Tag Archives: Camilo José Vergara

Brighton Photo Biennial 2014

Fig. 01 Birds - 1/500 at F/10, ISO 200

Fig. 01 Birds – 1/500 at F/10, ISO 200

I spent a day at the Brighton Photo Biennial looking at the various exhibitions that were scattered around the town. There was quite of variety of exhibits and picking ones that would help me move forward in my studies was challenging. My favourite art quote is included in Austin Kloen’s wonderful little book, Steal Like an Artist *(1) and is from André Gide, a French writer:

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” *(1)

But, the problem with this truism is that sometimes trying to say the same thing in a different way results in uninspiring  work. Perhaps I’m a little too old and too conservative to understand where some contemporary photography is trying to get to. As a consequence the highlights of my day, apart from a walk on the pier, were generally rather old school.

Fig Elvis on The Pier - 1/180 at f/11, ISO 200

Fig Elvis on The Pier – 1/180 at f/11, ISO 200

Real Britain 1974 looks at the work of the Co-Optic group who were pushing out the boundaries of documentary photography in the 70s. Many of this group went on to become highly recognised practitioners but at the time were mostly still classified as “emerging”. The group included Gerry Badger, Martin Parr, Fay Godwin and Paul Hill and some of the photos on show are instantly recognisable. The idea was to create a set of 25 postcards from around Britain that represented the real Britain of the day. Not exactly contemporary to most of the population but within my lifetime so it is to me. Great little and rather nostalgic exhibition. As a aside I find it interesting that Parr continues to be interested in postcards.

The Photo Book Show in the Jubilee Library was excellent. Two tables were laid out with hand-crafted and unique photo books. I especially liked Degeneration which lead me to the Human Endeavour *(2) website once I got home. Human Endeavour is a collaborative project or, what they call, a photographic collective, that is documenting the degeneration of urban buildings. I found their dummy photo book inspiring as this is a subject I have explored on a regular basis. It is a shame that the book appears to be limited to the single copy on display here.

My overall impression of the books on show was to be astounded by the quality and creativity on display. Some are artworks in their own right, although some are not particularly  functional as books and a small number were reminiscent of an art student’s final degree work rather than a publication.

Fig 2 Aldo Moro - Amore E Piombo - 1/10 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Fig 2 Aldo Moro – Amore E Piombo – 1/10 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Amore E Piombo (Love and Lead) was of particular interest as we used to live in Italy and have watched a number of Italian television dramas and read a few histories about the 60s and 70s when Italy was nearly torn apart by violent criminal and political factions. This exhibition includes a selection of the work of the Rome based agency Team Editorial Services and it showcases a very specific genre of photo journalism. It presents violent death in an unrestrained way, hard hitting photographs that must have shocked the Italian public when they were first published. This is war photography undertaken on the streets of Italy’s largest cities and is reminiscent of photographers such as McCullin or Griffiths but is also photo journalism at its best, determined photographers getting close to the terrible events that were unfolding and bringing back beautifully composed photographs to the news desk. The exhibition documents a dark period in Italian history and reminds us that many parts of Europe have tottered on the brink of anarchy in comparatively recent times.

Fig 1/300 at f/11, ISO 200

Fig 1/300 at f/11, ISO 200

A Return to Elsewhere *(3) shows the work of two photographers (Kalpesh Lathigra and Thabiso Sekgala), one based in the UK and one in South Africa, who have photographed the influence of Indian communities on the towns in which they now live. Given my recent pondering on whether contemporary photographs need to desaturated and flat it was something of a relief to see an exhibition of high contrast and saturated pictures. There is great variety in the work of these two photographers, street photography, urban landscape in the style of Camilo José Vergara, contextulised portraits, appropriation of old photographs and text and intimate landscape.

This is an exciting study of belonging and not quite belonging, of heritage and new horizons, transported and modified culture, identity and shared histories. The juxtaposition of two very different landscapes housing people originating from the same place is very powerful and effective. The photos also confront and question stereotypes and challenge us to consider the subjects quite carefully.

