Tag Archives: Anna Fox

Researching and Completing Assignment 5

Fig. 01 Cattle on The Common - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Cattle on The Common – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Introduction

Assignment 5 has a straight forward brief, the essence of which is to create a magazine story in the form of a picture essay and to design the cover of the magazine that will run the story. The final result should ideally incorporate both illustrative and narrative techniques.

As this assignment comes at the end of TAoP it is an opportunity to bring together elements of the whole course and it was always my intent to allocate a disproportionate amount of time to researching, planing and undertaking this assignment. TAoP naturally led me to researching a wide selection of established photographs, many of whom have very directly influenced my thinking even when their style or chosen field is not directly relevant to my own work but more than this influence they have collectively taught me a set of basic principles that I wanted to take forward into assignment 5 and beyond.

Working in a Series

The first principle, which is especially relevant to narrative, is that work is more effective when presented as part of a series. Nearly every photo book that I have studied and reviewed is greater, more powerful, than the sum of the individual photos within in. Sometimes this is because of the story line but often it is simply the effect of developing and building a conversation with the audience,  exponentially drawing the viewer deeper into a subject as each image is revealed.

See – Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Quality of Research and Understanding

The second principle relates to the ethics of documentary photography. Respected photo journalists such as Stuart Freeman (1), and Phillip Jones Griffiths (2) both point out the importance of the photographer immersing themselves in their subject so that their work respects and honestly represents it. Freeman states that “storytelling in photography must be as vigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” and this aide has directed my whole approach to assignment 5.

This ideal is best summarised by a quote from Tod Papageorge (13).

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough.”

See – Philip Jones Griffiths – An Engaged Observer

Contextualisation

The third principle flows from the second. Jones Griffiths points out that documentary images must be properly contextualised. His example is that a picture of a starving child is just that, it doesn’t mean anything. The photographer must provide the context, why is this child starving? what events led to this point? who is depriving him of food? Jones Griffiths believes that this can only be done by combining photographs with text, he argues that we live in a literal society so words are an essential element of photographic story telling.

See – Captions and Other Words in Photo Narrative and Phillip Jones Griffiths and the Use of Captions, Cutlines and Other text in Vietnam Inc.

Respecting the Subject Through the Quality of the Image

For the final principle I will refer back to the second part of the Freedman quotation. Understanding the subject is not enough, we must use whatever skills we possess to bring beauty to the construction and execution of the photographs. Exhibit one to support the case for this principle can be found in the work of Josef Koudelka (4) who has championed isolated and suppressed communities for much of his career and who makes these marginalised people important, human and valuable by the art and technical excellence that he brings to every one of his pictures.

See – Josef Koudelka – Wall and The Role of Olive Trees in Koudelka’s Wall

The Concept

Choice of Subject

It was always going to be important to select a subject that I already, at least in part understood, I felt that my classmate, Adam Newsome, had been so successful with his assignment 4 on IEDs (Adam’s Assignment) (5) because he had based it on a subject with which he was already intimate. This intimacy allowed him to explore and document the subject in real depth and to offer the audience an unique viewpoint.

I chose to look at my own childhood and the village in which I grew up.

Parallel Timelines

Having looked at a wide range of narratives and photo stories I wanted to develop a story line that had multiple strands. I had connected with Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (3) for many reasons but I especially responded to the idea of combining his “current” photographs with the subject’s own photographic memories, this gave the audience two timelines to follow and the opportunity for juxtaposing past and present. This worked well because Germain gave both sets of pictures equal prominence and therefore equal value, there was no suggestion that because the subject’s photos were amateur ‘snaps” that they should be treated with any less respect.

To enable me to introduce multiple timelines to my narrative I decided to base part of the story on the writings of George Sturt who lived in “my” village between 1891 and his death in 1927. Sturt was not a typical man of his times, a self confessed socialist who was also a business owner and employer and who saw his employees as people and friends. A number of his books are heralded as classics but his most moving works are a trilogy of books (6), (7), (8), based on conversations with his gardener whom he calls Bettesworth. Bettesworth, or Fred Grover, was an old man when Sturt first employed him and the stories of his life in a tiny Surrey hamlet tell the story of that village from the 1840s until his death in 1905. Sturt’s other book, Change in the Village (10) and his Journals continue to map the evolution of the area until Sturt’s own death.

The concept was to trace the spirit of Fred Grover and to document his path through this landscape and to overlay that with own childhood in the same place. I hoped to find places where Fred and I could meet and ideas upon which we might have agreed or even argued. I aslo wanted to draw on any similarities that I could find between my family history as it related the the village and Grover’s.

From the outset I wanted to use a small number of photographs from Grover’s time and from my family album. This would enable me to not only juxtapose past and present but to also provide visual variety.

Text and Captions

Whilst recognising and accepting that this assignment was about photography it was also clearly set as a magazine article and for that reason alone it needed text to complement the images. My study of the early photo stories had been informative but it was also obvious that this approach is now historic, Life and its competitors have long gone and the Sunday magazines, National Geographic and specialist magazines that are image heavy such as travel magazines have a high proportion of text to image. I am sure that there are examples of pure photo stories in magazines but I would more see this to be the province of the photo book or internet slide show.

More importantly I considered whose work had influenced me the most when researching narrative and quickly concluded it was Kodelka’s WallJones Griffiths’ Vientnam Inc and Lam’s Abandoned Futures. Each of these books are heavily reliant on the written word to contextualise the photographs.

It also seemed relevant that as I would be researching the subject matter in some depth part of the story would only be told effectively by combining words with the photographs. I made the decision to format the story as if it was to be published in a magazine but to adopt a text / picture mix similar to Jones Griffiths.

Appropriation

The use of old photographs would already introduce an element of appropriation to the project but I was also keen to try and link the modern photographs with the past by using quotes from George Sturt’s books as captions. This approach also linked this assignment back to assignment 3 and my research into Anna Fox and Victor Burgin.

Other Influences

Different photographers and writers influenced different parts of the assignment.

Joachim Brohm and the Bechers influenced the way I approached a double page spread typology of cottages and other buildings that I knew as a child and that Grover would have known.

I researched a number of different views on how a photo story should be created and took forward ideas from Harold Evans’ Pictures on Page (11) regarding layouts and the relationship between pots and text although there was, of course the need, to translate the ideas from broadsheet to a smaller format. His ideas on how to build a story are invaluable an, being a newspaper man, he likes words so further justified my essay writing. Equally useful was Derek Birdsall’s Notes on Book Design (12), his ideas on how to layout a page were inspiration even though I know that I fell way short of his high standards.

My general background research is summarised in my post Narrative andI endeavoured to carry forward that research into this assignment.

Overall my strongest influences were the photo journalists such as Jones Griffiths, who I have already mentioned, Stuart Freedman, Chris Steele-Perkins, and Eugene W. Smith (for Minamata rather than his work for Life Magazine). In each case these men talk about and follow the principles I have discussed above. Quite clearly they are usually documenting subjects of world importance and I had no such subject in leafy Surrey and their technical excellence is way beyond my limited skills but their real influence on me was to set a pace for the assignment that allowed me to become absorbed in my subject and think through the photographs I wanted and how I wanted to use them.

The Process

Developing the Concept

The concept was developed in parallel with the research described in Narrative but, even before I started with OCA, I was planning a project to look at the journeys of William Cobbett or the writings of George Sturt. Partly because they were both local men and partly because they wrote about the countryside  I love and rural issues which are important to me and that always take a back seat in our urban dominated political landscape. However, I realised that the scale of the research required to deal with Cobbett was inappropriate for a single assignment and I also wanted to bring a personal element to the work and that would have been harder to achieve with Cobbett.

I felt that I already had a number of personal connections with George Sturt. My father had collected his books and as another passionate socialist shared many of Sturt’s views about the treatment of the rural poor. I had walked past his house everyday on my way to school and knew all of the places he wrote about but, more to the point, I knew these places not as a visiting student but as someone who had grown up in the lanes, fields and commons that he describes. His countryside was my countryside and it was this shared landscape that I mots wanted to explore.

Research

The first step was to re-read Sturt’s books and as I did this I formed a strong affinity with Fred Grover who had lived in a tiny cottage a few hundred yards from where I grew up, moving there around a hundred years before I was born. Sturt’s conversations with his old gardener revealed a complex life hidden behind the simple and stereotypical facade of the Surrey labourer and my copious notes centred around the important moments in Gover’s and, his wife, Lucy’s lives. His war service in the Crimea,  the enclosure of the common, the birth and death of their children, Lucy’s decline as her epilepsy worsened, the shadow of the workhouse and destitution that was the end of the road for so many of the rural poor.

Each strand opened up new avenues of research including:

  • Roger Fenton and his Crimean War photography, specifically searching on-line libraries for a photograph of the men of Grover’s regiment. I had looked at Fenton’s still life work during assignment 4 so it was interesting to look at a different aspect of his career.
  • Farnham Museum, who were most helpful with searching their photographic archives for pictures of the 19th century village, Sturt’s house, Grover’s cottage and, after much searching, a single photo of Fred Grover himself talked by George Sturt.
  • Simon Fairlie’s “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain” (15) was invaluable and provided much needed historic context and that helped explain Sturt’s thoughts on the matter.
  • I met and talked to Wendy Maddox, who co-incedentially had been taught by my Father at The Bourne School in the late 1940’s, and who is an amateur but dedicated historical researcher who has carried out extensive work on the history of the village and specifically on the old graveyard. She was part of the team who identified Fred and Lucy Grover’s unmarked graves. The results of some of this research can be found on The Bourne Conservation Society website (16)

Photography

It is not really appropriate to describe my photography trips as shoots. Over a period of nearly three months I kept visiting the village, walking through different areas, talking to the people I met and taking photographs that seemed to capture the village I remembered. My aim was to find Grover’s spirit or part of my own history so other than starting my walks from obvious landmarks such as his cottage, Sturt’s house, the houses where I had lived, the school or the pub I did not plan shoots.

Over time I began to find themes and that invested my work with a little more purpose. I began to form an idea of wanting an element of typology in the final piece and a lot of my walks were in search of cottages that had been the homes of the original squatters who inhabited the village.

A number of my walks were on, what had been the common land, and is now either part of Frensham Common which is managed by the National Trust or The Bourne Woods which are owned by the RSPB and has become quite well know for its staring role in films such as Gladiator and Robin Hood.

My photographic technique changed significantly during this time as a heavy DSLR and camera bag became too restrictive and, given I was often photographing people’s home from the lane in front of their house, it also felt too invasive. Instead I started carrying a mirror-less Fuji XT-1 and this liberated my approach and led to, what seemed, simpler and more appropriate compositions.

Sources

 Books

(3) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Gottingen: Steidl MACK (Reviewed o line via a combination of Julian Germain’s web site – http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php and the MACK web site – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/16-For-every-minute-you-are-angry-you-lose-sixty-seconds-of-happiness.html

(4) Koudelka, Josef. (2013) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture

(6) Sturt, George. (1902) The Bettesworth Book: 1978 Edition, a facsimile of the second edition published in 1902. Firle: Caliban Books.

(7) Sturt, George. (1907) Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer: 1978 Edition, a facsimile of the second edition published in 1907. Firle: Caliban Books.

(8) Sturt,George (1913) Lucy Bettesworth. London: Duckworth & Co. Sturt, George (1907) Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer. 1978 facsimile of the 1st Edition. Firle, Sussex: Caliban Books

(9) Sturt, George (1912) Change in the Village. 1955 edition. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.

