Tag Archives: Black & White

Photography as Archeology

Fig. 01 The Old Dairy Weydon - 1/100 at F/18, ISO 1,000

Fig. 01 The Old Dairy Weydon – 1/100 at F/18, ISO 1,000

For 6,000 years we have built structures, places to live, to keep us safe, to work, to store the product of our labours, to preserve our ideas or to give structure to our beliefs, to remember our ancestors and commemorate our successes. For much of that time we have made durable things, weapons for hunting, attack or defence, tools to ease our labours, vehicles to transport goods and people, and for a myriad of other purposes. Since the first farmers stopped following the game herds and selected a place to settle in the landscape humans have changed that landscape by collecting raw materials, by farming, by building and by scattering the things we made.

The things we build start with clear structures and purposes but as civilisations evolve our creations lose their purpose and their structure. Nature is always waiting to reclaim every element of every thing we make. We might stave her off for a few years, a few generations or a millennium but eventually she degrades and degenerates everything. Some objects settle into the landscape over time and we come to terms with their demise to such an extent that, as ruins, they define or are thought to beautify the greater place in which they stand but others sit defiantly ugly, never able to gracefully decay, remaining as eyesores, a blot on the landscape. Some temporarily find new life but time will tell and the greatest of our achievements eventually become dust.

Archeologists seek out these abandoned structures and objects to document their existence and to study their context before nature removes their trace. We mostly associated this science with the distant past, the discovery of something that is lost, the process of putting flesh onto the bones of history but all around us there are structures and things in the early stages of their demise, the abandoned buildings and discarded objects of the recent past that might become the archeology of the future but more often are cleared to make way for the next great idea. The documentation of these recent relics can be as compelling as an episode of Time Team, in each building or discarded object there is the history of people, of failed dreams and social change, of seismic shifts in our politics, habits and desires.

Assignment 5 has taken me back to the houses, villages, heaths and woodlands of my childhood and in searching for the past I have found shadows of my generation and the generations that preceded me. I have captured some of these with my camera.

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Photographically these objects offer interesting subjects but I find myself torn between using the saturated colours that I love, black and white graphic representations that remove the distraction of colour or desaturated and muted colours that might offer the best of both worlds. I was mildly critical of Tong Lam’s Abandoned Futures because I felt there were too many inconsistencies in his style and that this made his narratives slightly disjointed and I envy the certainty of style that can been seen in the work of Stephen Shore or Josef Koudelka who, I assume, never question whether to change their colour palette or, in Koudelka’s case, lack of colour.

There are examples of colour and monochrome being used together in a single presentation, David Bailey worked in both mediums and his Stardust exhibition showed his colour and black and white work, if not side by side, at least in close proximity. Irving Penn’s Still life includes examples of both and there is the sense that he moved freely between them. Most recently I visited Russell Squires’ Landings Exhibition where panoramic landscape photos in colour alternate with square format, black and white, intimate landscapes. These examples don’t necessarily set any precedents and the reasons that each artist mixed media in this way might need to be more carefully considered at some later date. At this stage and for these photos from around Farnham, I am switching between desaturated colour and black and white based on the approach that best suited each specific subject. A few months ago I conducted a similar study in Turks and Caicos and selected saturated colour as the approach that best suited the subjects and the warm Caribbean light. I may subsequently review this work and criticise myself for the lack of a consistent style.

Josef Koudelka and the Use of Captions in Wall

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

I cannot say at what point Koudelka decided on incorporating text into Wall. His other work has not used captions in the same way but in Wall they play a major role. Koudelka didn’t write the captions or the other blocks of text that are included within Wall, they were written by Ray Dolphin, a researcher and writer who has prepared several reports about the, so called, Separation Barrier, for the UN and who wrote Unmaking Palestine. Give his status as a leading and internationally recognised photographer we must assume that Koudelka sanctioned the book being designed in this way.

The captions are often factual. Where, how, when, and at times are quite neutral, for example the caption “Structures from the British Mandate (1922-48) and Jordanian era (1948-67) remain in the West Bank” accompanies a photograph of a derelict building. We are left to decide whether the building is from the British or Jordanian era so the caption is not acting as if it is part of a news story, it is not filling in detail or completing a story, it is not even explaining the original purpose of the structure. It is contextualising the photograph; we see a bleak landscape including a long security fence through the glassless window and damaged wall of a deserted building that we now know was built before the Israeli’s occupied this land. If we consider the gross amount of information on the page most of it is being communicated by the photograph and a small proportion comes from the caption but even when combined we are not presented with completeness. There are plenty of questions left unanswered, there is opportunity for interpretation and the audience can be drawn into the picture to consider small details and wonder how they impact the story and, neither the photograph nor the caption express a strong opinion.

However, the factual captions are frequently loaded with a political agenda. For example a photograph of another abandoned building, but this time the interior of a house, is captioned with “More than two hundred Syrian villages, including the old town of Queitra, were abandoned by their inhabitants in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; many were later demolished by the Israeli authorities.”

Some captions express the opinions of third parties. “Most Israeli citizens attribute the lack of suicide bombings in Israel in recent years to the success of the wall in preventing infiltration from the West Bank.” We are not told in words whether Koudelka or Dolphin subscribe to this view, nor whether they believe it is justified. The accompanying photograph shows two lines of “defences”, the Wall at this point is large, dominant, ugly, medieval in texture and scale so we are left to make up our own mind as to whether this was the only or appropriate way to address, what was, a serious threat to the safety and well being of Israelis. The writer and photographer’s agenda is made reasonably clear by the choice of photograph. In other places we see the Wall as a fence or even as road blocks and this caption with those pictures would have suggested a more mild response to the threat. So, here we see the words and the pictures having a more equal relationship in terms of the amount of information or message being communicated.

And, some captions just express Dolphin’s opinion, even though it might be expressed in factual terms. “Thousands of olive tress in the West Bank have been cut down, uprooted or otherwise vandalised”. Take out the last two words and this is a factual statement, put them back and the text becomes subjective and opinionated.

To return to the question of why did the photographer want so many words in this presentation? Are his photographs not enough, would they not stand alone as a narrative of the Wall? Why deviate from the approach he used in his other work? Without the opportunity to question Koudelka or his editors there is no absolute answer to these questions but I sense that the answer lies in his history. Koudelka comes from a country that was held in thrall to the Russian empire, the USSR, he understands the sense of helplessness felt by Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Tibetans, and many others that have been in recent times been or still are under the yoke of a militaristic and ruthless neighbour. It is likely that he saw many similarities in the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians and recognised in the Wall was a symbol of that domination much as the Berlin wall was a symbol of the East West divide. In the spirit of the engaged observer or concerned documentary photographer he wanted to communicate the strongest possible message and felt that his photographs alone were not enough. He adopted the fundamental principles described by Evans and added enough text to contextualise the pictures and to develop, in his audience, a depth of understanding that would emotionally and intellectually engage them.

If, as Karin Becker Ohm says, the role of the documentary photographer is “to bring the attention of the audience to the subject of his or her work and, in many cases, to pave the way for social change” then Koudelka appears to believe that we must not only see the Wall, often disturbingly beautiful in his dark tonal compositions, but fully understand its context so there is limited opportunity for his audience to miss his point. Wall is unambiguous statement and much enhanced by the text.

Sources

Books

Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.

