Tag Archives: ordinary

Assignment 2 research – John Myers

My research on the subject of photographing Middle England came up with the work of John Myers, and specifically his series of the same name. This interesting video explains his motivations and how he went about the project.

Myers, who was a lecturer at Stourbridge College of Art was well-known in the 1970s and 1980s, often featuring in Sunday supplements and photography magazines. He was quite open about the fact that he saw his work as documentary, albeit about what we think of as normal. In the video above he says that almost every image from his Middle England series was taken within walking distance of his home, so are very local, in a similar way to Jim Mottram.

Myers is interested in how a subject relates to the environment of the frame. He feels that the size and location of the subject in the images can subliminally give viewers and insight into the inner lives and horizons of the sitters. I want to use this idea in my assignment series, to indicate something about the subjects’ breadth of interest and whether it is detailed or strategic.

In the article referenced below, Frances Hodgson describes Myers as someone who refuses to exploit his sitters. There is a transparent honesty about the images, and a feeling that they were a cooperative activity between the sitter and the photographer. One can contrast this attitude with, for example, the work of Bruce Gilden or Martin Parr, where the subject is used, perhaps quite cynically, to illustrate the photographer’s opinions. Take for example, Parr’s 1980s Cost of Living series, which focused on the middle class people around Bristol and Bath. The images tell a truth about them, but it is a very politically charged truth, and not a complimentary one. Myers work is much more sympathetic, and that is what I am hoping to aim for in this assignment.

Myers says he often uses flat light and an eye level view for his pictures, as he wants others to see them as if they were behind the camera. Most of his subjects are full length and shown in the middle of the frame. He also says that he looks back at these images now and feels no personal connection to them – they are from another person, i.e. the man he was when he took them, not the man he is now.

Below are three images from the series which give an idea of how he liked to pose his subjects. In all three, the subjects are gazing back at the camera, blank-faced, but the background has a wealth of information about their space, as does the way they occupy it. In all cases, he said that he used the same 4×5″ camera, so that everything about the composition and pose was considered before the shot was taken, with the active participation of the sitters. For example, the image of the couple gives so much away about their relationship in their relative positions and stances.

References

Hodgson, F. (2012) John Myers – middle England. Available at: https://francishodgson.com/2012/03/09/john-myers-middle-england/ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).
IkonGallery (2012) John Myers: Middle England. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FXwUeXERZQ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).
2014, J.M. (2014) John Myers photographs of middle England. Available at: http://www.johnmyersphotographs.com/sales.php (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

 

Assignment 2 research – David Hurn

A couple of years ago, I attended several of the talks at the Photography Oxford event, one of which was titled Shooting Local, so my starting point was to refer back to my notes on that here. I was particularly struck by David Hurn’s long term project about his life at Tintern Abbey’s village, and how he was using his declining years to “give the ordinary its due” and to photograph village life in a sympathetic manner. Several points about the discussion resonated with me, the most specific being my concern that much of the photography work I have seen lately has been about The Other, i.e. communities which we see little of in our everyday lives unless we belong to that group. There seems to be relatively little available on that part of the UK in which most people live, and who represent the silent majority – the inhabitants of towns and villages which are not part of large urban conurbations.

David Hurn – Tintern

david-hu8rn-quote-from-vice-mag

(Bayley, 2014)

I decided to look at David Hurn’s Tintern series in a bit more detail. A link to the most recent images can be found on the Tintern Village website here. The images are taken at local (very local) events, and give an insider’s view of life in a south-western village from the 1980s onwards. He has lived there for many years, so has been pursuing this project alongside his better known documentary and war photography. The images are all black 7 white, and are often taken at odd angles. They include a mixture of individuals and (more often) groups, and focus on the interactions between the subjects. I assume that everyone is aware that Hurn is taking photographs, but that they are so used to it that they hardly register. One could say they are aware, but not directly engaged with the photographer, and there is very little interaction with the camera. The commentary which accompanies the series is also enlightening, referring to people by name and discussing village events. I particularly liked the set about the New Historians group, which resonates strongly with my own experience of local groups who meet up in pubs and community centres – a mixture of wildly different people, united by a common interest.

© David Hurn

Hurn says that his intention is to make the commonplace and mundane interesting. The vice.com article refers to his work as the sublime moments of everyday life. He says he likes to photograph the ordinary, well. This chimes well with my recent thoughts on the representation of everyday life as a resource for future generations – if we only photograph the bizarre, beautiful and amazing, then those details which will show us the reality of life and how much it will have changed are lost. So often in photography, the background tells as much of a story as the people occupying the foreground, and it is a constant source of amazement to me at how much has changed since, for example, the 1980s. Although that decade is only 35 years ago, one can see just how different life was from the present. Hurn manages to take the everyday scenes around his home and imbue them with the same honesty and attention to detail as he would to any of his big documentary project. By doing so, he validates these scenes as having just as much right to be recorded as life during wars, disasters or other momentous events.

As I was researching Hurn’s work, I became aware that a section of my own non-OCA work references a similar idea, i.e. capturing the reality of life at the very local scale, and that subconsciously I have been recording village events as a way of capturing my own experience of that life. Below are three images from Hurn’s series, with three of my own underneath, which were all taken at my village Duck Race event in May.

Looking at the two sets together, I make no claims as to the quality of my work compared to Hurn’s, but there is no doubt that the subject matter and methodology is very similar. Both sets comment on the events in a straightforward, sympathetic way, and from inside the group concerned. I have been considering whether to submit a selection from my Duck Race series as this assignment, but have decided overall that it would be better to shoot something specifically for the submission, rather than reworking photographs I took earlier in the year, albeit after I had started this module. However, my village images are an ongoing project, and so will doubtless turn up again in my work.

References

Bayley, B. (2014) Sublime moments in mundane life: David Hurn’s amazing photos | VICE | United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/david-hurn-photographs-sublime-moments-in-mundane-life (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

Tintern Village (2016) David Hurn’s Tintern photographic project. Available at: http://www.tinternvillage.co.uk/history/david-hurns-photographic-project/ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

Woodward, H. (2014) Photography Oxford – shooting local. Available at: https://hollywoodwardoca.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/photography-oxford-shooting-local/ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

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/