(10) Sturt, George (1923) The Wheelwright’s Shop. First paperback edition 1963. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(11) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(12) Birdsall, Derek. (2004) Notes on Book Design. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Internet

(1) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism – http://www.epuk.org/The-Curve/952/ethics-and-photojournalism

(2)  Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths

(5) Newsome, Adam. (2014) IEDs – https://adamnewsome.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/level-1-art-of-photography-assignment-4/

(13) Foto8. Mark Durden Interview with Tod Papageorge – http://www.foto8.com/live/tod-papageorge-interview/

(14) Smith, W. Eugene and Smith, Aileen M (1971) Minamata vs. Chisso Corporation – Magnum Photography site – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDDWZXTR

(15) Fairlie, Simon (2009) A Short History of Enclosure in Britain. First Published in The Land Magazine – http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain

(16) The Bourne Conservation Society – http://www.bourneconservation.org.uk/index.htm

Captions and Other Words in Photo Narratives

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila's largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. 50% of Manila's 11 million population live in slums.

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila’s largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. Ineffectual government policies leading to the repeated failure of re-housing schemes means that even now 50% of Manila’s  population of 11 million still live in slums.

Introduction

Researching narrative has revised my interest in how words and pictures work together and it is obvious that there are a number of different ways to incorporate words within a photo essay ranging from their complete absence, through captions, cutlines, appropriations, to written essays.

The history of the photo story and photo essay is closely linked to photo journalism, magazines and newsprint so it is no surprise that many such narratives are published with text but it is also common for photo books to use captions, cutlines or editorial text to support the photographers’ work. So, whilst some photographers’ work is inevitably destined to be published with associated text because they are working for news or magazine publishers it is clear that many photographers with editorial control are still making the decision to incorporate text with or within their work and it interesting to look a little more closely at why and how this is done.

When first researching  narrative photography it became clear that there is the photo journalist’s and news editor’s view on one hand and the photography critic’s and writer’s view on the other and an attempt to simultaneously consider both views is often trying to square the circle. It also leads to a semantic debates on the meaning of story versus essay and documentary versus journalism and so forth. It could be that this difference of opinion has its roots in what Graham Clarke *(2) describes as the “extent to which photographic practice has been haunted in its development by what has been termed the ‘ghost of painting'”. In simple terms “great art” before the invention of photography rarely, if ever, resorted to using captions beyond assigning a title so, perhaps, great photography is expected not to need or use them.

Absence of Words

It can be argued that the perfect photographic narrative needs no words and many such narratives exist. Richard Billingham’s Rays a Laugh *(6) tells the story of life with his alcoholic father and was published with only a short photographer’s statement on the inside cover to introduce the characters in the photographs, after which there are no captions of any kind, not even the place and date form of captions found in Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston or Stephen Shore’s work. These works are not lessoned by a lack of captions, the photographers felt no need to offer Cartier-Bresson’s “verbal context” and this approach is clearly highly effective in a photo book or exhibition context where the story can be completely communicated through the images.

A further argument would be that the “norm”, the standard starting point is for there to be no words. The pictures speak for themselves and the photograph only controls the content of the image and the context in which they are made available to the audience. The audience is left to interpret the pictures. If we accept that is the status quo it would appear that we are only looking for arguments for why we would use words.

Appropriations

After assignment 3 I looked at the work of Victor Burgin (Victor Burgin and Appropriations) who has produced a number of series where his photographs appropriate types of words, such as marketing-like slogans, or pieces of text from other sources. In Burgin’s case he is placing an image into a context where we would not normally expect to see it and thereby unsettles the audiences expectations and interpretation of that image.

Anna Fox used the same idea in Work Stations by selecting extracts from corporate “literature” as ironic texts to accompany her images of office life in the 1980s. I had adopted Fox’s approach to my own assignment 3 and attempted to highlight issues with the fashion industry by using their own marketing material as ironic captions.

Fox and Burgin both use appropriation by juxtaposing text and image that are in conflict with one another. For example a piece of fashion speak that celebrates the virtues of a pale skin with a photograph of a black women in a bus queue. (Burgin “Life Demands a Little Give and Take”) *(1).

Appropriation could be a valid technique to use in a photo story or essay and I am considering using it in assignment 5 but, this time, in a less ironic manner by combining the written words of a late 19th / early 20th Century writer who published several books about the village in which I grew up, combined with current images of the same village.

Other Examples of Combining Words and Pictures

Research into narrative has led me to several other photographers who use text as part of their work, or who have produced work that is nearly always seen with the original magazine text in place; I have previously made notes on:

Photo Journalism

Although I can’t find the origin of the quote Harold Evans *(3) quotes Cartier-Bresson as saying “The who or what and the why are incorporated in the subject – or should be – and the how is unimportant.” However, in The Mind’s Eye *(4), Cartier-Bresson also says “in A Picture Story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of the camera to reach.” It appears that even Cartier-Bresson had more than one view on the role of the caption.

Evans is less ambivalent believing that the idea that words “pollute photographs” is “a piece of intellectual debris from the early idea that photography was art or it was nothing” and, in his world of newsprint, we would expect no other view. The typical process of understanding a news photo is to first look at the picture, then read the caption and any short descriptive extension to the caption (what the American press calls the “cutline”) and then to return to the photograph for a second look. This process builds an understanding by ‘reading” and absorbing the information in the picture, reading the caption and its associated text to gain any helpful explanation or additional data and then revisiting the image to use the context provided by he caption to reveal any nuances missed on the first visit. Newspapers and magazines are expert in the field of caption writing because they know that only headlines have a higher readership that photo captions *(5) and readers are drawn deeper into the editorial or news text through the process of reading photographs and their captions.

Photo journalism, photo stories and photo essays as published in magazines and newspapers are rarely offered as stand alone pictures, in fact, it is so rare that it is only a slight exaggeration to say that this type of photography always includes a caption and is often linked to a more detailed descriptive context or, is providing a visual context to the text.

Not surprisingly, as a newspaper man, Evans, is an advocate for words; he believes that, by adding text, the editor can enhance both the emotional and cognitive experience of viewing a photograph or a series of photographs. In the world of newsprint the aim of this text is to add to and explain the story by providing descriptive detail although Evans recognises that too often it repeats the facts we can see on the photograph because it has been badly executed or is unnecessary but this doesn’t detract from the fact that many news photos are enhanced by their relationship with text. When this is done well the photograph and the text each contribute to the story and the relationship is inevitable, it is a known result that both photographer and writer are working to.

Summary and Next Steps

The two ends of the spectrum are the pure visual story and the story embedded within and closely related to text. In the middle there are a significant number of photo books that extensively use text to provide context, additional information and explanation and, whilst assignment 5, is set as a “magazine cover and article” and therefore inextricably  linked to text if it is to be authentic, it is this middle ground that interests me most. Why does a photographer choose, in Evans’ words, “to pollute” their images with text?

The relationship between words and pictures in a photo book is complex and not inevitable. Anna Fox explains that, whilst she knew that she wanted to use text from the corporate world in a association with her photographs in Work Stations, she collected the pictures and text quite separately, only selecting combinations when she was collating the final presentation. I followed this approach in assignment 3 by collecting phrases during the same few weeks that I was taking the photographs but selected the pictures and decided on my final sequence before starting to look for, what I saw as, natural matches from my collection of quotes.

To explore how text is used by different photographers I have looked at three books.

Koudelka’s Wall –  that I have looked at twice already once as a general review (here) and once in the context of how he used olive trees as a metaphor (here).

Josef Koudelka and the Use of Captions in Wall

Philip Griffith Jones’ Vietnam Inc. that I have looked at in the context of The Engaged Photographer

Philip Jones Griffith and the use of Captions, Cutlines and Other Text in Vietnam Inc.

Tong Lam’s Abandoned Futures that I have not previously reviewed previously in this blog.

Tong Lam and the Use of Text and Appropriations in Abandoned Futures

Conclusion

In each case the photographer has decided that his photographs only tell part of the story. Koudelka provides short captions that explain and educate to ensure that we see past the beauty of his images. Jones Griffiths is constantly explaining “why” so that we understand the history, the back story the broader context of he Vietnam war and its impact on the people and their culture. Lam is offering us two ways to see and understand post industrial landscapes, the words and essays are blended but neither fundamentally relies on the other, they are two parallel data sources.

These different approaches show that words and pictures can be successfully integrated in media other than news or magazines. In the case of Jones Griffiths his book is a direct reaction to the what he sees as the way that the news editors take photo journalist’s work out of contact to illustrate the story they want to publish.

My final conclusion is to agree with Jones Griffiths when he says that we live in a literate society so, if we believe we have a story to tell why would we limit ourselves to using pictures as a complete narrative form? It is essential that the words compliment the photographs, they must add to the story and not be simple and redundant descriptions of the image. The ideal is for the photograph to be strong enough to provide the majority of the information and for the caption or essay to provide the context that explains why the event is happening, or how others events have unfolded to lead to this moment. The two forms of communication need to work together to gain an emotional reaction.

Sources

Books

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

(3) Evans, Harold (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation

(6) Billingham, Richard (1995) Ray’s a Laugh. Books on Books Edition (2014). New York: Valerie Sonnenthal

Internet

(1) Zero Focus – Victor Burgin – Life Demands a Little Give and Take – http://shihlun.tumblr.com/post/84456144504/victor-burgin-poster-life-demands-a-little-bit

(5) University of Kansas web resources – A picture is worth a thousand words (but only of it’s got a really good cutline!) – http://web.ku.edu/~edit/captions.html

 

Tong Lam and the Use of Essays and Appropriations in Abandoned Futures

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

A Short Review of Abandoned Futures

Tong Lam *(1) is interested in using photography to examine industrial and post industrial ruins around the world. This is reflected in his published work which includes Abandoned Futures which looks at the abandoned places of current civilisations and asks whether, in time, these will outnumber functioning places and offers a vision of what he calls the post human world. It appears self apparent that governments and developers prefer to build on green rather than brown field sites so across the world we can see post industrial wastelands being created and abandoned whilst we build on prime agricultural land, clear virgin forest and put increasing pressure on the remaining areas of wilderness.

Abandoned Futures *(2) follows the traditions of social documentary photography by focussing attention on environmental and social issues that should concern us, at one level we have mountains of waste, cars and planes dumped on virgin landscapes to decay slowly as new rubbish is rapidly added to the pile, and at another level more monumental forms of waste in the shape of abandoned buildings, industrial complexes and housing. The photographs of these buildings are archeological in nature, recording such a recent past that, at first glance, deserted amusement parks look closed for the night and books line dusty shelves in abandoned offices. Many individual photographs are complete narratives where the audience can easily add the past and the future to the image imagining the inhabited space and its eventual collapse into a cloud of concrete dust.

Overall the book is a single narrative, a story of unrealised dreams, failed projects, bad ideas and the degenerative processes of climate and nature but it is structured into chapters that investigate specific places or types of decay and each of these can be seen as an independent narrative.

The subject matter holds great interest for me as, over many years, I have collected my own library of photographs of abandoned buildings and decaying man-made environments partly because they often offer graphic and abstract subjects and partly because I am intrigued by the ability of nature to take control of the most resilient of man-made or shaped materials and slowly transform them into something organic, returning cement to rock dust, brick to clay, wood to rot and iron to rust. Trees and walls become a single organism as roots weave their way through lime based cement or twist around rock to find moisture and even though we can only see a fraction of the lifecycle we know the beginning and the end.