Revisiting Josef Koudelka’s Wall – in 1944

River Jordan 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

River Jordan 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

For assignment 5 I have been looking back through old family photographs to find pictures of the village in which I grew up. Whilst doing this I came across my father’s photos from his service with the RAF in North Africa from 1941 to 1944 and was struck by the coincidence that many of his shots from 70 years ago are of the same landmarks and in similar places to the landscapes in Josef koudelka’s Wall *(1) which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I was very moved by the bleak story Koudelka tells of the human and environmental damage caused by the building of what the Isreali government calls the “Separation Barrier”.

Someone will have composed a more authoritative before and after than I can achieve using the holiday snaps of a RAF corporal enjoying a few days of relaxation in what he called the Holy Land. Dad was a religious man and his choice of subjects portray his excitement in visiting the places from the Bible. Some have been printed 170mm by 110mm and these have scanned quite well but many are only 80mm by 60mm and these have lost definition in the scanning process. Many are surprisingly good, beautifully composed and carefully exposed, surprising because I don’t have any particular memories of him using a camera until he retired and purchased an SLR to take on post retirement trips abroad.

I wish I could show his and Koudelka’s photos side by side but instead I will do my best to describe the differences and leave it to any interested reader to seek out images from the Wall to complete the picture (Magnum Photography is a useful source). Wherever possible I have scanned in my Father’s photos with the hand written descriptions from the pages of his album as these form part of the story. Overall they show a rural world that had changed little since Biblical times and I’m quite certain that he was intentionally highlighting this point.

Rachel's Tomb 1944 - Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Rachel’s Tomb 1944 – Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Rachel’s Tomb was the photo that started off this chain of thought. This is said to be the third holiest site for Jewish people and is situated between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The structure in the above photograph was build over the tomb around 1620 by the Ottomans.  It features twice in Koudelka’s series and in neither case can you see the above structure, I believe it still exists but it has been completely enclosed by a fortress, guard towers, soldiers and barbed wire. In Koudelka’s photos we see the huge concrete walls that have been diverted as a salient into Bethlehem to surround the tomb.

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

River Jordan Fishermen 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

River Jordan Fishermen 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Koudelka tells us that “most of the Jordan valley and Dead Sea is designated as “Area C” and is reserved for the use of the Israeli military.” He shows derelict buildings on the shores of the sea behind a wire fence with a tank track in the foreground.

Bethlehem From the Shepard's Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Bethlehem From the Shepard’s Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Cana of Galilee 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Cana of Galilee 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Koudelka says “Increasingly Palestinian farmers can only access their farmland on the de facto Israeli side of the wall with special Israeli issued ” visitor permits”.

 

The Good Samaritan Inn 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

The Good Samaritan Inn 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

The Good Samaritan Inn is 12 miles east of Jerusalem on the road to Jericho. Koudelka’s photo of Nabi Musa which the Arabs believe to be the tomb of Moses is just 6 miles further East. The comparative features are the absence above of what appear to be tank tracks and the barren landscape in Koudelka’s photograph. Whilst not mentioned in my father’s caption I am intrigued by the Arab man in the foreground who appears to be sighting a rifle.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

I can’t see the walls of Jerusalem in Koudelka’s photographs but there is an interesting contrast above with his ariel shot of East Jerusalem. A rural landscape outside a medieval city is replaced by urban sprawl and a modern concrete defensive wall separating low rise Palestinian housing from high-rise Jerusalem.

The Toc "H" lancers Outside the Golden Gate 1944. Unknown Photographer.

The Toc “H” lancers Inside the Golden Gate 1944. Unknown Photographer.

The final photo I have chosen speaks of gentler times. I think this is my Father’s unit enjoying their leave in Jerusalem. Dad is the 4th military man from the right in his RAF cap.

Sources

Books

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

 

The Role of Olive Trees in Koudelka’s Wall

Montefino, Abruzzo 2008 - 1/100 at f/5.6, ISO 100

Montefino, Abruzzo 2008 – 1/100 at f/5.6, ISO 100

It often takes a small detail for us to totally connect to a photo book. In Josef Koudelka’s Wall it was plate 42 Off Route 1 East that shows one large olive tree stump and hundreds of smaller stumps disappearing over the horizon

We own a small farm in central Italy, half the land is planted to about 400 olive trees ranging from hundreds of years old to trees we have planted in the last 10 years. For a number of years we lived on the farm and tended these groves, it’s back breaking work, pruning half the trees each year, cutting off the dozens of suckers that spring from the roots throughout the year, clearing weeds that invade the trees’ space and, in Italy, endlessly cutting the grass. Once a year for a few weeks there is a frantic dawn to dusk harvest to collect the fruit before it starts to degrade and haul it to the press . The end result is two fold, firstly perfect untainted, real olive oil that is only found in olive producing regions that follow the old inefficient methods of production and secondly the farmers fall in love with their trees.

They are glorious plants, full of vigour and energy at the top whilst developing slowly and gracefully at the base to form gnarled, twisted trunks that tell the story of generation upon generation of farmers who have pruned them into their regionally preferred shape. Olive farmers know every tree on their land, they have spent hours every season with that one tree, they remember the useful rock they use to weigh down their harevesting net that fits perfectly into the hollow at the base of the tree or the hole in the trunk that tempts hornets to nest or lizards to hide or the low branch that tries to brain the unsuspecting farmer when moving a ladder or cutting the grass. My wife and I both had our own favourite trees, ones that we looked forward to working under, or sitting under or just admiring. I was deeply upset when the farmer on the other side of the valley cut down his ancient trees to clear land for arable crops so I cannot begin to imagine the distress of a farmer seeing his own olive trees all cut down to create a demilitarised zone, to see them trying to sprout again every spring and to see the shoots cut off to keep the view clear for the soldiers.

Palestinian trees, whose branch is still a symbol for peace, have been uprooted, stolen (they have real value as a mature tree), vandalised and abused. The impact on the families that own them is not just economic, it is psychologically scaring. Trees are diligently tended by each generation to be passed on to the next, these plants are a family’s heritage as well as an economic asset their livelihood.

Koudelka instinctively understands the intense relationship between the farmer and his trees and repeatedly uses the olive tree as a symbol of victimisation in Wall. The stumps of trees cleared for military purposes are also a symbol of brutal prioritisation by the Israeli government who understand the wider role of the olive tree in their own culture, the Kings of Israel were anointed using olive oil and it plays an important part in the celebration of Jewish festivals.

The olive tree is important to each of the three main religions of the region, the name Christ is derived from the Greek work chrism which means “to anoint with oil” and some Christian churches still have a Chrism mass when olive oil is blessed to be used in various church rituals. In Islam, it is a holy tree and both the tree and its oil are frequently mentioned in the Qur’an. It is believed to be one of the first plants to have been farmed by man and as it originates from this corner of the Mediterranean it is deeply embedded within the culture of the region.

By using the olive tree as a motif Koudelka simultaneously reminds us of the common ground that exists but that is rarely recognised by the antagonists, the destructive impact of the wall’s construction and the juxtaposition of beautiful trees and reinforced cement.

Josef Koudelka – Wall

Bethlehem From the Shepard's Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Bethlehem From the Shepard’s Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

I recently reviewed Stephen Shore’s book, From Galilee to the Nagev, and became aware of the This Place *(1) project that took twelve photographers to Israel to capture their own personal perspective of that country. Having thoroughly enjoyed Galilee to Negev and having become interested in the wider project of which it was part I wanted to look at how a different photographer had approached the some assignment and chose to order Josef Koudelka’s Wall *(2) partly because I had looked at his work much earlier in this course (here) and partly because I instinctively felt that he would offer a stark contrast to Shore’s quirky perspective on life.

