Tag Archives: Banal

Jaochim Brohm – Typology 1979

Fig. 1 Typology for Assignment 5 – Double Page Spread

I was drawn to Joachim Brohm’s Typology 1979 *(1) for two reasons.

Typologies

Firstly, as part of assignment 5 I wanted to have at least one page that showed cottages in a village that existed in my time and at the time of the old Surrey labourer that was part of the story. I therefore wanted to look at some different photographic typologies to see whether there were approaches that worked better than others. My first thought was to look at Bernd and Hilla Becher *(2) who started creating grids of black and white photographs of industrial structures in the 1960s. These are methodical and highly detailed records of 19th century constructions taken head on from similar distances against flat grey skies and have become much sought after art prints. Their original intent was to capture these structures as reference material for Bernd’s paintings but, in doing so, they created a photographic archive of buildings that were destined for demolition as industrial processes advanced and changed and a photographic style that has been much copied. For reasons best known to the art critics of the time they were initially considered to be conceptual sculptures rather than photographs but Gerry Badger neatly links their work to the boards used by lepidopterists to pin collections of butterflies to allow comparison *(3). The Becher’s philosophy has been to find a subject and pursue it obsessively for your whole career.

Slightly aside from the purpose of this review I was intrigued that the Becher’s work had two connections with Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh. The first link, as mentioned above is that the Bechers like Billingham were taking photos as “models” for their paintings, the second link comes from the comments made by Gerry Badger on page 217 of The Genius of Photography. Badger records that the way that the Bechers displayed their work as wall-sized prints had art critics “drooling about seriality, presentational rigour, minimalism, comparative typologies and other art-speak words.” He believes that this diverted attention from the real intent of these photographs which was more about seeing the beauty in these structures and creating architectural photographs with, what he calls, “head on austerity”. The link being that the art world saw something in these photographs that the artist had not necessarily intended to include.

Other than being German there are no specific connections between Joachim Brohm and the Bechers although the timing of Typology 1979 suggest some level of influence. The Bechers were running the Dusseldorf School of Art while Brohm was studying at the Wolkwang University of Art in Essen. Looking at the broad spectrum of his work one might assume that he has been more influenced by Stephen Shore, especially, Lee Friedlander and William Eggeleston more than by the Bechers. In an interview with ASX *(4) he explains that, in the 70s there were few outlets for artistic photography in Germany and he became orientated towards American practitioners and finished his formal education at the City of Columbus, Ohio.

Typologies 1979 is a recent publication of his student work. When asked why he has waited so long to publish his early work he suggests that the world, or perhaps just Germany, wasn’t ready to look at it and that German photography was dominated by the Dusseldorf, and by inference the Becher, School. It is therefore interesting that one of the pieces of his early work that he has chosen to publish thirty years after it was completed, is a typology. It is in colour rather than black and white and the other obvious difference from the Becher’s work is the variety of compositions, angles and viewpoints that he uses, it is less rigourous. However, one clear similarity is the choice of working under pale grey skies.

Allotments

The second attraction to Brohm’s Typology 1979 is the subject matter. There is an element of the banal in systematically documenting the structures that people build on German allotments but I was more interested in the culture that they represent. I have worked extensively in Frankfurt and a number of other German cities and was always drawn to the fringes of the cities where the allotments are found. Very unlike British allotments, that always have a “Dig for Victory” feel about them with their compost heaps and rows of vegetables, a German allotment is like a detached garden, a place that the family can visit for the evening or weekend to escape their apartment in the city centre. They are more personal and varied that our remote vegetable plots and most include structures intended for socialising and relaxing rather than for just storing a fork and spade.

Brohm set out to document the allotment structures of one city, Essen, and, like the Bechers he approached the assignment in architectural terms. There are traces of people but no people appear in the photographs. The buildings are small but are strong personal statements, some are austere, some colourful, some brick, some wood and all nondescript in the context of the city’s architectural heritage. I cannot pretend to know what people travel to Essen to see but it’s not the allotment buildings.