This meant that I would inevitably enjoy Lam’s work and I was taken with his simple compositions and unpretentious approach that often elevates the subject over the photograph. When looking at concerned photographers such as Koudelka and Jones Griffiths there is an sense of artistry and consistency of style to their photographs that is perhaps less obvious here. Lam’s style moves from plain landscapes that only make sense within the contact of the overall set to bright dessert scenes that are reminiscent of Stephen Shore in both composition and colouring through to deeply saturated daylight colours and soft long exposures. The book also falls down in the sequencing of the images so that we are often presented pictures on facing pages that have no obvious relationship – an abandoned car in the snow and an empty swimming pool in bright winter sunlight. However, overall I found the photographs engaging and full of intriguing detail.

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

The Use of Text in Abandoned Futures

Essays

There are 11 very readable essays included within Abandoned Futures. Lam uses these essays to discuss a range of related subjects from why people paint or photograph ruins right through to contextualising sets of photographs in the same way that Jones Griffiths approached Vietnam Inc. The overall context of this book is quite different than Vietnam Inc. or Wall where there is a sense of the photographer feeling that they need to educate the audience to understand the photographs. Jones Griffiths, probably quite rightly, believes that we will miss the point of his photographs of Vietnamese villagers if we don’t understand the inhabitants’ underlying culture and beliefs. In Abandoned Futures there is a different feel to the text, the photographs of thousands of dumped cars in the Mojave Desert do not call for education, most of the audience will understand the subject, the issue and the problem without further education so the text has to play a different role. His writing is not journalistic, is not laden with facts, is not even evangelical in style, it is elegantly written prose with an artistic rhythm that describes the car culture of the USA and acts as a background, another perspective on the scene we see in the pictures. It would be fair to say that it addresses the “why?” that Jones Griffiths states is so important but it is a broad brush explanation rather than an analytic discourse.

Appropriation

There are also a few examples of appropriation. Unlike Fox and Burgin (see Victor Burgin and Appropriations) his use of quotes is not ironic, he uses them to illuminate his own message so a quote from Victor Hugo “For, to make desserts, God, who rules mankind, begins with Kings, and ends with the work of the wind.” with a photograph of a ruined castle.

Old House Grand Turk 2013 -  1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Old House Grand Turk 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Conclusion

Lam’s text is integral to this book, he wants to tell the audience as much as he can in the constraints of the book and the photos and the words, whilst complimentary, often provide different information so as well as contextualising the images he is adding to them with his essays.

Sources

Books

(2) Lam, Tong (2013) Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. Great Britain: Carpet Bombing Culture.

Internet

(1) Lam, Tong – Official Website – http://photography.tonglam.com/#/about/description

Narrative

Seeking A Simple Definition

A study of narrative in photography soon leads to a multitude of different interpretations of, what seems at first glance to be, a simple idea.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines narrative as an “account of connected events”, but goes on to say “in order of happening” so, whilst we might bank the idea of connectivity, the idea that narrative must be chronological is quesionable. Tate Modern Art Terms is equally clear.

“A narrative is simply a story. Narrative art is art that tells a story.”

Harold Evans, once the editor of the Sunday Times, and the author of Pictures on a Page *(1) suggests that story and narrative are interchangeable terms so, in that regard he might agree with the Tate but he quickly brings the concept of narrative being linked to an event and connectivity back into the mix. “The picture story is essentially a narrative, the record of a single event or aspect of it, or a simple chronology” He goes on to say, however, that the picture story is descriptive in nature not declarative whereas the photo essay is not restricted to a time or an event and can analyse rather than narrate.

Michael Freeman, in the Photographer’s Story, *(2) sees story telling as a “classic, essential and pure form” of photography and an integral part of creating a coherent body of work. He sees little distinction between the photo essay and the photo story but he believes that an essay implies one photographer with a single vision working in a consistent style whereas a picture story might be sourced from different photographers.

Kenneth Kobré, in Photo Journalism *(3) is certain that the photo story is chronologically sequential whereas the essay is not and is a more general study. This seems close to Evans’ definition so perhaps this is the traditional newspaper or magazine view but, as discussed later, it is just as likely that a photo story appears to be sequential through the way it is edited rather than having been photographed in the sequence in which it is presented.

Maria Short, in Context and Narrative *(4) takes a broad view arguing that narrative is a structure that enables an audience to follow the artist’s idea or to grasp a concept and it is this thought that helps us to move away from narrative being linked to an “event”. Greg Battye *(5) appears to agree and suggests that narrative is way of structuring the “construction, arrangement, organisation, transmission and understanding of information” and whilst this is a rather cumbersome definition it has the advantage of removing any restrictions based on a place or an event but still infers connectivity.

My summary is:

  • Narrative is story telling, fact or fiction.
  • It is a structure for communicating an idea.
  • Connectivity or an continuant subject is an essential ingredient.
  • Time will, in some way be involved, but the story might be linear, non linear, cyclical or only linked to time in the sense that there was something before and there is something after.

The Characteristics of Photographic Narrative

Having somewhat tentatively established what narrative is it logical to next try and understand what constitutes a successful narrative. Having looked at a number of different viewpoints and considered the commonalities and the exceptions my chosen starting point is a lovely thought expressed by Tod Papageogre *(6) who is quoted by David Campbell *(7):

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough”

This adaptation of Robert Capa’s axiom “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” speaks to a theme that I have found prevalent amongst respected, more traditional and established photo journalists such as Stuart Freedman *(8) who believe that too much contemporary narrative is based on limited research and/or understanding of the subject. He argues that:

“Story telling in photography must be vigorous in thought and research”

The idea being that the photographer must understand the context of an issue or an event or a situation to be able to tell its story and this knowledge can only come as the result of research unless an appropriate level of knowledge has been acquired by more organic means as might be case for an essay about a close family member.

In some cases the event or the issue might, in fact, come first and be followed by research to gain an in-depth understanding or the subject may arise from researching a broader topic so my second characteristic is entwined with the first. David Campbell puts it quite simply:

“The most important thing to ask is what is the story I want to tell ?”

This is especially appropriate because it is expressed as a personal question; the story I want to tell, not the story someone else has asked for, the story that is expected, the story that people want to hear. This principle is at the heart of Phillip Jones Griffiths’ highly acclaimed book Vietnam Inc. *(9) which I discussed in An Engaged Observer. Jones Griffiths, who was president of Magnum for five years, believed that his role was to take the pictures that he thought were important, he went as far as to say that it is an “obscene concept” to give people what they want *(10). Vietnam Inc. is a series of anti-war photographs taken at a time when the American people generally supported the war and when the American media didn’t want to publish the dark side of what the US was doing in South East Asia. As a result Jones Griffiths’ images were unsaleable as news photos but when published as a book they played a significant role in changing public opinion in America.

Karin Becker Ohrn, as quoted by Maria Short *(4),  defines social documentary photography, which often uses narrative structures, as setting out to “bring the attention of an audience to his or her work and, in many cases to pave the way for social change.” In this context the concerned photography of Jones Griffiths not only meets the first criteria but can be credited by accelerating social change.

This debate is as current now as it was in 1970. Stuart Freeman believes that if the photo journalist is not intending to bring about change within what he calls the “humanist documentary tradition” they are merely voyeurs.  Like Jones Griffiths he argues that the photographer must be telling the story they want to tell and not illustrating someone else’s story. So, we can add personal engagement and:

A desire to tell a story, with an aim to draw attention or to pave the way for change.

Once we have a story, the desire, enough knowledge of the subject and a reason to tell it we need a way of constructing the story and narrative is that structure. There is plenty of advice available on structuring a narrative but most of it can be summarised as having a beginning, a middle and an end. A piece of string has all those things and very few pieces of string are interesting so it appears necessary to look a little deeper.

The first rule of structure is connectivity or a continuity of subject; without connectivity the audience only sees isolated and individual pictures. In a narrative the pictures are building blocks that the photographer is linking and combining into a story; so, as David Campbell says:

“The photographer is making the relationship between event – issue – story”

He refers to Alan Feldman who argues that we don’t find an event with its meaning fully formed, it only becomes understood as an event through narrative. Historical events from the industrial revolution to the swinging sixties weren’t  seen as events by the people involved, they became events through histories and stories, the narratives that told us about them. If we follow this thought to its logical conclusion the narrator is part of the process of defining an event and forming its meaning.

Regardless of how comprehensive the narrative sets out to be it can never been compete, it will always be based on the inclusion and exclusion of subject matter at the point of capture and again at the point of editing. This selectivity and editing is fundamental to the process of construction and the skill of the editor is to select a series of images that each contribute to the story line and that build upon one another as the story unfolds. David Campbell points out that:

“Everything within a narrative has a particular function [ ] nothing is superfluous”

The scale of the photo essay will always be limited. This limit might be self imposed or established as part of a brief, the size of an exhibition or the economic constraints of publishing but, in every case, each image within a narrative, a story or an essay must have a clear purpose and support the telling of the story. The penalty for ignoring this rule is likely to result in being unable to present the essay to its intended audience and thereby being unable to drawn attention to the issue or the event. As was the case when W. Eugene Smith refused to allow editors to select too small a set from his Pittsburg collection. A stance that delayed its publication for decades. Nearly sixty years after they were taken the Sam Stephenson curated exhibition Dream Street *(12) showed, depending on venue, between 85 and 190 prints from the the 11,000 negatives Smith collected. Smith saw Pittsburg as the most important work of his life yet its publication was delayed so far beyond the right moment it decayed from being a powerful and current narrative of an industrial city to being an aesthetically pleasing historical document.

Alan Feldman *(10) is quoted by David Campbell as saying:

“Narrative is the organisation of events into a system”

This builds on the idea of working within constraints by highlighting that the  narrative needs organisation because it is simply the presentation of information, it must systematic, planned and directed. I am increasingly appreciating the power of a series of photographs where the photographer leads the audience along the path that he or she thinks best communicates the underlying idea. This idea might be broad and loosely defined such as the sweeping portrait of Israel presented by Stephen Shore in From Galilee to the Negrev *(18) or the tighter, more focussed, narrowly constrained essay about the same place by Josef Koudelka in Wall *(17). There is little or no similarity in terms of style or theme but In both cases there is an identifiable structure to the presentation, the photos weren’t shuffled before being published, they were carefully arranged to catch our attention, hold our attention and to ask us to emotionally respond to the artists’ perspective. They are organised.

Koudelka is a story teller but not by using progressional images, we do not see the wall being mapped, then designed, then built before seeing its impact on the environment and population. It is there, in all its ugliness, in the very first plate and it is there on the last plate. In between, we see it snake across the landscape, we see it as a wire fence in the mist, we see it as a road block and we see it as a gate. He has documented its every aspect showing it in the broadest context of the rural and urban landscape. It is a model of how to present a large idea and is highly effective.

Stephen Shore takes a different approach, his narrative in Galilee to Negrev, is a broad, documentary sweep of the land. As I described in my review of the book there is a pattern in that he starts by putting Israel into the context of its ancient history before introducing the vast and untamed wilderness of the land, closing in to show man’s impact on the landscape, moving closer still to see the ugly urbanisation and then on to investigating ordinary people and the trivia of their ordinary lives. Because the book is ultimately a travelogue that spans the length and breath of this sliver of a country this sequence is generally repeated as Shore investigates each of the four main regions. I felt changed by Shore’s Galilee to Negrev, I was moved by Wall.