A highlight of the day. Their website is also well worth visiting and quite unusual http://elsewhere.thespace.org

Fig. 03 1/60 at F/13, ISO 500

Fig. 03 Looking into The Family Album – 1/60 at F/13, ISO 500

Looking Into The Family Album is an important exhibit showcasing the work of year 10 and year 11 students from two local Academies. Three artists collaborated with the students to create giant backdrops, costumes and staged photographs and the results are quite remarkable. I feel strongly that more photographers, especially professional practitioners should be investing time in helping young photographers. This most accessible art form is already a dominant feature of young people’s lives and the more young people that take this subject up at GCSE and A’ Level the more exciting the future of British photography becomes. We need to help students go beyond repeating the same old boring projects and to start pushing their creative boundaries but to do this within an academic framework so they start to see their work in the context of a wider photographic world and to make sure that they acquire the basic technical skills that will need if they are to get the best from the discipline. This work is a great example of this being done so I congratulate James Casey, Alex Buckley and Marysa Dowling who mentored these students.

Fig 5 Solitude - 1/300 at F/10, ISO 200

Fig 4 Solitude – 1/300 at F/10, ISO 200

Overall Impressions

Brighton is a great place and the perfect location for a festival of this kind. I was disappointed with the guide / catalogue which needed a better map that named the exhibitions so I didn’t have to pick a gallery off the map and keep turning the pages back and forth till I found what was on there. It would also have been nice to have better information available at some of the exhibits to learn more about the artists. Some of the signage once you found a location was very poor and I spent ages wandering around the Brighton Museum looking for Amore E Piombo.

Lunch and a walk on the pier was excellent. I have started to find my DSLR camera bag far too cumbersome and heavy and best used when I am in a “studio” environment or working near to the car. I recently treated myself to a Fuji XT 1 mirror-less camera and am carrying it everywhere I go. It is perfect for street photography because it is as discreet as Leica (just much cheaper!) , brilliant at handling poor light (such as inside the Amore E Piombo exhibition), and ridiculously portable. All the photos here were captured with this little gem.

Fig. 05 Sunday Stroll -  1/120 at f/13, ISO 200

Fig. 05 Sunday Stroll – 1/120 at f/13, ISO 200

Sources

Books

(1) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.New York: Workman Publishing.

Internet

(2) Human Endeavour – http://www.humanendeavour.co.uk

(3) A Return to Elsewhere – http://elsewhere.thespace.org

 

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Chris Steele Perkins Tsunami Streetwalk 1 and 2

My research on narrative has generated many disparate leads so I’ve decided to document my research on individual photographers and narrative series before trying to summarise my overall thoughts in a later post.

Chris Steel Perkins is, perhaps, best know for The Teds (1979), a study of that very British group spawned by the early rock and roll years whom I remember well from my childhood and that is still an active movement. Since joining Magnum his work has tended to focus on the third world and I looked at some of his work when researching reflections for assignment 3.

Narrative in photography is a broad subject and can be achieved from a single image, a structured magazine style photo story such as W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor or through an extensive collection of photos of one place such as Josef Koudelka’s Wall. In his two tsunami series *(1) Chris Steele Perkins offers a quite different approach.

Tsunami Streetwalk 1, Kesennuma and Tsunami Streetwalk 2, Kamaishi * (1) can both be viewed in the essays section of the Magnum Inmotion site which showcases its members’ multi-media work.

These two essays are very simple in concept. Kesennuma and Kamaishi are two of the many Japanese coastal cities that were devasted by the 2011 Tsunami. There is some startling footage on the BBC website of the wave passing through Kesennuma. Initially there is a steady flow of water moving empty cars, then it swells to a strong flowing river carrying containers and lorries and finally houses. It reminds us of the unrelenting power of this destructive wave.

For Streetwalk 1 Steele Perkins visited Kesennuma 23 days after the disaster and took the approach of selecting a single. quite ordinary, road, Nainowaki Street, where he took a photograph of the remains of the properties every 20 paces.

He returned to the same road seven months later and took exactly the same photographs. For each visit he has joined the photos together into a rolling strip and placed the later set beneath the initial set so the properties perfectly align and we can see the direct comparisons.

The message is simple, there was unimaginable destruction in this city and seven months after the  event there has been no re-building, the place is still devastated, it is just a little neater with some of the worst of the debris having been removed. Any one of these continuum  is powerful enough to bring home the message that nothing was left standing. A long road has been flattened, every home and business has gone but by bringing time, an essential aspect of narrative, into the presentation he also shows that the scale of the damage was so great that, after seven months, minimal progress has been made.

The third layer of information is provided by rolling captions that detail basic statistics, 15,369 homes destroyed, 1,030 people dead, 3,380 people still missing in this city alone. 1,054,610 homes destroyed and 15,845 dead across the 250 miles of coastline that was affected. One of the factors that might be lost on many viewers is that Japan is a coastal country, the centres of these narrow islands are mostly mountainous and the vast majority of the population lives on the coast so whilst the distance along the Japanese coast is approximately the same as the distance from Plymouth to Dover the impact was more like Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent being flattened.