Frankfurt, an otherwise pleasant city, lacked places to eat or drink outdoors and when the weather was hot and humid I was always envious of the German families enjoying a cool drink on the verandas of their little houses overlooking a tiny lawn and neat flower beds. It always struck me that there is something very specifically German about both the allotments and the structures in them and how the close proximity of one summer house to the next appeared un-noticed, the skill of city dwellers to edit out the presence of others.

The Photographs

Having looked at Brohm’s more recent work on line I see a very direct relationship with the work of Stephen Shore. There is a same era feel to both the subject matter and the prints. A certain pale, desaturated look reminiscent of slightly faded prints. If anything, Shore’s work is a little more saturated than Brohm’s but the similarities are there. There is a more subtle relationship with the American colourists, Brohm is interested in marginal places “with all their seeming lack of significance” *(5) an idea that is at the heart of Shore’s Uncommon Places. Typology was obviously completed at an early stage of his career but it is unquestionably about marginal places. In the traditions of the banal movement and the American colourists this study brings importance and significance to a marginal or unnoticed subject.

The book is collection of square prints, each little building is placed in the context of its allotment so we do not have the austere representation of the Bechers. For this project it is a valid decision as we are being shown significant variations on a theme so an identical approach to composition would have told us less that the varied angles arising from placing the buildings in context. As mentioned previously the whole set were taken under grey skies which provides a diffused lighting lacking in contrast, they are also taken in late autumn or early winter so the trees provide a dark, often black, natural frame to many of the buildings. In some of the photos the path across the allotment is used as a compositional device to lead us to the structure.

There is no sense of trespass, no physical invasion of private spaces, the little houses were probably all photographed from outside their gardens and fences are often included as if to make this point. These are private and personal spaces and the photographer has not become intimate with the detail of their structure, we see them as a passerby, a stranger looking over the garden fence. It is interesting that the photographer chose to carryout this study at a time of year when the houses are generally deserted, this choice allows us to see the buildings with no distractions, no colourful flowers or lush foliage but it also makes the allotments look sad and neglected, lonely, drab places on the margins of the city. Only the occasional toy left on the frosted grass hints at these buildings being enjoyed by families. My own experience in Frankfurt is that these are vibrant, joyous places in mid-summer, children playing on the lawns, adults drinking beer in the shade, barbecue smoke drifting on the sultry evening air so the dilapidated feel of so many of these photographs is a slightly misleading picture, an example of the truth not being the truth.

Part of the value of this type of documentary, in the true sense of the word, is that it imparts, records and stores information that we would not otherwise have. One might argue that it shouldn’t matter whether that information is interesting and, interest, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but ignoring my prior knowledge of these structures or my desire to learn something from Brohm’s style I found these photographs compelling. Once again it underlines the importance of working in series because the interest lies in the variety of these structures, the comparisons, the typology. Bohmn shows that the residents of Essen have taken their inspiration from a glorious range of architectural styles, we have ginger bread house, minimalist white box, romantic plantation house, pure garden shed, blue and white Greek Café, suburban bungalow, log cabin, Scandinavian chalet,  ramshackle stable and many more. The colours are uninhibited and bold, Farrow and Ball would have had little success in 1970’s Essen.

This might be a love it or hate it book. It asks the viewer to take time to understand the subject and his approach. Compared with his more recent work it is understandably raw and a little less sophisticated and, I suspect, less generally appealing but it is a book firmly within the banal tradition addressing a ordinary subject that is, in itself, unique and that provides an insight into an aspect of German culture. The simple design, one square print per spread, works well with the subject matter and the introduction by Ulf Erdmann Ziegler provides helpful background to the project and the history of “Schrebergartens”.

Inspiration and Assignment 5

Typology 1979 has been less directly useful in bringing assignment 5 together than I had hoped but the process of looking at typology and the work of the Bechers and Brohm was useful. The way that the Bechers presented their work has helped with deciding on my typology page layout and Bohm has shown me that it is possible to move away from black and white, austerity and rigour and still compile a typology.