The form of construction is multi-various. It may be simple, linear, chronologically organised or, more likely, appear to be those things once the editor has finished. W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor is often held up as the definitive photo story. It has all the appearances of a linear “day in the life of” story but it is well documented that this is a highly edited series and there is little or no likelihood that the pictures were taken in the sequence in which they were published. Even if the emergency amputation had occurred five minutes after Smith arrived to start the project his editor would never have shown it as the opening shot because it would appear out of context despite being “correctly” positioned. This shows that photo stories not only have an external context they need to be constructed so that internal context is developed to enable the individual pictures to be understood.

The construction could be non-linear with flash-backs or links to parallel stories, which is part of the beauty of Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness *(11) that uses the subject’s own photo albums to tell the  “back story” in parallel with Germain’s images telling the “present” story. The way that Germain weaves these two stories together, whilst giving equal weight to the importance of both timelines, might be viewed as a structural technique, which of course it is, but it is also the soul of the narrative. We understand the subject by simultaneously seeing his past and his present and through this learn why he is content and fulfilled. Every Minute represents another characteristic of a wide body of narrative, described by Maitland Edey, once an Editor at Life Magazine , as:

“Great stories have to do with people; with human dilemmas, with human challenges, with human suffering”

Every Minute is essentially about one man, although it could be argued that it is also an essay about the common human condition of a person surviving their life partner. When, as in that case, the structure of the narrative is based, not on an independent event or on specific timeline but on a person or a place or on the activities of a particular group of people or a social trend  we see more complex constructions and more challenging constructions as, without a timeline, the path through the story must use other linkages to hold the audience’s attention. There needs to be a flow, a continuity and internal connectivity so that one image leads from its predecessor and onto its successor.

Another example of this type of narrative would be Anna Fox’s Resort 1 *(13) which I looked at earlier in the course. Resort 1 tells the story of families holidaying at Butlin’s in Bognor Regis, so in that sense it is a story about a place and the people within it but through her photographic style and choice of subject it is also a social story about what people do, how they act, what they wear and how they relate to each other and to the theatrical setting of a holiday camp. In short it tells us much more about the times than just what Butlin’s looks like. Martin Parr’s Last Resort  *(14) would be another example that tells us simultaneously about place, people and society or social trends. In both cases there are multiple linkages being used, subject matter is often grouped together, colours carry over from one image to the next and the sub-plots are changed by punctuating the series with different colour sets or types of subject, the sequence is carefully planned but they are not progressional in terms of time or subject. Consistent style including, lighting, framing, composition, mood and repeating vantage points is the glue that holds the narrative together.

Each of the above examples are quite traditional and their style pre-dates the internet age. This does not lessen their effectiveness and it is interesting to note that W. Eugene Smith’s photographs are less dated in terms of subject and style than the words that accompany them. I have a collection of Life Magazine photographs and this is true of many of them. The photos are usually still engaging but the captions and accompanying text often seems naive, condescending and superficial, but this is a digression. To complete my look at narrative forms I want to include two pieces that embrace current technology.

Chris Steele Perkins’ study of the effect of the Tsunami that hit the coast of Japan in 2010 is published, on-line as Tsunami Streetwalk 1 and 2 *(15) and which I looked at in some detail in an earlier post. Amongst the same set of Magnum  “Inmotion” essays is a contribution by Bruce Gilden, Foreclosures *(16). In Foreclosures Gilden tells the story of the major social crisis caused by the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe that kicked off the Northern Hemisphere’s financial crisis that we are only now limping out of. This is a huge story with multiple beginnings and no clear ending as yet so it might still be impossible to tell. Gilden resolves this by focusing in on a single place and a finite group of people but by telling this tiny piece of the story he, in effect, tells the whole story. He is using Las Vegas as a metaphor for the near collapse of the global banking system. The fact that it was a “near” collapse is irrelevant to the people in his essay who live in the “foreclosure capital of America” with one in sixty homes being foreclosed in Las Vegas and Reno (or in English repossessed) .

The way Gilden tells the story is current and contemporary. He combines simple black and white photographs, contact sheets, animation, voice overs, music and appropriation to create an on-line slide show which, in just under five minutes, tells the story in a powerful and effective manner.

Tsunami Streetwalk by Chris Steele Perkins is equally contemporary but uses less techniques. His approach is to combine two rolling threads of photos that, together, form a vast panorama of a single street with straight after the Tsunami at the top and seven months later below so the audience can make a direct comparison of, what used to be, houses and businesses in two different cities. To support the rolling photos he uses scrolling captions and haunting music.

These two approaches show that the photo story or essay that, many say, started with Life Magazine in the 1950’s is still alive and well sixty years later having evolved from its magazine origins into photo books and, even more recently, on–line media. However, the fundamentals of narrative are still the same:

  • A story worth telling;
  • Research leading to knowledge and understanding;
  • An engaged photographer who has invested themselves in the narrative;
  • A construction that creates a story from an issue out of an event;
  • And, the organisation of information into a connected and coherent structure.

I have a closing thought.

All of the above fails if the quality of execution is poor. To complete the Stuart Freedman quote I used earlier:

“Story telling in photography must be as vigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution.”

We are bombarded with thousands of images every day on social media, news programmes, newspapers, film, TV drama, advertising hoardings. For the photographer’s story to be “heard” over all this background noise his or her images better be good.

So, therein lies the challenge for assignment 5.

Sources

Books

(1) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(2) Freeman, (2012) The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative (Kindle Edition). Lewes: Ilex Press.

(3) Kobré, Kenneth (1996) Photo Journalism: The Professional Approach, 3rd Edition. Boston: Focal Press

(4) Short, Maria (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing.

(5) Battye, Greg (2014) Photography, Narrative, Time: Imaging our Forensic Imagination- Kindle Edition. Bristol: Intellect

(9) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.

(11) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Gottingen: Steidl MACK (Reviewed o line via a combination of Julian Germain’s web site – http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php and the MACK web site – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/16-For-every-minute-you-are-angry-you-lose-sixty-seconds-of-happiness.html

(13) Fox, Anna (2013) Resort 1″ Butlin’s Bognor Regis. London: Thames and Hudson

(14) Parr, Martin (2008) The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

(17) Koudelka, Josef. (2013) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.

(18) Shore, Stephen. (2014) From Galilee to the Negev . New York: Phaidon Press.

Internet

(6) Foto8. Mark Duden  Interview with Tod Papageorge – http://www.foto8.com/live/tod-papageorge-interview/

(7) Campbell, David. (2010) Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story? – http://www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18/photography-and-narrative/

(7) Campbell, David. Official Website – http://www.david-campbell.org

(7) Soundcloud, recorded by Matt Johnston. David Campbell – Narrative, Power and Responsibility – https://soundcloud.com/mattjohnston/david-campbell

(8) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism – http://www.epuk.org/The-Curve/952/ethics-and-photojournalism

(8) Freedman, Stuart – Stuart Freedman Blog – Examples of Photo Narratives – http://www.stuartfreedman.com/blog/

(9) Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths

(10) Feldman, Allen. (1991) Formations of Violence: the Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sVe1hmsR8J8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=Formations+of+Violence&source=bl&ots=ZNquSTkoCz&sig=pkZCSyUcUrZSG6eUkHpCBwPSljg&hl=en&ei=UTrlTPC8OoaXhQe6j7DADA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

(12) Carnegie Magazine – Carnegie Museums of Pittsburg – W. Eugene Smith and the Pittsburg project. An exhibition curated by Sam Stephenson

(15) Steel-Perkins, Chris. (2011) Tsunami Streetwalk 1 Kesennuma. Magnum Inmotion – http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/tsunami-streetwalk-1-kesennuma 

(16) Gilden, Bruce. (2012) Foreclosures: Las vagas and Reno. Magnum In Motion – http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/foreclosures-las-vegas-reno

 

 

Victor Burgin and Appropriations- Post Assignment 3 Research

Citta S'Angelo Fashion Village - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 800

Fig. 01 Citta S’Angelo Fashion Village – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 800

As part of the feedback on assignment 3, The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins, my tutor suggested I look at the work of Victor Burgin *(1), a British conceptual artist who extensively explored the relationship between the apparent and implicit meaning of images in the 1970s.

In his lengthy paper on the wider subject of Writing with Images, George Dillon *(2) dedicates a chapter to the subject of “Appropriations”, a chapter in which Victor Burgin has a leading role. According to Dillon appropriation is the idea of placing an object or an image in a context with which it is not normally associated intending to unsettle our normal expectations and lines of interpretation. The concept has existed in modern art for at least 100 years and Dillon points to Marcel Duchamp’s famous sculpture, “Fountain” from 1917 , a piece of art created by placing a standard urinal on its side and signing it “R.Mutt 1917”. According to The Tate’s description of their replica of this work *(3), Duchamp chose an ordinary everyday object and placed it into a different context that changed our view of it. He is believed to have said that he had “created a new thought for that object.”

This act and the thought behind it would resonate with many photographers, especially those looking to follow, in some way, in the footsteps of the American colourists. The idea that art is created by providing a different perspective on an ordinary thing is at the heart of the work of a wide spectrum of modern artists in different mediums. Anna Fox at her recent talk to OCA students told us to “record something to give it significance” an idea that has helped me understand the work of many contemporary photographers and something that I see as a driving force behind the work of Shore and Eggelston (and of course Fox herself).

Victor Burgin took the idea of appropriations in a different direction. He is a man of strong political beliefs and has used photography to comment on a wide range of subjects including consumerism, the imbalance of wealth distribution, racism, the role of the male in modern society and unobtainable aspirations. The later being one of the drivers behind The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins. His work in this area falls into two categories, opposites, or perhaps more accurately two sides of the same coin.

Victor-Burgin-Life-Demands-a-little-Give-and-Take-2014-06-15_15-24-30WRIn “Life Demands a Little Give and Take” (1974) Burgin uses a photograph of a bus queue as his base photograph and then adds a text taken from the fashion world.

The text is typical of the way fashion houses describe themselves and their products.

“…… the tones are pale, delicate. These are the classic Mayfair colours. White naturally takes pride of place ……. very much for the pampered lady dressed for a romantic evening with every element pale and perfect.”

Burgin positions text from a fashion magazine alongside a picture of ordinary people at a bus queue with a black women leading out of the text. The point would seem to be that this fashion house does not have this person in mind when they wrote the text, their target market might be a “pale” white women of a certain status and class  who is unlikely to be queuing for a bus in a multi-cultural area.

This idea resonates with me for a number of reasons. Firstly, the thought that developed during the research for Mannequins was that fashion houses’ literature and websites use an unique style of language. It is flowery, pompous, self indulgent, egotistical and often, in their desire to fit all the desired trigger words into the same sentence, verging on unintelligible.

“Exclusive, glamorous, the most precious as goddess’ require” – Versace

“Its iconography was further defined by the bold and dramatic advertising portraying glamorous but strong women.” – Jimmy Chou

“An universe of contradictions and endless collaboration, noble causes and base temptations” – Prada

Beyond the attraction of using their words for satire or irony there is also a sense that the fashionistas live in a protected bubble inside the glitz of Milan, London, New York and Tokyo but a world that is detached from both the reality of their supply chain and the consumers of fast fashion. When they do talk about the environmental and social issues caused by their policies it is often patronising and condescending and with limited reference to how they intend to change those policies. The stance of Stella McCartney that I used in Mannequins is typical.

“We try to use organic fabrics and low impact dyes but we won’t do so unless we can achieve a high quality product” – Stella McCartney unintentionally explaining why only 1% of all the cotton produced in the world is fair trade and organic *(5).