(Note: the two photographs included here are part of a small collection of my Father’s wartime photos which are discussed in the context of Koudelka’s Wall in a later post here.)

Josek Koudelka was born in 1938 in, what is now, the Czech Republic, he is part of the Magnum cooperative and a prolific photographer having published eleven books. A search of the Magnum site returns 7,536 of his pictures so it is unwise to attempt to summarise his career in a paragraph or two. He rose to prominence by documenting the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 and became a refugee from his homeland just two years later. This experience. when he was still in his thirties, has clearly been a major influence on his later work and he has become famous for documenting displaced people in Gypsies 1976 and Exiles in 1988. He is the epitome of a gritty, black and white documentary photographer with his own sense of exile and displacement projecting through his photographs communicating an empathy with his subjects and anger at their condition. Koudelka has an exceptional eye for composition and Wall is another master class in how to compose and frame a subject, a lot of his recent work is panoramic and Wall continues that trend.

When Koudelka looked at Israel it was, perhaps, unsurprising that he selected the so-called “separation barrier” as his subject. As someone from behind the “iron curtain” he understands walls and how they impact the psychology of the people they exclude, contain or separate and how the grand stroke of a planner’s pen has dire effects on the lives of ordinary people. Shore was conscious that he was working in a place that was politically charged and his work in Galilee to Negrev is somewhat open to interpretation, it is not overtly critical and our own prejudices allow some scope to decide whether he is being directly critical of the Israeli state or just documenting what is there.

Koudelka’s Wall is not ambivalent. From the very first page he sets the tone by describing the history of the barrier highlighting the UN’s condemnation of the project and its negative impact on the Palestinians. Before considering a single picture we are informed that 85% of, what will eventually be a, 708 kilometre structure will be built inside, what many people, see as Palestinian territory. David Shulman, in his powerful article for The New York Review of Books *(3), asks whether it was built for protection or as part of “the on-going land grab that is the real, indeed perhaps the sole raison d’être of the Occupation”.

With this context established we can start to look at Koudelka’s beautiful panoramas. I recently read an article asking whether aesthetically pleasing documentary images detract from the message and Koudelka’s work continues to show that the opposite is true. His images are wonderfully composed exploring the depth and subtle monochrome tones of the landscape, frequently contrasting natural beauty with the aggressive concrete block of the wall. Out of context they are art exhibition beautiful. in context they are powerful statements about the inability of politicians of all persuasions to find a solution to one of the longest running confrontations of modern times and how this failure has led to the construction of a divisive barrier that separates farmers from their land and people from their place of work, schools and hospitals. The powerful elegance of his work demands our attention and strengthens the message.

To return to a theme that has run through a lot of my recent research we can again see the part that captions play in photography. These are powerful and unambiguous images so they could have been presented with nothing more that a place and date but Koudelka and his publishers have used captions to expand the narrative, to take our thoughts beyond the image, to ensure that we don’t miss the point. This is communication as a blunt instrument.

Shore wanted us to see the stark beauty of the land, to know that there were grass hills as well as stoney plains and harsh deserts, he says conflict is not the only thing in this place. Koudelka says there is only conflict here, it dominates every image, its ugliness throws a shadow across any beauty, there is no escaping its overwhelming presence. He explores how the landscape has been negatively altered by this structure:

“This country is divided, each side reacts to that division in a different way, but the landscape can’t react.” *(1)

The photographs are, in every sense, dark. He prints for high contrast but skies are nearly universally dark grey not Ansel Adams black, the wall is harsh concrete grey, the razor wire dark greys with sharp white blades glinting in the sun. Most of the pictures are oppressive, reminiscent of the atmosphere and architecture of the old Eastern Block and each landscape is dominated by the barrier. We see that the wall divides modern high-rise housing, office blocks and large institutions from low rise townships and villages. He looks through reinforced fences into empty spaces and often tilts the camera to capture as much wall as possible into the frame. In many of the photos there is a significant difference between the landscape on either side of the barrier but it is perhaps where there is little difference that his point is most strongly made. Palestinian olive groves or residential areas divided by the wall or boarded up shops separated from their customers.

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea 1944 . Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Land that once boasted olive groves or vineyards now supports nothing more than monolithic concrete blocks, fertility and beauty replaced by sterility and ugliness. In recent years Koudelka has photographed a lot of walls with studies of archeological sites in Turkey, Greece, Albania, Morocco, Tunisia and Italy *(4) and it is interesting to see how differently he treats the architecture in Wall to the walls of Troy or Hadrian’s Villa in Lazio. Whilst all his images explore texture, tone and how architecture sits in a landscape Wall is darker, there is nothing uplifting here, no celebration of the art of the builders or the comfortable relationship that can exist between the natural and the manmade. The Temple of Poseidon in Attica or the runis of Delphi have settled into the landscape, the natural stone of their construction has weathered and as the decades pass man’s efforts to form the stones into shapes and to construct them into monuments is slowly being reversed, they are as much part of the landscape as a farmer’s field, we know it is a modified landscape but it feels natural, unobtrusive, complimentary to the beauty of nature.

There is no sense from Koudelka’s photos of the separation barrier that he sees this process being repeated in Palestine, he presents the wall as unnatural and invasive, something that can never be one with the land. It is not just the subject that gives us this impression it is the way in which he approaches the subject. In his archeological studies he offers us softer images, they are still very much Koudelka, a black dog laying in the foreground in front of the Acropolis providing strong contrast but the marble of the structure is low key. Eleusina is photographed in the context of the modern city but the tones of ancient and modern are shared, there is a sense of each being part of the same jigsaw, both are in place, comfortable with each other. The aqueducts in Rome share the landscape with tall weeds and young trees, they might be a natural occurrence, a sense that they rose from the earth as bricks and blocks but are now returning as the dust of clay and stone.

In Wall there is no such comfortable relationship. The blocks on route 443 are imposed on the landscape, the partially built parts of the wall carve great wounds into the earth often in otherwise pristine landscapes. The tonal contrasts are strong for both the landscape and the wall, it is as if nature itself has been hardened by the presence of the barrier. When people appear they are dwarfed by the construction, they are there, the wall is there but they are both out of place, not related to each other in the way that travellers in large railway station are in place despite the difference in scale. His compositions and exposures consistently emphasise the malignant presence of structure and even when he shows feeble attempts to beautify the Israeli side with architectural features or the Palestinian side with graffiti and wall art the pictures are depressing and full of foreboding.

He tells us that one day this wall will fall, it might never be finished, but it will never be as one with the landscape upon which it has been imposed. Koudelka has photographed it as an alien presence, an imposition, a blot on the landscape. It will never quietly decline into being a tourist destination, it can only depart, as it came by the will of man and the forces of man’s machines.

Sources

Books

(1) Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.

Internet

(1) This Place – http://this-place.org/

(3) Shulman, David. (2013) Bitter Faces in the Holy Land. The New York Review of Books.  – http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/oct/30/bitter-faces-koudelka-wall/

(4) Magnum Photography. Josef Koudelka Archeology Photos – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOQP1BCRJW&SMLS=1&RW=1459&RH=810

Martin Parr – The Last Resort

NK0_4375

As previously discussed in the post on planning assignment 3 Martin Parr’s work feels very relevant at this stage in the course. He has worked exclusively in colour since making the switch from black and white in the early 80s and The Last Resort * (1), published in 1986, was his first book in this medium. His technical approach has been fairly consistent since 1983 when he started collecting his photos for Last Resort; at that time he was using a Plaubel Makina medium format camera with a wide angled lens and a daylight flash whereas today he continues to use a wide angled lens and daylight flash albeit on a 35mm camera. He has done some work with a telephoto lens when exploring South America beaches but generally his technique is to get close, neutralise the effect of natural light with his flash and fill the frame with his subject or subjects. Some critics have suggested that his work shows a lack of progression and experimentation but this consistency of technique has proved to be an effective way to communicate and he obviously sees little need to change for the sake of change.