The sequence of photos is supported by hauntingly beautiful Japanese flute music.

Steele Perkins opens this presentation by asking “How can you convey the scale of destruction visited upon japan by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11th 2011?”

What follows has a sense of being a diary, the photographer very directly involves himself in the narrative by saying “I walked down Nainowaki Street ……..” he is intentionally connecting us to the event through his eyes. “a wasteland of shattered homes and businesses and damaged lives.”

After using text to ensure the viewer understands the context he remains silent for nearly half the rolling presentation to allow the visual messages to sink in before starting to provide the cold facts I referred to above. Around the middle of the sequence there is a single image which affected me more than any other. A man is standing next to his parked car, we only see his back but it is possible to guess that his arms are crossed, a defensive gesture, and he is staring at an empty plot. We are not told whether it was his home or his business or a property that belonged to someone close to him, perhaps someone lost in the disaster. Asking the viewer to invest their imagination into the work is another important facet of narrative. A sophisticated audience does not need or want all the answers, they are capable of asking their own questions and drawing their own conclusions. The man by his white mini is a sad figure, One hopes that he only lost a building and is not thinking of someone he loves and lost but he reminds us that this is not a story of damaged real estate, it is a story about badly damaged lives.

The story ends by telling us that it is estimated that it will take ten years for the city to return to normal.

The treatment of the other city, Kamaishi, is much the same.

This is a narrative approach that might seem to have very limited application but it is in fact a developed form of “then and now”, a format much loved by a certain type of local history book and the whole basis of the work of men such as Camilo José Vergara whose Tracking Time projects *(2)  document buildings, streets and neighbourhoods by taking photos from the same positions over more than 40 years.

Greg Battye, in his book Photography Narrative Time *(3), refers to Werner Wolf’s “multifactorial and gradable sliding scale of narrativity.” Wolf defines three cultural functions for narrativity:

  • “enables a conscious perception of time”
  • “provides a possibility of accounting for the flux of experience in a meaningful way”
  • “the basis for communicating, representing and storing memorable sequences of experience”

The “then and now” approach to narrative appears to deliver against each of these criteria. Steele Perkins uses time in three ways:

  • the presentation using the extended panorama of a long street creates a sense of the time it took the photographer to walk its length;
  • he shows the then and now separated by seven months;
  • and, he foresees the future, a much longer period of time that it will take to rebuild this city.

Sources

Books

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

Internet

(1) Steel-Perkins, Chris. (2011) Tsunami Streetwalk 1 Kesennuma. Magnum Inmotion – http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays

(2) Vergara, Camilo José. Tracking Time – http://www.camilojosevergara.com

 

Assignment 3 The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins

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Background and Influences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mannequins

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

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

The Ultimate Role Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Photographs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography Notes

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

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

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

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

Links to Blog Posts for the Development of Assignment 3

Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr

Developing Assignment 3

Evolving Assignment 3 – Mannequins

Researching Assignment 3 – Practitioners

Test Shots and More Thoughts for Assignment 3

Steal Like an Artist

Assignment 3 Contact Sheets

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steal Like an Artist and an Audience with Anna Fox

Having had a week away the last week has been one of catching up at work and home and this has left little or no time for photography, course work or progressing assignment 3. This morning I planned to focus on assignment 3 or to write up my notes from Anna Fox’s excellent lecture that I attended on Wednesday. However, whilst having my coffee I started to read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon *(1) and ended up reading the whole book before even getting as far as my desk. Austin Kleon describes himself as a writer who draws and as well as publishing his own creative work he has begun to write compact little books about how to make progress as an artist, Steal Like an Artist, which is about inspiration, became a New york Times bestseller, not because thousands of artists purchased it but because the ideas are as applicable to being in business or designing a web page as they are to art. Show your Work *(2), his latest book which I have on my Kindle but haven’r read yet, is about how to get out there and begin to influence others.

Anna Fox and Austin Kleon are quite different sources of inspiration but having been exposed to the ideas of both people this week I have found some common themes that are helping me organise my own thoughts and put a number of diverse strands into some sort of framework. This is distracting me from finishing assignment 3 but might be helping me find the right context for what I am trying to do.

