Researching Assignment 3 – Practictioners

Fig. 01 Signs - 1/125 at f/13, ISO 1,250

Fig. 01 Signs – 1/125 at f/13, ISO 1,250

In parallel with considering an approach to assignment 3 and working on test shots (here and here) I have been looking at the work of established practitioners. My subject is to look at the changing high street using reflections in the physical sense and mannequins in a more metaphysical sense.

There is a wealth of material available for both window reflections and mannequins and a combination of the two so the hardest challenge was to focus in on contemporary practitioners that were using reflections and mannequins in a way that helped me think about my own angles, lighting, composition and subject matter.

Having said “contemporary” I started somewhere quite different. Eugéne Atget worked in Paris at the turn of the last century and viguorously pursued a personal project to document the changing face of the city. What makes Atget unusual for his time, and especially relevant from my perspective, is that he saw Paris as a complex series of intimate spaces, he photographed the streets not the famous landmarks, the shop fronts and their interiors, the ordinary people not the gentry because he saw that this, close-up of the City, was what was important to document as it changed and disappeared. Graham Clarke in The Photograph (1) describes him as “the photographer as archaeologist” and his huge catalogue of images of a discrete part of Paris supports this view.

I cannot say whether Atget had any particular interest in either reflections or mannequins but he inevitably captured both during his mission to document the store fronts of Paris. I found a small collection of these images at www.atgetphotography.com. (2)

Fig. 02 Eugene Atget Whiteboard

Fig. 02 Eugene Atget Whiteboard

Having tracked down six Atget images that featured mannequins I put them up on a whiteboard to try and better understand his approach. his style is direct and unfussy, there is nothing fancy about his approach, he does not appear over concerned with neat edges but he does keep his verticals aligned to the frame. The angles are quite soft, that is not far from front-on and he takes full advantage of the logic of the window displays to give balance to his pictures. Importantly the reflections appear very intentionally composed, they do not obscure the main subjects in his shop interiors which tends to indicate that his motive is  to record and document either fashion or shops but to use reflections as context and highlights.

When searching for more contemporary inspiration I found references to a photobook by Gary Dwyer. “Window Dressing”  (3) which can be viewed on line at www.openisbn.com/preview/0981884431/. Many photographers have photographed mannequins as part of a wider assignment or project but Gary Dwyera travel photographer and the producer of many photobooks, has made them the central and single theme of a complete collection as published in “Window Dressing”. There are a number of aspects of his approach that I find interesting; in common with Atget he uses reflections to frame the mannequins, he composes the reflections to serve the features that he wishes to emphasise so a white face will appear out of a dark reflected building or bright, reflected lines from the street lead the viewer to the subject inside the shop window. In one image a reflected, blue sky forms an arrow that points in and overlaps the mannequin’s head. As a result many of Dwyer’s images are three dimensional compositions with the shop lights, subject, backgrounds and reflections, both light and dark, creating layer after layer of light but he allows fairly minimal overlay of these zones so the images are quite clean and not especially complex. Interestingly I didn’t find any headless torsos, all his mannequins are complete and quite lifelike.

The key lesson I take from his work is that to be effective in using reflections it is critical to compose both the subject and the reflection in tandem.

Fig.4 Various Practitioner's Whiteboard

Fig.4 Various Practitioner’s Whiteboard

Having looked fairly closely at two particular photographers I widened my search using Magnum as a source.  Initially I searched for window reflections to gain a sense how a selection of established practitioners used them in their work.  Using the whiteboard I looked at screen prints of an initial set of about 35 photographs to gain an overall sense of whether there was any compositional pattern or commonality.

My impression is that the pictures can be roughly divided into four groups depending upon he photographer’s intent.

1. Interiors: Some are about interiors, reflections may play a part in the composition but the photographer is telling a story about or documenting activity within, a room space and does not let the reflections obscure the view. It would appear this this is generally true of Dwyer’s work as discussed above.

2. Exteriors: The other extreme are images that are about the exterior, the outside world and windows or other reflective surfaces are being used as a screen upon which to show an scene or an object. The reflection is fundamental to the composition but is a medium rather than an end result.

3. Context: In some cases reflections are used to put the interior into the context of the exterior so we are show both quite clearly.

4. Complex: The final group are the most complex images where the interior and the exterior blend together to such an extent that they become one but the viewer is invited to dissect the composition to identify the different planes and layers. In effect this is a progression of the third group but where, I sense, the photographer wants us to see the inner and outer world as one.

Whilst there appear to be these, and other, ways of directing the composition it is also important to recognise that the reflection is not the subject but a device for presenting the subject.

Bruno Barbey

Bruno Barbey is  French, Magnum, photographer born in Morocco in 1941 (4). His beautiful and highly colourful photographs of Morocco are reason enough to visit his website (here). But at this time I am most interested in his images which use reflections to great effect. A number of these can be found by using the search engine on the Magnum Photos website (5).

China Kunming 2013 is a good example of an image that fits into my 4th category (complex). The split, plate glass window is reflecting three different viewpoints of the street from three vertical zones with the central zone overlaid by the a large photograph of a women which appears to be inside the shop. As I have discovered when taking shots of this nature the picture is mostly made up of dark tones but the gate pillars of the park (?) entrance opposite provides a bright contrast.

China City of Dali 2013 is an example of my 2nd category (exteriors) and another picture where Barbey presents 3 distinct vertical zones, a rail of clothes, a mirror and the open street. The rail of clothes provide pattern and colour, the mirror contributes the reflection of a woman and child and the street contains a street vendor. Whilst this image uses a mirror rather than a shop window for the reflection it fits into my research because of the way the photographer uses the vertical zones. The image is bright and colourful and gives a compact insight into the street life of this city.