Looking at Bohm, going back to Shore, and recently visiting Russell Squires’ D-Day Landings exhibition has left me with a unresolved question on how to deal with colour. I have touched on the subject before and no doubt will again. I cannot decide whether my colour work is generally, or always, too saturated and contrasted or whether it a simple matter of style but there is no doubt that many contemporary photographers present, what to me, is low contrast and desaturated work, many appear to only work in flat light on cloudy days. This in itself is certainly not an issue and a difference in stylistic approach is understandable but my predicament is that I respond positively to this approach in the work of others but never feel comfortable when I process my own work in that manner.

For the sake of completeness I have included the draft versions of my cottage typologies for assignment 5. My main concern is a lack of consistency in terms of light which is somewhat inevitable when the photographs are collected over an extended period of time. Initially I considered using the Becher front-on and consistent compositional approach by having discovered Brohm and liked his work I decided that this was an unnecessary and potentially counter productive approach given my subject. I am also looking for one more image as the photo that I have placed bottom right on typology 2 seems out of scale and therefore not a good fit. The building, now a scout hut and once a temperance hall has some relevance to the narrative so I would prefer to photograph it again from a different angle.

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Sources

Books

(1) Brohm, Joachim. (2014) Typology 1979. First Edition Published by MACK. Mack Books (a small selection of the plates can be seen at http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1028-Typology-1979.html)

(3) Badger, Gerry. (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited.

Internet

The Telegraph. (2013) Joachim Brohm Q & A. The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/9949287/Joachim-Brohm-QandA.html

(2) Museum of Modern Art. (2008) Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape Typology. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Review – http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/95

(4) American Suburb X (2013) Interview with Joachim Brohm – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/03/interview-joachim-brohm-asx-interviews-joachim-brohm-2013.html

(5) CPH Mag (2013) A Conversation with Joachim Brohm – http://cphmag.com/a-conversation-with-joachim-brohm/

(6) Squires, Russell (2014) D-Day Landings Exhibition – http://russellsquires.co.uk/d-day-landings/

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Stephen Shore Uncommon Places

DSC_7282Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore *(1), considered to be one of the most important American photo books, is a diary. The pages of the diary have fallen out and been put back together out of sequence but it is still a diary, a journal in the tradition of the Victorians like Edward Lear who wrote, sketched and painted as he travelled through Italy, Albania and Greece in the 1850’s or of Shore’s fellow American Robert Frank who toured America one hundred years later camera in hand. Each of these men documented a place in time with a forensic eye for detail and no little skill and in the perfect medium for their time.

Lear worked in watercolours which Wilcox and Newall * (2), in Victorian Landscape Watercolours, tell us was considered in the 1800’s to be “a new art” and one that rose to its zenith in the middle of that century when Lear was complaining about poor roads and dirty villages in Southern Italy whilst creating a collection of landscapes that documented the region.

Robert Frank’s work is black and white photographs, considered in the 1950s, and for many years before and after, to be the only possible medium for art photography, and then we have Shore who was one of a small group of American photographers who worked in colour and who made that medium acceptable and then acclaimed.

I believe that this link is key to understanding the work of these documentarists. Each wanted to communicate something they saw as important about the places they visited and the people they found there. If you wish to communicate something it is only sensible to use a language that can describe your subject and that be heard and understood. Each man selected the medium of his time that best allowed them to describe their subject. The difference is that Lear and Frank rode the crest of the wave of their chosen art form whereas Shore was part of the formation of the wave of “New Colour”.

Uncommon Places has been published twice, an original in 1982 which comprised 49 plates and an updated version in 2004 which included around 100 more photographs. This has now been reprinted many times, my copy being the 2013 reprint. Uncommon Places is seen as one of the most important photograph books of modern times and my own research shows that this book and William Eggleston’s The Guide are two of the most quoted and reviewed books in the world of photography. Given its status I wanted to understand, as far as possible, what Shore was trying to achieve when he embarked on his road-trips between 1973 and 1979 so I have spent time finding interviews with the artist in both written and video form so that I started to look closely at Shore’s work with his own thoughts and statements as my guide.