The fundamental idea behind Steal Like an Artist is that all art is based on ideas stolen from other artists. The book is filled with pithy quotes from sources as diverse as T.S.Eliot and David Bowie but, in many ways, they are all variations on the theme of Pablo Picasso’s “Art is theft”. Kleon’s main point is that we must find an artist whose work we love, study this artist in depth, discover who inspired them and, in turn, study that person identifying where they acquired their inspiration and by doing this open new leads to investigate and so on ad infinitum. His thesis is that by taking other people’s work apart to see how it works when you come to put it back together in your own work you should have found something of your own.

After assignment 1 my tutor pointed me towards researching the banal and the mundane as explored by the American “New Colourists”.  William Eggleston led me to Stephen Shore and I spent time first, looking at them individually and then, at the similarities and differences in their work. Whilst their work is exciting I found myself being more interested in the thought processes behind it than in the end result. It took time for me to understand why that was the case and concluded that it was because the locations in William Eggleston’s Guide and Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places are alien, too specifically American. The photographs that have the most impact upon me depend upon these locations and at this stage I cannot, to use Kleon’s concept, steal those ideas and use them on the Surrey Hampshire borders.

This added impetus to finding more local inspiration and led me to look at Tony Ray-Jones and then Martin Parr. There is a neat line connecting these men as, on the evolutionary tree of photography, Ray-Jones and Parr are on the same branch as Eggleston and Shore along with Garry Winogrand and many others. Parr was influenced by Ray-Jones and is currently curating a joint exhibition of their work.

There are clearly common ideas behind Ray-Jones and Parr’s work and whilst their end product is quite different this commonality of idea underlines one of Kleon’s other key points in that we should not “just steal the style but steal the thinking behind the style”. To steal an idea is harder than copying a style because we have to invest time into researching the artist, finding interviews with them, reading their essays, finding informed reviews and curator’s remarks that provide the backdrop to their work. In essence looking at an artist’s work is not enough, we have to try and understand their thought processes and their intent if we wish to adopt any part of their style.

The strongest link between the work of Ray-Jones, Parr and Anna Fox is their focus on leisure. Although each has worked abroad it is their work looking at the British at leisure that closely connects them not just in subject matter but in the way that they see humour and quirkiness in the British at play. In his introduction to Resort 1 *(4) David Chandler refers to the subject of the “British at Leisure” as a defining one for British Photography for the last forty years and he suggests that the baton has passed from Hinde to Ray-Jones to Parr and on to Fox.

Anna Fox studied under Parr and there are a few other very obvious links. Both work in strong colours, both look at the world with the critical eye of a documentarist and both bring humour to potentially mundane subjects. Another link is that they both have worked at Butlins as photographs (rather than as Red Coats). Parr worked as a Butlins’ employed photographer in 1971 and 1972 before he moved from black and white to colour. I have seen very little of his work from that period but there are a few prints from Butlins by the Sea (1972) in Val Williams’ book Martin Parr *(3) and it is easy to place them into the ancestral lineage of The Last Report which was first published some fourteen years later and collected photos taken from 1983 to 1985.

Anna Fox first worked at Butlins in 2009 on a project approved by, but not soley funded by Butlins. Resort 1 *(4) is the first of two collections of the photographs taken for this project and whilst any stylistic link to Butlins by the Sea would be tenuous it is much easier to connect Resort 1 to Last Resort. Fox uses colour in a bold way, like Parr she takes the ambient lighting conditions out of the equation by, in her case, using lighting rigs with strobes. As a result she creates that same sense of near 3D that is a notable feature of much of Parr’s work. The foreground, and thereby often the main subject, is always slightly brighter than the background and this brings a film set feel to many of the pictures in Resort 1.  Like Parr she explores the extraordinary that, to the less observant eye, is so often masked by the ordinary and has an uncanny knack, which is of course in reality is a great skill, of finding compositions that use colour to link the various components.

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

In both the examples above there is an interesting and consistent colour scheme. In Leaving Day the reds in the two foreground childrens’ clothes are picked up by the chalets in the background and this gives the picture an overall impression of reds. In Wooden Donkeys there are a selection of blues, the small boy in the foreground, the girl behind and to the left, the banners, the saddle cloths and the sky, there is an overall impression of blue.

This is not true of every picture in Resort 1 but in many there are one or more pieces of detail colour that carry through to the background and give the overall composition a sense of there being an overriding scheme.