His work is documentary but what sets him apart from many other documentary photographers is a wry sense of humour that pervades much of his work. He explains * (2) that when he was working in black and white his work was totally affectionate or celebratory, a statement that is strongly supported by the sympathetic photos of Hepton Bridge in The Non Conformists (here under black and white portfolios) where he documented a community that was holding on to its traditions as the world changed rapidly around them. However, when he adopted colour and what he calls the “quite strong flash” that he uses in Last Resort he says his work became more of critique on society. * (3)

It is important to place Last Resort in its proper context. Britain was emerged in the Thatcher Years, a time of great divisiveness as the Government aggressively took on the power of the unions whilst promoting privatisation, share ownership, the sale of council houses, home ownership and a more American form of capitalism. It is was the beginning of a time when self became more important than community, a process that has continued and become more extreme in the 21st century. Thatcher’s policies widened the north-south divide with the northern industrial towns and cities suffering an acceleration of an economic downturn that was already underway as a result of the decline of the traditional heavy industries whilst the south and particularly London benefitted from the rapid growth of the financial and service sectors and the concentration of new industries such as IT in the M3 / M4 corridor. Both these trends were well under way long before Thatcher but her policies became an accelerant and as a result her era often obscures how sick the patient was before she entered the scene.

This amplification of something that was already happening is part of the backdrop to The Last Resort. New Brighton’s heyday was well before Parr found the town and by the 80s it was already a run-down sea-side for day-trippers from Liverpool or Manchester more than being a main-stream holiday resort. Parr captures the feel of a seedy, decaying seaside town and uses it as a backdrop to his studies of its visitors. He sees his images as showing how the fabric of the country had gone into disarray whilst everyday life continued. * (4) He says “What I found interesting was the juxtaposition of the foreground people and the background of things falling  apart” and it is this combination that significantly increases the appeal of the Last Resort.

I find it easier to relate to Martin Parr than to the American colour photographers because we share very similar backgrounds. We were born a few months apart and only a few miles apart in Surrey and Parr was teaching at The West Surrey College of Art (now part of UCA) in my home town of Farnham from 1983 to 1990. Val Williams, in her major presentation of Martin Parr’s work for Phaidon * (5) makes the point that, as a child of the suburbia, Parr was an outsider, belonging nowhere so his move to the Northwest would have been a real eyeopener. I also grew up in Surrey and in the late seventies and early eighties I was travelling all over Britain implementing bureau-based computer systems. I remember that sense of being an outsider in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh where the people I met in the course of my work were part of a wider community, socialising within a group to whom they had strong links and loyalties and with a strong sense of the social and political history of their home town.

There is an element of being the outsider in many photographers, of being behind the camera observing and recording the event rather than being a part of it and this has become part of Parr’s trademark. He is the photographer on the edge of the scene, never hiding, often organising his subjects, but always the observer, always the outsider, the southerner in the north, the middle-class man photographing the working class, the scruffy photographer photographing the plumage of the middle and upper classes at Ascot or the Brit in America. Like Eggleston, Shore or other great documentary photographers it is his observational skills that make his work stand apart, as an outsider looking in he sees the world in a different way to its inhabitants and he has an ability to select and structure detail from that scene to provide a succinct summary that reveals that world to, us, the other outsiders.

In studying The Last Resort as part of my preparation for assignment 3 I am especially interested in Parr’s use of colour. Once he had moved to colour he never went back to black and white so it is clear that colour is playing an essential role in his pictures. This is underlined by his use of Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 cm camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 asa film for the ring flash and macro lens to maximise colour saturation * (6). However, these photographs are not about colour which, for instance, John Szarkowski suggests was part of the motivation behind the American New Colour photographers, it is more that the vision of England that Parr wants to capture is just better in colour. When Parr chose the photos for The Last Resort he could not afford to have colour contact sheets made so he made all his selections from black and white contact sheets. He says “I never selected them because of the colours though it is essential that they were taken in colour”. This is an important point for me at this stage in the course, I feel that it would be an easy trap to fall into to go out and photograph colour, Parr shows that the most important element of the photograph is the subject and colour is one of the structural elements that supports the image.

The first plate in The Last Resort is a good example. (here). We see two middle aged customers in an old fashioned restaurant or tea room. The man is smoking a cigarette and staring at nothing, the women is starting at her hands, they look bored as they wait for their meal. The relationship between the two main characters is obviously the point of the picture, it is melancholy, perhaps even sad and the pale pink and green walls, a colour combination that seems dated in itself, add to the muted mood of the picture. It is interesting to note that much later Parr created a whole series of people looking bored in similar circumstances Bored Couples * (7).

The second plate (here) is one of the few images in the series were decay is placed centre stage. A young man, a baby and a much older women are viewed through the dirty and partially broken window of a beach-side shelter. The window frame is marked with rust and when someone touched up the paintwork their lack of skill led to paint splashes on the seat so even in providing maintenance there is no real care. However, this is a good example of Parr’s eye for contrasts because behind the dirty and broken glass the baby is dressed in a smart, clean sun bonnet and is being held tight by the young man so in contrast to the building we see a description of the care with with she has been dressed and the loving cuddle she is being given.

The mood changes with the third plate (here) where a young girl dressed in bright red watches as a women strokes the head of a large dog under the smiling eyes of an older man. This is a joyful picture with the bright red jumper of the little girl leaping out of the image thanks to the use of daylight flash. The composition brings together a whole series of lovely details that tell an everyday story that many people will relate to. The little girl and her mother are out for a walk, perhaps to the shops as mum is carrying an empty shopping bag, with the little girl pushing her pram containing an oversized doll. The elderly man must own the dog as he is looking on with pleasure and pride. Everyone is smart, dressed in clean and nice clothes, the pram is clean and shiny but the backdrop seems to be a boarded up shop complete with graffiti and a wind torn poster advertising a long past circus.

Rugby Programme on the Streets of Central London 1/100 at f/11, ISO 250

Rugby Programme on the Streets of Central London 1/100 at f/11, ISO 250

Plate 4 in which colour does not play a dominant role in this picture, it is muted and restrained (here) is one of many where I find myself at odds with some other reviewers. I know that Parr loved the litter and specifically liked to visit the resort on bank holiday weekends so that the litter was at its peak but I believe that what he is showing is how ordinary people deal with ordinary everyday issues regardless of where they are. This is not a photograph of poverty or depravation, it tells us nothing about Thatcher’s Britain, it is not as David Lee * (5) pg. 161) suggests “[Parr] has habitually discovered visitors at their worst, greedily eating and drinking junk food”. It is a picture of a smartly dressed mum in a crisp clean dress with her two smartly dressed children, albeit the boy’s tank-top and shorts have separated in the way that boys’ cloths do, eating fish and chips at the end of their day at the sea-side. The boy is probably, what mothers always call, “over tired” and something has set him off, perhaps his sister, who has a knowing smile about her, is not sharing the chips. Perhaps if one views the world from the “nice” parts of Chelsea or Kensington and moves in the arty circles of London the real world comes as a shock. Litter on the streets after a busy bank holiday weekend is not a barometer of class or of despair, as a visit to Twickenham, that most middle class of venues, after a match or Lord’s Cricket Ground will show.

