous photographers. He’s a Mexican photographer and film producer, and this series is about a family who live high in the remote mountains of Oaxaca. Here, the members of the family happily mix old cultural ways with modern inventions like the mobile phone, while going about a very rustic way of life, which has not changed much over centuries. Barcs uses a mixture of documentary style, and also mis-en-scene, to give a romantic, magical realistic tome to the images, which is entirely in keeping with the Central American way of thinking.

All of the above series have strong sense of the place in which they were made, and each has been treated in an individual way to make them internally cohesive. So, what do these series say to me, and how I should go about my own work? Firstly, when travelling, having identified a subject or theme upfront helps unify a series, and gives a better starting point for editing. Secondly, identifying a style of photography before one goes is also good for unifying the results. And finally, and probably most importantly, one person’s travel documentary is another person’s local environment, and I should not forget that what is close to home can provide as interesting and illuminating subject as what I see on my foreign exploits.

William Eggleston and the snapshot aesthetic

A couple of days ago, I attended an OCA study visit at the National portrait Gallery, to see William Eggleston’s Portraits, along with about a dozen other students. It was timely, in view of my current Assignment 2 researches on Walker Evans, another photographer working at the same time in a similar style. A separate post on Evans is still in gestation, but will be published very soon.

Eggleston is a self-taught photographer, who began work around 1960. There is a fair representation of his early work, but for me the interesting images were the later colour ones. The exhibit includes 100 images, ranging from  photobooth size right up to A1+. The exhibition area was perhaps a little cramped and photography was no allowed, so I have no images of the space.

Eggleston was one of the first photographers to bring colour images into the mainstream of art photography. John Szarkowski’s promotion of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in the 1970s brought it to general attention, although much of the initial reception of his work was negative, with reviewers labelling it as banal and ordinary. However, they had failed to understand Eggleston’s concept of photographing the everyday in a democratic way, and not giving more importance to any particular element of what he saw. He says there are no pretensions towards photo-journalism; he just photographs what he sees, but has a knack of capturing composition, subject and colour that makes the ordinary interesting. Like Evans, he aims to photograph “the gaps in between everything else”.

Eggleston’s portraits are not his most famous works. Many of the images on show were taken unawares, and he is described as having a delicate, gently touch which captures something we can all relate to. I was particularly struck by the depth and tonality of the colours in the images, and his use of colour accents, particularly red and blue. Eggleston was influenced by abstract expressionism and this shows in his work. The colours themselves are very rooted in the fashions of the time of the images, and again, like Evans, one can date the images by the colour palettes he used.

I found the YouTube video below fascinating in the way it shows how Eggleston works. His images are rooted in the “Snapshot Aesthetic” (see below) and it is very clear that he embraces this idea totally. He is shown pottering round a nondescript area of his home town, literally taking single, fast snaps of whatever catches his eye. There is no sense of preparation about his method – he just responds to what he sees. “He discovers his subject within the myriad of possibilities.” As a result, the focus is often variable, and frequently emphasises odd parts of the image, but that is part of the charm of the work. At the same time, many of his works have an odd sense of foreboding and unreality, and there is often a fleeting impression of a narrative which the viewer cannot quite grasp.

Images that particularly struck me were the girl in the back of the car, for its strange composition, which forces the eye in towards the centre of the image, and the old lady on the swing seat, largely because of the sheer ugliness of the clashing colours. The lady seems to be lost within them all, but there is a strong sense of place and personality about it.

The Snapshot Aesthetic

This also appeared in the 1960s and was popular until the 1980s among art photographers. The linked article here by a student in New Zealand gives a good explanation. The fundamental basis for the aesthetic is that snapshots, with their unposed, casual feel have a sense of authentically representing the world which is absent from more formal photography. It harks back to the idea of photography being the only truthful art, capturing a moment of reality that has indisputably occurred, and something that has now been shown to be false.

Overall, the study day was interesting and it was good to meet some new students. I left after lunch and headed off to the Imperial War Museum to see Secret War and Edmund Clark’s War on Terror exhibitions. The latter was a multimedia work looking at the lives of some of the inmates who were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, and was very interesting.

References

http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/q-and-a-william-eggleston/

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/william-eggleston-portraits-national-portrait-gallery-review-portraits-stay-with-you-long-after-you-a7158266.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/art/william-eggleston-portraits-at-national-portrait-gallery-review/

http://www.egglestontrust.com/guide_intro.html

Lynn Berger, “Snapshots, or: Visual Culture’s Clichés,” Photographies 4, no. 2 (2011): 175-190

http://ivc.lib.rochester.edu/snapshot-aesthetics-and-the-strategic-imagination/

 

 

Smile, please!

p1490840Following up some of the discussion about my assignment at the Thames Valley Forum, I have been looking at the position of the Smile in current art photography. A question was put to me about why I had photographed my subjects smiling, and had not asked them to stand still and look blankly at the camera. My response was that I had wanted to capture the individuality and spontaneity of the subjects, but clearly this was considered by some to be incorrect, and they argued that the Smile is a mask which detracts from understanding a person. It was time to do some research and find out where the smile sits in current art photography.