Another link between Parr and Fox is their common interest in the work of the John Hinde Studio who photographed and published postcards of Butlins in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Parr discovered Hinde’s postcards whilst working at Butlins and, according to Val Williams, this was the beginning of his interest in collecting postcards. Fox, on the other hand, directly acknowledges that the style she developed for Resort 1 was influenced by the work of the John Hinde studio. The hallmark of Hinde’s postcards is that they were stage managed productions with lighting, direction and, often, actors in the shape of Butlin’s redcoats pretending to be guests. Fox had started at Butlins taking pictures of adults enjoying themselves on adult only weekends, stag nights, hen parties and the like, and for this she had worked with a portable camera and flash. This approach fitted her subjects and the parties that were unfolding in front of her but when she started to work with family holiday makers she discovered that her subjects were uncomfortable with the street photography or  “paparazzi feel” of this approach. In response she started to use a static 5 x 4″ camera with a lighting system and a team of assistants. This “film set” method, similar to that used by Hinde’s photographers, encouraged her subjects to participate and capture this unique view of modern day Butlins.

I have deviated from my narrative to look at the work of Parr and Fox because it is through these examples that I hope to describe how style theft is good. Kleon makes the point that plagiarism is passing off other people’s ideas as one’s own but imitation is an essential part of the process of developing a style. Anna Fox openly credits Parr and Hinde as influences, her use of daylight flash is “of Parr”, her big production studio sets “of Hinde”, for her subject matter perm any of Ray-Jones, Parr, Hinde, and many others. In Kloen’s terms she has stolen these ideas but there is no doubt that Resort 1 is Anna Fox, not any of the above, nor is it a homage to any of the above. Fox has taken ideas and style and through imitation she has transformed it, we can see the heritage, but her work is distinctly different because she has remixed and reworked, blended and merged, invested her own personality and through all these things created her own unique style.

Steal like an Artist was the right read at the right time partly because I find it reassuring. He describes ways of working that I already follow such as Google everything, read, find as many diverse sources of knowledge as possible, take endless notes, draw pictures, sketch ideas, use the computer as a way of editing, finalising and presenting and not as a way to develop ideas. He says “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Kloen presents some key words which need to be born in mind when we steal ideas. We should honour not degrade, study not skim, steal from many not one, credit not plagiarise, transform not imitate and remix not rip-off.

Kleon’s book is, in many ways, about research with the objective of developing a style and his ideas can be expanded upon and taken forward as a framework for study. When I first started with OCA I had no idea on how to research or study photography, instinctively I started looking for photographs I liked and then began to study the photographers who took them. This led me every which way and exposed me to a few new ideas but nothing was exciting me to the point that I wanted to go out and take a “Henri Cartier Bresson” – too black and white, too stuffy, or a “Koudelka” or a “Salgardo” – too dark. I found Camilo José Vergara and immediately wanted to “take photos like that” but I needed to have started thirty years ago as the whole point of his work is the long term documentation of change. Eventually I arrived at Eggleston and Shore that I loved but felt were too American and then I came upon Parr. In one direction this led me to Winnogrand and in the opposite direction to Fox and I have a list of names of other photographers which are still on the research list who are mentioned by or in the context of Parr.

Salvador Dali said that “Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing” so Kleon urges us to copy, copy, copy and through this process, and because our copies will not be anywhere near perfect we will find and produce something that is uniquely us.

I have spent a lot of time looking at Shore and Parr and now having been introduced to Fox’s work through the OCA Study Visit I am in the process of adding her to the list. The are many aspects of their work that I want to be take as direct influences or, is it steal?

  • The saturated colours
  • The bold, uninhibited use of colour
  • Working in sets or series and not on individual images
  • Daylight flash
  • Parr and Fox’s types of subjects
  • Fox’s stitching of individual photos to create a memory of a place over a period of time
  • Fox’s idea of collecting text and images separately only bringing them together in the final edit
  • Shore’s use of deep depths of fields making every piece of the frame equally important

The list is longer but the point is made.

From my experience of working with GCSE and A Level students and my own studies I know that subject matter is always a challenge and, in the age of Flickr, there is an over emphasis on “wow factor”, what Roland Barthes might have seen as all studium and no punctum. Anna Fox, in her lecture, talked engagingly about her career which started photographing Basingstoke, a notably un-interesting new town, her project in offices which was published as “Work Stations” and documenting her mother’s cupboards and her local village. Her point is that photography starts at home, She described documentary photography as recording something to give it historical significance and to have it remembered and her photographs of mundane offices in the 1980s, village life in the early 90s, Butlins in the 21st century and her current project in a small French city all fit into this description. Few people would identify any of these subjects as exciting, there is no “wow factor” but she creates compelling and memorable images that will stand the test of time and offer an insightful description of their place and time.