DSC_7284There is, of course, a technical aspect to Uncommon Places which is much discussed and much copied. Shore’s choice of camera was a 8×10 view camera which can been seen in a number of films of him at work *(3). This camera can only be used with a tripod and focussing is carried out on a ground glass backplate. Once the film is inserted the image can not longer be seen so Shore stands to one side of his camera, cable release in hand and waits.

Having worked for a number of years with a medium format Bronica, which could be used hand-held but was far more effective on a tripod, I know that a large camera guides you towards a slow, measured and thoughtful approach to subject selection and composition and, because the tripod enables long shutter speeds, there is the opportunity to use deep depths of field. Shore realised all these things before he started using the 8 x 10 but more importantly he recognised that this allowed him a greater level of compositional freedom than he had known with a handheld camera. In his interviews he repeatedly uses the word “detail” and this is part of the key to his work. He saw that, by having such a wide DoF, he could compose his images with great depth and include detail right to the horizon, as an analytical man he became intrigued with the structure of his images and “how deep space in a picture relates to a picture plane”. * (4)

This depth is one of the first things that stands out in his landscapes and it is not just about DoF and sharp focus from near to far, it is more to do with the fact that the images are often full of detail deep into the picture and that he is composing the background right into the depths of the frame. The huge 8 x 10 negative means that he has precise clarity for this detail when he prints and this means the comparatively small prints that he often displayed overflow with information.

There are many examples in Uncommon Places of these trademarks of his style, the depth of the image in the frame, the immense amount of information that draws us in, and the careful, precise, positioning of every element; in U.S 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, 1973  the telegraph poles disappear so far away from the viewer it is difficult to say precisely when they are still there and when they have gone, the clouds lead us to a vanishing point somewhere behind the billboard and the horizon is fringed with mountains upon which the trees might be counted. Main Street, Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, 1974 is a very different type of photograph, a small urban scene, but like South of Klamath even the more distant objects are carefully positioned and you can sense that he took a step to his right to position the blue building so precisely between the telegraph poles, Gull Lake is also an example of the type of detail that connects with viewer and calls for a second, third and forth look to see the cowboy boot on the Coca Cola sign which in itself is missing several letters, the two street lamps with red shades outside the little white store at the end of the street and is “Wal Wal” really “Wall to Wall” and is it a carpet shop?

This extreme level of detail and Shore’s tendency to exhibit his work with comparatively small prints reveals yet more of his analytical nature. He knew that the 8 x 10 negatives, even when masked in camera to allow him to take two 4 x 10 pictures on one negative, would allow him to produce large prints without any significant loss of quality but he also saw that a large print allowed a viewer to casually look and move on, thereby missing whole tranches of information * (5).  A smaller print, however, demanded close inspection and once we start to look closely at a Shore print we look even more closely and then we reach for our reading glasses and look again. I found myself using a magnifying loupe to investigate the depths of his compositions.

DSC_7264

There is another aspect of detail that makes Shore unusual today and made him stand-out from all but a tiny few in the 70s. His all-in-focus pictures using all the available detail of the 8 x 10 negative allowed him to offer everything and nothing as the subject. In American Beauty * (3) he says ” recording in extraordinary detail allows me to see things but not make them the whole point of the picture.” This idea, of what he calls a “state of hyperawareness” make his pictures a more complete view of a scene than we could have had by being there. He captures everything in a split second but it takes us far, far longer to explore the scene via his image and often, there is no one subject, no item sitting at a “rule of thirds” intersection that explains the composition and I do not believe that he wants us to ask what is the subject? of say “Speedway Boulevard, Tuscan, Arizona, 1976” is it the cars? is it the Mazda sign? is it the road? because it is all of these and the lamp posts and the palm trees and the road signs and … The point is made; he presents a complete and complex view, left to right, top to bottom, front to back that in totality describes Speedway Boulevard.