Dillon quotes Jefferson Hunter *(4) as describing Burgin’s work at this point in his career as “smug texts and truth telling pictures” and this appears to be the perfect summary. His work is difficult to track down on line but Dillon tells us that he created many images using pictures of the everyday juxtaposed with language from fashion, property developers and estate agents.

The interesting facet of “Life Demands a Little Give and Take” is that, in isolation, neither the picture nor the text would communicate Burgin’s message; it is only by combining them that the overall image works. Later Burgin was to reverse the formula to create the piece of work that my tutor originally suggested I looked at.

2014-06-15_16-46-53What does possession mean to you? uses a fashion advert-like picture of an embracing couple dressed in white in the centre of a black poster.

Instead of an everyday picture juxtaposed with an unrelated piece of text that, when seen together, provides a meaning Burgin uses a studio style image combined with language that, whilst politically motivated, is suggested by Dillon to be abstract, theoretical, dogmatic and self righteous. This is clearly a complicated issue and as the viewer we can only read the message we think we see or, perhaps, want to see.

Above the picture the artist asks what possession means and below he makes the simple statement that 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth. This is a remarkably clever piece of work on several levels. The models look straight out of a fashion campaign, their style of dress suggests wealth  and their body language might infer possession.

The bottom half of the picture makes a straight political or social comment which is a quote from The Feminist magazine. My reading of the overall images is that an advertising campaign using such a picture would be targeted at the 7%. Possession was created as a poster for the Arts Council to promote an exhibition of contemporary artists in Newcastle and 200 copies were pasted up around the city. There is an intriguing side note in Dillon’s paper about a survey that was carried out at the time to find out how people seeing the poster interpreted the message. It was found that few passersby remembered the poster let alone understood the message. Dillon puts forward the view that this was because the picture and text were so perfectly integrated people saw a fashion poster not a political or artistic statement. Another view might be that this lack of understanding is connected to the context of the image so visitors to an art gallery, expecting there to be an artistic message, would read this poster quite differently from a passerby expecting to see an advertisement.

In these examples Burgin is using diametrically opposed text and pictures to communicate his message which is an approach used by other artists such as Anna Fox in Workstations *(8) where she uses her photographs of office life in the 80s alongside the smug management speak of business literature. I followed Fox’s approach in Mannequins and have, out of interest, tried Burgin’s approach in fig. 01 above.

The two examples of Burgin’s work that I have discussed are part of a larger body of work carried out between 1976 and 1978. When researching “What does possession mean to you?” i found the work of Scott Benzel *(6). He has taken Burgin’s original poster and reversed the reversal by substituting the glamorous couple with a still from a “possession” genre horror film. This “copy” of Burgin’s work is interesting because the message, which as I have already mentioned was not readily understood in its original form, has become more confused in the copy. It depicts a cowering women which works strongly with the “what does possession mean to you?” banner potentially highlighting domestic violence or the perception that women can be owned but I, for one, fail to understand the link with “7% of our population own 84% of our wealth”. It is always informative to see chains of influences that allow the student to trace ideas both backwards and forwards from a single artist and reminds me of my favourite quote from Steal Like and Artist by Austin Kleon *(7).

” Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” – André Gide.

Another example of images out of context being difficult to interpret might be The United Colours of Benneton posters that were used after 1989 when they became the first fashion house to eliminate pictures of their product from their advertising. It strikes me that this campaign might also be in flunked by Burgin. Like “Possession” these were slick, professionally produced advertisements that used photos and text to communicate a message. This could be considered as a different form of appropriation in that Benneton appropriated social and political issues to promote their name and did this in such a sophisticated manner that, Serra Tinic *(9), a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, believes the original issues lost their significance by being transformed into advertised commodities. Ms. Tinic provides a thoughtful analysis, which can be found here, of the issues surrounding Benneton’s United Colors campaign and the mixed reactions it has received  but, there is also a photography subject in play partly because a number of their posters evoke  Burgin’s Possesions.

2014-06-15_18-04-20This poster shows black and white men handcuffed together and is a powerful image taken by the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani *(10).

As well as being a photographer in his own right Toscani is the art director behind the Benneton campaign and according to CNN *(11) the man behind the brand’s rapid rise to prominence.

If we put the appropriation of social issues to one side I could argue that there is no appropriation in the photographic sense of the word because the text and picture are from the same source, an advertising agency and the diversity of the sources seem to be an important aspect of the technique. However, because we approach this poster with the knowledge that Toscani and Benneton make political statements with their posters we read the image as being a political or social statement and “get the message”; without the Benneton logo the image is weakened and its message becomes less clear. I therefore believe that, in effect, there is another form of appropriation in play because as soon as the art director dragged the Benetton logo onto this photograph he changed the meaning of the image by linking it to Benneton’s history of using social political issues.

I am grateful that I was directed towards the work of Victor Burgin, an artist I doubt I would have found without my tutor’s help. He was also a difficult man to research as, despite his status as an artist, a photographer and an educator his work is not easily found on-line. I wanted my assignment 3, The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins, to be considered in the light of my research into Anna Fox’s Workstations but it has been a very useful exercise to also be able to look at what I was trying to do in the context of Victor Burgin’s work.

It has been equally helpful to delve deeper into the subject of reading images and how the idea of bringing text and pictures together can work to make or underline a message.

 

Sources

Books

*(4) Hunter, Jefferson. Image and Word. Harvard University Press, 1989

*(7) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative. New York: Workman Publishing Company

*(8) Fox, Anna (1988) Workstations. Cameraworks

Internet

*(1) The Tate. Victor Burgin. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/victor-burgin-834

*(2) Dillon, George L. (2003) Writing with Images: Toward a Semiotics of the Web http://courses.washington.edu/hypertxt/cgi-bin/book/wordsinimages/appropriations.html

*(3) The Tate. Marcel Duchamp : Fountain. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573

*(5) People Tree. Emma Watson. http://www.peopletree.co.uk/about-us/collaborations/emma-watson

*(6) Human Resources. Scott Benzel: What does possession mean to you? http://humanresourcesla.com/scott-benzel-and-what-does-pos/

*(9) Tinic, Serra A. United Colors and Untied Meanings: Benetton and the Commodification of Social Issues. http://homes.ieu.edu.tr/~ykaptan/MCS570/Serra%20Tinic%20Benetton.pdf

*(10) Toscani, Oliviera. Oliviero Toscani Studio. http://www.olivierotoscanistudio.com/it/biografia.htm

*(11) CNN. Oliviero Toscani: ‘There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality’ http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/08/13/oliviero.toscani/index.html

Assignment 3 Tutor Feedback

Overall Comments

This was one of the strongest and most visually interesting submissions I have seen for this assignment to date ! It was a really interesting themed body of work.

The issues raised in the previous report are as follows:

You are responding very well to the feedback offered in my opinion and methodically address any issues as they are raised. The structure of your assignment submissions are very well organized and should benefit you during assessment.

Feedback on assignment

This assignment specifically looks at the use of colour and different colour use in deliberate relationships. [IE: Complementary / Similar / Contrasting etc]

The assignment works very well from start to finish and not only provides evidence of visual problem solving, but does it in an interesting manner. The work just caught my attention from the outset …. Which is so refreshing ! Not only was the work really visually interesting to look at, but it was clearly grounded in appropriate and relevant research (Anna Fox etc).

“the shop mannequin sees endless activity that passes for human existence” British Film Council

Fig. 03 “the shop mannequin sees endless activity that passes for human existence”
British Film Council

As a series the images work well together – Fig 03 and Fig 14 are really well observed and use both colour and the randomness of reflection to great advantage. The first shot almost has a relationship between the glance of the model to the couple walking by with the pink umbrella … which is a really interesting shot, that also deals with the colour relationship at its heart.

Fig. 14 “unique mix of innovative audacity and legendary Italian quailty” Gucci

Fig. 14 “unique mix of innovative audacity and legendary Italian quailty”
Gucci

Then the use of DoF within Fig 14 was excellent, with so many layers being explored within the plane … the model actually looks like she is moving out through the glass shop front.

Fig. 15 “available in male, female or child sizes and any skin colour” Red Beau Mannequins

Fig. 15 “available in male, female or child sizes and any skin colour”
Red Beau Mannequins

I also liked Fig 15, where the child is almost looking down from the reflected roof top. It looks like both the window contents and the integral reflection have both been carefully considered here in relation to interplay, which I think is why the work is so strong.

In addition to the below, I’d like you to take a look at the work of Victor Burgin  (see follow up work here)…. And in particular his series in the mid 1970’s ‘what does possession mean to you?’ – I think you might be interested in this work in relation to this recent assignment submission. Also take a look at the most recent publication by Jason Evans called NYLPT … which has been created using double exposure.

http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/47-NYLPT.html

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

The blog is really well structured and contains everything you would expect to see from a student studying at this level. It is easy to navigate and has been posted on regularly. Excellent work Steve. 

Suggested reading/viewing

Penn, I.2001:Still Life. London. Thames & Hudson. ISBN-13:978-0500542484 (see follow up work here and here)

Weston, E.1999: Edward Weston (Photographic Study). London. Taschen ISBN-13: 978-3822871805 (here and here)

Pointers for the next assignment

As you are already aware, it is important to continue to read around these practitioners as they will have an ongoing relevance to your studies at this level. In terms of your next assignment, I would suggest looking at the work of both Edward Weston and Irving Penn in specific relation to lighting an object and still life experimentation. [See Suggested Reading] I’m hoping you can also attend some more exhibitions and comment on this within your blog.

My Response

It was obviously pleasing to receive good feedback on assignment 3 and something of a relief as I know that the final submission had drifted away from some aspects of the requirements. There were a number of attributes of these images that I had worked hard to develop and it is especially pleasing that I managed to communicate these ideas to my tutor through the pictures.

Beyond the comments on assignment 3 there are some very helpful pointers to artists who might provide inspiration for assignment 4. Clearly the feedback on my work is very important but at the previous two feedback points my tutor has pointed me in the direction of specific artists or movements that have shaped the next phase of my study.

I will investigate Victor Burgin and Jason Evans in the context of assignment 3, I have taken a brief look at Jason Evan’s book and at the images I can find from Victor Burgin’s “what does possession mean to you?” and it is very clear why my tutor thought I might find these interesting. I suspect that both these works will be quite difficult to track down on line but I sense that it will be worthwhile.

I have searched the normal on-line second hand books shops and have Irving Penn’s “Still Life” and Edward Weston “Photographic Study” winging their way to me. I have also tracked down a collection of Bill Brandt’s photographs following an email conversation with my tutor today.

In addition to these three and for my own satisfaction I also want to finish studying Stephen Shore’s “From Galilee to the Nagrev” which I have had for a couple of weeks now. I am especially interested in seeing how his work has changed and developed since “Uncommon Places”. I was very affected by Austin Kleon’s brilliant little book “Steal Like an Artist” and have taken to heart his point that you need to study your chosen artist sources in depth if you are to reap the full benefit. I feel that this is a very relevant point at this stage when I am embarking on looking at a further three practitioners, I feel it is equally important to keep studying Shore and Parr (who are the two that have given me the most inspiration so far) so the next phase will be about maintaining an appropriate balance between new and established study paths.

My tutor makes a good point about exhibitions, I have only been to one since starting the course and this is clearly a poor effort. I have been invited to the Cecil Beaton exhibition currently taking place in Salisbury and loaded Time Out to my iPad today in an attempt to find some exciting contemporary artist on show in London.