One of the reasons that her work has value is that she has constantly developed her style and used new techniques. She made the point that the fact she had used a technique or was using it now did not mean she would continue to use it so there is obviously an evolution of style in her work. One of her current techniques is to use a static camera to take snapshots of a fluid scene like an airport arrivals hall or a retail shop and then to select several moments from different raw images and to stitch them together to form a memory of a place over time.

Kleon offers similar advice to the artist about subject selection as the better we know and understand something the more easily we will interpret it for others. I am finding it increasingly important to take photos for myself or as Kleon puts it, to write the book we want to read. Bringing these ideas together I conclude that we can pick any subject close to home to document, to give it historical significance and to have it remembered; we can use flash like Parr or static cameras like Shore or Fox or white backgrounds like Bailey as long as we understand why we are using them and that we are using them as part of a process of finding our own voice.

My favourite quote amongst the many in Steal like an Artist provides a fitting conclusion.

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

Sources

*(1) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

*(2) Kleon, Austin (2014) Show Your Work. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

*(3) Williams, Val (2002) Martin Parr. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

*(4) Fox, Anna (2013) Resort 1. London: Thames and Huson Limited.

Martin Parr – The Last Resort

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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

Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Fig. 1 Cafe in Aldershot 2014 - Primarily influenced by Vegara in the sense that I am drawn to capturing the changing shop fronts of Aldershot head-on but with a touch of Parr in that I am interested in the two customers who represent the changing population of the town. 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720. 50mm prime lens.

Fig. 1 Cafe in Aldershot 2014 – Primarily influenced by Vegara in the sense that I am drawn to capturing the changing shop fronts of Aldershot head-on but with a touch of Parr in that I am interested in the two customers who represent the changing population of the town. 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720. 50mm prime lens.

Working through the exercises in the third section of the course I have been thinking about my approach to assignment 3. Each of my shoots for the part 3 exercises has given me one or two pictures that fit into a pattern that is leading me towards a potential assignment 3 submission. I am not quite ready to finalise my plans and start shooting but my current idea is to find my colour combinations by photographing people in front of contrasting and colourful backgrounds. I am not certain whether the backgrounds are shop fronts or cafés or beach huts  or a combination of all three but I am looking for significant blocks of colour to contrast, compliment or clash with people’s clothes. I am putting this post together to help me crystallise my thoughts and to bring together some test shots in one place.

People and place will be the most important elements but the colour cannot be incidental, it needs to play an essential role. I have reached this point partly because I have found a selection of shots that hold some promise and partly as result of the work of a number of artists who are influencing the way I am looking at locations.

Since Christmas I have become increasingly interested in the American colour movement of the 70s and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the work of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and their approach to documenting a time and a place by focusing on the ordinary,  this has influenced my thinking and hopefully in time will influence my work. I have also drawn inspiration from Camilo José Vergara whose work documenting the changing infrastructure of urban America is a refreshing approach to street photography where the street is often more important than the people in it, I like the way he allows the architecture to dominate the image. so that he photographs the influence of people more than the people themselves. Each of these men work in colour which is appropriate to this part of the course and, more importantly, is my favoured medium but their work is fundamentally about America which is not an issue in terms of appreciating their art but, culturally and locationally is removed from where I want to focus.

Fig. 2 Polish Deli in Aldershot - Similar to fig. 1 with the shop providing a colourful backdrop to a lone Nepalese passerby. In 1975 Ray-Jones could view the English as a, generally, single race, in 2014 we are a much more exciting cultural mix so we have a Polish Deli in a Hampshire town with a Nepalese resident. - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 200. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 2 Polish Deli in Aldershot – Similar to fig. 1 with the shop providing a colourful backdrop to a lone Nepalese passerby. In 1975 Ray-Jones could view the English as a, generally, single race, in 2014 we are a much more exciting cultural mix so we have a Polish Deli in a small Hampshire town with a Nepalese resident. – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 200. 50mm prime lens

The test shots I have included here do not represent the work of the artists I am mentioning but it is work that is coming from the same direction or where I feel the result is a direct result of having explored the work of Eggleston, Shore, Vergara, Ray-Jones or Parr. Most of these photos are current test pieces for assignment 3 and I want to take some of these ideas further over the next few weeks as I build towards that assignment. Some are older photos that I have gone back to as a result of studying the aforementioned artists but are photos where I feel I was on the edge of the kind of observational skills I need to move forward with assignment 3.