Historically, painted portraits tended not to depict people smiling, and there appears to have been a practical reason for this. The teeth of most people were very poor because of lack of dental care and the majority tended to hide this by keeping their mouths shut for paintings. The advent of photography did not change this much, because for many years people needed to remain absolutely still for several seconds while the image was taken, and it is much easier to hold a straight face than to smile. Added to this, having a photographic portrait made was a serious (and initially an expensive) matter, and not something to be diminished by levity. Thus the serious portrait has traditionally been the preserve of the unsmiling. That is the easy bit; things get more complicated in recent times.

The idea of smiling for the camera only seems to have appeared in the early 20th century, and Dean (2011) has traced it back to public school photographs. From the start it was perceived as being deceitful and untrustworthy; the smile was seen as being a mask which hid the true nature of a subject. By opening their mouths and crinkling their eyes, subjects could pretend that everything was just fine, even when it wasn’t. Morris (2002) argues that the smile has evolved from pre-language appeasement gestures, and that it is now one of the most complex facial gestures that humans make, with a multiplicity of meanings, ranging from happiness to nervousness, friendliness to superciliousness. Correctly interpreting the meaning of a smile can make the difference between a successful and a disasterous encounter with a new acquaintance.Furthermore, the smile is easily open to misinterpretation, and often used as a sign indicating lack of mental faculty .

roger-ballen

© Roger Ballen

From early on, art photographers have shied away from the smile, and my understanding is that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the smile has connotations of snapshots rather than serious photographs, people laughing on holiday for their friends back home, even if they were having a miserable time. Equally, the smile is ubiquitous in advertising, and is often associated with sentimentality, forced bonhomie and superficiality, so for photographers trying to differentiate themselves from this type of photography, a more serious demeanour in their subjects is helpful. I can understand this concern, but have a niggling feeling that there is a similarity between these ideas and the snobbery about colour and digital photography which was eventually overcome, and which allowed a significant expansion in creativity as a result.

The second reason is more complex. Diane Arbus talked about how her photography attempted to capture the gap between what the sitter hoped they would look like and what the photographer observed. Similarly, Joyce Tennison opined “we hide our bodies [with clothes] but our faces are naked and exposed.” Roland Barthes talked about how he became different when in front of the camera, and felt himself starting to ‘pose’, without consciously thinking about it. This makes for a very complex transaction between the photographer and the subject, with as Angier argues, the expert photographer trying to capture the individuality of the subject in an off-guard moment. Trying to sneak a peek behind the mask, as it were. He suggests as an exercise that we find a willing sitter, who should sit facing the camera and just look at it for an hour, while the photographer waits to press the shutter at the exact moment when the mask slips and their true nature is revealed. As an idea, this sounds potentially interesting, but also horribly dull for both participants. There is a feeling , articulated by Dijkstra, that this moment when the mask slips is about purity, something essential about human beings. Her images exude personality so she maybe has a point.

rineke-dijkstra

© Rineke Dijkstra

Moving forward, Thomas Ruff is the acknowledged grandfather of the current trend for a blank, expressionless stare. Ruff did his photography training under the Bechers, and consequently his portraits are minimalist and straightforward, in the manner of a passport photograph. This was a quite deliberate harking back to typology and the New Topographic movement, although Ruff has admitted that the images are heavily posed and his subjects prepped about how they should stand and what they should wear, so the concept of them being truly honest portraits is difficult to accept. Ruff argued that the blank expression is the ‘normal’ expression that people wear when they are not under scrutiny, and therefore it is a truer representation of them than any other expression or pose.

thomas-ruffs-portraits

Thomas Ruff’s portraits

 

We now seem to have got to a stage where any sign of subjectivity or emotion has been erased from the portrait. The blank stare is understood to limit any possible subjectivity of feeling on the part of the photographer, and to allow the viewer to make his/her own assumptions about the sitter, based on his/her own experiences of life and any background context that the photographer provides, i.e. identification and projection. Everyone is beginning to look the same and individuality/personality is being minimised in what appears to be an attempt to achieve authenticity, purity and the unmasking the ‘real’ human persona, the essence if you like. (Dean, 2011) However, it is difficult to square this with Bate’s (2009)  observations that the portrait is a transaction between the photographer and the sitter, with each trying to gain supremacy over the other, but with the ball weighted towards the photographer. The whole process is inherently personal and individualistic, and two photographers photographing the same individual are highly unlikely to produce identical work, as each inevitably imbues it with his/her own context and personality.