Stephen Shore embraced colour in much the same way as William Eggleston, he saw the world in colour and documents places that might be described as “dull” using a technicolor palette. He rejects the idea that the colours in his photographs are nostalgic * (4) and the re-print of Uncommon Places supports this position. Plate after plate glows with saturated colours. He choses to photograph people in bright clothes against muted backgrounds so the subject leaps out such as in “Main Street, Fort Worth, Texas, June 17, 1976”, or in “Ginger Shore, Miami, Florida, November 12, 1977”. He revels in the colours of vehicles whether in close- up or as part of his landscapes and when there is little colour contrast he offers beautiful tonal variations as in his photo of the Yankees at West Palm Beach, Florida, March 14, 1978. Colour is never incidental it is front and centre in his compositions.

Having highlighted the depth of his pictures, the detail and the colour there is one further element that  brings everything together and that element is structure. Shore is a scholar, a thinker, an analyst and as much a scientist in temperament as he is an artist. His photographs therefore have many levels, some apparent to the casual viewer and some that are less obvious and this is where I found his words an important guide to his work. Shore tells us that he spent a lot of time exploring the structures of photography and how to organise space in a picture * (3) and it is clear that Uncommon Places, a celebration of colour, a documentary journey across America and a detailed record of what he saw is also part of this exploration of structure. The organisation of space, the careful balance of large blocks of tone and the lines that he uses to direct our view are examples of his desire to show that “structure is not a visual nicety simply over laid on the world but is way of understanding the world.”

Because compositional structure is so important in his images one can select nearly any of the plates in Uncommon Places as an example to prove this point but I am selecting “Miami Beach, Florida, November 13, 1977” as my example because, at first glance, it does not conform to Shore’s other landscapes. This is a picture of a woman sunbathing under a tree on a quiet, nearly empty beach; it is constructed around four large shapes, the road and wall being one, the beach, the sea and, lastly, the pale, blue sky. Each of the four is nearly an empty space but each space is broken by small but relevant points of interest, the rocks in the wall, the trees, two people, huts and shadows on the beach, the ship and the waves and a band of clouds on the horizon. Overall the frame is divided with restful horizontals that match the relaxing scene and diagonals that run both left to right and front to back to create some tension. The position of the huts and trees are balanced and carefully related to each other and the ship sits perfectly both on the horizon and between two trees. The woman is off centre and could be the natural starting point but the lines move us left, then right and at each pass we see a little more, now there are waste bins on the beach, there is another set of tyre tracks we didn’t see the first time until eventually he has led us around this scene and we have seen everything and feel we have an understanding of that afternoon in Florida.

DSC_7297

Shore compositions are painstakingly precise, many are symmetrical with buildings carefully centralised and related to parallel horizontals and verticals. Roads, which are a recurring theme, often cross from bottom left to top right or visa versa, human subjects are mostly centred, and diagonals regularly link with other diagonals at 45 or 90 degrees. His high structure is in stark contrast with his mundane subjects. Shore wanted to photograph the parts of America that were not news, document the heart of his country with forensic accuracy, record the backdrop, the ordinary scenery of the nation whilst most eyes were on New York or Washington, Vietnam or the cold war that was all in the centre of the stage.

Not being an American my emotions are not those of nostalgia when I look through Uncommon Places but my responses are emotional, I love the saturated colours in the sunshine, the voyeuristic insight into a place I can never visit, the ugly middle American architecture of gas stations and car dealerships set against the distant majesty of mountains and arid desserts, the gas guzzling pick up trucks and flat, wallowing, limos stuck in traffic jams.

At its heart Uncommon Places is a dairy but it is a diary about everything that is ordinary and unremarkable about middle America, it is about ordinary people and ordinary places captured in an extraordinary way.

Sources

Books

* (1) Shore, Stephen. (2004) Uncommon Places: The Complete Works: 2013 reprint, London, Thames and Hudson.

* (2) Wilcox, Scott & Newall, Christopher, (1992) Victorian Landscape Watercolours, New York, Hudson Hills.