Reading Photographs

 

NK1_1781Reading Photographs, an introduction to the theory and meaning of images (1) is a helpful primer introducing a wide range of subjects from semiotics to ethics. Overall I found it interesting and it stimulated several chains of thought that have helped me identify new paths of research.  It is written for students of photography by Richard Salkeld, a senior lecturer in the History and Theory of Art and Photography at the University of Gloucestershire and needs to be approached in that context. Slakeld presents each subject in the form of a short essay, occasionally accompanied by a case study. Whilst the case studies are usually interesting and often introduced me to the work of practitioners I had not previously known they are accompanied by exam-type questions for the reader that seem out of place in the overall structure of the book. If the subject is in any way contentious or open to debate Slakeld offers both sides of the argument but in doing so without offering us his own opinion the book lacks any critical bite.

The essays that most caught my attention were connected to the question of the degree to which a photograph can be read in isolation of its context. Not surprisingly this is a recurring theme throughout the book.  Initially touching on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the “The Optical Unconscious” which says that our visual knowledge base once comprised of things that we saw in person but the advent of the camera has dramatically increased our number of visual sources and this has created a background of visual memories that we subconsciously take into account when we look at photographs.

Benjamin documented this idea in 1931 at a time when the ordinary person’s life was far less impacted by the visual image than it is today, in fact large numbers of people, even in the UK, would have seen few images outside of a few family photos, religious imagery, advertising or the cinema. In 1931 a comparatively small percentage of a person’s visual memories would have been acquired second hand. Today, in the developed world, we are constantly surrounded by moving and still images and a high percentage of our visual memories are memories of those images, there is an argument that even when we “we were there” the memory of a photograph is often stronger than our direct memory of the actual event or person. We often remember photographs of family and friends rather than recalling a direct visual memory.

Much later in the book Slakeld presents the work of Marc Garanger (2) who was a conscripted French soldier  tasked with photographing Algerian women for their identity cards during the Algerian crisis. He took two thousand photographs in ten days (2). Each women is photographed in a nearly identical manner, full face and upper body, straight on. Garanger later said that he “saw that I could use what I was forced to do, and have the pictures tell the opposite of what the authorities wanted them to tell”  and he has suggested that the pictures speak for themselves but Salkeld asks whether this is really the case. He includes five of these photographs in his book and, with a reasonable amount of general knowledge, it is possible to read some of the clues. The women are not Caucasian, the jewellery on one appears to be North African, none of the expressions are relaxed and there is a tension about them. Ultimately we have read very little from the images.

If we are told that the photographs were taken by a French soldier in Algeria in 1960 we can begin to gain a fuller understanding because we can add previous knowledge to our reading. We bring a wide range of known subjects to the viewing:- colonialism, the relationship between the occupier and the occupied, the relationship between a French soldier and muslim women, the absence of veils in the photographs and add this to what we can see. Quickly our interpretation changes, we see the women’s expressions as one of protest not discomfort, we see suppression and abuse, and as Carole Nagger (2) suggests, they are symbolic of the collision of two civilisations.

The conclusion is clear. We can only read what Garanger wants to say when we are given enough clues to be able to put his photographs into context. Even as a group what they tell us is at best incomplete and, at worst misleading. In the example of the Algerian women we only needed a small amount of information to be able to unlock the meaning of the photographs which speaks to a question asked by Walter Benjamin:

“Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph?”

The importance of the caption is an area that Salkeld does not explore in any depth but it reminded me of Anna Fox‘s idea of of using quotes from business books and magazines as captions for her study of office life in the 1970s, an idea I copied in my assignment 3. The use of a caption can provide enough information, or clues, for the viewer to proceed with interpreting the visual clues contained in the photograph. However, regardless of the hints they provide the photographer cannot control all the elements of context as ultimately “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (3).

We cannot avoid using our prior knowledge when we view a photograph and that knowledge is outside of the photographer’s control but the photographer can sometimes control where we see the photograph and that element of context can significantly impact our interpretation of the image. John Berger says that if we take a photograph of a painting we multiple and fragment the meaning of that picture each time we show the photograph because, by moving it, we are constantly changing the context of the original painting. If a photographer makes a single print and shows that print in a gallery they are controlling its “locational” context. However, as soon as the image is reproduced and shown elsewhere that control is lost and our interpretation increases in subjectivity. I know that where I see an image prejudices my view of it so a news photograph on  the BBC website or on Time Lightbox will tell me that it is true and unadulterated, this, by the way does not make it true or unadulterated because another viewer might distrust one or both of these publishers and take a diametrically opposite view.

Another element of context that is not explored by Salkeld is the importance of the collection or series. Without knowing the answer I wonder whether the idea of a collection is much more important in photography than it is in the other visual arts. Martin Parr is very firm about the need for his pictures to be viewed in the context of the collections he publishes and we understand that the skill of curators is to create and display collections so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I am currently coming to terms with Stephen Shore’s latest book (From Galilee to the Nagrev) and trying to understand how his work has changed, or not, since American Surfaces and Uncommon Places. It has struck me that in “Galilee” there are a number of photos that verge upon being impossible to interpret if viewed completely in isolation, something I did not feel existed in, for example, Uncommon Places. This emphasises the point that, especially in documentary photography, the context of the “rest” of the set is absolutely fundamental to us reading the individual photograph.

This leads to a separate but connected point in that the name of the photographer has a significant impact on how we read an image . Shakespeare tells us that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but I am uncertain whether this is quite so true in the art world. Leading on from my previous point I would suggest that the photographer’s name is less relevant when viewing collections than it is of single image.  Using Stephen Shore as an example again I don’t know how I would read “Tavor River Reserve, January 17, 2010” if it did not have his name on it or I had not seen it in the context of a collection. I cannot find this image on line but it is of a field of fairly featureless long grass taking up 60% of the frame with a pale blue sky. The grassy horizon slopes gently from left to right. It is photo of green emptiness in a flat light that I would not pause to look at if it was taken by the chap next door. Because it is “a” Stephen Shore I have spent quite a bit of time looking at in and interpreting its meaning in its relationship to the other “empty” spaces he has photographed in Israel and the West Bank. This is not to say that we cannot read unknown photographers work but we come at certain photographer’s work knowing something of what they are likely to be saying to us and, dare I say it, with a little awe and an inbuilt tolerance because we assume it must be good and must be meaningful because so and so took it. Being introspective I know that I am more tolerant of a photo that I don’t really like or understand by a photographer that I respect than I am about music. I love the Beatles but some of their tracks are, to me, truly awful. This is probably because we believe we are qualified to judge modern music but, if we don’t understand a famous visual artist’s work it is probably because we think we aren’t clever enough.

A final point might be that our age, race, education, gender, sexuality, faith, politics and nationality, i.e. aspects of our identity that are driven by birth and circumstance have a strong impact on how we read a picture. Marketing and adverting executives understand this better than most and design campaigns to target specific social groups based on these factors (and many more).

The conclusion is that we view a photograph through a lens of complex social factors, knowledge and emotions, where we see the photo, who took it, who published it and in front of that lens we put the filter of semiotics to read the image. It all suggests that the beholder has more influence on the meaning than the photographer.

I’ve enjoyed “Reading Photographs”, it is a primer and needs to be approached with that in mind. It covers a lot of ground at a summarised level but it points the reader in many useful directions for further research and it started me thinking about a number of subjects that I had not previously considered. It is succinct without being superficial, well laid out and because it is essentially a collection of essays it is a book that has longevity on the bookshelf and can act as a first port of call when researching specific subjects within the general area of photographic interpretation.

Sources

Books

(1) Salkeld, Richard. (2014) Reading Photohgraphs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Internet

(2) Time Lightbox. lightbox.time.com/2013/04/23/women-unveiled-marc-garangers-contested-portraits-of-1960s-algeria/#1

(3) The Phrase Finder. www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder.html

Assignment 3 Self Assessment

Fig. 01 Pescara - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 720

Fig. 01 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 720

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills

The choice of subject created a number of technical challenges. Firstly, the project became an exercise in low light photography; it was essential to have as deep DoF as possible to have both the mannequins and the reflections of the street in focus but because I was photographing from the street into shop interiors and through glass covered with reflections, light levels were usually low.

In any situation where low light is an issue there is the option of using a tripod and longer exposures but this has to be weighed against loss of spontaneity and introducing movement blur. Movement blur would not have been a problem in this instance but it was not practical to use a tripod on, often crowded, pavements and spontaneity was essential.

The end result is that a lot of the photographs were taken with a high ISO. I am not particularly concerned about this, many of the set are quite moody and melancholy and any noticeable noise has only added to that.

In summary, at a technical level I feel that I generally rose to these challenges with a few of the images having the desired mix of saturated colours and acceptable noise levels.

The second challenge was compositional. There was a limited choice in viewpoints that enabled me to frame the mannequins, capture reflections and avoid including myself in the frame. This meant that I ran the risk of capturing 16 similar images. There are too many right to left shots and, in this regard, a lack of variety.

Since looking at William Eggelston I have been focussed on improving my observational skills and I believe that a number of these images are based on having seen and captured small details that strengthen the photographs. There is clearly a lot more work needed to refine those skills but I believe assignment 3 is a step forward in this area.

Quality of Outcome

This submission was the end result of, what felt like, a long process. I started looking at the change in the high street being brought about by the opening of large indoor shopping centres resulting in the high street of many towns comprising of small, often immigrant, businesses, charity shops and betting shops. However, when I moved from Basingstoke and Aldershot to look at Guildford the model didn’t hold up because the town is comparatively wealthy and the high street is still full of mainstream fashion names. In effect Guildford High Street is more akin to a large shopping centre than to a high street. This started me thinking about mannequins and how they are created as body shape role models and about fashion in general with its endless new lines that promote cheap “disposable” clothing and waste.

I found the compositional opportunities of the mannequins and reflections and the multiple layers of light visually exciting but wanted a way to set these, hopefully attractive, images against the excesses of a hedonistic and self obsessed industry. Anna Fox’s idea of using relevant quotations from the industry she was critiquing to put her photos in context in Workstations was the perfect answer so, quite late in the day, I adopted that approach.

It is for others to judge whether this has come together to achieve the assessment criteria points but I feel that it has for most of the images. There are still one or two that I am not convinced about and I may yet make some changes. I was interested in Anna Fox’s point that one has to allow enough time between capture, edit and presentation but on the other hand every time I look at the set there is another image that I am not convinced about but I need to move on from this project. She also made a strong point about the role of the curator and I can see how having an independent but skilled review by another person would improve selection.

Demonstration of Creativity

This is the hardest area to self access, I’m not even sure what creativity really is and certainly find it hard to measure. I know that I have had to think deeply on how to complete this assignment, I had to work through several processes and the project demanded experimentation, testing, re-evaluation and re-positioning several times. I believe that it is a step forward for me and a move away from anything I have tried before. My main concern is that a lot of images rely on other people’s creativity such as mannequin artists, photographers and window dressers so how much of me is in there is hard to judge.

Context

The research and reflection required by this course is one of its great benefits. I have enjoyed looking for inspiration, reading to gain understanding, following leads and cross references and writing up my thoughts. Having spent many years in my commercial career writing for specific audiences it is satisfying to be writing for myself both in terms of the pleasure of writing and in building  a record of my thoughts.