I have some issues with this view of the world. The first is that a portrait is supposed to be about the sitter, and if all traces of the individuality of the sitter are removed, is it a portrait any longer, or a piece of constructed photography? Secondly, we as humans are innately emotional. To remove any visual traces of emotion from a portrait not only makes it less interesting to view, but also reduces us all to typologies which only have value when seen as part of a set. Finally, can it not be argued that the blank stare is as much of a mask as the smile? Both are covering up the real feelings of the sitter. The smile though, is more mysterious and begs for interpretation, while the stare gives nothing away.

There have been a small number of recent attempts to reinstate the smile in art photography, notably Dean’s work Smile: a polemic on fine art portraiture (2011) and Amanda Smith’s 2012 attempt to curate an exhibition in Texas on the subject of the Smile. Neither was very successful, and Dean seems to have given up photography work altogether. It seems that the art world is not yet ready to shift its perspective on the idea of the smile as a kitsch, superficial hook which is only acceptable in the advertising world. I have just looked through the latest edition (issues 7852)  of the British Journal of Photography, which is devoted to portraiture, and it seems that emotional expression is slowly beginning to permeate art photography again, and in my opinion that can only be a good thing.

References

Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. AVA Publishing.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: the key concepts. Bloomsbury.

Morris, D. (1977) People watching. London: Vintage.

http://www.fstopmagazine.com/pastissues/49/Dean.html

http://www.stephaniedean.com/

http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2007/11/04/heres_looking_at_you/?page=3

http://www.aicausa.org/news/2-articles-by-art-writing-workshop-participant-sarah-coleman

https://publicdomainreview.org/2013/09/18/the-serious-and-the-smirk-the-smile-in-portraiture/

http://www.metmuseum.org/connections/smile#/Complete/

http://southendasphoto.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/deadpan-aesthetics-thomas-ruff.html

 

Photo London 2016

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I attended this yesterday, along with three other OCA students. It is an enormous exhibition, and cannot really be done justice in a single day, but I managed to glimpse most of the works on show, as well as attending talks by Alec Soth and Richard Misrach. Practically every photographer of note was represented by at least a couple of images, while several, including Don McCullin, Andre Kertesz, Alec Soth and Nick Brandt were given their own rooms.

Best display: Don McCullin’s – dark, brooding and beautifully lit, although I didn’t spend any time looking at the images, wanting to see work that was unfamiliar to me.

Most interesting conversation: Milly from Lensculture, who gave me a personal tour round their awards show and seemed like a really nice lady.

Most stunning work – Nick Brandt’s wildlife images. Gloriously large, and with a strong message about what humans are doing to the planet.

Most expensive image I saw – £175,000, though I can’t remember what it was.

Most ubiquitous photographer – Martin Parr. He seemed to be everywhere.

Book I bought – The City is a Novel, by Alexei Titarenko. I love his work.

There was just so much to look at that it is impossible to really do any of it justice in a single blog post. I’d therefore like to make some comments on the exhibition as a whole. Firstly, it is a real mishmash of styles, with everything from Victorian photographs to this year’s work, often all displayed together. Photo London’s main purpose is to sell works, and most of the stands seem to have been set up without any theme at all. This meant one had to look at each image without any context – not ideal where some of the more   conceptual stuff was concerned. The same images also turned up at different stalls, which reduced their value as artworks IMO. Only a few galleries made a real effort, and the Hamiltons one was a standout among these.

IMG_2301-1

There were a lot of wealthy looking people wandering around waving cheque books, so presumably things were selling, but there were not many images that I would have paid my last shilling for. For me, these were the standout works, which I have put into a grid  below. The Abelardo Morrell was stunning – rich and with depth. Craigie Horsfield’s work was beautiful, and Kamolpan Chotvichai’s hand shredded 3D hands were intruiging. The Deadhouse exhibits had a wonderfully Victorian atmosphere, with images having been printed onto chipboard, and Floriane de Lassee’s upside down bridges were starkly minimalist. One could go on, and on.

I very much liked the fact that photographers from outside the Europe/USA/Japan nexus were on show, and found the work of some of the Russian photographers interesting. Kitty Chou‘s Accidental Photographer series was lovely, and Martin Schoeller’s portraits of celebrities reminded me of Bruce Gildin’s Faces, but  kinder to the subjects.

Overall, I’m glad I went, and even more pleased to find how many of the photographers on show were already known to me. Two I was particularly pleased to see were Laura Hospes, who I had looked at when doing TAOP assignment 5, and Corrinne Vionnet, who I’d considered during C&N assignment 1.As a result visiting, there are some new photographers to add to my research list, including: Hendrik Kerstens, Karen Knorr, Susan Derges, Christina de Middel, Minor White, Bertien van Manen, Doug & Mike Starn, Motohiro Takeda, and Awoiska Van Der Molen.