Internet

Kimmelman, Michael, (2007) Biographical Landscape: Passing Mile Markers, Snapping Pictures, New York, The New York Times. www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2005.100.498

Hodgson, Francis, (2013) Stephen Shore: Something and Nothing, Sprüth Magers, London – Review, London, The Financial Times. www.ft.com/cms/s/2/42423636-5b42-11e3-848e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2tKC0Qo47

* (4) Jiang, Rong. (2007) The Apparent is the Bridge to the Real: Interview with Stephen Shore, New York, ICP. www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/interview-stephen-shore-the-apparent-is-the-bridge-to-the-real-2007.html

National Gallery of Art, (2009) Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, the National Gallery if Art. www.nga.gov/exhibitions/frankinfo.shtm

Welling, James, (2010) James Welling puts five questions to Stephen Shore, Blouin Art Info International. www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/33591/james-welling-puts-five-questions-to-stephen-shore/

Edvardsen, Simen, (2012) Uncommon Places, on the Road, The Photobook Club. photobookclub.org/index.php/2012/02/10/simen-edvardsen-uncommon-places-on-the-road/

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections

Films

* (5) Stephen Shore Uncommon Places, (2012?) Spike Productions interview with Stephen Shore. vimeo.com/32562146

* (3) Stephen Shore American Beauty, (2009) Joy of Giving Something Inc. Directed by Donna Golden. www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRM2X1GnNSQ#t=318

Banal and the Topographical Movement

This post is continuing the process of reacting to the comments made by my tutor is his feedback on Assignment 1. He said:

“… I’ll also try to get you to accept the banal and bland as we venture further down the line with this module !  I don’t necessarily expect you to like it, but I’ll need you to know about it and who was involved and why they have approached image making in such a manner etc.”

This was an intriguing comment calling for early investigation as I had not heard of “the banal and bland”  in the context of photography. Little did I realise that this comment would lead me into hours of on-line reading and the introduction to many contemporary photographers whose work I had not seen before. In fact the topic is so large that I have only started to skim the surface both in terms of the people involved and their work. My tutor said that he didn’t necessarily expect me to like it and after about three weeks of intermittent study I can safely say that I do and I don’t but I might have begun to understand some of it.

The more I researched the topic the more photographers names I noted down. Looking for some of their work often led me to other photographers, essays and exhibition reviews which led to more photographers and so forth. After a while I realised that I had to narrow down the research if my aim was to write an essay not a book.

Until the 1960’s the art world mostly had photography placed in a neat box. First and foremost “photographic art” was expected to be presented as black and white prints and those prints would typically display the attributes most closely associated with the medium. Steven Skopik, in his lecture to the National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 (*1), calls this “hyper-availability” and defines these attributes as deep depth of field and luscious and unrealistic exaggerated tonal range which could only be achieved by difficult-to-master large format cameras and complicated dark room processes. Seeing what was to follow I would add to this list that much of this work also conformed to compositional rules inherited from the wider art world.

At some point in the 60s a number of American photographers began to question whether there was another path. In his Hasselblad Award essay in 1998, Thomas Weski (*2b) tells the story of William Eggleston’s visit to a an industrial photofinishing laboratory where he watched an endless stream of amateur photos being processed and printed by machines. This was to be his Damascus Road experience and led to a radical shift in his style from being a disciple of Henri Cartier-Bresson to becoming a pathfinder in the world of colour photography. But this new style was more than a change of medium, it was a move away from photographing the magnificence of the landscape or the decisive moment, he started to photograph the everyday world around him, mundane, common place, ordinary America in all its normality.

Eggleston was by no means the only photographer turning their back on conventional wisdom and creating serious and thoughtful work away from the main stream. In 1972 Stephen Shore, who had  already made his mark with his black and white photos of Andy Warhol’s factory, photographed a road trip across America in a series of images that were later to be published as “American Surfaces”. To look through these images today they might be interpreted as a nostalgic look at Middle America which would be to miss the point. In an interview with Rong Jiang in 2007 (*3) Shore makes a number of points that define his work in the early 70s. “I wanted to see the ordinary things that were not the news”, “I wanted to see what our culture was really like”. Shore’s early colour photographs of America are what he saw without edit and without embellishment. They range from, what can only be described as snapshots, of people he met, beds he slept in, meals he ate to more carefully composed urban landscapes that faithfully document 1970s America, and therein lies the link to Eggleston. Both men were working in colour, both were photographing a time and place in its entirety, not just beauty nor just ugliness, but just what was there. Shore explains that the beautiful landscape is not difficult to spot, “anyone would notice it” but he believes that you have to be paying close attention to notice the ordinary.