 

 

Experimenting With Daylight Flash

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Following my research into Martin Parr and Anna Fox I have been wanted to experiment with daylight flash. I am interested in how it give a three dimensional feel to an image by increasing the brightness of the foreground subject. I believe that Martin Parr also uses the technique to partially take natural light out of the equation which gives the photographer more flexibility to shoot the subject without too much concern over how they are naturally lit.

I have found a full sized flashgun and a diffuser (I use a Nikon SB-910 and a Rogue Flashbender reflector) too cumbersome to use when photographing in the street or in a casual setting. It is such a large rig that it also attracts too much attention. After reading a number of reviews I have purchased a Nikon SB-400 which is a fraction of the size, has head tilt and comes with a small plastic diffuser. This set-up is so small it is quite reasonable to leave it on the camera when out on a shoot and just switching the flashgun on when needed. Unlike the SB-910 the SB-400 has no controls but the amount of flash can be controlled on the camera.

1/125 at f/13, ISO 160

Fig. 01 1/125 at f/13, ISO 160

1/125 at f/11, ISO 110

Fig. 02 1/125 at f/11, ISO 110

In fig. 2 there is a noticeable increase in saturation although it also highlight the problem of including near and medium distance foreground. My grandson is reasonably well lit by the flash, his grandmother is not.

In fig. 1, with a single subject the lighting is far better.

1/125 at f/8, ISO 800

Fig. 03 1/125 at f/8, ISO 800

In fig.3 a different potential problem is highlighted. Because of the comparatively slow shutter speed any significant movement will be blurred. In this particular photo that adds to the picture but that will not always be the case.

1/125 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 04 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 4 is one of the best examples of the technique as it is not obvious that flash has been used but the subject stands out strongly from the background.

1/125 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig. 05 1/125 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig. 5 is the opposite effect with it being quite obvious that flash has been used but it is still effective as all initial attention is focussed on the subject.

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This second set is slightly different. They were all take behind the scenes at Trashion 2014, Sarum Academy’s annual fashion show of clothes made from re-cycled materials. Apart form one supervisor the hairdressers are all students undertaking a BTEC in hairdressing. There was still some natural light in the hairdressing room but, even with flash, I was using high ISOs to get a result.

1/125 at f11, ISO 1,800

Fig. 06 1/125 at f11, ISO 1,800

Fig. 6 is a good example where the foreground subjects stand out very effectively from the background.

1/125 at f11, ISO 1,250

Fig. 07 1/125 at f11, ISO 1,250

I like like the saturated colours and the subject in Fig. 7

Overall I am quite pleased with the results of both shoots, the small flashgun has just enough effect to focus attention on the subject and capture saturated colours but the best results were achieved on the sunny day outside.

 

Assignment 3 The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins

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Background and Influences

The aim of Assignment 3 is to show a command of colour in photography. To show this command we are asked to take a series of pictures that exhibit:

  • harmony through complimentary colours;
  • harmony through similar colours;
  • colour contrast;
  • colour accent.

In addition to this brief I wanted to build a series of pictures that challenged me at a creative and technical level and that felt progressional. It is nearly five months since I finished assignment 2 and, in that time, the main focus has been to start studying the evolution of colour photography from William Eggleston in the USA through to Martin Parr in Britain. I have discussed these influences in a separate post (here) and each of the studied artists is separately discussed elsewhere in this blog. (EgglestonShoreParr – Ray-Jones and Parr). I also researched a group of Magnum photographers to understand how they dealt with reflections and, in some cases mannequins (here).

The study of contemporary colour photography is ongoing with many other paths to explore but I have established a simple list of attributes that stand out for me in the work of Eggleston, Shore, Vergara, Parr, Fox and others and that I want to bring to my work:

  • photography is communication, say something;
  • explore strong, saturated colours;
  • have the freedom to use colour in a bold & uninhibited way;
  • work in sets or series and don’t chase single spectacular images;
  • recognise the photographic potential in the banal and in everyday life;
  • remember that every part of the frame has a part to play in composition;
  • create layers of detail that ask the viewer to pause and look more closely;
  • use depth of field to fill the frame in terms of depth as well as vertically and horizontally.

Beyond these general points I am interested in the specific technique of daylight flash or artificial lighting that are notable features of Martin Parr’s and Anna Fox’s work. It brings an additional layer of depth to an image by creating a distinction of light between foreground and background. My choice of subject matter in assignment 3 did not lend itself to this idea so I am exploring it as a personal project (here) with the view to devleoping it in a later assignment.

Tutor feedback on assignment 2 suggested that I could have focussed on developing the theme of abandonment and decay and I have noted several tutor’s comments on the OCA forum about using assignments to create cohesive sets of photographs. In assignment 2 I put achieving the list of design elements ahead of developing a cohesive series of images and feel the submission was weakened by that decision. In this assignment I have come nearer to putting the images and the cohesion of the set first.

Finally I like the idea that Anna Fox used in Workstations of collecting text and images about a single subject and (only) bringing them together in the final edit. Workstations is a collection of photographs taken in offices in the post industrial era of the Margret Thatcher premiership. Fox is quite clear that the photos are a critique of the Thatcher-influenced society but by using quotations from various sources she simultaneously underlines the message of the picture and adds an element of satire and humour. I have chosen to use this idea in assignment 3 and, without any specific pictures in mind, have collected quotations about fashion and by fashionistas which I have only paired with the photos as I placed them into the final presentation.

Mannequins

The mannequin, in its modern form,  started to appear on the high streets of Paris, London and New York in the 1870s and quickly became an essential part of any window display. They have always been much more than an elaborate coat hanger parading the fashionable clothes of the day, but also mimicking the fashionable body shape of their era and appearing in displays that reflect the en-trend topics of the times.

In their day they have been modelled on royalty, film stars, musicians and fashion models; they have been the target of the same campaigners who helped push the American Government into passing the alcohol prohibition laws; there are museums dedicated to them; they star in novels and films; they are an ever present feature of every high street and shopping centre in the developed world.

The Ultimate Role Model

I became intrigued by mannequins when working on my first test shots for assignment 3; shop windows present us with an illusion based on idealised human forms standing behind distorted reflections of the real world so the reality and illusion become interwoven in complex patterns.

From the street we see layer upon layer with varying intensities of lightthe interior of the shop, the mannequins in the window display, the reflections of the street, the shop fronts opposite, and in this mix of interior and exterior, of reflection and reality, of mannequins and people we have the sharp end of a fashion world that uses fibre glass role models to sell clothing designed for super models.

The high street is the public face of an industry employing nearly 1 million people in Britain and contributing more than £21 billion a year to the UK economy and, at the other end of the supply chain, a trade that represents 80% of Bangladesh’s exports? But, behind beautiful mask there is an ugliness.

  • It is an industry built on waste with this season’s lines inevitably destined for next year’s landfill; sustainability and durability are its enemies; fad, whim, self indulgence and disposability its allies.
  • Fast fashion, the rush to bring cheap copies of catwalk designs to the high street, generates a scramble for ever more cost effective supply chains so the rich buying world exploits the poor supply world driving down costs and consuming depleted resources.
  • Sweat shops abound from Asia to the Americas; children, prized for their nibble needlework, make up a substantial part of a workforce housed in unhealthy, dangerous and often deadly factories.
  • Wages in many parts of the world are so low NGOs talk of slave labour.
  • Badly managed farms, being paid the bare minimum for their crop, consume 2,000 litres of water to produce enough cotton to make one t-shirt. A t-shirt that quite probably will be dyed in a factory that blends toxic chemicals with scarce water supplies before discharging poisonous waste, untreated, and often running denim blue, into rivers and oceans.

Closer to home young people are offered abnormal body shapes as desirable, perhaps even essential, so they pursue the “thigh gaps” and “concave stomachs” of unhealthy fashion models who themselves can be suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia or from substance abuse and alcoholism.

This is the background to my short study of mannequins. In layers of direct and reflected light I set out to capture the cocktail of illusion, fantasy, reality, truth and untruth found in shop windows in every high street. Mannequins mindlessly promote a self obsessed, egotistical and hedonistic industry in denial; a global industry under increasing pressure to address fundamental issues of environment, sustainability, ethics and fair trade on one side of the equation and the physical and mental health of consumers on the other.

The Photographs

Layers are the common thread that link the mannequin series . These can be seen as layers of space or layers of light. For example in fig. 01 there is a “real” layer that includes the mannequins and the shop’s lighting, a two dimensional layer comprised of the photograph of the two models and a reflected layer which appears to be behind the photograph but is, in fact, the nearest layer to the camera. The three layers are presented as a photograph “flattened” into a single two dimensional image.

The three spacial layers often have differing intensities of light within them so there are more layers of light than of space and the relationships and interplay between the layers becomes more complex with similar levels of brightness or tone linking across the spacial layers. The reflections often appear as a backdrop as we sub-consciously decode the layers and place them in logical positions; the mannequins and the photograph are placed in front of the building.

The shop window display presents a world that we know to be an illusion but by consistently associating particular brands or styles with a specific fantasy the fashion industry adds data to, what Walter Benjamin called, our “optical unconscious”. We learn these links between brands and social categories so we know that Ralph Lauren represents the polo set, that gentleman farmers wear brown and green checked shirts, that “Twickenham man” wears a Barbour jacket. Having learnt this code we can dress to tell people how we want them to see us and we can de-code the way a stranger dresses so we know how they wish to be viewed. We don’t assume a person in a Ralph Lauren shirt plays polo with Prince William but we know they want us to see them as a person of style and taste who aspires to drink Pimms at Cowdray Park.

These photographs try to express the complex relationship between society and fashion and between reality and illusion by exploring the layers of space and light in shop windows.

"body attitudes bespeak a visual language that is an integral part of visual merchandising" Marsha Bentley Hale Fig. 1 Pescara - 1/125 @ f/11, ISO 1,600

“body attitudes bespeak a visual language that is an integral part of visual merchandising”
Marsha Bentley Hale

Fig. 01 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 1,600 – Colour Accent 

Headless mannequins are often combined with photographs of models to deliver the marketing message. The classic Italian architecture acts as a projection screen for the models and the yellow jacket stands out as an accent in the foreground. The models and the mannequins form a tight central group whose lack of faces allows the ethereal faces of he models to dominate. The tattoo on his right hand looks suspiciously like Margret Thatcher who would be an unlikely, but intriguing, role model for an Italian model.

"we try to use organic fabrics and low impact dyes but we won't do so unless we can achieve a high quality product" Stella McCartney
“we try to use organic fabrics and low impact dyes but we won’t do so unless we can achieve a high quality product”
Stella McCartney

Fig 02 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 220 – Colour Accent

The faceless mannequins and the plaques on the wall of the white shop front create wide-mouthed silent screams while the the crossed highlights suggest a more angelic interpretation.  The beams of light are the accent. The seemingly broken mirror might offer a punctum. This is one example of a number of this series where I have looked for very subtle tonal variations rather than dramatic, bright colour variations.

"the shop mannequin sees endless activity that passes for human existence" British Film Council
“the shop mannequin sees endless activity that passes for human existence”
British Film Council

Fig. 03 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 10,000 – Colour Accent

A summer clad mannequin watches shoppers huddled under a bright umbrella to escape the rain. The translucent turquoise blouse adds to the mysterious layers in this low light photograph. The bright shop’s lights contrast with the darkening street which is lifted by the splash of colour accent from the umbrella.