Many of my photos here are taken with deep DoF, this is a very conscious decision based on the work of Shore and Parr, I am actively seeking detail and am willing to sacrifice a bit of quality and use a higher ISO to be able to pack as much focussed detail into the frame as possible where all the information is playing an active role. I have some ideas that will be best achieved with a tripod and playing the waiting game al la Shore but when I am working hand held I will accept the high ISO.

Since starting this course I have held back on getting too deeply into Martin Parr’s work because I felt that a time would come when his approach and his subject matter would be especially relevant. I thought this might be towards the end of TAoP but I sense the moment is here and now because my embryonic ideas for assignment 3 have strong links to his exploration of Englishness and the types of locations that he has often been drawn to.

Fig. 3 Man In Cafe on Rainy Day Clevedon - Typical English seaside resort on a wet cold day, there will alawys be someone having a cup of tea in the rain. 1/125 at f/8, ISO 400. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 3 Man In Cafe on Rainy Day Clevedon – Typical English seaside resort on a wet cold day, there will always be someone having a cup of tea in the rain. The lack of colour makes it a poor image for assignment 3 but I like the empty café and the wet pavement. 1/125 at f/8, ISO 400. 50mm prime lens

I can see Eggleston and Shore’s influence in Parr’s work, especially in his indoor shots of cafés, meal tables, cups of tea, the trivia of everyday life but more than that it is his intent to document a way of life more than to take photos of places or things or even people. However, I think that there is a fundamental difference in his work and that is his sense of humour and his ability to gently poke fun at something that he is part of, his Englishness. This desire to photograph the English being English is something that Parr shares with Tony Ray-Jones and to understand Parr’s work better I started by looking at Ray-Jones who Parr cites as a major influence.

Fig. 5 Café in the Sun Clevedon - Another person wrapped up against a cold wind enjoying a cup of tea at the seaside - 1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 4 Café in the Sun Clevedon – Another person wrapped up against a cold wind enjoying a cup of tea at the seaside, the colour of the sign works well but there is not enough human interest – 1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Tony Ray-Jones tragically died very young and, as a result, there is a limited amount of his work available to see and much of it is in black and white. A small selection of his colour work can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24142421 * (1) and Martin Parr’s selection of his black and white pictures can be seen at www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24826739 * (2). In the context of this discussion the black and white prints are the most relevant but I was very interested in some of his American colour work especially where he is using shop fronts as a backdrop to his studies of people. Parr says that Ray-Jones approached his project, that was posthumously published in 1971 as A Day Off, with “anthropological skill and rigour” * (3) and this phrase reveals something of both men. They both worked to document a place and a time and approached their work as a study. The power of their work partly lies in the sets of the images and the context of the sets. We are used to seeing individual Martin Parr photos in isolation but they lose something when they are extracted from the context of the set and this appears to be equally true of Ray-Jones’ work. In A Day Off he sets out to show, in his words, “the sadness and humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people” and he focusses his attention on his own race to communicate “something of the spirit and mentality of the English”. To achieve this he visited places and events in the late sixties, traditional and ritualised events such as Glyndebourne, one off events such as the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival and places where the English were being very English such as on the beach.

Fig. 3 Dog in Rome 2008 - As an ex-resident of Italy I find this very Italian, a stylishly dressed couple photographing their dog at the Trevi fountain. 1/200 at f/5, ISO 140

Fig. 5 Dog in Rome 2008 – As an ex-resident of Italy I find this very Italian, a stylishly dressed couple photographing their dog at the Trevi fountain, this is sort of lucky shot I need to find to explore Englishness, more colourful clothes would help assignment 3. 1/200 at f/5, ISO 140

He captured people dressed in strange costumes for competitions or because a specific mode of dress was the uniform for a particular event or because a visit to the beach was such a special occasion for the working classes that they sat in the sun in their best suit and tie. This is so emotive for my generation, my mother would insist my father wore a tie to dig the garden in case a passer-by mistook him for a labourer. Ray-Jones photographed a lot of people drinking tea and often this very act was totally at odds with the backdrop. The well-to-do couple drinking tea at Glyndebourne with cows in the adjoining field and people on deck chairs drinking tea from china cups. This gentle madness documents a generation who were constrained by convention and by custom.