However, if the art critics or the modern day bloggers want to be disturbed plate 5 (here) has more to offer. Three women are playing on some sort of gambling machine in a typical sea-side amusement arcade. I remember spending my pocket money in similar arcades whilst on holiday in the 50s and 60s. There is a pram in the centre of the room and, presumedly it is its normal occupant who is barefoot and wandering, investigating a fruit machine in a deserted aisle. There is a seedy feel to this image with loose tiles hanging from the ceiling and the kind of imitation wood decor that was popular in the 60s. It was taken with a slow shutter speed so the baby is movement blurred as are some of the arms and hands of the players. The tones are very muted and I find this picture a little depressing in the same way that I find television adverts for gambling “apps” and high street bookies depressing. I recognise this as a form of class prejudice and stereo-typing, the middle and upper classes go to Ascot, drink bubbly, have fun and a flutter, the lower classes gamble money they can ill afford. I do not know if Parr shares these prejudices or whether he is simply documenting a recognisable aspect of the British sea-side.

Val Williams * (5) takes the view that Parr is not cynical “just interest, excitement and a real sense of the comedic” and having watched several interviews with the man and read a lot about him I share this view. He finds humour in the ordinary, his observational skills allow him to spot details that provide the structure to his pictures, he loves the unusual and treasures the “quirky and weird” (words that he uses a lot in interviews). This approach appears to  position him far away from gritty street photographers capturing social issues although, when I look at Vegara’s street photos, there is also often humour there as well. Parr is describing broader subjects in society whilst showing ordinary people enjoying themselves against a backdrop of tatty in the 80s or embarrassing displays of bad taste and extravagance later in his career.

Plates 6 and 7 are the first pictures to share a spread in the book, (here) and (here) and this appears quite intentional. To the left we have a young mother on a fairground ride heading left to right with her baby in her arms. Reds and oranges dominate the composition. To the right and facing the other way so the two photos head towards each other is a young father in some sort of flight simulator with one child on his lap and another in a push chair. Parr was a new parent when he was working on The Last Resort and, in interview, he often mentions how interested he was in how everyone had to deal with their children and children are a recurring theme in The Last Resort. The father is presumably in the flight simulator for his own amusement, the women’s motives are more obscure as she is not displaying any particular signs of pleasure but there again Parr does not want his subjects to smile as it reduces the picture to a “family snap” * (3). Colour has an important role in these pictures especially as they are chosen to face each other, orange to the left and blue to the right with a similar tone of red appearing in both. The two images compliment each other as well as working within themselves and show the importance of how photographs are displayed and positioned within a series.

The subject of series or sets is an important one. Parr works in series and sees his work in that context, each photograph must work in its own right but his kind of documentary only works when the full series is seen. The Last Resort is carefully structured, we start with the lonely couple in muted tones but are then quickly into a long series of 7 photographs of parents interacting with their children with the last 5 centred around amusements, the colours move from muted to strong and back down a notch to finish this particular introductory stream. Plate 10 (here) seems to be a divider with a strong shot of the open air baths crowded with people of whom many appear to be teenagers before we move back to the children theme. This series within a series are all about parents and grandparents interacting with their children at the beach or at the lido . We are shown all the normal highs and lows of taking children to the sea-side, messy ice cream, cheap snacks, granddad with his camera, mothers encouraging tiny toddlers to paddle or trying to get five minutes peace when the baby is crying, feeding the baby whilst sun bathing, kids getting dirty, changing nappies and so forth. All very ordinary, all very normal and many of the aspects that people now think are a politicised message were not considered dreadful at the time. Lots of people are too sunburned but, when the sun came out, most of us were in the 70s and 80s and children eating crisps and drinking colas was not thought of as unhealthy and certainly wasn’t unusual.

The details that stand out for me are the way people dressed, the ladies in a row with the naked toddler are all dressed smartly for their day out at the sea-side and granddad with his suit trousers held up by braces. This tells us that even in the mid-80s a day out was a special occasion and you dressed up for special occasions thus giving us a very direct link back to Tony Ray-Jones and A Day Out. It was not until the British started holidaying abroad in large numbers and saw how the “Continentals” dressed that we learnt how to dress casually for the beach. In this same series we have some disturbing glimpses of pollution and dirt but it doesn’t seem to be spoiling anyone’s day and that might also be part of the point, people go out to have a good time and can block out many details that might detract from that aim, when  presented in a photograph the details they turned a blind eye to become very obvious and in that we have a hint of the fiction within photography that Parr often talks of * (8).

Parr enjoys the weird, the eccentric, the quirky things that people do and wear and eat. In one film * (4) he talks at length about photographing a man struggling with the rind in a bacon sandwich. He see want most people ignore or take for granted, frames it in his particular way and captures it in a true documentary manner. He no doubt weighs people up, perhaps judges them, warms to them or not because that is generally what people do when they think about a stranger, however, I don’t see his photographs as judgemental or that he is passing his opinions on to the viewer, he openly states that his work is “subjective documentation” * (8) but that is true of all photographs. A photograph is the view that the photographer has chosen to present, it is a document of what the photographer has chosen to include and chosen to exclude. Garry Winogrand, one of Parr’s influences said “Photographs do not tell a story, they just show you what something looks like” , the subjectivity lies in what the photographer has chosen to show us and the only story is the fiction we create when we look at the picture.

The Last Resort continues with beauty pageants, the chaos of buying fast food, children, babies, litter and boredom and describes the strange relationship that the British have with a sunny day and the sea-side. It might be possible to understand a nation purely by considering this relationship. In The Last Resort we are presented with a study of what one group of people, in one place, at a certain point in time did when they had a day out and in doing that Parr has captured something about those people, their relationships with each other and the attitudes of the day. In this sense it has value as a historical document, in another way it is a humorous and sympathetic look at being English but the end result is a collection of compelling images.

Sources

Books

* (1) Parr, Martin. (1986) The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton Fourth reprinting 2013. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

* (5) Williams, Val, (2002) Martin Parr: Reprinted 2010. London: Phaidon Press Limited

Films

* (2) Murphy, Michael. (2007) Martin Parr. Bloomberg Tate Shots.

* (3) Broffman, Neal. (2012) Hot Spots – Martin parr in the American South. F-Stop Films.

* (4) Stephanian, Eric. (2002) Contacts – Martin Parr. Arte France

* (8) Onrust, hank. Martin Parr – De Magie Van Het Moment. VPRO

Internet

* (6) Martin Parr www.martinparr.com

* (7) Magnum Photos www.magnumphotos.com

Exercise 25 Colours into Tones in Black & White

This exercise is designed to provide a “taste” of how understanding colour and putting it to work in black and white imagery gives a powerful tonal control.

I chose to take two still life pictures as my basis for this exercise. In both cases I set up the still life under a hot-shoe soft box loaded with a flash gun set to trigger remotely from my camera. The soft box was set to the left and slightly above the still life to allow me to glance the light off the objects and emphasise their texture. The set was in front of a small window so there was some natural light from the back and to reduce shadows on the right I used two small LED video lights that are of a similar colour temperature to the flash gun. The LED lights are diffused by translucent plastic sheets and the soft box is diffused with material.

Image 1 was a still life using fruit and vegetables.