Early in the 1970s tiny, but influential corners of the art world began to notice this new wave of colour photographers. It is important to understand that taking colour photographs was anything but new; magazines, postcards. amateur photography, advertising was all in colour, in fact as Shore points out the only photographs not in colour were in newspapers and art. It is equally important to recognise that whilst Eggleston, Shore and others were photographing the  mundane, ordinary and banal side of America in colour other highly influential photographers were choosing similar subjects to capture in black and white. The “New Topographics” exhibition in 1975 at George Eastman House in Rochester NY was, according to Leah Ollman (*4) of the Los Angeles Times and writing in 2009, “a landmark show”, and Sean O’Hagan (*5) writing in The Guardian in 2010, said that it was “not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world.” All but one of the photographers exhibiting in that exhibition presented their work in Black and White; Stephen Shore was the notable exception. But at the time the critics were less complimentary, Ollman says that one of the artists, Frank Gohlke, remembers “that almost nobody liked it”.

In 1976 The Museum of Modern Art exhibited 75 “selected” William Eggleston prints. The prints selected by John Szarkowski, the museum’s Director of the Department of Photography, were in colour. This was the first time the museum had presented a colour photographer’s work and as the exhibition was supported by a catalogue which was also their first publication in colour the art world sat up and took notice. However, it quickly sat back down. Hilton Kramer in the New York Times described it as “perfectly banal, perfectly boring ” and went on to consign Eggleston’s work “to the world of snapshot chic” (*2b). My reading tells me that John Szarkowski was a progressive and far-sighted man who could see that photography as art was hidebound with rules, many of which dated from before any living photographer had been born because they had been passed down from the wider art world. In his press release for the 1976 exhibition, which can be found on the William Eggleston Trust Website (*2a) he talks about a new generation of photographers who were using colour with “a confident spirit of freedom and naturalness”, I especially like his comment that they work in colour “as though the world itself existed in colour”. In the context of banality he makes the key points that Eggleston work is about how he sees the world, how he interacts with his personal world and that his photographs are “fixed facts of the real world impartially recorded by the camera”.

I have focussed my attention on these two men, not because they were the first people to capture the ordinary, the mundane , the banal without comment and without gloss but because at every turn in my research they are named time and time again as major influences on a whole generation of contemporary photographers. Given my objective to write an essay and not a book these constant cross-references led me to mostly spend my time with them and their work. A valid judgement I think as In The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Charlotte Cotton (*6) tells us that their greatest contribution was to create a space within art photography to allow a more liberated approach to image-making.

So, that is the history and the on-going influence that is felt by a connected but not formal movement of photographers who moved away from photographing the majestic, the beautiful, or the important and, instead, turned their cameras on what was on their doorstep or what they saw when traveling through America. But, what of their images ? Steven Skopik (*1) argues that the image of a banal subject can become an art form when it is approached in a certain way. He believes that either the banal subject is transformed by the photographer’s technical skills in composition, management of tone (or I presume colour) and lighting so the subject is transformed by the actual process of being photographed in a meticulous manner; or, the photographer can discard technique and form in the service of content which is effectively banal technique, a sort of considered casualness.

Whilst I take his point and can see these facets in some of the work I have reviewed I am coming closer to knowing which style of work appeals and that I can relate to and where I am a lost soul desperately wishing someone behind me would explain why I am looking at “this” photograph.

To return to Eggleston and Shore, or Bernd and Hilla Becher for that matter. Much of their work fits into Skopik’s category of technical skills pointed at a banal subject but it goes much deeper than that. They were consciously documenting a culture by capturing the details of life, whether they were large details such as power stations or small details such as what they ate for breakfast. By its very nature photography captures what has passed, it may have only passed 1/2000 second ago but it is now part of a greater history, by pointing their cameras at mundane, ordinary, day-to-day and banal subjects they were recording the details of life.