Finally, there were a couple of images which I loved, but forgot to get the photographers’ details. If anyone can give me a clue as to who these two are by, I’d be most grateful.

Photo London 2016 – Richard Misrach lecture

This lecture was late in the day, and the room where it was held was unbearably hot, so there was not, perhaps, the air of enthusiasm that Soth had enjoyed in his morning presentation. Misrach talked about his ongoing opus Border Cantos, which comprises a group of series on different themes  to do with the US/Mexican border. He is working alongside a Mexican collaborator, who specialises in building musical instruments. One element of Misrach’s work is that he brings items he has found near the Border to Guillermo, who turns them into musical instruments and the music is an accompaniment to the images.

Richard Misrach border cantos

© Richard Misrach

Misrach showed us the futility of trying to build a solid barrier between the USA and Mexico, with a selection of rather funny pictures of wall ends which anyone can walk around. He talked  about the measures that the US Border Patrols take to prevent and capture migrants entering the USA, which are often draconian and fatal in their implications. He also collects images of strange scarecrows that people make, using the discarded clothes they find. He doesn’t know why they do this, but thinks it might have something to do with the Aztec tradition that every object has a soul/history/voice, which can be exposed.

Misrach’s describes his work as documentary landscape. He deliberately excludes people from the images, preferring to infer their presence through the artefacts he photographs. The work is quietly but overtly political, and he gives some of the money he makes to groups which trey to prevent migrants dying from thirst and starvation during their crossing. On a visual level, his work is a curious mixture of diagonals, centred objects and random positioning, but enough for me to have specifically noticed it.

During the questions section, Misrach was asked what the purpose of the “Canto” was, and he replied that all of the different series are loosely linked together, and the musical vocabulary of cantos being songs/chapters of a larger body of work seemed to fit.

I really liked Misrach’s work and motivation. There are parallels with Salgado’s political work, but in a less market oriented way – you get the impression that Misrach is driven primarily by what he wants to photograph, rather than how well it will sell*. There are also parallels with Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long’s work on the landscape and the marks we make upon it.

More information about Border Cantos can be found at http://www.bordercantos.com

Footnote

One of the jaw dropping moments of the Photo London exhibition was Salgado’s $4000  limited edition of his recent work Genesis, which come with its own stand, so one can read it in the manner of a Bible.

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© Holly Woodward

 

Photo London 2016 – Alec Soth interview

Soth was talking about his Gathered Leaves exhibition, which I saw at the Science Museum a few months back, and blogged about here. Having spent some time looking at the work, it was interesting to hear about his motivations and how he went about the projects. Gathered Leaves is a reference to photographs being fragments of life, discarded as they become old.

Soth uses the road trip as a metaphor (his words) for photography, although I would say the trips are more about allowing himself space to explore ideas. He said that in his first project, Sleeping by the Mississippi, he was not self-aware, and simply wandered the landscape, picking out subjects that caught his attention. When asked whether his work is Landscape or Documentary in style, he replied that mostly he thought of it as Portraiture. In Niagara, he explored themes of love and loss. The notes that he collected helped him to give a voice to the people he made photographs of. Without the notes, he felt the project was too two-dimensional and lacking in depth.

Broken Manual is about running away. He has produced it as a secret manual, aimed at men, about leaving their lives behind them and setting off to explore their inner lives. Soth said that at the time he was very preoccupied with the concept of the inner life. He also said that he is a project photographer, not someone who works on many different things at the same time, and that each project has an internally consistent form and content What I had not fully appreciated before was how each of his projects is based on a fantasy persona, which may or may not have elements of Soth himself within them. In Broken Manual, he collaborated with a (fictitious?) person to produce something that is much more than a series of photographs. There is a lot of other work in the project too – books, artefacts, etc. For Songbook, his most recent project, he assumed the persona of a newspaper hack wandering across the States, looking at small-town stories.

During the Q&A session afterwards, Soth was asked about whether success had begun to limit his freedom to choose his own subjects. He said that it was a constant tussle to keep control of his work. He was also asked about whether he felt he was exploiting his subjects, and responded that he thought not. He always spends some time with them before making the images, and they are not cruel in the way of Bruce Gildin. When questioned about whether his images are storyboarded, he replied that his way of working was more of a treasure hunt, though I was not sure how much posing went on once he had found them.

Edward Burtinsky has defined Soth’s work as interior. He is exploring his own thoughts through photography – it is effectively an illustrated journey through his mind. This resonated with me, and came up again in the Richard Misrach lecture I attended later the same day. I am not a religious person, and would call myself atheist, but I am interested in the connection between people, the land and history, on the one hand, and the energy that binds us all together at the quantum level, on the other. After this discussion, I felt energised to go out and explore these ideas further in my own work. There have been hints of the themes in many assignments already, and it seems to indicate my direction of travel.