China Kumming Airport 2013 is an exampole of my 1st category (interiors) where reflections from a glass panel near to the photographer act as a visual device to bring additional layers of form and light to a photograph of a large and empty airport terminal. There are a series of images of this same airport on the Magnum site (5) and each uses light and reflection in slightly different ways to bring something extra to the picture.

There are many other examples in Barbey’s portfolio at Magnum Photos (5) and judging on the number of times reflections appear in his 2013 portfolio he obviously uses this device on a regular basis and in different ways. The common factor is that he is using reflections to bring additional sources and intensities of light to his images and by using the layers that reflections provide he captures more detail that would otherwise be possible in a non reflective composition.

Michael Christopher Brown

Michael Christopher Brown is a New York based Magnun photographer whose portfolios (6) are filled with striking images from many different locations. His bird’s eye view of Broadway is one of the most powerful reflection images that I have come across and certainly quite difficult to imitate in Hampshire. It is a perfect example of my 1st category (exteriors) as, looking down from high in a building, he uses the face of the building to reflect the traffic on Broadway. A predominance of yellow cabs provides strong yellow horizontal lines that are complimented by the yellow “V” of a reflected billboard (?).

Another image that uses strong colours and reflections to create a powerful example of my 3rd category (complex) is taken on street level on Broadway. This picture has multiple layers of bright blues, reds and yellow but is made by the single person who stands just right of centre and provides a sense of scale and human interest.

Underpass on Broadway is also given scale by the inclusion of people and is a comparatively simple street or architectural photo except for the large dark head and bright rings of light that are reflected across the frame.

The Broadway collection include many reflections and, like Barbey, Brown uses them in many different ways. Some are very graphic such as Hotel Empire, some very complex like Yellow Taxi and Pedestrians, but what stands out for me is his use of strong saturated colours. He uses bright sunlight or neon signs to add these colours to what would otherwise often be quite low key scenes.

Although the Broadway collection are exciting images and very helpful in seeing how effectively colour can be used in street photography I was originally drawn to Brown by a much more muted photograph New York February 2013 – Street Life (5) which is a complex composition built around a women arranging, what looks like, pussy willow in a shop window. One eye peeps round the window display and she is framed by a flyover, the sky and traffic on the street. This type of image perfectly places the internal activity into the context of the external activity in a way that would be hard to do without using reflections.

 Chris Steele-Perkins

Chris Steele-Perkins is a London based Magnum photographer who is well known for his 1979 book “The Teds”. His website is at www.chrissteeleperkins.com. (7)

Steele-Perkins is another photographer who makes frequent use of different types of reflections. Myanmar Yangon Chaukhtatgyl Paya and reclining Buddha (5) is an excellent example of a highly complex reflection. It is quite an extreme example of my 4th category as the mixture of a grey steel building, the golden buddha and the multi faceted reflective surface are intertwined to the point that the viewer has to study the image for some time to interpret the various components. However, it would be misleading to suggest that it is a muddled composition as key elements such as the two reflections of Buddha’s face are carefully positioned inside the facets. Other Buddha shots such as  Buddha in Yangon (5) and Sewgagon Pagoda (5) show how a similar subject can be treated in quite different ways even when reflections are a common technique. In the first image selected parts of the Buddha are repeated in the frame so there are many hands, and many eyes and in the second there are multiple faces.

In Yangon, Street from inside a Taxi he uses the inside mirror to look back at a street scene which underlines the fact that there are many reflective surfaces available to use.

One of my favourites and the image that originally led me to looking more closely at Chris Steele-Perkins was taken in South Korea in 2013. Soonchin Bay is a complex image but one that also puts the interior into the context of the exterior but whilst this is a carefully composed image that could stand alone it is clearly part of a series about a national wetland area and shows a display of fresh fish being laid out by a fishmonger as a passerby looks on. This is a good example of how the reflections and composition can be used to highlight the underlying subject of a photograph.

Lessons

These practitioners have helped crystallise my thoughts. The photos I have looked at most closely are not about reflections but are where the photographers have used reflections as a compositional tool to present their chosen subject. This is not to say that there are no photos about reflections, there are, but my assignment is about using reflections not about reflections.

Michael Christopher-Brown in particular shows how strong saturated colours can be found either at night or in strong sunlight and how these, often dramatic, swatches of colour can lift a street scene.

Many of the most interesting examples use reflections to lead the viewer to the subject or to frame the subject.

Looking across all the examples also highlights that there are many different ways to use reflections and that I have to be careful to avoid putting together a series of over similar pictures within the theme.

It has also helped to look at how the lighting varies and how these photographers use the light to their best advantage. Most window reflections have significant dark areas, if they didn’t there would be no reflection so it is important to find a balance so that the light tones compensate and contrast the darker tones.

Sources

Books

(1) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Internet

(2) Atget Photography. Eugene Atget. www.atgetphotography.com/The-Photographers/Eugene-Atget.html

(3) OpenISBN, Gary Dwyer. www.openisbn.com/preview/0981884431/

(4) Barbey, Bruno. Bruno Barbey Official Website brunobarbey.com

(5) Magnum Photos – www.magnumphotos.com

(6) Brown, Michael Christopher. Michale Christopher Brown Official Website www.mcbphotos.com

(7) Steel-Perkins, Chris. Chris Steele-Perkins Official Website www.chrissteeleperkins.com

 

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