I see a parallel with archeology, in the early days of that science the focus was on the huge, the magnificent, the great stories of the world. Troy, Athens, Stonehenge, the Colosseum, empire and great events. The early archeologists were in such a rush to get to the big story, the great find they ploughed through and often discarded the detail, their big questions were about where people lived. The modern archaeologist is more interested in how people lived and why they lived there and why they made “this” or how they made “that”. The form of banality in photography that I have enjoyed getting to know are Eggleston and Shore’s images of an America that, to my generation, was very recent but has already gone. I know that Shore does not want nostalgia to get in the way of appreciating the image but with this work from the 70s and 80s it is unavoidable.

However, the banal image does not have to be of a time long gone to catch my attention. As a new student of contemporary photography I am not able to put photographers into the correct pigeon holes and I note that Charlotte Cotton (*6) says that she is at pains not to fetishise contemporary art photography into categories of style or heritage. Having looked at Eggleston and Shore’s work and come to understand a little of what they were trying to achieve I see relationships with photographers that I am already trying to become engaged with, Camilo José Vergara is systematically documenting the streets of urban America, his images often employ bold colours and strong shapes to present banal subjects such as shoes outside a street shelter. I also think that the banal found its way into the work of Lewis Hine who we can now look back on as a man who documented a specific facet of the American way of life but in his own time was photographing subjects that were common place and mundane. I think I see the point and understand what these photographers are showing me, I respond positively to many of the images and especially like when the mundane detail draws me into explore every corner of the frame.

But…… there is a lot of work that I have found by other photographers that I just do not understand and do not respond to on an emotional level. I am not intending to be judgemental but a series of photographs of concrete storm drain covers and the securing ring for an electricity pole leave me cold. I question why and I think it is a lack of context and a lack of composition that leaves me disconnected. If I pick, nearly at random, a Eggleston image of the detailed landscape, the piles of rubbish in “Troubled Waters” I am drawn in. I like the composition which is thoughtful and, to my eye, precise, it probably uses thirds but it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t. The splash of colour from the orange diamond and then all the detail of the bags. I want to know what is in them, I zoom in to try and read labels on the boxes, I am engaged. There is context, a story line and it is consciously composed.

I think my summary is that, if the photographer wants me to engage with his or her photograph, they are asking me to invest my time in understanding their art. I’m happy to do that if my sense is that the artist has invested at least as much time and hopefully more in putting his or her image in front of me. It can be consciously casual and seemingly unstructured, it can be formal and structured, it can be of mundane content (Eggeston’s rubbish, Shore’s meals) or nearly no content at all (Richard Misrach Untitled 2004 of a women in a vast sea) but I want to sense that the photographer is treating me, their audience, with respect, and that this image is the result of a train of thought and the application of conscious technique.

I have taken a lot from this little piece of research and suspect that I will sub-consiously use many of the ideas that I have read and seen. I have had a long term interest in photography as a record and as I get older often think about how my grandchildren will look at work when I am but a fuzzy memory. I think the process of documenting what is there before it isn’t is a valid contribution and, like the modern archeologist, the real interest may lie in the most mundane or banal subject just because I bothered to notice it and photograph it.

Sources:

Books

*6 Cotton, Charlotte, (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, New Edition. London, Thames and Hudson

On-Line

*1 Skopik, Steven. Steven Skopik Photography. Lecture to the 50th National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 www.ithaca.edu

*2a Eggleston, William. Official website of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust. (First accessed 2014) www.egglestontrust.com

*2b Weski, Thomas. The Tender-Cruel Camera, Essay from the Hasselbald Award 1998. Published on the Official of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust.  www.egglestontrust.com

*3 Jiang, Rong. The Apparent is the Bridge to the Real. An interview with Stephen Shore, June 4 2007. Published at www.americansuburbx.com

*4 Ollman, Leah. ART : Banality, in black and white : Exploring the rise of photography’s New Topographics movement, whatever it may mean. Published on the Los Angeles website November 2009. articles.latimes.com

*5 O’Hagan, Sean. New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal. Published on the Guardian Website, February 2010. www.theguardian.com