Fig 1 - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig 1 – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Following the instructions in the exercise brief I used Photoshop (PS) to convert the image to black and white and then adjusted the tones using the sliders in PS and, as a comparison I followed the same sequence using Silver Efex Pro (SEP). In PS I used the sliders manually whereas in SEP I simply used their pre-set colour filters. Note that there is an orange filter in SEP but no orange slider in PS. As there were no blues in the still life I did not produce an image with a blue filter.

Fig. 2 Default PS and Neutral SEP

Fig. 2 Default PS and Neutral SEP

Fig. 3 Red Filter

Fig. 3 Red Filter

Fig. 4 Yellow Filter

Fig. 4 Yellow Filter

Fig. 5 Orange Filter

Fig. 5 Orange Filter

Fig. 6 Green Filter

Fig. 6 Green Filter

The results are mostly unsurprising. The most interesting aspects are:

  1. Silver Efex Pro gives a much more satisfactory neutral or default image that achieves a better overall tonal balance than the Photoshop  version.
  2. The red chillies are obviously quite a pure red because the other filters have minimal impact on their tone but we can see that the red tomatoes actually contain a lot of yellow and orange as those filters also effect their tone.
  3. I am surprised by the significant effect on the red tomatoes of the green filter in Silver Efex Pro.

For my second set of colours I wanted a wider range so I set up two sets of coloured pens and some Postit notes. This gave me a much broader spectrum. I restricted myself to using the filters in Silver Efex Pro which is the tool I now use for black and white processing.

Fig. 7 1/60 at f/22, ISO 100. 105mm prime lens

Fig. 7 1/60 at f/22, ISO 100. 105mm prime lens

Fig. 8 Silver Efex Pro Red Filter

Fig. 8 Silver Efex Pro Red Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeBlue and dark green become black. Yellow becomes white. Red becomes a mid-tone grey. Obvious why the red filter is a favourite with landscape photographers seeking a Ansel Adams black sky and very white clouds.

Fig. 9 - Silver Efex Pro Orange Filter

Fig. 9 – Silver Efex Pro Orange Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeSimilar effect to the red filter but more muted. Blue is nearly black so some texture is just discernible. there is more variation between blue and dark green especially on the coloured paper. Orange and yellow are much the same tone as the red filter. An autumn landscape would have an infrared feel and we would be able to tell the difference between grass and blue sky.

Fig. 10 - Silver Efex Pro Yellow Filter

Fig. 10 – Silver Efex Pro Yellow Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeOnly a  small shift from the orange filter. Blue and green have moved a little further apart as have red and orange, red is slightly darker and orange lighter.Yellow now has some texture.

Fig. 11 - Silver Efex Pro Green Filter

Fig. 11 – Silver Efex Pro Green Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeA continuation of the progression. Blue has more texture so is becoming lighter, Orange and yellow are darker and green much lighter. Blue and green have moved much further apart. Red  and purple are now black on the pen tops.

Fig. 12 - Silver Efex Pro Blue Filter

Fig. 12 – Silver Efex Pro Blue Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeWith the blue filter there is quite a significant shift. Yellow, orange and red have all become much darker with yellow quite black on he paper and orange black on the pen tops which shows how different materials reflect light and thereby effect colour.

Bailey’s Stardust

1/125 at f/11, ISO 900

1/125 at f/11, ISO 900

Last weekend I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view Bailey’s Stardust, a major exhibition of over 250 photographs spanning more than 50 years of the artist’s work. Bailey, as curator, was given free rein to select and display his pictures and through his choices we are given an insight into the man as those choices range from his well known black and white, portraits to travel photographs, studies of the people of Papua New Guinea and aboriginal Australians, a whole room dedicated to his wife and family, documentary photographs of the East End and the Naga Hills and a selection of still life images.

Bailey is one a small group of British photographers, along with Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy later known as the “unholy trinity” * (1),  whose influence on photography is global in scale. After discovering the joy of photography with a fake Leica he purchased in Singapore during his National Service with the RAF he forced his way into a profession that was dominated, in Britain, by aristocrats and well-healed, well-connected products of the private school system behind the lens and ex-debutantes on the other. Bailey was none of these things, an East End boy from Laytonstone via East Ham with an education severely limited by dyslexia, in his day better know as “being a bit thick”, and plenty of rough edges that he had no intention of smoothing.

NK0_2672In the exhibition and amongst the photos of household names, rock stars, fashion icons and the great and the good of the arts world is a simple black and white print of Paulene Stone taken in 1960. Stone would become one of the faces of the sixties but this image of a slim young women kneeling down to, seemingly, blow a kiss at a squirrel was to change the world of fashion photography. Mary Quant observed that “No fashion picture had ever been taken like that before. It was a great slap of excitement. It was tremendous.” *(2)  it was a picture of a person not just of the clothes she was wearing, it was whimsical, it was funny, it was different and it not only launched Bailey’s career but changed fashion photography for ever. After Autumn Girl was published in the Daily Express designers and photo editors wanted models to be in interesting locations, they wanted movement, they wanted to promote clothes by making exciting images and above all they wanted models to have personality. The era of the supermodel began here. Bailey saw fashion photography as taking photographs of “personalities, portraits but wearing frocks.” * (4) He often worked with the same girls and needed his models to be passionate about their craft but is quite certain that the different women he worked with played a major role in shaping his style.

A walk through the show is a walk through the history of fashion photography in London, which in the 60s was at the hub of everything en-trend, music, film, fashion and everything else that combined to be the swinging sixties including photography. Starting with Autumn Girl we go on to meet Jean Shrimpton whose waif-like beuaty and Bailey’s camera launched her as an icon of her age. Their famous trip to New York amusingly and affectionately dramatised in the TV film We’ll Take Manhattan * (3) focusses on the battles between Vogue Magazine’s fashion editor, Lady Clare Rendlesham’s, demands for conventional fashion shots set against New York’s famous landmarks and Bailey’s refusal to conform. Shrimpton was, and is, a beautiful women, and many of Bailey’s photographs celebrate this but the picture that stood out for me is of her standing on Tower Bridge in 1964 with her hair windswept and her slender figure wrapped in an oversized coat that she is pulling tight against her legs. It is not a photo of a supermodel but of a young women who has run away from a conventional but unhappy home, vulnerable, perhaps a little out of place in a hard urban background and in a relationship with the photographer. It is this ability to see past the props and show us the essence of the person that stood Bailey apart in the sixties and makes his work as compelling now as it was then.

In the Sky Arts film, David Bailey’s Stardust * (4) released to coincide with the opening of the show Bailey reveals that the two women he photographed more than any others were Jean Shrimpton and his wife Catherine Bailey so it is a surprise that there are not more pictures of Shrimpton in the exhibition given their professional and personal relationship.

Bailey has organised Stardust into about eleven groups of photos although the largest room is in itself an eclectic mix. This variety of these collections was the most surprising feature of my visit as it shows the breadth of the artist’s work and that at the age of 76 he is still evolving. I had expected to see the classic black and white portraits of famous people and his iconic fashion photographs but had not expected the amount of work in colour or the travel and anthropological studies.

bailey-stardustBlack and White Icons

This is the collection I expected to see; studio pictures of famous people against plain white backgrounds. Bailey says that they are he hardest shots to make because there is nothing to help the photographer * (1). His style is deceptively simple, the subject usually looks straight at the camera, the lighting is either even or weighted to one side, the poses are rarely extravagant, and the edge of the negative is always included on the print to show that the original picture has not been cropped in the darkroom.