"there is a sense of movement, a feeling that someone is there" Tanya Ragir - Mannequin Artist
“there is a sense of movement, a feeling that someone is there”
Tanya Ragir – Mannequin Artist

Fig 04 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 450 – Colour Accent

All of the photographs are about mixing reality and fashion but it was difficult to capture real people in a way that worked with the shop displays. In this picture the two photographs and the young women are neatly positioned so each face looks towards the camera. The photographs provide a ghostly presence over the women. The till to the right might be a punctum.

"at each of the six stages to make a garment the negative impacts on the environment are as numerous as they are varied" Bangalore University
“at each of the six stages to make a garment the negative impacts on the environment are as numerous as they are varied”
Bangalore University

Fig.05 Godalming – 1/125 at f/13, ISO 640 – Colour Contrast

Colour contrast between the blue sky, signs and dresses with the red brick buildings on a perfect spring day, in a perfect Surrey dormitory town where the mannequins and models project the classic Surrey “yummy mummy” look onto the quaint, old, town centre shop fronts. The target market for these type of clothes are almost certainly blissfully oblivious of how cotton dresses are produced. As a photograph this is one of a few where the angles, lines and perspective create a sense of movement so we could be passing Godalming on a train. The small figure top right seems to be perched on a window sill looking down on us.

"black is modest and arrogant at the same time, it says I don't bother you - don't bother me" Yohiji Yamamoto
“black is modest and arrogant at the same time, it says I don’t bother you – don’t bother me”
Yohiji Yamamoto

Fig. 06 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 6,400 – Colour Contrast

Contrast is between the muted greys, greens and blacks with the bright strip of yellow light from the shop’s interior on a wet day in Pescara. Warm colours dominate the centre and contrast with the many cool colours and tones in the rest of the image. . The perfect mannequins dressed with elegant style in summer dresses contrast the woman wrapped up against the unseasonal spring rain. In addition to the contrasts there is a strong sense of left to right movement created by the perspective and the lines and the women’s direction of travel.

"you know she has been touched by human hand and interpreted by human feelings" Cyril Peck - Mannequin Artist
“you know she has been touched by human hand and interpreted by human feelings”
Cyril Peck – Mannequin Artist

Fig. 07 Guildford – 1/125 at f/8, ISO 1,100 – Colour Contrast

One of the simplest pictures with only a hint of reflection. Blue, pick and yellows are all strongly contrasting. The psychology  of window displays is complex and could be a study in its own right. There are complete mannequins, headless mannequins limbless mannequins, mannequins set in the context of photographs of models, faces with personality, featureless faces and everything in between. Most designers seem to be de-personlising their models yet every now and again there are “human” touches like these two mannequins holding each other’s stylised hands.

"a cosmos of heavenly bodies set in a complex orbit" Prada
“a cosmos of heavenly bodies set in a complex orbit”
Prada

Fig . 08 Citta S’Angelo – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 560 – Colour Contrast

The very bright sunlight has helped create an ethereal scene where it is difficult to distinguish between mannequins and humans and to de-cipher the various layers. The main contrast is between blue and orange but the violet/purple is so strong it creates tension with all the other colours. I think this adds to the other-world feeling. The punctum for me is the silhouette of the boy on his scooter under the eye of the taller silhouette who might be human or mannequin.

"only in an imaginary world can the unexpected and irrational intertwine with spontaneity and naturalness" Dolce and Gabbana
“only in an imaginary world can the unexpected and irrational intertwine with spontaneity and naturalness”
Dolce and Gabbana

Fig. 09 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 800 – Complimentary Colours

The greens to the left blend into the reds on the right in a gentle way so the combination of the elderly couple, the empty road, the angle of the photographed model and the two mannequins create a relaxed, Sunday morning (it wasn’t) feel to the composition. This particular shop had large plate glass windows providing sharp reflections and I picked this one partly because of the human couple and partly because everything seems to fit so perfectly together. A “comfort food” sort of photograph.

"avoid the masculinity problem by producing mannequins that are abstract or even completely headless" The Mannequin Mystique
“avoid the masculinity problem by producing mannequins that are abstract or even completely headless”
The Mannequin Mystique

Fig. 10 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 10,000 – Complimentary Colours

It was important to me to explore less obvious colours and this is one of a small number of my selected images that are predominantly monochrome. I was looking for tonal relationships away from yellow/blue or green/red and this shot is about these subtleties. The harmony is between the greys and brown/oranges. The composition has a lot of the features I was seeking; the bicycle, the people with umbrellas and the suited mannequin are all in stark contrast with the seemingly incongruous matching bag and shoes.

"they must convey idealised images of ourselves, what we aspire to rather than what we are" Fashion Institute of Technology
“they must convey idealised images of ourselves, what we aspire to rather than what we are”
Fashion Institute of Technology

Fig. 11 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 450 – Complimentary Colours

For many years the fashion industry has identified minority sports that few shoppers can or even want to engage in but the private school exclusivity of polo, sailing, rugby and rowing make them attractive as statements of good taste or breeding or manliness. The pale greens and pinks work well together and the interior and exterior combine to create lines of movement from the background into the foreground which seems to work especially well with the sporting theme. The punctum for me is “oars 21% off” – who wants oars and, if they did why would they buy them from a fashion boutique? why 21% not 20% ?.

"able to claim a unique duality in its brand positioning pairing modernity and heritage" Gucci
“able to claim a unique duality in its brand positioning pairing modernity and heritage”
Gucci

Fig. 12 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 500 – Complimentary Colours

One of my favourites. with the Modigliani head positioned between the gold clock and the Body Shop sign staring, with no little attitude, into the far distance. The complimentary colours are the red/orange bricks and the blue sky but they are really just a background to the white model in the black dress which are equally complimentary. After all the headless mannequins and the ones with featureless faces this one is creatively sculptured. As often is the case there is also a sense of movement created by the camera angle and the receding perspective.

"androgyny and ethnic diversity rule the creative landscape" Rootstien - Mannequin Manufacturer
“androgyny and ethnic diversity rule the creative landscape”
Rootstien – Mannequin Manufacturer

Fig. 13 Guildford –  1/125 at f/11, ISO 1,100 – Similar Colours

This photographs is in yellow to brown tones and is representative of a common window display where the monochrome and severe lines of thin mannequin are softened by the warm colours of the photographed models. The yellow tape on the scaffolding creates interesting highlights.

"unique mix of innovative audacity and legendary Italian quailty" Gucci
“unique mix of innovative audacity and legendary Italian quailty”
Gucci

Fig. 14 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 450 – Similar Colours

I used shop mirrors in a lot of photographs but this was the one that worked the best. The reflection of the piazza is mysterious to the right and left but with window-like clarity in the mirror which also increases our view of the mannequin. The position of the head, just on the skyline, was important to allow her lips to become a focal point. I like the way the street lamp on the right seems large enough to be a large tower. I find a lot of the interest in many of these images is the way in which the reflections can distort scale and shapes which helps my objective of asking viewers to linger and study the image.

"available in male, female or child sizes and any skin colour" Red Beau Mannequins
“available in male, female or child sizes and any skin colour”
Red Beau Mannequins

Fig. 15 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 320 – Similar Colours

All the colours are from the quadrant of pink through to yellow and are therefore harmonious. I wanted the photo of the child to tower over the two mannequins which might have been selected to offer ethnic diversity. The old houses opposite create a neutral backdrop.

"models are there to look like mannequins not real people" Grace Jones
“models are there to look like mannequins not real people”
Grace Jones

Fig. 16 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 11,000 – Similar Colours

This nearly monochrome image works very well for me. If it is possible to have multiple punctums  there could be two here with the group sitting at the street cafe to the left and the ice cream tricycle to the right and the way that both are framed by the model. I very consciously framed the model to exclude her face as I wanted to reduce her human presence to reflect the idea that a large black and white photograph is probably the cheapest mannequin you can buy so her role is as a mannequin not a woman.

Photography Notes

The subject matter and my approach posed a number of technical challenges. It was essential to use deep DoF to bring out the detail in all the available layers and typically I was photographing from a light place into a dark place through glass and reflections. On the rare occasions when there was a little more light, I under-exposed by 1/3 of a stop to help saturate the colours. The combined result was an exercise in low light photography and I was regularly using high ISOs to get the result I wanted. This doesn’t over-concern me as the images still work at 10 x 8 and whilst a few are grainy this might increase the mystery of the layers. I have post processed to maximise contrast and saturation either by using curves in Photoshop or pro-contrast in Color Efex Pro 4, but I didn’t want the images to look “over-processed” and hope my changes were within the realms of a “light touch”.

I looked at photos of reflections taken by Magnum photographers (here) and this taught me a lot about angles and on how to photograph through glass. I had no wish to include myself in any pictures so straight on (90 degrees) was usually a poor option, 45 degrees or less worked well but very few shots were successful when the “real” street as opposed to the “reflected” street came into the frame. Framing was often quite time consuming as I had to train my eyes to see all the layers at once and frame to combine the shop interiors and the exteriors effectively.

The best results were on days when it was bright enough to have a reasonable difference in the strength of light between the sunnier and shadier sides of the street. The best reflections were obviously achieved looking at the reflections of the sunny side in windows of the shady side. However, on one shoot in Italy the sun was so bright the contrast became too great and very few of the pictures worked (fig. 08 above is one of the few that I think did). Some of best layering effects came when the day was dull and the shop lights started to play a role. I undertook one shoot in an indoor shopping centre in Pescara Nord but there tended to be brighter lights in the shop windows than in the aisles and the reflections were minimal.

I have strayed some distance from the brief both in terms of not varying the subject matter, not creating movement diagrams and not using filters. In my opinion none of these ideas would have added value to what I was trying to achieve but I look forward to hearing my tutor’s views on the matter.

Links to Blog Posts for the Development of Assignment 3

Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr

Developing Assignment 3

Evolving Assignment 3 – Mannequins

Researching Assignment 3 – Practitioners

Test Shots and More Thoughts for Assignment 3

Steal Like an Artist

Assignment 3 Contact Sheets

Sources

Photographer sources are detailed under each of the blog posts listed above. The following are a list of internet sources that I researched to provide background to the text.

Academia.edu – Fashion Industry and Media Today: The Negative Impact on Society by Ali Malik Al-Azzawi – www.academia.edu/1172572/Fashion_Industry_and_Media_Today_The_Negative_Impact_on_Society

The Daily Record – Damaging effect catwalk models are having on young women – www.dailyrecord.co.uk/lifestyle/fashion-beauty/damaging-effect-catwalk-models-having-1729385

Greenpeace International – Dirty Laundry: Unravelling the corporate connections to toxic water pollution in China – www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/reports/dirty-laundry/

Ecologist – Fashion’s Impact on the Earth by Safia Minney – www.theecologist.org/green_green_living/clothing/1055961/safia_minney_fashions_impact_on_the_earth.html

Mannequin Madness – The Mannequin Mystique by Emily and Per Ola dAulaire – mannequinmadness.wordpress.com/the-history-of-mannequin/

Not Just a Label – The Slow Fashion Movement: reversing environmental damage by Maureen Dickson, Carlotta Cataldi & Crystal Grover – www.notjustalabel.com/editorial/the_slow_fashion_movement

The Guardian – Britain’s rag trade revival – www.theguardian.com/fashion/2014/feb/15/britains-rag-trade-revival-marks-and-spencer

The Guardian – Britain’s fashion industry now worth nearly £21bn a year, report reveals by Imogen Fox – www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/sep/15/british-fashion-industry-report-business

The Guardian – To Die For: Is fashion wearing out the World? by Lucy Siegle – book review – www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/12/to-die-for-lucy-siegle-review

Unicef – Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse – www.unicef.org/protection/57929_55452.html