Many of Ray-Jones’ compositions are crowded, even cluttered, packed with information and this style is important with this type of documentary photography. An interesting beach, festival or street is often a busy place and to capture the sense of place the image needs to contain plenty of information. The skill of Ray-Jones is to make sense out of all this information. A good example is his photograph of the Salvation Army on Brighton Beach * (3) where the frame is packed with people but the composition is designed to carry the viewer deep into the group and focus on the flip chart before spreading out to all the band members. Parr said of Ray-Jones’ pictures “They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.” * (4)

Parr picked up the baton and has been running with it ever since. His earliest black and white work published as the Non-Conformists documented a small Northern industrial town with sympathetic humour. I have read blogs where writers find Parr’s work distasteful and, in some cases, offensive; they interpret his photos as being cruel, suggesting that he is laughing at his subjects. I believe that this is far from the truth, I think Parr is comfortable with being British and that there is affection in his portrayal of, what he sees as, people being British.

Another aspect of Ray-Jones’ work and Parr’s early work is that in the 60s and 70s Britain was becoming a multi-cultural country but most, if not all, the photos in The Last Resort and those that I have seen from A Day Off and The Non Conformists are of Anglo-Saxons. 40 or 50 years later we live in a different England where being English means something quite different and this is something that I want to explore.

Fig. 5  - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 6 Indian influences in Aldershot, a Nepalese women walks past two Indian restaurants, I was looking for colour combinations and found them in the women’s clothing, the signage and the yellow and black scaffold poles and it further explores modern England,  there is no clue that we are in Hampshire – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 50mm prime lens

I am going to write up a review of The Last Resort in the next few days but, here I want to concentrate on how Parr’s approach can influence me in assignment 3. In Last Resort there is the same warts and all feeling that I see in Eggleston’s work, the same acceptance of seediness without focussing on it in the way that many modern street photographs tend to do. Parr shows that observation needs to have no boundaries. Looking back at my own work I see that, whilst living in Asia, I saw and photographed the world as it was but in England and when living in Italy my photographs have been about the way I want the world to be. In the Philippines I wanted to capture a real sense of place and its people but in Italy I appear to have wanted to produce calendar shots. There is no doubt an underlying reason for this but I now want to get back to observing and photographing what is there and not what I want to be there.

At this stage I am letting myself be influenced by the small group of photographers who have really caught my attention and am consciously letting their ideas impact the way I work. For example Cartier-Bresson and Eggleston work with compact small cameras and by using a 50mm prime lens much more often I am realising that I work faster, less intrusively and with less distractions that I did with heavy zoom lenses. Vegara has taught me that the architecture tells an important part of the story; Parr and Ray-Jones are great observers and work in sets and I can see that a good set is worth far more than the sum of its parts, five photos working together to tell a story is far more exciting than one great picture. Shore shows that you can pick a good spot, compose a picture, thereby creating a stage and then wait for the players to enter.

Fig. 7 Dogs Waiting - A man waits with two dogs outside a shop , the colours in the window display drew me to this shot but it is the man and two dogs both looking in the same direction that makes it interesting - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 7 Dogs Waiting – A man waits with two dogs outside a shop , the colours in the window display drew me to this shot but it is the man and two dogs both looking in the same direction that makes it interesting – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

At this stage assignment 3 is probably a progression of the type of images I have used here. I am not satisfied with any of them which is okay because they are only test shots. There is too much empty space in too many of them and because of that they lack the punch of Parr’s New Brighton shots and I have to work on my angles when trying to include shop or café fronts, the lines of doors, signs and pavements need to work better with each other to avoid becoming a distration. I need to use the architecture as a structure to frame the people more effectively.

However, on the positive side I feel the idea developing:

  • background colour from shops or cafés and I still want to explore beach huts
  • foreground interest and colour from people
  • explore modern Englishness
  • concentrate on observation and capturing the sense of a place and its inhabitants in a positive way without being judgemental
  • create a set

Sources

Parr, Martin (1986) The Last Resort. Revised edition published in 2013. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Parr, Martin (2007) Martin Parr. 2013 Edition. london: Phaidon Press

Internet

* (1) BBC News – Tony Ray-Jones in Colour  www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24142421

* (2) BBC News – Only in England: Photographs from a bygone era (Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones) www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24826739

* (3) BBc News – In Pictures – The English by Tony Ray-Jonesnews.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/04/in_pictures_the_english_by_tony_ray_jones_/html/6.stm

* (4) Amateur Photographer – Tony Ray Jones, Iconic Photographer http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/how-to/icons-of-photography/534741/tony-ray-jones-iconic-photographer#JWIau4qOtRYovXFo.99

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