This simplicity raises the question as to why these images are so absorbing. Quite clearly the first factor is that I recognised nearly every subject, my daughter knew the few more modern icons that I didn’t recognise. This recognition makes it harder to be totally objective as the celebrity status of the subject and the artist’s skill are both part of the recipe that creates our response but there is something in his style that made me linger in front of each picture and I think it is his ability to capture people in a single photo that represents them in the way we expect to see them. Dylan looks moody, Bowie is just beautiful, Tina Turner is sexy, Marianne Faithfull wild, jack Nicholson loud, Malcom Muggeridge intense and so on. I know none of these people but they appear to have been stripped bare and distilled so their essence is all that is left and I believe that is the power of Bailey’s minimalistic style which concentrates on the subject to the exclusion of everything else. He says “It’s just the person I want. That’s the only thing I want. I don’t want anything else.”* (1) My favourite picture is of Bob Marley because Bailey’s style of excluding distractions is taken to such an extreme that we can’t see Marley’s trademark hair and only see the incredible beauty in his face.

In the Sky Arts Film * (4), Bailey explains that it was “common sense” to adopt the white background absent of all props and thereby absent of all distractions. He confirms that these, and all the other portraits in the exhibition are how he sees these individuals and is quite take aback when told that Don McCallum does not see himself in Bailey’s portrait. He initially says that he will take it again and then changes his mind and says that is is exactly how McCallum is, “he is a man that finds beauty in ugliness”.

Democracy

Between 2001 and 2005 Bailey asked visitors to his studio to pose in the nude. This was an extension of the minimalist style developed through his black and white icons but went further. He used the same lighting, the same camera the same distance from the subject and the prints were printed with no cropping or editing on the same paper. This “enforced democracy” as Bailey puts it was designed to ensure that the only variation was the subject when asked to “be themselves”. This set is more than a photographic exercise it is a documentary project of the human form, not models, not perfect specimens, just humans with their clothes off.

Bailey obviously thought quite deeply about these images and, to some degree, sees them as an antidote to his photos of famous people and clothes. He says *(4) that he is interested in the fact we know nothing about the subjects but we are seeing them in a way that normally only their lovers would see.

It has taken me a while to understand these pictures, I needed to discard any notions of them being part of a genre of nude photography or glamour and recognise that they are pictures of what most of us look like without our clothes on, the real human form, not the stylised form promoted by fashion editors, casting directors, music videos or the tabloid press. This is Bailey as far from fashion photography as he can get, it is a study of the variety of shapes and sizes that humans come in and how beauty is not about conforming to a defined shape that looks good in the latest fashions.

NK0_2678East End

This set of both black and white and colour photos taken in the East End of London between 1961 and 1968 were particularly poignant for me. My mother was a Londoner born within the sound of Bow Bells, my father-in-law was born in Laytonstone, both experienced and survived the Blitz and knew the East End well before moving to rural surrey. I started work at Times Newspapers in 1973 just five years after the Kray twins were convicted and many of my friends and colleagues lived in the streets that had been ruled by the notorious East End gangs and you still didn’t drink in certain pubs without a local to vouch for you. Bailey shows us a London that is now a distant memory, children playing in bomb sites, derelict streets such as Brick Lane when bankers and brokers now eat in trendy restaurants, what my mother would call “brassy” women and hard men, clubs and corner shops.

This area and its inhabitants are Bailey’s heritage and his photos are sympathetic but harsh, honest and un-polished and, in choosing to include these in this exhibition, he shows that he has not forgotten where he came from or how hard life was. My favourite is a colour photograph of a man in a pub or club taken in 1968 and simply entitled East End. He is holding up a pint of beer and in his left hand there is a part made roll-your-own cigarette or “rollie” as we called them. This is at the height of the swinging sixties, Carnaby Street and the Kings Road are just up the river, the Beatles published “The White Album” that year, I was just leaving school and taking awful black and white photos of local, and equally awful, rock bands. Yet, this man could be from a Dickens novel, he has a checkered cloth tied round his neck, his worn and stained suit jacket, un-matching high-waisted trousers and unbuttoned cardigan seem to be from another age. He looks hard with his large working mans’ hands but judging by his jet black hair he is probably much younger than he looks. He reminds me of my uncles who worked as brickies or at the Rockware glass factory in Greenford, big men who worked hard, drank hard, smoked cheap unfiltered tobabco and died young having never escaped the working man’s lot. Men un-touched by the swinging sixties.

Naga Hills

This is the set in the exhibition that really surprised me. The portraits of the tribesmen in this remote region of India have many links to Bailey’s other work. they are in black and white, they focus on the individual even though there are props and backgrounds and it is clear that he has empathy with his subjects.

The surprise is the saturated colour photographs of the interiors of the people’s houses. They are crammed with detail, dark and rich in colour, carefully framed and presented alongside their owners. More Shore than Bailey and proving that this is a man of many styles and they certainly undermine his detractors who suggest that he is a one trick pony.

Catherine Bailey

It is impossible to write about Stardust without talking about the large room dedicated to his wife. In the Sky Arts Film * (4) Bailey describes this part of the exhibition as a “love letter”, “the story of a women” and that statement helps explain a collection that includes classic Bailey fashion work, posed but casual family photos and graphic pictures of the birth of their children. It is very obviously a homage to his longest and last love but I did find some of the images a little too personal for comfort.

Bailey makes it clear that nothing is off limits * (4) so it is interesting to see Catherine’s statement on the wall of this room responding to being asked whether she “feels used in any way, objectivised, nailed and made public” – she says “Good God no, I am always in control. Always.”

Summary

This is the first exhibition I have attended that concentrates on the work of a single photographer and it is vast in scale both in terms of the number of pictures and the breadth of the artist’s work so I found it quite difficult to take in, it has take me a week to think about what I saw, look through the catalogue * (1) several times and collect my thoughts.

Bailey was the first British photographer to become a household name. I am very consciously avoiding the word “celebrity” as Bailey himself rejects that he took pictures of celebrity so he would be horrified to be called one himself. Talking of his iconic Box of Pin-Ups published in 1965 he says “I am not interested in people who can’t do anything”  “they were not celebrities because they were talented people.” * (4)

This sums up the challenge presented by this exhibition. Many of the pictures are of people we recognise so I tried to decide whether the appeal of the photos of Mick Jagger are more about Jagger than Bailey’s art and the only conclusion I can reach is that they are intimately entwined; they are not great photos because they are of famous people, Jagger, Lennon, Mandella or Dali, they are great photos because they tell us something about each of these talented people. It might be something we think we already know and that is because sometimes Bailey sees them the way we see them but many other times he sees something that we don’t see, the essence of the individual so when we see the picture we know that he is right.

Bailey on film in 2014 * (4) is still the cheerful cockney, the rough edges are still apparent, the unwillingness to accept convention still colours his views. Unlike many successful artists he has not become part of the establishment, above all he doesn’t take himself too seriously and has very little time for anyone who does. He explains his ideas in simple terms and makes no attempt to sound “arty” and I find that very refreshing.

Bailey says that the collection are not necessarily his favourite photographs as he wanted to make the show entertaining. He believes that photography must be three things – entertaining, informative and documentary – this exhibition hits the mark on all three counts.

Sources

Books

* (1) Bailey, David, (2014) Bailey’s Stardust: Published to accompany the exhibition Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 6th February to 1st June 2014, London, National Portrait Gallery

Internet

* (2) BBC News, (2002) Photography’s impact on the 60s, www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/2178366.stm

Films

* (3) McKay, John – Director (2012), We’ll Take Manhattan, Kudos Film and Television www.imdb.com/title/tt1885440/

* (4) McGann, Karen – Director (2014), David Bailey’s Stardust: Exclusive, Arrow International Media Ltd production for Sky Arts HD, London, British Sky Broadcasting Limited.

Black and White Caribbean

I set myself the objective at the end of assignment 1 to improve my black and white processing skills. Whilst in Turks and Caicos I endeavoured to “see” in black and white which, as might be expected, is challenging in a place where colours are typically strong. There are a few obvious characteristics of a landscape that impact whether a black and white shot will work, the most obvious being the sky. A single coloured flat sky is even less dramatic, if dramatic is the aim, in black and white than in colour, this is even more true of pale skies. My single Ansel Adams reference book is a collection of his portfolios *(1) that I purchased in the Philippines over twenty years ago and has moved around with me ever since. It is noticeable that most of his skies are either deep blue, rendered as nearly black, or, when cloudy, often rendered in more subtle tones of grey.

The second characteristic is that the shot needs strong contrasts to work. I have found that I can’t force this contrast. It is either there and can be used to good effect or it isn’t and I achieve a flat looking image. I am not suggesting that this is rule for black and white photography just that I do not achieve a result that is satisfactory to my eyes unless I start with a contrasting scene. Using Adams as a benchmark tends to push me towards seeking a high contrast result and I think it is fair to say that Koudelka’s *(2) and Cartier-Bresson’s *(4) images, whilst very different in subject matter, also lean towards high contrast. I also find Koudelka’s images dark in tone (and content) and so far I have not been brave enough to process towards such dark tones but this may change if I start to shoot grittier subjects.

On my trip to Turks and Caicos I took very few books but one that did travel was Michael Freeman’s Black and White Photography Field Guide *(3) which I referred to frequently when trying to think in black and white. I have generally found this little book helpful as it is a very practical guide and quite appropriate reading for a beginner.

I had considered using a small number of black and white prints as part of assignment 2 but having asked about mixing media on the OCA forum the advice was to not mix black and white and colour in the same assignment. In the same vein I have been advised by both my tutor and some answers on the same forum to avoid mixing vertical and horizontal frames. I understand and accept the reasoning but this leaves me slightly disappointed as I feel I have made some progress in black and white processing and using some in an assignment would have given me the chance to hear my tutors views. I did consider submitting a complete black and white assignment but I felt that, whilst this might help me focus on the elements of design, it would be a perverse decision when attempting to document a place with so much colour.

This post is therefore an opportunity to record that progress and the thought processes I have gone through so I can refer back here when I next attempt a collection of monochrome images.

Sky at Chalk Sound - 1/125 at F/11, ISO 100

Fig 1 Stormy Sky at Chalk Sound – 1/125 at F/11, ISO 100

Fig 1 was taken on a perfect day when there were rain clouds blowing across the islands at some speed. I have an emotional attachment to this view as it is a familiar sight for any sailor sailing in bright sunshine whilst watching squalls only a short distance away. I have processed to maximise the contrast between the white boat on the right and the dark landmass in the distance. It was important to leave some sense of the rainbow in the image as this is an important curve linking the two boats. The sky is the real subject so I have framed it to dominate the composition.

Fig 2 Beach Bar - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig 2 Beach Bar – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

In complete contrast to fig. 1 The Beach Bar in fig. 2  is an interior to exterior shot and as such quite challenging to process. I have used HDR Toning in photoshop to get detail into the shadows and to preserve the definition of the woman on the veranda. I am pleased with this shot which was taken in a locals’ bar well away from the tourist areas. The women was very interested in something that was happening out of my view and I was taken by her pose and the fact that she continued to eat whilst looking out of shot. The old-fashoned wall paper and the advertising on the drinks cooler seem at odds with one another and add some tension to the scene.

Fig 3 - Sapodilla Bay - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100.

Fig 3 Sapodilla Bay – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100.

Fig 4 Sapodilla Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 4 Sapodilla Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 5 Sapodilla Bay - 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig 5 Sapodilla Bay – 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

With the three images of Sapodilla Bay I wanted to test whether I could create strong images from sea, sky and beach scenes. Before starting TAoP I would not have looked for a black and white answer to the question of how to make a beach scene more interesting but I reached a point that I was comfortable with after quite a lot of experimentation with the multitude of variables offered by Silver Efex Pro 2, which I purchased after reading about its possibilities in Michael Freeman’s Black and White Field Guide *(3). It appears to offer more creative control that the black and white layer in Photoshop but it is tempting to go too far and drift towards a HDR look which is not what I wanted.

It was quite hard to find a benchmark for this type of shot, I wanted to make the sky the dominant feature because it is the shape of the clouds and the varied tones within them that lift the image beyond “yet another” beach photo. I looked at the sky in Ansel Adams’ “Pinnacles”, Alabama Hills, Owens valley, California 1945 and the sea in “Dunes”, Oceano California and used his processing as a loose guide. I recognise that he would have looked for greater contrast between the foreground objects and the sky and I might have made more of the beaches in Fig. 4 and 5.

Old Timber Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 6 Old Timber Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Broken Screen Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720

Fig 7 Broken Screen Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720

Post and Rope - 1/125 at f/f11, ISO 100

fig 8 Post and Rope – 1/125 at f/f11, ISO 100

Old Timber Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig 9 Old Timber Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Ruined Roof Emerald Point - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig 10 Ruined Roof Emerald Point – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100

The last images, figs. 6 to 10 are all part of a study of decay. Turks and Caicos is in the hurricane zone and even when the weather is more peaceful it is still an environment of harsh sunlight, frequent rain and strong winds. Ruined houses, weathered timbers, washed up wreckage and a few sunken boats were evidence of nature’s fight-back.

Fig 6 and fig 9 are the remains of a washed-up door and frame from something large, I am not sure whether it is from a ship or something like a barn door. It was weathered and sea rolled before ending up at the back of the beach at Taylor Bay.

Fig 7 and fig 8 are details from a large, abandoned house overlooking an idyllic beach. It appeared to have been deserted quite recently as the main fabric of the building was still sound but I was intrigued by the weathering on the details such as the fly screen and the posts that lined the path to the beach. These might be the first signs of the eventual demise of the whole structure.

Fig 10 is more dramatic showing the sky through the roof of another large abandoned house at the other end of the island. I think this was probably first damaged in a hurricane and is now well on the way to collapse so, in some ways is a natural progression from 7 & 8.

Overall I have found these exercises in black and white useful. I feel that I have learnt a little about what works in black and white and I am more confident in using this medium. My tutor suggested that I needed to have a position on the black and white versus colour debate but I am not ready in my own mind to take a position. I have enjoyed my forays into black and white processing and am very interested in the work of the many masters of the art, I see it as a valid medium in the 21st century and would respect anyone who chose to work entirely in this way. If I had to choose I would stay with colour but I would prefer not to choose and to use both. I am increasingly finding situations where I find black and white works best but the majority of the time I want to capture the colour of both the natural and the man-made world.

Sources

Books

* (1) Adams, Ansel, with an Introduction by John Szarkowski. (1981) The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, New York, New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company.

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

* (3) Freeman, Michael. (2013) Black and White Photography Field Guide, The art of creating digital monochrome, Lewes, The Ilex Press Limited.

* (2) Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thanks and Hudson.

* (5) Eggleston, William, (1976) The Guide with an introduction by John Szarkowski, New York, The Museum of Modern Art

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